Director James Bobin on Pushing Limits, Staying True in ‘Muppets Most Wanted’
An entertainment institution since the 1970s, the Muppets’ star had begun to fade by the time James Bobin revived audience interest with Disney’s 2011 movie of the same name. Three years later, the director continues his crusade on behalf of one of the most famous puppet ensembles of all time with Muppets Most Wanted, which focuses squarely upon Kermit & Co. as they grapple with what move to make after reuniting.
Combining a few cleverly skewered heist-movie conventions with a series of international locales, Bobin takes the Muppets on a whirlwind European tour that offers more of the same camaraderie and fun that modern audiences loved without sacrificing the core essence of the characters who have become an entertainment staple.
Spinoff Online spoke with Bobin at the recent Los Angeles press day for Muppets Most Wanted, where the filmmaker talked about the challenges of following up one success with another, and how addressing that notion directly can be a trap and advantage. Additionally, he discussed the few limitations he imposed upon himself as he incorporated new moves (literal and metaphorical) into the Muppets’ repertoire, and reflected on the guiding principle that not only helps shape any Muppets story, but enables new adventures to have the same energy and sensibility that made the characters beloved icons.
Spinoff Online: How emboldened did you feel by the success of the first film to expand this canvas and try things that were maybe even further out than what Muppets fans might expect?
James Bobin: I was very conscious of the fact that I didn’t want to make the same film twice, that sort of the trap that sequels fall into, and I really felt that the last movie, as much as people hugely loved it, I felt was inside for a lot of the time – half the movie’s in a theater. And so if you want to do a thing whereby you can showcase Muppet talent and do sketches, The Muppet Show – the best way to do it is a world tour. And a world tour also gives you the chance to go and visit some interesting places and give it bigger scope and scale. Which is, again, part of this joy of the film is the ambition of the film, and I think this film got great ambition and that’s what I really like about it. And so again it just feels different – it feels like it’s a different movie and it feels like you’re moving forward. The last movie has a nice resolution — the family getting back together again — but this movie, the question was like, what do you do next? And we put it up on the screen. That’s a question we all have in a sequel. But why not attack it, address it at the very beginning, and talk about sequels and how they work and what happens normally and what should we do in the movie? And then, you know, [Ricky] Gervais in the song comes up with the idea for the film.
When you frontload your movie with a song about how sequels are not ever as good, does that let you off the hook, or does that put more pressure on you?
I don’t know. I guess I’m going to find out. I don’t know. I think it’s fun to address it. I’d far rather do that than have it as this great big elephant in the room. Like, I think it’s far better to say, “Hey, everybody, we know this is a sequel, but this is what it’s going to be. It’s going to be different. I hope you like it.” That’s what it’s going to be. I think that’s just a nice way of dealing with it. It’s very a Muppety way of dealing with it. The Muppets are very self-aware, so I felt like there are very few sequels you can do that in. And Muppets is one of them, so why not.
In the original Muppet Movie, it was like kind of magical to just get to watch these guys ride bikes, but now Constantine is beating people up and stuff. Are there boundaries to what you can make a Muppet do?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. The fundamental rule of thumb is that we have to have a puppeteer perform before a camera. So even though Constantine’s jumping around the corridor and jumping out of the passageway and stuff in Berlin, that is still Matt Vogel in the head and that’s three or four, sometimes six, people puppeteering the limbs. That’s all just blue suits, and then we [composite him] into the images. So you shoot plates and work it out that way. But it’s still puppeteering. At no point in the film is there a full CG-realized character. There’s no full-CG Kermit or Constantine, it’s still puppeteering. That’s really important to me because the world is full of CG. That’s fine, but Muppets are the last bastion of non-CG material, you know, I mean it really is. So it’s important to stay true to that to me because I like CG, but I think Muppets is about them being real, they’re tactile. They are made of felt and fur. When you come to set you can touch them. That’s lovely, and it’s really an old form of entertainment and it goes back centuries, you know? I mean, so the fact that we can still make puppet movies, or puppeteering has been around in three centuries, it’s pretty great. And it’s in a way that kids often aren’t asked these days to suspend their disbelief. Muppets ask you to do that, and that’s really nice there’s an innocent idea that you just have to believe they’re real. And when my daughter comes to set and she meets Kermit, he’s kind of just a half-body frog on Steve’s arm. And Steve’s talking over here. She never looks at Steve. She looks at Kermit because she thinks Kermit’s real, and that’s magic and that’s all this film is. It’s trying to maintain and perpetuate that idea.
As successful as the first film was, how important was it to make the Muppets more of the focus of this film instead of their human counterparts?
