Marionettes In Hollywood

An Interview with Phillip Huber
by Steve Meltzer, Puppetry Journal, fall '99

Puppet design and creation by Kamela Portugese and "Images in Motion"

Pictures by David Alexander

In the summer of 1998, production began on a new film starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz and John Malkovich in the title role. The unusual story can best be described as a science fiction social satire and centers on the story of Craig (Cusack) , a puppeteer who discovers a way to enter the being of John Malkovich and uses his celebrity to boost his own career. The producers approached many puppeteers and puppet makers in the late Spring of 1998. Marionettes resembling the actors were built by Kamela Portuges of Images in Motion” . Puppeteering sequences include the artistry of Luman Coad, Kamela Portuges, Lee Armstrong, Tim Miller, and Mary Nagler. Six months later, Phillip Huber was assigned the task of performing the marionette manipulation and the film is now scheduled for release in the Fall of 1999.


Meltzer: Your background in marionettes is primarily in live performance. What possibilities and challenges did you encounter in adapting to film?
The marionette work I've seen in films has been, for the most part, less than thrilling. Often they are a gimmick, or a mere stand-in for human actors and they almost always appear underehearsed. Films have consistently failed to show marionettes to their best advantage. I haven’t seen the completed movie so I can’t say if BEING JOHN MALKOVICH will be the exception, but I saw this project’s potential for showcasing some of the marionette’s dramatic abilities while treating this art form with a degree of respect. At my first meeting with the producers, I thought the story sounded very off-the-wall, but the creative team took the time to ask questions and try to learn about a marionette’s peculiarities and special requirements.

Meltzer: What were you asked to do?
: Our first assignment was a sequence called the Dance of Despair. The scene was a kind of emotional dance soliloquy performed by the Craig marionette and, later in the film, mirrored almost move for move by the human Malkovich. They sent me a video of the already completed Malkovich dance along with story boards. It reinforced my feeling that a choreographer, experienced with puppets, should have first developed the routine around the marionette's capabilities. The dance they showed me was very acrobatic with abrupt starts and stops. My job was to invent ways of getting these movements from stringed performers. I was given three weeks to make modifications to the marionettes while engineering and rehearsing the movements. During this period Spike Jonze, the director had commitments elsewhere so we did a lot of long distance communicating. On his days off he would fly in and view my progress.

Meltzer: What kind of marionette control was used?
: They had a very complicated German-style control, which had a wonderful look for the a really scary marionette control. I couldn't use it for actual manipulation because of the varied and rapid actions required of the puppets. I designed and used a simplified paddle control, which was a godsend because I could grab it and hold it from any angle. For some shots I had to work the puppet from what would normally be the audience side of the stage set and often I had to reach between and around lighting instruments.

Meltzer: What other sequences did you work on?
Huber: There was a love scene between the Maxine and Craig marionettes. It was challenging because there was dialog and the puppet's mouths didn't move. All the expression had to come from little subtle movements, a tilt of the head or sweep of the hand. I re-strung Maxine for special moves such as caressing her hair with her hand or leaning back on one arm while crossing her legs. They did have closing eyes which was very useful. The scene ended with a kiss for which I planned to use a special string that ran from Maxine’s lips, through Craig’s mouth and out the back of his head. My partner, David Alexander, was operating the Craig puppet and during rehearsals we discovered the special string was unnecessary. The effect was achieved by wiring the puppets firmly into their places and positioning the heads to take advantage of the rotating camera shot laid out in the story board. In the resulting scene, it is easy to imagine their lips touching even though there was always about a half-inch of space between them.

Meltzer: Were any camera tricks used to create puppet effects?
: Only once, in the Dance of Despair. The puppet needed to go quickly from one very static pose into another and this was just not happening. The director of photography suggested shooting that sequence in reverse. I analyzed all the moves in my head and we shot it once, then looked at the forward video playback. It turned out to be too perfect. I actually had to add some displacements, little shifts in the marionette's position, so the film reversal would not be obvious. Two of the three puppet poses were accomplished without this camera trick and I don't think you can distinguish one from the other in the completed scene. The forward somersault and back flip sequences were performed by a duplicate marionette that I modified just for those two moves. Another part of the dance called for the Craig puppet to register fear when he sees his reflection in the mirror. This effect was simply achieved by holding the eyes half closed and then, just at the right moment, releasing them to a full open position. There were other moments when the action paused, but I didn’t want to just stop the puppet cold. Several years ago, I had learned a valuable lesson from my work in Busker Alley. (A musical play that starred Tommy Tune) There was a scene where our little marionette dog, Taffy, had to remain on-stage but be unobtrusive and quiet. It has always been my unwritten law that a marionette never entirely ceases movement while on stage, so I had her lay down and just breathe. In this film, the Craig marionette is running around, doing all these crazy things, even when he pauses, part of his reality would be a gasping for breath. So I gave him this little bit of breathing in several places. The director liked it and kept it in.

Meltzer: Do you think the Dance of Despair could work in a live performance?
: Not at all. It was strictly for camera. The many cuts were needed so I could go in, adding or taking away strings, making numerous other adjustments and even repainting the face to give a slightly different expression.

Meltzer: I understand there was a puppet sequence added that was not in the original script.
: The director wanted a scene that would give puppeteer Craig's street performing more legitimacy. It was decided that he needed a portable stage and would be doing his version of Heloise and Abelard, a French love tragedy. The scene called for a monk on one side of the stage and a nun on the other side, writing erotic letters to each other with appropriately erotic movements. This “puppet show” is observed by a little girl. Her father becomes enraged by the puppets’ antics and punches the puppeteer. I was personally uncomfortable with this scene but tried to come up with puppet actions balanced somewhere between suggestive and explicit. There were only three days to prepare new costumes and period hairstyles. I created little props, quill pens, letters, and inkwells while, once again re-stringing the puppets for these new actions.

Meltzer: Did it feel like you were having some influence on the content of the story at this point?

: Not really, Their story boards were pretty clear. I came up with small bits of business like dipping the pens in the inkwells but this is similar to what any actor does to embellish his performance. We spent two days shooting this scene, and as it turned out, not all action followed the story boards. Some movements were the result of improvisation that ultimately forced me to set aside my own inhibitions. Thank heavens the director was tasteful in his choice of takes for the final cut. I feel this segment turned out more poetic than suggestive. I can see and feel more emotion from the puppets in this scene than in the Dance of Despair.

Meltzer: Any final thoughts about working in film?
: It's a balance between careful planning and happy accident. You have to be at ease enough to just do it. If you are trying to force something, it comes across forced. Things that occurred spontaneously during shooting gave me chills when I saw them on screen. Overall, I found the experience challenging and, ultimately, exhilarating

(Click for BJM Reviews)

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