It’s official—Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is Critic’s Pick from the New York Times! The New York Post calls it “inspiring and joyous.” Do you have your tickets yet? Being Elmo opens in Los Angeles on November 4th. Directed and produced by Constance Marks, Being Elmo tells the story of Kevin Clash, the man who makes Elmo come to life.
I spoke with Constance just before the film opened in New York and learned more about her background and some of the surprises that came about while making a film about a fuzzy red puppet.
Deborah: How did you get into film making, specifically making documentary films?
Constance: I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, when I just got out of college to make a film and I was also applying to social work school at the same time because I didn’t really know which way I wanted to go. And I also got into social work school, so I had to choose. The thing that I found in common between the two is that I’m just really curious about people and I love observing people… It’s very gratifying.
Deborah: That first film was called Return to Appalachia. Another film I saw on your resume is Green Chimneys, which also won a bunch of awards. But a common theme in all of your work is social issues. Is this accurate?
Constance: Yes. I’ve done a number of works for hire. It’s actually — the organization is Samaritan Village, a substance abuse recovery program. [For one project] they created a special facility just for veterans because they had special needs. It was difficult, in some ways, to integrate them back into society. I think they felt that it would be a very successful venture that to have them in their own house because they could really appreciate each other’s struggles and it’s the most phenomenal program. That’s why it’s one of my favorite projects that I’ve worked on. And we get hired to do these films as fundraising tools for nonprofits and schools and hospitals and things like that.
Deborah: Telling these kinds of stories is so important. But Being Elmo is different. In the film, Kevin says that he knew Elmo [as a character] was going to be about love. Did you worry about the film being sappy or sentimental at all?
Constance: I think the full team, the editing team, we all have a real sort of allergy to anything that’s marked as sentimental. I think we were understanding [the story] from Kevin’s point of view. And even though Kevin says that, I think that was a real revelation for him. Kevin’s talking about a lesson he learned from Frank Oz where he said, “Each character should have a hook”. Do you remember [in the film] he said Miss Piggy is like a truck driver trapped in a woman’s body (laughter). And I think this is genuine and Kevin’s not a sentimental guy. When you know him, he’s extremely warm and non-threatening and charming, but he’s not hugging and kissing the way Elmo is. That’s not Kevin. So I think this was something he really figured out that he wanted the character to possess.
Deborah: You said that you made the decision to tell the story from Kevin’s point of view. Could you talk more about that?
Constance: Something funny happened. We had a cut. It really wasn’t working. We showed it to [Kevin], he was going to come in and discuss it with us. Phil [Shane, the editor] and I… decided that the way to tell the story… was to tell a very intimate story of Kevin’s life from his point of view. And we were prepared when he came for breakfast that morning to explain to him that this is what we really needed to do. And he’s very private, so we really didn’t know how that was going to go over with him.
He walks in that morning and says, “Where’s the pancakes?” and that sort of thing. Then he said, “Look, before you start, I just want to say one thing. The thing this film is missing is my point of view”. Phil and I looked at each other… and we were so relieved that we all came to that conclusion at the same time.
Deborah: Did any surprises come out in the film after that?
Constance: I always knew, from the very first lunch I had with him, I knew that his relationship with his daughter would be an issue. That was something that was not all perfect. He was on the road so much and he was entertaining other people’s children—that was something that if we could get it, would provide some kind of illustration of a challenge that he had in his life and I think it worked out really well.
Deborah: Any other surprises?
Constance: There is an emotional response from men at festivals and to the trailer that has been unexpectedly huge and we all talked about it. The Twitters are like—who’s cutting the onions, please stop—they’re unbelievable. The team talks about it quite a bit trying to understand the key to that and it’s just really interesting, lovely and unexpected.
You can catch more of my interview with Constance with some behind the scenes info on the Huffington Post.
Click here for the Being Elmo website, to find a theater near you and order tickets.