Interview with I AM BIG BIRD Filmmakers

Published: August 4, 2012

Today we have a special treat as we get to talk with the two main filmmakers behind the upcoming documentary about Caroll Spinney, I Am Big Bird, Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker. Dave and Chad were really eager to talk to Muppet fans about the project, so we all hope you enjoy this interview!


Interview with the Filmmakers of I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker
Conducted by Ryan Dosier

RYAN:   Today we’re thrilled to be talking with the talented and dedicated filmmakers currently working to bring the world the story of Caroll Spinney in a documentary called I Am Big Bird. Welcome to The Muppet Mindset, guys! Any opening remarks?

DAVE:   We just want to say that the Muppet fans have been amazing and we’re happy that we have chances like this to interact with you guys directly.
RYAN:   How did you first get involved with Caroll Spinney and begin work on a documentary about his career?
DAVE:   I actually started my career as an intern at Sesame Workshop. I was at a hockey game with a buddy and I was telling him about it at which point his fiancée said that she was family friends with the Spinneys. She elaborated a bit on some of the stories I already knew and I instantly thought it would be a really interesting film—here’s a guy that has impacted hundreds of thousands of people, but so few people know who he is. When an idea like that hits, I tell Chad right away.
CHAD:   Once Dave told me about Caroll, and how it was one person who has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969, I couldn’t believe it! It was so interesting. I mean, he’s 78 years old and still doing it. The Bird’s head weighs five pounds. Can you imagine holding that up take after take all day? Unbelievable.
RYAN:   Has the success of the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journeyinfluenced I Am Big Bird at all?
CHAD:   For me, it showed that there is an interest in puppeteer stories. It is very encouraging to see Being Elmo doing so well. These are very interesting stories and it is nice to see that there is an audience for them.
DAVE:   We get this question a lot. To be fair, we first found out about Being Elmo when we initially pitched Sesame Workshop on the idea for this film. They told us that Constance Marks, who’s become a great ally and resource for us in making this movie, had been working on the Elmo film for several years—and this was in 2009. But our films are so completely different. I use this analogy a lot, but to me, it’s like saying that just because Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter are both Yankees, you couldn’t have a film about each of them. It’s crazy.They’re both legends with unique stories—the same applies here. Caroll and Kevin are legends who work together, but their stories are so different.
RYAN:   What are some of your favorite stories from working on the film so far?
CHAD:   For me, there are two.When we were in the pitch meeting with Caroll. We were pitching the idea of a documentary to him. After a while, Caroll leans down and takes Oscar out of a bag from under the table. Caroll is talking to Dave but Oscar is staring me down. Oscar is totally alive. Blinking. Moving his head. It was surreal. Then, out of nowhere, Oscar yells out “Boring!” It was so funny! So crazy. The second amazing moment was when we all went up to the Spinney’s for a family outing. My son was there. Caroll gave him a personal puppet show. He was pulling out all these amazing puppets and talking in all these different voices. It was wild. I’m not sure who enjoyed it more, me or my son!
DAVE:   Those are hard to top. But it’s just been so great getting to know Caroll and his wife Deb. They’re wonderful people. I really treasure the time we have when we’re not shooting and we’re all just sitting around their great big kitchen table, chatting about life.
RYAN:   You’ve seen and acquired an incredible amount of rare footage and photos of and from Caroll. (A lot of which you’ve already shared with Muppet fans.) Are there any favorite clips you can tell us about that we have or haven’t seen yet?
DAVE:   We haven’t really released any of the Big Bird in China footage, which is some of my favorite stuff. That show holds a special place in my heart because I remember watching it with my family (and taping it off of TV for future viewings). It’s amazing to see that stuff. And the behind-the-scenes footage they shot of A Muppet Family Christmas belongs in a museum. It’s amazing.
CHAD:   Some of my favorite stuff is with Caroll and his wife Deb. Their relationship is so pure and great–I just love seeing them together and having such a fun time. I also just love going through all this footage and really growing with them. Seeing them when they were younger–in their 20s and 30s all the way up to seeing them now. It is such a rare experience to get to know and grow with someone who has affected so many people but that so many people don’t know.
RYAN:   What are some of the life lessons that you’ve learned from documenting Caroll’s life and career?
