Look Who’s Talking.
Frank and Mr. Higgins are a ventriloquist act, but they’re not selling out theaters or performing in front of crowds. They are street performers, bantering back and forth on the corner in hopes of scoring a little pocket change from the pedestrians.
Nothing quite so unusual about that. Any downtown district is going to have its fair share of people performing for money. And maybe it’s not quite so unusual when Mr. Higgins tries to score Frank a date with Stephanie, the cute coffee girl that he’s been crushing on. Maybe Frank is trying to impress her with his skill, or thinks that she will find it endearing. (Never mind the fact that she tells Mr. Higgins that Frank is too old, and says maybe she would rather go out with the dummy instead).
It is, however, slightly more unusual when Mr. Higgins begins to harass a litterbug on the street, continuing on even when things begin to get heated, right up until the point that Frank gets punched in the face. Still, one could force himself to believe that Frank is an ecologically-minded person, and his principals surpass his need for well-being. Perhaps he spoke through Mr. Higgins in an attempt to cut the tension…though it obviously wasn’t working.
Things take a left-turn into very unusual, though, when Frank and Mr. Higgins call it quits and head home for the day. The dummy, no longer anywhere near Frank, continues to speak (and move) of his own accord, demanding a better career trajectory and more of an effort on Frank’s part. Frank, growing tired of the control his dummy wields over him, breaks down and demands that Mr. Higgins just stop talking. The next morning, it seems that Frank has gotten his wish, and then some. Mr. Higgins is gone, and furthermore, he has taken the cute coffee girl with him.
Without his partner, Frank is despondent and left without a voice. He takes a seat on a public bench to ponder his past, present and future, but when an attractive woman sits next to him, Frank greets her with a smile and symbolically removes his bowtie, shunning the costume that has acted as shackles for so long.
Frank doesn’t need Mr. Higgins any longer. Maybe he never did.
Even after witnessing Mr. Higgins move about without Frank’s assistance, it would be easy enough to assume that the dummy is just a manifestation of Frank’s repressed id. After all, nobody else is around to see it. It might merely be Frank’s imagination as he argues with himself. But the fact that Mr. Higgins is gone the next morning strongly implies that the dummy actually is alive. The only other explanation would be that Frank is insane, and in a fugue, he disposed of Mr. Higgins and then murdered Stephanie. Frank doesn’t appear crazy, though, and it is unlikely that this is the scenario that the filmmaker had in mind. Still, it offers an intriguing alternate view that lends a darker air to the proceedings.
This short film is a near-brilliant and entertaining piece of cinema. It’s no wonder that it won the first Jameson First Shot short film competition that was launched by Trigger Street Productions and Jameson whiskey in 2012. Fledgling filmmakers from the USA, Russia, and South Africa were invited to submit their scripts to the jury, and the winning script from each country was filmed with Kevin Spacey in the starring role. THE VENTRILOQUIST was the American winner, written and directed by Benjamin Leavitt.
Spacey, of course, portrays Frank in the film, and does a remarkable job. The scene where he is shouting at Mr. Higgins to shut up is truly powerful, making it obvious that he is bringing the same intensity to this short film as he would to a big budget Hollywood production. The minor part of Stephanie the coffee girl is played by Erin Cahill, who played the Pink Ranger in the POWER RANGERS TIME FORCE television series.
The other two winners in the 2012 competition were SPIRIT OF A DENTURE (South Africa) about a dentist who finds adventure by treating a pirate suffering from a toothache, and ENVELOPE (Russia) about a man who finds himself wrapped up in political intrigue after receiving a letter from a supposedly-imaginary person—both of which star Kevin Spacey, as well.
I had the opportunity to ask filmmaker Benjamin Leavitt a few questions via e-mail, the transcript of which follows:
THE VENTRILOQUIST was the American winner of the Jameson First Shot short film contest. Was the idea for the film one that you had previously, or was it crafted specifically for the contest?
The idea for THE VENTRILOQUIST was something that I had been vaguely mulling over for a few years, but I never really cracked it. When I heard about the contest, and that Kevin Spacey would be starring in the winning film, I immediately returned to this idea, which suddenly just made sense to me. So, when I finally put pen to paper, I was absolutely crafting the film with Kevin in mind.
Where did the idea for the film come from? Do you have a history of ventriloquism in your family?
I do not have a history of ventriloquism in my family, but my mother is a theater director, and she always loved puppets and marionettes. So I grew up surrounded by all kinds of odd theater props, masks, puppets, and other such oddities. I’m sure this was an influence on the idea. But in general, I’ve always been interested in characters who create walls for themselves and hide behind them. A ventriloquist and his controlling puppet seemed to be a great way to explore this kind of character.
While this is by no means a horror film, there is always something inherently creepy about ventriloquist dummies—especially when they begin to talk and move about by themselves. Do you have a favorite creepy dummy film, or one from which you drew inspiration?
When I was kid, I saw the film HARVEY and loved it. And around the same time, I saw the famous Dummy episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, which scared the hell out of me and absolutely left a mark. I think inanimate objects coming to life is truly terrifying. I can still barely bring myself to watch the CHILD’S PLAY movies. Which is ridiculous, I know.
In most movies that feature an apparently-sentient dummy, there is one of two possible explanations: the dummy is actually the embodiment of the ventriloquist’s repressed id; or the dummy truly is alive (and usually up to no good). Mr. Higgins seems to cover both of these bases. Was that your intention?
At the risk of sounding evasive, I really wanted to leave the ending up to audience interpretation. I felt like I did a good job of providing a compelling story that could support both possible scenarios. That being said, I certainly have my own theory which informed my writing, but I don’t think it’s of any importance. I get a huge amount of pleasure from reading the YouTube comments, where people have engaged with the film in surprisingly emotional ways, and have offered their own theories for what happened to Mr. Higgins. I’ve seen people have heated debates about the film, which I think is amazing (in between the typical misogynistic YouTube comments and links to Cialis websites).
As a horror fan, I have posited an unlikely theory that Higgins is not alive at all, and that Frank is actually quite insane. When Frank wakes up in the morning to find Higgins gone, and Stephanie gone with him, he doesn’t realize that, while in a fugue state, he disposed of Higgins and murdered Stephanie in cold blood. Thoughts?
I think that’s a great working theory.
Kevin Spacey did a magnificent job in your film. Besides his performance here, what is your favorite Spacey role?
I think he was phenomenal in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Who else could deliver, “Will you go to lunch?” with such intensity? Also, one of my favorite movies as a kid was THE REF. Seriously, how good is THE REF? THE USUAL SUSPECTS also needs to be on the top of any Spacey list. Too many good roles.
How has the success of THE VENTRILOQUIST changed your life?
I don’t know that it’s necessarily changed my life, yet. But it certainly opened a lot of doors that I didn’t previously have access to. I’ve met with a number of producers, production companies, and studios, and I’ve been able to develop ongoing relationships with a few of them. If it’s all about who you know in this industry, then THE VENTRILOQUIST has given me a huge leg up. Basically, THE VENTRILOQUIST gets me in the door now. So as I try to get my first feature film going, it has already helped me overcome one of the biggest obstacles.
And finally, imagining a world where Frank and Higgins were reunited for a full-length feature, what sort of a story would you see them in?
Good question. I have no idea. I always thought of this story just as a short film. A way to explore an anti-social character who has no idea how to interact with real people, until his safety blanket is suddenly ripped away. There certainly could be a feature film starring these two characters, but I haven’t given it much thought.
THE VENTRILOQUIST can be viewed for free at the Jameson Irish Whiskey Youtube channel.