What Frank Oz Learned From Jim Henson: Just Shut the F*ck Up

The director, writer, and voice of Yoda and Miss Piggy talks life as a Muppeteer and his new doc

Frank Oz is quite literally the voice—or voices—of multiple generations. Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Cookie Monster, Bert, Grover, Animal, and Sam the Eagle are just some of the zany and endearing characters he conceived alongside the visionary creator of the Muppets, Jim Henson. (I’ll also just say “Yoda” and leave it at that.)

He’s directed a dozen feature films over the course of three decades—Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,What About Bob?, Bowfinger, The Score—infusing each with wit, optimism, and a carefree spirit reminiscent of his work with the Muppets. He’s also directed for the theatre, produced, written, and acted, having appeared in small roles in a handful of director John Landis’s films.

Now, almost 11 years after his last feature film, Death at a Funeral, Oz is adding yet another title to his already packed resume: documentarian. Ever since last year’s South by Southwest Conference, where Oz’s new film, Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched, had its world premiere, fans have had a new film to look forward to from some of the architects of the Muppets.

The 65-minute film, which will be available for streaming and download on March 16 (only on the film’s website), is exactly what the title implies. Oz sat down in a New York City loft with four other original Muppet performers and filmed an intimate conversation that reveals never-before-heard stories of working with the iconic puppets and—most importantly—Henson’s kind, creative, and generous spirit.

It’s impossible not to smile seeing Oz, Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew, Boober Fraggle), Fran Brill (Prairie Dawn, Zoe, Betty Lou), Bill Barretta (Pepé the King Prawn, Bobo the Bear, Johnny Fiama), and the late Jerry Nelson (the Count, Snuffleupagus, Gobo Fraggle) all sitting in a room together riffing as they did with their Muppet counterparts. Their stories of working on Henson’s two Emmy Award-winning shows—The Muppet Show and Sesame Street—to some of the early Muppet films are funny, poignant, inspiring, and even a little sad because of Henson’s untimely death.

Fifteen years after making coffee and setting out bagels in a production office kitchen while working as a P.A. on Oz’s 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives, I reconnected with the director via phone from New York. The man with the inimitable voice told me about the development of Muppet Guys Talking, premiering the film at South by Southwest, his collaborations with Steve Martin, joining Twitter, the differences between shooting in L.A. and N.Y., and when we’ll see a new Frank Oz feature film. (This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.)


Where did the idea come from for Muppet Guys Talking?

It came from my wife, Victoria [Labalme], who is one of the producers. She saw how at dinner we riffed with each other—we being Dave and Jerry Nelson and Frannie and Bill. When we get together we riff with each other, we tease each other, but we support each other. Victoria never kind of saw that culture before, that kind of way to work with each other and so she suggested that, Why don’t we just record it? And I said no. [Laughs] And I said no because when I joined [the Muppets] I was 19-years-old and that’s all I’ve known, so to me it was very boring. I thought, Who the hell’s gonna want to see this? This is just what I did every day.

So finally, after about a year, she convinced me and part of the reason was to show the world how what an extraordinary working experience, and supportive working experience, and collaborative working experience it was with Jim. And the other reason was I’d get to show my buddies—my brothers and sisters—who people don’t know.

I couldn’t stop smiling when I watched the movie and not just because of the stories, but because it was great to see you all together. How often do you see each other?

We see each other every four, five, six months, but we’ve never, ever gotten together in a room and talked to each other about [our experiences]. When we get together we just kind of clown around and just tell stories, but we’ve never really delved into each of our feelings and reactions into the stories. This is the first time it’s ever happened.

What were their reactions when you approached them about doing this movie?

It wasn’t even a movie at that time. I just said, “Hey, guys, Victoria has this idea.” And they were coming to New York, by the way. I was too cheap, I wasn’t gonna pay. [Laughs]

They were coming to New York to do a Carnegie Hall thing [Jim Henson’s Musical World] so it worked out. We rented the loft and while they were in New York we recorded this for about ten hours in the loft.

