There is a strange disconnect between many of the icons who have played pivotal roles in pop culture and the audiences who cherished them. Star War’s Chewbacca forever changed the dynamic between sci-fi heroes and their sidekicks, yet how many of us know anything about the man inside the suit, Peter Mayhew? Godzilla will forever be known as the king of the kaiju, but if you mention the man behind the beast, Haruo Nakajima, you will probably get blank stares and shrugs.
Even though the characters that these actors played entertained and delighted us for generations, sometimes the stories of the people behind the masks are for more entertaining. Such is the case for legendary puppeteer Caroll Spinney. A notoriously private individual, Spinney’s personal life has been a complete mystery for many years until now. Filmmakers Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker and Clay Frost are looking to pull back the curtain on Spinney’s enigmatic life with their documentary film “I AM BIG BIRD.”
“I AM BIG BIRD” is an in-depth look at the history and mythology behind the man who created one of “Sesame Street’s” most iconic characters. The film will introduce audiences to the creation and development of Big Bird as well as dozens of interviews with the famous puppeteer.
“I AM BIG BIRD” is currently approaching the end of a KickStarter campaign aimed at funding the production and post-production phases of the film. We caught up with two of the film’s creators Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker to talk about crowd-sourced funding and working with the man behind a global cultural icon.
Why do you believe that people are interested in the life and career of Caroll Spinney?
Chad Walker: If you ended the question there, I’m not sure that many people would be interested in the life of Caroll Spinney. When we went to Times Square and asked a bunch of people why they loved Big Bird and what their favorite Big Bird moment was, we got all these incredible answers. Then we asked, “Do you know who Caroll Spinney is?” Not one of them knew. And for me, that is the most fascinating part of this project. We are doing a documentary on a man who has literally helped shape millions of lives, but no one knows who he is. No man, in my opinion, has had such an impact on so many but is known by so few.
Dave LaMattina: I think as people start to know about Caroll the person, they’ll really start to care about him. Our own experience in making this film started as, “Wow, it’s amazing this one guy has been these characters for 43 years!” But, the more we’ve gotten to know Caroll, the more we are fascinated by him. Yes, he’s told us these amazing stories about befriending Jim Henson and working with presidents, but what really captivated us is that he’s opened up his archives to us. He’s been filming and photographing everything he’s ever done since the 50s, and as we started to pick through that material, we felt like we were essentially re-living his life. For a doc filmmaker, it’s a true treasure to have that sort of insight. We’re going to build the film around this material and let people grow with him. When they do, they will fall in love with him because of who he is, not because of the characters he plays.
Why Did you Take ” I AM BIG BIRD” To KickStarter?
Walker: The fanbase. There really is no fanbase stronger than the Muppet fanbase. We are fans, and we are making this movie for the fans. We really wanted to use Kickstarter as a way to engage the fans and make them a part of the process. We’ve been releasing work-in-progress scenes from the film and raw unedited behind-the-scenes videos from Caroll’s personal archives to excite the Muppet fans. It has been really interesting to see what people have reacted to and what they haven’t. We are very open to hearing comments on what fans want to see. We try to answer every email that comes our way.
LaMattina: Throughout the development of this film, two really interesting things happened for us: the rise of Kickstarter and the release of “The Muppets.” When we saw how powerful Kickstarter has become and how vocal the Muppet fan base was when they had a cause to back, we figured this was a no-brainer. We want to make this the movie that Caroll deserves and we think the way to do that is to stay true to our vision–the vision we pitched Caroll the first time we met. We didn’t want outside interferences from people with money telling us how to make the film or what they wanted to see.
Why do you think that Big Bird has become such an iconic character in American culture?
Walker: I think this is a two-part answer. One, Caroll created something truly magical with Big Bird. I mean, literally: he created it. When Big Bird started, he was a country yokel type character. If you look at season 1 of Sesame Street and compare it to today’s show, Big Bird is totally different. It was Caroll that made that change. One day he said, I think Big Bird should be the age of the kids watching the show, so the kids can learn through Big Bird. Then boom, the character took off!
Part two is, once Caroll suggested that change, it opened up a whole new world for the writers, who started writing great scripts for Big Bird. Great scripts + great character + hitting target demo = icon.
LaMattina: I’m not a big subscriber to fate, but some of this boils down to fate–not the “Sliding Doors” sort of fate, more like Caroll just was meant to play this character. Throughout his whole life, he listened to his heart and did what he felt was right–he wasn’t guided by money or success or fame, he just did what he felt he needed to do I don’t think that Big Bird would’ve become an icon if the character had been in anyone else’s hands–that’s Caroll’s doing.
What KickStarter pledge reward are you most excited to offer funders?
Walker: Awesome question–not one we’ve gotten before. Personally, I’d want one of Caroll’s original drawings. They’re amazing and such a cool thing to have. And, of course, if you could pop $10,000 for it, a private dinner in New York with Caroll would be pretty amazing.
LaMattina: For me, I’d be super pumped for the group video chat with Caroll (if we weren’t chatting with him all the time for the film!). How cool would it be to chat with Caroll for 60 minutes?
How did you manage to start production of this film with Caroll who is notoriously guarded around media attention?
Walker: You know, we had heard he doesn’t like the spotlight–and that is certainly true. But as we were wrapping up another doc we were doing, we started getting in touch with Sesame Workshop. We thought it would take a while to get through all the red tape, but within a week, we had a meeting. And after that meeting, we had a really good feeling that they’d agree to doing the film. I think it was within a week they had said yes. The time, I think, was just right.
LaMattina: I think that meeting was really important. They wanted to feel us out and make sure our hearts were in the right place. Chad mentioned that we had just finished our first documentary as a company and I think that film went a long way in convincing them that we would treat their story the right way. That first film, “Brownstones to Red Dirt,” was a super indie doc about a pen pal program that connected sixth graders living in housing project in Brooklyn, New York with war orphans in Freetown, Sierra Leone. I think that the themes in it–namely hope and compassion–resonated with the Spinneys. After that first meeting, I think we all felt like we could trust each other. They’ve really become family at this point.
Do you think that KickStarter will become the primary method for filmmakers to produce films in the near future?
Walker: I do think that for documentaries, it is a really good way to get your film financed. I don’t think for narrative films it will be as viable of an option because the budgets are so much higher. But certainly for docs, it’s a possibility. It seems you can raise almost your whole budget in one month. That said, we haven’t reached our goal yet so my entire opinion on the matter could change here in the next week or so! Also, it should be noted, the entire process is extremely nerve-wracking!
LaMattina: We discuss this all the time. We’re concurrently shooting another doc entitled “We Must Go” which is about the Egyptian national soccer team and its American head coach, Bob Bradley. We have been looking at Kickstarter as a way to get that film made too, but, as Chad said, let’s see how this one wraps up. There are certain things you can do–like our Twitter campaign releasing material from the Spinney archive on a daily basis–that you think will prepare you to have a stellar Kickstarter campaign. But nothing is guaranteed. That lack of a sure thing, plus the all-or-nothing Kickstarter paradigm, makes for a terrifying 30 days.