SSW:  Could you give us some background information about yourself?

 

Nick:  I went to the school of Visual Arts in Manhattan.  I graduated in 2001 with a BFA in directing and editing.  Thatís what I am trained in, thatís what I do.  I have acted for years.  I enjoy that, especially here in New York I do a lot of theater.  I am in a production of Much ado about Nothing coming up in February running thru March here in New York.  Ya know, I get a check for acting and I love it and I enjoy it and it kind of supports my directing habit in a way.

 

 

 

Nick Basile, Producer and Director of the movie American Carny.

 

 

SSW:   How did you become interested in film and visual arts?

 

Nick:  Well, I have always been that kid who watched monster movies and stuff like that.  I grew up on a steady diet of Walt Disney and Stephen Spielberg films and Star Wars and you know Lucas.  Iíve always wanted to do it since I was a kid.  I made my first horror movie when I was twelve.  I was not a person who had to discover or come across it in college; Iím the other kind of guy. Iím the guy who was doing it as a kid.  It was a natural progression to go to film school and then do it.  I am lucky that I grew up in New Jersey, which is right next to New York City.  New York has been my home since I was a kid.  You have a lot of people with the decision of do I go west to LA or do I go east to New York?  That wasnít a decision for me because IĎm here, Iím home.  Itís easier, I mean itís hard, but itís easier to already have a support group a foundation of family and friends.  Your home town happens to be one of the biggest cities in the world. Thatís always beneficial because you have to choose to be one place or the other if you want to do this stuff.

 

SSW:   Please tell our readers about the movie American Carny.

 

Nick:  The film is really essentially about a guy, Todd, who is in New York and has this bizarre job as a sideshow performer, a magician, and a historian.  To me he was always the key.  It was never meant to be this all encompassing movie about everything in sideshow.  I had seen that before; like the one that was narrated by Jason Alexander on History Channel.  And I had seen stuff that broke down the history.  I thought it was a chance, you know youíre going to get history and see other performers, but it was going to be told through Todd.  We were going to mostly keep to the people that were in his theater.  I got introduced to Jennifer Miller, Harley Newman, Chris McDaniel, and all these people with acts and I thought heís the center point really when it comes down to it.  His life is so much Mr. Sideshow.  Then you find out that he and his wife get married and they have a show for a wedding with all of these performers there.  He to me was a catalyst to break off and then you can learn about this world.  But it was always through him. It was a little bit more of an intimate behind the scenes movie about people who are there today rather than just a history or just this academic exploration of sideshow.  It isnít as if I am here and Iím talking about this exterior thing, I wanted to be in it.  I wanted to be part of it. 

 

SSW:   Why do a film on Todd Robbins and the sideshow?

 

Nick:  I had a friend who was stage managing Carnival Knowledge, Todd Robbinís show that went to off Broadway (at the fringe festival).  I knew nothing about Todd Robbins and I didnít even know that much about sideshow per se.  I guess I knew just what the average person knows about sideshow; you know like freaks and stuff like that.  But my friend said to me, ďHey ya wanna come down and see a freak show tonight at the Fringe.  This guy does a one man show about sideshow and he eats light bulbs and hammers nails into his nose and thingsĒ.  And I said ďOh that sounds disgusting I donít wanna see thatĒ.  And my friend said, ďNo, no, no, youíre picturing some punk with a thousand rings in his face doing crazy stunts. No Todd is definitely going to be up your alley.  The way he projects himself itís not what you expect.  It goes against expectations.Ē   And that kind of lured me over there and as soon as Todd came on stage I was completely hooked!  It was this very traditional, or old school, presentation of him in this outside talker sort of uniform and just the way he presents himself.  By the end of the show you almost feel like you want to jump right into that old world of a sideshow that you would see at Luna Park or Coney Island in the early 1900s.  After that I started working at Monday Night Magic on Monday nights to pick up some extra money while I was going to film school.  I became friends with Todd and some of the other people there.  At one point I said to him ďYa know Todd, youíve been on a lot of TV shows and specials but has anybody ever done a movie really on you and your love of the world of sideshow?Ē  He said ďWell, no,Ē and he then said, ďSure we can do that, that is fine,Ē and it kind of bloomed from there. 

 

SSW:   What were you doing at Monday Night Magic?

