Behind the scenes on the new Muppets film
By Gina Piccalo For The Telegraph.
January 1, 2012
After years in mothballs, will Jim Henson’s sweet and innocent creations survive in our cynical age? It’s time to play the music
Here inside the Muppet theatre, the only sign of Kermit is an empty teacup on his cluttered backstage desk. It’s just as well. The place is a disaster. An enormous crystal chandelier appears to have plummeted from the ceiling and now rests in a giant hole in the floor. Dust clouds everything. Out in the audience seats, a lone hen flaps her wings to air out the dirty velvet while a nine-foot blue monster named Thog lumbers around in the aisles with a broom. Fozzie Bear polishes the railing near the cobweb-filled opera box of Statler and Waldorf, who snooze as if they’ve been dozing since 1981, the year The Muppet Show went off the air.
To be fair, this is a “before” shot on the Los Angeles sound stage of the new Disney film The Muppets, a scene that sets up the gang’s miraculous renovation of their old theatre and their triumphant return to the stage. In real life, it telegraphs the hopes of all the humans involved that The Muppets will herald the Muppets’ return to the zeitgeist. This meta moment must be what has everyone here so giddy.
Right next to that crashed chandelier, Amy Adams twirls for the director James Bobin, testing his reaction to a teal dress she might wear for her next scene. A band of middle-aged journalists hover nearby, uncharacteristically quiet, so complete is their awe of this venue, an exact replica of The Muppet Show theatre that Jim Henson and his team built at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire.
In the audience, Martin Baker, an executive producer and one of Henson’s original staff, chuckles about the old days, when Henson was shrugged off by the American television networks and England’s film and TV impresario Lord Lew Grade came to the rescue. Elsewhere on the set, Muppets star and co-writer Jason Segel is counting his lucky stars, because it is largely due to his sentimental Muppet fandom that those felt-covered smart alecs and their vaudevillian world-view are back at all.
“There was a singular vision, to some extent, that drove The Muppets,” says Segel earnestly. “It was about goodness and friendship and laughter and a lot of things that we’ve sort of lost in the age of cynicism, you know?”
The Muppets opened in late November in the United States, earning back its reported £29?million budget in a week, silencing concern that the vintage franchise wouldn’t resonate with today’s audiences. In fact, the film resonated so strongly that more than one hardened highbrow US film critic admitted to shedding tears of nostalgic joy while watching it. Around the same time, NBC announced a new Jim Henson Company primetime puppet show.
Though it lacks the cerebral punch of the original Muppet Movie (with its cameos from Orson Welles and James Coburn, among others), the new film works hard to preserve the Muppets’ good-natured, cynicism-free humour.
The story centres on a trio of innocents from Smalltown, US, Gary (Segel), his long-suffering girlfriend Mary (Adams) and his childhood friend Walter (a Muppet). While on holiday in Hollywood, they visit the Muppet Studios, only to discover that an evil tycoon (Chris Cooper) plans to destroy it. Determined to save the theatre, they seek out Kermit, who is living as a recluse in his Bel Air manse. Together, they hit the road to reunite the gang and put on a show to raise the money to buy back the studio. Along the way, they find Fozzie Bear in Reno, Nevada, performing with a band of New Jersey thugs billed as “The Moopets”. Animal is in anger management with Jack Black. Gonzo is the richest plumbing magnate in the Rust Belt. And Miss Piggy is the “plus size editor” of Vogue in Paris.
Segel pitched Disney the movie not long after he sold his Forgetting Sarah Marshall script, a 2008 film in which his character goes full-frontally nude and directs a puppet musical. The 31-year-old actor, best known as the tallest member of the Judd Apatow tribe and co-star of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, wasn’t considered an obvious Muppet champion. Born the year before the show disappeared from screens, Segel watched The Muppet Show on VHS tapes as a boy and wrote his first puppet narrative in elementary school. Still, the initial response he got from Disney executives was awkward, to say the least.
“They thought I was joking at first, ’cause I was like an R-rated comedy guy,” Segel says. “It took them a minute to believe that I wasn’t coming at this with a bit of irony.” Segel and Get Him to the Greek’s Nicholas Stoller spent about three years on the script, which rebooted a franchise that hadn’t had a hit in decades. They even introduced a new Muppet in Walter. In the initial drafts, Segel and Walter were friends who used their unique dynamic to work as a ventriloquist-puppet duo. But that narrative thread broke a cardinal rule of Muppet-dom: Muppets don’t know they are puppets. So they modified the script to make Walter his own man, albeit one without a nose. In fact, Segel considered Walter his own alter-ego. Walter is the world’s biggest Muppet fan who trembles and blacks out any time he makes eye contact with Kermit. Segel himself said he fought back tears the first time he laid eyes on the self-deprecating frog.