Very important, but as I said it’s kind of naturally happens. Because, obviously, with the first film we had to get them back together again to a degree because the premise was that they were apart. And so naturally they were only in it from the kind of a third of the way through, and you meet them one by one. So this time every Muppet was in it from the very beginning. So then you have a harder choice who to include, because the Muppet family is, you know, a hundred strong. There’s a lot of them and, you know, you just decide how that works out. But I really felt that naturally that the focus which was the Muppets-centric and I think that’s fun and an interesting thing. Because again, it feels different than the last movie.
You mentioned that you just wanted to have Robin in the movie, even if for just one minute. To me that moment was kind of really sad. Were there other characters that you wanted to include that you couldn’t, or just didn’t?
Rizzo, too, but not really. It’s funny, I’ve always loved Rizzo, and Steve Whitmire, who plays Rizzo, sent me a video of Rizzo asking me to be in the movie. It was really fun. He sent me an email from Rizzo, his keyboard saying, “Dear James Bobin, I’d very much like to be in the next movie.” And he’d already been filmed anyway, as it happened, but it’s funny because there’s so many characters. And you want to include them all but there isn’t space. And even when you’re doing a large group shot you have to be selective about who you have because just in terms of sheer production, you only have a certain number of puppeteers. And even in the scenes where we’re doing the wedding, we had over 100 puppeteers. That could be every puppeteer in England. You’re going to run out of people eventually, and you start using like producers and stuff. It’s just different. So, yeah, you have to be careful, but I like to involve everyone. And then it’s just a question of who works in that particular scene. And so often it’s a case-by-case scenario. But, yeah, Robin is quite sad, isn’t it.
These characters, from the smallest to the biggest, they’re all extraordinarily well-defined. What advantage, and what challenge, does that present you?
Well, the advantage is that they come fully formed from the box, which is great. So you know who’s going to say what, when and why it’s going to work emotionally. You know who’s going to say the right things and have it hit home. The disadvantage is it puts great pressure on you when you’re making a new one. We’ve made two new ones, now, basically in Walter and Constantine. That’s really hard because they’re so brilliant, and each person has just a great role in the group. And even the secondary characters that Jim [Henson] and Frank [Oz] came out with in the ‘70s who I love, like Uncle Dudley and Bobbie Benson and the babies and stuff, they’re just amazing characters. So every character, no matter how much they were on screen whether they were on every week or just once every series, were really good. So the bar is set very high in Muppet character creations. So we were always very conscious of that making other characters. So we spent a lot of time talking about Walter and a lot of time talking about Constantine and what he could be. Walter in the first movie is kind of the audience’s entree into the Muppets. It’s a very useful tool as to – he was the audience’s perspective to many people. And then – but with Constantine it’s just like having fun with it because it’s like what if there was a Kermit who was bad. It’s a very old question and it’s a classic movie trope again, so it works for Muppets. And it just felt like a funny, funny idea – the most beloved frog in the world could have an evil twin. And this guy would be, you know, the exact opposite, the polar opposite of what Kermit does. He’s selfish, he’s mean, he’s not giving. And yet no one will notice, and I love the idea that the Muppets don’t, apart from this flimsy accent, no one notices he’s completely different, you know? So I think it’s just a funny idea.
A few years ago at a DreamWorks event, Jeffrey Katzenberg sort of described their approach to making animated movies is, “We make movies for the adult in every kid.” It seems like your approach to the Muppets is the same, or similar, instead of the kid in every adult.
Yeah. Well, I think Jim did that. People always thought about Pixar being the pioneers of that kind of idea, but I think Jim Henson was doing that in the ‘70s. The Muppet Show is very, very clearly aimed at adults, but kids happen to like it. He called the pilot Muppet Show: Sex and Violence to sell the idea that it was for adults. It’s why they went to England to make it, because people in America would not make the show because they would not believe that American adults would enjoy and appreciate this show. But, of course, they did, and so they made it in England and brought it back over here. And they made money out of it […] But no, you see for me it’s very much important to continue in that tradition. If I can watch with my five year old daughter and we can both enjoy the movie at the same time because it is that. It’s that thing whereby kids like them because they’re puppets and they are not real and they’re fun. But I adults like them because if you put clever words in a puppet’s mouth, it’s funny. And that’s a really fun idea to play with. So, you know, I’m really conscious of that. And that’s one of the hardest things of the movie is the tone of the movie because it has to appeal to everybody. And tone is an overall product of each decision you make. At the end it should feel like my five year old and my grandmother and my mum and me all like it at the same time. And they all think that little the same but they’re not. They’ve watched it filmed all the way through which is really hard to do, but fun. If you can achieve it, it’s great.
Muppets Most Wanted opens today nationwide.