Being Elmo director Constance Marks began her filmmaking career over 30 years ago as an assistant editor for the renowned cinema verite pioneers David and Albert Maysles. For Being Elmo, she partnered with her cameraman husband James Miller and childhood friend Corrine LaPook to take a close look at Kevin Clash, the man behind (and usually under) the world’s most recognizable children’s character, Elmo — the 3-and-a-half-year-old furry red denizen of Sesame Street. Being Elmo premieres tonight on Independent Lens at a special time, 9pm on most PBS stations (check local listings).
What impact do you hope this film will have?
If Being Elmo continues to move audiences as we’ve witnessed during this past year since our premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, I’ll be very pleased.
What led you to make this film?
My husband, James Miller, was a cameraman on Sesame Street. One day he handed me a videotaped greeting from Elmo to our daughter, and the “elusive-obvious” suddenly came to mind: there was someone underneath Elmo, puppeteering him! I wanted to know who it was. I’d long admired how nuanced Elmo’s moves were, and I thought his vocal intonations and charm were utterly endearing. Kevin and I arranged to meet. He told me his life story and I was 100 percent interested, instantly, in making a film about this extraordinary man.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Finding the right way to edit the story took a long time. Otherwise, it was a joy working on every single aspect of this film.
How did you gain the access and trust you would need for the film?
Initially, we garnered some trust because Kevin had seen a film that James, Philip, and I had made (with Bob Eisenhardt) called Green Chimneys – and he had known James from the Sesame Street set. Once we started showing Kevin cuts of the film we felt good about, he was on board and his interviews became deeper and more relaxed.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
So many scenes and bits never made it into the final film. I dedicated some time to that in the DVD extras. We shot over 200 hours and there were hilarious moments and utterly wrenching scenes that could not be worked into the film successfully. It always happens but it’s never easy to walk away from these gems.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The first 100 times I screened Kevin and Elmo performing for a Make-A-Wish child who was terminally ill, I cried. Emotional scenes usually don’t have the ability to make me that teary after so many viewings. Tau’s joy when visiting The Jim Henson Company always moves me — and I always laugh out loud when I hear Kevin performing Baby Natasha.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The audience response has been overwhelmingly positive. Kevin and his family are very happy with the film. I take it very seriously — when the subjects of my films are enthusiastic about the final cut, that’s when I can finally relax.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
Curiosity. What a great opportunity it is to immerse oneself in other lives and professions.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
It’s ELMO! A perfect fit.
What are your three favorite films?
Today they are:
Ikuru by Akira Kurosawa
The Best Years of Our Lives by William Wyler
The Funeral by Juzo Itami
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Hire experienced people who are generous with their time.