Interviewing Dan Kamin
|Dan Kamin (bio):Dan performs worldwide for theaters, colleges and symphony orchestras. On film, he created the physical comedy sequences for Chaplin and Benny and Joon, and trained Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp for their acclaimed starring performances. He also created Martian movement for Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and played the wooden Indian come to life in the cult classic Creepshow 2.
– Dan Kamin – Comedy in Motion
Your gift is hard to define, Dan. If I had to pigeon-hole you, I would probably call you a performance artist—maybe a physical performance artist—but I think what you do is more complicated than that. It seems to require more finesse than most performance artists I can think of. Can you define what you do and how you got started doing it?
That’s such a kind way of saying I’m incomprehensible!
I first started performing as a boy magician. I got hooked on magic after seeing the movie Houdini with Tony Curtis, and before long I was earning spare money doing magic shows at kids’ birthday parties. This was primarily because I couldn’t get the job I really wanted, which was to be a bagboy at the local supermarket. Those guys had cars, and girlfriends.
Clearly, the silent comedians must have influenced you greatly in developing your art. Can you talk about how you came in contact specifically with Charlie Chaplin’s work and the way in which it continues to influence you in your work today?
I had no intention of making a career as a magician, because I couldn’t imagine a life in smoky nightclubs performing for inebriated audiences. To escape the lure of performing, I attended Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to study industrial design. While there I happened into a Charlie Chaplin film shown by the campus film society, The Gold Rush. To say I was blown away is putting it mildly. I thought it was the best film I’d ever seen. I still think that. I walked out of that film into a new life.
But what life? Little as I knew about movies, I understood that silent films were a dead art form. Then I saw a man named Jewel Walker do a mime show on the campus. Jewel could do incredible optical illusions with movement, as well as hilarious comedy without speaking. I instantly knew that that’s where Chaplin’s art had gone, and I began hounding Jewel, who taught in the drama department of our campus, to show me how the tricks work. I soon realized that mime wasn’t just about tricks, but about characters, stories, and comedy. After awhile I wanted to see if I could make people laugh without words, and to see if I had any stories to tell.
This was the late 1960s, and I rode the wave of popularity of mime. Of course, the wave crashed in the late 1970s when everybody started to hate mimes. That’s what mime always does—gets popular as a discrete form (like silent films) and then disappears, to return in a new guise. For example, the current manifestation of the art is the mega-spectacle Cirque du Soleil—what would you call it, after all, other than the illegitimate child of P.T. Barnum and Marcel Marceau?
But by the time the public turned against white-faced mime I was already talking in many of my shows, and doing what you’re referring to as some of my less-classifiable work. I essentially have a magician’s approach to theatre, which is to say I like to catch people off guard and fool them with theatrical pranks. For example, I’ll often masquerade as a keynote speaker for unsuspecting groups, such as being a stress-management expert for a group of geriatric social workers. At first I’m everyone’s worse nightmare of a speaker, boring, disorganized, increasingly ill-at-ease. And before long my stress-management tips start to backfire, until literally everything falls apart, including the lectern and my suit, leaving me in big polka dot boxer shorts.
I also do many shows these days with symphony orchestras, turning concerts into kid-friendly performance events by showing up as someone who isn’t supposed to be there, then interacting with the conductor, the musicians, and the music. When the music plays, of course, all the mime training comes into play. I do a solo program called Comedy in Motion where I basically do everything I know how to do to entertain people, even some of my old magic. And I particularly enjoy doing a special Chaplin evening I’ve developed, Funny Bones-The Comic Body Language of Charlie Chaplin, which is like a class in comedy, with lots of audience participation, performance, film clips and a complete short, accompanied live if possible.
Something else we all know about you is that you worked closely with Johnny Depp in Benny and Joon on the Oceania roll sequence and Robert Downey, Jr. in Attenborough’s Chaplin. How do you think your facility with Chaplin’s art allowed you to be the perfect choice for these tasks?
Well, first of all, had I not written a book about Chaplin I never would have made a single movie. Robert Downey, Jr. got a copy of my book, which is about Chaplin’s performing technique, and realized that it was like a training manual for him. He called me in Pittsburgh and said, “I think you may be the only person in the world who can help me pull this off.” He flew to Pittsburgh and we immediately went to work, and he got me hired. Word got out during production that Robert was giving a remarkable performance, and people in Hollywood knew that someone must be working with him, because even then he was known within the industry as a talented but undisciplined party boy. On the strength of that I was contacted about other projects, including Benny and Joon with Johnny Depp. I ended up creating the comedy scenes for both movies, simply because movie physical comedy is basically a lost art now. I borrowed the roll dance for both films, and have incorporated a variation into my own show, since I worked so damn hard to learn it!If not for my study of Chaplin, and my attempts over the years to put what I learned into practice on stage and in industrial films, I wouldn’t have known where to begin. It was like a dream come true, to come full circle and add physical comedy to movies. And of course, it was a great honor to be able to contribute to bringing Chaplin’s story to a new audience via the Downey film. Although the film has serious flaws, many people enjoyed Robert’s portrayal.
