Alexis Manya Spraic was one of the many filmmakers who was set debut her film at SXSW. M For Magic is a documentary about the Magic Castle, an iconic Los Angeles institution founded by Milt Larson and home to talented magicians and so many people are dying to experience it. With Neil Patrick Harris as a producer and a riveting story about how the Larsen family created this (magical (literally) empire, it was set to bow at the Austin confab before the coronavirus outbreak happened. SXSW was canceled, and Spraic, along with a long list of filmmakers, were left hanging with a film without a premiere.
“We were disappointed, of course i don’t think any of us fully understood the magnitude of the COVID-19 situation, it has been so fluid,” Spraic told Deadline. “It did feel like the right decision and we all took it in stride.”
She said she is also disappointed for her fellow filmmakers and artists as well as SXSW Film Festival director Janet Pierson and her team. “I will always regret not having the memory of sitting in a theater in Austin with what should have been the film’s first audience and taking it all in,” Spraic admits. “But I am so glad that the festival didn’t become an anchor for this virus to spread further and faster.”
Shortly after the SXSW shutdown, Spraic was heartbroken to learn that the Magic Castle closed its doors indefinitely due to the outbreak, not just because it is a beloved institution but because so many people who have worked their for decades are now out of work.
“I know as long as the castle can come back that they can go back to their old jobs, but worry about what they and so many others in their position are going to do in the meantime,” she said. “It’s also been a place that has supported magicians and given them work even when the magic business was not thriving. They can’t support their performers in that way now, so it is a devastating blow for the community. The castle is often thought of by guests as a special occasion place, but for the members it really is home.” Spraic will continue to support the Magic Castle and the Larsen family. She also maintains high hopes for her documentary and remains in high spirits.
“I am still planning to save my airline credit to visit Austin when it is OK to travel again,” she says. “I’m hoping some good BBQ will help take the sting off everything that’s happened when we are on the other side of this crisis.”
Deadline talked to Spraic about her connection to the comprehensive legacy of the Magic Castle, the impact of the cancellation of SXSW, and how M For Magic is more than a film about magic.
DEADLINE: You’re a native Angeleno and the Magic Castle is an institution in the city, but were you into magic before you planned this?
ALEXIS MANYA SPRAIC: I had a more casual appreciation of magic going into this, but it really evolved in making the film. I love stories about outsiders and underdogs, so I was drawn to the world of the castle – an international community of creative people who came together because they share a love of magic. I had first gone to the castle as a kid and loved it ever since. As an Angeleno – four generations of my family grew up here. I was also fascinated with how it had managed to survive for what is now nearly 60 years. As I got to know the community and specifically the founding family the Larsens, four generations of magicians who are essentially magic royalty, I knew I was onto a once-in-a-lifetime kind of story. The idea for the castle was a crazy one to begin with and the backstory is larger than life.
DEADLINE: Did your approach to the documentary change as you were filming it? If so, how?
SPRAIC: I started this film when I thought the castle might become another ghost of Los Angeles’ churning landscape and I wanted to find a way to preserve it. As fate would have it the castle survived and I put the project on hold for several years as it felt less urgent. In that time so much of what became the heart of the story transpired as I was also getting closer to the family. By the time the project was revived inspired by a very fortuitous approach from ACE Pictures, we had a much better story to tell as the castle had made a comeback and the two younger generations of the Larsen family had found ways to redefine the family legacy and make it their own. While we were shooting the documentary I got pregnant with my first child, my daughter Sofia and had her while I was editing the film. That really influenced the direction of the storytelling as I leaned much more into the female relationships in the film and found the emotional core of the story.
The story I knew coming in was of two brothers Milt and Bill Larsen, honoring their father’s unrequited dream. With the third co-founder, Bill’s wife, Irene, this trio galvanized the international magic community and gave them a home. The story is very much that, but it is also the story of four generations of women who have sustained this community in the face of a lot of adversity and without a lot or recognition. It made the story timely and personal in ways I did not expect when I started.
DEADLINE: How did Neil Patrick Harris get on board?
SPRAIC: Neil is a big part of the story. When I started the documentary the future of the castle looked uncertain. Neil had been a longtime member of the castle going back to when he was a teenager in the junior program and one of the castle founders, Milt Larsen, asked him to join the board of directors hoping to turn the ship around. It was during his time as President of the board that the castle went from its near demise to a bigger and better comeback than anyone could have imagined. He was so hands on and he and Erika Larsen, the daughter of the castle founders were so determined to bring the club back to its former glory. I don’t know if there would be a Magic Castle today without their resolve. We knew his passion for magic, variety arts and love of the castle would bring a lot to the film and to helping us share it with the world. And happily for us he was excited to be a part of the project.
