While many of you know Nicholas Stoller because he directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek, he’s also a screenwriter. If you look over his IMDb profile, you’ll see he wrote a few episodes of Undeclared, and contributed to the screenplays of Fun with Dick and Jane, Yes Man, Get Him to the Greek, Gulliver’s Travels, and, most recently, The Muppets. With Stoller being a lifelong fan of The Muppets and since he’d been working on the script with Jason Segel for years, when I got to speak with him on the set earlier this year, you could hear his excitement when talking about the project.
During the interview, he talked about what it’s like to be on set and watch Kermit deliver his dialogue, how much did the original show shaped the movie, the cameos, which Muppets did he want to make sure got in the movie, the differences between writing and directing, and a lot 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.
Question: You’ve been working on this with Jason for awhile. What’s it like for you… the fact that it is filming right now?
Nicholas Stoller: It’s awkward, because I have to be a little bit quiet, because I don’t want them to overhear…No, it’s incredible. We’ve worked on this for about two years. I always go into, especially writing stuff, assuming it’s not going to happen because it’s so hard to get projects going. We were both such huge fans, obviously, of the Muppets. They were like the first kind of…I call them the gateway drug to comedy, because it’s like the first thing that you see that you’re like, “I have to do comedy.” So the fact that the first time I wrote Kermit, I couldn’t believe I was getting to write his dialogue. And when they actually green-lit it, it was really a dream come true.
Did any of your dialogue for that original script make it to the final draft?
Nicholas: I think so. We really very quickly…Jason called me…I’m sure he told you guys this story about he had a general meeting with Disney. They asked him what they had that he might be interested in. He said Muppets. Then he called me, and within a few days we kinda mapped out a huge chunk of the story. A lot of the script has changed; we’ve done a lot of drafts since then, but the very central idea of the movie has remained the same.
Did you go back to the original films, the show? Did you get any ideas off of those? And also, the tone of the original films there’s a lot of them acknowledging that they are in a movie. Is that the tone you wanted to bring to this as well?
Nicholas: Yeah, we wanted to do a complete return to those first movies and to The Muppet Show. I mean it’s why I’m drinking a Tab; it’s of the era. So yeah, that was definitely our goal. From the beginning we wanted to have that tone. When you watch The Muppet Movie, it hasn’t aged at all. It could have been made yesterday. It feels like an episode of The Simpsons in a weird way, without any cynicism. I would say that’s the only difference. It’s pretty amazing. Most things from 1980 feel like they’re from 1980. [laughs] It just doesn’t. It feels really present. So we really wanted to do that and be really self-referential. But also have that heart and that sweetness that those original movies had.
Were there a lot of changes to scenes because of logistics?
Nicholas: A lot of that, James really overly dealt with a ton of tactical stuff since he’s directing. There was some stuff, like budgeting, early, we realized…because we wrote it without knowing how they do it. So there was some stuff, like we have them in the Rolls Royce that Kermit drives, drive into the ocean and drive out in France. That turned out to be expensive. [laughs] So there were things like that that we ended up changing. And then there were rules we didn’t know. With the original draft of the script, Walter, the friend puppet of Jason’s character, they do a ventriloquism show and he pretends to be a puppet, and then they find out that he’s actually real. You don’t refer to them as puppets in the Muppet world. They’re just people. They don’t think they’re puppets. They don’t look like puppets. So that was a big…all the puppeteers who have been with the property for every kind of taught us all that stuff. It’s why the whole universe works.
Nicholas: No. I haven’t operated any puppets yet. But maybe I’ll see if I can sneak in and get them in.
When writing the script, did you guys write in a lot of the cameos? Or did you just have to kind of wait and see?
Nicholas: We wrote in cameos and hoped we’d get them, but they were also kind of placeholders. With any kind of cameo casting, because I’ve done some of it on Get Him to the Greek and Sarah Marshall, you write them in hoping you’ll get them, and then it’s a long process of scrambling to get them.
Did you get Don Rickles?
Nicholas: I don’t know. I’m not sure.
Are you making a cameo in the background?
Nicholas: Me? No. I’m not. I don’t do that.
Nicholas: We tried to get various people. I don’t want to mention names because I don’t want to…But we tried to get people from the past movies. I actually don’t think anyone ended up working out. But it’s kinda fine. Those actors weren’t really into the movie. Like Steven Martin was the first. But we did have some people who were…so many comedians were on the show, obviously. Like, Billy Crystal’s in it. He did scenes on Muppets before.
Do you have anything for the Star Wars special?
Nicholas: Star Wars special? No, we don’t have anything…that thing is crazy. That is amazing. That’s like one of the best pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen.
Who do you go to for advice, as far as dialogue and certain Muppets, what they would say…
Nicholas: That is just being a fan, I think. Certainly the puppeteers will tell us if something is clearly not the character. But for the most part, just being a fan of the show and the movies, we kind of knew how to write the characters. There was some stuff of making sure our original drafts, Kermit and Fozzie may have been a little bit too mean, and they’re never mean in any way. So there was stuff like that that we kinda refined.
Nicholas: Yeah. There is kind of that core. It includes those like Swedish Chef. I love the rat, so we had to put Rizzo the rat in there. James Bobin had some… he knows more…I would say I love the Muppets and know a lot about the Muppets. Jason is like a fanatic. And then James Bobin knows more about the Muppets, putting aside the puppeteers. So he had some obscure Muppets. This Muppet named Uncle Deadly is in it. And then Crazy Harry…and there are a few Muppets like that that I remembered, but he was like, “We’ve got to have Crazy Harry”. So yeah, he kind of really knows it. Bobo the Bear we have in there… I think probably the hardest to write for is Ralph, because he’s kinda just cool. He’s never going for a joke, really. He’s like jazz. How do you write jazz?
Is Electric Mayhem involved?
Nicholas: They are. They are heavily involved.
What’s it like being on set?
Nicholas: We worked on the script for so long that they don’t need much stuff. What they often do is they’ll call me and ask for jokes or little scene changes. It’s easier for me to just do that at home. I’m also in the midst of prepping my next movie, so I can’t really be here as much. But I am here just to experience it just because it’s so cool.
Can you talk about where Five Year Engagement is at right now? What did you learn from previous films that you are applying to it?
Nicholas: It’s a romantic comedy, hard on the comedy, R-rated. Jason Segel, Emily Blount. Kind of a couple; that couple that just can’t get their shit together. A little bit more like Sarah Marshall than Get Him to the Greek. But it’s a romantic comedy, which is my personal favorite genre. When it works it’s so much more fun. I don’t know. It seems like each movie presents new challenges I don’t really know about. I’ve learned coverage; I know how to do coverage.
Can you talk a little about writing vs. directing?
Nicholas: Writing is solitary, but, obviously, movie making is so collaborative. With Jason, I love writing with Jason. I’m writing Five Year Engagement with him because we really have the same kind of comedy ideas, like we come at stuff the same way. He’ll start a punch line and I’ll finish it. We share kind of a brain in a weird way when it comes to writing. And I can’t speak to other genres. I think suspense, drama, that kind of thing might benefit from single writers. But I think that with comedy, the more collaboration you have, with a strong voice…like James Bobin on this is a very strong voice, but the more collaboration, the funnier it gets, the more jokes you get, the more where the puppeteers can improv; you’re always going to get funny stuff. But usually, in terms of process, we’ll pitch out the outline, rework it, rework it, and then Jason and I kind of split it up and write different scenes, and then we’ll trade scenes and rewrite the scenes. And we use iChat, which I highly recommend. It’s like one of those weird secret map codes.
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