Talking The Muppets with Bobin, McKenzie, Stoller and Producers
On Nov. 23 audiences will again be able to revel in the antics of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzy and their felt-covered friends courtesy of The Muppets, Disney’s latest family film. About two weeks before its theatrical release, the creative forces and executives behind the movie gathered to talk about The Muppets, and why Jim Henson’s vision is so enduring.
“We see ourselves in the Muppets,” director James Bobin explained. “They are a group of people who never stop hoping for the best.”
Speaking to Spinoff Online and other members of the media, producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, co-writer Nick Stoller and musical supervisor Brett McKenzie joined Bobin in praising the Muppets and the original films.
Lieberman attributed the success of earlier movies to the likeability of the characters themselves.
“They’re just inherently loveable,” he said, telling reporters that when he brought his young to the set, the boy immediately gravitated to Walter the Muppet and Walter’s puppeteer Peter Linz.
“Rather than my son looking at Peter he looked directly at Walter and had a real interaction with the Muppet. I turned to my wife and said, ‘Isn’t it amazing that there is no human being there, it’s just him talking to the Muppet.’ And then Walter started talking to me and I had the exact same interaction with him!” Lieberman laughed.
With 12 years between the previous Muppet movie and The Muppets, Stoller said that while there is a perception the Muppets had disappeared he feels this was incorrect. “They didn’t necessarily go away as much as they did scale back on how much product they put out, I think that’s probably more accurate,” he said.
Hoberman also stated that the decreased Muppets presence over recent years was partially due to the financial and business struggles as the Jim Henson Company was bought and sold multiple times.
“I think it also had to do with the sale of the company and the fallout of that and being taken over,” he said. “It takes time to figure out a game plan for what you want to do with a franchise once you get it.”
“Obviously without Jim Henson it was very hard to keep them alive,” McKenzie added.
McKenzie, the creative force behind HBO’s Flight of the Conchords, was asked by the producers onstage the difference between writing songs for that show and writing songs for The Muppets.
“Less sex jokes,” McKenzie said as reporters laughed. More seriously, he said that other than having very specific song placements in the movie, the two were not dissimilar. Bobin, who directed Flight of the Conchords, agreed.
“Conchords was basically a world whereby everyone had a slightly weird world view,” he said. “You’re in a group of fools, basically, and the Muppets are similar: They are all optimistic but they’re all kind of inherent failures, they’re not good at what they do. I love that about them because you instantly feel for the underdog.”
McKenzie also said that he felt he didn’t have to vary his style from Conchords to The Muppets, as comedy was the most important part of writing songs for both the show and the movie.
“In order for a comedy song to work you can’t have too much production because if it goes too big you lose the comedy,” he said. “So within the Muppets film when it gets big it goes right back down.” For him, the entire point of the songs was to tell jokes, “Using the music to support the joke or taking the music away so the joke hits harder.”
Stoller, who directed star Jason Segel in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, said that the interest in doing a Muppets movie sprang out of that romantic comedy. Recalling that Segel had a big meeting with Disney during the film’s release, Segel was offered any Disney property to work on, and he chose the Muppets.
“He called me and we very quickly wondered, where have the Muppets been? It seemed like a great opportunity to do a kind of comeback movie,” he said. Stoller, who co-wrote the script with Segel, added that he thought modern comedy in general owed a lot to the Muppets.
“I think they started a type of comedy that breaks the fourth wall, but is also very heartfelt but also has big slapstick-y things,” he said. “So I think they laid the groundwork for a lot of comedy.”
On the visual end, Bobin explained that while he used some green screen for full-body Muppet shots, he didn’t use any CGI, preferring to use computers solely to matt out the wires and sticks the puppeteers used to operate the Muppets.
“I was very keen to make sure you had a sense that the Muppets were real things that you could tangibly touch, you can see the texture of their fur,” Bobin said.
The director also carefully considered where to put the film’s few full-body shots of the Muppets.
“For the full-body shots, for me, you have to be quite judicious about where you put them in the movie because you don’t want to overwhelm,” he said, adding, “Certain scenes lend themselves better to full-body shots, like the shot of Walter under the desk … or when we see Scooter sweeping. It’s very natural, very real.”
Asked about going from his R-rated comedies to working on The Muppets, Stoller said he didn’t feel he had to censor himself. “For some reason Disney made me cut out the Kermit full-frontal,” he joked.
“You want to be true to the material and you want to be true to the story you’re telling, and at no point writing this did it seem appropriate to do anything R-rated,” he added.
Everyone onstage agreed their favorite moment on set was filming the telethon to raise money to save the Muppet Theater, a sequence modeled to look and feel like an episode of The Muppet Show.
