SANDOW BIRK AND PAUL ZALOOM S TOY THEATER FILM SPECTACLE
An Interview with Paul Zaloom
by John Bell
Paul Zaloom began his theater work in the 1970s with Bread and Puppet Theater in Vermont, and then carved out a career as a solo performer in New York's downtown performance art scene of the 1980s, where he was known especially for table-top object shows featuring a biting political wit and an uproarious comic sensibility influenced by Lord Buckley, Soupy Sales, and other masters of American absurdism. In these years, Zaloom was showered with awards: an Obie , a Bessie, and several UNIMA citations. Zaloom moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s to host the popular science educational television show, Beakman's World, but continued his work in live puppet theater from his West Hollywood studio, and began teaching at such schools as the California Institute of the Arts. His most recent puppet spectacle, "The Mother of All Enemies," marks Zaloom's venture into the venerable Middle Eastern Karagöz shadow-theater tradition. In Zaloom's version, a gay, peace-loving Syrian artist meets various forms of intolerant religious fundamentalism, in a show suffused with Zaloom's ribald wit and acid political commentary.
In 2002, Zaloom's connections to the West-Coast art world led him to collaborate with artist Sandow Birk on an award-winning "comic mockumentary," based on Birk's paintings and drawings. More recently, Zaloom has collaborated with Birk again, on Dante's Inferno, an animated film using flat, cut-out puppets and a toy theater stage, again based on Birk's drawings, which envision Dante's classic Renaissance epic as a comment on the contemporary mores of California, and the world.
John Bell: Could you explain how and why you and Sandow decided to use a toy theater format for Dante s Inferno?
Paul Zaloom: We had made a mockumentary together in phony Ken Burns style called In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias, about a fictional war between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The film was comprised of digital scans and pans of Sandow Birk's paintings and drawings, with accompanying comic narration. After that project, Sandow did a reiteration of the original Dante text of The Divine Comedy, using contemporary American language and expressions. He illustrated his version, set in a Hell that looks a lot like Southern California, with drawings that took off on the great Gustave Doré interpretations of the nineteenth century. When he did all three parts of The Divine Comedy, he got excited about making a film. To me, the natural thing to do was to turn the drawings into toy theater. What else are you going to do with drawings? It was a bit of a hard sell to get the director, Sean Meredith, and Sandow to go for this idea at first, but eventually I got them to come around. Now they love puppets.
JB: How did the actual toy theater proscenium play a role?
PZ: You see the proscenium from the beginning in a long shot that flies over the paper audience's heads as they take their seats. Then the front rag opens and is followed by seven other curtains; this gag was inspired by Joe Musil's fantastic toy theater museum in Santa Ana, CA, where he does a cool thing with curtains and swags opening and closing to music. Toy theaters have to have a proscenium; that is what contains them, frames them, and creates the context for the shows. It's funny to have a frame in the frame: a theater frame in the frame of a film. We designed the proscenium to have the same aspect ration of the film's frame.
I say "film," but it's really high-definition digital video. We had to go with high-def because of all the lines in the drawings; conventional digital video would have had those thin lines chattering and jiggling up a storm.
JB: A number of scenes in Dante s Inferno use complicated moving puppets (the helicopter, the spiral circle into which Dante falls, the Cadillac, the skating scene). How did you decide which figures to articulate and animate? What special effects were you after?
PZ: Cheap ones, as usual, and I don't just mean money cheap. I wanted to have as many cool effects and tricks as possible. I love how you can create Hell using poster board! So we were always looking for amusing ways to animate the scenes and for the characters to react in goofy, physical ways. In films like The Mask, faces are made to contort like crazy; we do the same thing, but with paper, in old-school, transparent, dumb-ass fashion.
JB: Did you use stop-action animation as well aslive-action?
PZ: No, and there is no computer animation in the show except for the erasing of a couple of mistakes that were intolerable. Having said that, we left in the rods and strings and filament because we are from the school of puppetry that likes all that crap and doesn't try to hide it. Some may consider it distracting, but that's because they are not used to it.
JB: About how many puppets were created for the filming?
