How Derek DelGaudio Pulled Off the Astonishing ‘In & Of Itself’
The star and creator of this mysterious new Stephen Colbert-produced film on Hulu explains how he “broke” magic in order to blow people’s minds.
Interviewing Derek DelGaudio is kind of like watching his new film In & Of Itself. You start out a little apprehensive, unsure of exactly what you’re getting yourself into. But as it goes along, you repeatedly feel yourself getting blown away by his overwhelming skill as both storyteller and performer. By the end you are emotionally flattened. There might even be tears welling up in your eyes.
And then it’s over and you want to tell everyone about it.
DelGaudio has spent much of his career working as a magician. And In & Of Itself, which he performed live in New York and Los Angeles before director Frank Oz captured it in a new filmed version on Hulu, contains a handful of what could be considered “tricks.” But it is also so much more than that.
If you haven’t seen it and want to go in totally blind, I suggest you stop reading this and watch it right now. If you have seen it and are as obsessed as I am, you’re going to want to keep reading. Either way, proceed at your own risk.
In & Of Itself is exceedingly difficult to categorize, but at its core it is about identity and how we see ourselves compared to how we are seen by others. With that in mind, each audience member who enters the theater selects a card that says “I am an architect” or “I am a teacher” or “I am an oracle.” Just twice over the course of nearly 600 shows, someone chose “I am a racist.”
The payoff comes at the end of the show when DelGaudio uses those individual identifiers to blow the minds of his crowd one by one. Even watching at home, you will be floored.
Speaking by phone a few days after the film’s release, DelGaudio wouldn’t tell me how he achieved the most elaborate elements of his astonishing show. But he did break down why he wanted to pull them off and shared the one moment he realized he had done it.
We’re talking close to a week after In & Of Itself premiered on Hulu. What has it been like for you to have this film out in the world?
It’s been surreal to have something that’s been with me for so long now be in the world and that so many people are able to see it at once. Doing it for 150 people a night—that was my reference point, that’s all I knew. Now I don’t even know how many people are seeing it at any given moment, so it's a little bizarre.
Yeah, I can imagine. I’ve been recommending it to everyone I know since watching it last week but it is very hard to explain what it is. So I usually just say, trust me, watch it. What, if anything, do you think people should know before checking it out?
I think not knowing is probably the best thing. Not for the element of surprise, it’s just there’s nothing I think you could say that wouldn’t somehow transform the experience before it started. So going into it with a clean slate, I think is the best way to approach it. And even after you see it, it's difficult to talk about it since you’re forced to talk around the edges of it. You can’t talk about the thing itself.
Do you ever worry about people over-hyping it? Because I’m now seeing so many celebrities on social media saying, ‘You have to see this, it will change your life.’
Yeah, sure. I like to set the bar very low for expectations and then you can just step over it. It’s nice that people like it, but you don’t want them saying it’ll change your life, because I don’t think anyone can keep that promise. And we certainly didn’t make any promises like that. But it’s really nice to have people accepting it this way and championing it. So I’m grateful for it.
How did Frank Oz come on as the director and what did he bring to the live show and then the film?
When I knew what the show was going to be about, I knew Frank had to direct it. We had become friends a few years earlier through a mutual friend. And I felt like he understood what was at its core, what it means to be and be seen and how people perceive you. And also that he had the artistic chops to help bring the thing to life. I basically pitched him the idea in his living room, walked him through what I was thinking. And it was a very loose skeleton of what we ended up doing, but he could see what I was trying to do. He understood that I was trying to break a thing and that my intentions were pure and those were the two things that stuck out to him. And even if we weren’t quite sure what we were doing in the beginning, he felt like I would go the distance to make it what it needed to be.
And Frank’s contribution was he helped keep me honest. Every step of the way he made sure that it had the integrity and the authenticity that I was looking for and the truth that I was after and the emotional connection. The biggest part was his ability to see the invisible, emotional narrative that is strung throughout the show, this river that flows beneath the work that carries all the way to the end, so that when people are emotional, by the end of it, they don’t necessarily know why. They’ve had this thing flowing through them the entire time and that was him keeping an eye on that and helping make sure that it was experiential and not just a show.
I’m also curious about Stephen Colbert’s involvement, because he came on as a producer, I believe after seeing the show. Was there any input or advice from him that really impacted the film?
First of all, he and his wife Evelyn, who also was a producer on it, they’ve never done this before. They've never produced anything like this. And they bet on us when no one else would. No one wanted to touch this. No one thought it could be translated to film, no one thought it would work, no one wanted to bet on us. But Stephen and Evelyn both did and they took a real chance. And they were kind enough to give us the space that we needed to make it. But then also when we had questions, we would call them in and show them things and ask them their opinions. And they’re both very smart and had lots to say. Having thoughtful people in the room is always helpful. And they are two of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met.
