The short film Mortician Magician encapsulates the life of a man, Teddy Lee, who is both the owner of Lee’s Funeral Home in White Plains and an accomplished practicing magician at the sprightly age of 81.
Kevin Lopez, the director of the film, uses Lee’s interesting combination of profession and hobby to explore the interplay between light and dark, creating a film of powerful prowess and undeniable entertainment.
We caught up with Lopez and Lee, as well as Lopez’s producer Adrienne Sanders, to talk more about Mortician Magician, which is set to screen this Friday, August 2 at the Long Beach International Film Festival on Long Island.
What made you choose to create a film based on a man with such peculiar professions?
Kevin Lopez (KL): Teddy is a wonderful individual and I am really fortunate to have been introduced to his story and to the Lee family by my producer and writer. Adrienne was a former investigative reporter at LoHud; I remember being exposed to Teddy’s story through a couple of really awesome links he shared with me.
Through the conversation with Adrienne and our relationship and our friendship, I just kind of fell in love with the story. I reached out to her and said, “Hey this would be something really interesting to explore from a more stylistic and cinematic approach.”
What would you say was your favorite part about filming Mortician Magician?
KL: I think it was certainly just getting to know Teddy. We were with him for a short amount of time — I think we only shot for a day or two — but the collaborative process was really organic. Working with Adrienne as a producer on this and then being introduced to Teddy and the community of White Plains was fascinating.
The topic speaks out because it’s kind of an usual story; you have an aging African-American pioneer who not only runs a landmark business in White Plains but also has this kind of eccentric hobby, and how he ties it in is really unique.
What is the message you are attempting to convey through this film?
Adrienne Sanders (AS): The idea was really to share a vignette of an interesting character. The context is amazing; you have this business in White Plains, more than 100 years old, and his family — not only pioneers [of] African-Americans in business, but he was a pioneer as a black magician.
There was just so much that could be shared. In this film, I think it was about spotlighting a really interesting character and sort of the interplay between light and dark. His life is an example of that. He has to deal with the heaviness of being a funeral director and death itself, and then balancing that with lightness and magic in slight of hand entertainment. We tried to convey that visually (that interplay) in the film also.
What do you see for yourself in the coming future, in regard to filmmaking?
KL: I have a production company in New York and we’re on our third feature film right now, titled Paradise City and through the support and the network Adrienne introduced us to, with folks in the Hudson Valley and in Westchester, it definitely opened up some opportunities for some really cool projects in the future.
Through that partnership with Adrienne and her new role at Yonkers public schools, we have been able to partner up with the schools there through our nonprofit organization. We have a nonprofit film arts education institute that my brother John and I started a couple of years ago.
For the last two years, our program has partnered up with Yonkers’ schools and we have been teaching kids from the Yonkers School District how to make films as well. It was a partnership not only with Yonkers public schools but also with HBO, which lets room for a really wonderful student showcase at the end of the year that Yonkers now participates in.
Teddy, what did you think when you first heard about someone like Kevin being interested in turning your life into a film?
Teddy Lee (TL): I was kind of surprised. It was unexpected and something I never would have thought of, really. It was kind of an experience for me to have that done and to be involved in it.
How was working with an award-winning filmmaker like Kevin?
TL: It was really good. They made me comfortable and they told me what to expect and what they were looking for in the interview. They told me about the time that would be involved; that type of thing.
Was this your first experience in this type of atmosphere?
TL: Not really, I’ve had interviews, more or less, — newspaper interviews and phone interviews — but I don’t think I’ve had that [been filmed] before.
Did that make it more challenging? What would you say was the hardest part?
TL: In a way, but then again, not. Like I said, I’ve done interviews before, but this was something different. The length of time it took, really; I didn’t realize so much had to go into it. Just about a day’s time was a little bit challenging.
It was everything they had to go through and wanting to film, not only me but my surroundings and everything.
What was the best part about doing something like this?
TL: When they asked me to do some type of magic. That was the best part for me because that’s what I like to do.
What do you hope people get out of this film?
TL: I just hope that they get some sort of entertainment out of it and some type of enjoyment, and something that would meet the positive side of life. If anything it’s just a short period of time to watch some type of a magic event.
Do you see yourself perhaps pursuing acting or something in the realm of filmmaking in the future, after participating in this film?
TL: I’m just in it for the enjoyment and as a hobby. At my age, I don’t think I would be wanting to go too much further in it. I’m just about satisfied about where I am right now, doing whatever I do.
Mortician Magician premiers this Friday at the Long Beach International Film Festival. You can view the full short below.