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An inspiring conversation with David Copperfield : Exclusively for Le Provocateur de Sourires(English version)

David Copperfield

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Throughout his career, he has levitated over the Grand Canyon, walked through the Great Wall of China, and vanished the Statue of Liberty. David Copperfield is a living legend in the world of magic.

An entrepreneur at heart, he has sold more tickets than any solo performer in history, across all domains. 
His last performance in France dates back to 2005. In Las Vegas, he continues to perform fifteen shows per week.  Simultaneously, he has developed Musha Cay and the Islands of Copperfield Bay.  Musha Cay consists of 11 private islands in the Bahamas.

During his sojourn in Las Vegas, our magician and editor, Johann Bayle, had the privilege to interview this contemporary icon.

JB: What makes you smile in the morning?

DC: Knowing that I’m going to be doing something that will hopefully inspire other people.  My show is called Live The Impossible. The message is to fight for your dreams and to inspire people to never let their doubts get in the way of those dreams.

A lot of people that I know are inspired by unexpected things.  The brilliant inventor and businessman, Elon Musk, was inspired by comic books. A lot of NASA scientists are inspired by Star Wars and Star Trek.  For me, watching people like Walt Disney, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Orson Wells, Victor Fleming and Frank Sinatra inspired me to do what I’m doing in the world of magic.

All of the magic that I’m working on and performing in my show hopefully will inspire the next generation of dreamers

JB : Your last show in France was in 2005. In the last 10 years, in addition to your magic shows, you’ve been developing your islands in the Bahamas called Musha Cay and the Islands of Copperfield Bay. Could you tell us about this project and how it relates to your passion for magic?

DC:  Musha Cay is a series of islands, a dream project which I’m very proud of.  It’s always included in the “Top 10,” and “Top 100” lists of best hotels in the world. It’s a bespoke experience, with the same purpose: to make people smile. The idea is to make billionaires, people who can go anywhere, who have seen everything, who have done everything, and give them the feeling of wonder. To inspire them by creating experiences that they couldn’t experience anywhere else. My show has the same purpose. All of the new material in my show will hopefully touch, fascinate and amaze.

JB: Would you have an example of someone who was inspired by your show, and let you know about it? Perhaps someone from the field of magic, as well as someone from a separate domain – another performer or artist?

DC: I get letters, and obviously, with social media, I find out very quickly whom I affect and what people take away from my show. If you search through my Twitter feed, you’d find that people really understand the message to live the impossible in their own lives.

In magic, the challenge is to find people to take away the message, and try to make their lives better or more unique. But what’s extremely rewarding is when you have a lady who’s maybe in her late forties that will write us and say, “For years I wanted to dance, to be a dancer, but I was always afraid to do it. I would never dare take the chance to really do it. After seeing your show, I joined a community theater, and I’m going to dance in front of people, which I never thought I’d do.” That was living the impossible for this young lady. I sent her flowers the next day at the event where she was going to dance for the first time.  That really makes me happy. That just watching impossible things on stage can inspire people to take risks and live the impossible in their own lives.

My show starts off with a little movie of my father and I. As a child, I was told that becoming a magician was a ridiculous dream, a job that you could never succeed at or feed your family with.  When I was ready to give up, when I was ready to throw everything away, crying myself to sleep at 10 years old, my father came to me and said, “When everyone says your dreams are impossible… David, you live the impossible.” And that was what made me fight for my dreams. So really it’s about that.

JB: My grandfather told me something a bit different. I became a professional magician when I was 23, and he didn’t seem particularly happy about it. His thought was: “Magic is not a real job. A real job is useful to society. Like building cars or something more concrete.” What would you reply to people such as himself, who say, “Magic isn’t useful?”

DC: Well, I understand how someone could think that way. It’s sad that teachers aren’t paid as much as they should be. They’re doing something extremely important for society.

For doctors and architects, we see the end result of their work.  But in the world, many of the people who are the most rewarded when they achieve success are entertainers, or filmmakers, or people that transport people. And the reason I think they are rewarded is because their job is, in their own way, as important as people who are building things.

The public needs to dream. To be transported is extremely important. And we all need it… So even though it’s hard to understand its importance, society continues to reaffirm it’s important by honoring the entertainers, by rewarding these people that make people dream.  So I think it does build something; I’m not sure your grandfather would agree, but I think it’s true.

JB: You know almost every secret of magic, so I suppose it’s not magic that can make you, David Copperfield, dream. What makes you dream? What is magical to you?

DC: Well, I can feel the same thing that the audience feels when I see a great movie or a great broadway show.  It doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, but when I have had it, it’s a wonderful feeling. I understand how people feel when they see me doing my job well.

