Director James Bobin & Songwriter Bret McKenzie Talk MUPPETS MOST WANTED, the Hensons’ Reaction to the Film, the Pressure of Following an Oscar Win, and More

     March 21, 2014


Muppets Most Wanted takes the entire Muppets gang on a tour of Europe’s most exciting destinations, but once they’re overseas, they find themselves caught up in a crime caper at the hands of Kermit’s evil doppleganger Constantine.  Featuring numerous Muppets, great musical numbers and surprising cameos, this action-comedy-musical will most certainly make you laugh, and might even bring a tear to your eye.

During a conference at the film’s press day, director/writer James Bobin and songwriter/music supervisor Bret McKenzie talked about connecting with the original vibe of The Muppets, what the Hensons think of the film, how it was to work with The Muppets again, the logistics of shooting a Muppet movie, the inspirations for this story, finding the right tone for the songs, lining up the cameos, paying tribute to classic old Hollywood films, and telling a story that’s funny for both kids and adults.  Check out what they had to say after the jump.

muppets-most-wanted-james-bobin-bret-mckenzieQuestion:  How did you connect with the original vibe of The Muppets for this film, and are any Hensons still involved with The Muppets?

JAMES BOBIN:  I know that Lisa and Brian have seen the movie and loved it, which is always very important to me because of Jim’s huge legacy to us.  With the first movie, when we’re filming in Los Angeles, Brian came to set twice, and he and I talked about making Muppet movies.  In fact, he and I are now the only people who’ve ever done two Muppet movies, so I share that with him.  His opinion is obviously very important to me.  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 movie, so I’m thrilled by that.

James, what was it like working with The Muppets, the second time around, especially with Miss Piggy’s demands?

BOBIN:  She gets no easier, I’ll tell you that.  No, it was great.  If you know people, it’s so much more fun working with them because it’s like your family is back together again.  It’s really lovely.  And so, it was so pleasing to see them all.  But, it was fun to see everyone again.  I was very clear in my head, as to what we’d like to do next.  That’s why the movie starts seconds after the last one ended.  I felt the Muppets could just address the problem that Nick [Stoller] and I had with what the film was gonna be about and what was next.  And I thought, “Well, let’s just address that in the movie itself,” so you have this scene 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.  So, it addresses that issue, up front.

What are the logistics of filming in different locations with The Muppets?

muppets-most-wanted-set-photo-piggyBOBIN:  Muppet films are never easy to film ‘cause Muppets have no legs.  You may not notice that, but they have no legs, so things get very complicated, wherever you go.  So, it’s easier indoors, and you’ll notice that a lot of work now is on stage.  But what I love about Muppets in the real world is that they live in the real world.  There’s a real world out there whereby Muppets and humans happily co-exist, which is my favorite thing, and 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 door handles, to help us out.  It’s all quite technically complex.  But on stage, it’s very straightforward because we then just raise the entire set four feet or five feet up in the air, and the cameras come up four feet in the air, and the puppeteers themselves can then stand up and group together, as closely as possible.  That means you have nice group shots, rather than them all being far apart.  So, there’s lots of challenges when you’re filming Muppets, 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, and it’s just really fun.  It’s a fun place to be, and that’s why it’s so fun for the cameos.  They come on set and they meet these characters that they’ve loved all their lives, and it’s just a lovely moment for them.  It’s a very, it’s a very pleasurable experience for everybody.  It really is.

What were some of your inspirations, when creating this story?

BOBIN:  Personally, I’ve always liked movies about big diamonds, like Pink Panther and The Thomas Crown Affair.  I’ve always found those films really interesting, and they have a good energy about them, which I like.  So, that was certainly an inspiration.  Also, there was the idea from the last movie where we did bits from The Muppet Show, so I thought, “Why not do a world tour and keep putting The Muppet Show on, again and again and again?”  So, we could combine The Muppet Show elements with this caper-style story.  That’s our film.  And then, the doppleganger is a classic old movie troupe.  Obviously, Kermit is the most beloved frog in the world.  So, we thought, what if there was a bad version of this guy?   And the rest is history, as they say.

muppets-most-wantedHow closely do you guys work together on the songs to find the right tone and find the right fit for the storyline?

BOBIN:  Very closely.  We’ve worked together for nearly ten years now.  It’s always a joy, working with Bret ‘cause I’ll have an idea and he’s ahead of me on it, all the time.  It’s very much a back and forth.  Often it will start with a title or a funny idea that we have for a song, and then from that paragraph, we’ll give it to Bret and he will come back with an amazing song.  We’ll go, “Yeah, that’s it.  Perfect.  Thank you very much.  Let’s do something else now.”  It’s like that.  It’s that good.  And it’s very rare that he delivers something that I don’t like.  That doesn’t happen that often. 

