Q & A with Writer-Director Mark Goffman

Former beauty queen and aspiring ventriloquist Kim Yeager

Former beauty queen and aspiring ventriloquist Kim Yeager

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer-director Mark Goffman about his documentary “Dumbstruck”, which had its world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival Jan. 10 and is now being shown to domestic distributors.

At the annual Vent Haven Convention in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, ventriloquism capital of the world, Mark Goffman discovers five extraordinary characters straight out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. But in this case the characters are all real and so are their emotional attachments to their “dummies.”

The ventriloquists featured in the film include: Kim Yeager, a former beauty queen who hopes to start performing on cruise ships; Dan Horn, a successful cruise ship entertainer who juggles his responsibilities at home with spending months away at sea; Terry Fator, a once struggling singer/ventriloquist from Corsicana, Texas, who emerges from obscurity to land the largest deal in Las Vegas history; Dylan Burdette, a shy 13 year old who wants to become a professional ventriloquist; and Wilma Swartz, a 6-foot-5 elderly down on her luck ventriloquist who’s so beloved by members of the vent community that they come up with the money she needs to avoid being evicted from her home.

Of these five ventriloquists, only Terry Fator is well known to the public. In fact, Fator is the most successful ventriloquist in the world. Since winning on the television program “America’s Got Talent”, he’s played sold-out shows all over the U.S. and signed a $100 million five-year contract at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas. But he’s no overnight success. It took Fator 22 years before he got his big break.

Mark Goffman makes his feature directorial debut with “Dumbstruck”, which was produced by his wife, Lindsay Goffman. He was previously best known as a writer with such credits as “The West Wing”, “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”, and “Law & Order: SVU”. Goffman is presently writing a pilot for CBS called “D.C. Law”, about a high profile law firm in Washington, D.C.

The documentary is produced by Lindsay Goffman with David O. Sacks (Producer, “Thank You For Smoking”) and Daniel Brunt as consulting producers. It is executive produced by Elon Musk (Executive Producer, “Thank You For Smoking”).

Q: How did “Dumbstruck” come to be?
A: It started when my wife’s mother did some ventriloquism at our wedding. This was in 2006. She put a sock on her hand and started doing some ventriloquism at our wedding to thank us. She’s a bit shy so when she does ventriloquism she becomes very animated and almost a completely different person. We were really fascinated by it. She’s also a school teacher and she started doing it with the kids in her class just to keep them engaged. But then we started talking to her about this and it turns out she goes to a convention every year in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky where it’s the only convention in the world for ventriloquists. She was describing it to us and said there are close to 500 people there and they walk around with their dummies and everyone talks to each other and they share stories. It’s sort of this community for ventriloquists.

We thought this was a fantastic idea and we had to go see it for ourselves. When we arrived in Kentucky and saw this place called the Drawbridge Inn, which is right out of medieval times and went to the museum, which was founded by a guy named William Shakespeare Berger, we knew we were on to something that almost felt out of a Christopher Guest film. I’m really fascinated by people who love what they do. I like telling stories about people following their dreams and ambitions and it just seemed like a really fun project.

At the time I started on it in 2007 the (Writers Guild) strike was going on. I was on “Law and Order: SVU” at the time and I didn’t want to write. So this seemed like the perfect time to start pursuing this documentary film. We found five characters that we just fell in love with. I think it’s probably the most unusual year in a very unusual art form because every character that we followed had some kind of incredible life changing experience while we were shooting. So I really feel like we got lucky and that we found five people who had amazing stories to tell and we were there at a lot of the right times.
Q: The group that you found has a wide range of expertise and success.
A: We didn’t want to find anybody famous. We wanted to make this about working vents, about people who just love what they do. It’s very sort of Americana. They practice in small towns. It’s a very localized art form. It’s not something you see in Hollywood and New York a lot. And we didn’t think we’d see it in Vegas either very much except for the one or two big break-out people. We really wanted to make this about who’s doing this art form now that we can just follow and see what their lives are like in middle America.

Then we came across Terry, who was living in Corsicana, Texas and really struggling. He’d been doing this for 22 years, playing state fairs and then suddenly got this break and was on “America’s Got Talent”. It absolutely changed his life. Prior to that we thought Dan Horn was the pinnacle. That’s what everybody had told us. If you aspire to be a vent, a cruise ship entertainer is the way to make a living. That’s what they all want to be. So we were lucky enough that Dan let us follow him. We thought initially going in that he was going to be our rock. He was the person who just has everything together and has the success. And then his life starts to unravel.

