As the star, co-screenwriter and an executive producer on The Muppets, it’s safe to say Jason Segel has a lot invested in the project. Thankfully, when I got to visit the set earlier this year, everything I saw and learned tells me The Muppets is going to be a great movie and something entire families are going to be able to enjoy together.
While on set, I got to participate in a group interview with Segel between takes. He talked about the challenges of acting opposite puppets, designing the newest Muppet (Walter), how the script changed during the many years it took to get the film made, why they cast Amy Adams, were there any lesser-known Muppets he tried to get in the movie, what was it like to balance How I Met Your Mother with filming The Muppets, and so much more. 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.
Jason Segel: We’re bringing out a lot of Muppets from the archives. A lot of the guys from the old Muppet Show, some of the kind of obscure performances make appearances, which I’m really excited about. I can’t give too many away, but yeah, there’s some old favorites of mine. Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphones appear. I don’t know if you know who they are, but there’s some really cool weird ones.
It seems like the older Muppet films were more geared towards adults, where the newer ones are focused more for children. Can you talk about how this film places in the series?
Jason: We’re trying to hearken back to the original three Muppet movies—The Muppet Movie, Muppets Take Manhattan, and The Great Muppet Caper. I think that one of the things the original Muppet movies did amazingly well, and it’s what Pixar does really well now, is that they don’t condescend to children by feeling like they have to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator. And when you don’t do that, you get a family film in its truest sense. And entire family can sit and watch and enjoy it. The worst equivalent is Barney the dinosaur, where parents are having to sit there while their kids watch this, and the parents want to blow their brains out. This, I think, is going to be the exact opposite. I think parents are going to be laughing as hard as kids are going to be laughing. We have jokes geared towards children. We have jokes that are geared specifically towards adults that would go right over a kid’s head. It’s a lot like what The Simpsons does, as well. There’s something very special about the whole family being able to sit down and enjoy something together. That was our goal.
Jason: We knew it was going to be musical from the start. All the great Muppet movies are musicals. When you look back at the great lineage of Muppet music, things like Rainbow Connection, that’s not a joke of a song. That is a serious song. If a legitimate musician put that song out they’d win the Grammy. So we really wanted the music to be great. James Bobin was the perfect choice for this movie because he’s been doing Flight of the Concords and it almost seems like he’s been training for this. Then we brought on Brett. It was just a perfect union of their styles and the Muppet styles. So I think we’re in really good shape.
Is there a lot of jokes referencing that The Muppets are in a movie?
Jason: Yeah, there’s some self-aware humor. In the original script there’s a lot more. We realized you only need a few of those moments to get that joke. But yeah, we’ve got all of the original style of Muppet humor. James is a great student of comedy and of the Muppets. And Nick and I were tremendous fans. So we just tried to pay homage to some of that amazing work.
Is there a period of adjustment getting your sense of humor and the Muppet team together, finding a balance?
Jason: No. I think maybe there was a moment of weariness that I was doing this with a sense of irony, that there was a wink, wink about it. “Oh, cute, R rated Jason Siegel is now going to do the Muppets and make fun of it.” I think as soon as everyone arrived on set and saw that wasn’t the case, that this was coming from a very genuine place, we were all on the same team very, very quickly.
We all share a love of the Muppets, certainly, but also a love of comedy. It’s funny. It’s really easy to dismiss…part of the illusion of the puppetry is that you don’t see the puppeteer. So you forget that these are amazingly talented people that are not only puppeteers, but they’re actors, and they’re singers, and they’re great comedians in their own right. So it’s been an honor to work with this group.
Jason: There is, surprisingly. I did not expect that for a minute. But some of the best lines…I mean these guys know the characters so much better than I could ever hope to. I can imagine what I think the character might say, but these guys have been playing them for 10, sometimes 20, 30 years. I wish you guys were over there so you could see how a kid reacts to those puppets. It’s one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen. The puppeteer just instantly disappears. You watch a child…you can see the guy standing there with a puppet on his hand and he’s talking, and the kid is looking directly at the puppet. Every time it happens it reminds me of why I wanted to do the movie. It’s a truly beautiful thing.
