“Bubble,” Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, will be released to theaters, cable, and DVD January 27. It was filmed in part at the Lee Middleton doll factory in Belpre, Ohio, part of the region of Ohio and West Virginia known as the Mid-Ohio River Valley.
Sarah, a book designer, once worked for Lee Middleton Dolls, and lived in Belpre much of her life. Mark, a media scholar, attended Junior High and High School across the river in Vienna and Parkersburg, West Virginia. They now live in Indiana, but both maintain strong ties to the Mid-Ohio Valley. Pie and Coffee interviewed them over the Christmas holiday.
Sarah: I’m really excited about “Bubble.” I’m really excited because it was shot in the doll factory where I used to work. Too bad I don’t still work there, because I would’ve totally been in that movie. And that would have been awesome.
Pie and Coffee: You guys aren’t going to be around for the Mid-Ohio Valley premiere, are you?
Mark: I heard that the local theater wasn’t going to show it.
It’s going to premiere at the Smoot. [Regal Cinemas, which operates the local multiplex, is unhappy that the film will be released on DVD the same day it opens in theaters, and refuses to show it. The Mid-Ohio Valley premiere will be at the historic Smoot Theater in Parkersburg, 7:30 pm Jan 12.]
Sarah: That’s excellent that it will be showing at the Smoot. We’re just going to buy the DVD, maybe get a room on campus [at Indiana University] and have a screening and invite people.
Both of you are from the Mid-Ohio Valley. And “Bubble” was shot here. This is the first major movie set in the Mid-Ohio Valley since “Night of the Hunter.”
So why is it set here?
Mark: I read an interview with Soderbergh, and he said he was interested in making a small film that involved “real people.” And he said he wanted to shoot in at some sort of drag kind of job. A place that didn’t seem that great to work at, and might point up the mundanity of the everyday man. A quiet despair and so forth. So he thought about a doll factory, and Lee Middleton is a pretty famous doll factory. He said he went there, and it was more surreal than he ever imagined.
Sarah: Everyone I tell that I worked in a doll factory first of all thinks it’s creepy. Then they look it up online, and they think it’s even creepier when they see the dolls. People seriously get really creeped out.
Dolls do seem like a creepy subject. Kind of like clowns.
Sarah: So I think that’s probably it. The doll factory is creepy. “Bubble” is like a murder mystery, right? There’s a cop in it, and he’s a real cop, and there’s these people that work in the doll factory.
What do you mean, he’s a real cop?
Sarah: He’s an actual cop that lives around here, who plays the cop. I think he’s from Parkersburg. And then the women that work in the doll factory in the movie, I don’t know if they actually work there, but they’re local. I worked in the gift shop and gave tours.
Mark: Did you go to High School with Jason Zyla?
I don’t know.
Mark: He’s in the credits on IMDB. I think you went to high school with him.
Sarah: Everyone’s local. There were rumors that famous people would be in it, but I don’t think there were. There were rumors they were going to bring in someone cool and popular–
Sarah: Yeah, and that he would be here.
To get back to the question of the creepiness of the doll factory. Every movie about dolls is creepy. You’ve got “Child’s Play,” “House of Wax.” None of them are heartwarming. Was it creepy working at the doll factory?
Sarah: No, I don’t think dolls are that weird. I always liked dolls. But I can see why those dolls in particular are creepy. Their whole thing is that they’re the “dolls that love you back.”
That’s creepy enough. These aren’t those sex dolls?
These are small baby-dolls.
Sarah: Right. But what was creepy was we would—and I think I can tell about this—we would do work for other companies. Like we would make those full-size dolls you put in your car to make it look like you have someone with you. And we made like crack babies and stuff.
Sarah: Well anyway, we would make those, for other companies.
Why were these little baby-dolls “the dolls that would love you back”?
Sarah: They were made to look real, and feel real.
They were made of like a vinyl?
Sarah: Yeah. The whole thing was, it was started by Lee Middleton. She and her husband started this business, and she would make porcelain dolls. Everything was hand-made. The clothes, everything. And as it got bigger and bigger they switched to vinyl, because it was more cost-effective. And they stopped making the clothes. They get all the clothes shipped in.
Mark: [Reading the Parkersburg News] Sorry, this is just a comical aside. [Reading headline] “BABY JESUS STOLEN FROM NATIVITY SCENE.”