Do you remember any specific ideas or notes that came from them?
In the show, the piece with the brick happens and then it just goes away and I move on. And then afterwards you can choose or not to go look for it. If one has the desire to do so, they go on a treasure hunt and maybe find something. They don’t have that option at home, obviously. And so one of the things we were talking about doing was putting the brick sequence at the end, in the credits. And it was Stephen who championed that idea of trusting that it's a validation of belief, the same way that it was in the theater, that journey afterwards. But it was also little moments. We would spend hours in the edit working on 30 seconds and Stephen would come and sit with us and he said it was a good reminder of that as a process. Because in his world, you can’t spend 30 seconds on 30 seconds. So it was cathartic for him, I think, as an artist.
It’s interesting that he latched onto people finding the brick in real life, because I think in a lot of his work he has also tried to blur the lines between the real world and what's happening on screen.
I think that’s part of what drew him to the work in the first place. He’s had multiple identities, but they’ve all been him. They’ve all been versions of him that aren’t him. And so he’s struggled with these questions himself and I think that’s one of the reasons it resonated with him and why he was willing to help us.
The show centers on identity and how people see themselves compared to how they are perceived by others. During the hundreds of live performances that you did, are there any particularly surprising moments that stand out to you in terms of which identifying cards audience members picked most or least often?
There were more negative cards than I would have suspected there would be. We had people choose “failure.” And that was always very hard. The first time it happened, it almost broke me because I have to call this person a failure in front of a room full of people. And I took a long time to say it. It was really hard for me to say it. And I said it and she had a look in her eye. The only way I can describe it is, have you ever seen those movies where the hero kills the villain and the villain thanks the hero for doing it? There’s a gratitude that comes with the pain that’s being given. It was very surreal.
We also had a “racist” chosen that was very defiant and very proud to be a racist in front of a group of people. Things like that were shocking and of course can change the air in the room instantly. And then there’s delightful ones like, Stephen Sondheim was a “beekeeper” and it made sense to him. We all have expectations, like when you see a 75-year-old sweet little lady and she chooses “daredevil.” That’s on us for having a preconceived notion of what little old lady might choose. Or when there was a Black guy who chose “Republican” and you could see the room go, like, really? There was always at least one where I went, “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.”
On the surface, the show is not overtly political. But I know you’ve talked about how you felt it changed with politics, whether it was after Trump was elected or after Charlottesville. Can you describe how the political air affected the show?
Yeah, it took this little show and it made it matter in a sense. It didn’t feel as frivolous. Because it’s one of the conversations that we’re having in society right now. Who are we? Who are we as Americans? Who are we as human beings? I keep hearing people talk about “two Americas” and how we’re divided. Well, the truth is we’re living in as many Americas as there are people. And we need to recognize the subjectivity of our existence. And that subjectivity of reality came into the foreground with politics. We got to see a divided nation and how can two people who live in the same world have such different views. And it’s because they’re living in different worlds essentially. They’re fed different information, they're given different ideas and the world is shaped in our minds. It doesn’t mean it was created to be political but it touches on parts of humanity that are inherently political.
There’s this really interesting paradox in the show where there’s clearly this very emotional experience of being seen by the audience members when you name what they’ve picked. But at the same time you’re saying that their identity is this one word when clearly every person is so much more than that. Why is it so impactful to have you identify them when really you’re identifying them as something that's limiting in a way?
Right, right, right. Well, that’s the paradox of the show is that you can flatten someone to being one thing, but then also allow them to be everything else. In those moments where I’m naming them or giving them a name or seeing them as they see themselves, it exists in that paradoxical space, you’re right. And that’s the point. If you’re able to see someone as they see themselves at any given moment, you’re able to see them as anything. But you can’t demonstrate that by saying, I see you as anything you want to be. You ironically have to do the opposite and see them as one thing to demonstrate that you can see them as anything.
So you’re a hundred percent right. You’re the first person in five years to mention it. I’ve thought about it a lot. Because as much as I can say, I am this, I am that, I am all these different things, the moment that someone wants to flatten me to being one thing, they can. We have that ability to do that to one another. And so as much as we want to be, “I am who I am. I'm all the different things,” it’s also true that we are limited by others’ perception. And so both things are true at the same time. It’s acknowledging the paradox and recognizing it and our responsibility with it, that’s what matters.
