Cat Solen Discusses Practical Puppetry and the Challenges of Directing Chris Fleming: Hell


There are some comedians that tell jokes, and then there are those who bring something more than just a string of one-liners to their audiences. Chris Fleming certainly falls into the latter category, albeit with an additional caveat his material is sometimes so out there that you never quite know where it is going to go. For his recent Peacock special, Chris Fleming: Hell, the task of capturing Fleming’s live stand-up routine fell to director Cat Solen, who also worked on bringing to life some surreal puppets that feature in some of the sketches within the special.

In an exclusive interview with MovieWeb, Solen discussed working on the special with Fleming, as well as her inspirations and puppet design techniques.

The Shivering Truth of Hell

First off, here’s how the collaboration between Colen and Fleming came to be. “So Chris and I were internet friends first, and then I don’t know how long we had known of each other, but I was working on a TV show called Waffles and Mochi, and I needed to cast a boy band,” explained Solen. “I thought of Chris as one of the members of the boy band. He came and did it, and we really hit it off. And then maybe six months later to a year later, he texted me out of the blue and asked me if I would direct his special.” She continued:

I was like, of course. And I had directed more standard stand-up specials before. So, you know, obviously I knew I could handle that, but I also just knew right away it wasn’t going to be a standard stand-up special, and I was very excited about that.

Along with music videos from Sia, Tierra Whack, and Bright Eyes, Solen had previously directed the brilliant adult stop-motion animated horror series The Shivering Truth, which premiered on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim back in 2018. Working on a live stand-up special brings with it a number of different challenges. For Solen, the combination of live stand-up and puppet-based sketches was a challenge she relished:

In some ways, they could not be more different. Because stand-up, you have to capture a live show. You have no control over the time. You have to just have every camera you can on it and make sure you get every single thing you can.

“That’s so different from just animation in general, where you are generating every single frame and you are creating every single frame from scratch,” added Solen. “However, when it comes to the sketches and more narrative bits of the special, that stuff is very much more similar to [The] Shivering [Truth]. When I read a script, I immediately start drawing my ideas, because I come from doing a lot of practical effects, animatronics, and also a lot of stop-motion animation, where you have to immediately have a visual idea of what it’s going to be.” She continued:

The most similar thing about them that I love so much and that I love about working with both Chris Fleming and Vernon Chapman, who created Shivering Truth, is that both of them write in a very surrealist style that sounds absolutely impossible to create visibly. And I love the challenge of having to create something that sounds like it couldn’t exist in the physical world and make it exist in the physical world. That’s my favorite thing to do as a director.”

Comedy, Horror, and Puppetry

Queen Baver Chris Fleming Hell

Just like the stop-motion puppets of The Shivering Truth, Chris Fleming: Hell’s puppet sketch comes with shades of surrealist horror that could have been a strange collaboration between David Cronenberg and Jim Henson. As it would happen, Henson’s much-loved children’s show Fraggle Rock had a direct influence on the “Baver” creatures that feature in the Hell‘s sketches. As Solen explained, Fraggle Rock’s opening connection between the world of humans and something hidden behind it, and a certain character from the series, received their own homages in the special.

“We definitely thought of the Trash Heap. We love her. And also, I thought a lot about the tunnels going from, like, I had to get that air vent shot. I was in the weeds a little bit, but there’s a very special air vent shot that I had to get because I needed to show the transition between the ‘real world’ and their lair where they live, where they operate. Within the walls of the theater.”

Related: Why Practical Effects May Be Better Than CGI

When it comes to designing a creature that is both horrifying but strangely endearing, Solen was happy to take on the ideas Fleming had for his “Teater Bavers” and work out how to make them come to life. Working on a limited budget is always a challenge, but one thing that Solen was sure of is that she really wanted to create these creatures and their environment as a physical thing and not rely on green screen.

“I really had to think hard about how to get this to look right. Chris actually had some drawings of the creatures themselves. But the first thing I did was draw the creatures as he wanted them and give him some other options just in case he wanted to go in a different route. But we ended up going with, as we always do, like the initial idea.

“And then I immediately was like, okay, now I have to create this creature,” added Solen, “especially the Queen, what does her world look like? And how can I convince my production company to actually build a set and make it like a shoot in situ, to shoot on like an actual set and not on green screen.”

Practical Effects Deliver a “Theatrical Scrappiness”

Baver puppet 2 Chris Fleming Hell

The use of practical puppets, but ones that were not necessarily polished with thousands of dollars worth of animatronic tech, is something that Solen really champions.

“I would say that what I love about puppetry is it’s somewhat similar to shooting a stand-up special, where you have to just capture what you get in the moment and hope you don’t miss it, because there’s magic in there that you can use later in the edit, and you never know what you’re going to get even as much as you plan.”

Related: The Best Stand-Up Comedy Specials of All Time, Ranked

“We obviously didn’t have the hugest budget on this, but we did have more money than other things do sometimes, and more money than I’ve had when I was shooting on green screen alone in my house as a kid,” explained Solen. “But we still really wanted to embrace that scrappiness of a handmade thing. We chose not to make the puppets as hand puppets as much as they’re silicone puppets. They’re not full animatronics that can run around and blink on their own.”

We were really trying to embrace the theatre of it, because that’s what it’s actually all about.

In many ways, the fact that practical effects tend not to age as badly as some CGI graphics, which can be very quickly outdated, is the reason that even now so many film and TV productions continue to rely on physical creations to bring fantastic elements to screen. Alluding to the power of practical effects, Solen referenced a classic John Carpenter horror movie when discussing how the special’s puppet characters had to be more than just horrifying.

“I just re-watched The Thing with an audience, and it was so amazing to see, literally to hear people jump and scream at a movie made in the 80s, that somehow the creature effects are still so mind-blowing and so believable. And we needed to especially make the runner baver, the main baver who tries to kiss the girl and then runs to talk to the queen, he had to be lovable but also disgusting.”

We were trying to find sort of a world between Care Bear and Cronenberg. Like where you still like him, but also, he’s grotesque.

Unique Ideas Are More Appealing Than Big Franchises

Baver puppet Chris Fleming Hell

One thing for certain is that, when it comes to a unique voice in creative endeavors, Solen has her own visions and ideas of where she would like to go next. However, don’t expect her to jump into any well known franchises anytime soon. As she explained, the pull of the surreal and obscure is a much more inviting prospect than any big IP could ever provide.

“I don’t really think about existing IP unless it’s books, and they are not super big books. I am currently writing a live-action film for myself to direct that is sort of what I would call grounded or mundane sci-fi, but I really would love to make a whole series in Chris’ voice like I got to do in Shivering with Vernon. Maybe, if it was something sci-fi or surrealist, but I don’t know if what I would want to do really exists. But I really love reading a book and thinking, ‘I really wish I could make this, or put this on camera.’”

Judging from the fantastical strangeness of her direction in the new stand-up special, we hope Solen gets to make whatever she wants. Chris Fleming: Hell can be found streaming now on Peacock, while you can find the Cat Solen directed series The Shivering Truth on Apple TV+.

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