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We all like to talk to ourselves, but I bet barely any of us are circling the globe making a comfortable living at it. This isn’t the case for Nina Conti, however, whose quirky blend of ventriloquism and neuroses make her one of the most unique stand-up comedians out there, which is no small feat in her native England, where there are more talented comedians per capita than there are droplets of tea. Conti was stateside last week taping segments for Ellen and The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, in promotion for her SXSW Audience Award-winning documentary Her Master’s Voice, now on DVD. I recently had the pleasure of reviewing the film and later speaking with Ms. Conti for a few minutes about the process behind making a personal movie, and subsequently, baring her soul to the world. You can check out a portion of the interview, below.
First, I have got to say how much I loved the documentary.
Good. I'm very glad.
Is it a documentary to you, or more of a comedy concert film?
It's difficult to genre-define, I find. It’s kind of…um, wow. It is what it is. It's trying to be truthful, but through an unusual art form which involves a bit of construction, I suppose. The way I talk to the puppets is real, and it's in the moment, and it's seeing what will happen. It's not something that is scripted.
Were there cameramen involved, or was it you the whole time?
When it was me in the bed, that was always on my own. I think you can kind of tell that, not only because of the stuff I'm saying. But it's very voyeuristic. You can tell.
But you're actually saying it to everyone who's watching. So it's almost like they're in there with you.
That's true, but what I remember from most moments was that...I made this film with my own money and with no hope of anyone buying it, or it being seen. I didn't know festivals would accept it or anything. I was making it for me so I knew that I owned the tapes. No one needed to see them. So, it gave me a lot of freedom. It wasn't like I was going to hand them over to a producer at the end of the day. That gave me a lot of freedom. I thought, well I'm saying this but no one needs to know this. And in the end it was cool, so I ended up using it all. But if I had known I was going to, I might have been more…I might have censored some of the stuff I said.
It's been a couple of years since all that happened. How does that work? Did you edit it?
I tried to edit it, yes. I had Final Cut Pro set up on my Mac. And I sat there and edited the first five minutes about a hundred times, and then I thought, "Well I think I maybe should get someone in so that every single aspect of the film doesn't have to be done by me."(Laughs). It's not like it's an ego project already.
It was a very good introduction though. Those first five minutes that you edited a hundred times sealed the deal in introducing you.
Yes, I did do that. That pretty much stayed the same. Then the rest of the film, I just really struggled with it. I had so much footage of these other wonderful ventriloquists and I just wanted to keep it all. I loved some of the stuff just a bit too much to be objective. So, then I brought Riaz Maer, who's very experienced. He cuts a lot of good documentaries in England. I got him on it, and he said, “ I'm just gonna cut your story out. Forget everyone else.” And he would send a cut of your journey, and you think, "Oh thank God. It's a film." It does travel. And I was really delighted.
I saw that it was executive produced by Christopher Guest. How does that fit into it?
Well Christ Guest. I had already met him and known him and had done a spot in one of his films. He’s got this curious interest in ventriloquism. I can never really tell if it was genuine or a freakshow kind of interest, but it seemed genuine. I told him I was making this film and he said, “If I can help in any way. Just show me the cuts and I can help with that.” So, he saw versions of the film throughout and he would give me phone advice for it. And he just said he would be delighted to be a part of this film.
Does the fact that [the film] was 64 minutes rather than longer work better to you? Is it more concise?
Well, actually, Riaz did that naturally because he's used to cutting documentaries for British television. The standard time of those is sixty minutes. We sold it to the BBC, so he was clever to do that, I think. He just kept naturally cutting it down to that length, and I asked how he managed to keep it that length. We edited it for about a year. This is one of the joys and pains of self-made things, I guess. Because it didn't have someone to hand over to, I could just keep on tinkering with it. Riaz was working on other proper paid work and was making my cut in his downtime, so we were meeting up on weekends and in the evenings and we didn't have a studio. We'd just go to each other's houses, so it took a long time to cut.
It's worth it, in the end.
I hope so.