We’re so close. They just said, “Yeah, let’s just talk.” So, they trust me and we just did that. We didn’t know what we were going to do with it. I just wanted to do it for historical reference, but then eventually it had such popularity, so we kind of went with it.

Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and Bill Barretta in Muppet Guys Talking

Courtesy Vibrant Mud LLC

 

Did you have certain topics you knew you wanted to hit or was it just a pretty organic conversation?

It was mostly an organic conversation. Nobody knew what we were going to talk about. I knew one thing: I wanted to talk about creativity and how they created their characters and my characters, too. That, I knew I wanted to talk about. Victoria wanted to talk about how it was to work in that kind of supportive, collaborative structure that Jim led. Outside of that we just kind of riffed.

Is this the only documentary you’ve made in your career?

First time ever, yeah. It’s really taught me a great deal.

After making a dozen feature films, what did you learn about the filmmaking process in doing this?

The huge difference is that when I shoot a feature I get a script and a story and I shoot it and I edit it. But in a documentary I just shoot and then later on in editing I gotta figure out the story and it’s a vast, vast difference. When I shoot a movie, I edit in my mind. I know what it’s edited like already. With a documentary, it takes so long in exploration until the story finds you.

The film touches upon—and this I found really interesting—the design aspect of the characters with Muppet builder, Don Sahlin. I’m wondering, over the years, were any of the Muppets ever designed to reflect the physical attributes of the people who were performing them?

Only once. We did a Perry Como show. I was a about 20-years-old and we designed, or Jim designed, rather, three characters to sing a Jim Croce song and one character looked like Jim [Henson], one character looked like Jerry, and one character looked like me. That’s the only time it was ever done. It was great fun, too.

In the film Jerry talks about the fact that he might not have realized some of his full potential had it not been for Jim and working on the Muppets, which basically unlocked some of his creativity. For you, what may have remained locked away if you had not worked with Jim Henson?

Well, this is so true of all of us. It’s so true because Jim just trusted us. As you saw in the documentary, it was such a singular environment and Jim always worked to get high quality and he expected things from us—to deliver. We would never have found those things without Jim. What Jerry says it right about everybody. It sounds like Jim is like a guru and we’re in this cult. [Laughs] But it’s really not. …Jim was an extraordinary individual who could get the very best out of everybody.

Is there something particular for you, though, that came out?

Oh my god, yeah. First of all, performing, because I did marionettes as a kid and I went to see Jim and I started hand puppets. It took me several years to even work in the Muppets style. I didn’t do voices for four years. I was too scared. So Jim did the voices and I performed the characters with Jim, and Jim just forced me, finally, into doing it. If it weren’t for Jim I’d never be doing voices, ever.

Without Jim I would never be a director because Jim asked me to direct The Dark Crystal with him. It was his movie, but he knew that I could help him in areas in which he wasn’t as strong. So I was the director helping him direct his movie. Now, that’s like a $200 million movie these days—or $250 [million]. It was an incredible way for me to learn, but if it wasn’t for Jim asking me I don’t know if I’d have ever become a director and that’s what I’ve always wanted. He opened the doors to so many people with talents.

There is one behind-the-scenes shot in Muppet Guys Talking of you performing Grover and you’re wearing a blue hat. Was that just a fluke or did you ever wear the colors of the characters you were performing?

[Laughs] I never thought about that! I wear pink for Piggy. I wear… (Laughs). No, no, no, no. Jared, we’re not that freaky.

Is there something that you took from developing your own characters with the Muppets that you applied to working with actors on the films you directed?

No. The [Muppet] characters, they’re much more high energy and they’re not in a naturalistic world. …What I did learn a lot from Jim—who didn’t talk much—I learned over the years the best thing to do as a director is just shut the fuck up. … That was a big thing and [it’s] how to get the best out of people.

I noticed in the end credits for Muppet Guys Talking, documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was thanked. Did he have anything to do with this? Did he have any insight?

