Clockwise: Philip Shane (writer and editor), Constance Marks (director), James Miller (producer/cinematographer), Justin Weinstein (editor), and Miller and Marks’ daughter, Sophia Miller answered some of the audience’s questions after the screening.

 

Q: Where did the old footage of Kevin Clash come from?
CM: The footage came from a show called “Big Blue Marble” on PBS. It would follow kids around the world who did extraordinary things. There were two kids each half hour and Kevin was one of the subjects of the series. We got a hold of the footage very early on when I first met Kevin. He said, ‘I did a show called ‘Big Blue Marble,’ but I didn’t know what it was. I was able to track it down and many years later, when we were ready to license the material, the company had folded, the owner had died and it was just off the map. We tracked the footage down to a hotel company that owned it and didn’t know what it was, and had just thrown out all the masters two weeks before. So, we had this VHS and we were so lucky and [the footage in the film] was blown up from the VHS. They didn’t know what they had and it was sickening. So, don’t throw away your VHS’ or your masters from the seventies.

Q: How did you meet Kevin?
CM: Well, I met Kevin because James [Miller] used to shoot on Sesame Street and I’ll let him say a word about that.

James Miller: One day, I’m on Sesame Street, and I say, “Kevin, can you do me a favour?” and he said, “Sure, whatever you want.” So, I brought my book of pictures of our baby Sophia, and so there’s Elmo and I going through the pictures of our “brag book.” I took the video tape to Connie and said, “Here.” She looked at it and was blown away by this. Here’s Elmo with me and said, “Well, who this puppeteer who helped you out?” I said, “That’s Kevin,” and Kevin, as you can see, is helping many, many people. He took such good care of us. Connie got together with Kevin and they decided there was something special here that needs to be shown to everybody.

Q: Can you talk about access you had to the Jim Henson footage and that angle you wanted to pursue about puppeteering and the community?

Philip Shane: Connie could talk a little about access to the footage but I also had the privilege to visit the Henson shop one time, which blew me away. Basically, we all grew up before the Elmo days. To me, Elmo was new and I didn’t know too much about him. Frankly, Justin and I found Elmo to be a little bit annoying. I remember growing up with Jim Henson and that of course, is Kevin’s driving force, he’s chasing Jim. Late in the game, after we gotten into Sundance with one version, I said, “God! We need a lot more Jim Henson.” We just felt that it was really, really important to get it in and we really revamped the film. Actually, in the end, the single idea there was we knew Kevin wanted to show it. It was not just Kevin’s story, but for him, it was the Jim Henson story. We wanted to show that [Henson] was his mentor, it was his idol.

Q: When did Kevin see the film? Did he have any creative control?

CM: The first time he saw it finished was at Sundance, but yes, I had final cut. But, Kevin is an artist who makes films, works in television, he produces, he directs. So, we would periodically give him cuts to look at for notes because we wanted him to be happy. The notes that we got were phenomenal; they by and large enhanced the film. There were some where he would say, “I know but my mother doesn’t look so good in this shot but you probably need it. I understand if you have to keep it in, so don’t even listen to me but . . .” That kind of thing. He knew when it was personal, but he also knew when it was structural and it was important. And, his ideas were great. I remember one thing in particular, Arsenio [Hall], we had a different joke in, and he said, “No, no. Put in the sponge joke. It’s funnier,” and he was right. I’ve heard about documentary filmmakers who make films about celebrities and they get 20 pages of notes for each screening that make them insane, this was the opposite experience.

Q: Is the film going to be released?

CM: The answer is hallelujah, yes! Part of the deal is going a theatrical release but I don’t know how wide it is yet. The film is going to be on the market on Cannes and [we’ll] be making an announcement there. We have a website beingelmo.com and everything will be announced there; when it’ll be on television, and when the DVD comes out, all that stuff.

Q: Tell us a bit of your editing process because that’s just incredible.

Justin Weinstein: Long. Hard. Late nights. Connie and James had shot for a number of years. They shot some beautiful verité footage and were following Kevin and had a trove of, just, wonderful scenes and behind the scenes footage. There were areas that we wish we could get in. They joke around a lot around the Sesame Street set and not all of it is for public consumption. It’s not all G-rated. At a certain point, Connie had tried with other editors to figure out what the film was. It wasn’t quite working as a verité film and realized that something else needed to be done with this and brought Phil on and myself. We then had to work hard to find a way to tell a historical biography of Kevin’s story utilizing archival footage but also some of the great verité footage they shot to illustrate the different parts of his life, [like] his teaching, and to move the narrative forward.

We got into Sundance on a very rough cut. There wasn’t an ending and there were a lot of black holes. The majority of the editing process was compressed into three or four months.

