CS Doc Round-Up: Being Elmo and The Swell Season


Since the Weekend Warrior is on permanent hiatus, it’s a little harder to get the word out on one of our favorite film genres, the documentary. This weekend offers a number of really strong docs, some of the best of the year, and we wanted to point out a couple that are worth checking out this weekend (if you live in New York City) or to look out for down the road.

Both Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey and The Swell Season look at fame from different angles, the former from the perspective of someone who has enjoyed it for many years, the latter from a couple who had it thrust upon them and how it affects their relationship. The former is Constance Marks’ spotlight on Kevin Clash, the man behind the red monster puppet that’s won hearts of kids and parents for over 25 years on “Sesame Street” and spin-off shows. The Swell Season is a black and white film by a trio of New York filmmakers that follows the group led by Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova on their whirlwind world tour following their Oscar win for the song “Falling Slowly” from John Carney’s Once. (We also loved Chris Paine’s Revenge of the Electric Car, his follow-up to Who Killed the Electric Car?, another doc opening this week, but couldn’t fit an interview into our crazy schedule.)

We’ll start with Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, which follows Kevin Clash from his days as a teen in Baltimore making and performing with his own puppets, through his time as a puppeteer in Jim Henson’s crew both on “Sesame Street” and movies like Labyrinth to the current fame of his beloved puppet Elmo.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk with Clash and director Constance Marks–a rare chance to talk to both the maker and subject of a doc at the same time–and they told us how they first met and how the idea to make the doc came about in a rather innocuous but fluid manner.

The story is that Marks’ husband James had once worked on “Sesame Street” as a director of photography and he had returned to do a bit of fill-in camerawork, and having a young daughter, he asked Kevin if he would do something on tape for her. Marks saw the videotape and Kevin’s generosity in doing that for her husband, which made her want to know about the man behind the Muppet. “I saw this tape of Elmo talking to James about pictures of our daughter, and I just thought, ‘He took the time out to do this?’ That blew me away, and I loved Elmo. I’d seen Elmo on ‘Sesame’ and I just blurted out ‘Get me an appointment with that man. I want to make a documentary about him.’ It wasn’t pre-meditated.”

“I’d written this book,” Clash told us. “This literary agent came to me and he said, ‘The phenomenon of Elmo, I think there’s a book there. You want to see if there’s some interest?’ so when Connie approached me, I thought that this was the next step off the book where I talk about the enjoyment. Now I can show the enjoyment of working with all these unbelievable people and then the phenomenon of this little red monster.”

“We had this four-hour lunch and I didn’t ask too may questions,” Marks continued. “I just said, ‘I’m a documentary filmmaker and I’m just really curious to learn if there’d be a film here and tell me a little about yourself.’ That was four hours we were talking.”

Clash wasn’t an overnight sensation when he took on the muppet that other puppeteers had tried to personify with little luck or lasting effect. Creating his own puppet characters from scratch, Clash started appearing on regional television in his hometown of Baltimore before moving up to kids’ shows like “The Big Blue Marble” and “Captain Kangaroo.” Getting involved with Jim Henson and “Sesame Street” was a dream come true for Clash and he worked on there for many years before he picked up the red monster puppet and made it his own, giving a voice and personality to Elmo that has made him a favorite among kids of all ages. (Not many people may realize that Clash also performed and voiced the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ mentor Splinter in the first two movies.)

When we asked Clash why a puppeteer who is used to not being seen might be interested in putting himself out there in a movie like this, he explained, “It’s not that we’re private. That’s our job, that’s what we enjoy doing. All of us come from different backgrounds, and yeah, I was definitely shy growing up, but the puppets got me out of that. I started to try and negotiate fees with the puppets, but it just wasn’t working.”

The film not only shows Clash’s journey, but also the great pleasure he gets out of puppetry as well as the joy and inspiration he brings to others, which makes it quite a moving and joyful film, while it also helps people understand exactly what’s going on with puppetry and that there’s an actual human being behind the puppet character.

“What was always funny for me is that two things always happened,” Clash told us. “One was that somebody would say, ‘Well, do you get inside this thing?’ and the other one is, ‘So you do the voice of this character?’ They think I’m a voice-over person, and that’s another reason why I want to show what I do, because the immediacy of puppetry is what I love. It’s not like watching an animated show and a child goes somewhere to see this. When we go out and do a meet and greet, you’re going to meet and greet Grover and Elmo that you see on TV and I love that. It’s so exciting for us. We become a fly on the wall. They don’t know us and they don’t care to know us. You have this conversation with a child who has know his friend for so long, it’s this wonderful thing that happens and it can be really funny, too.”

