Part II...I'm No Dummy... the Interview with Bryan W. Simon and Majorie Engesser.
Bryan has released a new book just in time for the holidays! The cover is pictured. "Hey! I'm Talkin' Here;" is the story behind the hit comedy documentary 'I'm No dummy.' I was fortunate enough to receive an advance copy and read it last night from cover to cover. I really didn't know what to expect. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement. 'Hey! I'm Talkin' Here' is an astute observation of our craft, past and present. And this, from one who is not a practitioner of the art form. As a storyteller, regarding our craft, Bryan is sublime.
With great and unique photographs, it's not only about the intricacies in making the film, but also a commentary on the many nuances of ventriloquism in all of its subtle excellence. Bryan has a keen eye and an understanding on a deep level what ventriloquism is all about. I think we are fortunate to have such insight and commentary about our art. If you love ventriloquism then this is definitely a book for your library. Or as Jay Johnson put it in his forward to the book: "If, like me, you are fascinated by the backstage view of a magic trick, this is the book for you." Pick it up, I did. It is available now on Amazon. I'll post the link at the end of Part II.
Speaking of Jay Johnson, no interview would be complete without a discussion of Bryan's film, 'Jay Johnson, The Two and Only!' So, let's get on it with it...
Vent o gram proudly presents Part II with Bryan W. Simon and Marjorie Engesser.
Let’s talk about 'Jay Johnson, The Two and Only! ' How did you guys meet and how did the filming come about?
Marge: Bryan had been talking with Jay about getting it on film for a long time. Jay had been talking with some other directors. These directors wanted to do it but they wanted to alter it for film. Eventually, after several months of meeting with Jay and Sandy, he became convinced that Bryan was the right person to do it. Both of us have experience in theater and film, which was perfect for filming a theatrical event. We did a lot of research, meaning where to go, how to do it, including a budget. We basically convinced Jay that we were right for the project.
Bryan: Of course we had worked together on 'I’m no Dummy' and had become good friends. Ultimately it was a matter of saying ‘this has got to be preserved and it’s got to be preserved now. ‘ I was very emphatic that this was a theater piece, not a standup. Everyone else wanted to change the show into a standup routine. Because it was theater, I was adamant that the camera would never be put on the audience. There IS a camera that shoots from the back of the set, but we never leave Jay. He is always on the screen. There is never a cutaway from him. Why? Because that is what it would be like if you were sitting in a theater watching him.
How did you approach pre-production. Was it different from 'I’m no Dummy?'
Marge: Oh, it was totally different. 'I’m No Dummy' was shot over a period of about 8 or 9 months. We went to different locations, we shot the people in those locations and then flew back with all this footage for editing and post production.
When we got to 'Jay Johnson, The Two and Only!' we planned for months. We had meetings, we had to find a theater, we had to secure a crew. We shot over a period of a week. Three performances. It was a totally different experience.
Bryan: Yeah, and although it went smoothly, there are always hiccups. I’ve never shared this before…We figured out that we needed a couple of lenses for our camera that weren’t available in Wilmington, NC where we were shooting. So we called a supplier in New York City and they shipped the lenses to us overnight. They arrived the day of the show, and that was a little nerve wracking
Marge: There is another story. We had to rebuild the set for the production. There was a very small company that we were working with in Wilmington. When we got there, we went to the company to make arrangements for picking up the set and they were gone! (laughter)
Bryan: The doors were padlocked and there was a posting from the sheriff’s department. Oh my gosh, all the trunks were there, all the pieces were there, basically the entire set. It was an exact replica of the Broadway set.
Bryan: I can’t believe we are telling you these stories! (laughter)
Marge: We had to track them down.
Bryan: We finally found the company. I was convinced we were going to have to take bolt cutters to the lock and explain it to the sheriff later. But it ended up they were able to get in and everything turned out fine.
Marge: That was kind of nerve wracking. (laughter)
How many cameras to shoot the 'Two and Only?'
We ended up with 18 or so camera positions along with five or six fixed camera positions. By the way, the crew was amazing. They had brought their own gear and also made many suggestions that ended up in the show.
Marge: Bryan was really prepared. We had shot the show in LA while Jay work shopped it and performed it in preparation for its move to New York. Bryan had made up booklets for all the camera people with all the different shots he wanted.
Bryan: Yes, and I also called the show.
Meaning each shot?
Yes. In a way, the 'Two and Only' WAS storyboarded.
There is that amazing moment in the show where there is an overhead shot of Squeaky in the trunk...