Victoria was in a Pennebaker film and he and his wife came [over] because Victoria invited them to come to our living room— our den—and see the movie and give us suggestions. So, yeah, he gave a couple of really nice suggestions, but she had known him for a long time so it was very kind of him to come.

You premiered the film last year at South by Southwest. Was that your first time there?

That was. It’s really great. I mean it’s just this constant flow of talent and rushing around and seeing people. The only trouble is that you can’t see everything. …But the feeling at South by Southwest—and I’ve been to very fancy [festivals] in France and such, in Spain—this one is very funky, very easy. It was wonderful.

Robert Rodriguez moderated the Q&A after you screened the film.

Robert and I are friends. I was at a film festival that he was in and I was in for Death at a Funeral. He was in for…I think he was in for the thing he made with Tarantino [Grindhouse]. … It was in a beautiful area just on the border of Spain and the film festival is wonderful, but we were bad boys because we were invited to this dinner with everybody and we only talked to each other. [Laughs] We realized we weren’t being rude; we just got on so well. Ever since then I’ve visited Austin and he’s visited here and [seen] the off-Broadway show I did. We just became friends. He’s a really, really good guy.

Is he a big Muppets fan?

Yeah. I sent him a Muppets book with all the Muppet signatures. He was thrilled. Every character has its own signature.

You joined Twitter back in December. I remember seeing you pop up on there and since then you’ve become pretty active on the platform. What made you want to jump into that arena?

Well, you know, it’s weird. I never liked social media. I don’t watch Facebook; I didn’t want to get into Twitter; I just didn’t have any interest in it whatsoever. I have enough friends. [Laughs] But because of Muppet Guys Talking [the producers] said, “Maybe it’s a good thing to go on Twitter and then you can tell people about Muppet Guys Talking.” I said, “OK, sure.” So I remember the first Tweet I sent is of Victoria and I and we’re in the limousine on the way to the Star Wars [The Last Jedi] premiere in Los Angeles. That was the first Tweet, and what’s happened is since then I just kinda enjoy relating to people. I enjoy talking with them and I no longer talk at all about the Muppet Guys Talking. [Laughs] I just enjoy spouting off.

I noticed in your Twitter feed that there were a couple of little tiffs in certain exchanges and someone responded to you basically saying, “I’m so happy you’re here, Frank, but don’t worry about these people—they’re called trolls—and you don’t have to respond to folks who say nasty things.”

It was really protective almost, wasn’t it? It was really nice and I’m so pleased that so many people who come on—not unlike South by Southwest when Robert and all of us did the Q&A—and this speaks about the affection of the Muppets: most of the people didn’t ask questions. They just came up and thanked us and they’re doing that online; they’re thanking me. Of course, I represent Jim and all the other characters. They’re not really talking about me alone, they’re talking about everything. I just happen to be the guy in the spotlight, but it’s really quite something to have that much affection from people towards the characters. It’s wonderful.

Had you directed theatre before you’re current off-Broadway show, In & Of Itself?

Yeah, I did an off-Broadway kind of show in London a few years ago, and years and years ago I directed a little workshop at the Public [Theater]. [In & Of Itself] was very special because we workshopped it in L.A. as a matter of fact, in Hollywood. We workshopped it there for many months and then we got in the Geffen [Playhouse] and it was a big hit there. Then we moved it to New York and it’s extended to August so it’ll be there almost a year-and-half.

Do you like working in Los Angeles?

Oh yeah, I’ve loved it. I’ve done a lot of work in L.A. I’ve done post-production in L.A., I’ve shot in L.A., I’ve prepped in L.A. I love it and I have a lot of friends out there.

Steve Martin in Little Shop of Horrors

Courtesy Warner Bros.

 

Can we talk about your film Bowfinger for a minute?

Sure!

I wanted to mention it because I feel like outside the actual Muppet movies you’ve made, Bowfinger is the one where those characters could be Muppet characters. Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is almost like Kermit trying to sell his Broadway show in The Muppets Take Manhattan.

