Wednesday, 11 September 2013

13. The Puppeteers

There were times when I had flashes of panic wondering how I was going to find the right performers for the film. Fortunately it all worked out perfectly in the end. And with some help, I managed to assemble a team of four professional puppeteers, and a nicer more hard-working bunch you're not likely to meet.

I started my search at the Little Angel Theatre, enquiring as to whether they knew any puppeteers who would be willing to volunteer on the film. But sadly I drew a blank there. I also tried the student route, enquiring via a friend on Facebook whether anyone was interested, but I only got a handful of replies from stop-motion animators. And really, I knew that I needed specialist puppeteers in order to get the film done. So I was struggling a bit. My younger brother Toby is an actor and although it is not his specialism, he did puppeteer Charlie in the stage version of Charlie and Lola's Best Bestest Play at the Wimbledon theatre a few years ago. So I knew that I had at least one back up! 

But my main concern was the sheer number of shots that we had to do, and therefore the physical demands that would be placed on the performers over the length of a three day shoot. I had spoken to lovely puppetry teacher and performer Emma Fisher, but unfortunately her schedule wouldn't allow her to be involved. I also had an e-mail from an Australian puppeteer who was very talented, and coming over to the UK for the summer. But that didn't work out either. So I sent out another call via Facebook, and an actor friend of mine Geoffrey Breton came up trumps. He knew someone who knew someone, and that's how I met the talented and lovely Robin Guiver (aka. Squirrel). Robin had worked on the stage production of War Horse in the West End (on the lead horse 'Joey'), amongst other things, and had just finished puppeteering George Clooney in the sci-fi drama Gravity. I also found out that he had worked on the new Muppets film, so then I was really impressed!  

Robin Guiver

A Robin montage

Just as an extra here's a great article from the Independent 2009 where Robin talks about his experience on War Horse:

Robin came in to meet me at the Independent offices at the end of April. We sat and chatted about the film, and I had brought the pig prototype and the dog puppet with me, so he picked them up and had a look at them. We got on really well and I was pleased with his apparent interest and enthusiasm for the project. Robin is a leader, he has a relaxed manner, but this is combined with an energy and willingness to get stuck in. He is more than ready to jump in and help puppeteer in tandem with another performer, or to offer any advice needed. He is friendly, dedicated and reliable.

As we continued to talk he said that he would more than likely be able to assemble a crack team from colleagues and friends that he had worked with before. And that was how Ben Thompson, Henry Maynard and finally Avye Leventis came on board. All the guys had worked on War Horse at some stage, so I knew I was in safe hands. (And funnily enough the first play that I saw at the Little Angel Boris and Sergey was devised by Henry). 

I first met Ben Thompson (aka. Bear) and Henry Maynard (aka. Pig 01) in early May. I worked on the film from my attic studio in South London, so they all piled in for a chat about the puppets. The guys picked them up and got a feel for them, and we discussed any modifications or adjustments that could be made to each puppet to make them easier to work. Henry, being a puppet maker himself, helped me to do a couple of things then and there. And I was really pleased with both the ideas and again the keenness that they all showed for the film.

Ben Thompson

Ben (front centre) in rehearsals for 'Gabriel' at The Globe theatre 2013

I found Ben extremely easy to work with. He is very intuitive. At the first meeting he sat with the bear puppet quietly trying out different movements and gestures. I liked his considered approach and quiet yet assured manner. 

Henry Maynard

Henry puppeteering on 'Boris & Sergey... ' (left)

Henry is full of energy. Being a director himself, he brings a lot to the table and likes to get stuck in straight away. He is quite physical in his approach to puppetry and is a very creative member of the team.

We set a rehearsal day for the Monday before the shoot the 20th May. Meanwhile, we discovered that Henry couldn't make the last day of shooting, so once again Robin made some calls, and so Avye Leventis (aka. Pig 02) came on board.

Avye Leventis

Avye in full swing performing in 'Faeries' (top left)

When Avye turned up for rehearsals, I knew that I had a found another amazing cast member. She is very instinctive and immediately gives you a real sense of energy and reliability with her concentration and obvious love of all things puppet. Her sociable nature lifts the mood of those around her. (Coincidentally she was in A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings - the second show that I had seen at the Little Angel two months earlier).

In rehearsals I didn't want to run scenes, as I felt that it might make the performances on the day a bit stale and self-referential. I preferred to let the guys explore the personalities of each character and certain movements that they might need to make during the film. So we worked mostly on gestures, walks, and interaction between characters, in order to build a sort of database in each of their minds that they could then draw from on the shoot.

I was extremely lucky to meet these guys. They brought my characters to life in a way that more than lived up to my expectations. And I would recommend any one of them to a  director looking for a talented, reliable, professional performer. So a massive thank you goes out to all of them, but to Robin in particular for bringing the team together.

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