Look closer

Published in Collective Hub issue 45, May 2017. Interview by Bridget de Maine.

PROBLEM-SOLVING can be found in almost everyone's job description, but for MAGICIAN and cruciverbalist (or crossword setter) DAVID KWONG, it's more of a lifetime OBSESSION.

David Kwong was seven years old when he witnessed his first magic trick. “I saw a magician performing at a pumpkin patch at a farm in upstate New York,” he says. “He did a classic trick where he put a little red sponge ball in my hand, and then held up a second one and made it disappear. When I opened my hand, I had two of them.”

The magician then did the same trick with David’s father. “I turned to my father and said, ‘How did he do that?’ And he said, ‘I have no idea’. And because my father is a scientist and knows everything about the world, when he was fooled I knew I had to go into magic.”

After a childhood spent learning simple magic tricks and mastering the art of the Scrabble board (including memorising thousands of Scrabble words), David went to Harvard University to study the history of magic, completing an honours thesis on ‘Oriental magicians’ such as Ching Ling Foo, and the non-Asian performers who impersonated them at the turn of the 20th century.

Now, David has a CV that is almost unbelievable. In addition to his packed performance schedule, David is also a consultant on movies and television shows that feature magic tricks and illusions, and constructs crossword puzzles for newspapers including The New York Times.

His latest project, Spellbound, is a book outlining how the principles that make illusions and magic tricks work can be applied to leadership and business. Bridging the gap between seeing and believing, directing the audience’s attention where you want it to go and creating the illusion of choice are all skills mastered by the greats of business, says David.

But he didn’t always plan a career as a magician. “I knew I wanted to work in entertainment,” he says, but decided to get into film production while doing magic on the side for fun. “Hollywood doesn’t care who you are, where you come from, and what your degree is. You have to start at the bottom in the mail room.”

He found his first “teeny job” at HBO in New York, and then moved across to Los Angeles, gradually working his way up to a producer position with DreamWorks Animation. It was here that he heard about a movie that was in development at the time called Now You See Me, in which four magicians pull off a series of bank heists. He started consulting on the script, and was ultimately offered the opportunity to be the head consultant on set in New Orleans. He quit his job at DreamWorks to work on the movie for five months, figuring that the opportunity could help him segue into making magic his career, not just a hobby.

“I thought when the film finished I’d just keep going with magic. If the movie performed well, it would launch me. Fortunately, it was a big hit,” he says. He went on to create the Misdirectors Guild, a company of elite magicians who consult on film, television and theatre illusions. Since Now You See Me, David and the Guild have worked on a raft of projects including Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Paranormal Activity 4 and the TV series Blindspot.

David believes that our enduring fascination with magic tricks, along with crosswords and other brain teasers, comes from an inherent urge to find patterns and solve problems. In a TED talk from 2014, during which he successfully predicts the textas an audience member will choose to colour pictures of various farm animals, David wraps up by pointing out the clues he planted through the show – not to prove how clever he was in setting it up, but rather how clever the woman was in picking up on them subconsciously.

He also has a skill for bringing the audience in on the act without giving too much away, and says that the best tricks respect the intelligence of the audience.

“A good puzzle is one that makes us all feel smart,” he says. “You never want to make a puzzle that’s so complicated and confounding that it’s not enjoyable. You want to bring about something called the ‘Aha!’ moment, where your solver says, ‘Aha! I’ve figured it out!’ A really beautiful thing happens in that moment. It’s a simultaneous expression of respect for yourself because you cracked the code and, at the same time, it’s recognising that the person who came up with this puzzle is smart as well.”

David says that humans are ‘wired to solve’ – recently presenting, without irony, at Sydney event Wired for Wonder – always seeking out ways to close open loops and complete patterns, whether we are working our way through a crossword or trying to resolve something in our personal lives. “We are constantly bombarded with stimuli, and there’s even more now with the internet and social media,” he says. “So your brain is always looking for shortcuts, which is, in a sense, solving things. It figures out how to handle this massive amount of data.”

The mind of the puzzle-maker, however, is also constantly scanning for useful material. “When I see street signs, when I see words on a billboard, I look at them and the letters start to rearrange themselves and I think, ‘This could be a good puzzle’,” he says. “I’m always looking for the puzzle in everything.”

Not that David is never stumped. His fellow elite magicians are always coming up with mind-bending tricks that have him begging to know the answers. They tease him by making him wait 24 hours before they explain how the trick is done, during which time he sometimes drives himself crazy trying to figure them out.

Ultimately, it’s all about the big reveal at the end, according to David. “I’m always reverse engineering things as a magician and puzzler,” he says. “What is that exclamation point that I want everyone to remember, and how do I work backwards from there to bring about that moment of awe?”

It’s tricky, but David always seems to work it out.