The movie stars Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, Rashida Jones, and of course ... Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Scooter, Rowlf, Swedish Chief, Beaker, Crazy Harry, Sam the Eagle, Animal, and Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem. The Muppets, which is the beloved characters first theatrical release since '1999s Muppets From Space, promises to return Kermit the Frog and the entire gang to the forefront of popular culture once again ... exactly where they belong.
Earlier this year we had the rare opportunity to be invited to the Los Angeles set of The Muppets to speak to the cast and crew about the new film. While on set, we had a chance to talk with Academy Award nominated actress Amy Adams, actor/writer Jason Segel, co-writer Nick Stoller, and director James Bobin. Unfortunately, we did not have a chance to interview any of the actual Muppets, but we did get to see them shooting a scene for the movie.
We arrived at the KABC 7 parking lot in Burbank, Ca. just as they were filming a scene with Jason Segel and Amy Adams. The two actors were practically sitting on top of each other in the back seat of an old Rolls Royce surrounded by six different Muppets and of course...The amazing Muppet Performers. The Muppets who were working in the scene included old favorites like Fozzie Bear, Rowlf, Scooter, and Animal. Also in the scene were two new Muppets including Walter, Jason Segel's loveable Muppet sidekick, and a new female Muppet. We hesitate to tell you too much more about her, as your knowledge of her existence could spoil one of the movie's major plot points. We can say this: When The Muppets "came alive" in the scene...It was absolutely magical and would make any adult feel like they are ten years old again.
The film's plot revolves around Walter, the world's biggest Muppet fan who just happens to be a Muppet himself. Walter is visiting Los Angeles with his two friends, Gary (Jason Segel), and His girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) who are all from Smalltown, USA.
While in the L.A. area, they soon discover that despicable oilman Tex Richman (Oscar winner Chris Cooper) wants to tear down the Muppet Theater to drill for oil recently discovered underneath The Muppets former home. In order to stage "The Greatest Muppet Telethon Ever" and raise the $10 million needed to save the theater, Walter, Gary, and Mary must "get the band back together" and reunite Kermit the Frog and the whole gang, who have all gone their separate ways.
Kermit the Frog has been living in a self-imposed-exile; Fozzie now performs at a Reno casino, Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, Animal is in a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management, and Gonzo is a high powered plumbing magnate.
After she was done shooting her scene, Amy Adams was kind enough to take a few moments of her time to speak with us. Amy Adams is no stranger to Disney movies, having starred in the beloved family film Enchanted. But she's also known for her dramatic work in films like The Fighter and Junebug, which both earned her Oscar award nominations. The actress began by telling us a little bit about the role she plays in the film. "I am Mary, who is Gary's somewhat neglected girlfriend due to his close relationship with Walter. So I am kind of along for the ride desperately trying to get him to be more romantic. Well...in a Disney way, you know?"
Amy Adams continued to discuss what it is like working with The Muppets. "It's amazing when you are doing a scene and you just so accept them as the other actor. I don't know if it's because I grew up with The Muppets. I don't know. It's actually great because a lot of the times when you are doing films that involve special effects you are acting with nothing. So in reality they are actually very giving scene partners for being inanimate objects," she laughed. The actress went on to talk about working with the Muppet Performers. "That took awhile to get used to. But you get used to it and The Muppets come to life. You oddly develop different relationships with different Muppets." Of course we then asked the actress which Muppets she is most friendly with. "Walter just because I'm in most of the scenes with Walter. Then it is probably Fozzie because he was my favorite as a kid," Amy Adams explained. "So I am always interacting with Fozzie when I get a chance."
Amy Adams also revealed that she has occasionally worked as a Muppet performer on this film and she talked about the challenge of doing that while she is also acting in a scene. "Today, we did it and it was funny because Jason Segel and I both accomplished what we needed to with our Muppet, and then we forgot to act. We forgot that we were in the scene. It has its challenges." The actress also discussed the luxuries of shooting in Los Angeles where she lives, rather than on location. "It's a huge benefit for me having just had a baby. I can be at home and be working with The Muppets, which is such a family friendly set and family friendly film. She is here today. I'm sure you've seen me flying around with her. That is a huge plus. Also, just to get to introduce her to The Muppets is very fun. She was interacting with Walter today. It was the first time she had ever interacted with any of The Muppets. So that was cool."
