Q&A: Doc Filmmaker Mark Goffman on Dumbstruck

Ventriloquists and their dummies from Dumbstruck.

Ventriloquists and their dummies from Dumbstruck.

Mark Goffman and his producing partner and wife Lindsay Goffman.

Mark Goffman and his producing partner and wife Lindsay Goffman.

Everyone wants to be heard. Ventriloquists in particular. Screenwriter Mark Goffman (White Collar, The West Wing, Studio 60, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) became fascinated with the world of ventriloquism when his shy mother-in-law used it to make a speech at a family event. Several months and thousands of miles later, he had a documentary about this lovable, tough, heartwarming world of professional and amateur ventriloquists. Script sat down with Goffman to see how he pulled all the strings to make Dumbstruck.

SCRIPT: How did you get the idea for Dumbstruck?
MARK GOFFMAN: Dumbstruck was inspired by my mother-in-law, who is very shy. At our wedding she was asked to give a toast. She walked up to the microphone and shocked our 200 friends and family when she held up her white-gloved hand, and it began to speak. Her lips didn’t move, so it really looked like the white-gloved hand was delivering a toast. And it did so with humor, charm, and grace. I know how hard it is for her to address a crowd in public. So for her to stand in front of all our friends and family, and move us to tears with essentially a sock puppet, well, this began my adventure into the world of ventriloquism.

SCRIPT: What was the interview process like?
MARK GOFFMAN: My wife and I decided to put together a small crew and head to the Ventriloquist Convention in Kentucky. I was fascinated by who decides to become a professional ventriloquist today. Sure, it was a one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the ’50s (Edgar Bergen, Howdie Doodie, Paul Winchel, etc), but today …?  That seemed like a tough career choice. We found ventriloquists primarily in small towns and small venues across the country – Corsicana, Texas; Mansfield, Ohio; Loomis, California – very Americana. And, I fell in love with that motif, that the practitioners today take me back to the ’50s, a simpler form of entertainment and a simpler time.  All of the “vents” we met love what they do and are incredibly passionate about it. You have to be, and I related to their determination.

SCRIPT: Describe the process of putting the story together one you had the material?
MARK GOFFMAN: Writing scripted material gives you 100% control of what happens next. But with a documentary, you have to let the story happen naturally. The most important job was to pick the right people to follow and make them feel comfortable enough to allow us to capture their lives on film. We shot for an additional year and a half longer than I expected so that the stories would have the right arcs and a satisfying ending.

SCRIPT: What did you learn from this experience?
MARK GOFFMAN: A very influential director whom I admire gave me incredibly valuable advice when I started directing. He said, “Wear comfortable shoes.” I thought he was kidding until I realized you’re on your feet 20 hours a day. We traveled huge distances and in a documentary; we’d cover dozens of locations in a day.  So, I learned how to light a scene quickly and set up sound and cameras in the right place to capture our characters. It also gave me the opportunity to shoot more than 10 live performances, which was a blast. There’s a constant battle between spending time to get the lighting and sound perfect and missing the shots. We don’t get to do retakes in a documentary, so you have to be sure to be extremely prepared with your shot list in advance.

SCRIPT: What was it like working with a crew?
MARK GOFFMAN: I got very good at anticipating where the action would be, how to work our director of photography in a two-camera shoot so that we were always in the best place to capture the action. In one of the early shoots, I missed a moment with one of our characters that was priceless, and I made sure that never happened again. Also, I learned so much working with our composer, Daniel Licht. Music is so important in creating the tone. We spent weeks working out the right mix of playfulness and heart. He came up with amazing recurring themes that help drive the story without interfering with the narrative.

SCRIPT: Would you do this again?
MARK GOFFMAN: I definitely have plans to direct more. I approached Dumbstruck like a narrative, so I’m eager to direct a scripted feature. One of the most important lessons I learned in the film was from the “vents” themselves. And that is, you have to be ready when the opportunity arises. We see that certain characters, like Terry Fator, were – when he got a shot on America’s Got Talent, he won! Dylan, on the other hand, auditioned at age 13 for the local circus, wasn’t ready. Watching his audition is heart-wrenching.

SCRIPT: Were there any challenges you didn’t expect?
MARK GOFFMAN: We had to shoot guerrilla style on many occasions. For example, on our cruise with Kim, I almost got kicked off the ship and left in the Bahamas. Apparently cruise ships are a popular location to shoot porns. I guess they like all the exotic locations, and the cabins are fairly private. So, I was filming Kim, who’s a beauty queen, and her dream was to become a cruise ship entertainer — performing on cruise ships was considered the highest echelon in the hierarchy of “vent” jobs. So, I’m walking around the ship with Kim and her puppet when the cruise director flags me as a porn director. I have no idea what kind of porn they thought I was making with Kim and her puppet, but it took awhile before I convinced him to let me back on the ship and return to the U.S. That definitely doesn’t happen when I write.

SCRIPT: What’s your favorite segment of the film?
MARK GOFFMAN: Every moment in the film serves a purpose so it’s hard to say one is better than another. I still laugh when I see Kim and her mom together.

SCRIPT: What’s next for you?
MARK GOFFMAN: White Collar was picked up for a 4th season, and I’m really enjoying getting to work with the incredibly talented cast, crew and writers. As we finish production on season three, I can finally start to dive into writing a feature film over our hiatus, and there are a few TV pilot opportunities I’m evaluating.

SCRIPT: What’s your advice to aspiring doc filmmakers?
MARK GOFFMAN: Every trip we took to see one of the characters, something wholly unexpected and extraordinary happened. Embracing that, and finding a crew who loved the material as much as we did, is what the film an experience of a lifetime.  Also, find the best producer you can — preferably your wife.