 

Nick:  I was just giving a hand to a friend who was the stage manager.  It was actually the benefit show right after September 11th.   Monday Night Magic usually had 3 magicians and 1 MC in a show.  This night, because it was a benefit show, they had about 14 to 20 magicians performing.  My friend called me up, he had worked with me in theater before, and said hey I need someone else to come down here and help work backstage.  I said sure.  We were down at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, which is a very little theater.  He had about 20 magicians and jugglers and acrobats, you know all these acts in this little, little space.  It was like working the Ed Sullivan show.  I was just kind of thrown into it.  Ya know, ďWhoís Amazing Larry, I need Amazing Larry on deck!Ē  And they liked me over there and I continued to stay on with them for a while working periodically on Monday nights; just working backstage.  And of course, the magicians became comfortable with me back there.  And knowing their acts, you know David Oliver, Magician Simon Lovell, and thatís how I kind of ingratiated myself into their click. Itís a world that I have always been fascinated with anyways; the magic world. 

 

SSW:   How did you become friends with Todd Robbins?

 

Nick:  When I first met him at the Fringe festival that was just a handshake.  At the 9-11 benefit show I said, ďOh I saw your show about a year ago,Ē and you know Todd is always very gracious and said, ďOh, Thank you, Thank you.Ē  Besides that I would talk to him whenever I could grab a chance when we were backstage.  Every so often when he was there I would come up to him and ask him a question about how he got into this stuff; that is what kind of fascinated me.  Todd is so articulate and such a great story teller (sit down with Todd and you know he loves telling you stories).  It seems the movie just became an extension of me asking him questions backstage at Monday Night Magic.  I was like, letís get a camera in here and we can continue on and we could probably get a whole movie off this.   So thatís how I really became friends through Monday Night Magic and making the movie.

 

SSW:  Was it as an adult that you first became interested in the sideshow?

 

Nick:  Well, Iíve always been fascinated by monster movies and things of that nature.  You know the old universal studios monster movies with Val Lewton at RKO movies.  Like Todd Browningís Freaks, you know things like that which are sort of connected to it. It came out of a love of horror movies or science fiction or fantasy.  So the next natural step would be someone like that falls across these sideshow performers.  Itís not sort of a big jump if your interests lie in that sort of darker stuff to jump into the sideshow.  Your knowledge of it before that has always been from a sort of mysterious Elephant Man-esque perception of it.  And when you meet the real people there are certain similarities that kind of justify what you expected, then there are other things that you didnít expect at all in their outlook and the way they perceive performing these acts, sideshow acts.  It was kind of a natural progression to fall into it, but it was really through Todd Robbins where I really started to view the inside of this. 

 

SSW:   What were some of the things that you didnít expect that you found? 

 

Nick:  Maybe not that I didnít expect it, but I was kind of pleasantly surprised that there were  still this amount of people, there arenít many on a large scale, but there were many more than I had thought there were that were still out there working sideshow.  They were working Coney Island or were performers that were out there doing this stuff.  For the most part I thought it was all but pretty much dead.  I didnít even know there was even a sideshow running in Coney Island.  Not until I went out there and met, through Todd, all the guys out there. Or even knew about Ken Harckís Brothers Grim, I had no idea about those guys.  Thatís the one thing I guess you could say that I didnít expect was these people.  Even though itís not really a lucrative career, thereís such a love for it. There are still people carrying that torch in their own way.  They all have their different perspectives on it of course.  But theyíre still out there doing it and that was impressive to me. 

 

SSW:   As you filmed the movie, were there any changes in your perceptions about what you had thought the sideshow  would be to what you found through being there and discussing with performers?

 

Nick:  Every time we interviewed somebody another performer would come up that I had never heard of before.  I didnít know them, the performers all know who these people are and it comes up in conversation.  So in a way, each interview led to the next interview.  Somebody mentioned Shocked and Amazed and James Taylor and his tie with the American Dime Museum.   I was like who is that?  You find out, you call up, you go down there.  Then you find out What is the American Dime Museum and you get this whole thing from him.  In that way I learned about different aspects related to sideshow if not the sideshow itself.  Like Wild West Shows and how closely they were related to the circuses and sideshows from people like Chris McDaniel and other performers who are still out there and their perspective of why they are doing what theyíre doing.  The why to me was always more important than how.  How do you swallow a sword or hammer things into your face, of course thatĎs interesting.  But to me the more interesting question is WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS? 

 

SSW:   Do you feel like you answered that question in your film?