The actress next discussed her personal history and love for The Muppets. "I watched The Muppet Movie obsessively. I can still pretty much say a lot of the lines and do a pretty mean Fozzie Bear. It's actually the worst thing. They have me do it on the set all of the time and I am so bad at it. I realize they are laughing at me, but I still enjoy it." She continued to talk about what its like to act opposite The Muppets in a movie. "I come from musical theater and a lot of musical theater is about accepting fantasy. I think it is more about just being open and accepting. I think it comes from my musical theater background more than anything else. You know, musicals were at their height at a time of...the world seemed to be a more innocent place. We had less information. That is probably where it comes from more than anything. It is my experience in theater and more specifically musicals."
We then asked the actress a very difficult question: Who is more intimidating to share a scene with, Meryl Streep or Miss Piggy? "You know, you're not the first person to ask me that," she laughed. "I have to say that I can't win in that answer because I am working with Miss Piggy. So if I say, Meryl Streep...I have to see Miss Piggy tomorrow and it will be like, so I heard...so I'm just going to plead the fifth. I know Meryl Streep will be ok, but I don't want to cross Miss Piggy." The Muppet films have always featured cameos from celebrity actors and performers so we asked Amy Adams if she's had any luck getting her fellow actors and actresses to do cameos in the film. "Yeah. I have a friend that is doing a cameo. I know a lot of people. Every time I tell people that I am doing it they are like, oh, I love The Muppets! I'm like you should be in The Muppets! We can find something for you. They look at you strangely like...really? It's a great thing. The Muppets have such a great tradition of bringing together all of genres of actors and all ages of actors. We are keeping with that tradition."
"It's a strange thing because I am an adult now so I understand that they are Muppets," Amy Adams said about working on the film. "I think when it hit me was when Kermit the Frog talks and give a speech at one point. It was like I was a kid again and I believe everything he was saying. For a moment I was there. It was really, really cool. I'm glad that I've had this experience having just had a baby because I feel like I am going to be able to bring so much wonder and awe into my relationship with her when I get to introduce the world to her in that way." The Muppets have always appealed to children and adults of all ages and we asked the actress if that tone continues through this movie. "Yeah. It is a true family film meaning that I really do believe that adults will love it, teenagers will get something out of it, and we have a lot of cultural references. We have a lot of people that people will recognize. Of course, I think the kids are going to love The Muppets. There is still that childlike charm to the characters."
After we finished speaking with Ms. Amy Adams, we had a quick opportunity to talk with director James Bobin while he was setting up for the next shot. The British born director is best known for co-creating the hit HBO show Flight of the Conchords and directing most of that series.
James Bobin began by telling us how he first became aware of this project. "I got an email which simply said the words: "Do you like The Muppets?" We followed up by asking whom the email was from. "Probably my agent," he replied. "But that was it. It was one of those questions which is like, well, who doesn't like The Muppet? I obviously love The Muppets," James Bobin said.
"In England, The Muppet Show is very much seen as an English thing," the director explained. "So for us in the U.K. it is one of the treasures of the history of children's TV and of comedy basically. It is like a thing that you grew up with in the same way that you grew up with Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Goonies, or any of that stuff. It defines a lot of your humor. I am a great believer that your humor is developed at a very early age and it doesn't ever change. You're basically the same person forever so you find the same stuff funny forever. The Muppet Show spoke to me at five and it speaks to me in my late thirties in the same way. So I typed back, yes and here I am."
Next, the direct began to explain to us all the difficulties and challenges that come with shooting a movie that features the Muppet performers. "I mean there are numerous challenges with working with Muppets rather than humans. Honestly, Muppets themselves are actors effectively. The joy is that it is very simple and low-fi, which I love. I never want to make a movie that is going to be CG filled, cold, and computerized. It is what I like about it. So you treat them as any actor because they are doing the mouth at the same time they are doing the hands," James Bobin explained. "That is the great thing and you can do that rather than having voice over or having it animated. It is very different. In terms of the shots, it is a very different game because they don't really have legs. A lot of the times they don't have legs so you have to worry about that. If you watch the earlier movies there is a really interesting grammar about how they construct shots and how they put things together. It is something that you only really learn when you do it."
