Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Interview with Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker: "I AM BIG BIRD"

UPDATE!  As of May 6, 2015, the documentary is available for download by clicking here.

UPDATE! 3/16/2015 - You can now view the official trailer by clicking here.

UPDATE! As of August 16, 2012, the "KickStarter" event mentioned below has ended with 1,976 fans donating $124,115 toward their minimum $100,000 goal!  Way to go fans!  This documentary will be as fantastic as the man it is about, Caroll Spinney!  Here's to the soon and future success of "I Am Big Bird!"

"Sunny days, sweeping the clouds away..."
As I enter my 40th year of childhood, I recall my earlier years in which a popular tune from Children's Television Workshop (nowadays Sesame Workshop) kept me feeling happy, knowing that all things -- no matter how bad -- would be okay because each day at 3pm I could rush home to the happiest street in the world and visit with my old friends (even when I was little I felt as I had known Gordon, Susan, Maria, Bob, David, and "Mr. Looper" my whole life).  There were also my more plush-skinned friends Bert and Ernie, Prairie Dawn, Count von Count, and the furry pals such as Grover, Cookie Monster, and those who would prefer to be left alone like Oscar the Grouch.

But, there has always been one particular character and friend of mine from that great place known as Sesame Street that upon seeing the very image of him and hearing his voice a great joy comes to my face as a smile and stronger happiness wells up in my chest.  I even dedicated a painting to him that I took a long, long time on and titled "Big Bird Makes Me Happy."

This isn't the aforementioned painting, but a 5x7" titled
"Little Mr. Big Bird"  Acrylic on Canvas Board, 2011

Because he does.  Big Bird cheers me up whether telling me why I'm special 'cause there's "Just One Me," or that the alphabet can be one big word in "AB-C-DEF-GHI," or influencing me on my favorite number because Big Bird says "I Just Adore Four."  It really is a number sublime!  For years, my cassette player/radio clock was set to wake me up to "Good Morning Mr. Sun" and who could ever forget that it's okay to bumble because "Everyone Makes Mistakes."  Yes, and I even cried with him during the loss of Mr. Hooper, during "I'm A Blue Bird", and cheered with the day was saved in Follow That Bird and Don't Eat The Pictures.  Phew!  And that's all I can fit in one small paragraph while I can certainly go on and on and on...

And while I have always had this great fondness for this great fellow that Oscar the Grouch calls a big yellow turkey, I don't know if the sweetness of my own creations would exist without my life-long close studies of the great Caroll Spinney who, for these past 42 years, has performed the roles of the soft-spoken, eager to learn Big Bird, and the muck-of-the-street Oscar the Grouch--two characters with two totally different personalities at either end of the spectrum.  What other puppeteer can walk around with a television strapped to his neck to see his performance--let alone roller skate?  None that I know of.  Whether taking Big Bird on a walk down Sesame Street or the times Oscar got a walk around the block by his trash can toting pal Bruno, Caroll made it okay for us to come along and enjoy the scenery.

But, what do we know about Caroll other than this part of his life?  We've read a few books and a few biographies that he's been a part of.  We've seen him in a few interviews, sure; but, we haven't been able to get really indepth and get a good look at who this man--this friend of our's through our childhood and into our adulthood--really is!

When I first heard about the Copper Pot Pictures documentary "I Am Big Bird," I was thrilled.  Finally, a moment of due attention has come to a man who really shaped what Sesame Street was!  I would finally be able to jump on board and be a small part of something by donating to a cause and helping get this man's story to the screen by visiting their website on Kickstarter.  Then, one day, an offer came to do an interview and I said, "Heck yeah!"

I was able to ask a few questions of the folks involved in the film, and am sharing these with you now.

And before I get into all this, I hope you take a moment to go donate to their cause in the next few days because a documentary of the scope they are making takes a lot of work and a lot of money, and the main thing to recall in all this isn't that you're helping a group make a film, but you're helping make a tribute to a great man who taught you your ABC's, how to count, and to just be happy.


