I love Mark and Lindsay Goffman’s new documentary, “Dumbstruck,” which follows five ventriloquists over the course of a year between the two annual conventions that give them their one chance to be with others who share their passion. It is funny, smart, inspiring, and heartwarming, and I had a lot of fun talking to Mark about how it got made and what he learned.
You must have been shocked when one of your subjects became an international superstar in the course of making the film. Terry Fator won “America’s Got Talent” and now has a hundred million dollar contract with the Mirage in Las Vegas.
We set out to look at working ventriloquists in small-town America. That’s where we thought we would find ventriloquism. It harkens back to a simpler time and we liked the smaller venues’ feel. We knew Terry was phenomenally talented from the moment we saw him. We expected to see him in his home city of Corsicana and state fairs and things like that and then he got on “America’s Got Talent” and it just exploded from there.
The other ventriloquists are very happy for him but it also makes them dream bigger for themselves.
It gave a lot of people hope. They’re a really tight-knit community and think of themselves as a family and that was something I really wanted to capture in the film. There are very few ventriloquists in most towns so they feel a bit isolated. They feel like they’re on their own and as you can see in the film their families don’t always support this vocation they have chosen so they have this very strong sense of community. Really, when we stared we thought cruise ships was the pinnacle — that was a great living. Dan Horn was seen as achieving about as much success as you can get with this art form. And Terry comes out of nowhere and explodes onto the screen and it was really quite astonishing.
How did this project get started?
At our wedding my mother-in-law got up to give a toast. Her lips didn’t move and she held up her hand with a white glove on it like a sock puppet and words started coming out and her hand started delivering a toast. It was incredibly endearing and charming and really funny and certainly unexpected to the 150 guests. It turned out she does ventriloquism primarily in schools — she’s a second grade teacher and she does it in her classroom. But she has learned that she can express herself very differently and it makes her feel a lot more comfortable in front of a crowd. She told us about the ventriloquist conference in Kentucky and Lindsay and I knew that this was a community we wanted to see. We found 500 people with their dummies talking back and forth and really bonding. We fell in love with these five people that we wanted to follow.
Some of the family members you spoke to were embarrassed or even hostile about their relatives’ interest in ventriloquism.
We wanted to know what their lives were like outside of the convention where they feel welcome and very supported. And we found that most of the time their families didn’t understand. We hope that’s something people can relate to, whether it’s any hobby or career path, some people have families that are very supportive and others have to find the courage and determination to pursue their dreams and their loves despite what others around them think.
That’s why they are so happy to be together — they feel understood and accepted.
The people who run the convention say it’s like a family reunion. They keep that kind of atmosphere and it’s a very welcoming environment. You see that when Wilma needs help, the people are there for her.
Is it true that you had to remind the sound guys not to mic the puppets?
It was true of the boom mics — when the dummy starts talking, we had to remind them to keep them over the person, not the puppet.
Have you tried ventriloquism?
I have tried it; it’s incredibly hard. I have enormous respect for anyone who can do it. It’s an instrument. You have eyes, ears, mouth, you have to synch with the voice. That’s one of the reasons we showed Tim Selberg; he is like the Stradavarius of figure-makers; they can cost up to $20,000. These things are finely-tuned instruments. Not only do you have to manipulate this and make it behave like a human being but you have to create a character, a persona. And then, on top of that, you have to come up with a routine that’s essentially a stand-up routine, and that’s a talent in itself. It’s a combination of a lot of different skills. It’s very hard.
Yes, one of the most interesting scenes is where one of your ventriloquists gets some advice from a consultant about how to improve her act because you see how much has to go into it.
She was looking for some guidance and the man who came in and helped her is very well known and respected and he advised her to give her puppet a huge makeover. He was mining the comedy out of who she was and trying to give her puppet a counterpart to play off that. The successful ones create a character who can say the things they wouldn’t normally say or aren’t comfortable saying.
The puppets are a contrast to the ventriloquists, especially then-12-year-old Dylan, a white boy with an African-American dummy.
Dylan told us there are very few minorities in his school and he’s a showman and he thought he could get a lot of shock value and mileage out of it. At the same time, he told me on many occasions that Reggie is his best friend and he hopes they are together for the rest of his life. It’s an amazing attachment that they have.