When Documentaries Attack: Steve Byrne Tells the Story Behind the Story About the Clash Between Two Amazing Johnathan Documentaries

Documentary vs Documentary

Director Steve Byrne Tells the Story Behind the Story About the Clash Between Two Amazing Johnathan Documentaries

This story originally was posted on July 1, 2019 after my conversation with the director of the film, “Always Amazing: The True Story of the Life Death and Return of Amazing Johnathan.” The conversation details the strange and allegedly unethical behavior of a competing film crew making their own documentary about Johnathan. In light of the release of the new documentary “Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary” which is being described as “meta” and reportedly weaves both the filmmaker and the competing filmmaker into the fabric of the doc- this week, it’s being reposted. The story is told strictly from Byrne’s perspective.  I had not seen Ben Berman’s documentary at the time the article was written (nor have I as of the re-publication of this article on August 21st). The story is complex and I tried to keep it as close to Byrne’s own words as possible.

Amazing Johnathan: A Career Story and an Unlikely Love Story

When comedian Steve Byrne directed his first film, he just wanted to make a great documentary about his friend, Amazing Johnathan, that shone a light on a fascinating life and career. “ALWAYS AMAZING: The True Story of the Life, Death, and Return of Amazing Johnathan” does that and more.

Byrne did not expected to be defending himself against a competing documentary team, filmed without his consent, and the subject of an ugly fight that could be the subject of its own documentary. But we’ll get to that part later.

Byrne was a longtime friend of Amazing Johnathon- born John Szeles- before starting the film, and knew Johnathan’s life had to be documented. A strange and fantastic ride- the life of a performing magician with an impressive career, legendary levels of partying and drug abuse, an unusual friendship turned working relationship with a young fan, a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy with a prognosis of a year to live, and Johnathan’s survival and fight to return to the stage- Szeles life could easily be the subject of multiple movies, and Byrne knew he could capture, and honor his friend’s unusual story.

When I asked Byrne if their friendship interfered at all with his objectivity, he was clear that it had not. “To be blunt, Jonathan is an open book,” he said, “so there are definitely subject matters that the film delves into where you want to be respectful, but you also still have to ask those questions,” he said referring to Johnathan’s lifestyle. “He knows that throughout the course of his career, perhaps he’s been his own worst enemy. Drugs probably have something to do with the hiccups throughout his career.” But documenting the darker side of the Amazing Johnathan’s life wasn’t the hard part for Byrne. He wanted to make a film that covered Johnathan’s life accurately, but that Szele would still be proud of. “That, to me, was something that was weighing on me constantly throughout the course of the film.”

The heart and soul of the doc, according to Byrne, is Johnathan’s unusual relationship with Joel Ozborn who met Johnathan when he was just a boy interested in magic. Ozborn lived in Australia, and met Johnathan when the comedican/magician would come to perform in Austrialia. The two met, eventually bonded, and over the years Johnathan became much more to Joel- at first a mentor, then a friend, and later a boss and ultimately more than that. Joel would later become Szele’s road manager, his loyal friend, and even his caretaker when Szele’s medical conditions and recklessness leave him in need of a great deal of assistance.

Amazing Johnathan and Joel Ozborn then and now.

Although the documentary never hints at anything inappropriate, I had to ask. Byrne explained the way he saw the friendship between the two. “I think anybody that’s creative or in the arts, I think if you see a young child that is aspiring or has that drive or determination and you see it… I think anybody that does this for a living, comedy, acting, painting, singing, whatever, when you see somebody that’s that hungry at that young of an age, you know what it’s like to have a calling, to have the pursuit of bliss. I think you want to foster that along the way. Johnathon happens to be at the right place at the right time, and same for Joel, in terms of these two people, these two guys that, on paper, should never be friends coming together through Joel’s passion and then Johnathon just fostering him and becoming this paternal figure for him.”

It’s odd. Maybe even concerning. But Byrne says the friendship is exactly what it seems to be. “I think nine times out of 10, this story ends horribly, but this is why this is special to me, because Joel is such a unique, loyal individual. He saw Johnathon through everything, when Johnathon was burning bridges due to the drug addiction, and I think this self-inflated ego of being a Vegas headliner, Joel kept him on track. He saw him through a nasty divorce, a suicide attempt, drug addiction, the perils of Las Vegas, and through it all, he never left him. There’s a lot of friends that did leave Johnathon at that time period, but Joel did stick by him. Like Johnathon says, he probably wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for Joel.”

