Filmmaker Alexis Manya Spraic is a fourth-generation Angeleno who is drawn to transformative stories of women and people of color languishing in the footnotes of history and culture. She has dual degrees in Philosophy and Economics from Columbia University and began her career as a documentary editor, where she honed her ability to craft story as a director and screenwriter.
“M for Magic” was slated to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival on March 15.
This interview has been edited. It was conducted March 2.
W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.
AMS: “M for Magic” is the story of the family behind the Magic Castle in Hollywood — and how a crazy idea to start a private club for magicians turned into a lasting family dynasty.
W&H: What drew you to this story?
AMS: At first I was drawn to the world — a super creative international community populated with artists and outsiders who share a deep passion for an underdog art form. There is just nothing like it anywhere. But as I began looking for the story my interest went much deeper. I’m really drawn to stories that are hidden-in-plain-sight and being able to bring a fresh POV as a young female storyteller.
The story of the Magic Castle is usually told as two brothers honoring their father’s dream. It is very much that, but what is always left out is the four generations of women that keep the dream alive and thriving. Each generation navigates their relationship with the one before them and inevitably struggles to find their place in the family legacy until they can find a way to make the mantle their own.
It’s a very resonant story in how most of us grow up trying to live up to expectations we are raised with, but also wanting to individuate ourselves and how hard it is to strike that balance. Perhaps more importantly, the film speaks to a broader cultural dialogue we are having about how much of the work and nurturing that women do goes unacknowledged. It feels good to have the opportunity to put the women in this family front and center where they belong instead of as supporting players. I know everyone who sees the film is going to fall in love with them.
W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?
AMS: I hope people have a subjective experience with the film and find their own way to connect with the narrative. I deliberately made the film in a way that offers a lot of ways into the story, but when Erika Larsen, the daughter of the castle founders and one of the producers of the film, and I talked about the story as we were filming, we always came back to the idea that it is a love story — maybe not in the traditional sense, but the community and the family and the art form are all so fueled by love. It allows them to overcome so much and also achieve so much.
I hope people are inspired by that and think about how to make their passions more central in their own lives. I know making the film has done that for me.
W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
AMS: I made the film at the same time that my husband and I decided we wanted to start a family. I have to admit that at first I was a bit daunted by the idea of directing and finishing a film pregnant and then with a new baby, but it actually ended up being a great thing for the film and for me and my family.
The experience of being pregnant and becoming a mom is totally mind-altering and if I thought I was empathic and understood stakes before – well, let’s just say that it recalibrated all of that for me in a really beautiful way. When I found out I would be having a girl, I think the path I went down with my female subjects became more personal to me as I was having my own internal dialogue about how I wanted to approach being a mother and what I could learn from my relationship with mine.
Interestingly enough, both Erika and Liberty, the third and fourth generation of the family, respectively, both confided in me that my being pregnant made them trust me more and feel more comfortable. I share this in part to say to other women who want children, but feel it is incompatible with their careers, that doing it really enforced for me that everything I do that pushes me to grow and evolve as a person makes me a better person to collaborate with and makes me capable of more in a very holistic sense.
I think the world needs to be reminded of that more when it comes to women and pregnancy and child-rearing instead of seeing it as at odds with our professions. If it was seen as the asset it is, it would engender a lot more of the practical support we need to actually balance it all.
W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.
AMS: It was really a stroke of luck. I started developing the film years ago when the future of the Magic Castle looked uncertain and then went on an indefinite hiatus as things turned around for the better. Erika Larsen, one of my producing partners, always said that when the time was right it would present itself – not a likely strategy for any independent film, but in our case it turned out to be true!
One of our amazing executive producers, Timur Bekbosonov, who I knew as a performer at Erika’s legendary variety show, the Brookledge Follies, started working with Ace Pictures, a new film finance group out of Malaysia, and approached us. Erika and I met Timur and two of our other EPs, Peter Wong and Emma Lee, for dinner one night at the castle and the next thing I knew we were fully financed.
They were great collaborators and so perfect for this project. It’s not a great lesson in how to get your film financed, but I can say that the timing for the story and for the film could not have been better. It was a good reminder to me that all ideas have their time and while persistence is key to getting any independent feature made, timing can make all the difference and patience can pay off, too.
W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
AMS: I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t want to be a filmmaker, but I think it was as simple as falling in love with movies as a kid and feeling at the same time like I didn’t see myself reflected in them as I grew older and became more thoughtful in watching them. I started thinking about my own point of view and how I wanted to connect with people and have them connect with me.
W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?
AMS: The best advice: Don’t wait for the world to give you a greenlight.
The worst advice: Do work you are not credited for.
W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?
AMS: Your unique point of view is what makes you the right person to tell the stories you want to tell.
W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.
AMS: There are so many! Most recently, I loved Jennifer Kent’s “The Nightingale.” Even though the story is set nearly 200 years ago, it feels very much like looking at the present through the prism of history. It is devastating and totally unflinching. The movie made me think a lot about how much harder it is to watch violence in movies when it is both authentic and in service of story. I am totally in awe of Kent.
I also loved Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell.” It still feels like such a privilege to get a window into such a poignant and funny personal story that would not normally be tapped for a Hollywood movie.
W&H: What differences have you noticed in the industry since the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements launched?
AMS: I think the difference has been quite profound, if not totally tangible. It felt like an “Emperor’s New Clothes” moment to me. Even if things didn’t change immediately, there is a new way of looking at things that makes me feel very optimistic about the future.