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Creators of SYFY's 'The Movie Show' know you'll find comfort in puppets discussing cinema in the COVID era
Can you tell me how to get... how to get to Modesto, California?
A sunny day is about to sweep the clouds away because puppets are coming to SYFY via The Movie Show, which premieres tomorrow night. But, these hand-operated characters aren't giant yellow birds or trashcan-dwelling grouches — they're Deb and Wade, the dueling co-hosts of a public access movie review show based in Southern California. Speaking with SYFY WIRE, series co-creators and executive producers Alex Stone and Adam Dubowsky (who also voice the felty protagonists) embrace our description of the project as "Siskel & Ebert by way of Sesame Street." However, "review" is used in the loosest sense of the word.
"What I like about that description is that the Siskel & Ebert element of it really only exists in premise alone, because they don’t classically deconstruct the films that we talk about," Stone (voice of Wade) says. "Any commentary you get comes from the larger pieces. We set up that we’re talking about a movie and then any opinion or take on the movie comes from the sketch or the bit itself within the block. It blends these things together in a way that’s fun."
According to Dubowsky (voice of Deb), the duo originally played around with a Fright Night-inspired premise of "an old sci-fi actor, like a William Shatner-type guy — a Charlie Rose-type show, where they had to bring in a new, young fan to be co-host with them and that inherent conflict stuff. One of the things that we liked, too, was the Wayne’s World aspect of how that was a do-it-yourself thing about music. And so, we said, 'What if it was like that, but for movies?' Mixed with puppets as well."
Stone adds: "Our idea was that due to a clerical error, they both had their own movie review show and then they consolidated it into one. The birth of their conflict is they both think that the show is theirs and they’re trying to make it their own."
So what's with the puppets? It's always fun to see inanimate objects coming to life outside the context of a kids' show like Sesame Street or The Muppets. But The Movie Show is more in line with the surrealist comedy of The Happytime Murders and The Fuzz, two projects that are set in bizarre realities where humans exist alongside sentient puppets. Building on SYFY's initial pitch, Stone and Dubowsky decided that fake people would be a much better fit than flesh-and-blood hosts.
"Their idea was: ‘A movie review show, but we’re probably not gonna get A-list actors to come in and talk to you guys. We can’t show real movie clips, so what does this look like?’ It always felt weird to us to have real human beings talking about real things, but everything that surrounds them is fake," Stone explains. "We thought, ‘If you put puppets onscreen right away, then it’s just a signal to the audience that everything you’re about to see throws logic out the window and will be fun, silly, and weird.’"
"For us, using puppets is just our way of making live animation. We both love animated shows and that sense of humor," Dubowsky adds. "Like Alex said before, it is such a nonsensical world, you can just do anything. For script supervisors and people like that, continuity is very important. It would always be like, ‘That telephone wasn’t there before.’ And I’d always be like, ‘Yeah, it can just appear. We can do whatever we want! Think of it like a cartoon.'"
Ironically, the first day of shooting with the puppets occurred on Jim Henson's birthday.
"We found that out on the way to set; it was a really cool and serendipitous thing," Dubowsky continues. "It was just so cool seeing the puppets come to life and since Alex and I [only] do the voices, it’s also just this weird thing of while you’re watching it happen, it doesn’t really feel like it’s you. Because it was something we voiced before. It felt like we were out of the process for that, which is kind of weird and surreal of: ‘Oh, these puppets are these things on their own.’ That was really awesome."
The pair of puppets are operated by a team of four professionals known for their work on Crank Yankers and The Muppets.
"I just never really understood how hard it was. When you have a good puppeteer working a puppet, they actually feel like they’re living, breathing people. It’s pretty amazing. We would not be able to do that... well, Alex might be able to," Dubowsky says, alluding to the fact that Stone failed a puppet show audition in eighth grade.
"To be one of the puppet performers, you had to read a monologue with the puppet on your hand," Stone says. "I did it and then I got to the end and they went, ‘That was really great, it was, but this time, could you move the puppet’s mouth?’"
As its title suggests, The Movie Show is about — what else? — movies! In each episode, Deb and Wade will discuss three genre blockbusters, both classic and upcoming.
"A lot of people are watching more movies now than they did before, just removed from the theater," Stone says. "There’s a lot of time to kill at home and I think there is hopefully an appetite for this type of thing. But more than that, I think that this fills some sort of void that has been left, especially when it comes to these blockbuster movies. People want to be seeing them, but they’re delayed, so while we can’t show you the movie, we can talk about it and have fun around it."
