A Reddit thread hosted by the man behind “Sesame Street”’s Big Bird took a surprisingly heartbreaking turn when he revealed details of an interaction he once had with a dying boy.
Early Friday, Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on the iconic show for over 45 years, hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) to promote the documentary, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.”
One respondent asked him, “What has been your most meaningful interaction with a child during filming? Or maybe from someone who grew up watching you and relayed a poignant story?”
The response from Spinney was both beautiful and heartbreaking — have a read below:
“Okay, here’s one.
“This is a very sad story, but it’s real.
“I got a letter from a fan who said his little boy, who was 5 years old, his name was Joey, he was dying of cancer.
“And he was so ill, the little boy knew he was dying.
“So the man, in his letter, asked if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television.
“So once in a while, he wouldn’t see Big Bird on some days, because he wasn’t necessarily in every show. So he asked could I telephone him, and talk to the boy, tell him what a good boy he’s been.
“So I took a while to look up a phone, because this was before cell phones. And they got a long cord to bring a phone to the boy.
“And I had Big Bird say ’Hello! Hello Joey! It’s me, Big Bird!’
“So he said ‘Is it really you, Big Bird?’
“‘Yes, it is.’
“I chatted a while with him, about ten minutes, and he said ‘I’m glad you’re my friend Big Bird.’
“And I said, ‘I’d better let you go now.’
“He said, ‘Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You’re my friend. You make me happy.’
“And it turns out that his father and mother were sitting with him when the phone call came."
“And he was very, very ill that day. And they called the parents in, because they weren’t sure how long he’d last.
“And so his father wrote to me right away, and said ‘Thank you, thank you’ — he hadn’t seen him smile since October, and this was in March — and when the phone was hung up, he said, ‘Big Bird called me! He’s my friend.’
“And he closed his eyes. And he passed away.
“And I could see that what I say to children can be very important.
“And he said, ‘We haven’t seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled, as he passed away. It was a gift to us. Thank you.’”
Spinney’s story was quickly voted the most popular comment.
Perhaps it was Bob Hope who showed Caroll Spinney just how universal the appeal of Big Bird is. Spinney has performed as the Muppet character since the debut of “Sesame Street,” in 1969. He’s Oscar the Grouch, too.
Spinney, 81, is the subject of a new documentary, “I Am Big Bird,” which opens at the Brattle Theatre on Friday.
The original idea had been to have another Muppet, Kermit the Frog, appear on “Bob Hope’s World of Comedy,” a 1976 NBC television special. Kermit (Jim Henson) was unavailable. So Big Bird (Spinney) substituted.
Hope, unfamiliar with the character, was politely unenthused. That changed at the first rehearsal. Spinney, in costume, looked at Hope and ad-libbed in that unmistakable sweet-tempered voice, “Boy, I thought I had a big beak.” The comedian collapsed with laughter. “That’s one of the great satisfactions of my life,” Spinney says.
He’s sitting in the living room of his house, which he designed, in this small town near Sturbridge. The house is modeled on an Austrian chalet. The grounds include a pond, acres of woods, and seven other buildings. One of them is a toy shop, which Spinney and his wife, Debra, occasionally open up for local children. They’re toys they’ve gathered over the years in their travels, which have been extensive. Big Bird may not fly, but in that sense, he’s certainly migratory. Spinney has three children of his own, from his first marriage.
Next month the Spinneys celebrate their 42d anniversary. The couple divide their time between here and a studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. With luck, the drive to New York for “Sesame Street” tapings takes two hours and 40 minutes.
Spinney’s voice is pleasantly reedy, perched midway between Big Bird’s high-pitched sunniness and the low tones of Oscar’s growl. He has the snowy hair and kindly manner of an ideal uncle — yet with enough of a twinkle in his eye to show that this particular uncle retains a nephew’s high spirits. How high? One of the more memorable moments in “I Am Big Bird” is video footage of Spinney, in his 60s, bungee-jumping in New Zealand.
Chad N. Walker, who co-directed the documentary with Dave LaMattina, recently talked about Spinney in a telephone interview. “Very rarely do you meet somebody, and they’re exactly how you’d hope they’d be,” Walker says. “It was such a delight to work with Caroll because he was exactly the way you’d want Big Bird to be.”
“I can’t imagine walking away from being Big Bird,” said Caroll Spinney. “I still get in the suit, but not every day. Which is wonderful, because I want to do 50 years, and more than the 50 if I can.”
That the character is the way he is owes a lot to Spinney. Jim Henson’s original conception of Big Bird had been as a feathered version of Walt Disney’s Goofy or Edgar Bergen’s Mortimer Snerd: sweet and lovable but also a bit dim. Spinney saw things differently from inside the yellow costume. Rather than a “yokel,” he says, Big Bird “should be a kid. He’s learning, like the kids watching at home. He doesn’t know the alphabet yet, for instance.” And that’s who the bird became: someone for young viewers to relate to rather than just laugh at.
Born in Waltham, Spinney grew up there and in Acton. “When I was a child I didn’t know if I was going to be a puppeteer or a cartoonist,” he says. “But I knew it was going to be one or the other.”
It turned out to be both. When not performing, Spinney frequently sketches and paints. He proudly shows off albums filled with his renderings of Big Bird and Oscar. But it’s as a puppeteer and performer that he’s earned his living. After a stint in the Air Force, Spinney moved to Brookline and spent nine years working on the Bozo the Clown show, on Channel 5.
“I had an awful lot of fun doing the show,” Spinney recalls. He speaks fondly of Frank Avruch, who played Bozo, and notes with a laugh that during the first few years of “Sesame” “Bozo” paid better. In fact, Spinney went back to “Bozo” during the four-month break between the first and second seasons of “Sesame Street.”
That was 46 years ago. In the years since, Spinney has had a remarkable range of experiences.
“I’ve sung at Carnegie Hall. I danced with Cynthia Gregory, the ballerina. I’ve performed with Isaac Stern — he even let me touch his Stradivarius.”
Spinney (or Big Bird) has held hands with Henry Fonda, performed in front of every first lady since Pat Nixon, and conducted symphony orchestras. Kathleen Turner popped into his dressing room unannounced. A 17-year-old Michael Jackson expressed mystification at how Spinney dealt with Oscar’s living arrangements. “How do you fit into that little trash can? You’re so big, and it’s so small.”
Spinney now splits Big Bird duties with his understudy, Matt Vogel. “I was, of course, amused and delighted when I found his name is Vogel” — “bird,” in German. “I can’t imagine walking away from being Big Bird,” Spinney says, and cutting back helps ensure he can keep on. Although he looks years younger than his age, he is in his 80s, after all. “I still get in the suit,” Spinney says, “but not every day. Which is wonderful, because I want to do 50 years, and more than the 50 if I can.”
For as long as there’s been a Big Bird, Big Bird has been Spinney. But Caroll Spinney wasn’t always Caroll Spinney.
