By Bears Fonte
“I have a whole line of DVDs out there. People buy them and go, ‘well, that sure is nice but who can do it?’ It’s like juggling seven ice cream cones, while you’re standing in a hammock, making love. You can explain it, but to see it and to do it are two different things.” Master Card Mechanic Richard Turner is talking to me at SXSW, forever shuffling and cutting the deck in his hands as easily as breathing. The cards are a blur of motion, and as the new Luke Korem documentary DEALT details, he works with a deck as he works out, as he eats, even as he falls asleep.
Turner, winner of the 2015 Academy of Magical Arts Close-Up Magician of the year award, is quick to point out the difference between a card mechanic and card magician. “A card magician is somebody who creates certain sleights to amaze and fool people. And those are techniques that many, many people can do because they’re not that difficult,” he says, “A card mechanic is a person who develops moves and techniques specifically for the purpose of stealing your money. In other words, controlling the outcome of a card game. In a card game, unlike a magician, you can’t use misdirection. Magicians, you make them look here while you do something over there. You do anything like that in a card game – BAM – you’re in heat or you’re dead.”
Turner learned his trade from Professor Dai Vernon, who was known as the man who fooled Houdini and travelled the world hunting hustlers and trying to trade moves. “I had the privilege of working with him for 19 years,” Turner says. “It was only because he saw someone who was as obsessed as he was.” There are moves that Turner learned from Vernon, that will probably die with him… because no one else can do them. “It’s like a pyramid,” he explains, “you have your illusionists. We call them furniture movers. They’re just very expensive pieces of apparatus that may cost two, three, four hundred thousand dollars for one thing that makes a person turn into a lion.” The closer you get to the performer, the more difficult it becomes to hide what they are doing. Above them are the Para-magicians, “You’ll see them linking rings, ropes that are three links, then they’re the same length,” he says. Then, even more difficult, the close-up magicians, “where you’re right under the gun. You’re right in front of them. You’ll see people with coins, making them hop from hand to hand, or go through the table. Or they’ll put a card in the middle of the deck and it comes to the top. That takes another level of skill.”
Above them all, at the tip of the spear as he says, is the card mechanic. “Those techniques— to deal those cards invisibly in the middle of the deck or off the bottom of the deck, or second card down, and shuffle the cards and have them back where you want them or go into any position,” Turner explains, “those techniques are literally a thousand times more difficult to accomplish than techniques used to perform card magic. There’s just a couple of people in the world that are known, respected mechanics.” Turner has showcased his amazing skills on television shows such as That’s Incredible!, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, for Johnny Carson, Bob Hope and live at the Magic Castle where he is a member of the Hall of Fame.
“Anybody from Penn & Teller to Copperfield, you bring up the name Richard Turner, they will know of him,” says director Luke Korem, “But I think for the general public, what I’m super excited about is, not only are they going to know about Richard Turner and how great he is as a card guy, what we’re really excited about is inspiring and encouraging other people, through his story.”
I have buried the lead intentionally. Richard Turner, in addition to being the greatest card mechanic of all time, a Fortune 500 motivational speaker, and a black belt in Karate, IS LEGALLY BLIND, and has been since a bout with scarlet fever at age nine.
Richard Turner can look you directly in the eye so you don’t think he is cheating, a technique he learned from working with a theater company in the seventies, but for years he lived large portions of his life trying his best to cover up something that makes his story that much more amazing. “When I perform, it’s never mentioned, that sight issue,” Turner says. “Either my work stands on its own and it’s recognized as world-class because it is, not because, ‘well, he’s pretty good for a blind guy.’” He can ‘play the part of a sighted person’ as he learned, and wants his shows to stand on their own. “If somebody happens to figure it out, they do,” he says. “I always look at it as… I’ll use the words ‘magic trick’ I got away with. Pulled the wool over their eyes. Thinking they just saw a person who could see everything they saw.”
