With the challenges of resurrecting The Muppets behind them, the challenge for director James Bobin, songwriter Bret McKenzie and producer Todd Lieberman was then figuring out what was next. And as Muppets Most Wanted reminds the audiences, sequels generally aren’t as good. But they were more than up for the challenge as this interview suggests.
In the past year there were two Hensons that died sadly, Jane and John. I’m wondering if there are any Hensons still involved in the Muppets and how you’re able to connect with the original vibe?
James Bobin: I know that Lisa and Brian have seen the movie and love it, which is always very important to me ‘cause I want to see if Jim’s, his legacy to us. And certainly in the first movie when we’re filming in Los Angeles Brian came on set twice and he and I talked about making Muppet movies and in fact he and I are now the only people who’ve ever done two Muppet movies so I share that with him. So his opinion to me is obviously very important. On this one it was harder because we were in London so I didn’t see him this time but I know he’s a fan of the movies, so I’m thrilled by that.
What was it like going out there and doing it a second time considering that you know what to do this time around?
James Bobin: I thought let’s make it harder. That’s what I did. Let’s make an action comedy musical movie, you know.
What is it like dealing with just working with the Muppets the second time around especially Miss Piggy? I know she’s rather demanding.
James Bobin: She gets no easier I’ll tell you that. It was great. It’s so fun that if you know people it’s so much more fun working with them. Because it’s like your family back together again. It’s really lovely and so it’s so pleasing to see them all. It’s like being here again today. I haven’t seen you for a while so it’s nice to see everybody again, it’s lovely. But no, it was just, you know it was fun to see everyone again and I—I was very clear in my head as to what we’d like to do next. And it’s why the movie starts seconds after the last one ended. Because I felt the Muppets could just kind of address the problem that Nick (Stoller) and I had. “what is the film gonna be about and what’s next?” And I thought well, let’s just address that and do it in the movie itself so you have this thing where they go what should we do next? And then they sing a song called “We’re Doing a Sequel,” which Bret so brilliantly wrote and it addresses that issue up front.
I had a question for you about the music. Coming up with the songs, I notice one of the songs was “We’re Doing it Again and Again.” Was the original title for the film gonna be the Muppets Again? Or was it always gonna be Muppets Most Wanted and did you think about putting Most Wanted in?
Bret McKenzie: The film was originally called The Muppets Again. And, so the first song “We’re Doing a Sequel” ends with the Muppets all singing “it’s the Muppets again,” because we’d thought it be great to have the title of the movie in it but then well after we’d filmed it all marketing decided to change the name of the movie and so we tried going “it’s the Muppets Most Wanted,” and, it really didn’t sit very well on the mouths of the Muppets, so we did okay.
Bret McKenzie: Muppet films are never easy to film ‘cause the Muppets have no legs. You may not notice this but they have no legs so things get very complicated wherever you go. So it’s easier indoors. A lot of work now is on stage, but what I love about Muppets in the real world is they live in the real world and you create a world where Muppets and humans happily co-exist. Which is my favorite thing. I think it’s an illusion we all want to believe in.
So on location the puppeteers perform on the ground. We have to raise things like your door handles and various things like that to help us out. So it’s all quite technically complex but on stage it’s very straightforward because we then just raise the entire set five feet up, four feet up in the air and the cameras come up four feet in the air and the puppeteers themselves can then stand up. ‘Cause that means they can group together as closely as possible. That means you have nice group shots. So there’s lots of challenges when you’re filming Muppets but you know, and the days can be very long. But at the end of the day you look around and you see these incredible characters behind you as a whole, it’s just really fun. It’s a fun place to be and it’s kind of why it’s so. So for the cameos they come on set and they meet these puppets who they’ve loved all their lives and it’s just a lovely moment for them and so it’s a very, it’s a very pleasurable experience for everybody. It really is.
James Bobin: It’d be fun to see a Muppet film where you saw all the guys crawling around on the floor. If the movie screen could blow it down and you could see underneath the shot it would be great.
It was great to see Jermaine in the movie. Were there people that you specifically went out to get in the film? Were people coming to you? …
James Bobin: When Nick and I write the script we’re writing people’s names in often and obviously certain people have to be that person like you can’t do the Christoph Waltz joke with anybody else because it is about a waltz so that’s impossible.
Todd Lieberman: That one was reverse engineered in a way. Because a lot of a lot of the cameos, we have a list of people who want to be in the movie and then as we go through, as these guys go through writing the movie, we gather other intel of fans and people we like and people that like us and then we this grid.
Bret McKenzie: Intel meaning Googling them. Google celebrity and Muppet.
Todd Lieberman: We do a full on background check. And Christoph Waltz specifically was one where he was a massive fan of the first movie and really wanted to be a part of this one and so that joke was reverse engineered, but there’s so many people who love the Muppets and it’s an interesting matrix to put together to figure out where people go correctly and how to fit all the people that love in the movie which, you know, hopefully we’ve accomplished.
James Bobin: A lot of people approach me just on the streets and asked if they could be in the movie and more often than not I got them. One of them was Lady Gaga.
One of the really impressive elements of this film are all of the touchstones you have to classic old Hollywood classic film, Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed are jumping up and down somewhere right now. How did you go about developing those aspects of the film?
James Bobin: Well, I always believed the Muppets have a great place in entertainment history. They live in that world. The Muppet show was filmed in an old theater and it works for them. So generally, I love the idea of making a movie with huge number of references and, movie tropes, things that you may remember from other movies. It plays so well for them that when we put this together, this lovely idea you have this leeway to do that and it’s very rare to have a chance to do that and make reference for the movies you love and—and that’s what I want to do with this film. But it’s very much a conscious choice. Also, because the Muppets lives in that history when you do a musical number it kinda has to be Busby Berkeley and why not?