“My mother spelled it ‘Carol,’ ” Spinney explains. “That’s Latin for ‘Charles.’ It was so often mistaken for a woman’s name, I added another ‘r’ and another ‘l.’ After I met Deb, I decided to take out one ‘r,’ to make it unusual.” He shrugs and smiles. “It doesn’t really matter. I know who I am.”
I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY
When: May 6
Directors: Dave LaMattina, Chad N. Walker
Why We’re Excited: Since 1969, Carol Spinney has been warming the hearts of American families as Sesame Street’s beloved Big Bird. This documentary introduces audiences to the 78-year-old man in the bird suit, revealing interesting facts you probably didn’t know about one of television’s longest running shows. Made on a shoestring budget, partially consisting of fan donations, the film was a favorite at lasts year’s Los Angeles Film Festival.
Throughout his 46 years playing Big Bird on “Sesame Street,” Caroll Spinney has always stood apart from the show’s other puppeteers.
For one thing, the full-body costume means he can’t easily interact with cast members. For another, it means he can cry without anyone noticing.
He’s done it a few times, most notably while singing “Bein’ Green” at mentor Jim Henson’s funeral; another was during the darkest period of his life, when divorce and depression made him thankful the suit hid his tears.
Those tears — as well as plenty of smiles — are explored in the new documentary “I Am Big Bird,” opening Wednesday at the IFC Center. Fans will see how Spinney, now 81, evolved from being a kid bullied for playing with dolls to developing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch when “Sesame Street” debuted in 1969. It’s a bittersweet ode that’s also the love story of Spinney and his second wife Debra, who met on the show.
“Why we care so much about Big Bird, and Oscar, too, is we know inside those creatures beats the heart of a great human being,” “Sesame Street” creator Joan Ganz Cooney says in the film. You might have guessed that part already, but here are five things you don’t know about the man who is Big Bird.
He’s related to Barack Obama
Spinney and the president of the United States share a distant great-grandfather, Josiah Cook, making them ninth cousins, twice removed. The puppeteer got the news via a cousin who had a genealogist trace the family’s history.
“He gave me a whole family tree that proves it,” Spinney tells The Post. When Michelle Obama came to “Sesame Street” for an appearance, she said to Spinney: ‘Well, cousin, at last we meet.’
The days weren’t always so sunny
It’s hard to picture, knowing Big Bird to be the embodiment of optimism, but Spinney once considered suicide. In 1971, the puppeteer discovered that his then wife and mother to his 1-year-old son was cheating on him. They got divorced, setting off a spiral of depression.
“I’d put food in my mouth and I’d say, ‘Chew it, for God’s sake! Swallow it! You’re not eating,’ ” he says.
One day on set, a crew member complimented his Big Bird acting. She couldn’t see the tears streaming down his face inside the suit.
At home, he opened the window of his apartment, looked down the nine stories and said to himself, “I could just jump out and be over with it.”
Luckily, he closed the window, called a friend and went to the movies, and never thought about suicide again. A year and a half later, he met Debra, and they’ve been in love ever since.
“No matter how black a day, if you can just hold on, the sun will eventually come out for you,” he says in the film.
He’s not the only Big Bird
Spinney is inextricably tied to Big Bird’s identity — but he’s not the only one who gets to wear the yellow suit. His apprentice, 44-year-old Matt Vogel, has been waiting in the wings 17 years for Spinney to retire. In the meantime, Vogel acts as a producer and puppeteer on the show, occasionally donning the costume.
“Most people retired years ago, but I don’t want to retire,” Spinney says. “I don’t see a point to it.”
He was almost on the doomed Challenger space shuttle
Big Bird — with Spinney in the suit — was originally slated to be a part of the Challenger space-shuttle mission in 1986, in the hopes of renewing kids’ interest in America’s space program. But the suit wouldn’t fit on the shuttle, so NASA scrapped the plan. The shuttle exploded soon after takeoff, killing its seven crew members — including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who was selected in Spinney’s place.
He was once making so little money that he almost quit
Playing a giant bird didn’t automatically lead to a giant nest egg. In the early days of “Sesame Street,” the show was a hit, but Spinney’s $375-a-week paycheck left him unable to afford rent for his Upper West Side apartment. The apartment was hardly worth the rent: It was above a noisy bus stop and his neighbor swung a pet beagle by the ears until the dog screamed.
Spinney left the apartment and slept on friends’ couches; meanwhile, he was making more money doing puppet work in Boston, even as Big Bird landed on the cover of Time magazine. Legendary puppeteer Kermit Love, who helped create the Big Bird costume, talked him into staying.
“‘You’ll never find an opportunity like this again,’” Spinney recalls him saying. “It was exactly what I had gone looking for.”
If there were ever a man lucky enough to have found his true calling in life, it's the subject of Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker's affecting documentary. Profiling the unseen puppeteer who for some 45 years has inhabited the feathered, eight-foot creature that long personified Sesame Street, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story shines a much-deserved spotlight on this unheralded artist.
The now octogenarian Spinney reveals himself to be much like the character he portrays: a sunny optimist with a childlike nature, who clearly takes great delight in performing. Of course, that's probably not all of what he is, as demonstrated by the fact that he also plays the diametrically opposite Oscar the Grouch.
The film relates the story of his life and career with a plethora of enlightening and entertaining anecdotes. Although his mother lovingly supported his fascination with puppets as a child, his emotionally volatile father was far less encouraging. Bullied at school because of his obsession, as well as his name, Spinney joined the Air Force at nineteen and spent four years in the military.
After an initial stint working for Bozo the Clown, he attracted the attention ofJim Henson after delivering a mishap-plagued performance at a puppet festival. The Muppets creator offered him a job anyway, telling him, "I liked what you were trying to do."
His early years working with Henson weren't immediately successful. He had trouble fitting in professionally, and his marriage to a woman embarrassed by his career ended in divorce. He was on the verge of quitting when he literally and figuratively found his way into the character that he continues to portray to this day.
Happily, things got much better from there. He met Debra, who would become his second wife and the love of his life, and his character became an international sensation. He traveled to China to appear on a television special with Bob Hope — a decades-later reunion with a young girl who appeared on the show constitutes one of the film's more contrived elments — and even starred in his own feature film, 1985's Follow That Bird.
He was approached by NASA in 1986 to fly aboard the space shuttle Challenger to promote interest among young children is space exploration. After some initial hesitation, he agreed, only to be later informed that his Big Bird costume wouldn't fit onboard. It was a rejection that ultimately saved his life.
He formed a deep friendship with Henson that lasted until his mentor's untimely death at the age of 53. The footage of him as Big Bird delivering a sorrowful rendition of "Bein' Green" at Henson's memorial is one of the film's most powerfully emotional moments.
