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Canadian pair catches a bullet

Chris Gudgeon doesn’t seem like a guy who’s into guns, and not just because he’s a peace-loving poet.
Victoria-based writer Chris Gudgeon and Toronto magician Scott Hammell worked on a magic trick called the Bullet Catch for the Superchannel documentary The Trick With the Gun.

Chris Gudgeon doesn’t seem like a guy who’s into guns, and not just because he’s a peace-loving poet.

So why did he suddenly find himself at the North Saanich Rod and Gun Club to learn the finer points of marksmanship?

It was for the The Trick With the Gun, director Michael McNamara’s high-calibre documentary that the Victoria-based writer and producer wrote and appears in.

In the 90-minute film premièring tonight at 9 on Superchannel, Gudgeon agrees to pull the trigger for the Bullet Catch, a notoriously dangerous illusion.

The catch is that Gudgeon’s friend, Toronto-based magician and motivational speaker Scott Hammell, is in the line of fire.

It isn’t just Hammell’s life that is apparently at risk if he fails to catch the speeding bullet. So, apparently, is their friendship, as tension mounts during painstaking preparations for the holy grail of illusions.

“I’m ADHD … it’s not a good idea to give me a weapon,” Gudgeon deadpans in this enjoyably breezy film, enlivened by a colourful animated history recalling other magicians who have performed the trick that requires them to catch the bullet in their hand or mouth. We learn, for instance, that Harry Houdini, famous for his death-defying stunts, never attempted this “cursed” trick that has reportedly killed several magicians.

“I’m not a big gun guy. It just doesn’t interest me. I’d never shot a gun before,” said Gudgeon, who wanted to toy with documentary conventions while exploring the delicate balance between reality and illusion.

His original concept backfired, however, as problems arose and tension mounted during the shoot. Unexpected circumstances altered the film’s tone, flow and the story they wanted to tell.

For a film built on what seems like a pretty flimsy foundation, The Trick With the Gun is a surprisingly substantial, fascinating and insightful journey into the world of magicians he submerged himself in.

Gudgeon, whose background includes writing speeches for provincial government cabinet ministers and 17 books including Song of Kosovo and The Naked Truth: The Untold Story About Sex in Canada and a biography of musician Stan Rogers, is no stranger to television.

His screen credits include creating, writing and producing Ghost Trackers, his Gemini Award-winning supernatural reality TV series, a documentary about Canadian blues singer Colin James.

It was during a trip to Toronto in search of a new project that the white-haired screenwriter reconnected with Hammell, and became intrigued by his friend’s obsession with the bullet catch trick.

“It’s a trick that to be really effective requires a magician to manipulate the audience in a certain way, to get us to believe he could die,” said Gudgeon.

“If we could really catch bullets we’d teach the police to do it, but there is a suspension of disbelief that we allow ourselves. It’s not a bloodsport, but it pushes the audience to a dark place.”

Hammell, a four-time Guinness World Record holder whose feats include hanging upside down from a hot-air balloon in a straitjacket and skydiving while blindfolded and handcuffed, agreed to perform it publicly.

He said he’d only do it if Gudgeon, although an inexperienced marksman, would pull the trigger.

Gudgeon, whose casualness contrasts sharply with Hammell’s fastidiousness, agrees, but insists he be kept in the dark to preserve the wonder of the illusion.

An early sign of friction to come is when Gudgeon balks at Hammell’s insistence he sign a non-disclosure agreement.

The single father of three, whose sons, Keating, 19, and twins Charlie and Tavish, 21, appear in the film, faced his own fears during production, with results that are by turns amusing and amazing.

While he survives the ordeal of flying high in a wind tunnel, he froze when he found himself having to cross a rope ladder high in the wilderness, even though he had done such rope courses before.

“I do have a problem with heights. I just flipped out,” recalls Gudgeon, whose droll quips in the film offset Hammell’s passion for perfection. While there are other challenges that make Gudgeon clearly uncomfortable on-camera, you have to wonder if he had any regrets doing this.

“Yes and no,” he says. “There is some stuff I might have done differently. Michael stressed a kind of narrative ingenuity.”

Getting his light-hearted film “with serious intentions” to a wider audience so quickly was something of a magic trick in itself.

The documentary that he pitched to Markham Street Films Inc. two years ago appeared at Hot Docs in March.

He credited Superchannel’s Victoria-based creative development executive Maureen Levitt with helping them shape a proposal that was green-lit within months.

“It was nice for Superchannel to take a risk, too,” said Gudgeon, whose narration contrasts with Hammell’s, offering two distinct viewpoints.

“This isn’t a typical documentary,” Gudgeon admits. “In this film, as in magic, the audience is an active participant. We don’t tell you what to think.”

The Trick with the Gun also airs Wednesday, Dec. 12 and Dec. 16 on Superchannel stations, and is available on-demand for subscribers Dec. 9-Jan. 7.

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