Bret McKenzie: It was such a golden age for musicals as well. Those years are so influential on us now and I’m jealous of that time. It seemed like the actors spent most of their times doing dancing and singing lessons and then they come on set and know all their moves. Whereas now you’re dealing with actors who can’t dance or sing but think they can.
James Bobin: But we love them.
Todd Lieberman: We—we had an amazing time on the first film obviously and I think with the idea of being able to set up and reset a little bit that this movie for us was the ability to just kind of go a little wilder and so it’s not a criticism anything that we’ve learned necessarily other than the ability to have more fun.
James Bobin: In the last movie we had to try to put the gang back together again. This time you have everybody from the very beginning. So it feels a bit more Muppets now.
Todd Lieberman: That’s another good point because the first movie the emotional story was centered around a human being and a Muppet that we created, whereas this movie the emotional story centers around the Muppets.
I was at the screening a couple of nights ago a lot of the parents were laughing just as hard if not harder than the kids. How was it to balance adult references with jokes that kids would get too?
James Bobin: It’s one of the challenges of this film is it has to be for everybody. I remember watching the Muppet show in the 70’s. I was six or seven and my dad and my grandparents watched it with me. And we’re all laughing throughout but I think we’re probably laughing at different things. And it’s what we do in this film too whereby I have children of my own and so I watch with my daughter. And she laughs her head off and I laugh my head off. But again, probably at different things. And so it’s that thing where we’re trying to do both things at the same time throughout and so for me it’s about multi layering the story and multi layering the jokes on top of visuals and creating something which bears repeat viewing. That’s another huge thing about it. I love making a movie you can watch again, again and again ‘cause kids watch things a lot. My kids wear out movies they love. I love the idea that if you build something with enough depth and texture you can watch it again and again and see new things every time and that’s very important.
Todd Lieberman: But the idea is and from the beginning we—we always set out to not make a movie for kids but make a movie for everybody that kids also loved and so if we laughed we knew it would—it would appeal to us and then we also have kids so we could kind of use them as a test audience.
James Bobin: In fact, I did my kids always my test audience. I’d take home the dailies and show them what we’ve been filming that day. Hence, in the last movie there’s a lot of chickens. They love chickens. The chickens clearly, the theater was literally my daughter’s sort of thing and this time she loves the Henson Babies, she was obsessed with them. So I kept saying “keep the babies they’re amazing. Keep the babies, people are gonna love the babies.”
James Bobin: There’s a lot of people here. A lot of people in the room you know. It’s hard. We have such a huge family of fantastic people to involve and this time we brought people back like Annie Sue and Mildred Huxtetter and Pop, so Robin was just one of those I’ve always liked but I don’t know where you’re gonna put him and so I thought that was a good joke ‘cause obviously Rizzo wasn’t in the last movie very much. If Rizzo talks about it Robin should also talk about it.
I was wondering what were some of your inspirations when creating this story?
James Bobin: I’ve always liked movies about big diamonds, you know, Pink Panther and, you know, the Thomas Crowne Affair and …
Bret McKenzie: You just like diamonds …
James Bobin: I’ve always found those films really interesting and they have a good energy about them. But also the idea that in the last movie I really loved were where we did bits in the Muppet show, so I thought why not do a world tour and keep putting the Muppet show out again and again and again. And so you can combine the Muppet show elements with the caper-style story and that’s our film and that’s where we are. The doppleganger, I think it’s a classic old movie troupe, because Kermit is the most beloved frog in the world so the simple thought was “what if there was a bad version of this guy?” And then Matt created his brilliant character and the rest is history as they say.
I was wondering how closely you guys worked together on the songs and sort of finding the right tone and finding the right sort of fit for the storyline?
James Bobin: Very closely. We’ve worked together for maybe ten years now. It’s such a job working with Bret because I have an idea and he’s ahead of me on it all the time and it’s a back and forth. Often it’ll start with a title or a funny idea we have for a song and it plays out in the script and that’s all it is. It’s like a title and a brief description and then from that paragraph we’ll give it to Bret and he will come back with an amazing song.
Bret McKenzie: There’s a bit of back and forth so James and Nick (Stoller) would come up with the idea usually or the moment in the film that needs a song and then they’d throw it to me like, so the opening was “we’re doing a sequel” was the idea and they had some good lines, though they often suggests lines that don’t rhyme.
James Bobin: We’re doing a sequel. It cost twice as much but it’s half as good.
Bret McKenzie: So I’m usually just on piano, with me singing doing my now quite quite extensive catalog of Muppet impressions. I can do Miss Piggy. I can do Miss Piggy quite well.
James Bobin: On the new soundtrack cd there are the demo versions of Bret himself singing.
Bret McKenzie: Oh, there are yes.
James Bobin: And they’re really great.
Bret McKenzie: I play a rough version then we get together and work out the best. James often has an idea that’s visual that he needs to change the lyric to suit the visual and then we record it with the Muppets. So there’s lots of back and forth, so I might suggest a visual idea like the ballads which Piggy sings with Celine and I was working on that and I had this idea “what if we had this flashback this sort of dreamy moment where Piggy is thinking about her future and she sees her with Kermit growing old?” I thought it’d be fun to have a little pink frog and a little green pig and it was an idea that was around from the last film that I hadn’t got in. And I love those moments where about the song idea and then the video comes back ‘cause I’m not on stage I don’t see them doing it. And James manages to make this lift the song higher, you know, with the video.
Muppets Most Wanted opens March 21.