The director talks about his latest unique film, laughing on the set and Minnesota weather
Frank Oz is not your typical director by any means. This man has practically done it all in the movie biz from writing, producing, directing to even doing some of the voices for classic characters like Yoda and several of the Muppets. He's been focusing primarily on directing lately, and his latest effort, Death at a Funeral, was released on DVD on February 26. I had a chance to speak with this very talented director over the phone, and here's what he had to say.
How did you come across this script from Dean Craig, who's only produced one script before?
Frank Oz: Where are you calling from?
Oh, I'm in Los Angeles, but I just moved here from Minnesota, actually.
Frank Oz: Oh, you're in L.A.?
Yeah. I still have my Minnesota phone though.
Frank Oz: I'm developing a script to be shot in Minnesota, so that's interesting. I've never been there.
Frank Oz: How I got... I'm sorry, can you tell me your question again quick?
I was wondering how you first came about this script from Dean, who has only produced one script before?
Frank Oz: I never knew Dean before. There's a woman named Share Stallings, who was one of the producers, and she's a dear friend of mine and she gave me the script... I don't think she gave me a script. I'm not sure if she did or not. Anyway, I get a lot of scripts from friends, and I'm always hesitant because I don't wanna hurt their feelings, and I thought that'd be the case again, but I was laughing out loud and I loved it. It was very moving and I said, 'Absolutely. Get me attached.' After that, she got right to Sidney Kimmel Enterprises, and at that point we pushed it ahead.
I watched this a few nights ago, and I was laughing hysterically as well. It was an amazing film, I thought.
Frank Oz: Oh great. Thanks. Thanks so much.
It seems that it really has a personal feel to it, that it was seated in some sort of reality. Was this based off any real experiences from Dean, that you know of?
Frank Oz: As I recall, quite awhile ago before we shot it, I asked him and he said he got the idea at a funeral, but it was by no means as raucous as this or as eccentric as this. For some reason, he had some friends there, and the relationships of the friends, in a very subtle way, got him to get excited about writing something like this. He had no intention of writing a farce, it just happened that way.
Your projects seem to vastly differ from one to the other, but this is the second dark comedy in a row that you've done.
Frank Oz: I'm glad you say that, because that's exactly what I want to do. Every time I want to make it different. I've always wanted to go from comedy to drama, comedy to thriller, comedy to suspense, comedy to western. Comedy is kind of my base because I haven't fucked up yet. I think the The Stepford Wives I had fucked up, but everything else seemed to do O.K. I seem to be, somehow, for some reason, successful at it, but, at the same time, I don't like being a one-trick pony. I like to do other things, so that's why I did The Score. From one comedy to the next, there are different comedies too. This is a farce, so that's exciting. It's very dangerous, actually. The next movie I'm developing is a small movie about a woman who goes into the depths of heroin, so going back and forth to different movies really excites me.
Both The Stepford Wives and The Score had a significantly higher budget than Death at a Funeral. What kind of adjustments do you have to make?
Frank Oz: Oh, I was looking for something small, after the huge huge budget of The Stepford Wives. I'm used to very big budgets. I've done very big movies. That's pretty much all I've done are huge movies. I've never done a script that I didn't love, although The Stepford Wives turned out different than I wanted to, everything else I was excited about. The trouble is, you get big stars, and it's not their fault, but everything else ramps up because of that. The bigger the stars, the more Teamsters you have to have for driving them and their family and their make-up people, and the Craft Services get bigger, and everything. What happens is, the joy of the filmmaking is not as personal as it was when you started out, so I was looking for something getting back to just the fun of film. No special effects, nothing, so I was looking for this $10 million film, or $5 million film, anything, and I was lucky enough to get this script. The difference is, in a movie like this, you live on the razor's edge. It's so exciting. You have to make decisions, and live and die by those decisions because you don't have time to cover yourself. You don't have time to shoot the scene a different way, you don't have time to say, 'Gee I wanna change that background' because you've gotta move on. That's all very exciting.
I saw the Gag Reel on this, and it seems that the cast was really having a hard time keeping a straight face throughout.
Frank Oz: Oh, there was one time where we couldn't go on for 20 minutes, they were laughing so much. In fact, I was twice sent away from the camera by my DP because I was laughing so hard I was shaking the camera.
Frank Oz: Yeah. I got sent to the other side of the room like I was a bad boy (Laughs). We just had so much fun. It was tough work, but it's so nice when it's tough work and you still have fun.
Is that element a bit taxing at times though? Because it's just hard getting through one scene, or is it refreshing at the same time as well?
Frank Oz: Oh, hell no. I'm supposed to be the guy that goes, 'OK guys, straighten up,' but I'm worse than anybody. I start cracking up. I have a ball. I think it's taxing for the producer, who wants to keep going, but I'm worse than anybody. I just keep cracking up.
How did you go about casting for this movie? I'm a huge fan of Peter Dinklage and Alan Tudyk, but I wasn't as familiar with everyone else.
