IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Muppets'

Tuesday, 22 November 2011 13:14 Written by  Jordan DeSaulnier
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IAR Press Conference Coverage: 'The Muppets'

In a now ancient but in no way diminished episode of The Simpsons, Lisa asks Homer, "Dad, what's a Muppet?"  To which her father replies, "Well, it's not quite a mop, and not quite a puppet, but man," and laughs with a satisfied chuckle before adding, "To answer your question: I don't know."  Aside from being a typically quotable moment of vintage Simpsons, this exchange actually gets to the essence of The Muppets.  Intellectually, we know that Jim Henson's creations are simply felt puppets, yet they're imbued with such character and life that we wholly believe them as living organisms with heart and soul.

The last decade has been perhaps the most fallow period for The Muppets since before they first scored their regular television series in 1976 with The Muppet Show.  They've made appearances here and there in TV specials and whatnot, but Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the ensemble have been absent from movie screens since 1999's Muppets from Space, which was itself a far cry from their cinematic streak that consisted of The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan from 1979-1984. 

This Wednesday, however, The Muppets triumphantly return to a theater near you in the appropriately-titled The Muppets.  Over the last several months, with the full power of Disney behind them, The Muppets have returned to their previous place of pop-cultural ubiquity, and anticipation for the film is huge amongst seemingly every demographic, thanks to their nigh-universal appeal.  At the Los Angeles press day for The Muppets director James Bobin, co-writers Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller (who also stars) were present and accounted for, along with Amy Adams and, of course, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and Walter, the newest addition to The Muppet cadre.  IAR Managing Editor Jami Philbrick was on hand to record their thoughts on the film, their history, and the challenges of bringing back The Muppets.

Disney has owned the rights to The Muppets since 2004, but were not actively pursuing a new movie adventure until 2008.  That's when Forgetting Sarah Marshall, an R rated comedy with an extended puppet climax, became a hit with both critics and audiences.  The film's writer and star, Jason Segel, is an avowed Muppet fan, even singing the theme song to The Muppet Show in the movie, and to write The Muppets, he teamed up with Nicholas Stoller, who directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek.

"Well, it was basically around when Sarah Marshall came out," Stoller explained of the new Muppet movie's origin. "Jason Segel had a meeting at Disney and they were talking about what properties he was into. And he said, 'The Muppets.' And he called me and we very quickly wondered – was actually like the first question – is where have the Muppets been? Where have they been? And it seemed like a great opportunity to do that kind of a comeback movie. From there it very quickly developed into like what happens? What makes a group break up? What are the kind of bitter sweet things that happen when a group breaks up, a group of friends or in this case the group of Muppets? And it’s kind of all stemmed from that, you know, that kind of idea."

The film's story follow directly from that notion.  It takes place in a more jaded modern world that has largely moved on from The Muppets.  When small-town couple Mary and Gary, along with Gary's Muppet brother Walter, visit Los Angeles for the first time, they discover that the now-disused Muppet Theater is under threat from an oil baron intent on razing the theater to get at the black gold beneath it.  In order to save the storied theater, Gary, Mary, and Walter must reunite the Muppets and put on a proper show, earning enough money to save their old home. 

Segel said that this take made perfect sense for the characters and their story.  "Well, coming up with the idea of the movie was actually fairly simple," he related. "What do the Muppets do best? They put on a show. So I knew ultimately the movie was going to be about putting on a show. That’s the real spirit of the Muppets. They always had a great villain. So we thought of Tex Richman, the evil oil baron. Then once Chris Cooper came into our minds it was very simple. And then, what occurred to me was that it’s been twelve years since the Muppets were last on the big screen. And I wanted to acknowledge that this movie was bringing them back to the forefront of comedy where they belong. Because they should have been making movies this whole time, grand, big dance movies, song and dance numbers like the old MGM style of musicals. So it was about getting the Muppets back together sort of as a metaphor of getting back onto the big screen where they belong."

Finding just the right tone for The Muppets involved paying homage to the previous films, which offered no shortage of material with which to work, as Segel said, "I kind of borrowed one of my favorite jokes from the The Great Muppet Caper in terms of, you know, Walter and I are brothers, and we don’t really feel the need to explain it. Just like in that movie they never explained that Kermit and Fozzie Bear were identical twins. Growing up, I thought that was one of the funniest jokes I’d ever heard. And then yeah the idea in Manhattan nowadays you know that they’re putting on a show in The Muppets Take Manhattan. That was part of the putting on a show element. Then the meeting the gang along the way came very much from the original Muppet Movie. So it really is sort of a mix in paying homage to those three films."

