"You Don’t Have to Be a Friend. Just Establish Trust": Dealt’s Luke Korem on Getting Doc Subjects to Be Themselves

MovieMaker got to spend some time with Richard Turner at SXSW this year and we can confirm a common rumor about him: Richard always has a deck of cards in his hands.

Whether he was eating dinner, watching a movie, even sunbathing, in all the time I spent with him the guy never stopped shuffling. And as you’ll see in the new award-winning Dealt, Richard never really stops, period. In addition to being the world’s greatest card mechanic he’s also a sixth degree black belt, a tightrope walker—oh, and he’s blind.

So why did it take this long for a Richard Turner documentary to happen?

Apparently, many have tried to make one, but Richard always turned them down—until he met Luke Korem. Fresh off his 2013 documentary Lord Montagu on one of England’s most iconic and controversial aristocrats, Richard’s story came to Luke through his father—who was a professional magician in the ’80s—and over the last three years Dealt went from being a historic biopic covering Richard’s life (much like Lord Montagu), to a film that also follows Richard’s present-day relationships with his family, his talents, and even his flaws. Luke and I discussed gaining your subject’s trust, working with collaborators, and following your vision and gut as a documentarian.

Richard Turner in the gym, proving that he puts down his deck of cards for no one and nothing. Photograph by Roger Tam, courtesy of IFC Films

Andy Young, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): When you first decided you were going to tell Richard’s story, as a director, what were the first steps you took?

Luke Korem (LK): First it’s asking, “Is there enough story, is there enough conflict?” Conflict is the key to make sure that there’s enough to have the appropriate arcs to keep an audience. He’s fascinating, but is he also flawed? Does he also have weaknesses? What other parts can we explore? That was very important. Those are the first steps. Then it was just making sure he was on board that this is a story that I’m telling, I’m directing, that this is what my viewpoint is going to be. I think it’s really important when you make a film, especially a documentary, that you get someone to sign off at the beginning saying this is [my] film.

MM: Were you ever at odds with Richard—where he was hoping it would go more in one direction, but, as a storyteller, you wanted to explore this other part that maybe he was uncomfortable with?

LK: Because we made the film over the course of three years, there was a point about a year and a half into it where he was like, “You know, you’re still filming, and I think you’ve got what you need if you want to tell the story.” Originally, this was a biopic about Richard Turner, and then as I learned more about his sister—who is also blind—, there were other things I wanted to explore. And I also wanted to film more of him today versus just doing the archival [footage], so it was an organic thing where it was mutually understood that Luke was on to something different, and he was like, “OK, I’m open to it.” But we didn’t really talk about it.

MM: I think a lot of people would be confused when they see a documentary and they see “written by” credits. Can you explain how you and co-writer Bradley Jackson “write” a documentary?

LK: Writing is really an ongoing process that’s wrapped up in the editing. There is no script with a documentary unless it’s completely historical, and even then, you’re still trying to figure out how to weave the arc. So you’re always trying to figure out how to structure your film: Where are your arcs? When does your first conflict come in? For interviews, you’re trying to decide what questions you want to ask, what responses you’re trying to get, what sound bites you’re trying to hear, and then, as was the case in this film, there was a lot of verité, so we’d watch scenes and be like, “What is this scene telling us? How can we use that to show something about the character?” Instead of calling action and the characters are talking and saying what you want, you’re just capturing that action, seeing what it’s telling us, and piecing that action together.

MM: You’re credited as an additional cinematographer on both Dealt and Lord Montagu. Why do you shoot your own films? Does it ever occur to you to get another camera operator, or is there a reason you like to be behind the camera?

LK: On Dealt, [director of photography] Jake Hamilton did a fantastic job, but there were times that I needed to be with Richard and his family by myself, so that they wouldn’t think about the cameras. If there is one person that’s allowed to be around them, it has to be the person making the film, and I grew up doing everything on a production, like a lot of people did. So I know how to use a camera, and I thought, “Why not use it?” Part of shooting in a verité style is that you need to be with the subject a lot, and you can’t afford to hire a crew every time because you don’t know if you will get something usable or not.

