Though he may not be a household name, James Bobin was a perfect choice to direct The Muppets. Bobin cut his teeth on Da Ali G Show and Flight of the Conchords, and knows comedy and how to film musical numbers – along with having a great reverence for the material. Bobin proved a lively interview, and was very thoughtful about how to best preserve the legacy of Kermit and company, while embracing the technical challenges and the musical side of the production. Check out our talk….
In the earlier films Jim Henson and Company seemed very sentient of what they could and couldn’t do with puppets, and you can see them challenging themselves with the bicycle scene in The Great Muppet Caper, which plays but you can see that they fell in love with the ability to show it. Did you give yourself a great challenge, or did digital effects make that pointless?
The problem with that is the wow factor is that the answer today to “how did they do that?” is always “it’s a computer.” It’s hard to wow. I was always aware of the incredible things they did – one of my favorite things ever is in the Caper when they climb a drainpipe. That’s a very complex procedure, even today I’m still working out how they did. But nowadays people would say “oh, it’s a computer.” They wouldn’t believe we actually did it. So it wasn’t really worth chasing that. It was more about being true to the characters. Their humor and their characters.
And I thought the set pieces would be more interesting if they were musical numbers, because I love musicals. I hired Brett (McKenzie) early on, I knew he was funny, I knew where the numbers were going to go. When I joined the movie there were songs all through the movie and the first part of the job was saying “here’s a perfect place for a song, move this one over here, do this, move them around. So I thought all the set pieces would come from the music rather than any great stunt thing we did. We did something like that – the kidnap scene – that’s as close as we get, and that takes forever.
That bike ride in Caper had to have taken two weeks, and these days you don’t have two weeks to shoot something like that, so even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to do it. And if we did, people would say “oh, it’s CG” and wouldn’t care anyway. I’d love to, but for me it’s more important to get back to the basics of why these guys are great and make that movie.
How quickly do you adapt to the elevated stages required for puppeteering?
It’s a very complex procedure – you think it’s be so bizarre with the stages up and the camera up and the whole crew has to move up, but it’s incredibly quick. There’s a hole in the floor, you don’t use crane arms, but filmmaking is so flexible anyway, you don’t worry about it. You do worry about people falling in the holes, cause it’s a five and a half foot drop.
Did you lose anyone?
No, we had some close calls, you have to mark it all off with tape, cause it’s literally a big drop. But usually the floor is out because the puppeteers need the space to perform. And sometimes when humans are in the scene you need to block out and you have to leave some blocks in so they can stand. It gets tricky because if you change your mind on how you want to block the scene you have to start again. You have to be sure of your blocking, that’s a key part of directing a Muppet movie.
Having worked on Da Ali G show and Flight of the Conchords, and with Jason having also done some R-rated stuff, did you ever do a dirty version to cleanse the palate as it were?
(laughs) Not really, because we’re Muppet spiritualists. It really was a part of my childhood the way it was a part of Jason (Segel)’s. I’m from England and everyone in England thinks it’s an English show which happens to have Americans in it. It was made in England for five years in London, and it has an English tone to it. It feels a lot more like Monty Python, or The Goodies or even The Young Ones after it. It feels more like that anarchic craziness versus the more stagey character-based American comedy.
And the love of old theater and vaudeville traditions feels British as well.
Exactly. The theater itself was modeled itself on a British theater for vaudeville. It had a sense of time and entertainment history.
But did you ever have a moment on set where you had to be a little transgressive?
(laughs) Not really, it doesn’t feel right. I mean you know what it is so you don’t want to go there. I mean we’re all adults, so it happens, but never for any purpose for a joke.
With Brett (McKenzie) did you say to him “give me something Paul Williams-y”
Kind of. I love Williams work, and not just The Muppets, but also Bugsy Malone, which in England is enormous. The finale for Bugsy Malone – “Give a Little Love” – was the last song I played at my wedding. But in America it’s not well known, where in England it’s an untouchable, holy thing.
Bugsy Malone and – I feel - An American Werewolf in London are more revered in England.
It’s true, those are huge in England. Anyway, I love Paul Williams and he was in my mind but I also love contemporaries of Paul Williams like Harry Nilsson, who wrote songs for The Point.
