The Muppets Co-Writer Nicholas Stoller Talks About Where It All Began
Discounting television films, it’s been 12 years since we last saw a Muppet movie, but thanks to the work of Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel that drought has ended. This week saw the release of The Muppets, which is not only brilliant, but, in my personal opinion, one of the best movies of the year. But how exactly did it all get started? Fortunately I recently had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with Stoller to talk about not only that, but everything else about The Muppets.
In the interview below, the co-writer talks about not only how the project got started, but some of the original ideas that didn’t make it into the film, their approach to the script, and even how they decided what sound Gonzo’s horn would make at the end of the theme song. Check it out!
Take me back to the beginning. I mean, how did you even get the opportunity to write a Muppet movie?
We showed Disney Forgetting Sarah Marshall and they were like, “Clearly, they make sense.” [laughs] You know, there's penis in that movie. So, uh, what happened was Jason had a meeting around when Forgetting Sarah Marshall was coming out, he had a general meeting. And they said, “What properties are you interested in?” And he said, “What are you doing with the Muppets?” And they said, “We don't know.” A strange answer. [laughs] You know, they lose major brands if you own that many brands. So he called me actually right after that meeting on the drive home and he said, “Would you want to write a Muppet movie?” And I said, “Of course. That's a dream. Am I on a prank show?” And then on that drive we pitched out what the plot would be. And a few weeks later we went in and pitched what we thought the Muppet movie should be. And then it took about two years for it to actually get greenlit and then an additional two years for it to actually get made.
And how much did the script change from, say the first draft, even those initial ideas- did any of them make the final cut?
The macro ideas were the same, which is kind of crazy. They have to get where have the Muppets been, Jason and his friend Walter are going to get them back together, turns out there's Tex Richman who's going to tear down the studio, and they have to put on a show. All that was the same. But then a lot of the micro stuff- and to say it's micro, it's bigger than micro- but it changed. We had a plot idea that you reveal towards the end, it was a Willy Wonka reveal, that Tex Richman was actually Kermit in human suit. [laughs] And he did this whole thing to get the Muppets back together. And the Disney executives were like, “No, that's super confusing. Kids aren't going to get that.” [laughs] And then we had- we loved the idea of unzipping a human suit and a Muppet stepping out- we had an additional idea that he's Tex Richman, it's Kermit in a human suit, but that his interest in the oil makes another oil baron interested. [Laughs] And they're like, “That's even more confusing. That's a terrible idea.” [Laughs] So yeah, there was stuff like that.
Well as a comedy writer I speak Muppet fluently. It's kind of the first thing you watch when you're, y'know... but yeah, I did watch the original movies, we really wanted this to be a throw-back to the original movies, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, Muppets take Manhattan. So we watched those. We watched Muppet shows, just to make sure we were getting the voices right. But it's just such a part of who I am, I feel like. It wasn't hard.
You and Jason have worked together on multiple other projects. And does your approach change? Was the writing process different than, say, Forgetting Sarah Marshall or Five Year Engagement?
In one big way it was a lot easier. Because when you sit down and write a script you have to invent the characters and the tone and the world. In addition to the story. And all we had to do was make the story. The characters, the tone, all that already existed. So it was easy to write it for that reason. It took many drafts to get to the movie, but that part of it was great. All the hard work had been done. By many more talented people before us.
One thing that's fantastic about the move is that it really- you get all the characters, and they really all get their moment in the sunlight. Even for the shortest span of time. Was that always the plan? Or was that kind of just something that happened organically?
That was always the plan. That was the hardest part. I mean, I'll say the flip side of writing a Muppet movie is that maybe you have two or three people talking. A hard scene is four people talking. In a Muppet movie, there's routinely twenty people or Muppets or whatever in a scene. And so you have to service all these characters. And watching it in the original movies, you really have to service Kermit, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie. That's it, and then rest are kind of jokes. And so after figuring out what their arcs would be, we kind of serviced the other characters with jokes.
And, I mean, this is a totally random question, but as I mentioned my favorite character is Gonzo. During the Muppet theme, with Gonzo, how did you choose the Tarzan call as the one that-
Oh, for the horn, yeah. I think they went through a bunch and James ended up landing on that one. Yeah. [Laughs] Jason pitched “Friday,” y'know, [he starts singing the Rebecca Blacks song] “Friday, Friday.” [Laughs] I pitched- I can't even remember- I think an autotune horn. But Tarzan, it feels really throwback-y.