Music has always been a tradition in any Muppet project and the director talked about what fans can expect, musically from the new film. "We brought Paul Williams back," James Bobin announced. "I admired his Muppets work and Bugsy Malone was a huge influence on me. I love his sort of thing. There is nothing like it. When I was working on Flight of the Conchords, we used to spend a lot of our time watching musicals. When you work in comedy it is a frame of reference and it is just fun to watch. We used to watch The Muppet Show in our time off. So immediately when I got the job I started talking to Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement saying, are you guys around? Would you like to write some songs?"
"Bret McKenzie was around and said he'd love to," continued James Bobin. "So he is going to be doing some songs for us. We have other people too. Of course, we are going to spread it as wide as we can. The music is a key element. Effectively, this is a musical comedy. It really is. We are trying to keep as much of that as we can. It's not only Muppets. Jason Segel sings a song. Coming from comedy it has a very natural development because it felt like it came from the same place comedic and musically. It's a thing where one isn't better than the other one. They are both pretty important."
Since Flight of the Conchords would often brake into song in the middle of the show, much like The Muppets, we asked James Bobin if there would be an element of that in the film. " Inevitably in any work you do I think that there is a sense of continuity, and I like that. I think going from Flight of the Conchords to The Muppets is a natural step. So I wanted to take something from that to this. I think if you look at the two and how they are shot and how they feel, they have a big sense of that," he explained. "I loved doing that and I like the idea of using music video grammar from the past and people will recognize certain moments from music videos or movies. The Muppets are very referential and they have a great history of referencing other things, times, and the past. They really live in the history of entertainment. I think one of the great bits of The Muppet Show is that it was set in a 19th century British theater and they live so nicely amongst that lovely old theater. One of the great things about this movie was getting to build that theater again in a huge stage at Universal. One of the best days of my life was walking into that theater and seeing what Kermit the Frog sees. You know when you see that classic shot of Kermit the Frog at his desk and all the people walking behind him. You never ever saw what he saw. We built that so you can see what Kermit the Frog sees. It is amazing and it is really cool."
With that, James Bobin went back to set and we were given a chance to speak with the film's co-writer Nick Stoller. Along with Jason Segel, Nick Stoller co-wrote Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which he also directed, and then went on to write and direct that films spin-off/sequel Get Him to the Greek. Nick Stoller and Jason Segel have been working on this project for some time now and Nick Stoller talked about how it feels to finally be filming the movie. "We've worked on this for about two years. I always go into writing stuff assuming it's not going to happen because it's so hard to get projects going. We were both such huge fans, obviously, of The Muppets," said Nick Stoller.
"They were like the first kind of...I call them the gateway drug to comedy, because it's like the first thing that you see that you're like, I have to do comedy," continued Nick Stoller. "So the fact that the first time I wrote Kermit the Frog, I couldn't believe I was getting to write his dialogue. When they actually green-lit it, it was really a dream come true. Jason Segel called me ... he had a general meeting with Disney. They asked him what they had that he might be interested in. He said Muppets. Then he called me, and within a few days we kind of mapped out a huge chunk of the story. A lot of the script has changed; we've done a lot of drafts since then, but the very central idea of the movie has remained the same."
Nick Stoller also talked about the tone for this new movie and trying to make it similar to the classic television show and the original feature films. "We wanted to do a complete return to those first movies and to The Muppet Show. From the beginning we wanted to have that tone. When you watch The Muppet Movie, it hasn't aged at all. It could have been made yesterday. It feels like an episode of The Simpsons in a weird way, without any cynicism," he said. "I would say that's the only difference. It's pretty amazing. Most things from 1980 feel like they're from 1980. It just doesn't. It feels really present. So we really wanted to do that and be really self-referential. But also have that heart and that sweetness that those original movies had."
The writer also talked about a major change to the screenplay that they had to make once they began shooting the film. "With the original draft of the script, Walter, the friend puppet of Jason Segel's character, they do a ventriloquism show and he pretends to be a puppet, and then they find out that he's actually real. You don't refer to them as puppets in the Muppet world," explained Nick Stoller. They're just people. They don't think they're puppets. They don't look like puppets. So that was a big...all the Muppet Performers who have been with the property for years taught us all that stuff. It's why the whole universe works."