There's also fascinating, behind-the-scenes footage that details the arduous physical demands of playing the character, which involves painfully holding his arm upright — it controls the puppet's head — for long stretches at a time. Interviews with such key figures as Frank Oz and the late Jane Hensonprovide further informational context.
Other interesting segments involve his hand-picked successor, Matt Vogel, who has been patiently waiting for nearly two decades for Spinney to retire; the character's diminishing popularity in favor of Elmo when Sesame Street began skewing younger; and the amusing brouhaha that ensued after Mitt Romneydeclared "I love Big Bird," even while vowing to end funding for public television.
The film does get a bit sentimental and treacly at times, but it's a forgivable offense considering the subject matter. Even for adults who've long since moved on to other things, it's somehow comforting to know that the man inside the bird suit is just as lovable as the character he portrays.
The film I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, which focuses on the life of puppeteer Spinney, avoids a few common pitfalls in the biographical documentary. It doesn't occupy its entire running time with people saying how amazing Spinney is or with testimonials to the importance of his work. It doesn't return to the same analyses of the effects of Sesame Street on children that have been offered a million times before. It doesn't explain over and over how puppeteers merge with their characters.
Instead, in a breezy 90 minutes, I Am Big Bird does a little bit of a bunch of different things. It does explain how Spinney, a puppeteer since childhood, wound up operating an 8-foot bird (and Oscar the Grouch) on the original team assembled by Jim Henson for Sesame Street. It touches on the failure of his first marriage and, in a particularly charming sequence, the path to his second.
But in any job documentary — any that follows someone who does unusual work — much of the heavy lifting is done by what you have to say about the job itself. It's fun, therefore, to get a nicely animated illustration of exactly what it's like to operate Big Bird: where Spinney's hands are, how the puppet is assembled, and how much weight he has to constantly support on one arm extended upward into Big Bird's head.
Spinney is 81, and while one of the fascinations of directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker is the fact that he will obviously continue to perform for as long as he possibly can, another is what will happen to Big Bird in particular when Spinney is gone. There could, in a few years' time, probably be another entire film about Matt Vogel, the puppeteer — whose chyron reads in part "Big Bird Apprentice" — being trained to take over the character one day. That's particularly delicate because Spinney and Big Bird are very closely connected. He calls it more of a parent and child relationship than a man's bond with a character. When he tells the story of a time when some idiots decided to vandalize the puppet, you can tell it was a lot more than an inconvenience to put the feathers back where they belonged.
On merit alone, I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story is a profoundly moving documentary. But if you grew up with “Sesame Street” in the 70s and 80s, you may find yourself experiencing an extra, particularly overwhelming set of emotions. Through an endless amount of television, feature film, and home movie footage, the film evokes the feeling of time passing rapidly, slipping through our fingers as we watch its human subjects age. As they get older, so do we, courtesy of our memories pulling us through the period from when we first engaged with “Sesame Street” through the present day. And yet, like Big Bird, that feeling of love and nostalgia we have for the show will always be frozen in childhood, never aging a day no matter how long we’ve been on this Earth.
Caroll Spinney has been the man inside Big Bird since the debut of “Sesame Street” in 1969. A puppeteer who once had a role on “Bozo the Clown,” Spinney landed the part of the country bumpkin, 8-foot tall yellow bird after Jim Henson came to see his one-man puppet show. The show went horribly, but Henson liked Spinney’s creativity under pressure. “Sesame Street” was in its infancy at PBS, and Spinney was assigned Big Bird and his polar opposite, a grumpy orange Muppet named Oscar the Grouch. Soon after, Big Bird’s countrified personality became that of a 6-year old child, and though Oscar’s personality remained the same, he dyed himself a grungy shade of green.
The perpetual optimist, Big Bird has been used to convey deeply emotional topics to children over the years, from the death of beloved “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper in 1983 to a more recent series of shows on bullying. “He’s complicated,” Sonia Manzano (aka Maria) says, “in ways the other Muppets are not.” I Am Big Birdshows how Spinney’s rough childhood contributed to the well of youthful hurt and confusion he can immediately tap and vocally convey through the limited mobility of Big Bird’s face. “When Caroll speaks of something that hurt him,” his wife Debra says, “even if it were 50 years ago, it’s as if it were happening to him right now.”
Conversely, Oscar the Grouch is the antidote after a day of being sweet, innocent Big Bird. “Oscar is the other side of Caroll,” someone says as we see footage of Spinney uttering a bad word brought to you by the letter F. Jon Stone, the first writer and director of “Sesame Street,” states that Oscar was “the most negative character to appear on a children’s show. He’s what kids are told not to be.” His forbidden nature explains why he was my favorite “Sesame Street” character, and why he certainly wouldn’t have made the cut had the show premiered today. While Big Bird’s voice is a higher variation of Spinney’s own, he tells us that he got Oscar’s growl from the NYC cab driver who drove him to the studio on the day he auditioned.
I Am Big Bird offers a plethora of details about Big Bird, from how he is operated by Spinney (it’s more low-tech than you think) to the number of feathers on his person. We meet Matt Vogel, Spinney’s understudy and eventual replacement, whose last name means “bird” in German. There’s also a hilarious anecdote, told by Loretta Long and Bob McGrath (Susan and Bob on the show), regarding the perils of Big Bird using a wireless mic to project his voice at a live event. It begins with some X-rated trucker talk emanating from Big Bird and ends with what the 14,000 kids in the audience perceived as Bob murdering Big Bird. This anecdote is worth the price of admission alone, and you’ll never be able to listen to that 70s classic “Convoy” the same way again.
While I Am Big Bird has its share of light-hearted moments, much of it serves as an unflinchingly honest portrait of a performer whose work has touched millions of children. It navigates the highs and lows of Spinney’s life, stopping to show how those elements shaped his art. Colleagues like director (and former Cookie Monster) Frank Oz talk about how Spinney didn’t fit in with the other puppeteers at first, partially due to the isolation involved in playing Big Bird and Oscar. Spinney says that his mentor and friend, the late Henson, chose Spinney’s characters wisely. They fit the personality of the ostracized kid Spinney was, the kid who was perfectly fine doing things solo.
I Am Big Bird is also a love story between Spinney and his second wife, Debra. Debra lists all the celebrities she and Spinney have met (including a young Michael Jackson shown interacting with Oscar), holding out hope that she may one day meet Paul McCartney. The story goes that McCartney and his late wife, Linda, were so in love that they had only been separated one day in their entire marriage; the Spinneys are like that as well. “We always shoot footage of everything we did,” Debra says, “so we can revisit the memories.” Much of that footage plays under narration by Spinney and others, creating the film’s drifting-through-time effect.