This was on the TV news, and it was a horrible story. It started with one of the anchors saying “With the Christmas controversy making news headlines nationwide, many feel Christianity is under attack.” Then they run the story about some people vandalizing a crèche in front of a a realtor, as though this is an attack on Christianity. Yeah, and when someone keys your car, it’s a statement about our overdependence on petroleum. The story also called the baby Jesus “the most sacred symbol” in Christianity, which I think is completely wrong, I think the cross would be. But anyway, at the bumper at the end, the reporter says, “Lieutenant Young says compared to years past, they really haven’t seen much Christmas vandalism this year.” [WTAP report. If you watch the clip, you’ll note that Abby Ham has a really attractive Scarlett Johansson look going on these days.] So it’s kind of like a story saying, “Crime wave hits town!” and then at the end you say, “Crime figures are at an all-time low.”
And this newspaper story is inaccurate, because it says BABY JESUS STOLEN FROM NATIVITY SCENE. This is more idolatry. It’s not the baby Jesus, it’s a little statue, a doll.
Mark: It doesn’t say a statue, it says the baby Jesus. [Reading the lead] “Thieves stole the baby Jesus from the nativity scene….” What was the baby Jesus doing in Parkersburg? Trying to save this horrible, horrible city.
Sarah: What was he doing outside? That’s child abuse.
They didn’t have any place to stay. I’ll tell you this: I just spent two weeks hiking across West Virginia, and if you go up to random people and say, “I’m hiking through town, and I need a place to camp,” they will look at you like you are an alien. If Mary came through town and said, “I need a place to stay, I’m going into labor,” some people would say, “I’ll help you,” but some would say, “You can just give birth outside.”
So: The history of Lee Middleton Dolls. They started getting the clothes shipped from…
Sarah: From China or wherever. At one point they would get clothes and then add things to them locally. My mom would do piece-work for them, but it paid really crappy. But she got to do it at home, instead of in a sweat-shop. But they make all the vinyl pieces in the factory, and they assemble them there.
Now they’re branching out more. When I was working there they came out with a more affordable kind of “play doll” that was smaller, that they started selling in stores. And those were made in China or wherever, overseas.
Lee Middleton and her husband divorced, and he started his own doll factory, but his dolls are like the generic version. They look wack. Really. They look crazy. Their whole thing is, they make their babies look like they’re crying, and the tears look like they did them with a hot glue gun. It looks so dumb. I think his factory is in Little Hocking. They’re trying, but they’re just so ghetto-looking.
[Scroll down this page for a bio of Middleton.]
Lee Middleton died of a heart attack, so to keep things going they hire other artists. Their main doll artist when I was there was Reva Schick, who’s from Canada.
Mark: Was her name hallowed at the doll factory?
Sarah: She had real big hair, and her husband was like her handler. You know what I mean? She was kind of like fancy-pants. She smoked these cigarettes. She seemed nice enough, though. She reminded me of a woman on a soap opera, like Joan Collins but not evil.
Mark: She should have been in the movie.
Mark, your profession is “media studies.” But you’re not an “industry analyst” or anything.
Mark: I’m not an “industry analyst,” although I have analyzed the industry.
This movie has gotten some press because they’re releasing it on DVD on the same day as it comes out in theaters.
Mark: And on pay-per-view.
It’s not direct-to-video, but it doesn’t have this theaters-only run. Soderbergh’s taken some flack from the theater owners for doing this. But people are saying, “This is going to be the trend.”
Mark: It would take a long time for this to become the standard distribution method. Because there’s so much already determined about how they release films. They really would have to overhaul their entire method.
Sarah: I think they’re just doing this to make it more accessible.
Mark: This is the first in a series of films he’s making on video.
Sarah: Usually small films like this would only show in a city. Except because theater owners are evil and greedy, some of them are not showing this one, because it’s coming out on DVD. It’s really screwy, because the only theater in Parkersburg is not going to show it.
But then, they wouldn’t show a film like that, anyway. It’s really awesome that the Smoot is showing it. I love the Smoot.
Mark: I think a turn away from theaters entirely would happen before a “simultaneous release” becomes the standard.
You say the theater owners are evil, but I like to see a movie in the theater. I like a theater!
Mark: But still, chain theaters in general are run in unpleasant ways. For instance, in Bloomington, Indiana, the local theaters are run by Kerasotes, which as of 2002 was the ninth-largest chain in the US. They have two theaters in Bloomington, and there’s no other theater in Bloomington.