 

Nick:  I think so, I think everybody answers in their way, there is no one answer per se.  Iíve tried to express the answer in each of the interviews and performances that you see. Jennifer millerís perspective on things sideshow, why Harley Newman does it; they each have their own perspective.  I didnít get into this because I wanted Todd to teach me, Iíd be the last person who would attempt to do any of this stuff.  But what it did tell me is that other things in my own life, in say pursuing film directing, (the things people constantly tell you oh thatís impossible) Todd says this show is to tell you the impossible can be possible.  And if that has you thinking that means people will go out and do great things.  And I thought that that translates to a lot of people, that it doesnít have to be about sideshow but in any form of career or art or anything somebody wants to do, and somebody says you can never do that, thatís impossible, you know you can do that stuff.  That to me was what I locked into.  I guess if you could say there was a message to the movie that would be the message in a way. 

 

SSW:   What were the differences in perspective between Jennifer Miller, Harley Newman, or Todd Robbins?

 

Nick:  Thereís a contradiction between different peopleís perspectives on this stuff when you get in to it.  Even in the end whether sideshow is coming back or not.  You have all these people who are carrying the torch and others saying no itís dead.  So you have these contradictions of view point which I think is interesting.  I tried not to push one personís view point over another by saying I agree with this and not that.  I know one of the reviews I read on the movie criticized that a little saying that they felt that the film itself didnít have an exact perspective on it.  I disagree; I mean obviously I have a love for this stuff.  Itís undeniable; itís already in a good light.  But at the same time, I didnít want to do a movie, where like a lot of documentaries now where it is them pushing a view point or an agenda so strongly that there is no way that you canít miss where they are coming from.  Iíd rather show that Jennifer views it as one thing and Harley views it as another.  Just show that and let people see it for what it is.  You donít have to push so hard in one way or the other.  It seems like Jenniferís is different. Like she says she loves the banners, and the circus, and her Circus Amok is much more political in its drive.  Then you have Harley who is not as outwardly political as Jennifer is more about confronting fears and bringing the art form into a contemporary medium.  And you have Todd who is more about resurrecting an atmosphere and a feeling that is nostalgic.  So to me all three of them make up completely different approaches to this thing; which is interesting to me.  When I read certain criticisms about that I think people are used to being really pushed or spoon-fed something, whether itís a political documentary or anything else.  I just didnít want to do that with this. But it obviously makes it less controversial and less sensationalist, so you know you give or take. 

 

SSW:   You commented that you would be the last one to learn this; do you have any interest in working in a sideshow? 

 

Nick:  No, Iím like one of those guys, you know I donít like roller coasters I wouldnít go on a roller coaster, but I love watching other people go on a roller coaster.  I love watching them scream.  I would be somebody that would want to build a park full of roller coasters but never go on my own ride. 

SSW:   How was it filming the Sideshow Gathering at Wilkes-Barre?

 

Nick:  We were down there for a couple of days.  I attended a very interesting, talk about learning things, seminar by a guy in a lab coat.  I donít remember his name.  I donít think he was a doctor but he did have a lab coat on and he gave a seminar on Siamese twins and parasite twins.  Which now I know what a parasite twin is. I love to bring this up at gatherings when people are eating food and explain to people what a parasite twin is.  I now have good stories for parties. 

 

Well, Iíll tell you a quick little funny story about that.  Weíre back there in this little room in Wilkes-Barre PA.  And I know my whole crew, theyíre all these film guys and theyíre doing their job there.  We arenít filming; we are just sitting there to engage with everybody.  And you know everybody else in the room is very much into the whole thing.   I am into it but not to the degree that these people are, they know these peopleís names. I know my crew is looking at me, I brought them into to the middle of Wilkes-Barre PA and we are now sitting in this little room talking about parasite twins.  At one point they start talking about this guy who had an act, in the early 1900s or late 1800s, where he had a parasite twin on his arm or wrist where it just had a mouth that drooled.  To prove it was real to people he would have them come up and slap or pinch it and it would squeal.  So I remember leaving this seminar and my crew were quite pale.  My camera operator turned to me and said, ďWhat about that guy with the parasite twin? He let people pinch it or hit it.  That guy was a sadist or was he a masochist?  I donít even know.Ē 

 

SSW:   Where did you first premiere this movie?

 

Nick:  We premiered it at the Coney Island Film Festival in 2006.  They gave us a very nice spot.  They opened the festival with it.  It played before the gala opening of the event.  But after people watched the film we went upstairs to the Coney Island Museum and they had a live show with some magic acts and the burlesque acts.  So it was quite a fun way and a perfect venue for this movie to premiere in. 

 

SSW:  What was the overall feel from the audience about the movie?

 

Nick:  I always get pretty good feedback.  Itís always fun to hear what people say to you afterwards.  But I like to sit in the back and see what parts of the movie people are reacting to.  Just literally you can hear, you know like when the great Nippulini performs, right there you could hear that whole audience just go crazy.  Thatís the stuff that I latch onto.  Whether theyíre laughing or screaming or you know hiding their eyes at certain spots in the movie.  That to me is more of a feedback than someone giving me a critique later on. 

