With Muppets Most Wanted now in theaters, I recently landed an exclusive interview with director James Bobin. In the sequel, the gang is on a successful tour in Europe but gets into trouble when Kermit gets mistaken for his jewel-heisting doppelganger, Constantine. The film stars Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell and features a ton of celebrity cameos. For more on the film, watch 20 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, or check out all our previous coverage which features TV spots, clips, interviews, and more.
In my interview with Bobin he talked about how the sequel came together, if there was any hesitation about taking the job, if the story changed a lot during the writing process, deleted scenes, the cast, what’s going on with Alice in Wonderland 2 and the story, and a lot more. Hit the jump for our James Bobin interview.
Collider: Obviously the first film was a big hit right from the get-go, how early on did they say to you that they wanted to do a sequel and was there any hesitation on your part about taking the job?
JAMES BOBIN: No hesitation at all, because it’s that thing when you’re making something you cannot help but think what happens next, always. In your mind you’re always thinking “What’s the next thing?” to a degree. So even when I was- I guess not on set, but certainly in post on the last movie I was thinking about what this next movie could be about. And it’s that thing whereby it felt to me like a good way of thinking about it would be to put the question out there at the very beginning, have the Muppets have the same questions I have like, “What do we do now? What happens?” So the beginning of the movie is literally that idea where the movie starts seconds after the last one and they say, “What are we going to do now?” And then they answer that with a song called “We’re doing a Sequel” in which the idea of the film is put forward. I love the idea of being so open about the idea of how sequels work. You could talk about sequels, you could put up the idea of how sequels have worked in the past, and what people’s expectations are about sequels, and the history of sequels and use that as an idea for a song. It kind of answers the elephant in the room to a degree about sequels, but at the same time it sets the idea of the film up that this is what its going to be. In fact Gervais suggests the plot for the movie. He says, “How about a world tour?” And they go, “Okay, fine.” So that first five minutes is sort of like a weird prequel, it’s own movie, it sets it up and then the movie starts in the restaurant.
When did Disney or Todd or someone involved call you and say they really wanted a sequel?
BOBIN: Oh, pretty early. I think we were possibly talking about it before the last one came out- I think, possibly. I can’t remember for sure. It certainly was around that time, because by the time I was doing European press- the last one came out in two stages, one over here in the US Thanksgiving 2011 and then UK February 2012, so in that period I was already talking about it. By the time I was doing press for it in London I was already thinking about writing it with Nick, talking about writing it. So I never kind of got out of the universe. I was doing press talking about the first movie and already sending emails about what the second one would be about. I never got out of that mindset. I was in it for a long time. So I’ve been in now nearly four years non-stop [laughs], which great and I love it.
BOBIN: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah.
I’m curious, when you guys were coming up with the idea for the sequel was there any sort of big idea or big story that you came really close to moving forward on that you were like, “Oh, yeah, that’s not going to work”?
BOBIN: [Laughs] That’s a funny question. You know what it’s like, you throw out all sorts of ideas and generally what you end up with is an amalgam of a few of them. This idea, this movie is kind of the idea that I love movies about big diamonds and I also wanted to show the Muppets doing their thing on stage. So it’s like, why not have a world tour where the bad guy takes over the thing and they steal something important? That kind of thing. Yeah, there’s all sorts of things you talk about.
I meant more about actually writing, like you’re in the writing process.
BOBIN: Oh, I see, but by that stage, by the time you’re in a room sitting down together, you’re pretty sure what you’re going to do. The initial ideas about what the films going to be about as a whole is a much more general- producers, studio, everyone’s in the room just throwing ideas around, so at that stage there’s all sorts of crazy ideas, who knows. I mean, Piggy and Kermit get married and Piggy’s family turn up and there’s some sort of problem, or Kermit’s stag weekend, who knows? [laughs] there’s lots of different ideas you can do like that. So there’s lots of different roads you go down initially, and then you bring it back, and then you end up with the purity of the simplest idea often works best. Like- what if there’s an evil Kermit? And what if there’s a world tour and he gets replaced and no one noticed? Just these funny comedy premises, and it just means you can build a central narrative engine to drive the story forward, which is really one of the most important things about the movie. So that, to me, once we had those pieces in place everything else kind of fell into place actually.
BOBIN: Where did you see it?
The Disney lot on Friday night. I was having the- I love being in the theater watching the movie, but the kids were losing their minds. The kids loved it.
BOBIN: Good, good.
I was talking to people the next day at the junket and they were all telling me that their kids, the thing that they kept on talking about, and they were between 5-9, was the mole on Kermit and Constantine. I guess the kids were losing their minds, they loved it. It’s just such a simple thing, but you forget as a kid-
BOBIN: [Laughs] Yeah, those things matter. No totally, and movie tropes are tropes for a reason, because they’ve worked in the past, but often kids aren’t aware of them and so they’re enjoying it for the first time. I love that about it. It’s really fun. Simple ideas work really well for children, and I have kids so I am aware of the idea that there are things that they just latch onto and that’s the thing about the movie they really remember. So the mole, I’m not at all surprised that’s the thing they remember. That’s really fun.
I usually ask this question of filmmakers and I’m not sure how you’re answer is going to be, how long was your assembly cut on the movie?
BOBIN: [Laughs] It was- because Muppets, as you know, it’s technically quite complicated to shoot them, so we don’t have a lot of spare material. What we do have is a long script. We have a lot of stuff that you’ll see on the DVD of just things we couldn’t work out. I believe the first cut of this was probably around two and a half hours, so it’s not massive, we got it down to two at the end.
That’s still thirty minutes of Muppet stuff.
