While viewers may expect I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story to be an inside look at one of Sesame Street’s most enduring and beloved characters, it’s just as much a love story between Spinney, the man beneath the Big Bird costume, and his wife, Debra.
Co-director Dave LaMattina said he knew their romance would be a centerpiece since their first meeting about the film.
“That was a surprise that happened in that first meeting where you could see that Caroll and Deb are just so deeply connected…and to see that love exist between a couple, an older couple that looks like a couple of teenagers in the room,” LaMattina said.
The directors, LaMattina and Chad Walker, became even more confident in that direction when Debra revealed she had been basically videotaping their entire lives and was willing to share the footage.
“They then proceeded to just drop off box after box after box of tapes and it’s…all these candid moments,” Walker said. “You really get to know them in that footage and as soon as they dropped that bomb on us, that just totally changed the direction of where the film could go.”
The wealth of archival riches meant LaMattina and Walker had the best problem one could have while making a documentary like this: having too much footage to choose from. That means a few stories—including one of a fan who Spinney has kept a correspondence with over the years and another of a trip to an Air Force base—will have to live on as DVD extras, but it allowed the directors to show Spinney’s life rather than simply retell it.
LaMattina says the footage includes stories “they never expected anyone to see aside from maybe close family and friends.” That includes when they traveled to China for a Big Bird production and met a little girl named Lisa, who starred in the film and became almost like a daughter to them during production.
“That [relationship] just says so much about who Carol and Deb are,” LaMattina said. “Carol is basically just an actor that goes to a film set for two or three weeks and then has this relationship with so many costars for the rest of his life, and it’s such a meaningful relationship.”
I Am Big Bird also takes the time to show just how exactly Spinney brings Big Bird to life, and the challenges that come along with that. Particularly memorable is a sequence done through animation that reveals how Spinney uses the costume.
“You might have been able to jam a Go-Pro up into Big Bird to see the inner workings of it, but animation really allows you to get in there and really fully understand it,” Walker said.
And for an idea of what Spinney puts into the role every time he dons the Big Bird suit, check out an exclusive clip from the documentary.
The animations, which appear throughout the the film, are just a few of the many ways in I Am Big Bird subverts expectations and offers an honest and open look at Spinney’s life while still evoking a sense of nostalgia and affection for Sesame Street fans.
That became true for LaMattina and Walker while producing the film.
“When we would edit the movie, it was almost daily that I saw something that just immediately took me back to when I was a kid,” Walker said.
“What’s been really cool is seeing people react to seeing what Carol’s been through and seeing that he’s made his life as Big Bird,” LaMattina said. “And people are now responding to the man as well as to the puppets.”
I Am Big Bird is in theaters and on Amazon, iTunes and VOD starting today.