That happened after a discussion I had with Jay. It was something I wanted to do. A shot that only viewers of the production would see and not the live audience. We discussed it and he was OK with it. So we shot it as a pickup. (a shot after the fact to augment the main piece)
Are you still happy with the final product?
Oh yeah. I’m ecstatic.
Ok, here is a Bryan W. Simon quote: “You have to understand that I’m a surrealist at heart.” How did surrealism apply to the 'Two and Only?
I think in some little touches, for instance that overhead shot…If I weren’t a surrealist, I don’t think I would have thought of something like that. It was kind of an ascension of Squeaky’s spirit especially exposing the audience to the inside of that suitcase, which they never get to see.
But it is also my love of ventriloquism, which is surreal at heart. It is. So all of those things came together in the process of putting Jay Johnson, ‘The Two and Only!’ on film.
Did ‘The Two and Only’ succeed in bringing out the eight year old filmmaker in you?
Absolutely. It still does. It still does.
From conception to completion, how long did 'The Two and Only! 'take?
About a year.
Marge: It was filmed in September of 2012. We had started planning in April of that year and started editing in February 2013 and finished up in April. So yeah, it was about a year.
Let’s move on to the book, 'Hey, I'm Talkin' Here! the story behind the hit comedy documentary 'I'm No dummy.' What was the idea behind that?
Well, on the two disc set there is my directors commentary. (Special Edition) Now that people are streaming more and more it had been suggested to me that I provide it in written form as well. So, we were prompted to provide a behind the scenes commentary that you can read about, the making of, the stories, that sort of thing.
You have been very supportive of the museum in your efforts…
Yes, all the profits from these 'I’m No Dummy releases' are going to Vent Haven.
So the purpose of the 'Hey! I'm Talk' Here' is?
Well, if you see the movie, you can read about the behind the scenes, the making of, the stories and thoughts.
Does ‘Hey! I’m Talkin’ Here’ go into greater depth than say the two disc special edition audio commentary?
Yes. Yes. Plus, it has illustrations that I thought about in the director’s commentary but obviously couldn’t show in the film itself.
What do you hope to accomplish?
What I hope is that people see the little things that go into making a picture, whether documentary or narrative. There are things in it about ventriloquism that a lot of people don’t know about.
Marge: It really gives you insights about film making. I think people are fascinated with how a film is made. One aspect of this commentary accomplishes that.
When is it going to be available?
It’s available now on Amazon. (vent-o-gram will post link at end of this interview)
I think that’s great. I’m a book guy so will be standing in line. I bought 'I’m No Dummy Everyday' and read it from cover to cover. I wasn’t going to sit down and wait for each calendar day to pass! (laughter)
Ok, so with all of this attention to ventriloquism, what are your peers saying about you? “Are you nuts” or “Wow, you really found a niche.”
It’s funny. Some think this is all we do. But others understand that we have been blessed to make all sorts of other films as well. We have been very lucky.
Is it important for you to leave a legacy? If so, what is the motivation behind that?
I think as art, you always want to leave something behind that is greater than yourself. Something that continues on. You live on through your art. It is important to me. You know, this includes the museum. It is important to us. I think we have contributed to its ongoing survival with our films and books by cataloging in some capacity the art form as we know it. That’s important to me.
Bryan, when you were a young boy you started all of this with a super 8 movie camera. You have made choices to move in a certain direction with your life. But film is expensive. How do the two, choice and financial barriers work together?
It’s foolhardy in one respect. (laughter) It is so expensive to the point of being ridiculous. I don’t think people realize how hard it is to make film. Even if you have the money, it is hard. But it is hard to get money too. If I knew as a kid what I know today, I would have taken up playing the guitar with a stool and a hat.
(laughter) But, I chose film making. I think that for me it just clicked. It just clicked. I don’t think you choose your art…your art chooses you.
John Lennon said that the creative process, no matter the medium, is the same.
I would agree with that. Inspiration and creativity.
Is choice powerful?
Yes. Yes. You have a lot of choices to make. What you choose to do is extremely important and powerful.
Is there a surreal aspect to that?
Possibly. I would say that what you do as an artist is surreal in a certain way. So yes.
Marge: I think it is about our partnership as well. I’ve been with Bryan now since the theater days. The two of us together can do a lot more than we can individually. We support each and complement each other. That has made a lot of this possible.
Bryan: We are partners in art and partners in life.
To purchase 'Hey! I'm Talkin' Here, the story behind the hit comedy documentary 'I'm No dummy.' go here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/0578316544
To find out more about Bryan W. Simon, go here: bryanwsimon.com
Next time on Vent-O-Gram, a candid conversation about the business of ventriloquism with Dale Brown.
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