Mitt Romney makes an appearance late in the film to prove that, even in the age of that red tyrant, Elmo, Big Bird still has relevance. “I like Big Bird,” Romney famously said, “but I’m getting rid of funding for PBS.” “I knew he’d be sorry for that,” says Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street’s production company, the Children’s Television Workshop. The social media firestorm, not to mention the endless supply of late-night jokes about firing Big Bird, may have contributed to Romney’s defeat. Big Bird appeared on “Saturday Night Live” to comment on Romney, drawing rapturous applause on a show that once showcased Henson’s darker material.
My only complaint about I Am Big Bird is how little time it devotes to Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. In exchange, there’s a subplot about the 30th anniversary of “Big Bird In China,” the TV show that sent Big Bird and Barkley the Dog to China. This material contains a huge, tearjerking moment between the Spinneys and Lianzi Ouyang, the little girl who helps Big Bird on his Chinese quest. Their reunion ends the film on a beautiful note that will move even those who have never heard of “Sesame Street.”
With I Am Big Bird, directors Dave LaMattina and Chad N. Walker have created a great, lasting testament to a character so iconic he has a balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade–and the 81-year old man who continues to play him. Bring Kleenex. You’ll need it.
INDIEWIRE: THE MAN INSIDE BIG BIRD - CAROLL SPINNEY AND FILMMAKERS LOOK BACK ON 45 YEARS OF 'SESAME STREET' /
Caroll Spinney has been playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on "Sesame Street" for 45 years when, after making a humble start as a traveling puppeteer, he was invited by Jim Henson to come to New York to work on "Sesame Street." The rest is history. After decades of stretching and extending his arm to work the giant bird's head (damaging tendons and nerves in the process), Spinney, now 80 years old, has no plan to give up playing Big Bird -- a character who he says is a part of his soul. Years ago, Spinneyhandpicked his ownsuccessor, an understudy who has since waited, quite literally, in the wingsfor almost 20 years.
When his first marriage to a woman embarrassedby hiscareer ended in divorce, Spinney foundDebra, the love of his life, who meticulously documented practically every moment of their marriage and life together. These home videos helped documentary filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker piece together a charming film that examines Spinney's story from childhood to small-time puppeteer to portraying one of the most beloved characters in television history.
Years ago,Big Bird's popularity began to wane when stiff competition from other children's programming forced "Sesame Street" to shift its focus to a younger audience. Elmo was introduced, and the writers began to explore different characters. Despite that shift, Big Bird and Oscar remained staples on the show, and it can be said that Big Bird even helped shape the results of the 2012 presidential election. Indiewire spoke with filmmakers Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker as well as Big Bird himself, Caroll Spinney.
What made you guys want to shoot the story of Big Bird and Caroll?
Dave LaMattina: In 2005, I interned at Sesame Workshop. I was in the home video department and I had no idea who Caroll Spinney was. I was telling a friend about the internship and she said "Oh, I'm related to Caroll Spinney," and I said, "Oh that's great! But who is Caroll Spinney?" and she started telling me how Caroll has been Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since 1969 and he's still doing it and is a really interesting guy. So Chad, myself and our partner Clay [Frost] who is the executive producer, started talking about this as an idea for a documentary and in 2009 we approached Sesame Workshop. They were so supportive from the very beginning and we met Caroll and thankfully he said yes!
Caroll Spinney: I couldn't resist!
You guys used Kickstarter for a portion of this?
DL: We did use Kickstarter. We had talked about Kickstarter almost as early as when we had pitched Caroll. When we approached Caroll with the idea and explained what Kickstarter was and said that the only way we're going to be successful here is if you're supportive of this and participate in the rewards, he was totally on board. So we were able to tap into this amazing audience of people who, like ourselves, grew up on "Sesame Street" and who wanted to see this movie get made. The fact that Caroll participated in the rewards and was involved gave us some unique stuff.
Chad Walker: We were able to hit our goal, which was $100,000, and we actually even surpassed it and made $124,000.
We're really big fans of Kickstarter here at Indiewire.
CS: Yeah, it's a wonderful idea.
The film has a ton of your home videos, Caroll. It must have been a godsend for you guys as documentary filmmakers, that Caroll and Deb had such an extensive library of home videos. Caroll, did it take you a lot of digging to find them? And Dave and Chad, how did you guys go about digging through and finding what you wanted and needed?
CS: Well Deb, my wife, is a really fabulous archivist. She keeps all kinds of things like that. Had it been strictly up to me, I don't think they would have half the movie! She searched and came up with tons of things and they drove away with about three carloads of films.
CW: When we had the meeting with Caroll and Deb, the first meeting where we pitched them on the idea, Deb said, you know I'm not a professional or anything but I've pretty much videotaped everything we've ever done, and at that moment we knew this was going to be an amazing opportunity. Like Caroll said, there were just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of stuff to go through. In the first box was [footage from] behind the scenes of "Muppet Family Christmas" and "Follow That Bird" and we're losing our minds. Then you had six hours of driving through New Zealand just with the camera sticking out the window that you would go through. But even on those tapes you find little gems, like Caroll running and falling down the hill and Deb laughing at him and stuff like that. It was really remarkable.
There are also a few animated sequences in the film. What inspired those?
CW: That kind of came out of necessity. Caroll would have these amazing stories but there just wasn't any footage of it. So we started thinking about what an interesting way would be to tell the story without anything to cover it and we thought, what's really big in terms of "Sesame Street"? And it was all those little animations and all those little cartoons. That's really where that came from. The whole beginning was this cartoon called "The Noble Ostrich," you can find it on YouTube. that was really the inspiration for the style of the animation, and then also it always seemed like there were numbers and letters flying out of people's mouths to help you learn so that's where the idea for text came from.
They're definitely a nice addition.
CS: It really looks good because it looks like a part of "Sesame Street."
For 45 years, Caroll Spinney has performed in the looming shadow of one of Sesame Street's most famous residents, the 8-foot-3 Big Bird.
Spinney, who also brings Oscar the Grouch to life on the iconic children's program, steps out of the yellow avian suit for the documentary I Am Big Bird(opening Tuesday via video on demand, Wednesday in New York and May 15 in select cities). In telling his story, Spinney, 81, reveals some amazing facts about the flightless bird named a living legend by the Library of Congress in 2000.
He gets a hand in the height department: Much of Big Bird's immense height comes because the costume head is held in place by Spinney's lifted right hand, which also controls the eye and eyebrow expressions. Keeping the four-and-a-half-pound head upright is tiring.
"It doesn't sound like a lot until you try to hold it up over your head and perform with it for 10 minutes or more," says Spinney.
Spinney's own head is in the bird's neck, seeing the outside world on an internal monitor. He reads scripted lines with a small light, because natural light cannot make it through the costume of 6,000 yellow feathers.
Big Bird started off goofy: When stepped into the new character's suit in 1969, the bird was a "goofy" simpleton, Spinney says. Over episodes, the bird transformed into an innocent child personality, a change he believes was crucial in the character's longevity.
