I'm No Dummy...the Interview with Bryan W. Simon and Marjorie Engesser Part I
Bryan W. Simon and Marjorie Engesser are a team. It is rare today to find a successful partnership in work and in life. Such is the case with Bryan and Marge. Of course we know them as friends of the vent community and the extraordinary creators of the 'I'm No Dummy' series of films. In fact, Bryan and Marge have a new release relating to 'I'm No Dummy' which we will be talking about.
It is also important to know that Bryan and Marge have also had a lot of success in other areas of film as well. One thinks of the award winning films 'The Second Room,' or 'Along for the Ride,' as two examples.
But back to ventriloquism. An overview of Bryan and Marge's work is not complete without the inclusion of Jay Johnson, the Two and Only!, the film adaptation of this Tony Award production. Something we will cover in Part II of this two part interview.
So, there is lots to talk about. Stay with us now for a fascinating look into the mind and work of Bryan W. Simon and Marjorie Engesser!
Here's Part I.
How old were you when you got your hands on a super 8 movie camera?
When I was twelve or thirteen. It was back in the day when you could order from the Spiegel catalog. I saved up my money and bought the camera. Previous to that I had used an old 8 mm that my Dad had. With the Super 8 though, I started making little films.
That was a pretty young age to be doing that kind of thing. What do you think was the influence and why was the drive there so early in your life?
My Father, who was an English professor, actually made educational films for Coronet.
The film company out of Chicago?
Yes. I was around it from the beginning. There were film strips and little films and I got to act in a few of them at age 11! So that was the first professional acting job I ever had. In addition, my parents would take me to the big movie houses that were still around. I grew up in Waukegan, Il and we would go to Milwaukee to the Warner Brothers Grand Theater and to Chicago as well. My parents weren’t artist’s but they exposed us to all sorts of theatrical kinds of things.
What kind of movies did you make with the Super 8?
Science fiction films.
Did you have editing capabilities?
I think it was how they did it in the silent days. We would kind of hold the film up to the light and determine where we wanted to make the splice! (laughter)
Did you have a little splicing machine where you would rub the emulsion off and glue it together?
Yes. But we weren’t sophisticated enough to use glue. (laughter) But, we did use tape. At some point in time I ended up with a little editing bay with the two reels. In high school we started making more sophisticated films. In fact, we started shooting with a Bolex 16 mm camera.
Well, at this point in time I know you have done both theater and film, which do you prefer?
If I had to pick, I would say film. Partially because film lasts. But I really do enjoy theater as well. I love the immediacy of theater.
Well, obviously you’ve done both with ‘Jay Johnson The Two and Only! ‘and the ‘I’m no Dummy” documentary.’ But why would a film director with your credentials turn to ventriloquism as a subject especially since the audience has a tendency to be a bit limited in size.
There are two reasons. First, I really like ventriloquism. And, I’ve found if you really like something, you will generally move in that direction. Second, there was a writers strike as we were talking about doing our next picture. However, the strike did not include documentary. Doing a documentary then allowed us to continue moving forward with our work.
Marge: Also we did research and discovered that there was no full length feature film on ventriloquism. That was a key factor.
Is it important to you guys that you have a personal interest or love in the projects that you take on?
Absolutely. For me, it is foremost. I have been offered other jobs to direct something and I have turned them down because it didn’t work for me and it was just a ‘job.’ Without that connection, I’m not interested. But here is the thing, with ‘I’m No Dummy’ we felt that if we constructed it and built it properly, it would transcend this small group of people.
And did it transcend to a larger audience?
Yes, it has. What we had hoped to achieve, we did. The film still continues to be rented downloaded and streamed. Much more so than we had ever hoped.
What was the original treatment for I’m No Dummy?
The film was originally constructed to be built in chapters or sections. That was the original structure and it ended up being just that. But, I did add something to it that I eventually abandoned. I wanted to follow a young ventriloquist through the documentary, but it didn’t work, so we pulled it out. So actually what you see today in ‘I’m No Dummy’ is exactly what we envisioned
Marge: We actually had a structure that we wrote out. In the new book that Bryan is doing, (Hey, I’m Talkin’ Here) we put a picture of that structure we used in its original conception
Did you storyboard it?
No. We knew that the sections would go in a certain order. We had similar questions for each of the principal players in the film. This provided continuity.
What role did Kelly Asbury play in the film?
Marge: Very significant.
Bryan: Yes. He was the first interview we had. When we first started researching the film, I found out about Vent Haven and reached out to
Annie Roberts. (Vent Haven) She told me to check with Kelly. There was a reason for this. We had contacted a few people here and there and no one wanted to talk with us.
Really? Why was that?
Because of how ventriloquism had been treated in the past by other interviewers. Ventriloquists would be approached in seriousness and then would be blindsided with an ugly or mocking description of the craft. That is NOT what we wanted to do. That approach does not interest me. The craziness that is perceived about ventriloquists is a misconception first and foremost. And frankly, to approach it in a mocking manner is easy and ridiculous. Anyway, Annie Robert’s said, "call Kelly." So I called. I believe he was at Disney at the time and was getting ready to go to London for a shoot. Well he said, yeah, c’mon over and let's do the interview.
Was it just you doing the interview?