For Segal, writing for these characters was the fulfillment of lifelong dream, since the felt puppets were a formative influence on his comedic sensibility. "I grew up with the Muppets. Like when you’re a kid Muppets are sort of the entryway into comedy. They lead into like harder comedy, Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. Yeah, the Muppets sort of defined who I wanted to be as a comedian when I was a kid."

"Well, I’ve told Kermit," he added. "Like he really was my idol. Kermit is like the original Tom Hanks when you’re a kid or Jimmy Stewart or something."

Kermit, who decades ago served as a reporter for Sesame Street News, was struck by the difference between his humble beginnings and being up on stage taking questions about his latest major motion picture.  "It’s unusual for me to be on a stage answering questions from such a distinguished bunch," he said. "But, you know, it was fun, right? We’ve got this great rock star room upstairs, you know, with a view and lots of cookies."

"Yeah, I can’t wait until after the press conference so we can trash it," Walter added.

"You know when I first sung that song about being green years ago," Kermit explained, "It was about being comfortable in your own skin. And I think it might have helped a little bit, and I think we all are more comfortable there. That was sort of the battle cry of the Environmental Movement, which is fine because I’m quite low on the food chain and very close to the environment we’re trying to take care of. So that is getting a little easier, too. You will be interesting to see what that becomes the spokes, the same form next."

While the familiar Muppets were all returning to the spotlight where they undoubtedly belong, for Walter it was his first time being the center of attention, as he said "Yeah, for me it was actually my first experience. I’m hoping the first of many more, and I was just really amazed by the professionalism and just how incredibly crafted this whole, I mean, just speaking of the film as a piece of art, it’s just so deliberate and crafted and gone over with a fine tooth comb. And I think that speaks to the professionalism of everybody that worked on it and Jason and Amy."

In response to his enthusiasm, Kermit quipped, "Save it for the Academy."

Speaking of the Academy, the film boasts several Oscar-caliber actors.  Chris Cooper, who won a well-deserved Academy Award for his role in Adaptation, steps outside of his usual dramatic oeuvre to play the nefarious oilman Tex Richman.  James Bobin, the experienced comedy director making his feature debut on The Muppets, explained of Cooper's casting, "That took no persuading at all, I can assure you. Chris, I wanted the villain in the movie to be a very genuine threat to the Muppets, I wanted him to be not at all cartoonish, I wanted him to be a completely real, genuine, scary, menacing threat. And there are fewer people as scary or menacing as Chris Cooper in his various roles over the years, but at the same time, I think he was quite keen to do something a bit different, and so he was kind of sold on the idea, I think, of doing a rap. I think that's one of the things that drew him to the part was the fact he was going to do a song and dance number. And he spent a lot of time rehearsing that and that is him rapping. He learned the rap off by heart and he learned the numbers off by heart and he does a great job. I'm really pleased because I think it's a very surprising moment which I really love."

To play Gary's girlfriend, the filmmakers recruited three-time Oscar-nominee Amy Adams.  "It was awesome," Segel said of working with the actress fmiliar from The Fighter, Enchanted, and Doubt. "I think she's the best actress of our generation. She's like Meryl Streep in the making, and we didn't know if she would do the movie but we definitely wrote it with her in mind."

Adams had her own personal reasons for getting involved in The Muppets, as she said, "For me, I think it was my first family film that I did after having a daughter, and it was really, really cool to work with the Muppets. They were a big part of my childhood. So everyday was sort of me reliving my childhood while I had a child, and that was really, really cool and really special. It’s just going to be fun to introduce her to these guys and to know that I have a relationship with them. And I’m just excited. I’m excited that she has a film that she can watch as well."

Miss Piggy, a notorious diva, was not jealous of her human co-star, and in fact restrained her demanding impulses on this film, for characteristic reasons. "Well, you know what, I did not demand any rewrites," she explained. "I want to go on the record for that, but that’s probably just because I didn’t really read the script."

The film finds Miss Piggy making a home for herself in Paris, France, but Piggy was disappointed to find that she did not receive a free trip abroad.  She said with a noticeable irritation, "We shot all of those Paris scenes in Hollywood."

"In the back lot at Universal," Kermit continued. "And I'm sorry Piggy, but that was my fault. I love going to France, but I have to be careful, because I am an appetizer item there – at least these babies are – and I'd like to leave intact. So there's some parts of the world I have to be careful in. Piggy is the same in China. She has to be a little careful."

Joking aside, working with the Muppets presents many technical challenges for a director, particularly when Segel, the human lead, is notably tall.  "Obviously, when one of your stars is 6 foot 4 and a man, and the other is 2-1/2 feet and a frog, that is a complicated way to shoot anything," Bobin explained. "So you immediately have a frame challenge, because of course he's gigantic, he's small, that becomes very difficult. And when most of your cast have no legs, that also doesn't help particularly either, so that makes things very difficult. And when you have to shoot on location with puppets and you have to make the world work both for humans and puppets, it becomes very complicated too, so there are numerous challenges but I learned very quickly. Coming onto this project, I had never worked puppets before, and so it was really a question of trying to just learn as I go along and so we did a lot of planning. We had a lot of test shoots where we'd go out and just play."

