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Victoria Film Festival Interview: I AM BIG BIRD directors Dave LaMattina & Chad Walker

by Jason Whyte

"I AM BIG BIRD is the story of Caroll Spinney, who has been Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since Sesame Street first aired in 1969. He's 81 and still doing it." Directors Dave LaMattina & Chad Walker on I AM BIG BIRD which screens at the 2015 Victoria Film Festival.

Is this your first movie in the Victoria Film Festival, and are you coming to Victoria for the screening?

It is our first film at the Victoria Film Festival; sadly, we don't think we will be able to attend.

Tell me a bit about your background and what led you into movies and film festivals.

Dave LaMattina: At Boston College, I was pursuing journalism more than anything else. I thought I would try my hand at sports writing. I enjoyed it, but I always kept an eye on film. I never thought I would make documentaries, but there was a program that offered a grant to make documentaries about moral courage. At the same time, I had heard about a home for mothers and children living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa. I submitted a proposal and the school sent me to Johannesburg to make a movie about it. I fell in love with docs, but didn't think it would be a career. I ended up working in animation, but missing docs, so I tried to find a way back into it.

Chad Walker: When I was a kid, my brother and I used to go to the movies all the time. One day, my mom said, "Why don't you guys stop going to the movies and make one instead?" We thought it was a great idea and had fun doing it. Those early films were NOT the best, but I still love them. That started me down my path. I went to film school at Sheridan, then got a job working in documentaries for public TV. I still wanted to do narrative and eventually ended up working in animation, where Dave and I met and decided to make a doc in our spare time. Now we are here.

How did this whole project come together from your perspective?

DL: I had interned at Sesame Workshop in 2005. I was telling a friend about what a great internship it was and she told me she was related to Caroll Spinney. I told her I didn't know who that was. She explained and gave me his whole back story. I told Chad and we thought we needed to make a film about it. Years later, we went back to some of my old contacts and asked them to help us out. Within days, we had a meeting scheduled with Caroll and Deb. We hit it off and they agreed to let us make the movie.

What was the biggest challenge in making the film? And the most rewarding moment?

CW: The biggest challenge was also our biggest advantage. Caroll and Deb have basically filmed everything they've ever done and they opened their archives to us. It was hundreds, maybe even thousands of hours of material dating back to the 50s. But the footage really became what made the film. It captured who they are and the depth of their love. The film would've been completely different without it. The most rewarding moment was seeing Caroll at the premiere at Hot Docs. When he the crowd gave him a long standing ovation, he had to take a moment to collect himself. It was great to see him receive the praise he deserves.

What keeps you going while making a movie? How much coffee?

DL: I'm more of a hot chocolate guy. I think I just love it. It's fun. It doesn't feel like work. But one thing that has kept me going since starting to work with a directing partner is that I think Chad is so good at what he does that I want to be an equal contributor. I like to think we elevate each other. Part of that is because we're both so competitive, which I think is helpful to the dynamic. We don't want to let each other down. I think if I had worked alone on a project like this, it might still be in the development stage.

I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

CW: I am actually the director of photography as well. At the beginning of every project Dave and I will sit down and “set the look” of the film. We make a Style Guide for how we want the B-Roll to be shot, how we want the interviews to look and so forth. For I AM BIG BIRD all we really had to worry about was the interviews since most of the film was archival footage. We shot the interviews on Panasonic AF100's in combination with Blackmagic HyperDecks. Ideally, when working with so much archival footage you would want to shoot your interviews on film but the cost would have been much too high. Instead, we decided to shoot the interviews as flat as possible lighting-wise, and let the experts at Company 3 give the interview footage a more traditional film look. Crush the blacks, pop some of the whites and so on. In the end, we really love what they were able to do!

I would love to hear about the journey this movie has had on the fest circuit, and the plans you have for the movie after it plays in Victoria.

DL: We opened I AM BIG BIRD at HotDocs, which was an amazing experience. Chad had actually been a volunteer at HotDocs when he was a student at Sheridan, so it was cool for him to come full circle. From there we went to a number of festivals, including AFI Docs, LA Film Fest, Montclair, Dubai, Melbourne, DocNYC and Canberra. In Canada, we are excited to be working with KinoSmith, which will take the film out theatrically later this year.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film in a cinema?

CW: It better be an emergency!

There are a lot filmmakers, especially up-and-comers, reading our site. I was curious if you had any advice to aspiring filmmakers?

DL: It's very simple really; see and make a lot of movies. I have never made a movie that I haven't learned from. I have certainly never made anything that I think is perfect. You learn something on every film. I always try to make a film the best film I'm capable of making at that time, but know that in a month, a year or five years; if I made that same film it would be better.

CW: Ask other people for input, but don't be afraid to listen to your instincts. We always ask a small circle of people we trust to give us notes at the rough cut stage. Some of them are great. Some of them aren't. You have to listen to the notes and really consider them, but at the end of the day, do what you think works best for your film.

And finally, what would you say is your favorite movie?


For additional information on the Victoria Film Festival including screening times, ticketing information and other events happening around the city in the next ten days, point your browser to

Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @jasonwhyte for live updates throughout the fest including Instagram updates, commentary and links to upcoming interviews and coverage. If you see me in line, please say hi!

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 02/11/15 20:51:39
last updated: 02/11/15 20:52:52
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