In the shrinking class of American doll makers, Lee Middleton Original Dolls is a heavyweight. At its factory in Belpre, Ohio--a sleepy town of 7,000 on the West Virginia border--the company produces more baby dolls a year than any other U.S. manufacturer. So when director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean's Eleven) went looking for a doll factory to serve as the backdrop for his latest movie, Bubble, Lee Middleton was an obvious choice. There was only one problem, at least as far as the company was concerned. Bubble is a thriller that revolves around the murder of a young single mom who works at the doll factory.
Given the story line, executives at Lee Middleton--which makes old-fashioned dolls for the youngest of children--naturally had concerns about allowing Soderbergh in. "We make baby dolls and have a clean image," explains Mark Putinski, vice president of marketing, "so we wouldn't want our company to be associated with anything in poor taste or with graphic violence."
Before agreeing to let the film crew onto the premises of the $19 million company, managers asked to see a script. That turned out to be impossible because Soderbergh was experimenting with Bubble, using untrained actors and letting them improvise dialogue. The director was willing to share an outline of the plot, however, and that synopsis convinced the company to open its doors. "They assured us that the film would not have any content that would tarnish our company's reputation," says Putinski.
Filming, which lasted for 18 days, was "a real thrill," Putinski adds, although it also produced some tension. Workers sometimes had to halt production and sit silently until a scene was completed. And though Soderbergh cast locals in the movie, only four of the factory's 31 workers were able to wrangle screen time, and only one of them--the plant manager--landed a speaking part.
In the finished film, the atmosphere at the doll factory is used to unnerving effect. Soderbergh's camera often lingers on piles of dismembered doll legs and arms, and in one memorably unsettling scene, workers inflate doll heads and then insert the eyes. It's not exactly ideal product placement, but Putinski isn't worried. "For years, we've run tours of our factory for local school groups," he says. "First- and second-graders see our dolls in all their various parts, and no one's ever had a panic attack."
If doll buyers aren't bothered by Bubble, however, the company's employees may take issue with some scenes. Their fictional counterparts lead pretty grim lives. One is a kleptomaniac, another smokes a ton of pot, and all of them consume an inordinate amount of fast food. "It's a play on human drama," Putinski allows, "showing that people are people, no matter where they are."