A self-professed aspiring filmmaker for 25 years, Asheville puppeteer Hobey Ford has suddenly seen a surge of cinematic work come his way in the past two years. His latest endeavor, Ichabod: Sketches from Sleepy Hollow, premieres locally Thursday, Oct. 29, at The Magnetic Theatre. The film will be shown nightly through Saturday, Oct. 31, as part of a Halloween-themed collection of films produced by Heather Henson’s Handmade Puppet Dreams.
Ichabod isn’t the first instance of Ford adapting Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Working from a script by Arnold Wengrow, professor emeritus of drama at UNC Asheville, Ford debuted a 50-minute live stage production at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Halloween in 1998. In early 2013, Henson approached Ford about turning the performance into a seven-minute film as part of her Handmade Puppet Dreams project. Impressed by a selection of shorts that Henson curated for a National Puppet Festival screening in Philadelphia, Ford quickly accepted her offer.
“What Heather is doing is remarkable,” Ford says. “When [her father] Jim Henson started out, he wanted to be a filmmaker and be on television. His early work is some really wild and crazy stuff, and she resonated with that part of his career. It’s quite different from the Muppets — it’s more nature-oriented, like a lot of my own work.”
He adds, “It’s a gift she’s given to the puppet world and the film world, getting puppeteers from around the world and making it possible for them to produce these films.”
Reducing the performance’s run-time to fit Henson’s request posed a challenge. Ford’s first thought was that he could bring it down to 20 minutes, but not seven. Henson promised that he’d thank her later for insisting on brevity. Ford says that advice soon proved prescient. Even with an emphasis on sketching storyboards so that every shot and angle could be worked out and no superfluous puppets, scenery and props would be built, the entire production took 14 months — less than 10 days of which were spent filming.
Though Ford often uses foam and other modern materials, for this project he wanted to craft puppets in the style of 19th-century rod puppetry that would last for centuries without disintegrating. Faces were carved out of holly, and each visage took a week to complete. Further inspiration was drawn from the work of Arthur Rackham — Ford crafted protagonist Ichabod Crane’s hands in the style of one of the early 20th-century illustrator’s drawings — as well as staying true to Irving’s words, a route rarely taken in other Sleepy Hollow films.
“They’ve always made it more scary than it was in the book and have tried to trump up the fear factor,” Ford says. “Reading the original story, it’s much more tongue-in-cheek and all [Ichabod’s] imagination.”
Ford originally conceived Ichabod as a nonverbal film accompanied by a musical soundtrack, the entirety of which was improvised in one afternoon by River Guerguerian (percussion), Casey Driessen (violin), Eliot Wadopian (double bass) and Kathryn Potter (oboe). Ford says the dialogue-free approach “went a long way to helping the film be more visual and less wordy,” but once filming wrapped, he felt it didn’t work without narration. Incorporating pointers from his friend Jeff Ashton, Ford wrote a script and provided voice-over, seasoning the performance with a handful of playful alliterations. Longtime collaborator Shane Peters served as the film’s director of photography and editor. For elements that they couldn’t create in-camera, Ford turned to Robert Klein for digital motion graphics work. Both Peters and Klein were also part of the film’s small team of puppeteers.
During production, other projects arose that helped Ford hone his filmmaking skills, including two efforts with The Avett Brothers. He’d met the musicians through his daughter Sallie, whose music career they helped launch. In fall 2013, the Avetts asked Ford to build and perform five skeleton marionettes — one for each band member in an ode to The Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey” music video — for their song, “Another Is Waiting.”
Scott Avett (who co-directed the video) then gave Ford the opportunity to choose any song from the album Magpie and the Dandelion and create a video on his own terms. A year later, Ford’s shadow-puppet video for “Bring Your Love To Me” debuted before the band’s pair of Halloween weekend shows at the U.S. Cellular Center.
Since completing Ichabod, Ford has begun adapting his great-grandmother’s journals into short films. Among the exploits documented in those pages are a meeting with Charles Darwin and friendships with Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. For these adventures and more, Ford calls her “kind of the Forrest Gump of the 19th century” and looks forward to preserving both her legacy and his own.
“For live performers, there’s no longevity. When you disappear, your work can disappear as well,” Ford says. “Just like me wanting the puppets to last, I want to make films so that a piece of my work can go forward.”
WHAT: Handmade Puppet Dreams: Halloween Edition
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 29 to Saturday, Oct. 31, at 8 p.m. $7 advance/$10 at the door