There is a long tradition of famous performers making cameos in Muppet films. We asked Nick Stoller if he could reveal who some of the cameos are that they have lined up for the new film. "We wrote in cameos and hoped we'd get them, but they were also kind of placeholders," he said. "With any kind of cameo casting, because I've done some of it on my past films, you write them in hoping you'll get them, and then it's a long process of scrambling to get them."
We specifically asked Nick Stoller if comedic legend Don Rickles, which was rumored to be making a cameo actually appears in the film. "I don't know. I'm not sure. We tried to get various people. I don't want to mention names because I don't want ... but we tried to get people from the past movies. I actually don't think anyone ended up working out. But it's kind of fine. Those actors weren't really into the movie. Like Steve Martin was the first to turn us down. But we did have some people who were...so many comedians were on the show, obviously."
The writer also discussed the challenges of writing dialogue for such iconic characters. "Certainly the puppeteers will tell us if something is clearly not the character. But for the most part, just being a fan of the show and the movies, we kind of knew how to write the characters. There was some stuff in our original drafts where Kermit the Frog and Fozzie may have been a little bit too mean, and they're never mean in any way. So there was stuff like that that we kind of refined." The writer continued to talk about his involvement with the project now that it is filming. "We worked on the script for so long that they don't need much stuff. What they often do is they'll call me and ask for jokes or little scene changes. It's easier for me to just do that at home. I'm also in the midst of prepping my next movie, so I can't really be here as much. But I am here just to experience it just because it's so cool."
Last but not least, we had an opportunity to chat with writer/producer/actor Jason Segel about his involvement with the film. We started off by asking Jason Segel to talk about the lesser-known Muppets that hard-core fans can look forward to seeing in the new film. "We're bringing out a lot of Muppets from the archives. A lot of the guys from the old Muppet Show, some of the obscure Muppets make appearances, which I'm really excited about. I can't give too many away, but yeah, there's some old favorites of mine. Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphones appear. I don't know if you know who they are, but there's some really cool weird ones."
Jason Segel went on to talk about the tone that is intended for this new film and how it fits into the entire series. "We're trying to hearken back to the original three Muppet movies. I think that one of the things the original Muppet movies did amazingly well, is that they don't condescend to children by feeling like they have to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator. When you don't do that, you get a family film in its truest sense," said Jason Segel "The entire family can sit and watch and enjoy it. I think parents are going to be laughing as hard as kids are going to be laughing. We have jokes geared towards children. We have jokes that are geared specifically towards adults that would go right over a kid's head. It's a lot like what The Simpsons does, as well. There's something very special about the whole family being able to sit down and enjoy something together. That was our goal."
The actor also spoke about the importance of making this film a musical in the tradition of the other Muppet movies. "We knew it was going to be a musical from the start. All the great Muppet movies are musicals. When you look back at the great lineage of Muppet music, things like Rainbow Connection, that's not a joke of a song. That is a serious song. If a legitimate musician put that song out they'd win the Grammy. So we really wanted the music to be great," explained Jason Segel. "James Bobin was the perfect choice for this movie because he's been doing Flight of the Conchords and it almost seems like he's been training for this. Then we brought on Bret McKenzie. It was just a perfect union of their styles and the Muppet styles. So I think we're in really good shape."
Next, Jason Segel discussed the challenges of acting opposite Muppets. "It didn't take long before you're looking right at the Muppet. I have a bit of a challenge, as the Muppeteers need monitors so they can see what's going on, because Muppets don't have working eyes...They're Muppets. So they're working off of monitors. But a lot of times we can see the monitor, so we can watch ourselves act. My acting is mesmerizing," he joked. "So a lot of times I find myself just watching myself act when I should not be doing that." We followed up by asking Jason Segel if he has had a chance to actually operate any of The Muppets and work as Muppeteer himself. "Yeah, I just operated Fozzie about a minute ago. I've done Fozzie, I've done Dr. Teeth, and I've done Beaker so far. It's been amazing. That is what knocks your socks off. This is going to sound different than how I mean it, but my hand is inside Fozzie! That's amazing! I never thought that would happen!"