“When Kermit started speaking, the first thing I heard him say was something I wrote,” he says. “That slaughtered me.” Segel found a fellow fan in British writer-director James Bobin, who says being chosen to direct The Muppets was “like being handed the crown jewels”. Like so many comic writers of his generation, Bobin, 40, cut his comedy chops on The Muppet Show.
On the set of his hit HBO comedy Flight of the Conchords, he and his stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie often watched old episodes between takes. (McKenzie has written many of the new film’s songs, and very charming they are too.) “If you watch it now, it stands up,” Bobin says. “They shot the show in the Seventies. But that sort of humour has come back into fashion. It’s friendly. It’s warm-hearted. It’s good-natured. It’s not mean or cynical. It’s very honest and open. I love that sort of humour. That’s what I like to do.”
Back on The Muppets set, Bobin is filming Gonzo and his hen companion Camilla as they attempt to jump off a building. “Isn’t this great?” Gonzo shouts, his arms flapping wildly against a fan-generated breeze and a blue screen. Beneath him stand five puppeteers in blue jumpsuits, each operating a different aspect of Gonzo. One holds his legs aloft. Another undulates his cape. A third uses sticks to flap his arms and a fourth works Gonzo’s mouth. “It’s a complicated situation,” Bobin says. “Prior to this, I had no experience filming puppets. It’s an exponential learning curve.” Bobin wanted as many outdoor Muppet scenes as possible to give audiences “the joy of seeing them in the real world”. The puppeteers could only achieve this by scooting around on cushioned skateboard-like vehicles called “rollies” with a monitor tucked between their legs.
Creating and costuming the Muppets was a production in itself. Some puppets were resurrected from 30-year storage and needed considerable redecorating. Others, like Miss Piggy, Walter and Kermit, had to be manufactured en masse to ensure there was a fresh puppet for every scene. Much of this planning took place inside a small beige trailer in a quiet corner of the movie lot.
Here, the Muppets sit lifeless, waiting for their call time. One of the production’s six Kermits is poised with chin held high, as if about to launch into a reprise of Rainbow Connection from the very first Muppet Movie. Miss Piggy’s Zac Posen jacket and Chanel tweed suit lie nearby. Her sparkly, child-sized stilettos perch on a table top nearby, custom-made by Christian Louboutin himself. “We sent the pig foot to Paris,” costume designer Rahel Afiley says, turning the red-soled shoe over in one hand.
A narrow space is packed with at least two dozen Miss Piggy heads. The effect is a bit unnerving, as too many divas in one room often can be. Unlike most of the other Muppets, who are made from foam, Miss Piggy is constructed of foam latex, a fragile material that must be handled with special care. “Piggy’s by far the most complicated puppet,” says Afiley. “We’re lucky if she lasts more than a day.”
Jim Henson, the Muppets’ big-hearted creator, died in 1990, aged just 53. Memorial services were held in both New York and St Paul’s, and were described by all those who attended – and, for that matter, by the countless people who’ve since watched them on YouTube – as one of the most moving things they’ve ever witnessed. Big Bird and Harry Belafonte sang; a prone Kermit sat on the casket with a sign around his neck reading “I lost my voice”; and, as per Henson’s instructions, nobody wore black.
Understandably, despite all the efforts to preserve Henson’s legacy with the new film, members of his original team have been outspoken in their distaste for it. Frank Oz, who originated Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Animal, didn’t sugar-coat his feelings for Segel’s and Stoller’s script. (Though Oz was reportedly negotiating his own Muppets movie with Disney when the studio bought their script.)
“I turned it down,” he said in September. “I wasn’t happy with the script. I don’t think they respected the characters. But I don’t want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie.” In October, a few unnamed Muppets puppeteers complained to The Hollywood Reporter that Segel and Bobin were compromising the integrity of the characters for the sake of a laugh. They were miffed that Fozzie Bear tells a fart joke, that Kermit lives in a mansion and that the script depicts the other Muppets as jealous of his wealth. They were quoted saying some puppeteers on the film even considered removing their names from the credits.
Responding to Oz’s comments, Bobin explains that he was probably reacting to a very early draft of The Muppets script and that, as far as he knew, he hadn’t yet seen the film. He also recognises that it would have been tough for a Muppets originator to take orders from a bunch of new boys like himself. “I’m hopeful when he sees the film he might change his mind,” Bobin says.
Lisa Henson, Jim’s eldest child and now CEO of The Jim Henson Company, wasn’t involved in the film but has seen it several times and applauds Segel and Bobin. “I was really happy that they were able to achieve the right tone with the film because the Muppet humor is quite unique,” she says. “They deserve a lot of congratulations.” And Bonnie Erickson, one of Henson’s original Muppet designers and the executive director of The Jim Henson Legacy, said she and several founding Muppets staff went to the film hopeful and found it “moving” and “refreshing”.
Best of all, Erickson says, this movie will introduce a new generation to Henson’s beloved creations: “That would have brought a smile to Jim’s face.”