Interview: James Bobin Talks ‘The Muppets,’ Translating His TV Skills, Muppets in His DNA, and His Proudest Achievement
When picking a director for the first feature film starring The Muppets since 1999’s Muppets from Space, it’s essential that the chosen helmer has not only the skill to pull off the production, but an affection and respect for the material that fans of the felted ones will be able to see and feel. The Muppets hit the jackpot with director James Bobin, a Muppets super-fan who also has a background in song, dance, comedy, and all that jazz. Who else would understand the essential element of The Muppets ‐ believing that it’s all real?
The Muppets is Bobin’s first feature film, but the British director has earned his stripes with some seminal television series ‐ writing and directing Da Ali G Show and creating (along with writing, directing, and producing) Flight of the Conchords. He’s also been nominated for a BAFTA and a Writers Guild of America Award, along with notching no less than eleven Emmy nominations for his work.
I sat down with the very excited and very genuine director to talk about The Muppets, starring an all-new Muppet (Walter) and centering on his journey to something close to Bobin’s heart ‐ becoming a part of the, ahem, fabric that is the Muppets. After the break, Bobin discusses how his television background helped him launch a full-scale Muppet movie, his favorite Muppets to work with, treating the material with the utmost respect, and how to build that believable world from five feet off the ground.
How are you doing? It’s only day one of a massive three-day junket!
I know! It’s a marathon session, but it’s actually fun because I enjoy talking about, so it’s fun because it’s interesting ‐ lots to talk about.
This is your first feature film, and it’s a Muppet film, so it’s a huge undertaking. How much did your background in television help with all the moving parts of a Muppet production?
Well, that’s a good question. It helped enormously. When you’re a show-runner ‐ which is basically the guys who does everything ‐ I directed it, I wrote it, I produced it, I edited it, everything. So that is basically what a director does on a movie ‐ which is everything. I wear a lot of hats, I have to answer many questions a day, I have to be absolutely sure about what I think all the time. And those things are also very important for doing television, and I think the diversity of TV and the speed of TV helps you as well.
The speed of TV is always (snaps fingers) boom boom boom, and particularly with movies these days it’s the same, but a Muppet movie, that’s especially true, because the puppets make everything difficult, because obviously, you know, they have no legs! (Laughs) So when you want to stage, you have to build the whole set five-and-a-half feet up in the air, and it’s a complex situation of how you get your cameras and how that all works out. When you’re on location, you have to build a world whereby they can perform at their height, which is actually three foot/two foot up in the air, and yet the door handles have to be the right height, and every environment you visit you have to make work for both humans and puppets. So, yeah, it’s an incredibly complicated thing, but the experience of doing a television show for a very long time means you get used to working quickly and making decisions quickly. And that really helped.
And then you throw in song-and-dance numbers, which are a huge part of the film…
My particular expertise has been doing music and comedy, I’ve been doing Conchords for four, five years before Muppets, so when I was given a script for The Muppets and there were songs in it and there were ideas of where a song should go and where a song should be and what they would be visually, because I’d been doing it, it felt like another episode of Conchords that was just an hour and a half long.
And now with puppets!
And now with puppets! So it was a bit difficult there, but it felt like going back to my old job, which I loved, so I was very happy to do this, because I’ve always loved comedy and I’ve always done comedy, but music is something I’ve always liked in my personal life. But then suddenly to work with Conchords, I can do stuff I’ve loved, my hobby as my job, which is brilliant.
And then to have the bonus of doing puppetry, and anything about puppets, and how they work and how you shoot them, was another thing I wanted to do, because I’ve always been interested in new jokes, new comedy, I’ve always wanted to do things that aren’t like “X meets Y.” I like to do things which are ‐ it’s a new thing, like Ali G was a new thing because it was an actor pretending to be someone in the real world and no one knew who he was, totally new idea. Conchords was a sitcom that happened to have crazy songs in it, another new idea.
