HE IS BEST KNOWN for bringing two of the biggest TV comedy shows in years to our screens. Yet James Bobin – of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS and DA ALI G SHOW fame – couldn’t resist taking on the biggest challenge of his life for this, his first leap into filmmaking. I caught up with the LA-based Englishman at the recent Dubai International Film Festival, just prior to the film’s premiere, to find out why...
How did you find yourself making a Muppet movie?
Life’s full of weird twists and turns, I guess. I had an email from my agent, asking me if I liked the Muppets, about two years ago. And I said, Yes! I love Muppets. They’re part of my childhood, I have very fond memories of them, so I said, Sure. I didn’t think about it for a second.
It’s been 12 years since we last them on screen. How did you bring them up to date, for a new audience?
I thought I knew them really well, from when I was a kid, from watching the show in England for years. I’d just finished doing FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS, for HBO, which was a comedy musical. So I had a hunch that if I applied that contemporary humour with Muppet-style humour, it would be an interesting blend. Which I hope it is. It’s very respectful to the Muppets – it has a lot of puns in it, they refer to the script quite a lot. The tone is the thing I’m most proud of. It feels very Muppety, like an old Muppet movie.
It’s your first film?
Yes, I like a challenge! It didn’t feel that different from making FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS [pictured, above], except instead of having 30 people behind me, I had 500. The actual job itself doesn’t change that much. If you know what you want to do, you’re clear. Directing is largely a job of decision-making. The hardest part was learning how to shoot puppets. I hadn’t worked with puppets before! What they don’t show on screen is this whole world around the frame, of what we’re doing, to have a shot of, say, Kermit, Fozzy, Gonzo walking down the street towards you. You have to change the world to fit their size. We shot a scene with 60 puppets in the end. We did a lot of prep!
And then, Fox News branded you a communist…
The guy’s called Tex Richman [laughs], which is pretty clearly a joke, right? He’s a baddie – not because he’s an oil executive, but because he’s an evil man. When you make a film, you never dream these things will come up: in my wildest imagination, I never saw that one coming. It’s odd, to say the least. I think most people understand that it’s not a communist allegory – it’s not! There’s no hidden agenda with this movie!
Why do we still love the Muppets, exactly?
The Muppets are amazingly human characters. They have this inherent flaw, in that they’re not good at what they do: Fozzy can’t tell jokes, Piggy can’t act or sing, but they really want to try. That’s what I love about them. They’re like the underdogs. You want to root for them. Individually, they’re flawed as well, but together they’re great – which is a great message for kids too, I think.
Without having an agenda?
Those things aren’t hammered home, but the thing in this movie for me is: are the Muppets and their philosophy still relevant today? That idea of being positive, seeing the best in people, not being cynical – can you still do that today? If you can be a kid for as long as you can, that’s good – you should be innocent for as long as you can, I think. Maybe that’s because I’m now a dad (my daughter’s four, my son’s two). But even before I had kids, I felt that way.
Yet, on this occasion, you didn’t write the script?
Technically, no. But as a director, you always have an involvement with the script. It makes it a lot easier when you’re working. I did quite a bit of work with Jason Segal [who also stars in the movie, with Amy Adams and Chris Cooper] and Nicholas Stoller, before we started shooting.
There are a number of big-name cameos in the film, too. Was it hard, convincing others to be involved?
Well, we wrote them in the script, to serve the movie (rather than the other way round). And pretty much everyone we asked said yes. Not only that, they also said, Thank you for asking me! The more we asked people [Emily Blunt, Sarah Silverman, Dave Grohl and Zach Galifianakis, among others], the more they said yes. There was great hidden love for the Muppets: people didn’t realise how much they loved them.
A lot of people had forgotten about the Muppets?
I think a lot of people had forgotten how much they loved them. People tend to remember the 70s movies – we’re the seventh, in fact – so most people think they’ve been away. Which isn’t necessarily true: they’ve been doing TV in America, albeit on a smaller scale. It works for our story, though. The story of the film mirrors reality in a way, I guess, of them staging this big comeback.
Which of the original voices are in the movie?
The only original voice is David Goelz, who plays Gonzo. Same guy, since 1974. He’s just older [laughs]. He’s brilliant. Steve Whitmire has been doing Kermit for a long time [since Muppets creator Jim Henson passed away, back in 1991]. Prior to that, he was doing puppet shows. These guys have been doing puppets for something like 40 years, you know. It’s a very small community. So all these guys are very, very experienced puppeteers. There’s not many people who can that job: to be technically proficient with your hands and to be able to get the voice out is not an easy combination. Puppeteering is a lifetime occupation.
Did you feel an enormous pressure, to get it right?
Not really. The only pressure I felt was to my six-year-old self, to make it good, to do them justice. I wanted my daughter to love them as much as I did. So I couldn’t just rely on nostalgia. You have to show them being great.
Where did you first watch THE MUPPETS as a kid? In Staines?
Not Staines [laughs]. I was born in Oxford, then lived in Hampshire and Oxford, and then London. Although I have spent a lot of time in Staines [filming DA ALI G SHOW, with Sacha Baron Cohen, above]. Staines is very much a representation of suburban England. It’s a very old name. It’s just bad luck, really. We love Staines, it’s good.
I remember first seeing Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G back in the 1990s, on British TV’s THE 11 O’CLOCK SHOW. Do you still have a working relationship with him?
Yes, we’re still mates – we hang out quite a bit: Sacha lives in LA, I live in LA. Even though I didn’t direct BRUNO, I helped out with writing and producing bits and pieces. Whenever I had a break from Flight of the Conchords, I’d help out. He and I worked together for something like eight years, in the end. He’s brilliant. He’s one of the most talented actors in the world. Very hard-working.
So what’s next?
Six months of sleep! I’m completely exhausted. I don’t know, really. I really like doing things that I write myself. I recently signed a deal with HBO to do more TV shows. So I’m developing new half-hour comedies for them. Movie-wise, I’m writing a few things. The two things I’m interested in the moment are historical movies – they’re all comedies, by the way – and musical comedies. I think music is a great way of spending an hour-and-a-half of your time.
What’s the secret to good comedy?
The stuff we’re not consciously thinking about, the stuff we all take for granted. It works best in places where you can bump into people. That’s why I set FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS in New York – where things just happen, like London. Whereas in LA, things only happen when you plan them to!
And finally… would you consider doing another Muppets movie?
[Laughs] Of course. At the time, it’s incredibly hard work. When you look back at it, it’s this amazing experience. These guys, I loved them as a kid, so to work with them was an amazing thing. It’s like working with Luke Skywalker. It’s so weird! And I’m really proud of the film. We’ve had great reviews in the US. On Rotten Tomatoes, we’re ahead of THE ARTIST and HUGO: two best-picture nominees. It’s nice to have this great swell of love for the Muppets. It’s what I was hoping for. It’s worked out well.
THE MUPPETS is in cinemas now.
First published by Empire Australasia.