You mentioned Stephen Sondheim who was in the audience, and there’s kind of a fun little game watching the film spotting celebrities in the audience, because there are a lot of them. I saw Bill Gates, Larry Wilmore, Marina Abramović. I’m curious what that experience was like for you performing it, arriving at these people in the audience and acknowledging that everyone else in the audience is recognizing them in a different way.
It’s a different experience live than it is on film. Live, there’s an energy to it. When there’s one known person in the room, it makes everyone feel special. They know they’re seeing something important when Bill Gates is in the room. So there’s an energy that comes with it, but that didn’t really affect me.
It didn’t throw you off to see Bill Gates all of a sudden stand up?
No, because it can’t become about them. Because it’s about all of us. And they have to be just as important or unimportant as everyone else. In the film, we had actually many, many more celebrities that we could’ve included, but we didn’t. Because we found that it’s sort of a betrayal of the experience. And it makes it more of a guessing game. The ones that are in there are in there to sort of represent the zeitgeist. It’s a time capsule in a sense. You’ve got Ronan Farrow and Jon Lovett, W. Kamau Bell. So the people who we did decide to leave in there, it's very intentional and feels in line with the spirit of the work and hopefully not too much of a distraction.
Inevitably viewers will want to know how you pulled off the most elaborate elements in the show. And I’m resisting the urge to just ask you outright because I know you won’t tell me. But how do you handle people who just want to know all of the secrets?
It’s natural. Experiencing a mystery is like being washed out away from shore, like having the tide pull you away. And the first thing you want to do is just swim back to shore as hard as you can. You want solid ground. You want to get back to the thing that you know and understand. And it’s really scary to be pulled out into a dark sea. But I’ve found that if you let it pull you out and if you can go the other direction and let the mystery pull you away from what you know, and into possibilities of things you might not understand, that to me is where the importance lies. So it's just kind of missing the point. The context of me having practiced as a magician and being in a theater, I understand that people want to have those discussions. I just don’t want to participate in a dialogue that I think pulls us away from the value of the work.
For me and for a lot of people I’ve talked to who have seen the show, the moment where an audience member opens the letter is really one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. I’m not going to ask how you do it but can you talk about what made you want to pull that off?
I was in my studio thinking about identity and giving a thing a name and what that does to a thing. I was holding a pen and it was just a pen. But I was thinking, if someone told me that Ernest Hemingway wrote a book with this pen, then that would make it more meaningful. But really it’s just a pen. It never really changed form. And the same is true with the brick in the show. And I thought, what if you could do it to a person? What if you could watch a person transform the way that a pen transforms based on your knowledge of its history and what it means and all these things? And so I circled back around to personal identity.
So you kind of worked backwards from what you wanted to achieve?
Yeah, then it’s just, how do you get there? I obviously didn’t want to just talk about these things. I wanted to make them poetic and meaningful—as a gesture, not as a TED Talk. So then it was just about figuring out how to visualize it and realize it so that other people could see these things that I was thinking about.
Was there a particularly strange or unexpected reaction that you got from someone who opened the letter over the course of the show?
The one that stuck with me was a guy who came down and chose a letter. And on the back, it’ll say “cousin” or “sister” or “father” or “mother.” And I said, “Who’s it from?” And he said, “Father.” And I asked, “Do you have a father?” And he said, “No.” And I literally said, “Well, this will be interesting.” You know, there’s a lot of intentional uncertainty in the performance in the sense that I didn’t know what was coming next at that point.
And I said, “In a moment, we’re going to watch you open this. You're going to see this thing transform. And then we get to watch you turn into something else.” And we watched, and he opened it and tears just started rolling down his face. And he reads aloud this beautiful letter that’s like, “I couldn’t have asked for a better son, seeing you with your children makes me want to be a better father.” And it was this letter from a father telling him how proud he is of him. And it was just breathtaking, especially since he said that he did not have a father. And at the end it said, “Love, Bob.” And I was like, “Who’s Bob?”. And he said, “Bob is my father-in-law.” And then he took a beat and he looked up from the letter and he looked at me and said, “Bob is my father.”
And it was just... I mean, a guy walked on stage thinking he didn’t have a father. And he walked off stage knowing he had one.
That is unbelievable.
It was kind of like, we can just shut this whole thing down. We’ve done it. That was it, right? We can just go home. Because that’s what it’s about. We walk through this world feeling unseen, unheard, unloved. And part of that is because we are not seeing and hearing and loving others. We’re so busy fighting to be seen that we're forgetting that we are others. And we need to do our part to see people and to acknowledge them instead of fighting to be seen ourselves.