Interview: Caroll Spinney and Dave LaMattina Talk Big Bird and 'Wow' Moments

Documentarian Dave LaMattina and puppeteer Caroll Spinney talk about their collaboration.
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I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story sits comfortably at number one on my Best Movies of 2014 list.  Whether it stays at number one depends on the rest of the year, but it'll be hard for another movie to play on my emotions, and better yet, my nostalgia, than this.  I was fortunate to spend a few minutes talking to I Am Big Bird's co-director Dave LaMattina, and Big Bird himself, Caroll Spinney, about the documentary, the moments that made them go "wow," and Disney dunking their characters.  In the end, these two left me laughing and almost crying (again!).  Also, remind me to check off "Have Big Bird talk to me, in character" off my bucket list.

It’s been awesome to get to do this. I’ve been telling everyone over the last couple hours, “I get to talk to these guys!” The documentary made me laugh, it made me cry, and I secretly hate you guys for making me feel all these emotions, but I love it at the same time.

Dave LaMattina: Thank you so much!

Dave, what inspired you to tell Caroll’s story?

DL: It was just dumb luck, quite honestly. When I first started in the industry I thought I was going to go into family entertainment, and the premiere destination for that is Sesame Street, so I got an internship there in 2005 in home video. Loved it, the people there were amazing. After the internship wrapped up, this was a couple years after it, I was sitting there talking to a friend and I said, “I used to work at Sesame.” And she said “Oh, I’m related to Caroll Spinney.” I said, “That’s really cool, but I don’t know who she is!” She says to me, “Well, he is the person behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, and has been since 1969.” I talked to Chad [Walker], who I directed the film with, and Clay [Frost], who’s our executive producer, and the three of us said this has got to be a doc. We reached out to the one person I still knew at Sesame, she put us in touch with the PR department, and we had a meeting with Caroll and his lovely wife, Deb, about a week later. It all moved very quickly and Caroll and Deb were, thankfully, on-board to do this with us.

Caroll Spinney: It seemed like a great idea!

Caroll how did you react when they approached you to do the documentary?

CS: I was surprised, but not displeased. It just seemed awfully nice that I do something important enough to do a documentary about me.

I just finished the Jim Henson biography and I read the biography about Sesame Street, so for me this was my bread and butter. Dave, were you a Sesame Street or Muppets fan prior to?

DL: Absolutely! I don’t know how you can not be if you grew up in this country, honestly. Or more like hundreds of other countries. Absolutely I was! And it was a little bit intimidating to be working on a film about Caroll because you know that you’re contributing something to the universe created by Caroll, and Jim, and Frank [Oz], and all these guys, and you don’t want to screw that up. It was intimidating, but also this huge honor. And now that we’ve got the film out in the world and people can get to know Caroll a little bit I think it’s something the three of us - Chad, Clay, and I - can be very proud of for the rest of our careers.

And I’m assuming the response to this has been immense because the documentary deserves to have this huge following because it’s so well-made and so emotional. Caroll, have you noticed any heightened recognition?

CS: I think it’s going to make me more recognized when I walk into a place where this film is distributed, and eventually it’ll probably be on television, too. I experienced it in Toronto, when we did the film festival, and three different people came up to me on the street and said, “I know who you are!” And I’ve never had that happen before, because I’ve been described by some of the writers as the most unknown famous person in America.

What’s it like to be such a beloved character, yet people aren’t aware of your contributions or who you are?

CS: I don’t mind that a bit, being unknown. Once in awhile it’s affected how I think. They give away lots of Emmys for different parts of television every year, but they only give one Lifetime Achievement Emmy. They make them just like the other, except what it says on them and that is for someone whose had years of television effect on people. It was here at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood. I had seen it the year before, it was Merv Griffin who’d made it. And I was told I wouldn’t go up on-stage or anything; they said, “Just stand up and take a bow.” The Academy, who did not produce the show, it was TV producers who did it, said, “How come he’s not coming on-stage like all the other ones every year.” And they do a run-down and brief biography of their life. The TV producers said, “Well, he’s not famous.” The Academy said, “But he’s the most famous bird in the world!” And they said “Well, he’s not known.” The Academy said, “But put him up there and he’ll begin to be known.” So I wasn’t allowed to be up there. It wasn’t a case of revenge, but it was kind of pleasant, when I did stand up I had a two-minute standing ovation and they couldn’t cut away. I said “We’ve really made an effect on people.” And I think the film’s done more than that.

Obviously, you meet a lot of people when you’re in the Big Bird costume. Have you ever had a moment where you want to break character, in the suit? Or do you do your best to always be Big Bird when you’re in the costume and talking to others?

CS: I have an ethic about that. Big Bird and Oscar, they don’t get involved in things that wouldn’t be suitable for the show. I always keep them in character. And Big Bird is innocent - he’s six years old - and although the years go by, he’s still six; I think he should be a kid that’s innocent. I used to be on Hollywood Squares a great deal. I did 146 of their episodes. I had Big Bird be twelve on that show because he had to be a little more flip, a little more savvy about the world than a six-year-old. It didn’t seem to change him enough to spoil him for people. It gave me a little more access to things that were funny for a show that was watched mostly by grown-ups.