They’ve both been surprised, not only by how many parents bring their kids to what may be their first documentary they might see outside school, but also by how many school kids who have been absolutely riveted by the film when they bring it to schools. “It was sort of confusing to me who my audience was,” Marks admitted. “As we progressed, I realized that we were going to make the film for adults. There was some language that could have been kept in and then it wouldn’t be okay for kids, and we cut that out, because we really wanted the option to have kids see it.”

Kevin told us this was something he had suggested even though he admits that kids have changed a lot since he first started entertaining them. “I was really concerned about the kids, but my daughter taught me how to turn on the computer, and the kids running around with these iPads, so the technology and what they’ve grown up with is very different from what we watched.”

Clash went out to audition for Jason Segel to play Walter in Disney’s upcoming The Muppets, but he’s happy for Peter Linz, the puppeteer who did get the job. Clash’s own character Clifford should make an appearance, and he’s thrilled by how there seems to be a renewed interest in puppets, Muppets and the late Jim Henson in recent years. “It’s a rejuvenation that is wonderful, ’cause that’s the reason why I did this doc,” Clash said. “I was concerned ’cause Pixar was doing so much and ‘Shrek’ was out there and the last two movies we did, didn’t do as well as we’d like. That was another reason to go out and be a cheerleader for puppets again. This rejuvenation I’m really excited about and there’s really good buzz about the Muppet movie.”

Clash is also excited about the recent interest in bringing back The Dark Crystal, being that he wasn’t able to take part in the original movie, since he was working on two separate television shows at the time. Even though Clash will probably always be known as the man behind Elmo, it’s clear he’s just as much about supporting and promoting puppetry and the joys it brings both to the puppeteer and his audience.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey opens exclusively at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, October 21, with Clash and friend appearing as special guests on the Saturday afternoon showings at 12:35, 2:25 and 4:15 PM. It then expands to other cities in the coming weeks and you can find out where here.

Next up, we have a movie about two musicians who captured the hearts of the world when they appeared together in John Carney’s Once. At the time of the movie, Glen Hansard, the Irish frontman for the Frames, had only appeared in one other movie, Alan Parker’s The Commitments, while his musical partner, Czech teen Marketa Irglova, was a complete unknown. While doing promotion for the movie, the two decided to consummate the romance that was never fulfilled in the movie, which just added another layer of interest in their story and the movie.

Having seen the phenomenon of the Swell Season explode out of the Sundance Film Festival in 2007 first-hand, we saw the duo go from playing small Irish hangouts like Siné in New York City to selling out enormous venues like Radio City Music Hall. The Swell Season captures all aspects of that tour, including how the two romantically-linked musicians tried to cope with their growing fame and how it affects their relationship. (You can read our thoughts on the movie in The Weekend Warrior.)

ComingSoon.net met up with Carlo Mirabella-Davis and Chris Dapkins, two of the three directors–the third being Nick August-Perna, who couldn’t make it that day–to talk about how they approached telling the duo’s story. They’re an interesting trio of filmmakers, because all three of them were involved every step of the way, touring with the band for a number of years and splitting the technical duties with Dapkins taking on the role of DP and cameraman, while the other two took on other duties. In post, August-Perna took on the responsibility for editing all the footage together while Mirabella-Davis is credited as producer.

The latter explained to us how he met Glenn and how the project came about. “Glenn was a student of mine at the New York Film Academy. I was teaching a film class there and it was just after the 2008 Oscar win, and he wanted to learn how to direct short films. We became friendly throughout the course of the class and then after it was over, we went out to have a drink and he confided in me that he and Marketa were about to embark on this epic tour of America and Ireland and the Czech Republic. He was very excited about all this wonderful and gratifying response to their work. He was also feeling this existential dread about suddenly being thrust into the limelight. He mentioned he was interested in having somebody come on tour with him to document this experience they were going through. Then I met with Chris and Nick and we discussed the idea that there might be a very interesting documentary there. That’s how it began and then we were on the road with them for three years basically.”

Shot in black and white, the film uses a unique cinema verité style that’s quite a contrast from Marks’ movie, which takes a more traditional doc approach. Dapkins admits they went into the project not fully knowing the movie what they were going to end up making. “It was an incredible leap of faith on Glenn and Marketa’s part, just to trust us with the creative responsibility of bringing this film up and out of this mire of confusion basically,” he said. “He did give us the task of making a film that stood on its own and not a piece of promotion for the band. He knew that we were going to be making a film and not just all the exciting backstage moments, like a tour montage. We didn’t want to do that. He knew there was risk involved.”