“It’s almost like a marriage,” Byrne says. “It’s almost like a more traditional husband and wife relationship.” He describes Jonathan as pranking, abrasive, and unpredictable as a counter to Joel’s loyal, supportive, sober, sweet and introspective personality. “Joel is such a sweet guy. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t do drugs, he’s always trying to self-better himself. He’s reading a lot, he’s listening to a lot of music, exposing himself to the arts, I mean, these guys have nothing in common.”

But the relationship works, Byrne says, because they each get something they need from the other. “Joel received a father figure at that time that he was missing, and he also had this great conduit to teach him and expose him to the world of comedy and magic. Johnathon had a caregiver in the form of this kid, and he basically kept him on track and steered him the right way. I mean, Johnathon had Joel negotiate multimillion-dollar deals with casino presidents, and you’re sending an 18 year-old kid to negotiate for you at The Nugget. He tells Joel, “Go in there and tell them to fuck off, and this is what you fucking want,” and Joel’s like, “Okay, yeah.” Joel’s got to write down all these F words with these threats, and then Joel goes in and does it his way, in a very pacifist kind of way, but still gets the same results. It is an odd dynamic.”

It’s a fascinating story and a fascinating film. Johnathan’s life- his career- magic- comedy- his hardcore drug use- his abrasive personality– it’s all riveting doc fodder before you even get to his illness, his retirement and his fight back to the stage. And once you add all that, and this platonic love story with a young fan, it’s positively compelling, and you can watch it all now, without even reading further.

But this compelling story has some bizarre twists that have little to do with Johnathan Szele, comedy or magic. Byrne found himself the unwilling subject of a competing documentary, ostensibly about  Amazing Johnathan. He found himself accused of being a Hollywood Heavyweight with a big studio behind him crushing the little guy. He found himself filmed without his consent. And eventually at odds by the very studio he was accused of working with.  Read on for the story behind the story.

A Tale of Two Documentaries: When Filmmaking Goes Down the Rabbit Hole

There’s much more to Byrne’s story than what you see in the documentary. In a case of art imitating life imitating art, the making of “ALWAYS AMAZING: The True Story of the Life, Death, and Return of Amazing Johnathan” has a backstory of its own thats as nutty as a Tommy Wiseau film.

While Byrne was making his documentary, he became aware that another filmmaker was also working on a documentary about the Amazing Johnathan. When I asked him about the competing documentaries, his tone changed. “Do you want this interview to start to get really interesting?” Byrne began. “I’ve bit my tongue about this, and I’ve not really commented too much on it because my thoughts concerning the situation I found myself in….and the other film maker, is… my mindset from the beginning,” he said trailing off before composing his thoughts.

What follows is a crazy story that starts with Byrne talking to a big Hollywood film studio about the project, and when that doesn’t work out he goes in the opposite direction- making the film on a shoestring budget, premiering it with no marketing, releasing it for free on YouTube. But there’s a competing doc being made about Johnathan, one that will eventually go to extraordinary lengths to overshadow his project.

“Once I found out there was another film being made, I talked to my team and I said, “Look, we just need to concentrate on us. We just need to stay in our lane and do the best representation of the film that we are trying to make.” That was the mandate from the very beginning with our film.” And Steve truly feels he’s honored that mandate.

Byrne makes it clear he never planned on being in a competitive situation when he made his film. He had already booked flights, booked hotels, invested money and had work invested when he found out from Johnathan that there was another film being made about him. “I was a little shocked that he spun this upon me a few weeks into the process and not telling me that upfront. When I heard that, I was a little bummed, obviously, to think that you’re working on something unique and special to you, and then someone else had the same idea. It happens in Hollywood, it’s fine, but I said, “Okay Johnathon, well, can you give me the other director’s number and I can touch base with him and see, narratively, if we’re doing something similar? Then maybe there’s an opportunity to partner up, or if we’re doing something completely different, then we go about our separate ways.” I got the other director’s number, I reached out to him, and we made a decision to meet up in Boston where Johnathon was having his reunion shows.”