"If he was still goofy, I don't think he'd be on the show. I don't see that he'd have any purpose to be there," says Spinney. "When he became a child, he was a kid who was embodying the stories and feelings of Sesame Street."
Big Bird was supposed to be aboard the doomed Challenger: NASA officials envisioned bringing Big Bird onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger to drum up youth interest in the mission. But the concept was scrapped because the costume was too big to fit into the spacecraft.
Spinney watched the 1986 liftoff from the Sesame Street set. An explosion seconds into flight killed all seven crew members.
"When I saw that happen, I thought, 'I was supposed to be on that ship,' " says Spinney. "And the horror of knowing that these people died. It was terrible."
Mitt Romney gave Big Bird's popularity a huge boost: The Republican presidential candidate invoked Big Bird's name when decrying PBS funding during a 2012 debate with Barack Obama. The move backfired on Romney as support galvanized around PBS and the bird. It even led to a first-time appearance on Saturday Night Live.
"It was pretty nice," says Spinney. "I have to thank Mr. Romney."
There's no Elmo competition: A new generation of Sesame Street fans have gravitated toward falsetto-voiced Elmo. But there's no Muppet jealousy on the set.
"I am happy to share," says Spinney, who has no plans for retiring, especially with his beloved character getting more screen time. "Big Bird is even having something of a resurgence on the show."
He has lent body and soul to a certain 8-foot-tall 6-year-old for nearly half a century, all the while hidden from sight.
Now Caroll Spinney drops his fine-feathered obscurity (and emerges from his garbage-can fortress as Oscar the Grouch) for an enchanting film portrait, “I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story,” which celebrates this “Sesame Street” puppet master who, at age 81, continues to breathe life into a pair of the world’s best-loved personalities.
The documentary will be available starting Tuesday on iTunes and video-on-demand and arrives in theaters nationally May 15.
“Why now?” says Spinney with a smile. “Well, I’d rather see it come out while I’m alive.”
In a recent joint interview with Debra, his onetime colleague and his wife of nearly 40 years, Spinney, sporting shaggy silver locks, a trim beard and a self-effacing manner, calls the film “kind of flattering, ‘cause I was never cool. But Big Bird and Oscar are cool to people.”
The film, produced by producers Dave LaMattina, Chad Walker and Clay Frost, has been in the works for five years. No wonder. It draws on a wealth of material from Sesame Workshop, as well as the personal archive built over a lifetime by Spinney, an early adopter of 8mm movies and, in the 1970s, the earliest personal video.
“When you saw the carloads of photographs and movies leaving our house with the filmmakers,” says Debra Spinney, “you knew it would take them forever to look through all that stuff.”
They had a lot to wade through all right — a chronicle of a ground-breaking series, a one-of-a-kind artist who helped make it triumphant, and the storybook marriage that kept him inspired.
His childhood wasn’t so idyllic. Growing up in Waltham, Massachusetts, he was a shrimpy kid with big ears, a girl’s name and a love of what the other boys derided as dolls. He had seen a puppet show when he was 5 and was hooked by what seemed a perfect way to express himself.
“Somehow, I was shy enough to not care about being seen,” he explains. “And I figured if I could ever get on a TV show with a character that I
“And,” he sums up with a grin, “voila.”
In between, he spent years in local kids’ TV playing kooky characters and performing with a variety of puppets. Then he met Jim Henson at a puppetry festival. The Muppets virtuoso was helping put together an innovative children’s show for public television.
Bringing Spinney on board, he handed his new hire a couple of challenging new characters. One was Oscar the Grouch, a paragon of negativity, albeit lovably so, while the other, by chance, was Oscar’s polar opposite: a towering chick-child with a sunny-day disposition and a literally wide-eyed view of the world.
Big Bird was largely in synch with Spinney’s own upbeat sensibility, but that doesn’t mean playing him isn’t grueling. The film uncovers the claustrophobic contortions to which Spinney has subjected himself since “Sesame Street” premiered in 1969.
His right hand is raised aloft inside the creature’s 5-pound head to animate its buggy eyes and 18-inch-long beak. His left arm controls the Bird’s left wing. He furnishes its voice in real time while interacting with other characters he can see only on a tiny monitor strapped to his chest, with strips of his script taped around the screen for him to follow.
The first season, it was even trickier: He had no monitor. He was effectively flying blind.
“And at first, Jim wanted you to walk backwards,” Debra reminds her husband.
“That way,” Spinney laughs, “he thought the legs would bend properly (at the knees), like a real bird’s. I said, ‘Jim, I kind of reject that idea.’”
He leaves no doubt he has led a joyous life, but like every resident of Sesame Street, he has faced heartbreak.
There was the painful breakup with his first wife, who couldn’t abide his puppet passion.
There was the sight of shuttle Challenger exploding in 1986, killing everyone aboard, including Christa McAuliffe, a sight particularly upsetting for Spinney since the New Hampshire schoolteacher had been picked as the flight’s civilian passenger — bumping Spinney, NASA’s original choice.
And, of course, there was the sudden, unthinkable death of Henson in 1990 at age 53. The film shows Spinney, in character as Big Bird, at Henson’s memorial service singing “It Isn’t Easy Being Green,” the signature song of Kermit the Frog, the Muppet with which Henson is most identified. Big Bird concluded with a skyward glance and murmured, “Thank you, Kermit.”
“People asked, ‘How come you didn’t cry?’” says Spinney. “I cried plenty later.”
In the years that followed, life went on for “Sesame Street” and for Big Bird, even as a toddler Muppet named Elmo began to steal Bird’s limelight. (Is no one spared, even Big Bird, in a culture that is skewing ever younger?)
Nonetheless, Spinney today remains busy securing the Big Bird legacy while continuing to cope with inevitable headaches.
For instance, he reports that his vintage analog monitor has recently been replaced with an LED screen, which isn’t necessarily an improvement: It’s a little larger and doesn’t fit so well inside his costume.
“We had an awful time getting into the Bird yesterday,” he confides.
Not that Spinney is one to get his feathers ruffled by a job he still clearly adores. But despite the heights he’s achieved, the film reminds us: It’s not easy being Big Bird.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST: There's a moment in a new documentary where one of the creators of "Sesame Street" says everybody in the world knows who Big Bird is. Yes, but most people don't know who Big Bird really is. Since Big Bird's beginnings in 1969, the towering boyish bird with yellow confetti feathers has been voiced and animated by one man - Caroll Spinney. He also plays Oscar the Grouch. Big Bird is almost 50 years old. Caroll Spinney is 81, and he has no plans to step out of the suit anytime soon. The new documentary about Caroll Spinney's life, "I Am Big Bird," opens soon. He joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
CAROLL SPINNEY: Hi there, Mr. Simon.
SIMON: Could you have played Big Bird for 40 years if there hadn't been a lot of you under the feathers?