“He also knew that for the film to be good, it would have to be honest and it would have to be real and they’re pretty much hands off,” Mirabella-Davis continued. “We showed them a cut at a certain point, which they liked, and they were the ones who suggested maybe doing a few more interviews and keep filming. For the most part, they were hands-off and trusting and great subjects, great people to be around and to film.”

Once they were on the road and making the film, Dapkins explained how things started to become more focused. “We had to make a choice between having a thesis and executing that thesis, which would have been more efficient and we could do it in a smaller time frame, or we can go in kind of open and be prepared to spend a long time waiting for a story to emerge, and that’s the route we chose. We didn’t really have a plan for what the story would be; we wanted to shoot it in such a way that it had the quality of a fiction narrative and a balance with ‘Once,’ which was a fiction with the trappings of a documentary. We wanted to do the opposite, so we shot in a calm, non-frenetic non-reality television style where people could enter and exit the frame. We wanted the story to emerge out of the interaction between the people on the tour and that eventually led us to this untangling of the romance.”

His fellow filmmaker continued that thought with an analogy. “It was an interesting way to approach it because it’s almost like being a gardener and you have a wide array of flowers in your flowerbed and some start to emerge and become more fascinating than others. There were a couple of key moments where we realized, ‘Oh, this is going to be what our movie is about.’ We always knew that we would be working with the issues and the struggles of achievement and how achieving your dreams may not bring you the happiness or the enlightenment that you think it will.”

Fans of the group will already know a lot about them from their music and possibly have already seen them play live, but the intimate nature of the film took the filmmakers behind the scenes to get other perspectives on their rise to fame. “When we met Glenn’s parents in Ireland during that time, we realized there was a whole other element,” Mirabella-Davis told us. “There was a relationship between a father and son, and son and his mother, that had a lot to do with why Glenn plays music. For Glenn, what we got interested in was the idea that his fathers dream of being a boxer and then his father giving up that dream was something that he both carried the torch for, to fulfill his father’s dreams, but also becomes a burden once he had accomplished that achievement.”

“We were also interested in the multi-layered aspect of the fictional relationship that Glenn and Marketa have on-screen vs. the reality of their relationship and the weird bleed between the two,” he elaborated. “There’s this interesting David Carr quote from the New York Times, I think he said, ‘When Glenn and Marketa fell in love, a lot of the world felt like they watched it happen. When we were on the road, a lot of the fans would come up to them with a kind of familiarity, as if they were a part of this story together. That put a lot of strain on them and it also put an interesting focus for a film.”

Dapkins got somewhat philosophical when adding, “Identity is formed not just by the choices or the psychology of the individual but by consensus around that individual, so that consensus in Glenn and Marketa’s case was partially formed by a myth, by a film.”

The Swell Season isn’t the type of talking heads doc that has become the norm, and the trio’s ersatz cameraman explained why that’s the case. “We did a few interviews with Glenn and Marketa throughout the tour, just from afar, casual, and then after we assembled the rough cut, they in addition to us, decided we needed to do another set of more intimate interviews, which we did in the last stage of production.”

“We really wanted a very cinema verité feel, stylistically, but also because we wanted them to become as comfortable around us as possible and forget the camera was even there,” his partner agreed. “Glenn is such a personable guy, he’s so warm, that sometimes he’d break the third wall and just turn to us and start talking, so a lot of the interviews, we didn’t plan an interview that day, that just grew out of Glenn starting to talk and me starting to respond. We tried as much as we could to stay away from the talking head thing.”

Unlike Clash, Hansard and Irglova have not done a lot of interviews for the movie–in fact, they haven’t really done any–which may seem odd to the fans of the duo who may be interested in seeing behind the curtain. The filmmakers feel there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this, and it’s by no means due to any unhappiness with how intimate and personal the film gets about the dissolution of their relationship.

“The film is a marriage of sensibilities – ours and theirs,” Dapkins explained. “It’s not a direct expression of their creative passion. It’s ours more than theirs, so they respect that distance.”

“I think it works better that way,” his partner agrees. “It’s so intimate. It’s a strange film if you were the subject of it to promote. Glenn was there for the Tribeca premiere and he did a Q&A, but for some reason, I think it will be a little strange if he was out there performing, because it is about two people who have their own take on this real thing that happened to them, so it’s a different kind of movie I think. They do kind of want to let it speak for itself and (let people) have their own interpretations.”

The Swell Season opens in New York City at Cinema Vllage as well as the rerun Gastropub and in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Bellingham, Washington on Friday, October 21. You can find out when it’s playing in a city near you at the Official Site.