The team behind this summer's funniest farce discuss the intricacies of dying
Frank Oz is a legend. Not only has he created some of the most memorable characters of the last decade including Grover, Miss Piggy, and, of course, Yoda, he has also directed some of the funniest comedies of the 80s and 90s. His impressive resume contains such classic hits as The Dark Crystal, Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Bowfinger. This summer, he is releasing his oddball farce Death at a Funeral.
A dignified send-off for a loved one erupts into uproarious chaos when romance, jealousy, in-laws, hallucinogens, dark secrets, life-long yearnings and a spot of bold blackmail all collide in this irreverent British comedy. Its a lot like Sylvester Stallone's Oscar, only with laughs.
We recently sat down with Frank, who is a lot taller in person than you might think. He is 6'2", to be exact. Not exactly Yoda's height. Anyway, he was joined by Death at a Funeral cast member Andy Nyman. The collaborates discussed the joys of making their latest comedy. Here is that discussion:
Frank Oz: (Looking at the microphones) Little people.
Andy Nyman: (looking at mine in particular) That wins for the coolest stand.
Frank Oz: Yeah. Thank you for coming. Wow, look at this. I remember doing this when I was younger, and they always had these big blocky tape recorders. They would cover the whole table. (He looks at the Ipod recorder) Wow! I just bought this one myself. Sorry, but I love tape recorders.
Frank, how did you put this film together?
Frank Oz: It was a script given to me by Share Stallings, who was a friend of mine. She worked with me years ago at Disney. I just laughed out loud, and that was it. I was touched by the story. That is pretty much it.
When you shoot a movie like this, do you shoot each individual story separately, or is it all mixed together?
Frank Oz: I'm sure that Andy would have preferred to have stayed with one story. But you are totally all over the place.
Andy Nyman: Yeah, I was jumping back and forth all of the time.
Frank Oz: Its economically based. You really can't do it. I understand that some directors will shoot the story linearly. But I don't know how to do that. The staff tries to schedule it to be as chronological as possibly. But economically, if you are shooting a movie in a particular direction, you have to shoot everything that is going to be in that direction.
Andy Nyman: I shot a movie like that once. In linear order. Yeah, yeah...
Frank Oz: How could they afford that?
Andy Nyman: It was low budget. That's how they could afford it.
Frank Oz: But they couldn't go back to where they started.
Andy Nyman: Yeah, well it was shot like that. It was very impro-based.
Frank Oz: Did that help?
Andy Nyman: Yeah, it sort of helped. It depends on the movie. With this sort of movie, it was such fun anyway, that it didn't make a difference when you were there, or when you were not there. It was just lovely to be around. It didn't make a huge difference. We had two weeks of quite strong rehearsals.
Frank Oz: It was intense, yeah.
Andy Nyman: That felt like it gave you a really clear overview of the whole story.
Frank Oz: Remember, we did that entire rehearsal all the way from the beginning to the end?
Andy Nyman: Yeah.
Frank Oz: The answer, for this particular movie is, things were shot out of order. Most movies are.
What did you pay attention to the most while making this film?
Frank Oz: Well, that is a very good question. One I have not heard before. I guess, number one, I pay attention to the script. Number two is paying close attention to the actors. I think I pay attention to things that don't work on paper. I don't think the script has all of the answers. I think things work in the script, then you put them in the actors' mouths, and they don't work. Or vice versa. I asked the writer to be with me all the time. I have all of these great actors, so I pay attention to creating something new on the set with the actors and the writer. That is the heart of it. Finding something new.
Andy Nyman: And just keeping a good act. This comedy starts so real, then goes so broad, if you don't have good actors, you can't take that journey with them. Frank was very good at keeping the people very real.
Frank Oz: The most important thing for me when making a comedy is, "Is it honest? Is it honest within this world that we've created?" Not to this world right here. Because nothing is honest in a movie. Even Scorsese says that there is nothing real in a movie. There's nothing real. But, it is honest within the world that it is created. Like "Airplane" was honest to the world it create. I remember once saying. "Its okay to do anything, just be honest." I don't know if you remember this, but I had an idea in the bathroom with Peter, and you said, "No, this isn't honest."
Andy Nyman: Did I?
Frank Oz: Yeah, and you were right. It wasn't honest.
Can you talk about the casting process on this film?
Frank Oz: Yeah, I went to London and cast for about a month and a half. I think the only person I didn't audition, but I did meet, was Ewen Bremner. He just happened to be in New York. Besides Ewen, I was in London, and I just brought in a lot of great actors. The only difference between the great actors I said "no" to, was that they were inappropriate for the roles. These great actors were appropriate. Andy was frustrating because I knew I wanted him immediately. I had to wait a couple of weeks, because I was supposed to audition a couple of other people. I just get in a room, read it a few times, and then screw around. Right?
Andy Nyman: It was a fantastic audition, really. It is such a difficult process. You never know what baggage the director's got. It is just so clear that Frank has been a performer. Because when you sit down in front of him, before he even starts, he says, "Okay, you've been sent the script. Do a couple of scenes." And you would do that. But when we came in, Frank said, "You'll do two of your scenes. Then, we will pick one of those scenes to work on. Then that will be it." You are so grateful to have that as an actor, because you are so use to seeing the director do forty-five minutes of work with someone else. Then you go in, and you're out in three minutes. And you are like, "Oh, no, I didn't get it." This way, you knew that everyone was getting the same process. You knew you were getting two scenes. And then you were going to work it. It was a very nice audition this time.