In trying to fill that void, the creators wanted to capture the comforting escapism of going to the movies. That meant avoiding the COVID-19 health crisis, which has forced theaters to close and Hollywood studios to delay their tentpole releases.
"We tried to do it in a way where it doesn’t make you think about it as much," Dubowsky explains. "There was a discussion when we started filming of like, ‘Oh, when they’re in the field, should the puppets be wearing face masks or should we be talking about the pandemic a lot?’ We chose not to do that, just so it was more of an escape from everything going on. I think we very briefly say, ‘Hey, movies aren’t in theaters’ and kind of breeze through it. Hopefully, it’s a nice escape for everybody."
Unfortunately, the physical shoot was directly impacted by the pandemic. "Going to work in mask and shield, standing in a parking lot to be tested every other day, and not being able to hug the people you did this with when it was over was hard," Stone admits. "It affected every single aspect of the production and was difficult."
"Our turnaround schedule was so quick," Dubowsky reveals. "That was the most challenging thing because of COVID. We didn’t know when we could start filming and then when we finally did, we had this hard release date. We stopped filming the week before our first episode aired. Just to be editing while we were filming every day was a really hard process that I wish we had more time for. But I’m happy we had any time for it."
When it came to talking about unreleased films like Wonder Woman 1984 and Denis Villeneuve's Dune, the team did the best they could. "We talk about them as much as you can talk about them without having seen them yet," Dubowsky says. "It is just us being fans of the property in general, of us loving Wonder Woman in general and being able to talk a little bit about her history. But yeah, we weren’t able to see any of the movies ahead of time. I wish we could."
On the classic side of things, you can expect pop culture mainstays like Back to the Future, Jumanji, and Apollo 13. "I think it started with a big master list of films by decade when we started the writers’ room," Stone recalls.
But like we said above, these movies are only jumping-off points for different, variety show-esque bits, whether it's a pitch for turning Batman into a nun or an interview with Stephen King's laptop. Other "celebrity" guests include the T. rex from Jurassic Park and Bruce the Shark from Jaws. "We’d take a movie we’d want to talk about and then everyone would pitch ideas for that," Stone adds. "With The Shining, we know we want to have a guest on. It’s like, ‘What’s the funniest thing we could do to talk about this movie?’ That was the genesis of what is the funniest thing that we could do in reference to this movie or around this film? Hopefully, that translates into the show."
And why is Deb and Wade's show based in Modesto, California, you're probably asking yourself? It's not as random as you might think. Cinema fans will know that Modesto is the birthplace of George Lucas, who later used his hometown as the setting for 1973's coming-of-age film American Graffiti. Modesto also churned out folks like Jeremy Renner, Timothy Olyphant... and Dubowsky's ex-girlfriend.
"When we first started creating the show three years ago, my girlfriend at the time was from Modesto, and I spent 10 years going to Modesto for holidays and stuff like that," he says. "It came from the premise that we wanted [Deb and Wade] to think that they were Hollywood insiders and that they were near all the action when in reality, they were five hours away from the action."
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, SYFY previewed the series with two special airings. Fortunately, the early buzz has been positive. "My mom loved it," Stone says. "Friends and family, everyone has been very kind. No one in my immediate circle has come out and told me they hated it, which was nice of them."
"[With] the first episode, we were just pretty down because that was our pilot presentation, essentially, that we already filmed once like two years ago and then we had to reshoot it," Dubowsky says. "It’s just so not funny to us now because we’ve lived with it for so long. So getting that out of the way and hearing some people say that it was still funny was very nice. It was like, ‘OK, I guess it was still funny.’ We’re very excited about the new episodes; starting Thursday is ones that we really like a lot."
While a second season hasn't been greenlit just yet, the creators have plenty of ideas if they're gifted with a sophomore outing.
"I’m just saying if it does happen and we’re lucky enough to have that happen, we have a lot more movie ideas that we weren’t able to get to and things we had to lose because of COVID, we couldn’t shoot. Maybe we could try to do that," Dubowsky says. "We tried to be as current as possible and stuff like that. We have so many other movies that we can throw in for Season 2 that we weren’t able to put in Season 1."
The Movie Show debuts on SYFY Thursday, Dec. 4, in its regular time slot of 11 p.m. EST. You can watch the first two episodes below...