It’s not too often you get to talk with someone who truly changed your life, but it happened to me a few days ago when I got to have an extended conversation with director Frank Oz. If you’re not familiar with Frank Oz’s incredible resume, he’s the voice of Yoda in Star Wars, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy and Animal in The Muppets, and other unforgettable characters.
The reason he got on the phone with me was to talk about his new documentary, Muppet Guys Talking, which was conceived of by Victoria Labalme and available on the website MuppetGuysTalking.com. The fantastic documentary features five of the original Muppet performers – Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, Bill Barretta and Frank Oz – and you can watch them discuss the impact Jim Henson had on their lives and work, share some fantastic stories on the making of their memorable characters, and it also features some cool behind-the-scenes footage I’d never seen.
During the interview, Oz talked about how the project came together, where they got the vintage footage, how he decided on the length, what he learned from early friends and family screenings and how that changed the film, why Jim Henson was such a great leader, how he created some of his iconic characters, the importance of puppet construction, why The Muppets was never written for kids, some of the crazy things they did to get the shot, and so much more. Trust me, if you’re a fan of The Muppets, I strongly recommend checking it out. You’ll be very happy you did.
Collider: First of all, I really enjoyed seeing you guys just reminiscing and talking, and I think my favorite thing was getting to see, besides you guys talking, was getting to see the vintage footage of a read through with you and Jim Henson just doing a read through of an episode. I loved seeing that footage. Was it hard to locate that kind of footage?
FRANK OZ: Actually, that particular one was wonderfully easy because that was a 60 Minutes report that was on the Muppets with Morley Safer. I just called CBS, the exec there, Jeff Fager, I think his name is, and because it was me he said, “Yeah, sure of course.” So, that was the easiest one of all.
You have some vintage footage in there. Can you talk about how you wanted it to be in terms of balancing- showing footage from the past and having the conversation?
FRANK OZ: Well, actually, the footage was completely dependent on the conversation and when we discussed, for instance using that as an example, if we discuss Jim always loving having fun, that was an opportunity to show that…because Jim had fun. It really depended upon which direction the conversation went. Whenever the conversation went in an area that we could show it, then we found some footage for it.
The running time is a little over 60 minutes, and I’m just wondering if you ever thought about stretching it out with more vintage footage or did you always envision this kind of running time?
FRANK OZ: We didn’t envision any running time. I don’t believe in stretching things out. I believe in- it’s as long as it takes, and if it was two hours and it’s organic then they get two hours. If it was organic only in 30 minutes, then make it 30 minutes. It told us how long it was supposed to be. By the editing, we just continued telling the story and it just ended up 65 minutes. It’s just the result of choices for the quality of the film and nothing else.
When you actually filmed that how long did you film? Was it an all-day thing? Was it a few days?
FRANK OZ: It was ten hours of footage. It was all day. We have extra footage that we’re going through and that extra footage- which is some great stuff we couldn’t use- that’ll be in some of the bonus features. So, that should be fun for this and there’s some great stuff there. We shot ten hours in a loft in Manhattan and we had one camera on sticks for a wide shot, and I had two other cameras on rolling sticks, and another handheld on sticks and one completely roaming around. So, I had five cameras and I didn’t give any instructions. I just said, “Just shoot it,” you know.
I’m obsessed with the editing process. What was the last five or ten minutes you took out of the movie and why?
FRANK OZ: Wow. What a good question. The trouble is I’m trying to remember now. You know, it’s not that we took five or ten minutes out, it’s not that simple. You can’t take a hunk out. Once you take a hunk out, you’ve taken a piece out of a jigsaw puzzle. One has to take out those things that- we have to be left with transitions and we have to be left with transitions that lead to the next organic piece. So, there was no five minutes we took out. We really just- it’s not that we took it out, it’s just that we didn’t use those pieces that we felt fit. It’s really a field story about sculpting an elephant- take away all those things that don’t look like an elephant.
Did you do any sort of friends and family screenings of the film, and what did you learn from those screenings that impacted the finished film?
FRANK OZ: Actually, we had some screening for friends, the Pennybakers of Victoria, the one who produces this and my wife, she had done a film with the Pennybakers, and so she was friendly with them. So, they came in and gave us some thoughts and the biggest thought was, we did not have the NBC pipes first. The Pennybakers said it needed something in the beginning and other people said it needed something in the beginning. So that was the biggest change; we got permission from NBC to do those pipes. That was a result of- not the friends and family- but people whose opinions we trust in the industry.
What was the original beginning that you had, prior to that beginning?
FRANK OZ: It was the guys started talking and it just-it didn’t set the landscape; you know?