Born out of the dream of one man’s obsession with puppeteering, the character of Elmo has become an international sensation. His lovable attitude, unmistakable laugh, and naive disposition are the invention of puppeteer Kevin Clash.
A working-class kid from Baltimore, who became interested in the art of puppeteering at the age of 10, Clash has developed a furry character who rivals even Kermit the Frog in popularity. Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey tells the story of Clash’s humble beginnings and rise to stardom. The film, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, won the 2011 Sundance special jury prize for documentary films and receives a wide release in theaters in November.
Script sat down with the documentary’s co-writer Philip Shane to talk about the popular Muppet and the talent behind him.
SCRIPT: Where did you get the idea for Being Elmo?
Philip Shane: Connie [director Constance Marks] had created the film several years before I came on board. But during the editing, Connie and I had to come to grips with the realization that the original concept for the film, which was to do a “cinema verite” or “slice-of-life” study of Kevin Clash, wasn’t going to hold together for a full, feature-length documentary. After a lot of discussions, we realized that it was Kevin’s biography that was ultimately the most fascinating, and truly inspirational, story to be told.
SCRIPT: Once you have the idea, how do you start putting the story together?
Philip Shane: Once we decided it would be a biographical story, that meant we were making a film which was essentially journalism, and thus, to some extent, would be “written” by crafting the interviews. So, whenever you’re writing a story, you have to work very hard to understand the main events (or “scenes”) of the person’s life, and then identify the most dramatic ups and downs. Even more importantly, you need to find out: What is the primary driving force in their life? What is their quest? Who do they want to BE? So, I began by researching as much about Kevin’s life as I could, reading his autobiography, watching all the interviews Connie had conducted in the past, reading about the wider context of the history of children’s television, and the careers of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Once I roughed out a narrative arc, we wrote down all the questions we wanted to ask Kevin, and Connie and I conducted extensive interviews. Naturally, all kinds of surprises and new stories emerged as well, so off we went!
SCRIPT: What’s it like to work as part of this documentary team?
Philip Shane: The best is when everyone on the team has extremely high standards, and you all hold each others’ work up to that very high level of quality. That’s utterly fantastic, and essential. Another fascinating thing is the surprises that each person would reveal to the others: like a newly gem of archival footage, or a fresh take on a scene, or merely some seemingly crazy idea that popped out of their head during a meeting that turned out to be brilliant. Technologically, too, the way we worked as a team was really cool: everyone worked entirely remotely, all of us in our own apartments, which you can do these days.
SCRIPT: What happens in the editing room, how tough is it to create something that is satisfying for the audience?
Philip Shane: It’s EXTREMELY tough, thank goodness … That’s our job security! One of the hardest things is that the real audience is … You. No one is more critical than you, and until a scene, or a sequence, or an act, or a whole film gives you goosebumps, you’re really not happy showing it to anyone else. Our ultimate goal was to create a documentary that grabbed the viewer and took them on an emotional roller coaster, with all the intense power of a narrative film. We wanted you to experience the same wave of emotions that Kevin felt, in his gut, as he lived through all these incredible moments of his life. We didn’t want this to feel like a documentary, we wanted it to simply be a movie.
SCRIPT: What was it like working with Kevin, and his family, friends … ?
Philip Shane: It sounds totally corny, but Kevin has a spirit about him that just makes you happy to be with him. I’m happy just thinking about him now. He’s calm, and confident, and above all, amazingly generous and supportive. When I first started working on the film, I’d heard someone say “Elmo is really Kevin,” which sounded so simplistic. But as I have now had the pleasure to spend nearly three years with him, and seen him work tirelessly with people of ALL ages, and ALL abilities, I’ve seen that not only is Kevin truly like Elmo, but it’s far better than that — Kevin is what Elmo will be like when he grows up into a man.
SCRIPT: Did it ever get emotional?
Philip Shane: Yes; oh, boy. At the beginning, when we were struggling to define the concept of the film, it was rough. At the end, when we were racing to finish — it was really rough. When we premiered at Sundance, and the entire theater stood on their feet and cheered, it was … amazing. When a famous film critic grabbed our hands and said “Everyone must see this,” I burst into tears! Best of all, though, was to see Kevin’s emotions: He was just overwhelmed every time his loving mother appeared on the screen. And, the audiences have been so moved. Many of them come up to us after the film, tears still streaming down their face. Kevin’s life is really connecting with them at an extraordinarily deep, emotional level.
SCRIPT: What’s next for you?
Philip Shane: More stories about incredible people who have devoted their lives to making the world a better place. God bless them and the people who fund films about them.
SCRIPT: What’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers?
Philip Shane: Find your personal connection to the person your film is about. This is what the audience, and that person (even if they’re not alive anymore) is depending on you to do. Become that person, find out what they felt inside, and bring that to the screen. And if the person your film is about is inspiring, the time you personally get to spend with them, and their story, will change your life.