That’s very perceptive because this particular movie that Steve wrote—Steve has a way or writing that’s not naturalistic, although, he has written naturalistic before, but the movies that I’ve done with him [Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, HouseSitter, and Bowfinger] are not as naturalistic. …Bowfinger certainly was not written naturalistically so just like the [Muppet] characters, there’s more energy to it. The truth is a different kind of truth. …The truth is not in our world and those characters inhabiting that world have a same kind of energy the Muppets do. You’re right.

Do you remember if it was difficult to find the location for the scene where Eddie Murphy runs across the freeway in Bowfinger?

Oh my gosh was it difficult. …I don’t know what our location manager did. I think she sold her firstborn to get this freeway. If I’m not mistaken I think it was a portion of the Glendale Freeway. All I know is I kept on asking her, “How’s the freeway going? How’s the freeway going?” (Laughs) …She worked on that for a couple of months and finally got it. It was a big deal.

How is shooting in L.A. different than shooting in New York?

It’s more pleasant [in L.A.] in the sense that if you’re outside, the weather’s wonderful. I’ve shot both places. Also, it’s not as noisy. I’ll be in New York, and I’ll be doing an exterior shot on the street or on the sidewalk and the actors will be three feet away from me and I can’t hear them because of the traffic. I have to have earphones on just to hear them from three feet away. So that’s not the same in Los Angeles. [Laughs] There’s an excitement about New York, but there’s also a wonderful feeling about L.A. I have more friends in L.A. than I do in New York and I have more friends in L.A. than I do in London. I love being there.

Your last feature was Death at a Funeral—are you planning to do another narrative feature film soon?

I’d like to…but Hollywood has changed and the scripts I got that people wanted me to do, I just didn’t think were funny. Even the dramatic ones—because after I did The Score I got dramatic scripts—but I didn’t think they were great, and the ones I thought were great were the ones that we couldn’t get financed. I’m not the kind of person to spend five years trying to finance a movie. I just don’t want to spend my time doing that. …Even once I read the scripts it’s much more difficult to get them made because now the companies own the studios as opposed to one person and one has to go through various [stages]. I’m not saying that’s wrong—for them it’s right—but for the creator it’s not the same. I mean, it used to be when Jeffrey Katzenberg would call me and say, “Hey, listen, do you want to do this Bill Murray movie?” and I’d talk to Billy, and then [David] Geffen would ask me about doing Little Shop. It was always…one person; it wasn’t a committee. Same thing with Steve: Steve said, “Hey, you wanna do this movie, Bowfinger?” and I said, “Sure.” That doesn’t happen anymore. That’s the excitement of it, to me.

There are a few things going on, but it’s the same thing of raising finances, but once they’re raised I’m going to have a ball on the set. We’ll just have to wait and see.

A number of my favorite directors have gone into television. Have you thought about that or does that not interest you?

I did two television shows, both favors for friends, and what was just very frustrating to me—I loved shooting them. It was great—and prepping—but when I shoot, as most directors shoot, I shoot to a particular rhythm that I know I’ll edit to, and what happened to me was I edited what I shot, but then the producers took over and re-edited everything to a different rhythm. So, it’s just not fun doing that, you know? The producers in television are the boss. The directors just kind of shoot the thing and then they’re not supposed to really be as involved, but I have trouble working that way. That might not be the case with HBO…so who knows?

I miss directing because it’s a joyous experience to work with talented people. That’s the whole joy of it.

What do you miss most about performing the Muppets?

I miss my fellow performers. That’s what I miss. I love working with my fellow performers because it’s not really the Muppets together – it’s us together. Because we’ve been together for so many years, that creates the characters above us and they’re all great people and we just have a fantastic time. We’re not very nice to each other. (Laughs) Jim was one of the ones who was the biggest instigator of jokes and we screw each other over all the time, but we support each other at the time same.

Muppet Guys Talking will be available on March 16 at MuppetGuysTalking.com.


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