JB: About achieving the impossible, when I see you on stage or on TV, you appear very self-confident and charismatic. In a recent interview, I believe you said that you considered yourself to be a shy person, which seems surprising. What would you say to people who think they are too shy to be successful?

DC: There isn’t anything wrong with being a shy person. I think you have to fight it; you have to get out of bed and do something, achieve something. It’s hard to be shy and I use performing to overcome that shyness. I fight it. I always fight my fears.  I think you have to use shyness to your advantage, and know it may be part of your journey.


JB: You use your shyness to your advantage? What do you mean exactly?

DC: When I make a mistake on stage like trip down the stairs, I make fun of myself. The audience suddenly feels like I’m one of them.

JB: You are known for being a perfectionist. In another interview, you said that even though you’ve performed countless tricks, countless illusions and mega-illusions – vanishing the Statue of Liberty, flying over the Grand Canyon – you said that you were not completely happy with many of them. You were happy with the Flying illusion, the Death Saw illusion… What particular elements are necessary for you to be satisfied with an illusion?

DC: I think every illusion is like a movie. Many elements make a movie great. Even though I might love a movie, the filmmaker may hate it. The cinematography is perfect, the words are perfect, the music is perfect.  A lot of times I’ll hate successful things that people love. Using me as an example, there are very few times where I got close to being right and it’s a challenge.

JB: Robert Houdin is one of your inspirations. I was personally very inspired by him for many reasons, one in particular being his theory that performing magic is about two senses: the sense of sight and the sense of touch. And in order to develop these two senses, he practiced juggling while simultaneously reading a book. Could you share one or two ideas from Robert Houdin that particularly inspired you in your career?

DC: I think the fact that he took things that were part of society, things that were in people’s mind, and combined them into his magic. It’s a language of the times. Not the verbal language, but the language of what was the “cool thing” at the time, and used that – for example, his “Ethereal levitation” (Editor’s note: In the Ethereal levitation, Robert Houdin made his son levitate, which he attributed to the magical properties of a recently discovered substance that had triggered curiosity among the public: Ether).

That combination of invention and performance was a lot of inspiration. I think that has inspired me and inspired things in my show, like magic with cell phones and the internet – I do things that people are thinking about and talking about.
 Combining what we do with what’s important.

JB: You often mention your “3P’s”: Passion, Preparation and Persistence. You have been performing for more than 40 years. How do you keep the flame of passion alive?

DC: Finding unique projects that move the art of magic forward. That makes me excited. The same thing that motivates a film director, I think: finding a unique concept, a story that hasn’t been told or a story that has been told and knowing I’ll be telling it in a unique way – that’s very motivating.

JB: What would you say to a person who has what we call a “normal job,” as an accountant or someone working in marketing perhaps – to help them keep their motivation alive?

DC: Well, I think the same thing; find something in your life. If your job doesn’t provide unique opportunities or challenges to grow or get excited, maybe outside of your job, maybe a hobby or another thing, an interest that will keep the flame burning.

JB: Robert Houdin once performed a very special show in front of the Pope. Have you in mind a show of yours that you considered very special because of particular guests in the audience?

DC: I’ve been very lucky. I’ve performed for five presidents, I’ve performed for kings and queens, I’ve traveled the world, done many, many tours…
Those things are checked off the list, so I’m pretty good as far as that goes. For me, it’s about introducing new creations, finding new things, new challenges. Developing new opportunities.

JB: About inspiration… It’s interesting to make an analogy between how to achieve the impossible through magic with how can people approach a problem that seems impossible in their own life. When you decide to create a new illusion, what are your different starting points to find the right angle? Do you start with the effect, with some existing methods? With what other magicians have done? For you, what would be the different starting points to achieve an impossibility?

DC: It’s everything that you just said. Sometimes it will be an existing method or new things that somebody else mentioned that I can make my own. It all depends. The best things that I’ve done started from scratch. The illusion where I travel to a beach with somebody from the audience – Those were my inventions, with the collaboration of my team – and they started totally from nothing. The dinosaur piece, although it has some roots in some classic principles, most of it is new and will amaze people. Sometimes I’ll take a principle of someone else’s and give new life to it and reinterpret it as my own. 
A lot of times it’ll just be a story or an idea that I want to convey. And then we’ll reverse engineer how to do it.

So, I think your question is like asking a songwriter, “What comes first, the

music or the lyrics?” Normally, except for a few exceptions, it depends. Sometimes it’ll be a phrase that the songwriter will like or a line and the music will come from that… Or a melody will pop into a songwriter’s head and the lyrics will come after. So I think that every single way is different.