It was a strange dynamic from the start. Byrne describes that meeting. “”I basically met up with the director, and he was very pronounced in making sure we knew he went to film school, so I thought, “Okay, well, this is a bit odd, in terms of starting a conversation.” We walked through the beats of our films and narratively, we learned that we both are doing something different. The director told me that he was doing more of a cinema verite type film, and then I was doing more of a narrative based on Joel and Jonathan’s story.”

Documentary vs Documentary

Then, towards the end of their conversation, which Byrne described as mutually respectful, the director asked if he could interview Byrne. He declined. “I said, “Look, I’ve never made a film before, all my bandwidth and energies are built towards this documentary I’m working on, so I don’t even think I’ll have time. Plus, I’m not doing this to be in front of a camera, I’m doing this because I’m passionate about this story I’d like to tell.” He then said, “Don’t you feel you owe me?” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “Don’t you think you owe me an interview? I’ve been doing this two years longer than you,” and that’s when I just looked at him and I said, “Look, I appreciate what you’re saying, but I don’t want to be interviewed, please do not interview me. Do you agree that you won’t film me?” He said, “I won’t film you,” and then we shook hands and went about our separate ways.”

From there on, Steve says he just wanted to do his own thing, and that’s exactly what he did, until two members of his team saw the other film at Sundance, and found out something that shocked him. “They called me and said, “Remember when you guys agreed that he wouldn’t put you in the film?” I said, “Yeah.” They said, “Well not only are you in the film, you’re one of the antagonists.”

Steve described feeling blindsided. “I just thought, “What the hell is going on here?” Essentially, what happened is this other film maker agreed not to put me in his film, and not only that, but he put me in his film and he flew to my premiere and secretly taped me and secretly taped our premier and hired an actor to basically ask me questions during the Q&A to potentially catch me in, quote, unquote, “a lie”. I just found the whole thing extremely deceitful and not on the up and up. To be completely honest, as someone who’s new to this film making genre, I think the last thing I would do is incorporate another film maker into my film at their expense.”

Byrne had held back from discussing the “other film” until our conversation, but now he’s worked up and pulls no punches. “I just find that anybody with that type of character that is deceitful, that is lying, that is sneaking and filming you without your permission, and not only that, then putting you into a documentary, I have a lot of problems with that, and it doesn’t sit well with me.”

“At the end of the day, all I can do, all I can be concerned about is my conduct, my projects, and what it is that I’m doing to leave a, hopefully, better impression upon the world. Again, I just go back to my mandate of trying to stay in my lane and do the best job I can personally and not be affected by those things. At times, to be completely honest and open, it is difficult when you see yourself painted that way and you’re not in control of the narrative of it all.”

There was one other element Steve wanted to explain. The other filmmaker had complained throughout filmmaking that he was at a disadvantage because he was competing with someone he kept describing as an “Oscar Winning Filmmaker.” This was confusing, since Byrne is a first time director, and hasn’t won any Oscars. He explained that at one point he had a meeting with Lightbox, an Oscar Award Winning production company, about the documentary and some potential collaboration. But that partnership never got past the meeting stage.”Before we could even create a sizzle reel, or show them highlights from it, they basically got back to me and said, “Look, we’re really swamped here. Good luck with your project, but we just don’t have the bandwidth to see this through to the end.”

The other film and the other film director, Byrne says, basically made it seem like he was Lightbox, painting a narrative that he was a Hollywood heavyweight throwing his weight around. At one point in the “other” film, he says he is portrayed as locking the other director out of a venue where Johnathan is performing. “This film director is locked out of the venue and creates this perception that I’m kicking him out, that I’m not allowing him to come in. The real reason is because he didn’t get his releases signed, he didn’t fill out any forms. He just shows up in a casino with cameras, and so he’s got to talk to management and everything else. Finally, when he’s allotted the permission to come into the venue and the space, we realize that the venue only allows three camera spots that you can film from, so only you can film from these three spots. I relinquished one of my camera positions and gave it to him. I said, “Here you go, you can use one of our spots.”
Now, that’s not shown in the film. That’s not expressed, what is shown is that I’m this Hollywood heavyweight that is throwing his weight around to kick him out, so I think it’s very deceitful.”

