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INTERVIEW: The Muppets’ director James Bobin

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Earlier this week Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and Gonzo The Great all arrived on DVD and Blu-ray for you to take home and keep forever and ever. Just before Christmas, I talked to the man responsible for resurrecting the Muppets from fuzzy obscurity, director James Bobin. During our brief chat we discussed everything from the Brit filmmakers life-long relationship with Kermit and pals to which celebrity cameos were nothing more than internet gossip. So without further ado…

What’s the earliest memory you have of The Muppets?

Well I’m old enough to remember them from the first time around when they were on TV in the seventies so I remember watching them in my granny’s house on Sunday afternoons on ITV. I remember watching it and thinking it was the most incredible, coulourful…it was basically like my six-year-old brain on TV and I think that’s why I loved it so much. It felt really like something that talked directly to me and I loved everything about it because it was puppets blowing things up and falling over but also it was just funny and I really loved that about it. So I remember it pretty clearly and in fact coming to do this job it meant that, without thinking about it too much, I could remember quite a lot about that show so it clearly made a big impression on me,

Which Muppet do you feel you had the closest connection to?

Well back in the seventies I was always a big fan of Animal because he was so crazy and I loved the unpredictability of him, I thought that was really fun but I also use to really like the secondary characters. There’s a guy called Marvin Suggs who plays a thing called the Muppaphone which is basically just little balls of fluff that he hits with a hammer and they make a noise and I thought that was really funny, how you hit people and make tunes, that was really funny as a kid, I thought that was totally brilliant but nowadays it tends to be more Kermit because I think my job as director is to be in charge of this thing and put it all together so  these days I emphasise with Kermit a lot more because he’s doing the same job as me! He’s the director of the show in a way and I feel like he’s got the same stresses as I have, so these days it’s Kermit.

He’s got to control the chaos…

Yeah, he’s the conductor of the orchestra to a degree; he’s in charge and trying to keep a lid on it. He’s got a lot of plates spinning at any time and that feels kind of like my job.

Obviously the Muppets have had a profound effect on generations of kids and adults. Did you have this in mind going into the project?

A bit because I’ve got a four-year-old daughter and she didn’t know who the Muppets were – had never heard of them and I felt that was kind of weird and wrong so I thought it was important for me to try to make a film which she could watch and understand why I like them so much. I couldn’t just tell her they were great I had to show her them being great, I had to make sure she understood from watching it herself why they were great. So I was very keen in this film to show them doing them the things I remember them being funny doing and that was kind of what I ended up doing I hope,

Were there any Muppets from the vast Muppet universe that you specifically wanted to include?

Whenever I watched The Muppet Show I saw lots going on all the time. Even though at the front it was Kermit, Fozzie and Piggy, in the background there was always stuff happening and I was really keen in this film to bring that element back. In the film they put on a show to save the theater basically and in the show I wanted to make sure we saw loads of puppets and I’d remember these puppets from being a kid and I’d say ‘What happened to Bobby Benson?’ or ‘Where is Thog?’ and they’d go ‘Oh, I dunno, he doesn’t exist anymore’ and I’d go ‘Well can we rebuild him?’ and they’d go ‘Yeah, okay fine!’ So it was amazing for me to be able to go through my back catalogue of favourite Muppets and have them rebuilt to order! So people like Thog – Thog is the great big blue bloke who’s at the beginning of The Muppet Show sequence, ‘it’s time to make the music…’,  at the beginning all these big monsters come out from the left and there’s a big guy in the middle called Thog and he didn’t exist, he’d obviously, through the years, got into disrepair and fallen apart so when I said I wanted to redo The Muppet Show opening we had to find the pattern to Thog and rebuild him. So that was kind of an amazing thing to just use my memory of the show and people I liked in the show and to bring them back. That was really amazing.

Doing a movie with so much going on, it must have been chaotic. What was it like on set?

Same, madness, but that was fine because it feels like that’s what it’s suppose to be like, it feels like that was a good thing and all the guys that puppeteer are all very funny too and they’re all, obviously, very good friends because they work in such incredible proximity. Many of the puppets are two man puppets so they have to work literally next to each other all the time so they have a great camaraderie which is very sweet. Obviously Jason Segel is a massive puppet fan, his house is full of puppets, he builds his own puppets…he’s a bit weird, he’s a massive puppet fan – this weird guy who’s thirty loves puppets! But that meant when he was on set with the Muppets it was like his dream come true every day so he was always in an incredibly good mood, he was just pleased to be there and that creates a very good vibe so it was incredibly hard work because as you can imagine it was very complex technically to shoot but luckily the Muppet guys were a lot of fun and Jason loved being there so it made it a very fun set to be on.