Yeah, I mean, Muppets are just so timeless. When I rewatched The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, Muppets take Manhattan- I was braced for it to be really dated. The Muppet Movie could have been made yesterday. The only thing that's dated is its pace, it's a little bit slower. There's a two minute push in through clouds. [Laughs] That's it, that's the only thing that's like that. But everything else about it- like they're literally referring to the script. They take out the screenplay and they're like, “Where are we going next in the movie?” So it's pretty astonishing. So we knew that in order to maintain that timelessness, we just wanted to recreate that kind of thing.
Was there ever a concern for playing both to adult audiences and kid audiences, like finding that balance?
Well I think what the Muppets did was they kind of set the standards for that kind of comedy. Without the Muppets I don't think there'd be The Simpsons, the Pixar movies. And it kind of naturally lends itself to that, so you can tell a weird kind of verbal joke that only adults will understand, and then you can also have, like, Fozzie fall off stage or whatever. So I think that's part of the charm and magic of them. And why all ages like them.
And when it came to the musical numbers, when you were writing the script, was it kind of just like in brackets, musical number here? How in depth did that process get and when did the music actually enter into the whole scene?
With music, we wrote- well, obviously in Forgetting Sarah Marshall there was music also- well, when we wrote them, some of them are more figured out than others. In our script we would say, like, insert musical number here. Like, Piggy and Mary sing about how hard it is to be a woman, like that kind of thing. But some of them, like “Pictures in my Head”, we wrote like, “Kermit walks down the hall seeing pictures of Muppets as he sings about how he misses them, and then they come alive and sing too.” So like that was pretty specific. So it just depended. And then when James came aboard, his first pitch to us was we should start the movie with a song called “Everything is Great,” but everything is not great, and then you can reprise that at the end. So that was his addition.
I was friends with him for years before that. And like real friends, not Hollywood friends [laughs]. Like our wives and kids play together. And when I heard he had interest in doing it, I was so excited. And I was like, “If he doesn't do it, I don't know who can.” And once he came in, the script for the most part, y'know, the moods stayed the same, but Jason, James and I sat in my office and went through and kind of, like, went through and punched up. And he had some ideas, the moopets were his idea. But again the story moves of getting the studio back and all that, that kind of stayed the same. And obviously he brings such a visual panache to the movie. The musical numbers are insane, so yeah. And a deep, deep respect for the Muppets. He probably knows more about the Muppets than me or Jason. [Laughs]
I talked with the director earlier and he said that the cameos were kind of really organic out of the script as well.
I'm curious, how exactly did that work? Did you write specific roles for specific people? Did you just have an idea of like, where somebody could possibly fit? How did that work?
Well yeah, when you write cameo stuff- I've done it now a little bit on Sarah Marshall and Get Him To The Greek there were a lot of cameos, you kind of have to put in place older cameos and you put the place in where you really hope you'll get. And on this one, it often comes down to schedule, especially with the Muppets, everyone wants to do it. So it really comes down to schedule. But we are thrilled. I mean, Jack Black we wanted really badly and he was kind enough to do it, which was awesome. And I remember when I put in- um, I'm very proud of Hobo Joe, [Laughs] and we were like, “Obviously Zach Galafianakis.” And we approached him and he wanted to do it, which was just thrilling. So it was that and I think James wanted to have Jim Parsons as Walter, y'know... but it's kind of a natural- like who wants to do it, and in the Muppets case it's kind of everyone. And then it comes down to scheduling.
When I was first reporting news about The Muppets there was talk of, like, actors being in negotiations and I was like, “How do you be in negotiations for a Muppets movie? You just, like, do it!”
He was in there from the beginning. We needed an entry point for kids and people who didn't know the Muppets. It was also, from a storytelling perspective, it was important that we have a stand in for, like, Jason and I, which is the super-fan. So, you know, the Muppet super-fan more than anything- it's kind of the question I've been asking for years is, “Why haven't the Muppets done a Muppet movie?” So we wanted that person in there. And that was Walter. And we wanted him to be really enthusiastic, and faint when he sees Kermit, and just be so into the Muppets and think he can't possibly be part of them. But of course he becomes a part of them.
When you're on set with these Muppets- I mean, obviously the puppeteers are phenomenal, but is there a distance when you actually see the puppeteer controlling the Muppet? Or does it not matter because it just immediately clicks to the Muppet?
You know, I would say I'm weird this way. Everyone just talks to the Muppet. For whatever reason, I think it's rude to not talk to the person talking to me [Laughs] so they would come up to me, like Steve Whitmire would come up to me as Kermit, and be like, “How are you doing?” And I'd be like, “I'm doing good, how are you doing, Steve?” [Laughs] And I think the puppeteers think that's kind of rude, but I can't do it. But I have a four year old daughter, and when I brought her she was just enchanted. She talked to the puppet and she couldn't believe it. But I'm weird that way. [Laughs]
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