 

SSW:   The peopleís reaction in watching Todd is captured in the movie.  How did the screening audience react to that? 

 

Nick:  That was important for me.  I loved watching the audience actually watching Todd on film at a screening, to see how they react to the crunching of the glass and the light bulb eating, but the part for me within the context of the film to show the audienceís reaction while he is doing this.  Itís a really bizarre experience to watch the movie audience watch the audience on screen react to Todd.  So theyíre laughing at the fact that the people on screen are shutting their eyes or getting squeamish or throwing their hands over their face. 

 

SSW:  Have you shown it anywhere else?  Was it released in theaters before you released in on dvd?

 

Nick:  It had screenings at a number of different festivals.  It ran at the New York Anthology.  It ran at a Spud Fest in Idaho.  It ran at several festivals.  I didnít go to all of them.  But I did go down to the New York Anthology.  It actually ended up being a pretty full house.  It wasnít advertised that well, but it was down there.   You know the essential people know when it is playing somewhere.  People love this stuff and they go.  And if I get the cult following Iíll be happy with that.  That was really fun; especially when certain people who are into this stuff drag other friends and family who donít know anything about it.  You can tell by that initial reaction at the beginning of the movie when Todd bites into the glass.  You can tell whoís really shocked and going, ďWhat?Ē 

 

SSW:  What would you like your audiences to take away from this movie?

 

Nick:  First, I hope that people know that it still exists and itís still around.  There are so many people that will see the movie that will go I didnít even know there is still a sideshow on Coney Island or I didnít even know the stuff was still there.  And thatís fun.  And the other thing is I tried making it so it wasnít just a movie for preaching to the converted.  Thereís stuff that makes you wince, obviously, but I didnít think it should be packed with stuff so disgusting to look at that only people into this would watch it. For the most part I think itís a pretty general movie.  People who knew nothing about it, I think they latch onto Toddís story; he and Krista, this husband and wife team thatís working in this bizarre field.  And Toddís relationship to Melvin Burkhart.  I donít think you have to be into sideshow to relate to it.  Whenever anything means something to somebody, whether it be cooking or anything, if somebody has a passion and love for something no matter what thatís what I hope people will get out.  To really embrace that sort of love that you have for something and I think people will identify hopefully with Todd.  It is to me more than about the sideshow.  People like Jennifer Miller have an interesting perspective; whether she happens to play the woman with a beard or no beard in a sideshow.  Ok she has a beard on her face, well what if she didnít work in the sideshow.  What if she worked at FedEx?  She would still have the beard.  So how does it affect you to walk around when youíre not in the sideshow?  I mean you almost expect a woman with a beard to be in a sideshow, thatís her place.  You go to a sideshow and you expect her to be there.  Take that person out of that world and now what is it like?  How do people react to that?  How have you dealt with that?  She was one of the more interesting people to give a perspective on the relation on what she does in the sideshow world and then who she is. And how one influences the other. 

 

SSW:  What are your plans for upcoming projects?

 

Nick:   We have a project called Crawl Space that we want to get into production in 2008.  We are doing a budgeting break down now with the producer.  That movie is a very bizarre and dark cerebral horror love story.  Itís very bizarre.  Itís a story by Candace Caponegro; who Iíve known for many years.  She came to me with the story and I co-wrote the screen play with her. Weíve been working on the script for a long time on that.   Now were finally getting to the stage where weíre going to go with it next.  The other thing Iím working on and producing with someone else is to bring the Grand-Guignol, French Theater of Horror, to New York City off Broadway.   I would like to have that for September, October, or November of 2008.   Were looking into venues now and were into development.  Weíre putting together all the plays.  Some of the plays are new plays written as a sell of the Grand-Guignol.  And one we are going to revive a classical piece called the Torture Garden.  The Grand-Guignol is like in the movie Interview with a Vampire.  The scene when the vampires go to that theater and devour the girl on the stage is a direct homage to the Grand-Guignol.   In fact they even shot the exterior in front of the chapel in Paris where the Grand-Guignol was performed; it has since changed into a theater school.  It influenced horror movies for the most part.  But bizarrely it was a theater movement that ran from the late 1800s to 1962 and became the biggest tourist attraction in Paris second only to the Eiffel tower.  It was a theater of the macabre.  Four or five one act plays a night.  They would be psychological dramas, bloody raunchy sex farces, but the staple was the horror play.  There would be a lot of over the top on stage graphic violence; throat slashing, eye gouging.  It is something that for some reason a lot of people in theater they skip.  It is something that gets a chapter when you study to get your BA in film.  It is something that is right to come back in a theatrical movement because there is not a lot of true horror in theater vs. movies.  So were trying to get that going in NY for this year.