Byrne says this bizarre clash between the two crews also spilled over into his film premiere. “This film director chose to drag it out and make it seem like I’m this person– he’s watching the Oscar-winning speeches– he’s making it seem like I’m tethered or is this anonymous film crew, and essentially, he takes it upon himself to fly to Vancouver to our premiere, which was sparsely attended because it was a first-time film festival in Vancouver.” He adds, “there was no marketing, no advertising, we just went up.”

“For me, Jason Dallas, Melissa Verdugal, our little crew, it was so exciting for our little film that we edited in a garage to be shown on an actual movie theater screen, we were beaming like kids. It’s like we’d won the lottery, and we’re riding high off of that. Then the other film director came and basically filmed our premiere in front of 30 people, made us look like amateurs, filmed this sparsely attended room, and tried to edit it and make it look like I was, maybe, lying about my affiliation.”

Byrne was crushed. “For me, that premiere went from, “Wow, that was really fun, right,” to seeing it captured within the format of a film and skewed in a way to make it embarrassing for us. That memory, to me, will now somewhat be tainted by how it’s being perceived. Again, these are just things that I just don’t understand– how desperate somebody is to create a film that they’d go to those lengths to embarrass somebody, especially a complete stranger, but also someone who’s in the same industry and creative and also a film maker.”

Byrne released his film on June 4th on YouTube, for free, via the All Things Comedy network, and is determined to stay positive. “I’ve just always tried to stay in my own lane, so even though the other film paints us to be this Hollywood behemoth, that we’re so connected within the industry, we’re the complete opposite, we’re the grassroots, mom-and-pop editing in a garage kind of crew, and the only reason this film is doing as well as it is, is because I’ve worked nonstop calling all my radio station connections I’ve met over the years as a comedian, and calling up my friends and doing their podcasts, and asking relevant comedians to retweet for me, and none of them have said no. This has always been grassroots. I don’t have the connections that any of these others do. It’s so funny because Lightbox worked with me for literally a handful of weeks.”

“The end of the film, the big reveal, is that Lightbox ends up working with this other film, and they’re partners. This was announced at Sundance, so this is something that’s out there already,” he said. “Jonathan was a guest on my podcast and basically told me the whole story of it all.”

But Steve remains positive about his experience.”If that’s the way that the chips fall and it’s all going to play out that way, then it’s only going to make me more determined to get out there and do the best job I can at getting as many eyeballs on my film as possible. Again, it’s not anything more than doing the best representation of my work and my team’s work. From the very beginning, my goal was to do a film that I was really proud of, I mean, that’s really what I wanted to do.”

And the reaction has been everything he hoped for, on all sides. “When I showed it to Jonathan for the first time, he just looked at me and he said, “I love it.” He got up out of the theater room and walked out, I knew he was just composing himself. We spoke to Johnathan about the doc back in March. He says he couldn’t say no to Byrne’s and Joel’s doc “because they’re my friends” but says the trust paid off because he was ultimately proud of the doc they created. “I like it,” he told us. “They classed-up an otherwise un-classy life.”

And he’s gotten great feedback from fans watching it online- views, comments, all overwhelmingly positive. “That, to me, is a major win, it’s a major victory. We’re all just ecstatic about the work that we put into it because it was a lot of sweat equity, it was a lot of just passion that we bestowed upon these 80 minutes that you can see for free.”

And as for Johnathan? He’s still Johnathan. “I talked to him about a month ago. Yeah, that’s something people ask quite often, is is he still doing drugs? Look, the doctors told him, due to cardiomyopathy, the diabetes, and the drug addiction, the doctors literally told him, “If you stop doing drugs, your body will go into shock.” That was good news for Johnathon, right? It gave him a license to keep doing it. As far as his health goes, look, he has good days and he certainly has bad days. Unfortunately, currently, he’s suffering a few more bad days than he is good, but the great news about, I think, something like this film coming out and Johnathon wanting to return to stage is that this documentary gives him an opportunity to feel relevant again, to feel like he’s in the public sphere.

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