Constance Marks, director of puppet doc Being Elmo - interview
The documentary shows the life of puppeteer Kevin Clash
A new documentary, Being Elmo, reveals the story of puppeteer Kevin Clash, the man behind lovable Sesame Street character Elmo. Hannah McGill speaks to director Constance Marks about the enduring love for this cute, red muppet
‘I backed into it innocently,’ says Constance Marks of her project to illuminate the man behind the world’s most famous fuzzy red baby monster. Whilst working as a cameraman on Sesame Street, Marks’ husband brought home a personal recorded message from Elmo for the couple’s then two-year-old daughter, a gift from the character’s creator and puppeteer, Kevin Clash. ‘Elmo was looking at pictures of Sophia in a photograph album, talking to her, telling her that he loved her,’ Marks recalls, ‘and she was just enchanted. I fell in love with whoever it was who had done this for us – so the next time my husband worked on the show, a couple of years later, I said, “Please tell him that your wife has a crush on him! And wants to make a documentary about him!”’ They met up within the month. ‘Kevin sketched the trajectory of his life for me, from early childhood,’ says Marks, ‘and saw straight away that this could be something special.’
The resulting film has indeed struck numerous chords, taking the Special Jury Prize at Sundance 2011, storming festivals around the world and hitting the number one documentary slot on iTunes. Marks found herself somewhat taken aback by the feelings stirred by her chosen subject matter.
‘I was 11 when Sesame Street started, and I was in the Far East during that real period of Muppet mania – so I was one of the few people on the team initially immune to the incredible emotional pull of these characters,’ she explains. Elmo, in particular – a late-minted character, maybe too cutesy for fans of the edgier 70s Muppet, but adored by pre-schoolers – has an almost preternatural appeal. Does Marks have a theory as to why? ‘It’s the colour, the big eyes, the energy – but it’s also the voice,’ she says. ‘Our editor’s fiancé works in a blind school, and Kevin took Elmo to visit there. They couldn’t see Elmo, but as soon as he spoke, they ran towards him, wanting to touch him and hold him.’
Kevin’s own skills, in both puppet-building and performance, kicked in at an early age, and were obsessively honed; Marks’ film depicts an unstinting progression from making his own marionettes out of scraps at home, to gaining access to the hallowed Jim Henson company, to eventually creating one of the stable’s most popular characters. ‘Henson recognised talent and tried to nurture it,’ says Marks, ‘and that’s still a big part of the culture of that company.’ Kevin’s trip wasn’t all plain-sailing – being yoked to a creature that’s worth a merchandising fortune and engenders near-hysteria in children has its lifestyle downsides – but what’s touching about Marks’ film, in an age when documentary usually sniffs out maggoty secrets, is how gently positive it is. ‘I’ve made those films – and now I’m loath to go back to the dark side!’ Marks confesses. For now, at least, the Elmo effect is still strong. ‘I’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction. Grown men, weeping! It’s astonishing to me, and thrilling as well.’
Being Elmo is on selected release from Fri 27 Apr.