Is it a challenge to act opposite puppets?
Jason: It didn’t take long before you’re looking right at the Puppet. I have a bit of a challenge as the puppeteers need monitors so they can see what’s going on, because puppets don’t have working eyes; they’re puppets. So they’re working off of monitors. But a lot of times we can see the monitor, so we can watch ourselves act. My acting is mesmerizing…[laughter] So a lot of times I find myself just watching myself act when I should not be doing that.
Have you actually worked the puppets?
Jason: Yeah, I just operated Fozzie about a minute ago. I’ve done Fozzie, I’ve done Dr. Teeth, and I’ve done Beaker so far. It’s been amazing. That is what knocks your socks off. This is going to sound different than how I mean it, but my hand is inside Fozzie…That’s amazing! I never thought that would happen!
Jason: I really want a lot of stuff that I see around here. They’re very protective, certainly, over the puppets. But I’ve gotten a few bits of paraphernalia that I’ll save and treasure forever, and some really special photographs. It’s like me with Kermit shooting the breeze. That’s the greatest picture I’ve ever seen. I love it.
Who created Walter?
Jason: Well, Nick Stoller and I did. We wrote the script together. He’s my writing partner. We invented Walter.
How long did the design process take?
Jason: We did not get to design him physically, because then they would owe us a lot of money. So we came up with him on paper, and then they were very clear that we could not be involved in any aspect of the physical design of Walter. But it is pretty crazy when I saw him and I knew that he was born in our brain. It’s like Nick and I had a little baby with our brains! It’s pretty crazy.
I talked to you about this way back on Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I’m curious how the scripting process has changed since then.
Jason: The concept has stayed the same. Some of the particulars have changed based on finding out more about the Muppets. In the original script, to be honest…I think it’s fine to talk about this. I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. In the original script, I was a ventriloquist and Walter was my puppet. But one of the things that you find out is that you really don’t want to cross the line into mentioning puppet. It becomes very, very complicated, because the Muppets are not puppets. The Muppets are living creates in this world.
So as soon as I realized that that made things really complicated to have a puppet versus the Muppets—one thing is a puppet, these things are not puppets—it became complicated. So we cut that aspect of the story, and it actually really simplified the story. So that was one of the things I found out just from working with these guys.
Jason: I’m not nervous about Walter one bit. Walter is the sweetest little guy you’ll ever meet. He’s like a very young Kermit. He’s naïve and he’s sweet. Walter’s thing is that he has never met anyone like him. Like I said, you don’t use the word “puppet”, but he’s my best friend. We grew up in Smalltown USA; that’s literally the name of the town. He’s never seen anything else like him except for the Muppets on television. So his dream is to go meet the Muppets and kind of maybe have a family. So it really does have tones of a young Kermit.
But there’s other new Muppets, too, isn’t there?
Jason: Oh yeah, there’s some other new Muppets, some villainous characters. They’re not specifically Muppets. They’re not very nice, so they’re not Muppets. But yeah, they’re adorable. I love them. They’re another great creation. I can’t give too much away about them, but they’re really cool.
You seem like you’re a big fan of the Muppets. Can you talk a little bit about using this film with references to other films?
Jason: We have some mention of the standard Rich and Famous contract from the original Muppet movie. We have a lot of things like that in there. To me, I just really wanted to pay homage to those movies that meant so much to me growing up. I wanted the experience, like we talked about, where parents…Our generation of kids, we’ll remember those great movies, those great moments. And then also being able to have our age introduce our kids to the Muppets. So yeah, that was my goal.