CM: It was less than that. It was like 7 weeks!

JW: It felt like three or four months!

CM: Actually, in man hours, it was probably six months. I’m not kidding. We haven’t seen them in months, and we went to the preliminary mix or we had to record something, and they came in with these big beards and they were skinny! Like, oh my god, I did this to you?

JW: Another thing about the editing process, Phil and I made this on our laptops, in our apartments in Brooklyn. The two of us worked separately, but talked on the phone all the time.

CM: They had two incredible girlfriends who hung in there despite the fact that their significant others were literally M.I.A. For months.

PS: My girlfriend had to walk by me to get to the refrigerator and then walk past me again to get to the table. After two years of that, I asked her to marry me and she said yes. If she could make through that, she could get through anything.

Q: How old is Elmo and who owns Elmo?

CM: Elmo is three and a half, and every birthday, he turns three and a half. Kevin says he’s three and a half going on fifty. I believe Sesame Workshop owns Elmo, Kevin doesn’t own Elmo. But, you know, they thank him in many ways for sure.

Audience Member: They’re non-profit, too!

PS: We didn’t get into the little story of how unfortunately the American government is attacking funding for Sesame Street and public television. They say the sales of Elmo do help Sesame Street tremendously just to keep going.

Q: Did Kevin have any trepidation of being seen?

CM: He wrote a book before this called, “My Life as a Furry Red Monster.” It’s a cool book, like Jim Henson’s book about some of his quotes . . . I think it was the next step for him. He didn’t seem . . . For him, in his mind, it wasn’t a film that was going to be showing him, it was a film that was going to share with the world the joy of what he does. That is what he wanted so that was okay with him. He still doesn’t believe anyone will recognize him as he’s walking down the street. During the interview, Whoopi [Goldberg, the film’s narrator] said, ‘Oh, he’s gets recognized!’ I said, “Well, no one really does now.” She said, ‘He will and I’ll be there to tell him what to do.’ I want to hear that discussion. That’s a film I want to make: what happens when you get famous and Whoopi tells you what to do.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found when pursuing this story?

JW: I could only for myself personally that Elmo is a likable character.

PS: I would just say, you see Sesame Street, and that’s that. Kevin might do some shows here or there. But I did not know the unbelievable amount of work that goes on beyond Sesame Street. You see a little bit of the live performances that Kevin goes through. They also make tons of charity videos. There was a whole story I wish we could’ve gone in where they a series of DVDs for families dealing with one or both parents going off to war and coming home, and what happens when one parents doesn’t come home? I mean, Sesame Street would deal with that with Elmo. What they do with Sick Kids and Make a Wish is all private and you don’t see that on television. We would like to say we only got in one tiny sliver of the amount of charity work they do.

CM: I think the most surprising thing is post-facto which is, and I’m delighted, how moving the story is to audiences. The effect it has had is still a complete “delightment” to me and is something I honestly did not anticipate. I’ve made films before with very dark subjects: children who’ve been abandoned or abused, veterans and recovery. [They] were wonderful stories I loved making and their responses were always great but this is something else. When we were in Boston a week and half ago, it was opening night at their festival, there were 750 people. When I introduced Kevin, everybody gave him a standing ovation for what felt like two hours, but was really two minutes. It was loud. That for me was so gratifying to watch that happen. He got a little choked up and I was blubbering.

PS: My Jewish grandmother would say Kevin is a real “mensch,” for those who speak french.

Q: Why did it take six years?

CM: [Jokingly] I hate you! It took six years because at first, I was trying to make what’s called a verité film where we would avoid interviews and just shoot his life, and that was not working out. We kept shooting and following him is so much fun that James and I are still a little bit in withdrawal. That’s [how long] this one took, and in a way, I’m glad it did.

Q: Why choose Whoopi Goldberg to narrate?

CM: Well, Whoopi is a good friend of Kevin’s. When we were talking about narrators, we had a long list. He said, “I don’t want anybody who doesn’t know me talking about me. I want somebody who really knows me and gets me to talk about me.” He and Whoopi have a really tight friendship and she gets him. What she says at the end, nobody else could tackle about why Elmo is so important to children. She’s really smart and she got it. We’re so glad she took part.

JM: When we did the interview with Rosie O’Donnell, [O’Donnell] was on The View and it was a little contentious there as you may recall. She came off the set and it was going to be a little bit of a difficult interview, to say the least.

CM: They were talking about waterboarding or something, and they both went insane. She stomped off the set and literally had steam coming from her ears. I was like, ah! I have to interview her!