SPINNEY: I think - I think that's one reason why I'm able to continue. I see no reason to quit. I can't imagine walking away from being Big Bird. I mean, that's an awfully good job that there's not too many of them. So I just want to keep doing it till I can't do it anymore.
SIMON: Where did the voice come from?
SPINNEY: It's just my own voice, a little higher. When he first started - Jim Henson, who created Bid Bird and Oscar - he said Big Bird was just a big, goofy guy. And it was - a script came along and I said I think Big Bird would be much more useful to the show if he were a child learning all the things we were teaching in the show. And so he didn't know the alphabet, even, for instance.
SIMON: Are Big Bird and Oscar different sides of your personality - the optimistic, young, boy bird and the grouch?
SPINNEY: I think there's an awful lot of me in Big Bird, but Oscar is pretty much - I think I know how he thinks because he thinks exactly the opposite of what I think is a good way to be. So the dark side of maybe me once in a while, but mostly it's the opposite side of how I am.
SIMON: Jim Henson - genius.
SPINNEY: A true, true genius and a kind, warm man. Humble - he'd never run to be in the forefront. That's why I think he embraced puppetry.
SIMON: There's an arresting moment in the film at Jim Henson's funeral...
SIMON: ...Where Big Bird sings "It's Not Easy Being Green." And I remember at first thinking why is Big Bird singing Kermit's song? And then I realized - of course because Jim Henson's gone, yeah.
SPINNEY: Yes, Jim was Kermit. It was his Charlie McCarthy - his signature character. And his son approached me and said would you be willing as Big Bird to sing Dad's song "It's Not Easy Being Green?" I said I'm honored that you would ask.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM BIG BIRD")
SPINNEY: (As Big Bird, singing) It's not that easy being green, having to spend the day the color of the leaves.
The memorial service was open to the public back in - this was 1990. We were all crying. I didn't cry during the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM BIG BIRD")
SPINNEY: (As Big Bird, singing) But why wonder? Why wonder? I am green, and it'll do fine. It's beautiful, and I think it's what I want to be.
That was a very touching thing, and I didn't mess it up either (laughter).
SIMON: No, you did - you did beautifully.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "I AM BIG BIRD")
SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Thank you, Kermit.
SIMON: I feel this interview would be incomplete if I didn't ask if it would be possible to speak with both Big Bird and Oscar.
SPINNEY: Yes, they might be right here. Are you here?
(As Big Bird) Hi, guys.
(As Oscar the Grouch) Hi, get away from me.
Oscar, don't be rude.
SIMON: Hi there, Mr. Bird. How are you? Scott Simon here.
SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hi, there. I'm only 6. You don't have to call me mister (laughter).
SIMON: I air on the side of formality. Caroll, has it happened to you over the years that you're introduced as the man who does Big Bird? Well, what kind of reaction do you get?
SPINNEY: I've been asked - does it bother me that people don't know who you are, but they know Big Bird and Oscar? And I don't mind a bit because I know I can play them and also good pay, and I get to take the pay home. Meanwhile, they're back at Sesame Street.
(As Big Bird) Yeah, you never give me any of that money.
SIMON: (Laughter) Carroll Spinney is Big Bird and Oscar. The new documentary about his life is called "I Am Big Bird." Everybody joined us from the studios in New York. Thank you all very much for being with us.
SPINNEY: Thank you very much.
(As Big Bird) Bye.
SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch) Have a rotten day.
SIMON: (Laughter) Thank you.
Nearly every day for the past 45 years, one man has put on an eight-foot-tall yellow suit and gone to work as Big Bird. His name is Caroll Spinney, and he’s the silver-haired subject of this loving documentary about a puppeteer who’s brightened the lives of countless children weaned on Sesame Street. Out of costume, Spinney is as impossibly sunny as his alter ego (with none of the crankiness of his other incarnation, Oscar the Grouch). At 80, he has no plans to hang up his feathers—welcome news for kids and parents everywhere. B+
Caroll Spinney is finally getting his due.
For more than 45 years, Spinney has come into our homes — into millions of homes around the world — yet has been largely anonymous. You don't get recognized much when you're not wearing the 8-foot yellow feathered outfit you made famous.
Spinney portrays Big Bird. Or as the title of a new documentary puts it, "I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story." And when the film, which has had a couple of limited showings, is released nationwide in May, Spinney's anonymity may become a thing of the past.
"Now I realize that's going to change," he said. "Twice in airports people have come up to me: 'You're Caroll Spinney!'"
Spinney, 81, spends a lot of time in airports. He and his wife, Debra, are inveterate travelers.
"New Zealand is probably one of our favorite places. Been there 18 times," he said by phone from Hawaii, where he and Debra were — what else? — vacationing. "Been to Ireland at least 25 times. We love the Alps, try to go every year. Germany and Austria."
With all that traveling, he does offer a few tips.
•Take long vacations, a month or so (if you can). That way the full day of travel on each end doesn't seem to cut into your getaway as much. "You (still) have a day of waiting and waiting and flying. But at the end you're in Hawaii. You forget about all the waiting."
• They always rent a car for the freedom.
• Plan well. For Spinney, that means "Debbie does all the work, I swear. She's the least complaining person I've met in my life."
• And those "extra comfort" airline seats you can pay extra for? "They were literally the most uncomfortable seats ever. My rear was hurting; there was nowhere to put your feet."
Caroll Spinney is the iron man of children’s entertainment — or, to be more specific, the iron bird. He is the only Muppeteer to perform regularly onSesame Street since the show’s debut in 1969. To put that in perspective, of the core five Sesame Street Muppeteers Richard Hunt, Jim Henson, andJerry Nelson have all passed away and Frank Ozhas been in semi-retirement from the Muppets since the 1990s and only occasionally returns to perform his characters. Furthermore, Spinney portrays one of the show’s most physical characters, Big Bird. And if all that wasn’t impressive enough, Caroll Spinney will be turning 81 on December 26 and has no plans to retire — despite handpicking a patient understudy,Matt Vogel, back in 1998.
I Am Big Bird tells the story behind the man who brings Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life. Spinney has worked as a puppeteer in show business since the 1950s, and his extraordinary story reveals how Big Bird allowed him to travel the world and touch children’s lives in nearly every country for over five decades. The documentary reveals Spinney’s personal life with hundreds of hours of home movies that Spinney and his wife Debra Spinney have shot, including his surprisingly turbulent childhood and his unhappiness with working on Sesame Street in its earliest years and living in New York City. However, it becomes clear that although the Big Bird character will live on long after Spinney finally retires, it is impossible to separate Spinney and Big Bird’s personalities.
