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January 4, 2011 4:49 AM
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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey" Director Constance Marks

A scene from Constance Marks' 2011 Sundance Film Festival U.S. Documentary Competition film "BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey." Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Each and every day, millions of kids tune in to "Sesame Street" to see one of the world’s most adored and recognizable children’s characters, a furry red monster named Elmo. Yet, with all of Elmo’s fame, the man behind the Muppet is able to walk down the street without being recognized.

Meet Kevin Clash. As an average teenager growing up in Baltimore in the 1970s, Kevin had very different aspirations from his classmates - he wanted to be a puppeteer. More specifically, he wanted to be part of Jim Henson’s team of Muppeteers, the creative force responsible for delivering the magic of "Sesame Street" on a daily basis. With a supportive family behind him every step of the way, Kevin made those dreams come true. Combining amazing archival footage with material from the present day, filmmaker Constance Marks explores his story in vivid detail, chronicling the meteoric rise of Jim Henson’s Muppets in the process. [Description courtesy of Sundance Institute]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

"BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey"
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Constance Marks
Producer: Constance Marks, James Miller and Corinne LaPook
Composer: Joel Goodman
Cinematographer: James Miller
Editor: Philip Shane and Justin Weinstein
Assistant Editor: Roger Matthews
Codirector: Philip Shane

Responses courtesy of "BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey" director Constance Marks.

Learning from the best...

When I was 13, I had a friend whose father was a filmmaker. They introduced me to the world of filmmaking. I always connected to images and music more easily than the written word, and my father bought me a tiny splicer, some super-8 film for the family camera, and a tiny reel-to-reel viewer. I worked and played with those tools for hours on end. I was lucky that from a very young age, I knew I wanted to find a way to work at this craft as a career.

The biggest break I got was when I was hired by the legendary filmmaking team David and Albert Maysles as a production assistant, then as an assistant editor. Working with them was where I learned what skillful filmmaking looked like. Being surrounded by the Maysles and their community was a gift. Being exposed to lots of films being cut in the many cutting rooms they rented was a huge eye-opener.

When the Steenbeck was our editing means, I was syncing dailies for the Maysles. I was very young and inexperienced, so when a call came from David Maysles asking to speak to the assistant editor, I was astonished. He wants to talk to me? Why? David explained that I was the first one to see the footage and because they were far away, he needed my feedback. He asked me which characters were most compelling; if the lighting was adequate; and if the story seemed interesting. Wow! Talk about learning from the best. This was an invaluable experience and opportunity that taught me the essentials of filmmaking.

How a "Sesame Street" crush lead to "BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey"...

Oddly, I never really decided to make "BEING ELMO: A Puppeteer's Journey." Nine years ago, my husband James Miller who is a DP, was shooting at "Sesame Street." Our daughter Sophia was about two years old and James brought a brag book to the set. When he returned that evening, he handed me a VHS tape and to my amazement, Kevin Clash had made a tape for Sophia in which Elmo and James were looking at the pictures and addressing Sophia through the camera. Who was this man – this Kevin Clash, I wondered, who took considerable time to make a tape for complete strangers? I'd seen the furry red one on Sesame Street and always found him plucky and very appealing. I'd noticed that the way the puppet was manipulated, this character was conveying a wide range of emotionss with tremendous subtlety. I was very intrigued.

Years later, James called me from the set. He said "I'm at 'Sesame' today and Kevin Clash is here." Impulsively, I blurted out, "You tell that man that your wife has a crush on him and wants to make a documentary about him." That night, James came home with Kevin's assistant’s phone number. That was it. No heavy deliberations or soul searching -- just an opportunity that I grabbed and thought: if he says 'yes,' I'll figure out a way to make it work.

We followed Kevin around the world, as he performed for homeless children in ravaged towns – destroyed by hurricanes or tornados; as he trained other puppeteers in France and Brazil; and right at home on the set "Sesame Street." We shot verite footage and conducted several sit down interviews.

Figuring out the puzzle...

Our biggest challenge was finding ways to use our verite footage to tell Kevin’s story. Many of the verite scenes we shot were interesting unto themselves, but when these scenes were strung together, they didn’t tell the story in a compelling way. Philip Shane, our editor, came on board and figured out the puzzle: that the film was not a verite film with a short segment about Kevin’s past. It is a film about Kevin’s life employing verite footage to move the story forward.

Philip and I worked on my first feature, "Green Chimneys" (Sundance, 1997) along with DP James Miller, composer Joel Goodman. New to our team are writer/editor Justin Weinstein and our brilliant producer Corinne LaPook.

Touring the world with Elmo...

We had FUN making this film. James and I traveled with Kevin to France, Brazil, Turks and Caicos, Kansas and New Orleans for starters. Kevin is loved around the world, and riding in his wake as we traveled was thrilling.

"BEING ELMO" director Constance Marks. Image courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Watching Kevin being approached by grateful adults was an unexpected surprise. On one trip to Kansas, we followed Kevin and several other puppeteers who performed for the children of Greensburg -- a town that was literally wiped off the map by a category five tornado. No homes left -- just a few chimneys, bare twigs stuck out of the ground that were once trees, it was a harrowing sight.

A lovely woman from nearby knew Kevin was going to be in the area and she made a special trip to meet him. She had written to Kevin years prior to let him know that when her baby daughter was dying, an Elmo doll was the baby's greatest comfort. This little girl, Emma, was buried with her Elmo doll. When Kevin got the letter, he had reached out to the family; when it comes to sick children Kevin is there. We filmed as Emma's mom met Kevin in person for the first time. They hugged for a long moment -- she was weeping and thanking him for all the consolation he had brought to her family. But that is not an isolated story -- we have several pictures of the gravestones of children with Elmo carved prominently on them. Sadly, none of these scenes made it into the film.

Kurosawa meets Elmo...

My favorite film, "IKIRU" (by Kurosawa), is always an inspiration. "BEING ELMO" and "IKIRU" really have nothing in common. However, what I learn from watching "IKIRU" year after year is how Kurosawa got inside his protagonist with minimal dialogue, magnificent imagery and great music. When I am struggling with any film project, I go to "IKIRU" for a Film 101 tutorial. It’s all there.

What's next for the "BEING ELMO" team...

Right now, we are just concentrating on this film and getting it out there. There are other projects that are brewing, but just can’t talk about them right now.

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