A New Twist on Balloons

Two filmmakers blow the world of balloon twisters wide open in a new documentary.

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MIKE PESCA, host:

Pick a subculture and you'll find a debate. In barbecue, you have white vinegar versus sauce, U.K. or American spelling in Scrabble, and among polar skiers, you could talk the Hercules Inlet versus the Patriot Hill forever. Here's the debate raging in one community.

(Soundbite of documentary "Twisted: A Balloonamentary")

Unidentified Woman: Late at night, they had a choice at, like, at 11 o'clock at night, between gospel balloons or adult balloons.

PESCA: Dirty versus godly, one of the many facets unearthed in "Twisted: A Balloonamentary." The filmmakers behind this opus are Naomi Greenfield and Sara Taksler. They join me in the studio right now. Hi, guys.

Ms. NAOMI GREENFIELD (Filmmaker, "Twisted: A Balloonamentary"): Hello.

Ms. SARA TAKSLER (Filmmaker, "Twisted: A Balloonamentary"): Hello.

PESCA: Wow. How'd you guys meet?

Ms. GREENFIELD: We actually met in college. We both went to Washington University in St. Louis. And we met during an icebreaker game in our dorm, where you had to go around and say your name and something interesting about yourself. And I was going to say, my name's Naomi and I make balloon animals, but the girl next to me beat me to it and said, I'm Sara, and I can make balloon animals. So it was sort of a common interest we had in college, and then years later we turned it into our documentary.

PESCA: So would you consider yourselves people who just like to twist balloons, or members of the balloon-twisting community?

Ms. TAKSLER: Well, we're - Naomi's gotten much more into it during the course of the film. I kind of was like someone who works in an ice-cream store and comes home and doesn't want to eat ice-cream. I was like, I can't look at another balloon. Though in the last few months, I was embarrassed that I could still only make dogs and flowers. So, I've gotten a little better, but Naomi's gotten to be a really great twister.

PESCA: Really? What can you make, Naomi?

Ms. GREENFIELD: I can - I like to make giant people sculptures, because I feel like those are the most impressive. And we are going to be on "The Today Show," and I built a giant Kathy Lee balloon and giant Hoda Kotb balloon.

PESCA: When making a balloon caricature of a person, is it like you have to exaggerate, like, a, you know, a drawn caricature, you have to exaggerate their physical features? Is that the key to getting the caricature down?

Ms. GREENFIELD: Yeah, I mean, I guess it has to be exaggerated if it's made out of balloons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Unless someone is, you know, really bouncy and fluffy and...

Ms. GREENFIELD: And bloated.

PESCA: Made of latex. Bloated, exactly.

Ms. GREENFIELD: You sort of take their key characteristics, and you know, pick the right colors, and shapes, and things.

PESCA: Now, the big centerpiece of the documentary is a balloon convention. What's the name of that?

Ms. GREENFIELD: Twist & Shout.

PESCA: Twist & Shout. By the way, if you don't like puns, you probably shouldn't watch this documentary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Hate to burst your bubble, if you will. But at Twist & Shout, what goes on?

Ms. GREENFIELD: So, Twist & Shout occurs every year, and it's in a different city each year, and hundreds of balloon twisters from around the world get together. It's the king of the balloon-twisting conventions. It's been around the longest, and they twist balloons 24 hours a day. There's a jam room, which if you go in at three in the morning, you'll see people in there making sculptures.

They take classes, there's competitions, and basically, it's a way for them to have a community. Because a lot of these people might be the only balloon twister in their city, and they don't really have people other than online friends. So, it's a way get together, and hang out and have people like you.

PESCA: Did you come across a lot of competition or more collegiality in the community?

Ms. GREENFIELD: There's a little bit of both. I mean, I think, actually, even over the course of us making the film, we saw that it got more competitive because some of the sculptures that people were coming out with were just so phenomenal. And a lot of people used the conventions as way to introduce new techniques that they're working on or different ways of twisting.

But the jam room was really a perfect example of places where people would get together, and really, very sharing, you know, someone would say, hey, I can make a monkey on a palm tree. And someone else would say, hey, this is my teddy bear on a unicycle, or - and they're just sort of sharing, a lot of ideas. And so, we tried to capture in the film both aspects, really, the community sense, but also the competition that went on.

PESCA: So, was there - as documentary filmmakers, did you have to kind of search for, what's the tension here?

Ms. GREENFIELD: Yeah. We decided early on that we weren't going to manipulate it to make it a competition movie, because that's not what it naturally was. It happens to have a competition that takes place there, but that's not the point of why people go to these conventions. So, we found eight people whose stories were particularly interesting to us, and we decided that each of those stories had to have a beginning, middle and end, and their own climax.

PESCA: To get to the eight, how many did you film? Did you throw a couple away?

Ms. GREENFIELD: Yeah. We threw a lot away. We shot 180 hours of footage, and now we're down to 79 minutes.

PESCA: What's the psychological profile of the balloonist? And what do they call themselves, "twisters"?

Ms. GREENFIELD: Twisters.

Ms. TAKSLER: Twisters, yeah.

PESCA: Twisters. So, what's the psychological profile? We can't paint with a broad brush, but in general?

Ms. TAKSLER: Well, there's some things that stood out. One was that a lot of them were shy kids who weren't necessarily very comfortable talking in front of groups, and this was a way as adults to learn how to be comfortable in front of a group without having to be a clown, and put on literally a different face. Some people were engineers or science people who were very interested in spatial learning, and shapes, and so were really good at picking up balloons and decompartmentalizing all of the individual twists. What else?