Frank Oz: It's interesting. Alan was the last one, and I kind of had to fight for him. As a matter of fact, we were rehearsing and he just got off the plane, he raced to the set and jumped right into the rehearsal. He was brilliant. And Peter Dinklage, his part wasn't written for a smaller person. I cast him mainly because he's such a fine actor. I just love his work. The thing about Peter, whatever he does, there's this dignity he has. It's just extraordinary. All the other people, I didn't know who Matthew (McFayden) was. Matthew is an amazing solo actor. There are so many others in that group. I just got lucky. They came in to audition and I was amazed by these people.
Oh yeah. I was just blown away. I mean, Peter and Alan were the only two I was really familiar with. I'd seen Matthew in Pride & Prejudice but...
Frank Oz: Yeah. Personally, I think that's why he liked it. Like me, I don't want to do the same thing over and over again, and he's doesn't want to do the same thing over and over. He's that brooding, dark, handsome guy, and now he's kind of this pasty-faced milquetoast guy, which is exactly why he wanted to do that.
This really seemed like one of those films where everyone just bonded completely, on and off the set. Was that really the case?
Frank Oz: Yeah. Sometimes, in a huge movie, you get this bullshit from the director and the actors saying they all loved each other, but sometimes, it's actually true. As a matter of fact, I'm still deep friends with Andy (Nyman). We email each other. I'd have these dinners with like 13 people and there's not a bad apple in the group. We all just had a great time. Great time!
This movie really packs a lot into the 90-minute runtime. I didn't see any deleted scenes, but is there anything that was cut just for time that you'd still like to see in the film?
Frank Oz: Nope. Couldn't afford it. We had to shoot what we shot. There were some that were shortened, but there was no scene cut. I rehearsed two weeks with these people, so that helped. That was mandatory.
Now that the writers strike is over, is there anything else that you're eyeing developing?
Frank Oz: You know, if I talk about my projects - I told you about one, but only because it was an unusual piece, you know, a dark drama - but if I start talking about that project, I'm gonna sound like every fucking cliched Hollywood director, you know, this project, and that project and how important I am. But, there's other stuff I'm working on.
Where are you looking at filming that piece in Minnesota?
Frank Oz: This would be in Minneapolis. The producer is from Minneapolis, and I told her this was a really cheap way to get back home. I mean, to have to try and make a film just to get back to your family in Minneapolis, was pretty lousy I thought.
(Laughs) I suppose you're right.
Frank Oz: I mean, she's a great producer, and I've never been there, so if it does happen, I look forward to it.
It's a great area if you're not there in the winter.
Frank Oz: That's what I'm saying. If it's not winter, I'm happy.
Yeah, it's a wonderful area in the spring, summer and every other non-winter season.
Frank Oz: Does it get very hot in the summer?
It does, actually. It doesn't get so much hot, as it gets humid.
Frank Oz: Oh fuck. I hate that. That's the one thing about living in the East Coast is I hate the humidity. So, I thought Minneapolis or Minnesota wouldn't have that humidity.
Oh no. It's kind of like the land of extremes. It's not so much hot, but it's humid in the summer, and then even in the winter, we get snow and it's cold, but it's really the wind chill that really kicks it up.
Frank Oz: The cold I can take, but it's that humidity... wait a second. Why would that be the case? You're not down south.
I really have no idea. It's usually very humid, especially from where I was at, we had the bluffs on one side, and we were right on the Mississipi River.
Frank Oz: Oh boy. Well, I grew up in Northern California, and when it got hot there, it was always dry, and then I come to the East Coast and, boy. There are some days that I call 3-Shirt Days.
Yeah. And we have the mosquitos on top of that.
Frank Oz: Oh great. Well I'm gonna shoot in Toronto then. Forget it. (Laughs)
(Laughs) If you shoot there in like March or April, you should be all right.
Frank Oz: Well, I better speed up the developing process then.
Finally, you've really done it all in this business from acting, voicing characters and directing. Is there anything else that you still want to achieve in the film and television business?
Frank Oz: I've done TV for tons and tons of years, so I'm not crazy about doing more TV, but with films, all I want to do are different projects that aren't all the same. I just want to work with talented people who are enjoyable to be with, and take big huge risks from high comedy to deep, dark, brooding drama, to thriller. I just want to go back and forth. I also want to get into the theater. I really wanted to be a theater director, but I turned out to be a movie director. There's a possiblity for some theater piece in London in the future. That's one of the projects I didn't tell you about. I just want to do good work. That's all I want to do. I don't have big aspirations like being the President of the United States, I just want to do good work. That's all.
Well, I absolutely loved Death at a Funeral. There's not much more I can say than that.
Frank Oz: I'm so pleased. I don't know if you remember at the very end of the movie in the credits, where I showed all the guys cracking up?
Frank Oz: Well, I showed that to let everybody know what a legitamitely fun time we had.
It completely shows, even in the Gag Reel on the special features, you can tell that everyone is just having a blast.
Frank Oz: It's a joy when you work with extremely talented people AND they're good guys on top of it. That's unusual.
(Laughs) Well, that's about all I have for you. Thanks so much for your time, Frank.
Frank Oz: My pleasure. Thanks for talking to me. Take care.
Death at a Funeral is on the video shelves now.
(Interviewer's Note:) Frank, you'd probably be safe from the extreme elements of Minneapolis in September and October as well, but it gets rather chilly come Halloween. Just an FYI.