JM: As soon as [Goldberg] came in, her entourage were saying, ‘She’ll only give you ten seconds,’ and she comes in, and she meets us. We tell her we’re doing a story about Kevin and she goes, ‘Oh! Oh, really? Okay, okay!’ I think she sat down with us for twenty minutes to half an hour just like friends. I mean, totally disarmed. It was just wonderful to see that and that’s what Kevin does.

CM: It wasn’t because of my magnificent interview skills. I’d like to think they’re getting better, but we rode in [Kevin’s] wing for six years. Being in his wing was great because people love him. He’s so good to the people he works with and to totally strangers that, you know, it makes everything possible in his shadow. Now, we have 500 people who have also fallen in love with him. How did you meet Kevin?
CM: Well, I met Kevin because James [Miller] used to shoot on Sesame Street and I’ll let him say a word about that.

James Miller: One day, I’m on Sesame Street, and I say, “Kevin, can you do me a favour?” and he said, “Sure, whatever you want.” So, I brought my book of pictures of our baby Sophia, and so there’s Elmo and I going through the pictures of our “brag book.” I took the video tape to Connie and said, “Here.” She looked at it and was blown away by this. Here’s Elmo with me and said, “Well, who this puppeteer who helped you out?” I said, “That’s Kevin,” and Kevin, as you can see, is helping many, many people. He took such good care of us. Connie got together with Kevin and they decided there was something special here that needs to be shown to everybody.

Q: Can you talk about access you had to the Jim Henson footage and that angle you wanted to pursue about puppeteering and the community?

Philip Shane: Connie could talk a little about access to the footage but I also had the privilege to visit the Henson shop one time, which blew me away. Basically, we all grew up before the Elmo days. To me, Elmo was new and I didn’t know too much about him. Frankly, Justin and I found Elmo to be a little bit annoying. I remember growing up with Jim Henson and that of course, is Kevin’s driving force, he’s chasing Jim. Late in the game, after we gotten into Sundance with one version, I said, “God! We need a lot more Jim Henson.” We just felt that it was really, really important to get it in and we really revamped the film. Actually, in the end, the single idea there was we knew Kevin wanted to show it. It was not just Kevin’s story, but for him, it was the Jim Henson story. We wanted to show that [Henson] was his mentor, it was his idol.

Q: When did Kevin see the film? Did he have any creative control?

CM: The first time he saw it finished was at Sundance, but yes, I had final cut. But, Kevin is an artist who makes films, works in television, he produces, he directs. So, we would periodically give him cuts to look at for notes because we wanted him to be happy. The notes that we got were phenomenal; they by and large enhanced the film. There were some where he would say, “I know but my mother doesn’t look so good in this shot but you probably need it. I understand if you have to keep it in, so don’t even listen to me but . . .” That kind of thing. He knew when it was personal, but he also knew when it was structural and it was important. And, his ideas were great. I remember one thing in particular, Arsenio [Hall], we had a different joke in, and he said, “No, no. Put in the sponge joke. It’s funnier,” and he was right. I’ve heard about documentary filmmakers who make films about celebrities and they get 20 pages of notes for each screening that make them insane, this was the opposite experience.

Q: Is the film going to be released?

CM: The answer is hallelujah, yes! Part of the deal is going a theatrical release but I don’t know how wide it is yet. The film is going to be on the market on Cannes and [we’ll] be making an announcement there. We have a website beingelmo.com and everything will be announced there; when it’ll be on television, and when the DVD comes out, all that stuff.

Q: Tell us a bit of your editing process because that’s just incredible.

Justin Weinstein: Long. Hard. Late nights. Connie and James had shot for a number of years. They shot some beautiful verité footage and were following Kevin and had a trove of, just, wonderful scenes and behind the scenes footage. There were areas that we wish we could get in. They joke around a lot around the Sesame Street set and not all of it is for public consumption. It’s not all G-rated. At a certain point, Connie had tried with other editors to figure out what the film was. It wasn’t quite working as a verité film and realized that something else needed to be done with this and brought Phil on and myself. We then had to work hard to find a way to tell a historical biography of Kevin’s story utilizing archival footage but also some of the great verité footage they shot to illustrate the different parts of his life, [like] his teaching, and to move the narrative forward.

We got into Sundance on a very rough cut. There wasn’t an ending and there were a lot of black holes. The majority of the editing process was compressed into three or four months.

CM: It was less than that. It was like 7 weeks!

JW: It felt like three or four months!

CM: Actually, in man hours, it was probably six months. I’m not kidding. We haven’t seen them in months, and we went to the preliminary mix or we had to record something, and they came in with these big beards and they were skinny! Like, oh my god, I did this to you?

JW: Another thing about the editing process, Phil and I made this on our laptops, in our apartments in Brooklyn. The two of us worked separately, but talked on the phone all the time.

CM: They had two incredible girlfriends who hung in there despite the fact that their significant others were literally M.I.A. For months.

