June 15, 2024

Interview: ‘Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe’ Director Robert McCallum

For those that did not grow up in Canada or the neighboring states in the U.S., ‘Mr. Dressup’ was children’s program that ran in Canada for nearly three decades. In it, Mr. Dressup, portrayed by Ernie Coombs, would lead children through a series of songs, stories, arts, crafts and imagination games, with the help of his puppet friends a boy named Casey and a dog named Finnegan – who lived with him and often played in the tree-house in Mr. Dressup’s backyard.

The new Amazon Prime Video documentary “Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe” takes a look at the iconic show, and takes a personal look at the life and career of Coombs. The film, which premieres on Prime Video on  October 10, has had a good run so far, winning People’s Choice Award for Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) well as the Cinefest Sudbury International Film Festival Audience Choice Award for Best Documentary.

We spoke with the film’s director, Robert McCallum, about how the documentary came about, working with the Coombs family, and being transformed into a four-year-old again.

 

Screen Radar: How are you doing?

Robert McCallum: Good! Thanks for taking the time to talk about the film.

I thought it was wonderful. I’ve watched it a couple times now. And congratulations on your success at TIFF.

Thanks, we were very fortunate. There were lot of good films that played at TIFF, so it’s mind blowing that we got the People’s Choice for Best Documentary. I mean, my filmmaking idols like Alex Gibney and Errol Morris had new films that premiered there, so it’s surreal. Nickelback had a film that played Roy Thompson Hall, which I think is a 3,000 person venue, and all our screenings together were less than 1,000 people or something.

Wow.

But I guess that’s the power of Mr. Dress up, right?

I saw that the Tickle Trunk made an appearance on the red carpet, which is wonderful.

Of course. Imagination is never too far away.

Just to give you an idea of my background, I’m American, but I grew up in Buffalo, NY, so Mr. Dressup was a huge part of my childhood.

I love it. You have no idea how many close border Americans have reached out about this. And the biggest concern, of course, is, “Is it only coming out on October 10 in Canada.” No, it’s a global release. Don’t worry, my border hopping friends.

It had an enormous impact on me.  I grew up to be an artist, which was a direct influence of Mr. Dressup, and my kids both had their own versions of Tickle Trunks for their dress up clothes. So, it still resonates with me to this day.

I love it. That makes me so happy to hear.

A few years back, you worked on a couple of projects called “The Impact of Mr. Dressup” and “The Legacy of Mr. Dressup.” Can you talk about how those projects came to be about and how they related to the documentary?

Well, this film has been going on for five years. There was an opportunity through the Canadian Media Fund to do a couple of shorts on Mr. Dressup since he was getting a star on the Walk of Fame. So. it was kind of like a bit of an overlap, almost a double dip situation where there was a need to have something to capitalize on the news when he got the star in Canada’s Walk of Fame, but I was also already in production and was going to capture the event anyways. So, it was a cool overlap that allowed us to kind of have something out there for when we didn’t know when any of our release plans were going to ever materialize.

Director Robert McCallum

How did the documentary come about then? What was the genesis of the film?

I showed my kids an episode, and they loved it. And that blew my mind because they don’t typically like what dad has to offer for what he thinks are good shows. But it worked for them. They loved the crafts, the drawing, the dressing up and storytelling. And I thought that there’s something to that if it could still work today, even in the face of the content that they like to consume, which is more contemporary. And then I just started thinking about the world that we live in; that we live in a world without Mr. Dressup. And basically anybody that’s 30 or younger probably doesn’t know Mr. Dressup or wouldn’t remember him because he wasn’t around. For me, I can’t remember a time Mr. Dressup wasn’t around. And even though I aged out of it when I went to school, I always knew that he was there. So, there’s always this perpetual presence, until you realize it’s gone and you look around at what that absence might do to our world. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, things have changed a lot. I wonder what it would be like if Mr. Dressup was around. What if we just reminded people about Dressup?”

There had been no documentary about him made yet. We had just gotten the Fred Rogers documentary in 2018 from Morgan Neville, and Mr. Dressup was always considered Canada’s Mr. Rogers to so many people. At least that’s how he’s often described. I just realized that there’s something here. I’ve done films on Nintendo and Masters of the Universe, my other passions in my life, and Mr. Dressup is firmly in there. I’m not the storyteller I am without him. Certainly not the Canadian independent documentary filmmaker if I’m not going in my kitchen drawer to get sticky tape and pencils, or asking the neighbor down the street to help me with something, because that happens in every film. It even happened on this film. So that ethos, that approach, that need to be resourceful with what one already has around them, is a very Mr. Dressup thing, and that’s instilled in me to this day.