And meanwhile Kim, who wants to be Dan and is being mentored as the film goes on, really struggles to catch her break and to get on to a cruise ship and to get out of this small town in Ohio. So all of the stories kind of overlapped in a nice way. And that’s because there is this community. They go to the convention every year and they’ve been going every year. For most of them, they’re the only ventriloquists in a hundred mile radius. So there’s a very active online group that keeps in communication. The time when they go to Vent Haven, this convention, is really the time where they get to be accepted and talk to people who share this love.
Q: How were you able to turn this idea into a movie and finance making it?
A: I had a little bit of time on my hands because of the writers’ strike. My wife is a development exec at Fremantle Media (which produces “American Idol” and “The Price is Right”). I’m traditionally a writer so when I write a project I sit down for weeks and sketch out what it’s going to look like. So I thought, “With this, I need to go shoot.” I found a DP (George Reasner) that I’d worked with before. I’d done a couple of short films. We went to the convention with a Panasonic XDX 200, an HD camera, and found these people and just shot away. We really talked to every single person we could at the convention and everybody who knew anything about ventriloquism to see what the world was like and just dove in.

Then we put together a trailer. We did that with the help of two editors — Doug Blush, who did (the crossword puzzle documentary) “Wordplay”. I had spoken on a panel at a conference (and met him). I was on a writing panel and he was on a documentary panel and we just met there. He seemed like a terrific editor. He helped us with the trailer as well as Sven Pape, who I had worked with before many years ago on a James Cameron behind-the-scenes documentary. We put together this trailer and we used that to raise money.

One of the first people I went to was David O. Sacks, who produced “Thank You For Smoking”. He also produced a play that I wrote a few years ago. He helped us. And I went to friends and family. You know, the documentary market is very different. Part of our goal was to do an independent film. It was my wife and my first project together and we wanted to make something that just the two of us were getting to shepherd. So we went out and raised the money on our own. Then Elon Musk came in as executive producer. He was an exec producer on “Thank You For Smoking”. He’s just a fantastic person who we came across at the right time and was willing to step forward and help us get it made.
Star ventriloquist Terry Fator

Star ventriloquist Terry Fator

Q: What were some of the challenges you had to deal with in production?
A: We shot a lot of live performances and you never know what you’re going to get when you go to a live performance. You never know what kind of crowd it’s going to be. You never know what the sound equipment’s going to be. The performance we filmed by Wilma ended up having a very small audience. We decided to just shoot everything as we saw it. We tried to capture the spirit of her show even though (there were very few people there). She was performing for a senior home and apparently one of the buses broke down so not everybody got there.

With Terry, his audiences were insane. He had this rabid, rabid following, especially when we went to Texas. People were waiting hours outside the theater to see him. He was really good about giving us access so we miked him and just followed him everywhere he went, including into the CEO’s office of the Mirage when he signed his contract. We got a call from his manager. He said, “If you can show up at the Mirage at 11 a.m. I’m going to give you a pretty exceptional scene to shoot.”
Q: How much time did you have to get down there?
A: About 48 hours. So I assembled our crew and we hopped in a car and drove a couple hundred miles to Vegas (from Los Angeles). And that happened a few times with Terry because it seemed like every day something enormous was happening with him. It didn’t make it into the film, but we went to “Letterman” with Terry, as well, and he was on “Oprah”. We really followed him closely. One of the hardest things about the film, actually, was getting it down to these five characters and 85 minutes.
Q: How much footage did you shoot? And where and when did you film?
A: We shot about 300 hours and we had three characters that didn’t make it into the film, who are all terrific people and had such wonderful stories, but didn’t quite fit with the way all of these characters intersected. And one of them didn’t end up going to the convention so it didn’t work out. But even among these (characters who are in the film), we have several trips that we were not able to show where these characters were working on their craft and were doing other performances. We tried to shoot them performing and doing what they love.

We started this in 2007 and went through September-October of 2009. We went all over. We went to the Caribbean on Kim’s cruise out of Miami. That was a great thing — to get paid to take a couple of cruises. We shot along the Mexican Riviera for Dan Horn’s cruise. We shot in Osaka, Japan. And we really covered the country (the U.S.), mostly in small towns. We felt ventriloquism is done in small towns so we spent a lot of time in places like Mansfield, Ohio and Trevose, Pennsylvania, Wilma’s hometown, and Corsicana, Texas.

One thing we didn’t have to worry about was miking the dummies. With the lip synch, as long as you keep it on the person you’re fine! We actually had to tell one of the sound operators on an Ohio shoot — we would usually pick up local crew for audio — to keep the boom mike on the person when the dummy spoke because they were moving it (and, therefore, not getting a good sound recording).
Q: Any other production challenges that you recall?
A: Shooting on the cruise ships was quite a challenge. They allow video cameras on board, but they’re very skeptical of anything that looks like a professional film. Apparently porns tend to take advantage of cruise ships for low budget shoots. And as luck would have it, there was a porno guerrilla filmmaker on board rumored to be shooting in one of the cabins. So the cruise director was very suspicious of us.