Somehow, and I don’t understand how this works, though I’ve tried to follow it in the papers, they have a monopoly on theater ownership in Bloomington.
Sarah: There’s an old theater in town, called the Von Lee, and it’s right near campus, and would be the perfect art house theater. But they can’t show movies there. Kerasotes shows certain things, but they’re very limited in their independent films, and we miss out on a lot.
I can understand theater owners feeling paranoid and beleaguered.
Mark: Except that they make a whole lot of money.
But even as ticket prices go up, the money theaters make is mostly from concessions. The ticket money goes right back to Hollywood. I don’t blame them for acting crazy.
Mark: I blame them for acting crazy.
The experience of watching a movie in a theater is an awesome one, but I feel like a lot of people don’t appreciate that.
Mark: It depends on the movie. And it depends on the theater. Some theaters can’t even frame their movies properly. They don’t even have projectionists. They have some kid who pushes a button and maybe checks to see how the thing’s framed. They’ll put the wrong lens on. It’s like, this can’t be that hard. It says on the movie what kind of lens you should use. A monkey who can read could figure it out.
Mark: “Wrong Turn!”
Sarah: “Wrong Turn.”
Mark: It’s a terrible horror movie starring Eliza Dushku, who had a very short run TV show.
Sarah: “Tru Calling.”
Mark: And has been in a number of other dumb movies, including “Bring It On.”
Wait a second, you mean the cheerleader movie?
Mark: She’s sort of the cheerleader from the wrong side of the tracks.
I liked “Bring It On.”
Sarah: She had this series “Tru Calling” on Fox. She was psychic or something. But she wasn’t psychic in “Wrong Turn!”
Mark: So in “Wrong Turn” it’s her and a bunch of people nobody’s heard of. She’s definitely the “name” in the film. She’s the only person on the cover. You ever see that James Woods movie “Cop?”
I’ve seen the cover.
Mark: It’s a huge picture of James Woods’s face and it says, “James Woods is: COP.” That’s kinda like the “Wrong Turn” cover. Except she looks a little bit scared. James Woods on the cover of “Cop” is just nonplussed.
“Eliza Dushku took a: WRONG TURN.”
Sarah: So she just broke up with her boyfriend, and her friends, to make her feel better, said, “Let’s get out of town.” They’re college kids. “Let’s get out of town and go camping.” They go to West Virginia.
Mark: We think they’re from Pennsylvania. There’s one guy from Pennsylvania. We don’t know where they’re all from, but it’s not West Virginia.
Sarah: The beginning of the movie starts with a guy in a Mustang, trying to get to a job interview. He’s from Pennsylvania, and needs to get to Virginia or something. The traffic’s all backed up because there’s an accident, so he finds some back road.
Mark: He took a wrong turn.
Sarah: He takes a “Wrong Turn.” Well, he ends up running his car into their SUV. He dropped a tape on the floor of his car, looked off the road and hit their car.
Mark: Their car had been stopped because they ran over barbed wire placed by cannibal inbred ninja people.
Sarah: So this is where they meet, and they slowly get picked off, and it ends up being the guy from Pennsylvania and Eliza Dushku. Everyone else gets killed, of course. And they’re trying to survive from these cannibal inbred ninjas.
Mark: How many of those people there are, is completely unclear. At one point it seems like a dozen, later it seems like maybe four.
Apparently there are two main objections to this movie, aside from the fact that it may not be a good movie. The first objection is that it shows everyone in West Virginia as being crazy and inbred. Which doesn’t make any sense. I just walked across West Virginia, and nobody was crazy and inbred. I walked through little towns, I walked through little valleys.
Sarah: They may be cannibals, though!
They may be cannibals. If they were ninjas, they’d be invisible, so I wouldn’t know if they were even there.
Sarah: If this was the case, you would have died. You would not be here, because cannibal inbred ninjas would have killed you.
And you say that there’s nobody in West Virginia who’s characterized as being normal.
Mark: The only person who’s not a cannibal inbred ninja–well, there’s a few people on the highway who are jerks to the guy, because he’s from the city. There’s a big traffic jam, and he goes to ask a trucker what’s going on, and the trucker is like, “There’s a bunch of traffic stopped on the highway. What do you think is going on?” And he gets mad at the trucker, like the trucker is supposed to help him fly over the traffic.
Sarah: The second guy is this dirty, toothless old guy, sitting in front of a run-down gas station, who’s also kind of crazy.
