'Dumbstruck' stars put words in dummies' mouths

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They may put words in puppets' mouths, but ventriloquists are no dummies.

That's clear from writer-director Mark Goffman's doc "Dumbstruck," which follows five vents at various career points with insights into how they create personalities for their dummy buddies and market themselves as entertainers.

After world premiering recently at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, "Dumbstruck" is being shown to domestic distributors.

"One of the biggest challenges over the last two years has been watching the collapse of the independent film market," Goffman points out. "We've really tried to keep the film under wraps until we had it finished."

"Dumbstruck" is the feature directorial debut for Goffman, a TV writer whose credits include "The West Wing" and "Law and Order: SVU." It was produced by his wife, Lindsay Goffman, a development exec at FremantleMedia, which produces "American Idol" and "The Price is Right," with consulting producers David Sacks and Daniel Brunt and executive producer Elon Musk.

Goffman's starting point is the annual Vent Haven ConVENTion in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, known as the ventriloquism capital of the world. He zeroes in on five characters who could easily have stepped out of a Christopher Guest mockumentary.

Among the intertwined tales: Kim Yeager, a former beauty queen who hopes to start performing on cruise ships; Dan Horn, a successful cruise ship entertainer whose marriage collapses because he's away at sea for months; and Terry Fator, who after 22 years in obscurity wins the "America's Got Talent" competition and lands a $100 million Las Vegas deal.

It was Goffman's mother-in-law, a teacher who uses ventriloquism to work with her school kids, who got him started thinking about ventriloquists and told him about the convention.

"We had to go see it for ourselves. I like telling stories about people following their dreams and ambitions and it just seemed like a really fun project."

That was in 2007 when the Writers Guild was about to go on strike and Goffman knew he'd have plenty of time on his hands.

The Goffmans teamed up with DP George Reasner, who'd worked with Mark on short films, and took an HD camera to the convention.

Their goal was to make the film independently. "It was my wife and my first project together and we wanted to make something that just the two of us were really getting to shepherd," he told me. "So we went out and raised the money on our own."

They edited the convention footage into a trailer with help from Doug Blush, who edited the crossword puzzle doc "Wordplay," and Sven Pape, who'd previously worked with Mark on editing a James Cameron behind-the-scenes doc.

" We put together this trailer and used that to raise money," he explained. "One of the first people I went to was David Sacks, who produced 'Thank You for Smoking.' " Sacks helped as did the Goffmans' family and friends. More support came from executive producer Elon Musk, who was an exec producer on 'Smoking.'

They wound up with a budget of $500,000 and took two and a half years to make the movie.

"In documentary-making as opposed to script writing you have to let the stories unfold for themselves and people work at their own time."

For now, the name of the game is putting a distribution deal in place, which the Goffmans are doing through Jason Burns at UTA and sales agent Kevin Iwashina of IP Advisors.

Production posed all sorts of challenges, Goffman recalls, including a cruise ship director who was convinced they were shooting a porno movie.

"They allow video cameras on board, but they're very skeptical of anything that looks like a professional film. Apparently porns 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."

Moreover, aspiring cruise ship entertainer eager, he observes, is "a former Miss Ohio runner-up and very attractive. Her dummy Bertha is a rather voluptuous figure. The cruise director saw our camera equipment and assumed we were making a porno."

Goffman couldn't convince him that the film was really about ventriloquists. "He threatened to leave me in the Bahamas if I didn't turn off my camera."

Another unusual challenge involved sound recording for scenes with the dummies. They didn't need to be miked because, the vents speak for them.

"We had to tell one of the sound operators on an Ohio shoot to keep the boom mike on the person when the dummy spoke."

They wound up with an overwhelming 300 hours of footage and there wasn't enough time in the 85-minute film to include three of the eight characters they followed.

Some of the best extra footage will eventually surface as DVD bonus features. "We have tons of material on Terry that we really want to show -- like backstage on 'Letterman' and 'Oprah' and at his premiere party."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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