Kim, an aspiring cruise ship entertainer, is a former Miss Ohio runner-up and very attractive. Her dummy is Bertha, a rather voluptuous figure. The cruise director saw our camera equipment and assumed we were making a porno. I tried to explain that our film was about ventriloquists, but he was convinced we were making a porn with puppets and threatened to leave me in the Bahamas if I didn’t turn off my camera. From that point on, filming on the ship became truly run and gun.

Another challenge was trying to shoot a full-length feature on a shoestring. Both Lindsay and I forewent our salaries to make this film and in the final months we had to really stretch every dollar and call in every favor to complete the project. I didn’t think we were going to have enough for our audio mix and music. But I was really blown away by the number of people and companies in L.A. who were willing to support indie film. Our sound house, for example, donated their engineer and created our dubs for free to support the project. Bird York and J.J. Blair wrote our end-credit music (“Special Friend”, performed by Bird York and written and produced by Bird York and J.J. Blair, courtesy of Blissed Out Records) at cost because they said they were inspired by the film to write the song. And our composer, Daniel Licht, who works full time on “Dexter”, worked with us to deliver an original score.
(Left to Right) Lindsay Goffman, Terry Fatore, and Mark Goffman

(Left to Right) Lindsay Goffman, Terry Fatore, and Mark Goffman

Q: I know you’re having your world premiere at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Jan. 10. How did you get into the festival?
A: We applied to Palm Springs through the traditional route — sent in a screener and used Withoutabox.com (an online site filmmakers use to gain access to major channels for promoting and distributing their work, including arranging film festival screenings) back in September. A few months later they contacted us.
Q: Do you have a distributor?
A: We don’t have a distributor yet. We’ve really tried to keep the film under wraps until we had it finished, which now we do. We literally finished it over the (holiday) break on Dec. 27. So we’re in the process now of signing with a sales agent this week and are looking for distribution. We’re really hopeful. We’re really proud of it. We think there’s a nice tradition of (documentary) films like “King of Kong” and “Spellbound” and “Wordplay” that we aspire to and (believe) this will garner that kind of audience.
Q: If someone reading this wants to explore distributing “Dumbstruck”, who should they contact?
A: I’m represented by Jason Burns at UTA. (In a subsequent e-mail Goffman said a sales agent deal is now also in place: “We closed our agreement to go with Kevin Iwashina of IP Advisors to represent ‘Dumbstruck’”.) We’ve worked for two years in isolation, just screening it for some friends in our living room.
Q: Is it tough to get documentary films distributed?
A: One of the biggest challenges over the last two years has been just watching the collapse of the independent film market. That’s part why we’ve decided to wait until the film was finished to start showing it to distributors. It seemed like last year, in particular, all of the studio-side distributors got out of the documentary business or this low budget indie film business. So there’s just been a market contraction that we’re aware of, but I don’t know how difficult it’s going to be yet (to find a distributor) because we really haven’t tried. The next couple months will be telling.
Q: Clearly, you have the footage available to make a DVD with a lot of interesting bonus features.
A: Oh, yeah. We’ll get to tell the other stories. We have tons of material on Terry that we really want to show like backstage on “Letterman” and “Oprah” and other places that we got to follow him to and his premiere party. We just got so lucky in the quality of the people who wanted to work with us on this. Bird York (as Kathleen York) played Toby Ziegler’s ex-wife (Andrea Wyatt) on “The West Wing”, which is where I knew her from. I wrote on “The West Wing”. She is an Academy nominated singer-songwriter. She was nominated for “Crash” (shared credit with Michael Becker). I showed her a cut and she just really fell in love with it and wrote the song at the end of the film, “Special Friend”, just for the film. It’s a really fun song that I think captures the spirit of the film. And then Daniel Licht, who’s the composer for “Dexter”, did our music and also just had the right sort of element of quirkiness and heart that we were looking for.
Q: Do you see yourself doing more documentaries or features? What do you want to do from this point on?
A: I had a lot of fun. I think of myself primarily as a writer. That’s what I really love doing. I have a pilot right now that I’m writing for CBS. But this has been a blast. It’s fun to get out of the house. It’s really fun to get to work on the set and work with, in this case, the subjects and the actors and shape a film in production. One of the things I like about television is that a writer gets to do a lot of those things. But I’m definitely looking forward to (making more movies). I hope to do more documentaries and since scripted is really what I’ve been doing the last 10 years, I’d love to be able to direct a feature, as well.