CHAD:   For me, there are so many. But the biggest one is be true to yourself. That is how he’s always lived his life and will continue to live it.
DAVE:   I shouldn’t let Chad answer first because he totally stole my answer! So, I guess I have to pick something different. I’d say be compassionate. Caroll and Deb—and I always mention them together because you can’t separate them—but Caroll and Deb truly are some of the most compassionate people I’ve ever met.
RYAN:   Besides Caroll, who have been your favorite people to talk to for the film?
CHAD:   Talking to Jerry Nelson was a trip, I mean, Count Von Count. We were also on the street when Jerry was there. Seeing him and Caroll work together was so great.
DAVE:   Jerry Nelson is amazing. It was really cool to catch up with Frank Avruch, who was Bozo when Caroll worked on the show. To be fair, we still have a ton of shooting to do!
RYAN:   I know it’s still far from release, but what are some of the messages that you hope people get from watching Caroll’s story on the screen?
CHAD:   For me, I really hope people get to know the man, get to know Caroll, and truly appreciate how amazing he is. Making this movie is really like sitting down with your grandparents and looking through an old photo book. You sit down thinking you know them, but after going through all this incredible archival stuff–seeing them young, all the places they’ve been, all the great things they’ve done–you truly get to know and appreciate them. I think this will really be true for this film. Even if you think you know Caroll Spinney (whether you read his book, etc.) I think you’ll really get to know and appreciate Caroll.
DAVE:   My answer sort of goes back to what Chad said about being true to yourself. People give up their dreams so easily, but here’s Caroll, who not only never gave up his dream, but also never sacrificed who he is to get there. It’s an inspirational story.
RYAN:   What can Muppet fans expect to see in I Am Big Bird that they’ve never seen before?
CHAD:   There’s so much!Literally, Caroll and Deb have filmed everything! Behind the scenes of A Muppet Family Christmas, Follow that Bird. Footage with Jim Henson that the public hasn’t seen. Really, there is just so much.
DAVE:   Caroll has spent his life in a visual medium, so even if you know the stories he’s told, seeing them illustrated by his photos and videos brings a richness to them that I think fans will be completely into.Also, we can’t give away spoilers, but there are some amazing moments from his life that will help create the full portrait of who he is.
RYAN:   You’ve started a Kickstarter campaignfor I Am Big Bird and you need $100,000 to reach your goal. Can you tell us why Muppet fans (or anyone) should donate to the cause? (As if they don’t already know.)
DAVE:   I think the why is two-tiered: one, we know you guys want to see this movie get made the way it should be made. Supporting it on Kickstarter, where if we don’t reach our goal of $100,000 we get nothing (and people aren’t charged), means that we don’t have to rely on financiers/investors, etc. who may not share our vision. First and foremost, we’re fans. So, I guess the first part is that this is a movie for fans, by fans. Two, the rewards we’re offering are AWESOME! We realize that most people aren’t going to pledge $10,000 to have dinner with Caroll, but there are so many unique items that Muppet fans would die to get their hands on!
RYAN:   Tough question for you… Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch?
CHAD:   For me, I personally love Big Bird more than Oscar. Don’t get me wrong, this is very close, but I just love how innocent and pure Big Bird is. I love Oscar’s sense of humor and his heart of gold. But there is something special about Big Bird.
DAVE:   Well I guess I’ll take the other side and say Oscar—BUT, there’s a reason for this. Caroll takes Oscar with him everywhere he goes (Big Bird is just too hard to travel with!). So we’ve been able to hang out with Oscar, which is a really unique experience. We’ve only seen Big Bird on set, so there’s still this star mystique surrounding him.Oscar feels like one of the guys.
RYAN:   Is there anything else you would like to say to Muppet fans?
CHAD:   I’d just add that we are fans, and would encourage other fans to get in touch with us. We truly are making this movie for the fans and would love to know they want to see in the film. We can be contacted through our website:
DAVE:   We’ve relished interacting with fans so this is not an empty offer! Get in touch! Tell us what you want to see! We want to make you guys proud. This film is not one we want to mess up. We feel great responsibility to make this the movie that Caroll (and really Sesame Street and the whole Muppet universe) deserve.
RYAN:   Thank you guys so much, not only for the interview, but for working so tirelessly to showcase Caroll Spinney to a wider audience. I know I speak for Muppet fans as a whole when I say that I can’t wait to see what comes of this! Good luck and thanks again!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier,

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