Besides your performance art, you’re quite famous for the ONLY book to date that deals in any way with Charlie’s particular physicality on film, Charlie Chaplin’s One-Man-Show. I know you are currently working on an updated edition of the book. How did you come to write it in the first place and how will the new edition be changed from the original?
A few years after I began performing mime myself, I realized I was noticing some very odd things about the films, such as the fact that Chaplin’s face was whiter than those of the characters around him, and that his moustache was, in effect, a bulls-eye, drawing the eye. Because of my visual art background, I realized that these were things that helped him stand out on the crowded movie screens of 1914 and 1915. They were part of the craft underlying his art. Since no author had ever examined Chaplin’s art from a performer’s point of view, or done a detailed analysis of his mime-based acting technique, I felt that it was my responsibility to do so. It was also a way to avoid boring my friends with my incessant talk about Chaplin as I worked out my ideas. Alas, my attempt to get it out of my system failed, and after all these years I’m still boring my friends about Chaplin. I have high hopes, however, that the revised edition will enable me to break free from this horrendous addiction once and for all.
The book’s already been through two editions, a hardcover and a paperback. When Scarecrow Press, the original publisher, told me they wanted to do a new edition, I thought, great, once over lightly. Hah. For one thing, it’s a lot easier to examine films on DVD than with 8mm and 16mm films, or by taking notes in dark movie theatres. At the time I wrote the book I hadn’t even managed to track down a number of the early films. The opportunity to do a new edition has enabled me to correct many factual errors in the description of certain scenes.
In addition, I’ve been writing consistently since the book came out, including many articles about Chaplin. The practice has improved my writing craft, which is handy, since it’s pretty tricky to write about movement in a way that doesn’t make the reader want to throw the book across the room.
My professional experiences have also deepened my understanding of Chaplin’s work. I’ve had the opportunity to direct classic comedies and put my ideas into practice in Hollywood. Plus, so much material on Chaplin has come out in the past two decades, like the pioneering works by David Robinson and Kevin Brownlow, that we know more than ever before about him. My book’s not a bio, but some of this wealth of material has caused me to reevaluate my views, as has my ongoing dialogue with fellow Chaplin buffs. As a result, my analysis of a number of the films is deeper—at least, I hope so.
The book has changed so much that I’m discussing with Scarecrow the possibility of renaming it. Perhaps Son of One?
I’m particularly fascinated with early writing about Chaplin, and artists’ images on posters, sheet music and magazine covers. This material is so evocative, for it gives clues to what people found so appealing when he first appeared on the scene, before he had made any of the films now considered to be classics. I love Film Fun magazine, which began publishing in July, 1915, and used Chaplin on the covers again and again until the early 20s, when they got a makeover and became a girlie magazine (using the same title). In 1919 they used Chaplin on nine of their twelve covers, four of which use him to editorialize about the coming of Prohibition (they clearly hated the notion). I love this kind of stuff.I have a piece of British sheet music called “Charlie Chaplin’s Frolics” from 1915 (you can see it in Chaplin/Genesis of a Clown) with a nice montage of cartoon drawings that pretty much sums up his early appeal—Charlie as lover, bungler, dapper man-about-town. Much early sheet music—both the covers and the lyrics—focused on those big feet, which people seemed to find so hilarious.
Thanks to eBay and the Internet I’ve found books and other pieces I’d never thought I’d come across, such as two early British softcover books from 1915, The Charlie Chaplin Fun Book and The Charlie Chaplin Scream Book, both filled with revealing poems and cartoons. Gifford’s Comic Art of Charlie Chaplin reproduces many of the pages—but it’s very cool to have the originals. I’ve never tracked down a copy of The Charlie Chaplin Book (the Street and Smith paperback of stories from the Essanays), but I live in hope. I did find a fascinating 1917 English variant, The Chronicles of Charlie Chaplin, by Draycott Dell. Dell skillfully weaves the Essanays together into a kind of novel of Charlie’s adventures.
It’s fascinating how seldom these early writers, artists and reviewers accurately describe Chaplin’s comedy, although they all get a part of the picture. But the work is elusive, for its fundamental power lies beyond the power of words to describe, and beyond the ability of still images to convey. Yet for so many it has proven irresistible to try. I’m proud to count myself among those who have made the attempt.