Exactly. He feels very muppet-y, but he never worked with them. So I said that was the kind of tone we were going for. Singer-songwriters from the 70’s to a degree, but also it’s contemporary to a degree, but then also remember the people can’t sing because they’re puppets. Having worked together on Flight of the Conchords, we knew how to make songs count both comedically and emotionally. We knew where they’d go and how you’d get into them so they’d move the story along but also tell jokes.
It’s lucky for you because between this and Flight of the Conchords, you’re the preeminent musical directors.
How’d that happen? (laughs)
Yeah. It’s bizzare. Music has always been in my blood because my dad was a DJ, he works in TV now. But in the 1960’s and 70’s he worked as a DJ on The Breakfast Show. And one of my earliest memories is getting a box of 45’s from him at age five, and a gigantic record player, so I’ve always had a knowledge of old music and I’ve always loved music. And doing Conchords, I already knew about music video history, so there I could put all that knowledge to use instead of at trivia games. And it was really useful. And with Muppets it felt similar. And now I do much bigger and grander things, and indulging my love of Oliver! – the 1968 version is one of my favorites.
I was going to go Russell Mulcahy and Richard Lester.
Well, also, also. I mean A Hard Day’s Night is one of my favorite movies, and I think that’s really fantastic.
You capture that insouciance.
Thank you. That’s a fantastic complement because to mentioned in the same breath as those people is amazing to me. I’ve always loved music, and I want to play it straight because I don’t like this “wink at the camera” thing. It’s about commitment to me, if you commit to it, you can’t do anything wrong.
The Muppets – like the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes – have a certain irreverence, but it has to stay within the universe. That’s got to be a fun balance to walk.
Absolutely. Because I always prefer jokes when they’re played straight – that’s how I’ve always done it, when you have a set of rules everyone obeys, I like that idea.
There’s been a number of trailers for the film with footage that’s out of the movie, how was the editing process? It seems you lost some cameos.
We did, and it’s always very hard because you shoot a long script and you have to lose things for time. And so when you watch DVD extras, you always see directors say “I loved this scene, but we had to lose it for time” that’s what they always say.
Did you want to have a 100 minute or less cut?
When you make a comedy you have to know where stuff is going to land, but you don’t want to outstay your welcome and comedy-wise – unless you’ve got an incredible reason to stay longer than an hour and a half – you shouldn’t bother. I wanted to make a movie around that length, but we had a lot of characters to service, and set up all the characters, I think we’re at an hour thirty eight, and I think that’s about right. It wasn’t a “this is how it has to be” but you have to feel it and this feels like the right length for it, and we had to lose some people I love and things that we showed in previews that were the high points of the movie, but are no longer in the movie. It’s a shame.
Speaking of high points… Chris Cooper.
He’s amazing isn’t he? Incredibly focused, but very very keen to rap. We didn’t persuade him to do it, he was keen to do it. I think he’s spent a lot of time playing the brooding menace.
I was thinking “he was such a bas-*ss in Matewan.”
He was very much my number one choice for a very long time, partly because his acting chops are so incredible, he has a genuine menace against the Muppets when he sees them, and he should always be a genuine threat. But also, if you can have Chris Cooper do a song as a rap, you might as well do that. There is a longer version of that later on.
So you see DVD and Blu-ray as a chance to throw some of that stuff out there?
Yeah, things I always love you end up losing and then you put it out there and people “why did you cut that?” And you say “because of time, obviously!” And you watch it with an audience and you watch how a movie flows and you can feel it yourself. You know it’s got to go, it has to be shorter.
What’s your favorite cut thing?
Chris’s extended song, and there’s some people I cut that I can’t mention right now cause of various legal things. You’ll see on the DVD some of it, stuff that wasn’t in the trailers that I hope get cleared. It’s one of those complicating things, you want to be civil about it.
Are you already working on the extras?
Not really, I finished this last week, it’s been an incredibly tight schedule production-wise. I was working up to the absolute last minute, because why not? Since then I’ve only thought about getting some sleep.
That’s the nice thing about digital filmmaking.
It’s amazing, we had to deliver a month out, and it’s nice that it’s not gathering dust somewhere.
It must also be nice as a first film this being what you’re used to.
True, but my background is TV so you do that all the time there.
The Muppets hits theaters November 23. Check it out.