After successfully re-introducing the world to the Muppets in 2011, filmmaker James Bobin returns to direct the beloved characters once more in this month’s MUPPETS MOST WANTED. STARBURST caught up with the busy writer/director/producer to get the low down…
Starburst: How different is Muppets Most Wanted from the last film?
James Bobin: It’s more of an adventure story, more of a caper movie in many ways. I also wanted to make a film about a big diamond, because I like those ‘70s Pink Panther-style films; I really wanted to make a Muppet film like that. Unlike the movie before where they’re bringing the family back together again I thought it would be fun to see what happened next. I love the idea of a world tour with the Muppets showing everyone what they could do.
It’s looks to have a very Ealing comedy feel to it, was that intentional?
Yes, to a degree. I love the Ealing comedies, though the Muppets have their own sort of thing anyway, they’re very much part of the history of entertainment. Whenever I write them I try and stay along traditional lines, bringing in the contemporary sense of humour with traditional style gags. It also means that the performance level makes the movie feels quite big, which makes it interesting for the actors. A lot of comedy seems to be very nuanced these days whereas The Muppets tend to be quite up front.
Did you have anyone in mind when you wrote the script?
You always have an image in your mind to a degree, you always have a voice in mind. Ricky Gervais has been in my mind for a long time, he was actually in our first Muppet film but sadly it was cut. I knew he could do it and I’d seen him interact with the Muppets before. I also knew he’d done a brilliant thing with Elmo a few years before which was really funny. I thought he really gets Muppets and has a really great feeling for them. It’s very important to have that natural empathy. Working with puppets is quite a complicated thing to do because you have to directly connect with the puppet rather than the guy operating the puppet. Tina like-wise. It was fun to work with these people and find out that they’re as good as you thought they’d be!
Compared to your previous film and television work, are there certain challenges unique to making a Muppet movie?
Muppets are incredibly complex in terms of how you shoot them because of course they’re literally pieces of felt and fur operated by a human hand. When you’re trying to compose shots it’s a very complex procedure to try and create this illusion that they are alive and living in world where humans and Muppets happily co-exist. So there’s quite a strict grammar of how you can and can’t shoot them. Occasionally you get things like full body shots where you shoot the entirety of the body - the head, the legs and the torso. Those are interesting because Kermit in those shots is only two and half feet tall because that’s his height. You watch Kermit in a close up and we only see the upper part of his body you’ll notice that his head is often at human chest height which is about five foot tall so obviously there’s a certain amount of illusion going on to achieve that. You have to be very careful about the shot selection you make and obviously the sequence of the shots. These films are heavily storyboarded because without those guidelines it would be very, very hard to do. You have to be very precise in your planning as to how you actually shoot these things.
Does that break the magic?
Not really. It’s that funny thing that when your working with them I really feel like I know a guy called Kermit and I also know a guy called Steve . The puppeteers are so skilled at doing this that they really make the puppets come to life. It really doesn’t take anything away from them that you see the person performing the puppet. My daughter who is five comes to set and will hang out with Kermit but obviously Kermit will effectively be a half body puppet on Steve’s arm and Steve would be operating him about a foot away and talking in his normal voice. But my daughter would never, ever looked at Steve, she’d look at Kermit. She totally believes that Kermit is real and just happens to be an extension of Steve. I don’t think she acknowledges that he’s there. The magic is always still there and they feel very much alive. When you’re directing them it’s very hard not to direct the puppets. Obviously you always talk to the actors beneath them but sometimes you can’t actually see the puppeteers, so in a way it’s easier just to talk to Statler and Waldorf!
Where do you go as a director after you’ve worked with a superstar such as Kermit the Frog?
What’s left in the world? I’ve always enjoyed comedy and I have comedy background. I love good storytelling and I love telling good stories. Who knows? I’m currently scheduled to shoot Alice Through The Looking Glass for Disney, this summer. I’m a huge Lewis Carrol fan. Having done two films for the Muppets now it’s been an absolute pleasure. I was a huge fan as a kid so to get to work with them is amazing. People say never work with your heroes, but that’s not true in this case. People like Fozzy really molded my sense of humour and that’s influenced me throughout my entire life. Muppets have always been part of the basic tenets of what I find amusing so it’s been a great privilege to write lines for them.
The Muppets have a very anarchic feel to them. How much of that is scripted and how much is improvised?
It’s a bit of both. Largely that’s because when such a diverse group of characters come together that’s going to happen. Individually the Muppets are terrible at what they do; Fozzy is a terrible comedian and Gonzo can’t do the stuntman thing and Kermit can barely keep it together, but when they’re united they have this great sense of ‘we can do it if we work together!’ But there’s borderline chaos the entire time because of who they are. It’s implicit in their characters but there’s no harm in putting them in situations where that’s going to come to the fore. You always try and put them in situations that are dramatic, emotional, interesting or humorous and obviously that then takes over. It’s a question of using the script to direct them in a certain way.
You mentioned you were directing 2016’s Alice in Wonderland sequel Through The Looking Glass next, are you allowed to tell us any more about that?
It’s top, top secret. Shooting will be England and I’m currently working on the script. I’m a huge Lewis Caroll fan and he’s one of the originators of the English sense of humour. He’s part of a long line of humourists and satirists. His work still stands up today which is incredible when you consider that it’s 150 years later! Lewis Carroll, Edward Leer, Monty Python - it’s all a line of English Surrealist humour that I really love. I’m looking forward in getting into that. It’s going to be a film I make for myself and my children, much like I did with the Muppets.
Which is your favourite Muppet?
You can’t ask me that question, that’s like asking me to pick a favourite child! Right now it’s not really Kermit because Kermit has my job. He’s the one that has to sort everything out, get things together and put the show on. As a kid I’ve always been a fan of the secondary, slightly weirder characters, such a Bobby Benson and his Baby Band. They’re really kind of funny and kind of dark.
Are you planning to make any more Muppet Movies?
I really feel like I’ve gotten to know them, so I’d love to make more. I’d really like to bring The Muppet Show back. I think that’s something that people would love to see still. When we make the films I always feel like we try to put as many sketches and skits into it as we can. I think that people always respond well to that. It’s a case of finding the time and people inclined to make it. I do think there’s a room for a Muppet show on TV today. The world still needs a Muppet Show!
MUPPETS MOST WANTED is in cinemas now.
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