For our readers who are not yet aware, please share who you are, what you do, how long you’ve been doing it, and what directed you toward this career?
DAVE LaMATTINA: Chad Walker and I are directing/producing I AM BIG BIRD for COPPER POT PICTURES. Along with our partner Clay Frost, we formed Copper Pot five years ago to create films that we'd want to see. While we all came to the entertainment industry with different backgrounds, we were brought together by our first film, BROWNSTONES TO RED DIRT, which is about a pen pal program that connected sixth graders living in housing projects in Brooklyn, NY with war orphans living in Freetown, Sierra Leone. What interests me personally about docs is that they're always evolving. You can start down one path and end up somewhere completely different. It's maddening, but really fun. Making docs allows the three of us to pick a topic that we love, then spend 2-3 years of our life becoming an expert in that field.

Chad Walker, Dave LaMattina, Oscar the Grouch, Clay Frost
What IS “I Am Big Bird?”

CHAD WALKER: I AM BIG BIRD is a documentary about Caroll Spinney, who has been Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969. Caroll is 78 years old and he's sill doing it--and he has no intention of ever stopping.

What project or idea lead to doing a documentary on Caroll Spinney?
CHAD WALKER: It's in our company mission statement that we look to create films that inspire and Caroll's story certainly fits that description.

DAVE LaMATTINA: I always just wanted to be a part of what Sesame Street and the Muppets do. I just love them. One of my first jobs in this business was as an intern at Sesame Workshop because I had a dream of writing for the show. The passion was always there. The event that led to the film was me telling a friend about the internship. His fiance was there and offered that she was family friends with the Spinneys. She started telling me all these amazing stories, which I relayed to Chad while we were filming BROWNSTONES

(Editor's note: Brownstones to Red Dirt is available on the Copper Pot Pictures website.)

CHAD WALKER: Unlike Dave, I didn't know that Caroll Spinney had been Big Bird and Oscar for so long. I had no idea one person had done it for the entire history of the show. And so that fascinated me. Then, to realize that he was 78 and he's doing this incredibly intense puppet--to picture my grandfather doing that just blew my mind. The Bird's head weighs 5 lbs. Can you imagine holding that up, take after take, day after day, for 43 years? It's amazing. We had to make a film about it. 
Why is it important to represent the story of Caroll Spinney to the world?
CHAD WALKER: Caroll has impacted so many people, but so few people know who he is. When they start to see what a remarkable person he is and how he really does infuse himself into Big Bird and Oscar, they'll want to know how he became who he is. We just cut a scene about bullying in which Caroll talks about how badly he was picked on in his youth. In the scene, we cut to the most recent season of Sesame Street in which Big Bird is bullied. When you see those two stories intertwined, it's clear that Big Bird is who he is because Caroll is who he is. People need to know who the man is.

What was the conversation and the moment that the decision came up to make “I Am Big Bird?” And, what was then your next step to get in touch with Caroll Spinney?
DAVE LaMATTINA: It was actually really easy. Chad and I went back and forth and figured this would be a great movie and it was right up our alley--this was back in 2009. I emailed a few people from my internship days thinking that we'd never hear back, but we did within a week. Sesame Workshop has just been phenomenal. They've loved the idea from the start. They set up a meeting and a few weeks later, we were chatting with Caroll and his lovely wife Deb.

Describe how you felt when you discovered that Caroll said it was a go:
CHAD WALKER: We were pumped. Just absolutely pumped.

DAVE LaMATTINA: And a little intimidated. This is a great story and we feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to not mess it up. We're honored they've trusted us with their story.

What all preparation did you do before you contacted Caroll, and then what changed in that prep work before you met him?
CHAD WALKER: We obviously read Caroll's book, The Wisdom of Big Bird, and watched a lot of old Sesame Street episodes. We were pretty familiar with his story.

DAVE LaMATTINA: We try to not over-rehearse our pitches. We want them to come from the heart and I think that served us well with Caroll and Deb. I think they saw our passion and I think that's what sold them that we would do justice to putting their life on film.

What was the experience like meeting Caroll for the first time, and then meeting Big Bird and Oscar or walking onto the Street?
CHAD WALKER: That's a great question because the pitch meeting was so crazy. Basically, we're sitting around a table with Caroll, Deb and a few folks from Sesame Workshop. At one point, Dave was talking to Caroll and while he was, Caroll leaned down sort of nonchalantly and reaches into a duffel bag. While he's responding to Dave, Caroll pulls out Oscar, who had been kicking it in the bag. As soon as Oscar was on Caroll's hand, he came to life. He was blinking, looking around the room and reacting to things. Then he started staring me down, all while Dave and Caroll are talking. Suddenly, Oscar yells out, "BORING!" It was crazy.