You had a wealth of archival footage to use, between home videos and TV interviews and photos. What was the process like to gather of gathering that footage?

Christmas morning. Wealth is a great word because I was so blessed to see all this stuff that our team found while researching, the stuff that they unearthed, that we didn’t know existed. I had a pretty good working knowledge because before Amazon and Marble Media came on board, I’d been working on it for a couple of years. I had exhausted the internet’s resources and every possible Google combination to find any piece of information I could on Ernie Coombs, his family and the show. So, I had a pretty good working knowledge. And then there was this whole other side of stuff that was behind pay walls that you have to be a visual researcher to get behind. That’s when you really get in the depths of this stuff and really discover stuff; see pictures of events that people had talked about. But now you get to see it right there, and see some interviews that you never think you’d get to see or even just see letters that Ernie had written Fred Rogers that we featured in the film. It’s pretty special to see kind of that stuff. And it just gets you that much closer to knowing the individual and being able to present very thorough take on the story. It’s just very fortunate.

What was like working with his family?

The best. Imagine you get to hang out with Mr. Dressup’s family. Imagine what that’s like. Well, it’s like hanging out with Mr. Dressup. I never got to meet Ernie, but they were real just down to Earth, hardworking people. The kind of people you want to be around. The kind of people you’re proud to call your friends. The kind of people you want to aspire to on some level. And they were just forever trusting. We were forever grateful to them because a lot of people had approached them over the years about making this film and they instantly saw that what you see is what you get with me. I’m just a passionate fan that wants to share my love of something with the world. In this case, it’s my love of this show and their dad and my desire to tell everybody and show everybody how important he and the show was and still is now.

How would you say this film differed from your previous work from a filmmaking standpoint?

This was a much longer undertaking. On the show business side of it, I’ve never been blessed with so many resources to work with, such a talented crew, and to have such administrative support that we had as a result of being able to work with Amazon and Marble Media and Hawkeye Pictures. It was nice to just be able to focus on writing and directing. So, that alone was a monumental leap, whereas other projects I’m writing, directing, producing, editing, sometimes shooting, marketing, designing. This was nice just to be able to focus on the one thing that alone made a huge difference in what the end product was going to be in terms of the film itself. It’s just more patient because I had more time to do it. There’s a genuineness and you can just feel that nothing is rushed. Nothing is hurried both because of the subject matter dictates that, but also because there’s a carefulness. There’s a specificity that’s been put in place with every scene and every shot. We had the chance to take our time to do it right, not just slapping it together.

You mentioned the subject matter dictating the pacing. “Mr. Dressup” was always very intentionally paced, and I think that shows in the filmmaking of the documentary as well.

I kept saying to our editors, “Look, this is the one film we don’t have to MTV and cut the crap out of.” In some earlier drafts, when we’re going through different subject matters, we were just shotgunning through people, each adding a little bit to the idea and the thought and the evolution of it. I’d say, “Guys, we can get away with just breathing a bit here. Instead of having 15 people talk about this, let’s just have three, and let’s just have people talk, If we feel we really need to cut to a close up to break up the rhythm, then we will. But we’re going to have more than enough b-roll and archive. Let’s just let people talk and have complete thoughts. If they stumble over a word here and there, it’s okay. It’s real. They’re real people.Let’s not try to hide that. Let’s not try to make an invisible edit. Let’s not rush through this. Let’s let it be digestible.

Puppeteer Judith Lawrence and director Robert McCallum

There’s a moment where Judith Lawrence talks about the fact that she was kind of mystified that people got emotional over seeing Casey and Finnegan, but there are moments in this film that evoke the same reaction. Where you conscious of those moments when you were making it?

Well, I do a lot of nostalgia work. You can’t delve into pop culture documentaries and not expect to trip over someone’s emotional core, even by accident. This stuff means a lot to who we are. Sometimes it’s our only escape from our problematic youth. Sometimes it’s just a thing that we love, and it fuels us as our hobby to this day. Something like Mr. Dressup. It gets personal, though, because it’s not about an action figure like He Man. It’s not about a game system like Nintendo that we play with our friends. Mr. Dressup was a person, and he was there every day. And so you form a parasocial bond and they become like a real person in our lives. So, you have to get emotional. You have to be prepared that that’s going to happen. And again, much like the family, I was quite protective over their legacy and how their father would come across, because that’s my job. I treat him like a family member and them like family members, and we protect our family. That’s what we do. We also have to be objective when we’re making films and show the truth and not hide from anything. And I think we do a really great job in this as well. We’re just saying, “Here’s what’s happened. It’s raw, it’s real, but that’s what the show is,” and you’re going to feel that.