JB: Speaking of composers and Disney, I’m very inspired by Alan Menken, maybe you know him – the man who composed music for Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, etc. He said that a part of his creativity comes from his collaborations with songwriters and other artists. I think you work with a team of passionate experts, magicians. Perhaps you could make an interesting parallel here with how entrepreneurs and people working in a creative business can handle team creativity.

DC : Interesting. I’ve met him before but I never focused on if he is the word guy or the music guy.

JB: He writes the music.

DC: That’s what I thought. So I mean, he has a real need to collaborate. Leonard Bernstein wrote music, Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Eventually, Sondheim started writing the music too. In West Side Story, he wrote the lyrics. So I think it’s more clear with Elton John writing the music and needing Tim Rice or Bernie Taupin to write the lyrics.

In magic, you know, it happens both ways. I enjoy doing both. I love writing the story, and the script, doing the lighting, the music, but I realize that to really keep creating new things I have to be open to new ideas, new thoughts. I mean, Spielberg can write a script, but he collaborates with people that he respects to write the scripts, do cinematography, design, and he is able to round all that up to one unique vision.

I love doing things myself, but I also like the process of collaborating. And collaborating with people is very rewarding because you get fresh ideas. I love the idea of getting it right little by little, and a great team usually really helps that.

JB: Are they always happy to share their ideas? I ask this naïve question because in some companies, some people are very attached to their ideas, and want to have the credit for it. In magic, perhaps the guy who shares an idea will not be the guy performing it on stage. Sometimes people can steal each other’s ideas inside a team. How do you manage ideas in a team? What would be one or two keys to manage creativity and ideas in a group?

DC: I think it’s important to encourage people to create and let them know they’ll be credited and thanked. When you watch a great movie director, you see he is very quick to compliment his team and not take all the credit for himself. Even though he deserves a lot of the credit because he motivated those ideas, the people that work around him need to be rewarded and compensated and flattered, because they deserve it.

JB: If I understand, giving them a feeling of being rewarded and recognition for their ideas is a powerful motivation for them.

DC: I think so. There is a quote, a John F. Kennedy quote, which – he may have quoted somebody else, but in order to really achieve things, we don’t care who gets the credit. You achieve greatness if people don’t really care about it. Unfortunately, the human side of it is people want to feel they’re getting something out of it. And unfortunately, as more time goes on, we live in an entitled world. People really are in it for themselves, and feel, “What’s in it for me?”. It’s kind of anti-creative. It really does not help a team effort. But I think to combat that, is to make people feel appreciated and credited and embrace the fact that they don’t have to worry about their ideas being taken by someone else.

JB: Speaking of sharing: a very long time ago, Walt Disney, himself, used to appear on TV just before the show. He explained to the audience not only his view of storytelling but also his new innovations, like how he included the latest techniques to make visual effects. And some people were surprised because they thought he should keep his secrets, instead of sharing them.
With magic, today on the Internet we can find many secrets of magic. Some might say it’s good because anyone can start learning magic thanks to those online secrets, while some will argue that it might destroy the magic itself precisely because it is based upon secrets. What would be your position on sharing magic ideas over the Internet?

DC: Well… I’m in the “creating wonder” business. My job is to create wonder. So people that try to reveal very quickly what took years to create is not great. Unfortunately, the Internet has given a voice to people who act like children. My solution, my antidote for that, even before the Internet, for all the people trying to expose things, was to create multiple methods to perform my illusions: if someone reveals something on the Internet or in the newspaper, I will keep the illusion and I’ll change the method. So, it hasn’t hurt us yet, but I think sharing ideas is wonderful with the Internet. Sharing new technology is wonderful. But if the purpose is to destroy wonder… I’m not a big fan of that.

JB: Among magicians, there is an ongoing debate about, “Is Magic an art form?”. To rephrase the question, I would like to ask you: when does magic become an art form? Sometimes people copy each other. I will take the analogy of music: if someone plays a beautiful piece of Chopin or Beethoven, well, yes, it’s maybe considered as art, but it’s an interpretation. But perhaps if a musician plays a song that he has composed himself, it may be considered a higher level of personal expression, therefore, of art.

Similarly, some magicians will say magic is an art if it’s not copied, if it’s a personal expression. In your opinion, when does magic become an art form? What does it need to be considered as art?

DC: It’s everything: it’s creation and execution. It all depends on how it’s created and performed.  Do you think anybody would consider music not an art form? Most people think it is. Or painting, that is art. But a kid can take a brush and make some scribbles on a paper, and that’s not art necessarily. Or a person can sing a song, a very simple song, without making it art.