DAVE LaMATTINA: And being on the set was equally crazy. It's strange that being there doesn't ruin the magic, it just enhances it. We were in Caroll's dressing room with him as he got ready, we walked out to the set with him, but then he gets in the feathers and it really is like Big Bird is a living, breathing being. It's impossible to explain. Big Bird is real.

So, the project starts and you begin collecting information, interviews, and personal memorabilia from Caroll: Was the amount of material about what you expected, or you were allowed into much more than you thought?

CHAD WALKER: In that same pitch meeting, Deb told us that she and Caroll are somewhat obsessed with documenting everything they do--a hobby of Caroll's that goes back to the 50s when he was in the US Air Force. Basically, she said they had photo or video material of his entire life. She asked if we thought we might use that. We freaked out. It's a total treasure for a doc filmmaker to be given that sort of access. It's been so much more than we could've ever hoped for or imagined.

Of the materials (so far) what has been your favorite piece of memorabilia?
DAVE LaMATTINA: For me, it's probably the behind-the-scenes stuff that Deb shot during the filming of China. Look--everything they've given us is simply incredible. Just amazing. But I have a really fond memory of watching BIG BIRD IN CHINA with my family, so to see them making that film was mind-blowing. You see the sets, the characters, the locations and it just brings you back. It made me connect with the film on a whole new level.

CHAD WALKER: I'd say the behind-the-scenes stuff Deb shot on A MUPPET FAMILY CHRISTMAS because that special brought together everyone from SESAME STREET, FRAGGLE ROCK and THEMUPPET SHOW, so the behind-the-scenes stuff is like a super fun reunion. You're seeing people like Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson work their magic and then goof around when they're not shooting. It's amazing.
Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Jim Henson,
Frank Oz, Caroll Spinney, Fran Brill
Speaking of memorabilia, I own the sets from the old 70’s Fisher Price Little People Sesame Street playsets. What did you have as a kid, or own still today?
DAVE LaMATTINA: No one has asked us that, but I'm glad you did! My current Twitter profile picture is of me using Big Bird slippers to put on a puppet show (my brother, the neighbors and I wrote a little diddy called "The Sesame Gang Rap"). Also, my mom is a bit of a baker and had all these cake pans and made stuff like a giant Cookie Monster cake. One year we also made Bert and Ernie jack-o-lanterns. My mom still talks about that.
CHAD WALKER: I'm big into music, so though I had a ton of Sesame toys and pajamas and things, the thing I remember loving the most was the Sesame Street Fever album... on vinyl! I love that. I was psyched when Caroll gave us photos of when he worked with Robin Gibb.

This image is by my pal Quinn Rollins who is the expert of all
things Fisher Price Little People (and I'm too lazy to set up my
own collection).  Click the image to find his cool site.

Before Sesame Street and the Muppets, what have you learned about Caroll's career that you can share now?

DAVE LaMATTINA: Caroll's career pre-Sesame Street could be a film in its own. He was a draftsmen in the Air Force, he was offered a job as an animator at Disney, he worked for a media company where he shot a campaign ad for John F. Kennedy, he co-starred (as Goggle the puppet) in The Judy and Goggle Show and he did about a billion characters on the Bozo show. The Disney thing is wild, though. Caroll actually was only using puppet shows to pay for gas money and art school because he wanted to be an illustrator. Then he got to Disney, interviewed, was in the room with Walt himself and was offered a job. The pay was so bad and the work was so tedious that he just walked away. Crazy.

CHAD WALKER: He does still do Picklepuss, which is a creation of his. He's brought Pickplepuss out for us and he still does a Picklepuss show every year at his family reunion. I think he also still does the "Punch and Judy Show," though that is an old British puppet show, not one that he wrote.
What is one thing you learned about Caroll that surprised you most? Inspired you the most? Did you learn anything new about Big Bird or Oscar that you hadn’t known before?

