“You can study Shakespeare and be quite elite,
You can charm the critics and have nothing to eat,
Just slip on a banana peel and the world’s at your feet-
Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh, make ‘em laugh!”
In January, 2010, I logged onto the revamped Smodcast.com to discover the release of a new podcast: Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave. Having gotten into Kevin Smith’s movies the summer of 2008, and being a regular listener of Smodcast, Kevin’s podcast with Scott Mosier, I was familiar with the moniker and knew its connection to Smodcast guest-hosts Bryan Johnson and Walter Flanagan, Kevin’s longtime friends and inspiration behind Randal (Bryan) in Clerks, and Brody (Walt) in Mallrats. I had thoroughly enjoyed the editions of Smodcast in which Bryan, Walt, or both had appeared, and was excited by the prospect that they might be taking their own steps into the world digital broadcast. With all of the pomp, circumstance, and anticipation merited by the release of a free podcast, I hit “download” and waited.
The show was everything that I had come to expect from Bryan and Walt, and I found that listening to it was the perfect filler to play while working building props, running, editing MOS footage, or fabricating puppets. As time went by, I moved from Atlanta to Texas to attend Baylor University, discovered that watching King of the Hill and The Dollars Trilogy hadn’t adequately prepared me for a long-term commitment living in the grand old Republic, and finally moved back to Atlanta to reboot my college career at Georgia State University.
Along the way I experimented with stop-motion animation, continued to crank out script after script, shot short films, and dreamed of the day that I would (hopefully) be given the chance to produce and direct a feature-length film. The soundtrack to this time? A lot of Alice Cooper, my all time favorite since entering my teens, some Celtic punk, and Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave.
I enjoyed the honesty of the show, a depiction of three friends (following Brian “Q” Quinn’s integration into the show) who lived normal lives and dealt with normal, albeit hilarious problems. It was the kind of material that I could relate to, and when life got me down, it was always encouraging to hear Bryan lament his existence, as it reminded me that as bad as it got, there was always someone more depressed than I was.
I interned at a production house over the course of the summer of 2011, and returned for my second semester at GSU with a renewed drive to create. I didn’t have the budget to realize my ideas, so I decided that puppetry and stop-motion would be an acceptable alternative to paying for good talent, and began work on a stop-motion short film that dissected the film making process in a way that only academic analysis of film (the entirety of the film courses that I had taken up to this point) could accomplish.
September 2, 2011. I had gotten up early in the morning to run, and downloaded the newest edition of Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave to listen to. About an hour into the show, Walt mentioned how much he hated being on stage, and sent out a request to the listeners for somebody to make “really killer muppets” of the gang. I was sold. I gathered up poorly framed JPEGs of my paltry production design portfolio, and shot them off into cyber-space, not even thinking for a second that they would be enough to convince the guys to let me make the puppets. For whatever reason, it worked. I had gotten the gig to make the Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave puppets, and a month later, I shot a brief video with them, posted it on YouTube, and drove the foam monstrosities up to Red Bank to deliver them to the store. I didn’t meet Bryan, Walt, or Q when I arrived, but the road trip from Atlanta, GA, with my longtime friend and collaborator, Andrew Riley (Festival Correspondent and Director of the Behind the Scenes Doc), was an adventure all its own. I got back in town early on an October morning in time to go to class, and I didn’t expect to hear anything else about the puppets, until the video I posted online, “Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave Puppet Theatre” began to receive hits and comments.
I found out that the guys had really enjoyed the video, and so did the listeners. I was blown away, the video was poorly shot, poorly acted, and featured incredibly poorly-made puppets; but seeing the positive reaction that the video received, I knew that the material could be done more effectively, and when I received a phone call from Brian Quinn in early November in which he posed the idea: “We want to make a DVD,” I knew that the time had come for me to produce that feature-length film that I had always dreamed of.
I had been shooting video for years, knew how to write and edit, and had taken enough film theory courses to make me sick, but I knew that if I was going to make a feature-length film, I would need a more hands-on, practical knowledge of the film making process as taught by individuals who had actually worked in the film industry. Georgia State is a fine school, but hands-on production courses there did not fit the bill, and I had only made two friends since starting; it was time to cut my losses. The sun rose on January 1st, 2012 and shone on me and my lifelong best friend Preston Cook (Puppet Master for TESD Puppet Theatre) driving down I-75 towards Savannah, GA, where my next, and current, college home was: The Savannah College of Art and Design.
