When Dave LaMattina was interning in Sesame Street's home video department in 2005, he didn't think he would end up making a film about Caroll Spinney, the legendary puppeteer behind the iconic Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.
Spinney, an Air Force veteran who is now 78 years old, has been a puppeteer for one of Jim Henson's franchises for over four decades now. Chad Walker, who is co-directing and co-producing the film with LaMattina, said of the project, "As soon as I heard Carroll was still behind Big Bird and Oscar, I knew I wanted to know more about him.
"Before our first meeting with Carroll, we thought there would be all this red tape, and that it would be months and months before we had a meeting. Within a week, though, we had a meeting with Carroll. It was a great meeting. We pitched our vision for the film, and in that meeting, his wife said, 'We've pretty much documented everything Carroll's done.' As documentary filmmakers that's absolutely the best news you could possibly hear."
As the filmmakers spent more time with Spinney, they realized there was much more than meets the eye. LaMattina told Indiewire, "His life is a Forrest Gump journey. He's interacted with every major American personality of the last forty years. Before he was with Sesame Street, he even shot a political campaign ad with JFK. You start to look at these stories, and you realize he's been around for all of these fantastic moments."
The duo has a laundry list of things they were surprised to discover while shooting this film, but one fact stood out above all the others: "At one point," LaMattina recounted, "we were sitting with Carroll over lunch. And he told us that he was supposed to go on the Challenger spacecraft. NASA wanted to do it because national interest was lagging. They reached out to Sesame Street to have Big Bird go up in space. But the costume was way too big. The next plan was to have a 'Send Your Teddy Bear to Space' tie-in with 'Sesame Street.' It ended up getting scrapped because they thought it trivialized the mission too much. It would have been equally, but differently, tragic in the end."
The experience has been powerful for Walker too, who recently sat down to a movie in Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema and found that they were playing archival "Sesame Street" scenes before the movie. "Seeing Big Bird and Oscar in these situations — I wasn't paying attention to the scene, but the characters that I related to when I was younger brought me back," he said. "We've been so focused on the archival and behind-the-scenes footage, but being in front of clips from the show…you forget how memorable they are. There was a scene with Oscar and Ernie, where Oscar offers up an ugly rubber duckie because Ernie had lost his. I had never seen it. But it was so Oscar, so grouchy and so lovable too. Both Big Bird and Oscar have so much of Carroll in them."
And it's hard for Spinney to turn the characters off. During an investment meeting, Spinney brought along an Oscar puppet and in the middle of a presentation, the puppet yelled "BORING!" Moments like that, the filmmakers recounted, happily came with the territory.
The "I Am Big Bird" team is raising money on Kickstarter. Click here to find out more and donate. An exclusive clip and the film's trailer are below!