PS: My girlfriend had to walk by me to get to the refrigerator and then walk past me again to get to the table. After two years of that, I asked her to marry me and she said yes. If she could make through that, she could get through anything.

Q: How old is Elmo and who owns Elmo?

CM: Elmo is three and a half, and every birthday, he turns three and a half. Kevin says he’s three and a half going on fifty. I believe Sesame Workshop owns Elmo, Kevin doesn’t own Elmo. But, you know, they thank him in many ways for sure.

Audience Member: They’re non-profit, too!

PS: We didn’t get into the little story of how unfortunately the American government is attacking funding for Sesame Street and public television. They say the sales of Elmo do help Sesame Street tremendously just to keep going.

Q: Did Kevin have any trepidation of being seen?

CM: He wrote a book before this called, “My Life as a Furry Red Monster.” It’s a cool book, like Jim Henson’s book about some of his quotes . . . I think it was the next step for him. He didn’t seem . . . For him, in his mind, it wasn’t a film that was going to be showing him, it was a film that was going to share with the world the joy of what he does. That is what he wanted so that was okay with him. He still doesn’t believe anyone will recognize him as he’s walking down the street. During the interview, Whoopi [Goldberg, the film’s narrator] said, ‘Oh, he’s gets recognized!’ I said, “Well, no one really does now.” She said, ‘He will and I’ll be there to tell him what to do.’ I want to hear that discussion. That’s a film I want to make: what happens when you get famous and Whoopi tells you what to do.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you found when pursuing this story?

JW: I could only for myself personally that Elmo is a likable character.

PS: I would just say, you see Sesame Street, and that’s that. Kevin might do some shows here or there. But I did not know the unbelievable amount of work that goes on beyond Sesame Street. You see a little bit of the live performances that Kevin goes through. They also make tons of charity videos. There was a whole story I wish we could’ve gone in where they a series of DVDs for families dealing with one or both parents going off to war and coming home, and what happens when one parents doesn’t come home? I mean, Sesame Street would deal with that with Elmo. What they do with Sick Kids and Make a Wish is all private and you don’t see that on television. We would like to say we only got in one tiny sliver of the amount of charity work they do.

CM: I think the most surprising thing is post-facto which is, and I’m delighted, how moving the story is to audiences. The effect it has had is still a complete “delightment” to me and is something I honestly did not anticipate. I’ve made films before with very dark subjects: children who’ve been abandoned or abused, veterans and recovery. [They] were wonderful stories I loved making and their responses were always great but this is something else. When we were in Boston a week and half ago, it was opening night at their festival, there were 750 people. When I introduced Kevin, everybody gave him a standing ovation for what felt like two hours, but was really two minutes. It was loud. That for me was so gratifying to watch that happen. He got a little choked up and I was blubbering.

PS: My Jewish grandmother would say Kevin is a real “mensch,” for those who speak french.

Q: Why did it take six years?

CM: [Jokingly] I hate you! It took six years because at first, I was trying to make what’s called a verité film where we would avoid interviews and just shoot his life, and that was not working out. We kept shooting and following him is so much fun that James and I are still a little bit in withdrawal. That’s [how long] this one took, and in a way, I’m glad it did.

Q: Why choose Whoopi Goldberg to narrate?

CM: Well, Whoopi is a good friend of Kevin’s. When we were talking about narrators, we had a long list. He said, “I don’t want anybody who doesn’t know me talking about me. I want somebody who really knows me and gets me to talk about me.” He and Whoopi have a really tight friendship and she gets him. What she says at the end, nobody else could tackle about why Elmo is so important to children. She’s really smart and she got it. We’re so glad she took part.

JM: When we did the interview with Rosie O’Donnell, [O’Donnell] was on The View and it was a little contentious there as you may recall. She came off the set and it was going to be a little bit of a difficult interview, to say the least.

CM: They were talking about waterboarding or something, and they both went insane. She stomped off the set and literally had steam coming from her ears. I was like, ah! I have to interview her!

JM: As soon as [Goldberg] came in, her entourage were saying, ‘She’ll only give you ten seconds,’ and she comes in, and she meets us. We tell her we’re doing a story about Kevin and she goes, ‘Oh! Oh, really? Okay, okay!’ I think she sat down with us for twenty minutes to half an hour just like friends. I mean, totally disarmed. It was just wonderful to see that and that’s what Kevin does.

CM: It wasn’t because of my magnificent interview skills. I’d like to think they’re getting better, but we rode in [Kevin’s] wing for six years. Being in his wing was great because people love him. He’s so good to the people he works with and to totally strangers that, you know, it makes everything possible in his shadow. Now, we have 500 people who have also fallen in love with him.