BOBIN: Yeah, but the DVD has twenty minutes of extras, so you’ll see most of it. So yeah, you know what it’s like, there’s bits and pieces and ideas that just don’t work out, and things that seem important at the time but in the running of things don’t seem to work out. Just how it is naturally with any movie. Often it’s all about pacing, you think “Okay, you could get on with it right here.” So things fall on the floor even though they’re as good sometimes as things that end up in the movie, they don’t work because of where they are in the movie and that’s it. You try to save it but you can’t.
I’m curious about what props or little things you’ve managed to borrow from set that will not be getting returned?
BOBIN: [Laughs] From the first movie I have my favorite thing, which is the light box on Kermit’s desk when he flicks the lights on the stage, I have that in my office. That’s my favorite thing ever. It’s beautiful, like it’s a beautiful antique and the actual lights to tell you the lights on and off do work. So you plug it in and turn it on and off. That’s my favorite thing. This one I don’t have anything. What I want is the car, of course, the Maxmimum. That’s what I want to have at some point, but it’s apparently doing some sort of tour. [Laughs] So I’ll see about that in about a year’s time.
Did you ask them, though?
BOBIN: I said, “At some point, if a Maxmimum comes back at any point I’d like to have that please, thank you very much” Just for my garden, I’ll put the Maximum out there and have my kid play with it. It’s a really fun thing. When you’re playing with it- we obviously designed it to be the smallest possible car, literally a possible car. When you get in it, it’s really fun. It’s a fun thing to drive around. He had a lot of fun thing driving that thing, it was hard to get him out of it, [laughs] he loved driving it.
BOBIN: Thank you, she was- I mean, look the character Nadya is this kind of hard nut with a soft center, Tina’s perfect for that in so many ways. Also I knew I wanted this to be more of a comedy. This movie, I was very aware that I didn’t want to make the same movie twice. I love the first movie deeply and I love the way it brought the family together and it was very emotionally strong and I wanted to keep part of that, but this movie felt to me like it was going to be more at its heart, because it’s a caper, would be a comedy. So I wanted to have comedians play the roles. So I have Ty and Tina and Ricky, three of the greatest comedians in the world, really a dream team of comedy people, you know what I mean? She was an obvious choice and I was thrilled when she would do it, but you kind of sometimes sense people, whether they’re going to work or not because you watch what they do and their performances elsewhere, like on 30 Rock or wherever, and you knew that she has a great- and she has kids that also helps.
That really helps.
BOBIN: So I was hopeful that she might do it and I knew that she- again then there’s that comedy thing when you write something you get a sense of what the person’s going to respond to. Certainly writing Dominic for Ricky we had a sense that he would like this character. So with Nadya, I thought she would read it and like it. I thought she might do it anyway because it’s The Muppets, but I thought once she read it she’d definitely do it, and sure enough she did, which is great.
I’m a fan of your work and I was definitely curious what you were going to do next, and it definitely surprised me when I heard Alice in Wonderland sequel. So was that something that the studio came to you on or was that something that they were taking meetings on and you were like, “I have a take on this”?
BOBIN: It was both of those things. The thing about me is that my secret passion is history. My films have a lot of historical context. I’m a huge fan of ruins, you’ll see a lot of ruin work in my movies. I like ruins, they’re my specialty. I love ruins, its one of my favorite things. Any kind of movie ruin is my best thing. So the idea of doing a movie which is not only historical, but also fantastical, like a fantasy world, I just couldn’t pass it up. It was one of those things I really wanted to do. I’m also a huge fan of Lewis Carroll, in England he’s this incredibly influential, basically comedy writer. Lewis Carroll is known as this fantasy guy, but if you read the book as an allegory of the world or satire of the world and how it works in those days, you can trace Lewis Carroll to to Monty Python, they’re part of the same family to me. So it felt to me like it was something that I would find interesting. That’s all I ask of my work, that it’s interesting to me, because I do it, as you know, to a very deep level so you spend a lot of time doing this stuff. You have to love the material and I love Lewis Carroll, so I’m really fascinated about doing it.
I’m definitely curious, is this definitely green lit as in terms of this is the project you’re definitely doing next or is it still being put together?
BOBIN: It’s being put together, but yeah I’m planning to do it next, yes.
One of the strengths of the first film was the production design, the world looked great.
BOBIN: Yes, very important.
BOBIN: Robert Stromberg.
Yes, did you manage to get him back?
BOBIN: No, he’s not directing as you may know, he’s directing Maleficent so he does other things now. But I’ve hired Dan Hennah, who did The Hobbit. The Hobbit 2 in particular was beautiful and Laketown in particular impressed me. This one is in a slightly different- it’s in Underland, but it’s in different parts of Underland so it has slightly more human worlds. I can’t really talk about it very much, but I certainly knew that the work he showed me on The Hobbit was so spectacularly good he’d be perfect for this.
Becase the world is-
BOBIN: Yeah, it’s the key. The movie is not really an action movie, the movie is a movie where you want to create a world where you’re happy to spend an hour and a half, two hours of your life. You want to be there and think “What’s around that corner? I love being in this place,” and that’s what I felt about the first movie. I liked being in Underland. I love that idea that we’re going to create that world again, a place where you’re happy to spend time. I love that idea.
One of the things people love about movies is being able to transport to another place, I’m definitely curious if you’ve thought about that in terms of IMAX, shooting in 3D, ways of bring the world-
BOBIN: Yeah, all very important part of the Alice experience and also when you bring that world together in 3D—Alice is in a Victorian fantasy land and nowhere suits me any better than that. There’s no limits to your ideas and what you can do, but at that same time you have this great palate of Victoriana to use to create a fantastical world and that is, to me, really fun. Just because, I did history at University, my wife is a historian, I read history all the time; history is my thing. So for me, it’s such an opportunity to try and recreate a world I love from the past in an interesting way.