PJ Griffith sat down with a man responsible for creating a strange world of puppet making films. The man in question is Jon Bristol, a self-taught puppeteer and puppet maker. Jon gathered some friends, some equipment, wrote some scripts, made the puppets and the rest is history. This interview will give you some background on Jon, his company Elmwood Productions and the short horror film he created called Head (all utilizing pupptets). So take it away PJ…
HMS: First off, can you tell us about your company Elmwood Productions and what you are all about? How did you get started?
Jon Bristol: Elmwood Productions is a New England based Film Company, focusing primarily on film with puppets. Elmwood got its start in the late 1990’s with the idea of taking a comic I was working on and turning it into a flick. I decided to make the movie with puppets since I was a huge Muppet and puppetry fan, and thought the comic characters would look great as puppets. That started the journey into learning how to make puppets. It really took over my artistic life, and although the movie has never been made, I’m pretty happy with where Elmwood has gone, hahaha!
HMS: Can you tell us a little about your latest film Head? How was the experience of making such a film like?
JB: Head is a throwback to the late 1970’s early ‘80’s movies, kids in the woods, having a good time, upset something, and get themselves killed, hahaha…But with puppets. We made sure to play it straight too. It was a new experience for us in Elmwood. Our first feature film was a combo of puppets and human actors, where Head is all puppets. We have done all puppets with most of our short films, and web-series, but there was some concern about a puppet horror flick holding an audience for the full run. It was an interesting shoot. We had the weather against us nearly every day. We used real sets and locations, not a single shot with green screen or CGI in the whole flick. Here in Connecticut the weather gets totally unpredictable right around Halloween. And we here shooting exteriors in the fall. We wrapped them on the Wednesday before Halloween, and it snowed on Saturday.
HMS: Would you say there are any unexpected challenges to working with puppets that the general public wouldn't think would be a factor?
JB: Pain. Hahaha. You have to get yourself into some weird positions sometimes, and then hold them for a long time, so there is continuity in shots.
HMS: As a native of Connecticut, it's fun for me to see references to the area in your films. Do you find the location to be specifically good for your stories or do you need to creatively work CT in? Do you plan anything in the future for other areas?
JB: Our whole “universe” of characters live in a little fictional version of Connecticut, and many of them hang out in a fictional version of Elmwood; hence our name - Elmwood Productions. I do think CT is a cool spot, especially for the more horror and supernatural stories since we have such a huge history with such things. Head takes place in Vermont, and the location is based on a spot I go camping on a regular basis. I suppose if we have an idea that would work to shoot someplace else we’ll jump on it.
HMS: Can you tell us a little something about the world of voice acting? A little bit about your actors and/or your own experience?
JB: Most of our films the puppeteer is also the voice. So the performance is live on set. We do have to from time to time re-dub a voice with someone else though. For HEAD we did it both ways. In post-production we had a few people come in and re-dub, so characters didn’t sound too much alike. We prefer to keep the voices live though. So the puppeteer gets to own the character. I love the feeling of getting the puppet on, getting to feel it out, do some lines, kinda’ come up with who this person is and where they are from, and so on, then get onto set with an idea of why they behave the way they do. I know Mike Finland (Bruce in HEAD) works very much like this as well. We like to get a fully rounded character on screen.
HMS: What have been some of your influences?
JB: I was raised on film and television and reading. My house was full of art and music as well. So right off the bat my influences were my family and friends. Creatively though I will clearly admit to embracing and loving the work of the Jim Henson crew, from the 1950’s all the way through now. Any puppeteer alive since The Muppets hit will be lying if they say there isn’t at least a little influence. From there, with film I’d say the films of Ralph Bakshi, Spielberg (love Indiana Jones!), Kevin Smith, and so many more…These are film makers that made me think “I can do that!”. With puppetry, Henson and his gangs, and Bil Baird were the huge ones. And I love music. When I’m writing, or building puppets, music is always on. Guns N’ Roses, Chili Peppers, Prince, anything funky really, and I was raised on hard rock, and hippie music, hahaha. I’ve really been into L’Eclipse Nue lately, listening to a lot of his work while writing. Pretty deep and dark stuff, it’s like the score to a horror film I haven’t made yet!
HMS: Puppets and horror are a fantastic and unfortunately underused mixture. Can you tell us a little bit about what made you a horror fan and want to use that as a genre of choice?
JB: I love both mediums. Horror is a genre. Puppetry is not. It’s a way to tell a story. Why not a horror film? Or a romantic comedy? Or an erotic thriller? Or an action flick? Ya know? So early on with Elmwood we talked doing a horror film, but without puppets. Just to get a horror film made, because we love horror. We had been doing mostly comedy, with puppets, and wanted to mix it up. So a non-puppet horror film sounded great. But that film fell apart, and out of frustration I wrote HEAD to get a script out of my system. Four years later we were shooting it… With puppets! And the decision to go with puppets was because we realized it would be better that way. We do it so well, and are known for doing it. And as far as I know no one has. Sure there have been spoofs with puppets, but no one has done a straight horror flick with puppets, until HEAD.
HMS: Can you give us some info about upcoming projects? Is there a dream project you would love to do someday or concept in particular you are passionate about visiting?
JB: Right now we’re wrapping up a new web-series called “The Risley Brothers”. It’s about two brothers who own a bar, and run it poorly. It’s a comedy, more PG-13 than what HEAD was. And it’s been a blast to shoot. I’m looking forward to getting it out. After that we’re jumping back in the horror pools; a new web-series of shorts which I can’t reveal too much about yet. And a sequel to a certain horror flick we’ve been talking about a lot. Hint, hint…Hahahaha…
For a dream project? I’d really like to hit up different genres and tell some compelling stories. And of course make people laugh and scream.
HMS: What would you like see more of in the world of horror and film in general?
JB: Originality. I don’t think I’m alone here. I love a good sequel to a movie I loved, and the remakes can sometimes be great. But I do really want to see more new ideas. I’m really tired of “Hollywood” and all the same old superhero flicks and “re-boots”, and all that horseshit happening right now. Take a Transformers budget and split that into ten budgets for something smarter and let’s see what happens. Even adapting books, there are so many stories out there that would make great films, so why are we getting another adaption of IT? I’d rather see a different Stephen King book adapted.
HMS: Finally, for fun, if you could do a puppet take on any film or series in history, what would it be?
JB: HEAD really came out of wanting to make Evil Dead with puppets, hahaha…So that took care of some of the desire to do that. I’ve been joking for years about doing Rocky Horror with puppets, ha…But why? No one wants that, hahaha. In a dream world I’d do a movie of the comic book “The Maxx”, with an all puppet cast!
HMS: Jon, thanks again for taking the time to speak with us. We all look forward to seeing what comes next from you and Elmwood Productions.
JB: Thank you, man!
P.J. Griffin, HMS
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