“I think one of the great joys of the movie is the simplicity of the story of putting on a show again,” Bobin said, continuing, “It was great because we liked making it and we can’t just say the Muppets are great — we had to show them being great. Obviously one of the best ways to do this was to do The Muppet Show.”
Hoberman and Lieberman revealed there was concern that too much time was spent in the theater watching the telethon. But ultimately, Hoberbman said, “The fun, the excitement, the sketches, the vibe and feel of it makes it feel bigger than just the little theater.”
The telethon also scratched Bobin’s Muppet Show fan itch and allowed him to explore the world a little more. “In The Muppet Show you see Kermit behind his desk,” he said. “I always wondered what does Kermit see when he looks the other way. So I love that we built the theater so we get to see what Kermit sees.”
That sense of realism carried over to other aspects of the film. “That’s why there are empty holes on top of the top row [in the telethon opening number], because some of those guys weren’t around or they forgot where they were supposed to go!” Bobin laughed.
Besides the cast of familiar faces, The Muppets also introduces a new Muppet, Walter.
“Walter represents everything the Muppets have lost sight of, which is their enthusiasm for putting on a show,” Stoller said.
“Very early on in the process I asked about how you create puppets, how you build them, and I was told was the most simple puppet was the sock puppet, which is the one that creates the most expression — basically what Jim [Henson] made Kermit from was a sock,” Bobin said. “So I thought Walter should be a similarly simplistic build.”
All present onstage also loved filming the movie’s show-stopping dance finale, a huge musical number that takes place on Hollywood Boulevard.
“I wanted to do a big closing number to round the movie off like the big opening number,” Bobin explained. His emphasis on realism within the world of the Muppets shone through again in the dance number when it came to casting the human dancers.
“They mustn’t look like dancers,” he said. “The whole point is that the real people of the world are embracing the Muppets again.”
While the director and producers thought the sequence was relatively easy, as they filmed at night in January, Bobin was just thankful they were able to shoot during some of the warmest nights of the month.
“Had it been cold the whole thing would have been very much smaller and shorter,” he joked.
“One of the great experiences I’ve had as a producer was being able to shut down Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre,” Hoberman said. With a smile, the producer recalled that on the first night of shooting the final dance number, “We shut down the whole street and we all looked up and there was this big banner celebrating Jim Henson. It felt like we were supposed to be there at that time.”
“You can see it in the movie, it’s there,” Bobin added.
While McKenzie wrote many new songs for the movie, the film also revisits some of the Muppets classics, most notably “Rainbow Connection.”
“’Rainbow Connection’ was an obvious choice, because if you’re going to bring the Muppets together again they have to sing that song,” Bobin said.
Besides the original Muppet Movie songs, many of the original Muppeteers were part of the movie, including Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson, who have been doing the voices of Kermit and Miss Piggy since Henson’s death and Frank Oz’s retirement. McKenzie, however, was unaware who they were when shooting began
“I didn’t realize [Whitmire] was an original Muppeteer when we first started working. I was like, ‘What’s up with this guy? Kermit doesn’t sound right!’ And they were like, ‘Shut up, Bret, he’s the original!’” McKenzie said. “But it was great, you have the voice of authority and experience.”
“It was different for fans, even super-fans, coming into something like this, juxtaposed with people who have been living it,” Lieberman added. “So there were may be some things we wanted to do that that maybe didn’t completely coincide with the characters, so it was a useful collaboration.”
“From a scriptwriting standpoint there were a lot of the rules of the world we didn’t understand that they explained to us,” Stoller said. For instance, originally, “Jason’s character Gary was a ventriloquist and Walter was his puppet and they did this amazing act on the Venice boardwalk. And the [Muppeteers] were like, ‘In this world the Muppets are people, no one mistakes them for puppets.'”
McKenzie revealed he had a similar moment. “I was amused when we were recording one of the big numbers with lots of Muppets singing and I asked, ‘Can I have the chickens?’ No, ‘The chickens can’t sing, the chickens can only cluck,” he said.
Everyone praised the Muppeteers, saying they often came up with the lines on set.
“The most important thing I learned immediately was that the guys who performed the puppets also did the voices, and therefore could improvise,” Bobin said. While they weren’t able to do as much improvisation as he would’ve liked due to time restrictions, he still tried to give the Muppeteers free rein to ad lib.
However, the mechanics of talking puppets presented some unique challenges to the producers when it came to dubbing in lines in post-production.
“We all went in with the idea that, ‘Well, they’re puppets, you can put anything in their mouths,'” Lieberman said. “The challenge with that is that we had to match the exact kind of syllable to match the mouth.”
Bobin added with a laugh, “I got very good writing specific kind of worlds to match lip flaps.”