“At first, I thought it was going to be more of a biopic,” admits Korem. “I didn’t really know his relationship with his son, the relationship with his wife, his sister – I didn’t know all of these elements.” His sister, also blind, has begged Turner to embrace technology made specifically to help people who find themselves in these circumstances, but he for years even refused to use a cane. “About six months into it, I realized there was a deeper, richer character arc and I didn’t really talk to him about it,” the director says, “I just kept doing more present day filming, more verite, [and] I noticed him starting to change and evolve. I had seen all this archival of him, people calling him blind and all these things. Learning about his childhood. I knew there were scars.”
Turner mentions Karate almost as much as he mentions cards, explaining that his instructor taught him never to tell them his weakness. “I didn’t want to use this cane. I didn’t want to use a dog,” he says, “because they’re tip offs.” But his wife told him ‘Get over yourself! People want to help you, accept help.’ So Turner has slowly been entering the world of speaking computers and all the things his wife has been using for 20 years. “My biggest weakness was my greatest strength,” he explains. “It allowed me to see in other ways and do other things that other people can’t do.” Now, years later, “I’m old and it doesn’t matter anymore. If someone wants to say it, what the heck?”
DEALT really captures a great man on the verge of accepting help for the first time, fundamentally altering the way he views himself and the world. At times, with the cameras on witnessing his disagreements with his sister, it feels like Korem’s presence alone may have helped Turner along. “Richard is a very stubborn person and he’s very independent,” says the director. “It’s not like I was going to force anything to change or to happen, even if I wanted it. It was just a matter of constantly listening and being there. There was no way you were going to change Richard’s mind. It all had to come inward, from him.”
In addition to having a documentary subject notoriously reticent about talking about one of the main things that makes his story so fascinating, Korem also had the difficulty of shooting something near impossible to capture on film, the smooth artistry of card work. Inventive at every flip, DEALT captures both the man and his profession at ECU giving the viewer access to a private world of mystery and amazement. “Having grown up with magic, I knew that card magic is one of the most difficult things to put on camera,” the director says. “Instead of getting too specific into the details of his craft, I wanted to show what he does as more of an art form.” Korem describes Turner as a sculptor, whose cards are like clay. “His sense of touch is so particular and important to him,” he explains, “the macro lenses, the slow motion, filming him in his black space and just zooming in, being super tight on the cards in slow motion. You get this feeling of what it’s like for him when he’s touching the cards.” Turner’s sense of touch is so acute that he regularly consults with playing card manufacturers to calibrate their machinery. “I’m their touch analyst. I help them make better cards because I can feel things down to a thousandth of an inch when it comes to their paper,” he says. “I can tell you the moisture level in a card, if its 4% or if its 5.2%.”
Korem is perhaps particularly well-equipped to dive into the details on Turner’s craft. After finishing his last film, LORD MONTAGU, about the British playboy and renegade class-crosser, the co-writer of the film, Bradley Jackson, suggested Turner as his next subject. “He’s like, ‘Don’t you have a magic dad, or something like that?’” Korem jokes, and explains his father made his living as a sleight-of-hand magician in the eighties, “‘Ask him if he knows this guy.’ I called my dad up and was like, ‘Dad, have you heard of Richard Turner?’ And he goes, ‘Dude, I’ve been telling you to make a film about this guy!’ So he introduced me to Richard.” But Korem had to do more than just pitch Turner to get a seat at his table. The director remembers, “He’s like, ‘Look, I gotta couple of other people looking to make a film about me. I need to know if you can make a film. Send me your film so I can watch it.’ And I’m like, ‘uh, okay.’ So I sent him the previous film. One of his best friends co-created Home Improvement. I didn’t know that. I would have been freaking out.”
DEALT was one of the strongest documentaries I saw at SXSW this year, in a particularly strong year. It slinks into a world of shadows and con artists but emerges with the portrait of a tender-hearted artist, someone who devoted his whole life in pursuit of being the best, despite the hand he was dealt. What he has achieved, even for a sighted person, is basically impossible, and Luke Korem captures the drive that has made Richard Turner a master card mechanic – a man able to reshuffle the cards in his hand however it suits him.