As someone who grew up watching Sesame Street and is fascinated by the characters Jim Henson created, I Am Big Bird is also one of the most in-depth explorations of Sesame Street through the lens of Spinney. One of the most poignant moments of the documentary is when speaks about Henson’s death and performing as Big Bird at the memorial service. Frank Oz (one of the many Muppet performers interviewed for the film) expresses how he still doesn’t like to think about the memorial. It’s incredible to realize the impact that Henson had on the lives of the Muppet performers — they owe their fames and fortunes to Henson. Another difficult moment is a scene of the aged Spinney and Nelson on the set ofSesame Street speaking about how many of their former coworkers have passed away. Nelson himself died in 2012, and I Am Big Bird features some of his final interview footage (it also includes audio recorded by Jane Henson, Jim’s wife, shortly before her death in 2013).
Interestingly, the documentary explores Big Bird’s diminished role on Sesame Street in favor of Elmo in the mid-1990s as the program began to be aimed at even younger audiences. For those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, it was clear that Big Bird had been replaced as the show’s central character when Elmo became the focus in media appearances and merchandise. The change corresponded with Vogel being hired as Spinney’s understudy, yet Big Bird (and Spinney) remains a key part of the program. Some people interviewed (even the cast and crew) express that Sesame Street lost something when it switched from Big Bird to Elmo, yet Spinney seems happy to just still be part of it.
At only 90 minutes, one of the drawbacks of I Am Big Bird is that much of Spinney’s history withSesame Street from 1970 to today is told in terms of his biggest hits — the movies, the major appearances, and so forth. We don’t quite get a whole look at a day in the life of playing Big Bird, though we get glimpses of it. Of course, as the title of the documentary implies Spinney’s other major character, Oscar, takes a backseat despite offering another side of Spinney’s personality. Seeing Spinney contrast between the childlike sweetness of Big Bird and Oscar’s, well, grouchiness, would have added even more to the documentary.
Though Spinney intends to stay with Big Bird as long as he is physically able (and will likely stick with Oscar even after he is no longer playing Big Bird), it’s hard to see I Am Big Bird as anything else but the final statement on Spinney’s remarkable career. In that sense, I Am Big Bird carries more emotional punch than 2011′s Being Elmo. Co-directors Chad N. Walker and Dave LaMattina have delved deep into the life of a man whom is beloved all over the world despite hardly ever seen. Not surprisingly, who Spinney actually is as a person is not much different than the character he has portrayed for almost fifty years.
RATING: A must-see for any Muppet fan (8.5/10)
Since 2008, New York photographer Ari Seth Cohen has been snapping fashionable senior citizens for his hugely popular street-style blog, Advanced Style. Now, with help from fashion videographer Lina Plioplyte, he’s bringing these vivacious, vibrant and outspoken older ladies to the big screen. Ranging in age from 60 to 90 years old, the women (and gentleman) of Advanced Style offer proof that even in our youth-obsessed culture, age is no barrier to being fabulous. Their message is simple: growing old doesn’t mean you have to let yourself go, and their passion, energy and creativity provide a masterclass in living life to the fullest.
Don’t be afraid to dig through your closet and dress to the nines for the screening of this engaging documentary.
Shirin storms out of the apartment of her girlfriend Maxine after a breakup, and proceeds to look back through her history of failed relationships. She moves in with pretentious artists, gets a job teaching filmmaking to five-years-olds, and employs a series of ill-advised schemes in an effort to win back Maxine.
Writer/director Desiree Akhavan, best known for her cult web series The Slope, stars in this story of a bisexual Iranian-American woman trying to find her way in modern-day Brooklyn. Appropriate Behaviour is an intelligent, engaging comedy that heralds an exciting new voice in indie cinema (with Akhavan soon to be seen in the next season of Lena Dunham’s Girls).
Tony Ayres (Tim Winton’s The Turning, MIFF 2013; The Slap, MIFF 2011) returns with his first feature film since The Home Song Stories (MIFF 2007): a psychologically powered crime thriller loosely based around Brisbane’s Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub blaze.
It’s 1973, and in an attempt to put his old, troubled, life behind him Sparra Farrell (Alex Russell,Carrie) has moved to a new city with his fiancée, Paula (Jessica De Gouw, These Final Hours, MIFF 2013). But when the brutal Pommie (Sullivan Stapleton, 300: Rise of an Empire) tracks him down, Sparra realises he’ll have to fight to keep the past from ruining his future.
Supported by the MIFF Premiere Fund, Cut Snake eruditely shows how one man’s biggest enemy in moving forward can be himself.
DIOR AND I
Peek behind the scenes of the fashion event of a generation.
The unveiling of a new clothing collection by the House of Christian Dior may be a regular occurrence, but it’s not often that a fresh Artistic Director takes the reins of the iconic label. Dior and I delves into the dramas and designs of newcomer Raf Simons as he prepares his maiden line for the beloved brand, after several years designing for Jil Sander and his own label. Known for his minimalistic style and coming from a ready-to-wear background, his first dalliance with Dior haute couture is fraught with trials, but also flirts with triumphs.
Bounding from the ever-busy atelier to the ravishing runway, director Frédéric Tcheng prolongs his love of documenting the details of the well attired, in a fitting successor to Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Valentino: The Last Emperor.
While celebrating a major bust, Sydney drug cop Malcolm makes a mistake that will haunt his life, and which threatens to make or break the careers of two other police: rookie officer Jim and veteran detective Carl. As these three become embroiled in a tense game of cat-and-mouse that pushes each man to his limits, questions of justice, guilt and innocence will be turned inside out and the quest to disguise and unravel the truth will undo them all.
Premiering to glowing reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival, Felony is tautly written by Animal Kingdom actor Joel Edgerton, who stars alongside Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney. Director Matthew Saville’s (The Slap, MIFF ‘11; Roy Hollsdotter Live, MIFF ‘03) feature follow-up to Noise, Felony abounds with moral conundrums, unexpected developments and gripping suspense.
I AM BIG BIRD
Profiles Caroll Spinney, the 80-year-old puppeteer who has been behind Sesame Street’s Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the show’s first season. Relying heavily on Caroll’s incredible archive of home videos dating back to the 1950s, I AM BIG BIRD captures how the love radiating from Caroll has created a worldwide cultural icon and answers why he can’t say goodbye to the characters he cherishes.
Since the very first episode of Sesame Street, one man has played two now legendary characters. But while Caroll Spinney’s peers have long since slipped into cozy retirements or pursued other dreams, he has held on. His refusal to willingly yield the Bird isn't due to stubbornness; he simply believes that while any trained puppeteer can operate Big Bird, he’s the only one who can give the Bird his soul. Through his iconic characters, he has taught letters and numbers, but the lasting lessons, the ones that continue to shape generations of children, radiate from beneath the feathers. There are the lessons of tolerance, born from the ruthless bullying Caroll faced as a teen. There are the lessons of forgiveness, born from Caroll’s reconciliation with his father whose temper and savage beatings scarred him. And there are the lessons of love, born from Caroll’s deep bond with his wife, whom he met on Sesame Street. Caroll can’t say goodbye to Big Bird because he is Big Bird. Using current interviews and never-before-seen home videos capturing intimate moments from his life and career, I AM BIG BIRD will peel away the instances that inspired his creation of characters that have influenced generations of children. And, as the yellow feathers give way to grey hair, it is the man, not the Muppet, who will teach us the greatest lesson of all: how to love unconditionally.
