One day earlier this winter, as I was making my way around town, pushing my sleeping son in his stroller, I decided to turn down Washington Street and see if I could find Naia Venturi, the owner of Ypsilanti’s Dreamland Theater. Fortunately, she heard me knocking on the door, and came out from behind the curtain to let us in. After exchanging a few pleasantries about how great the sleeping baby/newly-painted theater looked, we began talking about what we’d each been up to since wrapping the last episode of Dreamland Tonight, the puppet-hosted talk show that we’d worked on together. I did my best to make my life of incessant diaper-changing seem interesting, talking about a trip that we’d recently taken to Milwaukee, where I’d eaten some pretty good deep-fried cheese curds, and Naia responded by telling me that she’d just returned from the set of a film, where she’d been shooting scenes with the incomparable Benicio del Toro. (Thankfully, my son was asleep, and didn’t witness my intense humiliation.) Well, upon regaining my composure, I asked Naia if she’d be willing to do an interview once the project was completed, and she agreed. What follows is our subsequent discussion.
MARK: What can you tell us about the movie? All I can remember is that Benecio del Toro’s character is returning from WWII, and, I guess, having problems readjusting to life… Is that right?
NAIA: The movie is called A.K.A. Jimmy Picard and it’s based on the book Reality and Dream: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian by ethnologist/psychoanalyst George Devereux. The book, as I understand it (please note that I’m paraphrasing director Arnaud Desplechin’s explanation to me, and Arnaud’s English is not perfect), is about the insights that George Devereux (played by Mathieu Amalric in the movie) had while treating a WWII vet from the Blackfoot nation, Jimmy Picard (played by Benicio del Toro), who is suffering from what we now refer to as PTSD. The story is about the relationship between Devereux and Picard, and the doctor’s discovery of the importance of considering cultural background in psychiatric treatment.
MARK: So, where do you and the puppets fit in?
NAIA: In the story, a touring puppet troupe performs at the institution where Devereux works and Picard is being treated. The troupe performs A Midsummer Night’s Dream with marionettes. Jimmy Picard is in the audience watching the puppet show and, at some point, notices that one of the puppet’s knees are bent (sloppy puppeteering). And this causes him great agitation. (It has the same effect on me.) …So much so that he goes up to the puppet and straightens its leg out.
MARK: When you say “bent” do you mean that it’s bent backwards? Because knees are supposed to bend, right?
NAIA: Not when you’re supposed to be standing up. One of the easiest mistakes to make with a marionette is to have it floating or sinking – the puppeteer has to be cognizant of the vertical position of the puppet at all times, which is tricky since you are looking at it from above.
MARK: Did it hurt to play the part of a “sloppy” puppeteer? I mean, after all, this is your big shot, and you take pride in your work, right?
NAIA: Not at all. Besides, we had other scenes too, with less sloppy puppeteering.
MARK: Do you think that you might make it into the film, or can we just expect to see the puppets?
NAIA: Andy and Jessie may be in the movie as the puppeteers. They were given period haircuts and outfits, and both looked really awesome. There were a few shots taken looking up at them controlling the puppets. Andy and Jessie each had a door of a trailer with their name on it!
MARK: How’d you come to be involved in the project?
NAIA: Jamie Klenk, a friend of mine and an excellent photographer (she had an exhibition at Dreamland last year), worked on the movie as the art production assistant. She and the art director, Dina Goldman, were trying to find puppets and puppeteers for the project. They were originally looking in New York (which has a thriving puppet scene), when Jamie suddenly thought of me. She showed Arnaud some photographs that she had taken of my puppets and he loved them and asked to meet with me… I made three new puppets for A Midsummer’s Night Dream including Puck and Bottom, with a swappable head – man and ass. I had to rework the ass head several times to making it menacing enough for Arnuad.
MARK: Most importantly, did the puppet that you made of me have any scenes with Benicio Del Toro? If so, how will I appear in the credits? Will it say “Puppet Mark Maynard”?
NAIA: No – sorry – I didn’t use the Mark puppet for this one.
MARK: Did you consciously decide to leave me out? Were you trying to protect me from the corrosive effects of fame, thinking that I’d spiral out of control like Lindsey Lohan? Or, was it the director? Did he not like the look of my puppet? Was I too fat? Was my hair not shiny enough? Or was it just that I didn’t return his advances?
NAIA: Yes to all of the above.
MARK: If I’m not mistaken, Arnaud Desplechin, who’s probably best known for 2008′s A Christmas Tale, is French. I’m not sure why… maybe it’s a stereotype… but my sense is that a French director, more-so than one from our country, would be respectful of puppetry as an art form. Having only worked on one feature film, I don’t know that you can make a categorical statement to that effect, but I’m curious to know what he was like to work with.