Another, less intrinsically difficult challenge was in creating an appropriately buoyant musical accompaniment for the film, as The Muppets have always been known to belt out joyous songs with great frequency.  Bobin, who directed half of the episodes of the much-loved HBO series Flight of the Conchords, turned to one of that series' two stars, Bret McKenzie, to serve as music supervisor.  Along with Jemaine Clement, McKenzie is one half of the titular band, New Zealand's third most popular folk-comedy group.

Despite obvious differences between his band and this film, McKenzie asserted that, for him, they shared many similarities,saying, "I mean the film had very specific song placement. So I had to write them to fit new characters and everything, but it’s not that dissimilar to writing for the Conchord set up. It wasn’t that dissimilar in terms of using music and comedy at the same time, using the music to support the joke or suddenly taking the music away so that the joke hits harder."

"So, in order for a comedy song to work you can’t have too much production in a way," he continued. "Because if it goes too big you lose some of the comedy. So within the Muppets film it gets big but then it also strips right back down."

Bobin agreed with the overall similarity between the two projects. "They had a very similar tone in that sense, but also obviously the music and the sort of innocent charm of the comedy," he said. "I felt that the comedy was a very similar thing. And they had different writing for the Muppets than they did for Conchords so the job had a very natural progression."

Another signature of any Muppet movie is an abundance of cameos from recognizable stars, and though The Muppets certainly lives up to that rich tradition, there were so many cameos that some did not make it into the finished film.  Without revealing any identities and spoiling the fun, Segel said, "I can't necessarily say but like a lot of the rumored celebrity cameos that you didn't see in the film were shot with a film camera, not with a gun. And didn't make the final cut, just strictly for length. We had to cut a whole section of the movie that I really loved, called the 'get celebrity' section, where the Muppets went from celebrity to celebrity trying to get them to host the film. But the movie was just too long. There were a lot of great cameos in that section, though."

Finally, the Muppets might seem like an odd fit our increasingly cynical age, since they're creations of pretty much undiluted goodwill and earnestness, but according to Segel, it is exactly those qualities that makes the Muppets more necessary and appealing than ever before. "I think that that's why it was time for the Muppets to come back," he shared. "I've thought a lot about this, but I think that the Muppets remind us of the best versions of ourselves. You're instantly transported to who you wanted to be when you were a kid, this sense of sort of wide-eyed wonder that the world beats out of you eventually, the Muppets have refused to let go away, and so I think in this cynical world where a lot of comedy now comes at making jokes at other peoples' expense. The Muppets refuse to go there. And they've endured for 40 years, I think, as a result."

Their endurance as comedy icons is due at least in part to the universality of their humor, which has informed and influence a great deal of subsequent family entertainment, Bobin said.  "But also important I think for a comedy to work for all age ranges that’s the amazing thing about Muppets. I think they were way ahead of their time, and that sort of idea there is a show that could work for four-year-olds and the 60-year-olds and 30-year-olds. Because when you watch it, you take different things from it. And that’s what is so clever about it. And I think what a lot of people have learned from that, the big people at Pixar who make such amazing movies these days."

"I also think there is some indefinable quality to them, which they’re just inherently lovable," Stoller added. "I remember when my son came to the set and Peter Linz … Excuse me. Peter Linz who plays our Walter character had Walter in his hand and he was kind of talking to my son. And rather than my son looking at Peter, he was looking directly at Walter and having a real interaction with the Muppet. I remember turning to my wife and saying, 'Isn’t it amazing that there is no human being there. It’s just the puppet.' And then Walter started talking to me, and I had the exact same interaction with him. So there is just something that is undefinable."

Undefinable magic aside, making movies is almost old hat for Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, Swedish Chef, Rowlf, Beaker, and the other Muppets.  Kermit, for one, reflected on the latest movie experience, asking, "How is different? Well, it’s a new year. There was new food. It was wonderful. You know, one of the great things about the work we’ve done over the years is that we get to work with wonderful celebrities and this time it was Jason and Amy and Chris and other stars. I always cherish those experiences. That’s what moves us forward. That’s the stuff we look back on as we move forward, and Walter is with us now. And I hope our fans like what we have out there."

And aging isn't a problem for the perpetually youthful screen personalities, as Piggy pointed out, "I think with Kermit you see he doesn’t have any hair, as you know and it can’t really turn gray."

To watch an exclusive video interview with Nicholas Stoller, click here, and to read an interview with Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Walter, click here.

The Muppets arrive in theaters on November 23rd.

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