Twelve-year-old Dylan lives with his father in the West Australian outback. One day at school Dylan discovers he is extremely good at making and flying paper planes. While attempting to refine and develop his newly realised ability, Dylan finds himself caught up in the world of competitive paper-plane making, leading to new friendships, new rivalries and new realisations about his own family.
Supported by the MIFF Premiere Fund, Paper Planes is a magical new world premiere from writer/director Robert Connolly (Tim Winton’s The Turning, MIFF 2013). Featuring a cast of Australia’s finest, including Sam Worthington, Deborah Mailman and David Wenham, this is a modern tale of friendship and family and the joy of learning to spread one’s wings.
After tackling zombies (in the FIPRESCI Award-winning Undead, MIFF 2003) and vampires (Daybreakers), the Spierig Brothers take on time travel in this stylish, intelligent thriller.
Loosely based on the Robert A Heinlein sci-fi short All You Zombies, Predestination is the story of a temporal agent on the trail of a terrorist, in an intricate web of twists and secrets. Ethan Hawke carries much of the film with a nuanced performance as the time-travelling agent, backed by an on-form Noah Taylor as his enigmatic boss. Sarah Snook (These Final Hours, MIFF 2013), meanwhile, dazzles with a revelatory and intimate turn, lending both her character and the film an uncommon emotional weight.
Shot on location in and around Melbourne, Predestination offers a distinctive blend of sci-fi, noir and crime fiction with a Bukowskian streak. True to the Australian twins’ directorial style, it investigates bigger questions — here, of destiny and identity — with wit and insight.
PULP: A FILM ABOUT LIFE, DEATH AND SUPERMARKETS
Following his cinematic Love Story (MIFF 2012) to New York, New Zealand director Florian Habicht returns with a cinematic love letter to Sheffield … and its best-known 90s export, Pulp.
After a ten-year hiatus, Pulp reunited in 2012 for a two-year worldwide reunion tour, hitting London, New York and ... Sheffield. This is a concert film (after a fashion) of their final show, in their hometown, among the common people.
Pulp is as much a mildly absurd portrait of the unlikeliest of stars as it is an intimate picture of the city of Sheffield, and its inhabitants; of how each informed, and informs, the other. The band’s rangy, geeky frontman Jarvis Cocker takes centre stage as a mirror of the imperturbable locals, lending credence to the cocked-eyebrow subtitle ‘A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets’ and its askew, Gondry-esque nature. Pulp emerges as an odd duck, seemingly above the triviality of the music business; in Sheffield, they’re a perfect fit.
THE SKELETON TWINS
Saturday Night Live alumni and Bridesmaid’s Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader juxtapose their comic skills with knockout dramatic performances in this warm, darkly funny film.
Maggie and her twin Milo haven’t spoken for ten years but when a crisis hits they attempt to make amends back in their hometown in New York State.
Craig Johnson’s film about adult siblings working through their past issues is accentuated by a finely finessed script (written by Johnson and Mark Heyman, co-writer of Black Swan) and those revelatory performances from Wiig and Hader. Their chemistry is effortlessly channelled into the shorthand communication and shared humour of siblings that bubbles to the surface despite a prickly past. Impressive cameos by Luke Wilson and Modern Family’s Ty Burrell only add to the film’s enjoyment.
Few people know the name Caroll Spinney, but almost everyone knows the names Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. There are few characters that are truly iconic, in every essence, and Spinney has brought to life for over 40 years a pair of characters that will live on beyond him. American culture is indebted to Spinney’s love for life which is all documented in Dave LaMattina’s film I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.
Q: Which character Big Bird or Oscar the Grouch do you enjoy playing more?
It’s hard to choose. There’s different reasons for liking each one. I think Oscar is a little bit less physically demanding and easily transportable. He rides in the overhead bin, where Big Bird requires a huge amount of money to handle him, to put him on the plane, to put together, and to be with me. I like Big Bird in some ways because he’s nice and sweet and Oscar is so negative, but on the other hand it’s fun to work with him… I’ve often been asked which I prefer most, and I can’t even choose, although I’d rather know somebody like Big Bird than Oscar, because I think he’d be difficult to live around.
Q: What was the inspiration and development of Big Bird as a character?
Big Bird was first conceived as being a big goofy guy. I thought he shouldn’t be goofy. After a good script came along which really called for him to be a child, I suggested that I play him as a child from now on. The decision was made over microphones, because the director and producers were in another room and they agreed… His [Big Bird’s] model was a character who died off with Edgar Bergen, the ventriloquist who created the character Mortimer Snerd. He was very much a yokel, but it seemed much more useful that Big Bird should be a child learning the alphabet with kids at home learning along with them. And then about 10 years ago they decided he should not be able to read yet. I said after 30 years he should be able to read.
Q: What was the development of Oscar the Grouch and his color change?
The only change in Oscar really came that he was orange the first year and from the second year on he was green. It was just a vicarious decision on Jim Henson’s part. It didn’t alter work. So I think Oscar hasn’t evolved very much other than that. I had to get to know him better. He’s very grouchy, but he’s got a good heart. I think that’s the way grouches are.
Q: A very surreal moment in the film was the story of Big Bird in space. What was going on in your head when NASA approached you, and then ultimately witnessing the unfortunate disaster of the Challenger space shuttle?
I got a letter from the five astronauts who were on the ship when it blew up. I didn’t realize the danger, and I thought that naturally there would be some risk, because look at what they are doing. They have to get up to 70,000 miles an hour. I thought, “Well, how many people get that opportunity?” So I said yes, but I guess it’s a fortunate thing they found out there’s no room to put Big Bird on the plane and that’s what kept me from going. I never met the teacher who went in my place. We saw tape on the day it blew up, and we saw it go flying apart, and your scalp crawled across your head, like, “Oh my God! What have we just seen?” And I was supposed to be there, and those poor people aboard that ship. It was an incredible emotional experience. Just not being on it, I’m able to talk about it. So I think it’s sad but true.
Q: How is Sesame Street different and similar today as opposed to when you first started?
In the early days it seemed a little amateurish. But, it was kind of fun, because it was a whole new way of working for Jim [Henson] and Frank [Oz], which Frank had never done voices before. His voices are fabulous. So it was incredible for the experience. It does seem different from now only because our approach seemed like it was really simple. Now it’s very complex. Almost every scene has computer generated effects and things we didn’t even know about back then.
I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story screened at the LA Film Festival, June 14, 2014, 8:30pm in the California Plaza.