No. It was Marjorie, myself, and my cinematographer. We went to Kelly's home in Pasadena and it was empty! He was going to be gone for four or five years so everything had been put in storage.
So you didn’t know you were going to an empty house? When you arrived and it was empty did you think, “Oh this is a successful guy!” (laughter)
So we ended up filming Kelly and he then opened the door to everyone else including Jimmy Nelson. Essentially Kelly said, "Yeah, these guys know what they are doing and are going in the direction they say they are.” He was also a good source for what we called the old school section. You know, Senor Wences, Jimmy, Nelson, Paul Winchell and Edgar Bergen.
Ok, so the original release was in 2009. But there has now been a re-release or special edition of 'I’m No Dummy' with additional material. When did that happen?
You obviously thought a director’s cut, so to speak, was merited. How did you make that decision?
The original film is intact. But, we had so much extra footage. Doug Zwick from Pop Twist entertainment approached us about doing another release. Thus, 'I’m No Dummy Special Edition' was born.
You had a lot of professional encouragement from distributers and the like to expand this?
Yes, absolutely. Doug thought there was a market for the film after our original distribution deal with Salient Media and NBC Universal. And then when streaming came in Doug said, “why don’t you go in and do an additional streaming version,” which became ‘I’m No Dummy II, the not so lost footage.’
I’m No Dummy has really grown.
Yes. In fact, Tom Ladshaw calls this the I’m No Dummy franchise.
You once said in an interview that serendipity plays a role in greater success. You then pointed to the creation and timing of Achmed by Jeff Dunham, or the AGT moment when Terry Fator won and of course Jay Johnson, The Two and Only! How does that apply to you? How does serendipity play a role in your success?
I think it is combination of opportunity and preparation. If you are prepared for success, you will be successful. Jeff was always building on his art and reinventing himself almost yearly. And then, ‘pow’ something breaks. That is luck or serendipity. You’re prepared, you’re ready and you are expecting it.
Reinvention is important?
Oh yes. You just keep working your art. For us, we are always working toward our next picture and always thinking of new ways to create. For instance, ‘I’m no Dummy, Everyday’ (the book) came about as a result of covid. We call it our covid project.
Marge: And also the Facebook page for ‘I’m No Dummy’ where we post clips and bits was also a precursor for the book’s format.
Bryan: Yeah, the Facebook page was a jumping off point for 'I’m No Dummy, Everyday. '
Marge: Lisa Sweasy and Tom Ladshaw totally proofed ‘Everyday’ and refined the different pages. Tom made sure everything was accurate.
Bryan: Tom is not only an amazing friend but instrumental in everything we have done. From the film, through the books. We made him an associate producer on 'I’m No Dummy.' We simply couldn’t have done it without him. He was so good at helping us. He was also intimately involved in 'I'm No Dummy, Everyday.' Checking accuracy and often times putting the brakes on some stories that were perhaps more rumor than fact.
He is a walking encyclopedia of the art form. I’ve talked to a few vent’s and all have rave reviews about 'I’m No Dummy, Everyday.' It is packed with so much information. Do you think people are aware of how much content is in 'Everyday?'
No. I think everyone has been surprised who has cracked it open. I think they have been stunned actually.
I’ve always been a fan of the Valentine Vox books and the encompassing nature of that material as regards the craft. But, this, this 'I’m No Dummy, Everyday' is amazing in that capacity. This is not just some coffee table book. There is an amazing amount of information on the art form that is in between two covers.
Marge: I also think it goes beyond ventriloquism. It demonstrates how ventriloquism dominated entertainment in the 20th century. It really shows how important it was in the show business world. Where it stood and how it was instrumental in igniting other kinds of entertainment. I don’t think people realize how important it was in television and entertainment in general.
Do you have a favorite part of ‘Everyday.’
There is so much between the covers, but here’s one thing… we established in the book International Ventriloquist Day. It is May 13th, WS Berger’s birthday. We are really hoping that it will take off.
Jay Johnson told me once that it is difficult to see where you are going, but when you look back you can see the connecting dots. Do you think that is true with your career?
Absolutely. I say something very similar. It is like walking in the sand. You can’t see your footprints in front of you but when you turn around you see where you have stepped. I absolutely believe that.
Do you also believe that ventriloquism requires thespian talent?
Yes, but acting is just one of the pieces. You have to act and react within the same sentence. So, yes.
Is ventriloquism an art form? If so, how do you define that?
Yes, it is an art form. But, I think there is a difference between craft and art. You can be a very good ventriloquist. But, what makes it art is when you transcend the craft. Jay is a great example of that. He does a routine with Bob where he conjugates a verb. It’s brilliant. That’s art from craft. The same applies to all the arts.
Watch for part II where we go into great depth about the shooting of Jay Johnson, the Two and Only!
And, a special announcement and discussion about the release of their next vent book, 'Hey, I'm Talkin Here, the Director's commentary for I'm No Dummy.'
In the meantime, all of the I'm No Dummy releases can be found on amazon.
I'm No Dummy
I'm No Dummy 2
I'm No Dummy Special Edition
I'm No Dummy, Everyday
To find out more about Bryan W. Simon, go here: https://www.bryanwsimon.com/
Until Part II, Salud!