Jason Segel co-created the new Muppet in the film, Walter, with Nick Stoller but explained that they couldn't actually be involved in the process of designing the new character. "We did not get to design him physically, because then they would owe us a lot of money. So we came up with him on paper, and then they were very clear that we could not be involved in any aspect of the physical design of Walter. But it is pretty crazy when I saw him and I knew that he was born in our brain. It's like we had a little baby with our brains! It's pretty crazy," Jason Segel said. "I'm not nervous about Walter one bit," he continued talking about the new Muppet. "Walter is the sweetest little guy you'll ever meet. He's like a very young Kermit the Frog. He's naïve and he's sweet. Walter's thing is that he has never met anyone like him. We grew up in Smalltown USA; that's literally the name of the town. He's never seen anything else like him except for The Muppets on television. So his dream is to go meet The Muppets and kind of maybe have a family. So it really does have tones of a young Kermit the Frog."
Jason Segel also shared with us what it was like for him to meet The Muppets for the first time for a pre-production photo shoot. "Meeting Kermit the Frog for the first time was pretty crazy. We did a photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly where it was the first time they arranged all the puppets. They did something called armature them so that they were all in a pose. I was sitting at this table and I looked around and it was every single one of them. It was like twenty Muppets. I think what struck me is...I'm not an arrogant dude. To be even like the tiniest footnote in the Muppet lineage is nuts to me. That is insane. So I feel very honored."
We next asked the actor/writer if he has a favorite episode from the original The Muppet Show series. "Peter Sellers' episode just slaughters me. It's so weird, no, it truly is. It's exactly why I love The Muppets. Scooter comes in at the beginning of every episode and he's like, five minutes to curtain, Mr. Sellers! Then Peter Sellers is like, what should I do when I get out there? Scooter's like, well, all you have to do is be yourself! There is no Peter Sellers. I lost Peter Sellers some time ago. All I know how to do is inhabit a character. He goes on for like five minutes," explains Jason Segel. "It's like a dude having an existential crisis. Then he sings a song called, Whiskey, Wine, and Wild Women. So it's why I love The Muppets. The kids are just thinking, oh, cute! Fun! Like a guy singing a song with The Muppets. The Muppets are like watching Peter Sellers sing Whiskey, Wine, and Wild Women. That's exactly my point. It's working on every level. It's firing on all cylinders."
Next we spoke to Jason Segel about the music for the film and the actor revealed that there will be classic Muppet songs as well as new ones in the upcoming film. "Bret McKenzie wrote most of the songs. Then we have a couple reprises of some of the old Muppet songs. I wrote one of the songs, but it's a joke of a song. He really just took the songs and ran with them. They're awesome; and really, really gorgeous. They're catchy so kids will be bopping along, but some of the lyrics are definitely adult-based. Part of the movie is Kermit the Frog trying to come to terms with the fact that The Muppets aren't together anymore. There's a beautiful song that Kermit the Frog sings that is truly heartbreaking."
We then asked Jason Segel if he could tell us what the various Muppets are doing with their lives when we first catch up with them in the film. "I don't want to give too much away. But we've got them in various states of success or disarray. Some are famous. Some are...destitute is the wrong word; you are not going to see any destitute Muppets," he joked. "But some aren't doing what they wish they were doing. So everyone is doing their own thing and it's a bit of a struggle for all of them to come back and become The Muppet Show again."
Finally, Jason Segel discussed why he wanted to be sure to incorporate Jim Henson Studios into the plot of the film as well. "That was something I wanted to do. The idea was born at the Jim Henson Studios," he explained. "They designed the Sarah Marshall puppets. While I was there I asked if I could see a Kermit the Frog or a Miss Piggy and they said, we don't have them here anymore. We've sold them to Disney. Disney owns all the Kermit the Frog's and Piggy's. That literally was the moment the idea was born, was that The Muppets weren't at the Henson studios anymore. Then it grew from there. I must say, Nick Stoller is a tremendous writing partner. He came up with a huge amount of the idea. And James Bobin, when he signed on, really refined the script. We're a good triumvirate; not since the days of Rome," Jason Segel said in closing.