I know Disney has that policy about people in the costume not breaking character, even if someone’s dying on the ground.

CS: I used to do walk about characters before Big Bird and Oscar, and I found children, and sometimes grown-ups, will attack you and knock you down and be quite violently laughing all the time. When I was working in Boston, I played a character named Mr. Lion on the Bozo show. Two teenage girls intercepted me as I left the dressing room to walk down the corridor to the TV studio; and we were on live TV, so I was due within a minute. They stopped and tried to tear the face off Mr. Lion. I said, “Leave me alone, please.” They said, “We want to see who you are!” I said, “You wouldn’t know me if you saw me” because the work I’d done on television I was always hidden, which I never minded a bit. I finally said, “Please, let me go. I’m on the air in thirty seconds.” One said, “No, I want to get your face off.” I can hear the stitching rip on the face of Mr. Lion. I said, “I’m sorry, but if you do that again I’m going to hit you in the face!” They said, “Okay.”

Between that and the story you recount about the ROTC kids ripping apart the Big Bird costume for souvenirs, you get the sense people kind of go crazy when they see a costumed character.

CS: They do! I had a friend who went to a Halloween party - there were a lot of teenagers there - and he was dressed as the Michelin Man, he looked like he was all tires. They wanted to tickle him. They knocked him down and he couldn’t get back up. He said, “I’m never coming to one of these parties again” and he was crying. They thought it was funny, and they were friends of his. Goofy’s been attacked. I guess the guy lost his job because he was drowning, because they pushed him, and he took the top off to breathe. I think that was better than drowning.

Was there any “Wow” moment where it was something so fantastic that you were able to capture on film?

DL: It seems mundane to say, but being in Caroll’s dressing room with him, walking to set with him as he has on the legs and feet of Big Bird. Seeing him as Caroll and seeing him transform, as he slips into Big Bird. It’s bizarre because you know it’s Caroll in there; you know Caroll, you have a relationship with Caroll, and all of a sudden Big Bird’s there and Caroll’s gone. I know that sounds trite to say, but it is remarkable. I don’t think I’m saying it well, but that was the moment for me where I was like “This is amazing!”

For me, Follow That Bird was the movie I watched all the time as a kid. I was mesmerized by it. And as an adult to learn about the real hard work that goes into working those puppets. The added level of appreciation enhances the movies.

DL: That was the Big Bird in China for me. I had another “wow” moment when I saw the stuff Deb shot behind the scenes of Big Bird in China. Just seeing what these men and women were going through in China to get this film done. Just seeing that other side of the door that had never been seen publicly was another “wow” moment.

CS: That was very thrilling to be there and do that. I had always hoped to go to China. I had a comic strip that was printed in China in 1947 when I was 13 years old, so I was very thrilled. It’s hard to see it from the way outsiders would see it, so I’m pleased to hear. That’s what we’re hoping for. I was really excited about thinking about the children in America hearing about the things I was going to do on an international show. Now, I understand we’re on in 200 countries.

DL: Caroll, I think your “wow” moment was seeing the film with an audience for the first time.

CS: Yeah, it was. I’d seen it once at home, but then I saw it on a 60-foot screen. The audience, you hear them. There are tearful places, there are laughter places, the recognition of a situation; particularly with women when they catch on that the girl I spoke of was always the same girl. It was kind of thrilling to be in the theater and hear them recognize. The movie has an awful lot of moments, because people known the show we’re talking about, they lived it for years.

Were there any avenues you wished you had time to explore?

DL: That’s a great question! There’s so much wonderful material of Caroll that we cut out of the film. One thing I wish we had more space for was giving a nod to all the people, aside from Jim, who played such influential roles in the film and has since passed away. In a sense, you could turn a camera on Jerry Nelson, or Jane Henson, or Joe Raposo, or John Stone, or any of these people who were such huge contributors to the show that passed away, and there’s not really space for them in the film. For me, it would have been great to do that. When we first started the film the avenue we thought we were going to explore was “Caroll’s [at that point] 75. He’s definitely going to retire while making this movie.” And clearly he didn’t retire. In fifteen years, when Caroll does retire, it would be fun to revisit this and be with him as he goes through that.

CS: I wouldn’t mind that.

I’m very glad you haven’t retired because when you do I’ll be very sad.

DL: Me, too!

CS: We’ve done 45 and I’m planning on doing at least 50. God willing, we’ll do that!

I hope that’s true because this is a moment to me. I’m going to tell my eventual children, grandchildren I got to talk to talk to Big Bird. You’ve made a young girl very happy today.

CS: [As Big Bird] Well, thank you. I’m glad you’re a very happy child.

Thank you both so much for taking the time.

DL: Thank you for watching the film.

Read Kristen's review and go to the movie's website to find screenings.

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