Jason: I wrote it for her. She was in my mind from the beginning. Every since I saw Enchanted…[ audio cuts out]. First of all, she’s the best actress alive. To go from Enchanted to Doubt and a fighter, I mean this woman can do anything. But she’s able to do this wide-eyed naivety that is not part of her personality in real life. She’s one of the most smart, on top of it women I’ve ever met. But she can do this kind of thing that was really…my character, her character, and Walter are true innocence. She’s able to do that. She channels it through her eyes, and she can sing. She is totally game. She’s up for it. She also really gets the joke. So she was just the perfect choice right from the start. I don’t know what I would have done if we hadn’t gotten her.
Can you talk about doing the movie and the TV show at the same time?
Jason: It’s been tricky. I’m doing seven day weeks; I mean true seven day weeks. My hard day is doing Tuesday to Wednesday. I do Tuesday daytime on the TV show, come here and do Tuesday night night shoot, and then go immediately back to the TV show to do Wednesday day. So it is a 36 hour day.
You’re not sleeping at all?
Jason: I sleep in my trailer or when they drive me to set. I usually get back to the TV show at 7 and they start at 8, so I get a quick little naparoo. But it’s my dream come true, so you can’t complain about it. It’s what I had to do to get the movie made. And it’s really tough to be in a bad mood around Kermit, as silly as that sounds. I show up here as tired as I might be and they bring out Kermit going, [in Kermit voice], “Hi-ho!” “Aw, all right. I’ll smile.” It’s just great.
And the TV show is a pleasure to be on. We’ve been doing it for six years now. We’ve got it kinda down to a science. They’ve been, first of all, incredibly kind just to make the schedule work, because they’ve shot me out of a day of filming every week. My cast has been very patient about it. Everyone’s working hard.
They knew that it was my dream. When I told them I was selling this three years ago, I think all of us thought, “Oh, awesome.” But we knew it would be an uphill battle to get it made. And then once they said they were going to make it, everyone in my life was like, “All right, whatever you need, let’s get this thing made.” I’ve had puppets and Muppet figurines in my house or my bedroom since I was a kid.
Jason: Meeting Kermit for the first time was pretty crazy. We did a photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly where it was the first time they arranged all the puppets. They did something called armature them so that they were all in a pose. I was sitting at this table and I looked around and it was every single one of them. It was like 20 puppets. I think what struck me is…I’m not an arrogant dude. To be even like the tiniest footnote in the Muppet lineage is nuts to me. That is insane. So I feel very honored.
Did you have a favorite episode?
Jason: Peter Sellers’ episode just slaughters me. It’s so weird. [laughter] No, it truly is. It’s exactly why I love the Muppets. Scooter comes in at the beginning of every episode and he’s like, “Five minutes to curtain, Mr. Sellers!” And then Peter Sellers is like, “What should I do when I get out there?” He’s like, “Well, all you have to do is be yourself!” “There is no Peter Sellers. I lost Peter Sellers some time ago. All I know how to do is inhabit a character.” He goes on for like five minutes. It’s like a dude having an existential crisis.[laughter] And then he sings a song called “Whiskey, Wine, and Wild Women”. So it’s why I love the Muppets. The kids are just thinking, “Oh, cute! Fun!” Like a guy singing a song with puppets. Puppets are like watching Peter Sellers sing “Whiskey, Wine, and Wild Women”. That’s exactly my point. It’s working on every level. It’s firing on all cylinders.
I know you have a lot of contemporary stars with cameos and stuff. Are there any classic Muppet stars that make a cameo?
Jason: I’m not allowed to talk about a lot of them, but we’ve got some great cameos. Mickey Rooney kinda harkens back to that, Alan Arkin. We’ve got some really great cameos in there.
Jason: I got a lot of calls, especially my contemporaries who have kids all wanted to be a part of it for their kids, and the idea of bringing their kids to meet the Muppets, or even to be able to show them the movie eventually. People love the Muppets. There’s a lot of Muppet love out there.
Did you write any of the songs? Could you also address those songs for adults and kids?