Also we had kids there too because we had this weird schedule where we’d often shoot over weekends and so people would bring their kids to the set and it was very nice having this family atmosphere making this film because you can really see how much these kids love the Muppets. I brought my daughter to set and she’d sit and talk to Kermit and Kermit would be on Steve Whitmire’s arm and Steve would be talking only two feet from my daughter and she’d never look at Steve she’d only look at Kermit, even though it’s obviously Steve talking she doesn’t even recognise Steve exists and that’s an amazing thing and that kind of moment, to me, encapsulates why the Muppets are popular because kids totally buy it and never think there’s a guy operating it. They don’t care or they’re not interested in that, they love this idea that this talking frog exists and that’s what’s so magical about it.

They do have a crazy hold over people…

They do. And you’ll see if you go do press conferences enough because people want to take part in it, people want to maintain that illusion. It’s really fun to imagine a world whereby puppets and humans co-exist, it’s a really weird fun place to be so whenever they can, people really want to take part in it. It’s really fun.

I heard the original cut was over three hours long?

Yeah, but that’s true of most movies. Whenever you shoot anything and the script is in the 120 page area you’re going to have a lot of stuff and we did improvise to a degree. We did bits and pieces here and there so all movies start long. When I was working on Sacha’s Borat film that first cut was like five or six hours, so they can be massive, they tend to be in that area but the first cut was certainly up in the higher two hour and forty range I think,

Was it tough cutting stuff out?

Not really, I had lots of stuff I loved but inevitably in these situations you have to lose it for time or just in terms of the story, when the story feels like it’s sagging you have to get rid of stuff then move on. That’s the great difference from me picking up from half hour comedy to hour and a half features, the pacing is very different and you really have to be aware of it in an hour and half, you don’t ever want to feel like you’re treading water, you have to keep moving all the time so this film, I feel, feels very light on its feet which is great,

Can we talk through any cameos that were filmed but didn’t make the theatrical cut and what they involved?

Sure, we had a brilliant scene with Ricky Gervais and Billy Crystal which isn’t in the movie sadly but is a thing whereby the Muppet’s, when they have to get a celebrity host for their show, hold a fake Oscar ceremony in the street and Gervais is invited to it and he turns up and he picks up his fake Oscar which is basically like ‘World’s Best Dad’ award and then Billy Crystal comes in and closes him down with a citizen’s arrest, that’s one of our DVD extras because Billy Crystal arrests them all for faking the Oscars. It was hilarious and played really well in the previews and got some of the biggest laughs out of everything we did but sadly for the story it didn’t kind of work out. It felt like that part of the movie needed to move fast and we were slowing down so we had to lift that. It’s a shame because I love that stuff and Ricky did a very nice favor for doing it, so did Billy Crystal, they both kind of did it as a favor, so that was really nice. It was a shame to lose it but there you go,

I heard Lady Gaga had a scene at one point with Ed Helms?

Yeah, that’s not true (Laughs). Particularly with musician’s it’s always a very long distance thing whereby you ask them a very long time away if they were around whether they’d be able to do it. I think we were in discussions with her for a very brief amount of time but there was never anything definite on her part or our part. It was one of those things that we thought ‘if you have time in January if you’re around, come along,’ but it never worked out. She was never a part of it. It was one of those things that when the script got out a lot of people invented lists of people who were suppose to be in the film, that wasn’t necessarily true. It just happens like that,

What about Danny Trejo and Wanda Sykes?

Yeah, they were in the scene which follows the Gervais scene which was where the Muppets went to jail and sadly we had to lose that to. Very funny again, they’re actually in the second trailer we put out and I don’t mind that because I think it shows the depth of quality of the film where you can have something in the trailer that’s not in the movie! And that for me, is totally fine!

What about Ben Stiller, did he film anything?

Nope. No idea, that was just one of those things where people make stuff up (Laughs). Obviously because our list of people was so enormous you could quite easily add people to it and no one would notice. So regularly the internet would report people who were never even in the film or we’ve never even filmed anything with. There weren’t that many people we filmed and didn’t use in the end, it’s just one of those things, most people we asked said yes and thanks for asking and they were in the film, it’s quite unusual that we cut people, it’s just usually for time.

So the same goes for Mila Kunis?

Yeah she was never in either. She was just a friend of Jason and showed up on set on day. She’s not in the film.