Within 48 hours of arriving at SCAD, four important things happened: first, I finished my first hired gig writing for a feature-length film, Find a Way; I met Daniel Irons (1st AC for TESD Puppet Theatre) at an orientation meeting (as I recall, we discussed the brilliance of Stanley Kubrick); I met Mackenzie Parker (VFX Supervisor for TESD Puppet Theatre), who accosted me with a pear outside of my dormroom while looking for my roommate; and finally, I met my roommate, Logan Thomas (Production Designer, and Puppet Fabricator for TESD Puppet Theatre).
A week into classes, I knew that I had made the right pick. Being at a college filled with eccentric creative types made me feel right at home, and I was pleasantly surprised that my roommate, Logan, and I got along excellently and became best friends. I was fortunate enough to make it onto the set of an extremely talented film student, Travis Ratcliff, where I took on the responsibility of managing craft services for three consecutive weeks.
What I witnessed during my time on the set was simply inspiring: young filmmakers working towards a common goal simply for the love of the craft. Once again, my choice was affirmed as I met individuals who were as passionate about cinema as I was, Eric Dickinson (Cinematographer for TESD), Emily Brown (Gaffer for TESD), Scott Miller (2nd Best Boy Grip for TESD), Ellie Evans (Key Grip), Andrew Lainhart (Best Boy Electric & Producer), Laura Minto (Editor), and numerous others. By the Autumn of 2012 I had befriended the best and the brightest in the film department at SCAD, and coincidentally, had finally been able to brow beat Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave’s Bryan, Walt, and Quinn into greenlighting the DVD, at long last.
Following a nail-biting Kickstarter campaign that showed us just how much support there was for the project (to the Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave listeners and backers on Kickstarter: I am forever in your debt) we were ready to go make movie magic.
The week of Thanksgiving, 2012, we hit ground in Atlanta, GA to begin work on the movie. There were sets to build, puppets to fabricate, and ultimately a feature to shoot over the next four weeks. Luckily, I had Preston Cook and Logan Thomas (both excellent production designers and fabricators) to help build, and a crew headed by Eric “Joker” Dickinson coming from Savannah to help shoot. We were a group of, in Walt’s words, “self-entitled college students” with a fascination for “gizmos and gadgets”, and we were, by God, ready to kick some ass and take some names.
The first day of shooting arrived and we promptly had our asses handed to us on a silver platter. Shooting with puppets was nowhere near as simple as shooting with human beings. We realized the wisdom of Jim Henson’s team when they constructed sets 8 feet off of the ground in order for puppeteers to be able to stand to operate them, and discovered just how limited we were in resources and ability to convey motion with our poly-foam actors. We found ourselves under-prepared in every respect, including in our mindset: three weeks to shoot this movie? That wasn’t going to happen…
That three weeks turned into four months worth of building and production with shooting occurring in Atlanta, a log cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Red Bank, New Jersey, and Savannah, GA. We were fighting an uphill battle through the mud, some of us couch surfing and skipping days of meals- lives were lost, puppets were destroyed, and automated flying saucer rigs caught on fire after days of successful tests (resulting in a less impressive, but significantly funnier hand-cranked rig coupled with the sound of a sputtering car), but every step of the way we remembered the lessons of Singin in the Rain: “Dignity, always dignity”, and “Make ‘em laugh”, and when we thought we had reached our breaking points, all it took was a crazy puppet executing a ridiculous action in front of the camera to lighten everyone’s spirits and remember why we were all there to begin with.
On April 20, 2013, after five months of production, and a year and a half of anticipation and preparation, Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave Puppet Theatre was released, crashing Dropbox, Sugarsync, Google Drive, and every other cloud server we had employed for the job, an accomplishment in and of itself. By sunset that day, the movie had been reliably delivered to everyone who had backed the movie, and by summer’s end the DVDs had been mailed out following technical errors and delays.
So, August 3, 2013, a year and 11 months to the day that I put my life on hold to pursue this project, I have mailed my last DVD, and can send all of the files to back up drives, and fold my hands in rest.
To God, thank you for this opportunity, I certainly hope that this movie didn’t offend you as badly as we think it has. To those who backed the project on Kickstarter, thank you for your undying support and patience, we are all extremely glad to have been able to have the chance to make you laugh, and I sincerely hope that you enjoyed the movie. To those who contributed to the production process via providing meals, room and board, locations, equipment, labor, etc: thank you, without you this movie never would have been made.
It is extremely surreal to finally be at the end of this journey, though (to quote Garth Ennis’s ‘The Boys’), somehow this feels like more of a beginning.
So, until next time, don’t forget to laugh, always follow your passions, and remember the departing message of Jim Henson:
Thank you, take care, and I’ll see you at the movies,
- Thorne Sherwood Winter, V