Mark: That’s the other guy from West Virginia. So there’s the trucker, who’s probably not even from West Virginia, he’s probably just going through. The only person who’s clearly from West Virginia and not a cannibal inbred ninja is the guy at the gas station. Oh, and there’s some incompetent cops who get killed. All the cops die.
So all the West Virginians are bad. The other objection to this film is that: it was filmed in CANADA!
Mark: I have a third objection.
Well, wait a second!
Mark: Of course it was filmed in Canada. Everything’s filmed in Canada. Especially a cheap exploitation horror movie starring Eliza Dushku. They’re trying to cut corners and save money wherever they can.
It’s more expensive to film a movie in West Virginia?
Mark: That’s why so many films are shot in Canada these days, because you don’t have to pay union fees. That’s the biggest reason.
So Canadians are basically a bunch of scabs.
Mark: Yeah. Canada is a nation of Hollywood scabs. It really is.
I just think it’s outrageous, as a native-born West Virginian myself, I think it’s incredibly offensive that you’re going to make a whole film dissing West Virginia–and you could say West Virginians are a bunch of jerks, that might be true.
Sarah: You could say people in West Virginia are poor.
And that would be true. But you can’t say people in West Virginia are all inbred and crazy and hillbilly, because that’s not true at all. You make this movie, and then you film it in frickin’ CANADA! You don’t even show the natural beauty of West Virginia.
Mark: And you can tell it’s not West Virginia.
Mark: My third objection is more just the logical one: you can’t be heavily inbred and be a ninja.
These guys are ninjas?
Mark: These guys are incredible. They’re supermen. They’re all totally stealth, and they’re fast, they climb trees like crazy.
They know how to track people down.
Sarah: But they couldn’t really talk, though, and their bodies were so deformed. They wouldn’t be able to function. These people would not be able to function. And they were old. Really, they wouldn’t have lived past fifteen.
Mark: From a filmmaking standpoint, that’s the biggest objection. Your monster is basically flawed.
These are people who would be hospitalized, if they had access to a hospital. And somehow they’re all being Rambo instead.
Mark: Exactly. It’s unbelievable.
Sarah: They can climb trees.
Mark: They’re unbelievable archers.
Sarah: They have this magical night vision.
Mark: They’re literally ninjas.
Sarah: It’s not like some other kinds of monsters. These people wouldn’t even be alive.
They’d be seriously ill.
Sarah: They wouldn’t be able to function.
Are these actors deformed?
Mark: No, it’s makeup.
So this isn’t even a Tod Browning’s “Freaks” thing.
Mark: You couldn’t find people like that to act!
That midget in “Freaks” threw a switchblade into a guy’s chest!
Mark: But he’s a midget. He’s not severely deformed.
OK, I just wanted to read this quote from Jay W. Bennett, he’s a sportswriter for the Parkersburg News. This is from December 23, 2005. And the column is titled, “Will it be sweet sugar for WVU?” In reference to WVU’s trip to the Sugar Bowl Jan 2 against Georgia, he’s talking about how he hopes West Virginia can win:
I think Georgia is favored for good reason, but football is football for the most part.
And I don’t know what that means, but it’s true that “Georgia is favored for good reason.” I think he can even take out “for the most part.” I think he can stay with “Football is football.”
The sportswriters for the Parkersburg News have all been saying that WVU is going to win. They all acknowledge that there’s no reason to believe this. Dave Poe thinks WVU is going to win handily.
[Ed. note: WVU won 38-35 in an upset.]
Is there anything else related to “Bubble” that we need to talk about?
Mark: Bob Pollard did the soundtrack. Five quality songs on the EP.
Many people will learn about the Mid-Ohio Valley from watching this movie. But they may not get the straight story. What do they need to know?
Mark: It’s not very good.
Sarah: It’s smelly.
Mark: Seriously, you drive across that bridge from Belpre and you can smell the sewage plant.
It’s a lot less smelly now that the chemical plants are closing.
Mark: One more thing from Jay W. Bennett, and this a profound statement that I’m not sure what we will do with it. It’s the “one stat” he finds most “peculiar” that could “prove decisive.” And that’s the fact that West Virginia is “17th nationally in third down conversions while Georgia is 77th.” That’s one of those stats that people bring up when they have nothing else to talk about. But, it “could be a program-changing event.” Actually, it would be the biggest win in West Virginia football history.
They’re not expected to win.
Mark: They’re expected to lose, but again–Football is football, for the most part.