“Sylvio” at The Little Theatre, November 7, 2017

Sylvio screening at The Little Theatre
Tuesday, November 7, 2017, at 7:00pm
The Little Theatre, Rochester, New York

Bri Merkel, Artistic Director, The Little Theatre
Albert Birney, co-director, Sylvio

Albert Birney grew up in Baltimore, but spent several years in Rochester after graduating from Syracuse University. During this time, he worked at the Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman House, working the box office and managing the theater a couple of nights a week. He also made The Beast Pageant, which took three and a half years to make. In 2011, he left Rochester and moved outside of Philadelphia. A couple of years later, while on tour with his band, he began making videos wearing a gorilla suit and uploading them to Vine. The account, called “Simply Sylvio” quickly grew from 10 followers, to 1,000 followers, then to 100,000 followers in a very short amount of time. “After making videos and shorts for many years and having no one see them, and then all of a sudden, these six-second videos were being seen,” Birney told the audience.

It was during this time that Birney worked as a boom operator on the set of the movie Funny Bunny, shot outside of Philadelphia. He began bonding with Kentucker Audley, who was acting on the film (they had met a couple of years earlier). One day, Audley pointed out to Birney, “No one on the set knows that you have 100,000 people watching your videos, you’re just the boom operator. Do you want to make a movie?” Birney recalled. “And I was like, ‘Why not?’, and that just kind of set it off in that direction. When Funny Bunny wrapped, Audley worked on a rough draft Sylvio, but it languished for a year until they connected with Meghan Doherty, the film’s co-writer and co-producer. They were eventually accepted into Dogfish Accelerator, a program devoted to transforming Vine subjects into longer form projects. Dogfish gave Audley, Birney, and Doherty an office in Brooklyn, and over the course of three months, they hammered out the shooting script. Without Dogfish, says Birney, “Kentucker and I would still be like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.'”

The following is the Q&A session following Bri Merkel’s introduction.

Q: What’s your favorite Monkey Movie?

Birney: Gosh, you’d think I’d have a good answer for that. Oh, I know! 2001: A Space Odyssey. There you go.

Q: Did you wear contacts under your gorilla outfit, or were they prescription?

Birney: Those were prescription sunglasses. I tried getting contacts once when I was 12, and they were a pain in the neck. I had made 800 vines as Sylvio without prescription sunglasses, but when we made the movie, I paid $70 for prescription sunglasses. When I bought them, I thought, “Why didn’t I do this three years ago?” It would’ve made things so much easier.

Q: There’s two different shots in the movie in where something that looks like a bat flies across the room and tries to get lucky.

Merkel: I thought that was a bird.

Birney: I think those were moths. People thought they were butterflies—that’s the first “bat”. I actually filmed a bunch of moths one day against a dark sky, then I overlaid them with a little trickery there. Movie magic!

Q: What’s the best thing you shot that didn’t make it into the movie?

Birney: We had a lot more footage of Uncle Otis, who is on the TV when young Sylvio is watching the puppet show. We filmed four whole segments of that. There’s about eight or nine minutes, and we couldn’t fit that in. I was really upset about that. We were talking about making a three-hour feature length film about Uncle Otis. I thought there could have been another montage of Uncle Otis, too.

Q: How did Herbert Herpels come to be? Was that something you conceived early on, or was he made up as you went along?

Birney: Herbert was part of Vine, so he was always there with Sylvio, and he had his own Vine account. I would make Vines about Herbert. As we were writing the script, I kinda thought Sylvio might have a love interest, but over time, it became about Sylvio wanting to tell these stories. In the months leading up to the filming of the movie, people were getting into character. Kentucker was trying to get into who Al was. For me, I would be making these short videos and I made about 50 of them. Some of them made it into the movie, and some of them didn’t. But to me, it was like my way of trying to understand Sylvio. That was the part of the script that we didn’t really write. Even the last sequence where you see all the Herbert pieces, those were the last things that came together. There was a whole other sequence in there that wasn’t really working. We were trying to figure out what to do, and we realized that we could show the progression of Herbert, and through that, kind of show Sylvio’s life. The whole concept of it was like its own weird dream.

As for the puppet itself, I was at a thrift store—as I was in the Vine days looking for props and things to film with. I was on my way out one day, and I saw the puppet behind the counter. I was accustomed to the big vinyl counter being too expensive. Usually, I don’t ask about that stuff. I kept thinking about the puppet. That night, I had a dream where I was buying something. So I went back at 10am the next day. I asked how much the puppet cost, and they told me the puppet was $15. I quickly bought it. In the parking lot, the name Herbert Herpels came into my head. I’m still making the short videos even though the movie is done. I just love putting on that little man.

Merkel: I highly suggest you follow Herbert Herpels on Instagram. It’s kind of like Xanax. I’m just so happy after I watch a Herbert Herpels video.

Q: I noticed you had a whole bunch of different composers. Can you talk about that?

Birney: The main score was done by my brother and sister-in-law. I grew up making music with him, and we used to be in a band together, and he made music for the Vines. He also used to dress up as Sylvio’s wife in the Vines. He knows Sylvio, and he’s very talented. It was great working with him because I could phone him any time of day. We used a lot of friends for the rest, and we used a lot of classical compositions as well. Hopefully, you feel what Sylvio is feeling.