Ms. GREENFIELD: I mean, one of the - the through-line that we found of the characters was that each of the people in the film, their lives were transformed when they discovered how to make balloon animals, and in different ways. I mean, one of our characters, Vera, grew up in a trailer park, and wanted to get off welfare, and found balloon twisting as a financial means to pay her way through college. And, John, who's one of our - is our gospel balloon-twisting representative. And he found God through balloon twisting. So, we try to focus on the personal journey that each these people had, and that just happened to be through balloons.

PESCA: I think we have a clip here of John talking about one of his signature creations.

(Soundbite of documentary "Twisted: A Balloonamentary")

JOHN (Balloon Twister): I do a Jesus-on-the-cross balloon with nails in the hands, crown of thorns, like he's just said, it is finished, slumped over, and gave up the ghost. And balloons are my medium. Every time I make Jesus on the cross, I'm coming to tears talking about it.

(Soundbite of music)

JOHN: Every time I make it, I go, I get to make that? I get to do that? I get to do balloons, and I don't have to do them. I've get to do them.

PESCA: Is this a fundamental tension in the balloon community? The people that use balloons as a way to proselytize versus the people that use balloons either, adult balloons or just, you know, because they are fun animals?

Ms. GREENFIELD: There's some tension, but I would say as individuals they're friends. We were somewhat surprised that at our first - the first time we ever showed the film was at Twist & Shout. And some of the gospel balloon twisters wouldn't come, because there were also adult balloons in the film. And our feeling was as long as we show both sides of it, and show fairly what happens at the conventions, we were comfortable with that.

But since some of them have seen the film, and they like it, though they don't agree with the adult balloons being in there. And some people think that balloons are for kids. You should never make balloons into parts of the body or things like that. And other people feel like, you know, you just have to know your audience. And if you're at a bar, and it's funny or it's entertaining to people, then why not?

PESCA: It's - I mean, it's a medium you can work - it's like saying. OK, maybe this is my opinion. But it's like saying, clay. Clay should never be used to form an idol or clay should - you know, I mean, it's like paint, or clay, or any other medium.

Ms. GREENFIELD: And that was the argument that the adult balloonists...

PESCA: Oh no, I've come out on the side of the adult balloonists.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GREENFIELD: That's OK.

PESCA: What's the most controversial thing that someone's done in a balloon community that turned the balloon community upside down?

Ms. TAKSLER: Uh, maybe our film?

Ms. GREENFIELD: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Is it driving a wedge through the heart of the balloon community?

Ms. GREENFIELD: It's very interesting because, I mean, there are some people - some balloon twisters who've seen it who have been so touched, and so emotional about it, because, I mean, you know, for them, they're not people that are generally in the limelight and in the media that much.

And to hear some of the stories about how their - peoples' lives have been changed by the balloons, they were really touched by it. And then, as Sara mentioned, the sort of adult/gospel controversy. It was sort of aired a lot more when we had it out in the film, and now that it's out in public and in theaters.

PESCA: What slang did you come across? A lot of slang words for popping? Lot of slang words for... Ms. GREENFIELD: Yes. I think we came up - when we were trying to pick a title, like, there was a lot of, like, "pop culture" and "blown away."

Ms. TAKSLER: The twists all have different names. There's pinch twist. There's the size - the balloons are 260s, 350s, 160s, all on the sizes. People talk about the colors of balloons or the types of balloons, and there's a lot of slang. People - what was the mocha...?

Ms. GREENFIELD: Oh, there was like a big uproar when they - one of the balloon companies discontinued this cocoa brown color, and introduced a mocha brown, which is a different shade. And there was one time...

Ms. TAKSLER: People freaked out.

Ms. GREENFIELD: Yeah. And there was one convention we filmed at where people started chanting cocoa brown, cocoa brown!

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: I love it!

Ms. GREENFIELD: Yeah.

PESCA: Here's my thing. How come I can't blow up the balloons? I can't even blow it up.

Ms. GREENFIELD: Oh, we can't blow them up.

Ms. TAKSLER: Yeah, don't feel bad. Some people can. We've been working on this for five years, and neither of us can do it.

Ms. GREENFIELD: We use pumps.

Ms. TAKSLER: And that was actually a smaller controversy that we chose not to show, but there are some people that think that mouth inflating is better than pump inflating. And it's more of an art if you mouth inflate. And then some people say it's dangerous to mouth inflate.

Ms. GREENFIELD: So for example, for kids, if you do it.

PESCA: Yeah. That's awesome. See, I love that stuff. I love the minutia. The balloosha (ph), if you will.

Ms. GREENFIELD: Ah, nice.

PESCA: Yeah, there you go. All right, Sara Taksler and Naomi Greenfield are the documentarians behind "Twisted: A Balloonamentary". Opens tonight in New York, screening in select theaters around the country. You go to twistedballoondoc.com for more information. Thanks, guys.

Ms. TAKSLER: Thank you.

Ms. GREENFIELD: Thank you.

PESCA: You should also note that Naomi and Sara are going to film a little balloon-twisting instructional video, and we'll put that on the website, npr.org/bryantpark. Congrats again, and thanks for coming in.

Ms. GREENFIELD: Thanks for having us.

Ms. TAKSLER: Thank you.

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