Were the cameos written into the script?

No, even before I came on board there was a script that had people listed in for possible cameos but that was often just place holders, just an idea for the type of person who could do this job and then I think sadly what happened was that script got leaked and I think people started writing stories off the back of that script and it was like a second or third draft, when we went to shoot the film we were on the thirteenth or fourteenth draft so it was like a really old story anyway and it had names that Jason and Nick had put in just to place hold it a bit so a lot of those speculations have happened and I don’t mind it just isn’t accurate and what can you do? It doesn’t matter because most people that were mentioned are in the film,

There was a lot of talk that Elmo might be appearing in it,

That never happened, no. I was quite keen to have a Muppet from Sesame Street in the movie but it didn’t work out in the end sadly. Because it’s in the tradition of having Sesame Street cameos in Muppet movies, if you remember Big Bird appears in the first one and I think Oscar’s in the second one, they often use to do it but these days they’re owned by totally separate companies so it’s just one of those things that didn’t work out sadly.

Do you have a favourite scene or cameo in the movie?

No because that would annoy all the other cameos!

What was the most enjoyable day on set?

You know what, in the film they have a thing whereby they close the show with Rainbow Connection and Rainbow Connection, to me, is like the most important Muppet song. It’s such a brilliant song from the first movie and it sort of sums up the spirit of the Muppets, the Muppet’s positivity and Kermit’s theory about life and so we shot that in the theater when it’s set up like this could be their last thing together because they might lose it so it’s  quite a moving moment. Even on set shooting that was kind of an amazing thing because that little banjo intro certainly brings me back to 1970 and that was a very sweet day and shooting I could tell it was going to be great and people who have seen the show have really responded to that scene as well,

It’s a really evocative song…  

Yeah and I think the Muppets generally often remind people of their childhood and there’s nothing more evocative than your childhood so that’s really nice,

There was talk online of an alternate ending, any truth to that?

Not really, these things change all the time because when you’re working on a script they constantly evolve so there’s no massively different ending it was just a switching of the emphasis.  What happens in the film is that you have so many different story lines that you have to get the balance right and all that I did was basically change it around a bit so that Walter became the focus of the story a bit more. You want to have a driving thread to the movie and so the end changed a bit. What actually happened in terms of them losing the theater but gaining popularity never changed, that was always the same but it was more the emphasis of who was involved in the ending. An ending we shot ages ago was more about Tex and the Muppets but I felt by the end, for me, it was more about Walter’s story so I wanted to make the emphasis more on Walter joining the Muppets because they’re his heroes so that’s kind of the ending. But these things happened all the time, thing’s change. It wasn’t a major shift really.

If talk came to a sequel would you be in interested?

I’d love to help because I’ve really enjoyed this process, it’s been really interesting and I love working with puppets and I love what the Muppets stand for in the world and I’m really pleased they’re back, so I’d love to carry on working with them. It’s just a question of seeing how it does and also I’ve literally only just finished this one so my head’s kind of full so I can’t think of looking at anything else right now because I only finished this film a month ago. But no, I’d love to because I’ve really enjoyed it and Nick and Jason did a great job on the script and it was a great team and I’m really pleased with the film. Especially in America it’s done amazingly, it’s got like on Rotten Tomatoes like 97% which I think is the best reviewed film of the year in America (laughs) so I’d be quite pleased to do that again.

I suppose you could take the characters anywhere now you’ve got them back together

Yeah, the great tradition of Muppet films is them not being sequential in any way. It doesn’t really matter, The Great Muppet Caper is about them living in London trying to be reporters, it’s totally different so if there’s anything to be done again, as you said, we have a pretty clear slate to chose from,

Bret McKenzie let slip about a possible Flight of the Conchords movie…

Yeah, that’s why you shouldn’t let Bret talk to the press…

The last time we left them they were back in New Zealand,

They were, back to their shepherding jobs! Obviously there’s a potential there for that. Bret and Jemaine and I are very good friends and I’m sure we’ll do something together again in the future it’s just a question of when and what that’ll be. Because obviously they’re in New Zealand or Jemaine’s often in Greece or I’m in London or I’m in LA. It just depends on trying to get them in the same place at the same time and all our schedules working out but I’d love to do it because I love that show and I love working with them and we had a fun time doing it but it just got too much, we stopped doing it because it got too hard! But I think a film would be a nice way of bringing them back so who knows, despite what you may have read in the press nothing’s been decided yet.

Words an interview by Simon Bland.

Follow me on twitter: @SiTweetsToo


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