PZ: Hundreds. There were 43 different sets, designed and constructed by Sandow and art director Elyse Pignolet. They worked for months building at least 400 puppets and figuring out how to do gags and gimmicks. They did a remarkable job, creating this vast array of stuff and getting tons of hot glue burns along the way. They made so many Dantes and Virgils that we decided to use them all, in a scene about identity theft.
JB: Did the toy theater form suggest specific ways of doing things that wouldn t have come up if you had simply been making a normal animation film?
PZ: Yes. For one thing, the fact that it was a theater meant that some shots were reverse shots and showed the audience. In a way, the puppets are even cruder than animation, but I'm crude, too, so it works for me. We had some interesting experiments that worked out pretty well. For example, can you have a flat puppet start to turn, cut to the next shot halfway through that turn, and pick up the cut with a new puppet facing a different way finishing the turn? Does that work? It does, and that's pretty exciting.
JB: Were there aspects of the toy theater form that appealed to the content of the Inferno show?
PZ: As we wrote the show, we put everything in the script. Pretty much every frame was described. I wanted to write down everything you would see because then we knew exactly what to build. You cannot tell a flat piece of paper to turn around and face the other way like you can an actor, because the piece of paper may not have paint on both sides. You may want a big size of a puppet for a certain shot to play with scale. All of that had to be planned out in the smallest detail so the building can happen. We also wanted to have an accurate shooting script so we would be prepared once we started shooting. We still changed lots of stuff on the fly while shooting.
JB: How many puppeteers worked on the shoot? How long did the shooting take?
PZ: We shot the film in two sections: one thirteen-day shoot and a subsequent two-day shoot. Twenty-two people came in to puppeteer, and 26 actors subsequently did voices, some for as many as six or eight characters. We used a lot of improv people from Second City and other comedy groups, lots of L.A. artists, and our pals, too. It was a lot of fun, but as one of the producers, I can say it was nerve wracking, too: you hear the clock ticking pretty loudly. But we got done on time. The two lead actors, Dermot Mulroney and James Cromwell, play the voices of Dante and Virgil respectively. It was great having very talented and experienced guys like those two in the show. But I'm the only actor on screen. I play God and the Devil typecast, as usual!
JB: Did you storyboard everything first, or was there improvisation involved in the shoots?
PZ: Sandow and Elyse storyboarded everything by taking digital photos once they got done with a set, which helped immensely. They did a shot for each cut in the script. Then, once in rehearsal, we would improvise some stuff, as well as on the stage while shooting, but the puppets don't allow for lots of ad libbing. Charlie McCarthy they ain't. We did a lot of preparation for the shoot, and that was a good thing. But we still changed a lot of lines on the spot because I guess I am never done writing.
JB: How is shooting a film version of a toy theater show different from performing a live puppet show?
PZ: With a film, you try to get it right for the camera, so you do a few takes, and then you move on. Problem solved (or not, if it stinks). With a live show, you keep doing it over and over, trying to solve the problem every night. Also, hitting the marks with the little puppets is so precise that we'd close one eye to hit our marks. I learned to do that on the closeups on Beakman: If you use just one eye, you can hit the spike easier. Two eyes show you two places close up; one eye shows you one.
JB: How does this project connect to the California paradigm that Sandow used for In Smog and Thunder? In other words, how do you connect the Renaissance Italian context of Dante s work to the present-day world of California? What kinds of ideas did this connection yield?
PZ: The problem was: How do we interpret the text? Sandow and Marcus Sanders took the original and paraphrased it into today's vernacular and culture but didn't really change the content of the scenes in the book. When we began trying to convert that text into a puppet show, it became clear we had to reconceive all of the scenes. They just were not going to work or be interesting if we didn't. We wanted our Hell to have car dealerships and obese people gorging at strip malls, obnoxious Fox News reporters and corrupt lobbyists, money launderers, insider traders, and Spiro Agnew. We were interested in making a political satire in the spirit of Dante, who put all his political friends and enemies in The Divine Comedy.
JB: How long is the final film?
PZ: I have no idea. But I'm really hoping feature length (ha ha!).
John Bell is on the theater faculty at Emerson College, Boston.