Mandeville Films’ co-founder Todd Lieberman has produced movies as diverse as THE FIGHTER and BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAHUA. More importantly, he’s also the gentleman we all have to thank for getting both THE MUPPETS and MUPPETS MOST WANTED onto our screens! STARBURST sat down with the acclaimed film producer to talk about working with Kermit and the gang…
Starburst: What does it take to produce a Muppet movie?
Todd Lieberman: No movie is an easy movie to produce, and the Muppet movies are special. These characters have been around for a very long time, crossing many generations. I think you have to have childlike enthusiasm and a love for humour that appeals to kids and adults. You need an enormous amount of patience and a giant amount of energy.
How difficult is it to get the right sort of team together for a project like this?
The interesting thing about the Muppets is that they’re kind of a magnet. It’s less about me as a producer looking for a new thing and more about seeing who wants to be involved. There’s so many fans of the Muppets and for Muppets Most Wanted everybody involved were extraordinary fans of the characters and have a sense of obligation to make sure that we put something together that inspires the same kind of feeling that we all had when we were children.
Muppets Most Wanted is very much a caper film, what made you choose that approach for the sequel?
When we were thinking about the story we really wanted something that would be a great progression from The Muppets. That movie kind of brought the gang back together. Now that the stage was set, we felt their was an opportunity for re-acclimating the characters to a generation of kids who maybe aren’t as familiar with them than prior generations. Like mine. We just wanted to have an enormous amount of fun and keep the heart and soul of it together. It’s a good old fashioned romp. We realised it would be fun to take them to Europe and it was James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller who came up with the idea of stealing the Crown Jewels and this whole comedy of errors with Kermit’s doppleganger. Shooting it in London was a homecoming for the Muppets because that’s where the original show was shot all those years ago when The Muppet Show was on the air. It was a bit of a thank you to the UK and also an excuse to take them out of LA and travel around the world a little bit.
How different is putting together a Muppet movie from any other feature?
The technical aspects are certainly different. You have to build the set in an entirely different way for Muppets. The performers who operate the characters need room so everything is built off the ground so the performers can walk around and be active. When working in the real world you can’t raise the level of the set so you’re always figuring out ways to hide people. The way it is shot stylistically is all up to James and he is a brilliant man. The movie also has original music and we were lucky enough to get Bret McKenzie back who did most of the songs for our first film. He’s a massive Muppets fan and a genius in the world of music. There’s also a lot of cameos because people always want to be a part of a movie like this. We’re lucky enough to have lots and lots of people who want to be involved, some of whom are very surprising, I can’t wait to see how the public responds. We also have a great cast; I don’t think there’s a bigger Muppet fan in the world then Ricky Gervais, though Tina Fey and Ty Burrell are also huge fans. Those three alone are comic dynamite together!
How hard is it to keep a straight face when on set?
I’ve got to tell you, it’s not easy. The great thing about all the performers who do the Muppets characters is that once the camera stops rolling they’re still performing and the amount of laughs that get generated even after the camera stops is unparalleled. Ricky and Mat Vogel, the performer who does Constantine, Kermit’s doppleganger, they almost established their own relationship as a duo off screen. As did Ricky and Pepe the Prawn, who is operated by Bill Berrata. They would be hanging out after the camera’s had stopped rolling and it would be hysterical.
When on set did you ever catch yourself talking directly to the Muppet rather than the puppeteer?
I always try to look through the eyes of a child. When a child is on set they don’t even notice the people are there, they’re just looking right at the Muppet. It’s kind of what you do. Because in truth these Muppet characters are real. They have their own personalities. You don’t think there is a person because your mind won’t let you. The performers really are so incredibly talented and the Muppets really are that special.
If the 7 year old version of yourself could meet you now, what would you say to him?
I play that game with myself all the time. I go higher. I play myself at 90, I go into a meditative state and I imagine myself at 90-years-old. The one thing I continually say to myself is ‘no regrets’. There’s that maybe cliched phrase of ‘say yes to life’ but I fully subscribe to it. The greatest things in life that have happened to me have come from saying yes. I like to experience things and try things. Taking it all the way back to the Muppets, I’m extremely thankful, grateful and lucky that I’m a part of this brand because it truly was something that was very special to me as child.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Well my main goal in life is to make sure I’m involved in things, storytelling and other wise, that effect people in a certain way and give people a certain sense of emotion and joy. So in terms of specific storytelling I try to find projects and stories that appeal to me on an emotional level and when they’re revealed to an audience will move those people to laughter, move them to tears, and move them to laughter and tears at the same time. I genuinely find joy in giving other people emotional satisfaction and joy. That’s what inspires me.
What is your next great ambition?
I’m always on a quest for knowledge. I don’t have a tangible goal but every day of my life I do my best to grow as human being. Now we’re getting real existential. I like learning about people and the world. It enhances my storytelling capabilities and my enjoyment of the world. I don’t exactly know what is next but I know every experience I go through I try and find something that will allow me to grow.
What do you have planned for the future of the Muppets?
I’m extremely superstitious so my philosophy on films and life in general is that I should only think about what’s going on at the moment. So right now we’ve got this movie coming out and I just hope that lots and lots of people go see it and love it like we all do!
MUPPETS MOST WANTED is in cinemas now.
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