If you’d been sitting near me when I first saw Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you would have seen me freaking out when Yoda appeared on the screen. That’s because I had no idea the iconic character was going to be in the sequel to The Force Awakens, and even better, he wasn’t a CGI creation! While some had issues with The Last Jedi, for me, getting to see Luke (Mark Hamill) and Yoda together again was fantastic.
Recently, I spoke with Frank Oz about his new documentary, Muppet Guys Talking (read that interview here), and towards the end of the interview I brought up The Last Jedi and how he found out Rian Johnson wanted him to return as Yoda. In addition, he also talked about what it meant to use a Yoda puppet, what it was like on set working with Mark Hamill, Yoda’s dialogue, his thoughts on Yoda having new powers and the fan backlash, and a lot more. Check out what he had to say below.
Finally, if you’re not familiar with Muppet Guys Talking, the fantastic doc features five of the original Muppet performers – Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta and Frank Oz – discussing the impact Jim Henson had on their lives and work, sharing some fantastic stories on the making of their memorable characters, and it also features some cool behind-the-scenes footage I’d never seen. If you’re a fan of The Muppets, I recommended watching it on MuppetGuysTalking.com.
Here’s what Frank Oz had to say.
Collider: When I spoke to you last year…I believe it was in the end of October, I had zero knowledge, no idea, that you were going to be involved in The Last Jedi. If you wouldn’t mind indulging me for a second, do you mind talking about The Last Jedi for a second?
FRANK OZ: Sure.
I love the movie and think Rian did such a fantastic job. When did you first find out that Rian wanted to work with you on Last Jedi. How did that come about?
FRANK OZ: Well, it was a few years ago. I was in Toronto, I think, I’m not sure. He might have been in Toronto or he might have flown up to see me, I’m not quite sure. We had lunch and he asked me if I wanted to be Yoda there and I said sure. I thought it was CGI, so I was shocked when I found out they really wanted to do the real Yoda, because that’s a huge, massive undertaking. But that’s what they did. It just began with Rian- and it made sense. You couldn’t have CGI Yoda with Mark, Luke, because Luke wouldn’t know a CGI Yoda. The only Yoda Luke knew was a puppet character.
I pretty much freaked out in the theater the first time I saw it because not only was Yoda there, but it wasn’t the CGI Yoda, it was the Yoda that I knew. It meant a lot to me.
FRANK OZ: I’m so pleased.
I think I speak for a lot of fans- the Yoda puppet meant a lot. So, because I have no idea- how involved were you in doing everything on set?
FRANK OZ: I was everything. That’s what they hired me for. They had two people, three people turn on a grate to help me. It’s a four-person character. I flew back and forth to London about three times and rehearsed for a couple weeks with them. It’s very intense rehearsal because you have four people trying to do one thing, very, very specifically. So, every single word, every single move, had to be rehearsed again and again. Therefore, we don’t take time on the set. The last time I flew over there, I rehearsed with the three guys again, and then we went and shot for a day and a half- night and a half.
I would imagine that there were a lot of people on set that wanted to see you work and see this being filmed. Did you get the vibe when you were doing it, you know how special it was to so many people? Were there extra people there watching?
FRANK OZ: Well, I didn’t pay attention because I am very, very focused. I have to get the best job I can possibly get- that’s all I care about, is the quality. But my wife was there, and she said, I guess this is true, but she said everybody was working and then when I came on the screen everybody completely stopped working. That’s kind of exciting, but I didn’t notice it because I’m too involved. But that’s a wonderful feeling, I guess. If I felt it. (laughs).
I heard when they were doing Rogue One, when Vader came to set to film the sequence towards the end of the film, that when he showed up on set to start doing that it was just silence and people, and a very large crowd. I would imagine it would be similar for you.
FRANK OZ: Those characters, all those characters, run so deep in all of us. George was so amazing about that- to create this mythology with such depth. It really effects all of us.
Completely. I want to ask you about the dialogue that Yoda says in the movie. How much is it- Rian, obviously he hands you the script, you see everything. You must have a sense of ownership on the character. How much are you looking at the dialogue and working with Rian? How much is it a collaboration and how much is it just Rian’s dialogue?
FRANK OZ: It’s mostly just Rian’s dialogue. Rian is a complete gem. We get along so great. He is so collaborative. I will come to him, like I’ve come to every single director I’ve ever worked with as a performer, and say, “Hey, I feel like this particular area doesn’t quite work, so I suggest this,” or “How about we do this?” Rian will listen, and he’ll make a judgement, and he’ll say, “Yeah, you’re right Frank,” or “No, that doesn’t work.” It’s really 85-90% Rian and his generosity allows the other 10% to be collaborative.
The last time you and Mark shot something Star Wars together on screen was 1982. It has been a very long time. What was it like standing there or working with him again after so many years? Can you talk about how it felt?
FRANK OZ: It was like an old glove. It just felt so at home, you know. Mark is a wonderful, great, great guy. People don’t realize that a great part of the reason why Yoda works, is because of Mark. It’s because if Mark doesn’t believe in that character, nobody else will. What he does there is extremely important, always has been. When we got together it was just like old times. He never changed; he is just a wonderful guy- very funny too.
One of the other things, for me, what I really like is that Rian is not really taking the status quo with Star Wars. He is expanding the mythology; he is pushing Star Wars in a new direction. Yoda has new powers that he didn’t have in the previous films. For me, I loved it. I was welcoming that stuff with open arms. For you, how do you feel about Yoda being able to do stuff in the physical world? I loved it, but some fans are not as receptive.
FRANK OZ: Yeah, there’s a whole backlash. I couldn’t understand that whole backlash. I didn’t get it. I thought it was a great piece of work. I never understood that backlash. I’m somebody that works with the script, and if the script is there and I believe the script is organic and right for the moment and the character, then that’s kind of all I think about. I don’t think about extra powers or anything, I just go with it. I just don’t consider that really.
I think it’s unfortunate because Rian has created something that is really special with the movie.
FRANK OZ: I agree 100%.