Freak Chic

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At 47, producer Tim Miller has worked at every level of broadcast advertising and promotion. He did time as a TV weatherman in Oklahoma armed with little more than a journalism degree and broadcast-quality vocal cords. "It was probably the one place where they needed someone who had a good deal more experience than I did," he says of the state known as "Tornado Alley." He's headed up on-air promotion departments at affiliate stations in the Sooner State, Indiana and New York, where, at WABC-TV in the early '80s, he served as creative director and helped launch Regis Philbin's booming second-act career. He's worked for HBO, packaging the launch of Cinemax, and served as VP-advertising and promotion at NBC Entertainment East Coast. He's produced a video, We Shall Be Free, for fellow-Oklahoman Garth Brooks, which was named Music Video of the Year by the Academy of Country Music. And last year, his eight-year-old production boutique, Tim Miller Entertainment (TME), even produced a series of epic spots branding the millennium, in cobalt blue, for ABC.

But Miller also has other interests. Like, for instance, freaks. "People come in my office and I've got Garth Brooks hanging on one wall and then I've got a sword-swallower's collection," he says, referring to the professional effects of a Canadian sideshow performer from the 1930s named Mimi Garneau, which he recently acquired. "It's quite an exquisite collection," he says.

Like many producers, Miller eventually forged out on his own in the hope of doing work that was closer to his heart. As a result, his New York offices have expanded to include an in-house design group, Hocus Pocus, a music production division, D Sharp, and a production facility, aptly named Sideshow Post. And while his bread and butter remains network packaging and broadcast promotion, he's long been angling for a way to get into long-form. His fascination with sideshows has provided it.

"As a kid, growing up in Tulsa, my dad used to take me to the Tulsa State Fair and I could never go to the sideshow," he explains. "I always saw the posters and I was intrigued seeing human embryos, fishboys, half-people and bearded women. It just stuck with me."

In 1997, TME, through yet another subsidiary, Big Chief, debuted its first offering on The Learning Channel - a two-hour documentary on the history of sideshows, entitled Sideshow: Alive on the Inside. "I started seeing Ken Burns document certain aspects of culture too, from the Civil War to baseball," Miller says. "I said, `God, the sideshow ought to receive a little respect here.' "

True, sideshows don't get much respect. Rather, they are often seen as vestiges of an earlier era marred by insensitivity and exploitation. Sideshow acknowledges this while profiling many of the performers who've made livings from showcasing their deformities. As it says on the box, "Percilla the `Monkey Girl,' Jeannie, the `Half Woman' and the oldest living Siamese twins reveal the human, often poignant stories behind their unusual acts." The description rings true. It's not quite Ken Burns, but this isn't quite jazz, either.

It is, however, a new direction for TME, one that will likely continue. Big Chief has agreed to produce four so-called extreme documentaries for Discovery and TLC, to be aired this year. The four new docs will cover such topics as human oddities, torture, the "new" sideshow - populated by such post-punk extremists as the Torture King and the Enigma - and homeless underground dwellers, sometimes called "mole people."

"Our hope is to bring an examination of some of these extreme areas to the public and not exploit them," says Miller, who admits that the idea of "extreme documentaries" grows out of the vogue for reality TV, just taken to the, well, extreme. "That's what we didn't want to do with Sideshow and I don't think we did that. We wanted to document an aspect of life."

Miller also hopes to document these aspects of life soon at a theater near you. Plans to make a feature film based on the life of Percilla Bejano - the Monkey Girl featured in Sideshow, who married Emmett the Alligator Man and was billed as half of The World's Strangest Married Couple - are currently in the works. And, most surprising of all, Miller's not the only one with a freak-based feature in the pipeline. Miller, in fact, became aware of a veritable rash of upcoming sideshow features when producers started calling to consult him about their own projects. Leonardo DiCaprio is set to appear in a biopic of Johnny Eck, the half-boy featured in Todd Browning's 1933 cult classic Freaks. Russell Crowe is likewise scheduled to play a freak in the Jodie Foster-directed Flora Plum. And documentary czar Errol Morris may be taking the story of Grady Stiles, Jr., the famed Lobster Boy, murdered in 1992 in a murder-for-hire scheme hatched by his wife, to art-house screens.

"We're all rushing, realizing in the next two years there's going to be some freak movies out there," Miller says. "At some point there's going to be a swell of such movies, and we hope we have one of those."

Ken Burns be damned.

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