Merkel: You talk about the Vine account going from 10 followers to 100,000 followers on Vine, and then you also had the movie premiere at SXSW, which for a filmmaker is so huge.

Birney: That was very exciting. We’ve been playing a lot of festivals, and it’s like this little community of weirdos that pops up. Everyone has been toiling away. It’s been a wild part of the ride. The Beast Pageant took 3½ years to shoot here in Rochester, and I think that’s why I went over to Vine. I think it’s so wonderful to have the power to shoot something and share it on Vine. It’s so important to have an audience of people who are watching, and it’s great to be part of that. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful ride.

Q: Where can I get one of those “What’s the Ape Gonna Break” T-shirts?

Birney: Sylviothemovie.com.

Merkel: You really have shirts?

Birney: No, but check back there. I gotta get on that. We keep saying, “We’re going to make them.” We’ll get to it one day.

Q: When you started writing the film as a feature, was there a message or feeling you wanted to convey to the audience?

Birney: We always knew that we wanted people to feel something, hopefully. But it all just kept growing. We shot it, and we didn’t have a deadline. We spent most of the year editing, shooting, and adding. The whole scene where he’s burying Herbert wasn’t written. We were like, “We need something else here.” The DP, Eric, came down from New York, and no one else was there. It was just him and I, lighting and cameras, and he was so pissed off at me, because we’d had this big crew for most of the shoot, and all of a sudden for the reshoots, it was just us.

For example, the scene in the clouds, that wasn’t written, either. There also wasn’t supposed to be a live action Herbert originally, either, but when we were casting on Craigslist for the boss, this actor, John Sheldon, submitted his headshot, and I was like, “Well, that’s Herbert!” We got the right image of him now. I sent him a couple of shorts. I thought, “Okay, he’s a trained actor, a theater actor. I was like, “You don’t get to talk, you’re just a puppet. You wear a brown suit and hold your arms up. On the very last day of filming, John showed up, put the suit on, and put his arms up. Half the crew started cracking up. It was really surreal. People couldn’t look at him because we had been shooting the puppet for the last month, and all of the sudden, there he was!

He totally got the smile. Sometimes it would be like, “Okay, a little less smile, John,” and then he’d like, lock it in. He was there for like a half an hour, and then he left. I never had a chance to ask him about his life, or who he is. To this day—we just showed it in Baltimore again, and he said he was there, but he didn’t come up and say anything. It was like, “Who is this guy?”

Q: Was it fun working with Patti Mayonnaise?

Birney: Yeah, she happens to be my Aunt! I said, “Aunt Connie! Can you take the train down from New York and act in my movie?” And she though it was going to be a couple of friends doing some small thing. She was very nice and said, “Yes, I’ll do it if your cousin can be in it, too.” So that’s my cousin playing the juggler. I just put the train down. She just saw it for the first time recently when we showed it in New York. She really liked it, and she said, “You made a movie!” She’s wonderful, and I would like to use her again.

Q: Have you ever dreamt as Sylvio?

Birney: I don’t think I’ve ever dreamed as Sylvio. I’ve dreamt that we’re making a movie and shooting extra scenes. I think I’ve had dreams seeing Sylvio, but I don’t think I’ve ever dreamt from Sylvio’s point of view.

Q: Where did the name come from?

Birney: This is going back even farther than Vine, but I was working at a hotel during the overnight shift, and my good friend—who was working there—was writing a novel. In his novel, he had a character who was a Gorilla and a Private Detective named Sylvio the Silverback Sleuth. I liked his novel so much I started filming it in the hotel, and that’s how I originally bought the mask and everything. So that’s where Sylvio came from; my friend Jon named him Sylvio.

At some point during the Vines, I realized he needed a last name, and “Sylvio Bernardi” came to mind. I liked the way that sounded. And actually—this is the first time I’m sharing this with everybody—I recently did a Google search for “Sylvio Bernardi” just to see what was out there. It autocorrected to “Silvio”, and there was an obituary for a Silvio Bernardi who died on our last day of filming the movie. He lived a long life, he was old, I know that. He was in his 90s, I think. I looked at the date, it was March 12, 2016, which was our last day of filming. I just wanted to say, like “What?” Look it up, it was real.

Q: I was wondering how you filmed the Heaven scene? Was there a bunch of cotton? It was done well.

Birney: Thank you. It was a bunch of cotton, and a wall painted green. I also filmed some clouds in the sky, and overlaid those over our clouds.

Q: Was there an intentional cheese curl motif throughout the movie? I swear I saw [inaudible] cheese curls throughout the movie.

Birney: Now there’s an astute viewer right there! We tried to place cheese curls in every shot of the film. We have another contest going. If you’re obsessed with going through and counting the number of cheese curls when this movie goes online, and you’re the first person to get the exact number, you’ll win a prize!

Q: Where I can I watch this again?

Birney: It will be coming online in early December on ITunes, and in January or February on Amazon Prime. (Note from Erin: It was released on both platforms earlier this week.) By February, it should be everywhere online. We’ll also be releasing a very limited edition VHS with bonus material.

Q: What’s next for Sylvio?

Birney: He’s going to keep rockin’ & rollin’. Like I said, he still makes videos about Herbert everyday. He’s underneath the table, working out his stuff through Herbert. To be clear, there may be a sequel where Herbert goes missing, like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, where Sylvio goes across the country.

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