Director James Bobin Talks About What Makes The Muppets So Delightful

By Eric Eisenberg 2011-11-25 23:14:20discussion comments
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While some people may not be as passionate as others about them, it’s practically impossible to hate The Muppets. Kermit and the gang are a pure force for good and even if they’re not making you laugh they’re making you smile and just be happy. But why is that? What is it about the Jim Henson creations that are so ridiculously delightful? In trying to find the answer to that question, I went to a pure source: James Bobin, the director of The Muppets.

I recently had the chance to sit down one-on-one with the filmmaker to not only talk about the incredible appeal of the fuzzy felt characters but the new movie as well. Check out the interview below in which Bobin talks about how nostalgia made its way into the new film, the epic marketing campaign, and how they went about getting the many, many cameos.

So I guess my first question- it's kind of an abstraction. Um, but I am really curious- what is it about these characters... like, I was experiencing joy chills while watching this movie. [Laughs]

Good!

I was so ridiculously happy, and I'm curious, what do you think that is? What is it about the Muppets?

It's a really great thing- I've seen the movie a million times before to get to this point. And I spend a lot of my time watching the audience because I've seen the film thousands of times, so I don't need to watch the film again, I want to see people watching it. The thing I took away from it most of the time is that people just smile the whole way through the movie. Even before you meet the Muppets and you see Walter and Jason coexist as Muppet and human in the world... I think it's a thing that we really want to believe in that world that could exist, of puppets and humans happily coexisting. And that's the thought: “Oh, this is going to be awesome!” [Laughs] And then of course you meet the Muppets, who- you know the Muppets from back in the day and they have such a great place in people's hearts. Because for awful lots people it's from their childhood. And what is more emotive than your own childhood? But also I think to a degree, just because they are all kind of flawed, none of them are perfect. They're very human in that way. They're not good at anything. But together they really try and together they work as a group. And I think that you would identify with that. That none of us are perfect and we always want to try and strive for stuff that we can't necessarily do. But that makes them the underdogs the whole time, and you kind of root for that too. So lots of things working there. But yeah, the whole thing is that it's a big smile for the entire movie. Plus the occasional tear up too. Even better for me. Because that's definitely my job completely.

Where does the nostalgic factor enter into it?

Well, it's interesting because I think they're- well, I think my job is two-fold. One is to do a movie that does justice to the characters, if you knew them already. Like myself, I'm a huge fan. I watched them as a kid back in England in the 70's. And I was very, very careful, I wanted to make sure I was doing them justice, because I have kids these days. My daughter's four. I wanted to make sure that she got them the way I used to get them. And I couldn't just say, “Oh watch this, this is great,” because she wouldn't believe me. [Laughs] I have to show her them being great the whole point. So I think it's really important for those kinds of people, but also remember that there are people who have never seen a muppet before. New people. And I want to introduce them in a way whereby you can understand why people are so crazy about them.

So, you know, I think also it has an effect in the sense that it harks back to an innocent time, to a degree. And yeah, and that's all tied up in a direct sense in our own childhood, the past that always seems more innocent. But I think there was a genuine essence in the 70's that has kind of gone away a bit. And the muppets really are representative of that. And I think the whole crux to this movie is the fact that Tex Richman is kind of a recitation of the bad side of the contemporary world, which is kind of status and wealth and money, and it's the most important thing, I'm successful and you guys aren't. And he says that great speech where he stands up and says, “You guys aren't relevant anymore, no one cares about you, you're hippy-dippy”... I love that speech. It's a brilliant speech, because it's exactly what I feel that muppets can answer and say, “Look, it's this stuff we represent, which is optimism and positivity.” It's still really important today, it hasn't gone away, it's still there. You just don't see it as much as you used to, so I'm really, really glad that they're going to bring it back.

One thing I'd like to go back to is Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Their sound, their whole style is very 60's-

Yup!

You can't modernize that, right?

No, because you don't really want to, you don't really need to. The music from the 60s is still popular today. The Beatles, still. Why would you change that? You don't contemporize the Beatles. So I don't think anything needs to be contemporized. They are so strong as characters, so fantastic. All we need to do is be true to what they were originally true to, and properly tell a story whereby it reflects kind of where they were in peoples' minds to a degree, and kind of where they're coming back. I'm more or less intrigued in what they were, but at the same time I'm not being over, kind of, over-adult in that. You can't be nostalgic. You have to have some contemporary resonance, otherwise why make it? You can't just facsimile an old movie, you have to bring something of yourself to it. And I think, hopefully, that's what Nick, Jason and I did with their background in things like Sarah Marshall and my background in Conchords. It comes together, and I think you get kind of an interesting blend of muppet-style humor, Conchords-style humor and Sarah Marshall-style humor all together kind of thing. And I think that's really interesting. I hope that's why people over six will enjoy it too. [Laughs]

Well everybody in the crowd I was with loved it.

Thank you.

The other thing that I want to bring back is that the marketing campaign has been fantastic.

Yes. Nothing to do with me!

Nothing to do with you? [Laughs]

To be fair, they are always- they are- the guy that's actually responsible, it's a guy called David Sound in terms of the actual promos going out in cinemas and stuff, and he was very involved from a very early stage. He came to us with the ideas of sort of what he wanted to do. And immediately I was delighted with it, because it reminded me of those kind of mash-ups you've got on YouTube, like The Shining recut as a comedy. It was a brillaint idea, because our movie is such a kind of, with in it, has so many nods to Hollywood tropes or movie genres.

You can easily recut it as anything. Well, this one's going to run as that because you can do it many, many times. Of course, he has to. And they are really brilliant. And for me, as a director, it was so incredibly useful, because tonally it teases you up perfectly for what this movie is. It lets you know the muppets are funny, they are contemporary, they're not aimed solely at kids, it's for everybody, and there's adult humor in it. And those things kind of really helped reposition where everyone thought the muppets may have been. So they were fantastic. I can't speak high enough of them, they really were fantastic. And all I had to do was just make an occasional note about them. It was great, they did a fantastic job.

And I remember during The Hangover 2 parody, there was the scene with Wanda Sykes and Danny Trejo- was that actually in the movie? Or was that filmed specifically-

It was in the movie. These movies are huge, and then they get whittled down. I may be confused, but I think that was possibly in- it may not have been, I'm a great believer in using stuff in the trailer that isn't in the movie, in fact sometimes trailers don't give you the vaguest sense of what it's going to be about. It doesn't have to be in the movie. I think a large number of gags are there. I hate to be, “Everything is good in the trailer is everything good in the movie.” I like the idea that you have to save something. It kills me when we start releasing clips. I'm like, “Save it, save it, save it!” [Laughs]

I am curious about the cameos, all the cameos. How did you find people? Like, did people approach you? Was it-?

It was very much script-driven. You watch the early muppet movies, and it's got a sort of purpose for the film, and that was really much my idea. I didn't want to have to put in people just because their famous. I hate that sort of thing. It's much more fun because you kind of write their roles in. But the great thing about something like a telethon is that we had nine positions in that bank, so the telephones had the weirdest blend of celebrities, news guys, old people from comedies, and contemporary pop singers. So you could really bring the wholemeld together, which is fantastic. We have people like Judd Hirsch, Selena Gomez, people of that like. [Laughs] That's what telethons are, bringing together the variety and disparate ends of culture, which is very interesting.
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