Interview With Chad Walker and Dave LaMattina: “I Am Big Bird”
We all remember watching Sesame Street as kids. But so few of us know who the actors are behind the costumes. Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker began a documentary about Caroll Spinney, the actor behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969. They brought their film to Kickstarter in the hopes of raising $100,000 to aid in production costs and licensing fees. With 23 days left in their campaign, they have already secured over $33,000 in pledges from interested backers. Dave and Chad were kind enough to answer a few questions for us regarding the documentary and its influences.
Q: Where did the inspiration for this documentary come from? What was it about this project that called to you?
Dave LaMattina: I had actually interned at Sesame Workshop when I was getting started in the entertainment industry because I just loved Muppets and I always had an eye towards one day maybe writing for them. But the project actually came about when I was at a New York Rangers hockey game with a good friend and his fiancée who is a family friend of the Spinneys. She started telling us about Caroll and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When that happens, I usually tell Chad.
Chad Walker: I instantly thought we should do a doc about Caroll. We bought his book, The Wisdom of Big Bird, and we knew we had to make the movie. It was fascinating to us because not only had his characters influenced so many people, but he’s done it for so many years.
Dave LaMattina: The more we got to know Caroll, the more we saw that he really is both of his characters–he’s their soul.
2. Who do you expect your audience will be? Who are you trying to reach out to with this documentary?
Chad Walker: Everyone! It’s really hard to find someone that hasn’t been impacted by his work. We had the chance to sit down with the band Ok Go (huge Muppet fans) and ask them about how Caroll helped shape their lives. Damian Kulash, the lead singer, nailed it. He said that, as a kid, Big Bird was a force of nature. He said that he just existed–like wind and fire–and that’s entirely true. We don’t know life without Big Bird.
Dave LaMattina: It really is amazing to go back and watch old episodes. Even when you just watch the clips on YouTube, there’s this amazing thing that happens where you flash back to your childhood. There are times when a clip makes me remember exactly where I was sitting in my living room watching the show with my little sister and mom. It’s more than nostalgia–it’s almost comforting. So, when you watch that, you then realize that this one person who so many people have never heard of had that impact on your life, it’s just stunning. You really do want to learn about him, so I think the audience for this film is potentially huge, which is why we chose to turn to Kickstarter to get it made.
3. What is the draw for your audience? What makes your documentary unique?
Chad Walker: Our archival footage. Caroll and his wife Deb have filmed or photographed everything he’s ever done. His old 8mm films date back to the 50s and they’ve completely opened their vault to us. As filmmakers, they’ve given us a great gift.
Dave LaMattina: It’s so compelling because it’s so real. The footage shows how sweet and compassionate he is. When watching it, it’s clear that he’s just infused himself into Big Bird and Oscar and really made them who they are.
4. Did you draw influences for this documentary from other films? Which ones? Are there any specific directors you draw inspiration from?
Dave LaMattina: Jim Henson and Frank Oz are massive influences. When you’re dealing with a film about the Muppets, even a documentary, there’s this giant weight to not mess it up; you want to live up to the tone of those films and shows. They were always so sweet, but never saccharine. They never talked down to kids, but presented important life lessons in simple, gettable and enjoyable ways. I think Caroll’s lived his life in a way that embodies those lessons. We’re children of the 80s, and, at least for me, creatively speaking, I just want to try to come as close as possible to capturing that same tone.
Chad Walker: For me – being also the editor – I would say other films that have used a lot of archival footage to tell their story are a huge influence on me – since our film will mostly be comprised of this. Documentaries like The Kid Stays In The Picture and Senna are huge influences. Bill Cunningham New York is another big influence.
5. What specific locations or people are featured in your documentary? What is their significance to the project?
Dave LaMattina: Obviously, we’ve shot with Caroll on Sesame Street, which is a ton of fun. But in terms of locations, we’re shooting mostly at Caroll’s home and retracing some of his steps. Though we’ve shot a lot, so much of the film will be made up of his archival material, because it’s just so amazing.
Chad Walker: We’ve already had the pleasure of interviewing legendary puppeteer Jerry Nelson, who still plays Count Von Count and is a contemporary of Caroll’s, having joined Sesame Street in the second season. We’re also going to catch up with some of the other puppeteer greats as well as the new generation, who are doing incredible work. We’ve had the chance to interview a few celebrities about Caroll’s impact, which is fun because you see these big name people really become kids when they talk about Big Bird.
If you are interested in making a donation to this film, you can visit its official Kickstarter here: http://kck.st/NGQAQl