NAIA: Arnaud used shadow puppets in the opening of A Christmas Tale. The shadow puppet sequence is really beautiful and sets the tone of the movie – he showed me this sequence at our first meeting. Arnaud definitely had very specific visions/aesthetics in mind for Jimmy Picard and he seemed excited to use puppets to help express this vision. I don’t know that including puppetry has anything to do with him being French – it is true, though, that almost every country in the world has more respect for the art of puppetry than the US.
MARK: Were you able to improvise at all, or were they really clear as to what they wanted?
NAIA: Arnaud loves the 1935 Hollywood version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as do I) and had specific scenes from the movie in mind. Dina (the art director) brought in Katrina Whalen, a filmmaker and animator from New York to Michigan, to help me with the puppet stuff. Katrina turned out to be a super awesome person and invaluable in helping get everything done in the limited time we had. All of us sat around in the little temporary offices in Dearborn and marked these scenes in copies of the play and brainstormed on what to include. I agreed to put together and rehearse more puppet scenes than were needed even though, in the end, there would only be a couple of short shots of the puppets. I spent a great deal of time editing the scenes to work with marionettes, recorded these, and rehearsed them with three other puppeteers (Andy, Jesse, Anthea and Katrina). In the end (on the day of shooting) it was Arnaud who decided which puppet scenes to shoot, and we did what he asked – the director calls the shots after all.
MARK: Do you think it’s possible that this might open up the door to other feature film work?
NAIA: You never know – I certainly hope so.
MARK: Are you doing anything to make that happen?
NAIA: Nothing other than trying to make better and better puppet shows.
MARK: Did you get to interact at all with Benicio del Toro, either on the set, or off?
NAIA: I worked with Benicio on the scene where he comes up to the puppet stage and fixes the marionette. I had just finished improvising with the puppets, while Arneau shot the audience’s (patients’) reactions. I heard Arneau and Benicio talking about the scene, then a pair of hands reached for the marionette and stopped just before grabbing it. Benicio looked up at me and asked if it was okay if he touched the puppet. I said yes, of course. We proceeded to rehearse and then shoot the scene. I got to experience the intensity of Benicio’s acting first hand – when we filmed the scene for real, he shot me (the puppeteer) an angry glare after straightening the puppet that was so realistic that I felt scared for a moment… I got to meet a lot of really interesting people at the opening party, but Benicio wasn’t there. I spoke with Elya Baskin for a while (I am a bit of a Slavophil). He tested me on my Russian in the exact same manner that another Russian man did once. I’m beginning to suspect that this is a common trick. It’s pretty simple – He asked me what time is was in Russian and, when my head immediately turned to look at the clock on the wall, he said, “So you really do know Russian”.
MARK: If we could get the money together to buy him a ticket, do you think Benecio might come to Dreamland for an showing of the film? Or, better yet, how about appearing on an episode of Dreamland Tonight?
NAIA: I doubt it.
MARK: You doubt that we could get the money together for a plane ticket, or that he’d come to visit? I think it might be a fun little Kickstarter campaign… having the puppets ask Benecio to come back for a visit.
NAIA: Both… And go for it.
MARK: And, if I’m not mistaken, you got a new puppet stage out of the deal, right?
NAIA: I did! Justin Lang, another awesome person that did the set design, designed and built the puppet stage using specifications that I gave him. As we approached the day of the shoot, I asked what they were going to do with the stage afterward, and could I have it, and they said, “Yes”! Here’s a photo of the stage on the set (a room in a huge old, mostly abandoned convent in Monroe). I had to take out a couple of the panels, and cut a bit off the top in order to get it to fit into Dreamland…. After all of the work that went into the puppets, costumes and script, and since I have the stage and sets, it just seems natural for the Dreamland Puppet Troupe to present our own production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The opening is planned for Midsummer’s eve (Summer Solstice), June 21.
MARK: That sounds awesome… So, what else is going on at Dreamland these days?
NAIA: In terms of puppetry, the Dreamland Puppet Troupe performed “Chemical Trances ~ A Unabomber Love Story” to an audience of 400+ at the DIA and got a standing ovation – THAT was an awesome experience. Andy Mitchell and I are working a new puppet show developed around a musical score that he is composing (a.k.a. Peter and the Wolf). And Dreamland is performing an original show called “The Love Epidemic” this Sunday at 3:30 PM, doors at 3:00. (FYI – the Mark puppet IS in this one. He plays an employee of the Center for Disease Control.) We had a Butoh show last month that Aimee Adams set up, and there will be another one in May. Plus, weekly Butoh classes may start being held at Dreamland starting very soon. There is an EMU creative writing department event next Thursday: Muriel Rukeyser’s Book of the Dead, a performance organized by Carla Harryman, and a poetry reading with Tyrone Williams, Catherine Taylor and Judith Goldman. We have a number of other interesting show ideas floating around, so stay tuned.
MARK: So I get the infectious diseases, while the other puppets get to practice their craft with Benicio… I apologize if it was something that I said, Naia.
NAIA: That’s the long and short of it. But if there is a next time I will try to include him.
[Photos courtesty of Katrina Whalen.]