DEADLINE: What made SXSW the perfect fest for M for Magic to debut?
SPRAIC: First of all, it was Erika Larsen’s dream place to premiere the film so of course, I was thrilled to be able to deliver on that. Having premiered other films at SXSW I also know firsthand how great the audience and festival experience are. It is a great festival to invite people from the documentary and the community we had so many people coming! We had even planned to put on a special Brookledge Follies performance, an underground variety arts show that Erika Larsen usually stages in her family home’s 1920s antique jewel box theater.
DEADLINE: After SXSW was canceled, what was your biggest concern?
SPRAIC: At the time my concern was for Austin and the future of SXSW knowing how devastating it would be for their economy and how much goes into keeping SXSW going. Now those concerns have expanded to so many more places and things because we are all being impacted in a myriad of ways.
DEADLINE: M For Magic is an acquisition title, but now that it won’t be exhibited at a platform like SXSW, how did you adapt and persevere?
SPRAIC: The distribution landscape is in flux right now in so many ways, but fortunately demand is high and maybe even more so as we are going to be spending more time confined to our homes. We are fortunate to have great interest from buyers and I am glad to be able to put an inspiring story that celebrates community out into the world at a very dark time.
DEADLINE: Why do you think film festivals like SXSW are important?
SPRAIC: For the same reason that the Magic Castle is important experiences are important and community is important. It creates a platform for so many artists, musicians, and thinkers to not just showcase their work, but to connect with each other. It goes to the core of what the human enterprise is all about connection.
DEADLINE: What was it like hearing that the Magic Castle closing due to the COVID-19 outbreak?
SPRAIC: I was heartbroken. This is the first time the castle will be closed indefinitely and so many people are now out of work, people who have worked there for decades. I know as long as the castle can come back that they can go back to their old jobs, but I worry about what they and so many others in their position are going to do in the meantime. It’s also been a place that has supported magicians and given them work even when the magic business was not thriving. They can’t support their performers in that way now, so it is a devastating blow for the community. The castle is often thought of by guests as a special occasion place, but for the members it really is home
DEADLINE: How has the magic community been affected?
SPRAIC: I recently checked in with one of the magicians in our documentary, Fernando Velasco, who just had an upcoming tour canceled. He started in the castle’s Junior Program through his father, Oscar, a busboy at the castle for over twenty years who found a magician at the club to mentor Fernando as a kid. He said his dad is remaining positive, but said being an employee there was like being part of a family. The closing really feels like the break up of a family. I trust that it will be a temporary one, but having gotten to know the history of the castle inside and out, it takes a lot of work and fortitude to create the illusion that that place will always magically be there. And the family knows how many times they’ve been to the brink having to mortgage their home to keep the doors open, or how many years Irene Larsen, one of the founders showed up every night to welcome people without earning a penny to keep the community going and gird the castle’s success.
It’s a lot of pressure on the next generation of the Larsen family to find a way back – they don’t run the castle anymore – there are no Larsens currently on its board of directors, but they are still the heart of the club. It started out as a family business and is at its most successful when it can retain the vestiges of that. And amazingly they are unwavering in their dedication to keeping it alive. When castle founder Milt Larsen gave me his blessing to do the documentary, he said “if it’s good for magic, it’s good for me.” I am glad the film will be coming out when the community needs it the most, even if I am disappointed to miss out on a splashy festival premiere.
DEADLINE: Do you feel that M for Magic has even more meaning now because of the current climate?
SPRAIC: Yes, in ways I didn’t directly intend. I did not see a global pandemic on the horizon when I made this documentary, but it has really laid bare how interdependent we all are. We are living through this moment where we are depending on each other for our well-being and also asked to do so in relative isolation. I started this documentary because I believed that the Magic Castle deserved to be remembered, but in this current climate I realize how vital its survival, as well as that of every local bookstore, bodega, etc… will be to defining who we are and how we live in the next chapter of our lives.
The story of M for Magic is an aspirational one that I hope can be a compelling and uplifting reminder of why community is worth protecting. It’s a comeback story at a time when we need to make a comeback. I keep thinking of this moment in the John Sayles’ film Sunshine State – a group of men are golfing and one of them says, “Nature is overrated.” And his friend responds, “Yeah, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone,” as a soaring golf ball recedes into the sky. In recent years it has gotten easier and easier to say no to everything from live entertainment, to buying movie tickets, to supporting public spaces, to knowing the people who deliver our mail or bag our groceries, and the list goes on. We are getting a taste of what a world without those things is like. I am pretty sure we’ll miss it when it’s gone.