Mark Goffman has established himself as an accomplished writer, having worked on “The West Wing,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” and “White Collar” (on which he is also an executive producer). For Goffman’s directorial debut, however, he didn’t go with politicians, TV executives, cops or criminals, but with ventriloquists. Goffman’s documentary Dumbstruck follows five “vents” (Kim, a former beauty queen and Miss Ohio; Wilma, a 6’5” former security guard; Dylan, a 13-year-old boy; Dan, a cruise ship entertainer; and Terry, who won season two of “America’s Got Talent”) at the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. The film takes a look at the small but diverse community of ventriloquists and explores the struggles, both professional and personal, that these talented performers go through in order to follow their dreams.
For more information visit www.dumbstruckthemovie.com.
Samantha Husik (MM): Dumbstruck features a pretty interesting range of “vents,” from a 13-year-old to a former Miss Ohio. Why do think such a wide spectrum of people are drawn to ventriloquism? Has directing Dumbstruck inspired you to try ventriloquism yourself?
Mark Goffman (MG): I was fascinated by who decides to become a professional ventriloquist today. Sure, it was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the ‘50s (Edgar Bergen, “Howdy Doody,” Paul Winchell, etc). But today…? It seemed like tough career choice.
We found ventriloquists primarily in small towns and small venues across the country–Corsicana, Texas; Mansfield, Ohio; Loomis, California–very Americana. I fell in love with that motif. The practitioners take me back to the ‘50s, to 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.
MM: As a writer, what was it like to go from behind the computer to behind the camera?
MG: When I write, I can sometimes spend an entire day in a robe. As a director, I had to put on real clothes every day. And production… we had to shoot guerilla-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 for shooting porn. I guess they like all the exotic locations, and the cabins are fairly private. So I was filming Kim, who’s a beauty queen. Her dream was to become a cruise ship entertainer; performing on cruise ships is 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 a while 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.
Also, writing gives you 100% control over 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 a year and a half longer than I expected so that the stories would have the right arcs and a satisfying ending.
MM: Though this is your first directorial effort, you started shooting in 2007. Over the last four years you must have grown as a director. What have you learned about the craft and about yourself during the course of production? Any plans to direct in the future? If so, would you like to direct a narrative?
MG: 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 equipment and cameras in the right places 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. I got very good at anticipating where the action would be, [and I learned] how to work with the DP [George Reasner] 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 by 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.
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: You have to be ready when opportunity arises. We see that certain [vents featured in the film], like Terry Fator, were ready. 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, but he wasn’t ready. Watching his audition is heartwrenching.
MM: A common reason that people cite for loving ventriloquism is that it allows them to say things they couldn’t say themselves. In your experience, did you find that there is a psychological element to ventriloquism? Do ventriloquists hide behind their dummies or use them to enhance their personalities?
MG: Dumbstruck was inspired by my mother-in-law, who is very shy. At my wedding she was asked to give a toast. She walks up to the microphone and shocked the 200 guests 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 is what began my adventure into the world of ventriloquism.
There is no doubt that the puppets can say things that most people could never say without offending. We found most vents take on the role of the straight man or nice guy, while their dummies can be blunt and out of control. For example, Dylan is this incredibly reserved 13-year-old, and he describes [his dummy] Reggie as a pimp and a ladies’ man. His dad can’t understand why Dylan picked a black figure, but when we see Dylan perform, we see Reggie flirting with Kim in the audience and talking about Dylan’s shortcomings with women.
MM: What’s up next for you?
MG: I’m keeping busy on “White Collar,” which I absolutely adore. I just finished writing a pilot about a high-profile law firm in Washington, D.C., so I look forward to seeing how that show progresses. That will take me through the summer, then my dream would be to find another project like Dumbstruck, which has the mix of big comedic moments and still tells a story that ultimately has real dramatic stakes. I have a few ideas beyond the puppet world…