BRET MCKENZIE:  There’s a bit of back and forth.  James and Nick would come up with the moment in the film that needs a song, and then they’d throw it to me.  They often suggest lines that don’t rhyme, and I just play around with it and try to combine the idea for the song, and also make it a song that works by itself, which is the challenge.  I now have quite an extensive catalog of Muppet impressions.  I can do Miss Piggy quite well.  That’s my weird career.  So, I play a rough version, and then we get together and work out the bits.  James often has an idea that’s visual, and he needs to change a lyric to shoot the visual.  And then, we record it with The Muppets.  So, there’s lots of back and forth.  I had this idea to have this flashback that’s a dreamy moment where Piggy is thinking about her future and sees her with Kermit, growing old.  I thought it’d be fun to have a little pink frog and a little green pig, which was an idea that was around from the last film that I hadn’t got in.  James just manages to lift the song higher with the visual. 

ricky-gervais-muppets-most-wantedBret, did winning an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” add extra pressure when you were writing songs to follow that up?

MCKENZIE:  Yeah, but what can you do?  There’s a little bit of pressure.  On my piano at home, I have the Oscar sitting there.  Occasionally, I’ll be working and look up and go, “That’s not good enough.”  But then, I moved to LA to work on the songs and we hired a space on Hollywood Blvd.  It was a dusty old shop, and I put a piano in there, to hide away and work on these songs.  They came to listen to the demos and it was quite a funny scene because people would be walking by hearing me playing the piano, and occasionally they’d walk in and say, “Are there music lessons going on here, or is this some sort of art installation?” 

BOBIN:  It was literally in a strip of stores, and there was a clothes shop and a dry cleaners.  And then, in the middle of it was Bret’s weird shop. 

MCKENZIE: We liked to call it Muppet Solutions.

BOBIN:  It was very weird ‘cause the shop window was right there, so you could just see Bret at the back of the room, playing his piano, as you look in on this lighted shop.  It was very strange.

How did you go about lining up the cameos?

BOBIN:  When Nick [Stoller] and I write the script, we’re writing peoples names in often.  Obviously, certain people have to be that person.  You can’t do the Christoph Waltz joke with anybody else because it is about a waltz, so that’s impossible.  A lot of people approached me, just on the street, and asked if they could be in the movie.  More often than not, I got them in.  One of them was Lady Gaga.

muppets-most-wanted-posterOne of the really impressive elements of this film are all of the touchstones you have that pay tribute to classic old Hollywood films? 

BOBIN:  Well, I’ve always believed The Muppets have a great place in entertainment history.  They live in that world.  The Muppet Show was set in an old theater and it really worked for them.  So generally, I love the idea of making a movie with a huge number of references and movie tropes that you may remember from other movies.  It plays so well for them.  I love the idea that you have this leeway to do that.  It’s very rare to have a chance to make reference to the movies you love, and I wanted to do that throughout this whole thing.  It’s really fun, but it’s very much a conscious choice. 

MCKENZIE:  It was such a golden age for musicals, as well.  Those years are so influential on us now because what they did with the musical numbers, I’m jealous of that.  The actors spent most of their time doing dancing and singing lessons, and then they would come on set and know all of their moves and they could all sing as well.  Whereas now you’re dealing with actors who can’t dance or sing, but think they can.  But, they’re great in other ways.

How was it to balance adult references with jokes that kids would also get?

BOBIN:  One of the challenges of this film is that it has to be for everybody.  I remember watching The Muppet Show in the ‘70s.  I was six or seven, and my dad watched it with me, and my grandparents watched it with me, and we’re all laughing throughout, but I think we were probably laughing at different things.  And that’s what I wanted to do with this film, too.  I now have children of my own, so I watch with my daughter.  And she laughs her head off, and I laugh my head off, but probably at different things.  It’s that thing where we were trying to do both things, at the same time, throughout.  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.  I love making a movie that you can watch again and again and again.  Kids watch things a lot.  My kids wear out movies they love.  There’s no limit to how many times they can watch it.  And I love the idea that, if you build something with enough depth and texture, you can watch it again and again and again, and see new things, every time.  That’s very important.  My kids are always my test audience.  I take home the dailies and show them what we’ve been filming, that day.

You have a great self-referential joke with Robin the Frog.  Is it a constant struggle to squeeze in more characters?

BOBIN:  It’s hard!  There’s such a huge family of fantastic people to involve, and there are still some people out there you know.  Robin was just one of those characters that I’ve always liked, but I didn’t know where to put him, so I thought that was a good joke.  Obviously, Rizzo wasn’t in the last movie very much, so if Rizzo talks about it, Robin should also talk about it.  I love that odd moment. 

Muppets Most Wanted opens in theaters on March 21st.

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