I was reminded of time that I had a chance to interview Carol Spinney a few years before he passed away. During the interview, he spoke to me as Big Bird briefly, and I was instantly overcome with emotion. It’s amazing how much a childhood memory like that can just take over.

When we first interviewed Judith Lawrence, it was myself, [producer] Jordan Morris, and our friend Dave, who was shooting with us, just to get like an initial interview in the can, just as we’re trying to find the story, and we asked if we can talk to Casey. She brought out Casey and Finnegan, and we went from filmmakers to four year old children just like that.

Oh, sure.

She just disappears. She’s sitting right there, but she just somehow goes invisible as Casey starts talking to us. It’s this magical thing. So, I get completely what you mean about being reduced the second that transformation takes place, because it happened to me.

There are some emotional moments from Ernie’s children in the film. Were you concerned at all about being exploitive?

Yes, especially nowadays. It is such a slippery slope. And I openly said to people, “Look, we’re not going to TMZ this stuff. This isn’t about getting in people’s faces or going over the top. We’re going to ground this in reality and what happened and the moments as they played out and we’re going to take our time with it. We’re not going to be gratuitous. This doesn’t need to be gratuitous.” None of these low points need to be anything more than they are. They are low points. They will ring and resonate if, by anything, the virtue of the optimism and positivity that they’re shown in contrast to. We love these people enough already, even just by watching the documentary, and these things happening to them will hit home. You don’t need to fake it. Mr. Dressup never faked it on screen. We don’t need to fake it in the film.

You managed to get some pretty high caliber Canadian artists to participate in the film.

It’s always nice to have people of note in a documentary because it has a sense of adding an authoritative voice to things. It helps the audience, who has a connection with that thing, make a stronger connection to the subject matter. I’ll be honest, this was one of the films, where I thought, “Okay, we might not need this because there are so many Canadians that have probably pretty strong memories that the memories will speak for themselves.” But you always lead with your best foot. So, we just got a casting agent. Usually you never hear back from anybody. If you do, it’s random. Usually you’ve got to know somebody or run into somebody or hope that they’re in town, and you go down with a camera crew just in case they’re available. Every single person we approached said ‘yes’ for this film. Everybody had no problem being a part of something that was backed by Amazon, something that was backed by the Coombs family. If they don’t appear in the film, it’s only because of a scheduling conflict. And there are other people of note that we would have loved to include, but they understand and we understand that it’s nothing personal. That said, it was cool to talk to the Barenaked Ladies, Michael J. Fox Bif Naked, Andrew Phung, Bruce McCullough and Scott Thompson from The Kids in the Hall. These are these are great Canadians that have done some amazing things, but the second you sit down and you talk about Mr. Dressup, you’re just on the playground with your friends at recess talking about the crafts. You’re just talking about the thing you love. So, it doesn’t matter if somebody’s had 15 hit singles or was in one of the most influential movie trilogies of my life. That just kind of goes away because you’re just so caught up in the same passion.

What would you say is the biggest personal takeaway from this film?

That it’s not just a show for kids. I remember when I was young and I watched the show and how much it mattered to me. But when you watch it nowadays and you have kids of your own, instead of watching it of from Casey’s perspective and having a clearly loving adult or grandfather figure, you watch it from Mr. Dressup’s point of view, and you can see how he’s interacting with Casey and Finnegan. And as a dad, watching that show made me want to be a better father. Mr. Dressup doesn’t take out a cell phone ever. He always has time, even if he’s in the middle of something and Casey and Finnegan come by, it’s, “Just a minute. Let me tidy this up, and yeah, we can go over and draw something. Well, what do you want to do?” Isn’t that the ultimate childhood? To have adult and with a loving relationship and all the time in the world to play? If I could be a better parent and a better adult, then that’s awesome, and if Mr. Dressup is teaching me and reminding me that, then, man, that show is still teaching me to this day.

Well, Rob, I don’t want to take up more of your time. I know you’re busy, but congratulations again on the film. I think it’s wonderful, and good luck.

Thank you so much. Jeff. I appreciate you watching it. Appreciate you taking the time. And I love that you’re from Buffalo and have a connection. That’s my favorite thing of the day.

Take care.

Cheers.

“Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe” premieres on Amazon Prime Video on October 10.

 

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