Earlier this year I got to visit the set of The Muppets when the movie was filming on location in Glendale, California. While on set I got to watch Amy Adams and Jason Segel interact with Kermit and a ton of other Muppets in an outdoor sequence involving a car. In between filming, I participated in a group interview with director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords). While Bobin was extremely busy, we spoke for about ten minutes and he told us how he got involved in the project, how The Muppets Show influenced him as a child, the challenges of working with puppets rather than humans, does the film break the fourth wall, and the difficulty of composing a shot with Segel, Adams, and Kermit the Frog. Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.
Before going any further, you should watch the brand new trailer and read the synopsis:
On vacation in Los Angeles, Walter, the world’s biggest Muppet fan, and his friends Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) from Smalltown, USA, discover the nefarious plan of oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to raze the Muppet Theater and drill for the oil recently discovered beneath the Muppets’ former stomping grounds. To stage The Greatest Muppet Telethon Ever and raise the $10 million needed to save the theater, Walter, Mary and Gary help Kermit reunite the Muppets, who have all gone their separate ways: Fozzie now performs with a Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets, Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, Animal is in a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management, and Gonzo is a high-powered plumbing magnate. With secret, signature, celebrity cameos, “The Muppets” hits the big screen Nov. 23, 2011.
James Bobin: I got an email which simply said the words: “Do you like The Muppets?” [laughs]
Who was that from?
Bobin: Probably my agent. But that was it. It said, “Do you Like The Muppets?” It was one of those questions which is like, “Well, who doesn’t like The Muppets? I obviously love The Muppets.” In England, The Muppet Show is very much seen as an English thing. So for us in the U.K. it is one of the treasures of the history of children’s TV and of comedy basically. It is like a thing that you grew up with in the same way that you grew up with Monty Python, The Goonies, or any of that sort of stuff. It defines a lot of your humor. I am a great believe that your humor is developed at a very early age and it doesn’t ever change. You’re basically the same person forever so you find the same stuff funny forever. The Muppet Show spoke to me at 5 and it speaks to me in my late 30s in the same way. So I typed back “Yes.” and here I am.
Can you talk about some of the challenges that come from working with platforms and with puppets that have people attached to them?
Bobin: How long do you have? I mean, there are numerous challenges with working with puppets rather than humans. Honestly, puppets themselves are actors effectively. The joy of puppetry is that it is very simple and low-fi, which I love. I never want to make a movie which is going to be CG filled, cold, and computerized. It Is what I like about it. Especially with this beautiful RED camera that we have, you can see Kermit’s felt and Fozzy’s fur. You can almost touch it. That is what I absolutely love about it. It is just guys doing this [does puppeteering motions] and it just feels so organic, natural, and real. So you treat them as any actor because they are doing the mouth at the same time they are doing the hands. That is the great thing and you can do that rather than having voice over or having it animated. It is very different. In terms of the shots, it is a very different game because they don’t really have legs. A lot of the times they don’t have legs so you have to worry about that. You know, “You can’t shoot below here…” because there is a guy literally doing this [does puppeteering motions]. So you are restricted to a degree on what you can shot and what you can’t shoot, and that determines how you do the scenes in a way that you would never do with humans. If you watch the earlier movies there is a really interesting grammar about how they construct shots and how they put things together. It is something that you only really learn when you do it. So one of the first things I did when I got the job was to ask for the puppets and start shooting them to see what frames they hold, what lens you can use with them, and how you can compose the shots with the puppets in a way you never would with humans. With humans you would say, “Don’t stand over there.” and that would probably work. With puppets, you can’t stand over there because you would see the guy underneath. So it is a lot of foreground stuff. The key of it is that you are not supposed to…for example, when Kermit is walking around he tends to feel at a certain height when obviously in real life Kermit is only so high. He is down here. So it about how you connect the shots together and how you pull things together so that the illusion maintains. It is just an illusion. The bottom of the frame is the sort of key to it all.
Bobin: [laughs] With great difficulty. I mean, Jason is 6 foot 3 and he walks around you guys about 2 ½ or 3 feet more. So think about him next to Kermit. It is difficult. You use perspective cheats. It is how they have always done it. People often bend down a little bit, you have seated scenes, you bring people forward, and it tends to work. I am always a great fan of keeping things on an eye level for comedy because it plays better. So I try to just level them out whenever I possibly can.
Can you talk about the music in the film? You have such a great collection of music in the film.
Bobin: We brought Paul Williams back. I admired his Muppets work and Bugsy Malone was a huge influence on me. I love his sort of things. There is nothing like it. When I was working on Flight of the Conchords, we used to spend a lot of our time watching musicals. When you work in comedy it is a frame of reference and it is just fun to watch. We used to watch The Muppet Show in our time off. So immediately when I got the job I started talking to Bret [McKenzie] and Jemaine [Clement] saying, “Are you guys around? Would you like to write some songs?” Bret was around and said, “I would love to.” So he is going to be doing some songs for us. We have other people too. Of course, we are going to spread it as wide as we can. The music is a key element. Effectively, this is a musical comedy. It really is. We are trying to keep as much that we can put into it as we can. It’s not only Muppets. Jason sings a song. Coming from comedy it has a very natural development because it felt like it came from the same place comedically and musically. It’s a thing where one isn’t better than the other one. They are both pretty important.
Bobin: Inevitably in any work you do I think that there is a sense of continuity, and I like that. I think going from Conchords to Muppets is a natural step. So I wanted to take something from that to this. So I think if you look at the two and how they are shot and how they feel – they have a big sense of that. We try to keep a very contemporary style in terms of the dialogue and scenes, but when we go into music videos we have flights of fancy. I hope it feels similar. I loved doing that and I like the idea of using music video grammar from the past and people will recognize certain moments from music videos or movies. The Muppets are very referential and they have a great history of referencing other things, times, and the past. They really live in the history of entertainment. I think one of the great bits of The Muppet show is that it was set in a 19th century British theater and they live so nicely amongst that lovely old theater. One of the great things about this movie was getting to build that theater again in a huge stage in Universal. One of the best days of my life was walking into that theater and seeing what Kermit sees. You know when you see that classic shot of Kermit at his desk and all of these sort of people walking behind him? You never ever saw what he saw. We built that so you can see what Kermit sees. It is amazing. It is really cool.
Does the film break the fourth wall?
Bobin: Constantly. As I said, you are a product of what you watch as a kid largely. I always liked that sort of stuff anyway. I think the great thing about the fourth wall breaking stuff is that it going to go away and come back. It is very gentle and nice humor, which is kind of The Muppets anyway. It’s not swearing, mean hearted, or mean spirited. It is very gentle, funny, and stupid. The Muppets have always been doing that and it happens now that that is what we like doing too. It is filled with that sort of stuff. If you like the fourth wall breaking jokes then you will not be disappointed in this movie.
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