 

SSW:  Do you plan on any other films about the sideshow?

 

Nick:   I am trying to stay away from anything sideshow for a while.  It creeps in there.  I wrote a one act play for this Grand-Guignol thing I told you about that actually takes place in a sideshow setting.  It ends up creeping up in there in some way.  But I am trying to jump away from that for a while.  

 

SSW:  AT the end of the film you give some updates on the cast of the film.  Do you have any further updates?

 

Nick:   The great Nippulini is on the mend.  He is lifting things again.  But he doesnít do performances around like he used to.  He does things on TV or radio now.  I believe he is planning on pulling a car or something heavy to get into the Guinness World Book.  I think the car has to be something over 2000 lbs or something like that he is going to pull by his breasts.  The Nippulini is on the rebound; I guess you could say the nipples are coming back.  The ones I have talked to recently are still out there working and doing their thing.  I know Todd has a number of projects heís pitching for television.  I think Todd is really pushing it into television now.  I am hoping the movie will help that as well. 

 

SSW:   Have you made any lasting friendships with anyone from the movie?

 

Nick:   Yeah, itís been so many years since we started this thing.  It is 2008 now and I met Todd in 2000.  In fact Todd may be involved in the Grand-Guignol.  We havenít decided on a role yet but he is interested in that.  I definitely have collaboration now, with Todd especially.  And Harley Newman, Harley is somebody that I always enjoy talking to when we do get to talk by phone.  Itís nice to have those friendships that kind of come out of that. 

 

SSW:  After spending this much time involved with the sideshow, do you feel it is a dying art?

 

Nick:  There is no doubt it is a dying art in the form that it used to be.  It doesnít make any money.  This movie was a hard sell.  It took a year to get somebody to look at the movie and say itís worth putting out there that there is an audience for it.  There is an audience for it, but I think it is going to be in a different medium.  And it is in a different medium.  Sideshow as going under a tent and seeing it I think thatís done.  There is really nothing you could do to really run that and breakeven at least.  But definitely there are elements of the sideshow that will always be there whether itís in movies or on these weird reality shows where you have people doing crazy stuff; you know weíve got people eating bugs.  Well thatís what someone would do years ago in a sideshow but that was done professionally and they have an act around it.  I hope that the performance aspect of it, people that have a persona about them, will still be around rather than people just doing things because thatís not, to me, as impressive.  Itís impressive to me when someone creates a character around it.  Itís almost like a vaudeville type of thing.  I think itís dead in its original form but thereís going to be a new sideshow-esque form in television and internet especially.

 

SSW:  Is there anyone you would like to thank?

 

Nick:   It was a pleasure to get to know these people and get these friendships.  People were so willing to share and thatís really because of Todd.  Todd kind of gave me his blessing. I was allowed to video tape these peopleís performances; you know this is their bread and butter.  They sat down and talked to me very openly and honestly about it.  So I hope that the movie does all of the people in it justice.  I hope people are entertained by it.  

 

I would like to thank Nick for taking the time to do this interview with Sideshow World.

 

Interview by Shawnee Robinson Sideshow World

 

American Carny is available on DVD from Amazon.com

 

Also visit http://www.americancarny.com/ for more information.

 


 

Header - American Carny Poster

 

Photograph Courtesy of Nick Basile - copyright 2008 all rights reserved Quattica Pictures

 

1 Nick Basile

2 Chris McDaniels - Whips - Wild West

3 Todd Robbins - Eats Light Bulb

4 Group at Monday Night Magic

5 Todd Robbins & Nick Basile

6 Brothers Grim Sideshow

7 James Taylor - American Dime Museum

8 Harley Newman - 4 Nail Bed of Nails

9 Jennifer Miller -  Woman with a Beard

10 Ses Carny - Human Pincushion

11 Coney Island Film Festival Banner

12 The Great Nippulini - Bowling Ball

13 Todd Robbins - swallows Neon Sword

14 Jennifer Miller

15 Nippulini's Nipple - "OUCH"

16 Pete Turhune and Ward Hall - Sideshow Gathering

 


Each month we will try and interview a new performer for the site.  Because of the logistics of it face to face interviews are tough to come by.  A good percentage of the interviews we will be doing will be via e-mail or telephone.  If you are interested in being interviewed for the site drop us a line.

 

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