CHAD WALKER: I think his talent as an illustrator has struck me. He is such a talented artist and he really could have had a very successful career as an artist. As a matter of fact, he talks about how if/when he retires from Sesame, he'd like to get back into that, which is remarkable, because here's a 78-year-old man discussing his second career after retirement.
DAVE LaMATTINA: I don't want to give away any spoilers, but Caroll has told us some stories about Big Bird where he's had a very emotional reaction to something that has happened to Big Bird. That surprised me about both Caroll and Big Bird--how deeply the two are connected. I was shocked to learn that the Oscar the Grouch puppet used today (the same one we saw in the pitch) is the Oscar that has been used on the show since 1969. That was trippy, to realize that we were hanging out with the same puppet we grew up with.

What would you say has been the funniest thing you have had happen along the way of this documentary?

CHAD WALKER: When we had to shoot a Kickstarter appeal video, we were fortunate enough to include a cameo from Oscar. Working with Oscar was hilarious. Yes, what made it to the screen is good, but Caroll truly shines with improv, so to be between takes with Oscar was hilarious. He had lots of laughs at our expense, not in a mean way, just in a typically grouchy fashion.
What has been the most fun part of making “I Am Big Bird?” Have there been any challenges?

DAVE LaMATTINA: Hanging out with the Spinneys has been amazing. My favorite part of this project has been when we go up to their house to interview Caroll. We always take a long lunch and sort of get to know one another and share stories. It's been a special experience for us.
CHAD WALKER: I think one of the most fun things has been one of the most challenging. The Spinneys continue to give us hundreds of hours of archival footage, which is amazing to go through and just so fascinating to see, but it's extremely time consuming. It's a good problem to have, but it's certainly been a challenge to find the time to get through it all.

Through Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, Caroll has inspired us all. For me, he’s one of those who inspired me to create fun, funny, inspirational, family-oriented puppets and comic strips. What have the influences of Caroll, Big Bird and Oscar been on your life?

DAVE LaMATTINA: I think I can speak for all of us when I say that Caroll's impact on all of us has somewhat morphed since we began this project. At first, we approached this film from a perspective that we were blown away that one guy has done these two iconic characters for over 43 years. But then, as we got to know the man, not just the Muppets, we learned what an inspiration he is. He has gotten to the highest heights without ever compromising his values or who he is. He's really done what we aspire to do professionally and personally and so he's become something of a role model for us. He's proof that you can do it the right way.

Matt Vogel with Caroll Spinney.

What is left to do to complete the documentary? How can people help?
CHAD WALKER: We still have the bulk of our actual shooting to do and between that and licensing some of Caroll's appearances, we are in need of financing, so we turned to Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a crowd-sourcing website that helps artists raise money from individuals in exchange for products or experiences and has not only helped raise $45 million for film projects, but also financed three documentaries on the Academy Award shortlist this year. It has truly become a great way for documentaries to get made. We have loads of cool incentives to offer, among them are a copy of the film (essentially a pre-order), an original illustration by Caroll and an opportunity for a group video chat with Caroll.

The campaign is now live and ends on August 16th (2012). You can view all the rewards and PLEDGE here:
DAVE LaMATTINA: Just to follow up on what Chad said about Kickstarter: one reason we've decided to go that way is because the Muppet fanbase is so strong. We're fans ourselves and we're making this for the fans. Kickstarter is a great way for this passionate group of people to make their voices heard and be part of something really special--but they have to do it before August 16th. Happy pledging!
And for fun, here is an unofficial comic strip I did a while back:
Here is some other art I did for fun:

And finally, my own little Big Bird story:

When I was a toddler, I had the Fisher Price Sesame Street puppets and dolls and toys and...everything.  My mom and dad were taking me on a trip to the mountains (probably against their will because there was no one dumb enough to keep me!).  I remember on the trip up seeing the teepee across the highway at a rest station and who should walk out but Big Bird.  When my mom and dad turned the car around and got us there, I noticed (even at that young age) that it wasn't the proper Big Bird because...well, look at those legs!  I was finally convinced by this imposter that he was Big Bird's cousin.
But, inside the place, there were big tables with a Cookie Monster wandering around.  I enjoyed chasing after Cookie Monster with his smaller version of himself that was on my hand.  I laughed so hard my sides hurt.  Wish I could find pictures of that as well.

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