Jason: Bret McKenzie wrote most of the songs. And then we have a couple reprises of some of the old Muppet songs. I wrote one of the songs, but it’s a jokier song. Brett really just took the songs and ran with them. They’re awesome; really, really gorgeous.
Yeah, they’re catchy so kids will be bopping along, but some of the lyrics are definitely adult-based. Part of the movie is Kermit trying to come to terms with the fact that the Muppets aren’t together anymore. There’s a beautiful song that Kermit sings that is truly heartbreaking.
Can you tell us what some of the Muppets are doing when you find them in the film?
Jason: I don’t want to give too much away. But we’ve got them in various states of success or disarray. Some are famous. Some are…destitute is the wrong word; you are not going to see any destitute Muppets. [laughter] But some aren’t doing what they wish they were doing. So everyone is doing their own thing and it’s a bit of a struggle for all of them to come back and become The Muppet Show again.
Is there anything left you would like to do?
Jason: I’d like to be President of The United States. [laughs] No, I’d like to play the villain in a superhero movie. I think I’d be really good at it. I’m like 20% creepy. [laughter] No, I really am. I have 20% creepy. I exclude it from this movie. But look, when you watch Sarah Marshall, the Dracula musical is funny, but it’s 20% creepy. So I really want to play a villain in a superhero movie.
Jason: Yeah, but I didn’t get to do my creepy face. I do a really good creepy face.
What was more impressive, Kermit or Julie Andrews? Your first meeting?
Jason: I must say it was Kermit. I can’t say honestly that Julie Andrews was one of my childhood idols. [laughs] I mean she was awesome, but Kermit truly formed my sense of comedy. I’ve said this before ad naseum, but when you’re a kid, Kermit is Tom Hanks. He’s Tom Hanks for kids or Jimmy Stewart for kids. He’s truly the every man.
I think even as a kid wanting to be an actor, I thought that’s what I want to do. That’s who I want to be. He’s so nice and sweet and he’s running the show, and everybody loves him. That was it.
Can you talk about the challenges of working seven day weeks with also thinking about other things?
Jason: Well, Nick, we write in my trailer a lot. We start filming Five Year Engagement as soon as this ends, which we also wrote; Nick’s directing. It’s hard. But I spent 21-25 totally out of work. So now that I have a chance to do stuff, there’s a part of me that feels like I’m not letting this opportunity pass by. Because you see it go away very quickly. And it’s very fickle.
And I like writing. I genuinely do. I get tired and all that stuff, but when you think about it…It’s like the movie Alien when the aliens get to burst out of your chest. When I get an idea, it’s kinda hard not to do something because it feels like the alien is going to burst out of my chest. I’m not good at setting it to the side and say, “I’ll get to this eventually.” I want to start writing it, even if it means staying up all night, which is basically what’s happening at this point. But I don’t know. I’m a pretty lucky dude. It’s tough to complain. I mean look, there’s like a million Muppets over there. It’s crazy. I mean it’s really insane. I bought a house. [laughs] What do I have to complain about? A little lack of sleep? That’s all right.
Jason: No, I’ve gotta save it! Plus, it doesn’t translate well to the written word. If this was being filmed I would do it. [laughs]
Just for our own entertainment.
Jason: [laughs] No, no. You gotta buy a ticket for that.
Can you talk about incorporating Jim Henson Studios into the actual film?
Jason: That was something I wanted to do. The idea was born at the Jim Henson Studios. They designed the Sarah Marshall puppets. While I was there I asked if I could see a Kermit or a Miss Piggy and they said, “We don’t have them here anymore. We’ve sold them to Disney. Disney owns all the Kermit’s and Piggy’s.” That literally was the moment the idea was born, was that the Muppets weren’t at the Henson studios anymore. Then it grew from there. And Nick Stoller, I must say, is a tremendous writing partner. He came up with a huge amount of the idea. And James Bobin, when he signed on, really refined the script. We’re a good triumvirate; not since the days of Rome. [laughter] Thank you guys! It’s good to see you again. You’re always all so nice.
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