But you can use that same skill set if you’re a great artist and create something memorable and perform it in an artistic way. So it’s really about execution. You can make anything an art form, anything. Whether it’s a sculpture or painting or music or dance. Anybody can dance, move around. That doesn’t mean you’re a great artist – and it doesn’t make dance any less of an art form just because maybe your cousin can move around.

In magic, I’m not sure there are that many artists, but the ones that there are have created something new, performing it in a unique way, they’ve done it in an artistic way, that has changed people’s lives. Or motivated someone. It all depends on that.

JB: I really like this idea, because if almost anything can become art when it’s about creation, execution and expression, then perhaps someone who doesn’t have a job that is typically considered artistic – such as accounting or sales – can consider his own job as a potential art form and improve his execution.

DC: I think that’s true. I mean you’ve seen it before where a business is almost an art form. It’s the way it’s done, beautifully. And that’s true.

JB: You often compare magic to movies, sometimes to music. Would you relate magic with any other art form in particular?

DC: I think anything, you know… It’s just seeing anything as art… and definitely that’s my secret. When I was a kid, I used to idolize Frank Sinatra. Frank Sinatra, one of his things that he did: he didn’t copy other singers. He copied the phrasing and breathing of saxophone players. It is still in the world of music, but he copied the phrasing and the breath control of people outside of singers… and I love that. I was very motivated by that. I try to not be motivated by magicians – it’s mostly filmmakers and other performers other than magic, and that’s why—that’s why I’m here.

JB: Which leads me to the next question: How can anyone add more magic to his or her life?

DC: Find things that you love. Things that inspire you, that make you feel a certain way. Whether it’s a musician, a singer, a filmmaker or an artist, a painter or a sculptor. Just think: Ok, This really affected me. I went and I saw this show at an art gallery – or a movie, or some play – and I loved it. I was really moved by it. Ok… Why was I moved by it? Why did it affect me? Why did it touch me? Now I understand: it touched me because of this and this and this.” And I go back and see it again and think: “What did they do to make me feel that way? Let me figure it out… First of all, I have to figure out why I felt that way.”

And then at that point, look at your own job, what you need to make better. “How can I incorporate that into what I’m doing? How can I, with hard work, incorporate that same kind of technique, feeling—what is it that hit me? How do I put that in my job?”
And you say: “Ok, wait a minute. I’m selling shoes in a shoe shop. How am I going to use that?  Because the music in the movie really made you smile or uplifted you. So you work with a shoe shop… Go out and find a playlist of music that makes the customer feel that way, that same way you felt in the movie. Use that particular music. If not, maybe it was the beautiful design in the movie. So maybe as you’re selling those shoes in the shoe shop you organize things on the shelves in a unique way that makes you feel good about it.

Really, you know, I think it translates to every single thing that you do. It’s the level of excellence, perfection – where does that begin? That begins by seeing something and understanding why did you get that feeling inside? What made you happy from seeing that experience? And then how did that work? How could you incorporate that into what you’re doing?  That’s what I did with magic.

JB: If you are a perfectionist and strive to constantly improve, I assume that sometimes after a show you go home feeling very content, perhaps other times not as pleased… What makes you go to bed with a smile, feeling good about today’s show?

DC: If we improved a moment in the show a tiny little bit. If we found a new way to say a line, a way of doing a piece of magic, some way to improve even one little element – that makes me very, very happy. There are days where it works and there are days where it doesn’t happen.

JB: You do 15 shows a week. How do you keep your energy going? What are your keys to retain that constant energy?

DC: I don’t like being bored. I love breaking new ground and finding new things that haven’t been done. During this process I take naps. I take plenty of naps…

JB: (Laughs) This is what Napoleon used to say.
And finally, they say that every great man’s life can be summed up in one sentence. For instance, Thomas Edison: the man who invented the light bulb. Houdini: the guy who could escape from anything, etc. What could be, if there could be one, sentence about David Copperfield? The man who…?

DC: …I’m still working on that answer (laughs)— still trying to figure that out.  If I get it right…The man that inspires people to achieve their dreams… That would be good.  But I’m still working on it. That’s a story that’s being defined still.

I think the end result is to create experiences that make other people dream. And if I can’t make them dream, I would want to make them encourage other people to dream.
 A lot of times people go “I can’t do that. I can’t change my life…” But what they can do is they can inspire the next generation of dreamers—they can inspire their kid, their cousin, their nephew. You know, go out and live your dreams. And I think getting that message across will help change the world.