MM: In that “one-man-band” situation, are you setting up lights, or are you just a cameraperson with a boom mic attached, trying not to get too involved?

LK: No lights. I just put a lav mic on ’em, point the camera, and shoot with natural lighting. If I know I’m going into a situation where Richard was performing on stage, or if we were doing interviews, we had a crew. But if it was Richard at home shuffling, or doing push-ups while he is shuffling, I could film that.

Richard Turner works a crowd in a scene from Dealt. Photograph by Roger Tam

MM: One of my favorite scenes was when he’s shuffling on his couch, and he loses one of his cards underneath the couch, and starts digging around for it. You don’t help him find it, you just let him dig it out. As a documentarian, when do you know when to step in and help your subject, or when to let a scene unfold—particularly in this case, when your subject was blind?

LK: This was a unique scenario. We would be filming and he would be like, “Luke are you still there?,” and I would be like, “Yes, Richard, we are still here.” Other than that, I would tell Richard and his family when I had the camera and the mic out that I’m no longer there, and they forgot I was there. It took a few months, but they were completely themselves. There’s a moment in the film when Asa, Richard’s son, gets frustrated with him and it was the only time we could catch him showing any agitation. It was because he wasn’t thinking, “Here is Luke with a camera.” It’s a Saturday with his dad, and I captured it.

MM: How do you achieve that level of comfort? Dealt has subjects who aren’t used to being on camera, but I imagine some of the other magicians are more showboaty.

LK: One way is that I make a point when I first meet people to not talk about the production or put a mic on them. I get to know them first while I let the crew set up, and don’t tell them it is going to be an interview. We just talk. They get comfortable talking to you, and then the camera is on and they don’t even think about it. You have to establish trust. You don’t have to be a friend, just establish trust.

MM: How do you know when you are done shooting? And what is that conversation with your producer like, when you say, “This will cost more money, but the story really needs this?”

LK: About a year and a half in, we had a cut that was more of a biopic, and it wasn’t sitting well with me. I would look through all the footage we were shooting present-day, and that was so much more interesting. So I sat down and showed everyone an hour’s worth of verité footage, sound bites, and interviews that weren’t in the film. I said, “Guys, I think there is another story angle here we need to go for,” and that was a discussion because it meant everyone would have to sacrifice because we can’t raise more money. But everyone realized we could make a great film instead of a good film, and decided to go for it and spend another year working on it. It’s your job as a director to have a gut instinct to know when enough is enough.

MM: What do you get out of test screenings?

LK: Personally, when I go into a test screening, I haven’t watched what I’m about to show, so it is my first time, too. As I’m watching it, I have a good sense of saying what isn’t working. My main thing with test screenings and why they are important is to just be humble. You aren’t finished. Just let people give you guidance. When I go, I want two or three important notes. When we get people to fill out the questionnaire, I see where most of the notes line up. As the director, you have to be able to go in and say, “Well, we are already changing that so this not doesn’t work’ but sometimes you look at it and go, “That is so true.” I like challenging people in test screenings and there was one screening where I wasn’t happy with any of the feedback. So I asked the people at the screening, “Who here thinks that particular scene was cheesy?,” and one person raised their hand and said, “Why?” I was like, “Thank you,” because nobody close to you will tell you a scene is cheesy. They won’t say it to your face, but I want to know and want them to tell me so the movie will be good.

MM: One last question: What advice would you give to documentarians who have found their subject, and where to begin? What would you tell a first-time moviemaker?

LK: One [piece of advice] is to listen. If the story you end up with is the story you set out to make, then you weren’t listening. Two: You need to love the subject and be passionate about it. It won’t take just a year. It will take a long time. It will be the long haul. Don’t think you will be done next year. That makes the journey all the more enjoyable, if you’re prepared. MM

Dealt is now in theaters and available on iTunes, courtesy of IFC Films. Featured image photograph by Roger Tam.

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