Frank Oz: I was very fortunate to find a great depth of talent in England.
What sort of photos did you show the cast in those scenes with Peter Dinklage?
Frank Oz: Well, the truth is...(Turning to Andy) You didn't see them? Did you?
Andy Nyman: No.
Frank Oz: I didn't think so. The truth of the matter is, I wanted them to be shocked. So, I asked my production designer, Michael Howells, who is gay, to get me some really strong gay porn. So, what they are looking it is God knows what. I haven't seen it. Well, I saw some of it. Every time we did a new take, we slipped in a new gay porn.
Andy Nyman: Did they know that before the shot?
Frank Oz: No, but they knew that every take, they would see some guy sucking cock, or some guy getting fucked in the ass. So, the same thing with Rupert. Didn't you know that?
Andy Nyman: No. I was wondering, because the reactions are so great.
Frank Oz: You couldn't get a reaction like that any other way. So, Michael had this great porn lying around. You didn't know that?
Andy Nyman: No, I can't wait to see those moments again. That is so good.
Frank Oz: Every time, it was a new piece of gay porn. The prop man had all of this gay porn, and he would put a new one in there every time we did a new take.
Andy Nyman: Frank just has to slip gay porn into everything he makes.
Frank Oz: Sometimes, I edit it into the score.
For an American director, why did you choose to set this in London?
Frank Oz: I didn't choose to set this in London at all. That location was chosen by the script. It was written by Dean Craig, who is a British writer, and it was in a British home. The question I get asked every single time is, "Well, it's expensive. Couldn't we go to Toronto or something?" I always say, "No." I did it once, because it had to be in Montreal for the story. This had to be done in a country where upper middle class people feel that they have to be proper. That could have been Japan, too. Or some island nation where you have to live together. This was London, so it happened in a certain class system where they felt they had to act a certain way. Otherwise, it's not funny. You couldn't have done it in America. The secret would have been out in three minutes.
Andy, what was the camaraderie like on set?
Frank Oz: This is the only time you don't have to be honest.
Andy Nyman: It was...Lovely. Truly fantastic. I had just come off a shoot of another film that I thought was the happiest ever. That was called "Severance", and it was great fun. I thought, wow, there's never going to be anything that's that great. Well, you know how you sort of have your first love? You think, "This is proper love." Then you end up with the person you actually marry. And you think, "I can't believe I thought that was love, this here is amazing." That's sort of how I feel on this. I can't believe this. There were never any problems, except for (points to OZ), ever. Nothing other than, "Are we going to get through this scene without laughing.
Frank Oz: Oh, yeah. Oh, God. There are a lot of outtakes on the DVD. He could barely stand-up sometimes. It's just hysterical. I know our job is to tell the press that we had a good time on the shoot no matter how much we hated each other. Sometimes you really have to buffalo the press. But we had a great time. That's part of the reason I did the end credits that way. I've said this before. I did this because I wanted people to see how much fun we had with it. I mean, a shoot like this is hard work. But it doesn't mean that you can't have fun. You have all of these great actors.
Andy Nyman: This is the only job were I've been two weeks to the end, and all of the other actors just don't want it to finish. We did not want this to end. Everyone was a bit mopey. "I only got two weeks left." Its hard not to sound sycophantic, but it comes from (looks at Oz) you. As much as anything. Because you so set your ego aside. No one ever has the right to act above you. That was the tone that was set from the beginning. That is truly the right way to do it.
Frank Oz: This sounds sickening. Doesn't it.
Andy Nyman: It sounds revolting.
Frank Oz: We should really say something else.
Andy Nyman: I wish every movie was like this.
Andy, can you talk about filming the bathroom scene?
Andy Nyman: Yeah, with pleasure. For years I have had scatological fantasies...I'm just kidding. Peter Vaughn is just amazing. And I'd been a fan of his forever. I don't know how well you know him over here, but back home he is the fabric of every actor. I grew up watching him. Straw Dogs was the first time I ever saw him. That was one of my favorite films. And he is extraordinary in it. Then there are all the TV shows he's been on. Here is this 81 year-old man, a great actor, who is happy to have his trousers pulled down again, and again, and again. There was this weird thing going on. Here is one of my heroes, and I'm pulling him all out. Then you've got the joy of the chocolate mouse. It was brilliant to shoot, and fun to shoot. But hard to shoot, because it is a very claustrophobic little room. They had all of the lights in there. And it was a boiling hot summer. I was shvitzing.
Frank Oz: It was a scripted scene, but you could have not gotten a more realistic performance. When you are in an extraordinary farce, you can't really do lines. That was improv with Andy and Peter. That whole thing with Andy and the Reverend is improved at the end. Again, we have the writer there. But, you take those scenes, and when you get there in the morning, as the director, you think, "Christ, I hope this works." Its kind of dicey, but you try it.
Andy Nyman: It's also exhausting. Its not like working in a mine exhausting, but it is exhausting because you are at that energetic level for eight hours. And you always have to do it a second time. You have to do it without faking it. Again, reading the script, it is rare. Because you laugh out loud. I am incredibly happy doing such great stuff.
Death at a Funeral opens in limited release August 17th, 2007.