So puppets to me felt like ‐ people haven’t had puppets for a long time, and then Team America did it, which is awesome, and so for me, it was like another way of telling jokes. And the Muppets obviously had a great tradition of doing that back in the day in the 70s and for me, that style of humor, that kind of good-hearted, good-natured, fourth wall-breaking, pun-making gag was what it was going to be about. I felt that there’d been a lot of comedy recently which is kind of observational, slightly cynical dramedy, which I thought, “I’m just kind of tired of this, I want jokes again, let’s just write some jokes again!” And that’s kind of what I felt Muppets was anyway, and also where I felt personally in my comedic kind of journey [laughs], I guess, where I was going, so it felt like a very good synthesis for me.
I know that you were a Muppet fan as a kid…
Well, yes! In England, it’s an English show. If you go anywhere in England and you say, “who were the Muppets, where are they from?”, everyone says they’re English, everybody, because in England, it’s an English show. There’s an English theater, they’re English writers, English directors, English production designers, it was a very English-feeling show, and tonally, it was very English. Like it feels far more like Monty Python or The Goodies or Young Ones than it does any American show from that time, and so for me, it was just ‐ “is this in your DNA?” You know about the Muppets, it’s like a thing you know about. And so to be asked to do it was like, “okay, [laughs], of course, why wouldn’t I do that? Yeah, obviously.”
Who was your favorite Muppet to work with?
That’s a good question. You know who I love? Is Deadly and Bobo, who are the henchman to Tex [Richman, Chris Cooper]. And it’s because of a really happy accident, because originally we tried different things out with that, we had human henchmen for a while, but I really loved the idea that there’d be the brains and the brawn. So obviously brawn is Bobo, who’s Bill Barretta, who’s been doing it for years, and Bill is hilarious, so I knew that would be good, but Deadly was a guy who’d been in The Muppet Show as the Phantom of the Muppet Theater, who is very much a serious character ‐ well, not serious, he’s kind of stupid, but he was guy who was the ghost of an actor who died in the Muppet Theater. And so I thought, he’s English, he’s got a very good English villain voice, and he sounds clever [laughs], so that would be perfect ‐ and also he’s performed by Matt Vogel, who is really funny, so if you put Matt and Bill together as those two characters, you are going to get something great. And sure enough, every time you go to Chris and those guys, it’s awesome. One of my favorite scenes is when they’re cleaning that statue, because it’s a thing whereby you hear them talking in the background, and that creates a world whereby these two puppets live in his office, completely believable, totally real, and it’s a real off-camera moment whereby that adds to the believability of the whole world.
I think that’s very important to The Muppets, believing that it is the real world.
You totally have to buy into it. My proudest achievement is to create that world, because it’s like the fundamental basic aim of my job is to do that, and to do that is such a proud thing for me, to have a world whereby people will watch it and will never question the fact that there’s a pig and a dog and a frog and some humans hanging out together, that’s just the world. Or that Walter is Jason’s brother ‐ that’s it! That’s just the way the world is! Everyone has to buy that straight off the bat, and they do, and it’s fantastic, and I love it.
And Walter is just weird because he likes The Muppets, he’s not weird because he is a puppet.
No, he’s not funny because he’s four foot tall [laughs].
That’s not the issue, it’s just that he likes weird things [laughs].
And that is a great thing about it, and I love that, so the suspension of belief is very important and it’s one of the fundamental movie magic things for me. You have to do that…people want to believe it, and it’s about people harkening back to the innocence of their childhood and wanting to maintain that idea, which I love.
What was your favorite day on set? Your favorite day, not just your favorite scene, just one day that stands out?
(Beware! Spoiler ahead regarding some of the concluding elements of The Muppets!)
Oh, that’s a good question as well. Ay yi yi [sighs]. I loved filming “The Rainbow Connection,” because “Rainbow Connection” to me is really important in Muppets. It’s like their totem song, so we had to do justice to it, because in the movie [The Muppet Movie], it’s awesome, it won an Oscar, Paul Williams is a genius. Also, for the movie, it’s a very important moment, because, come on, this could be the end, this could be it, this could be the last time they make it, so it was really important that it was respectful of the original version, which was a song that became a chorus for everyone to sing, and it had kind of nods to the old version. Whereby Piggy’s on a canoe, you know like, you get it, if you’ve seen the movie, you get it, if you haven’t, it doesn’t matter, it’s funny still. And so that was a really lovely day.
And one of my favorite shots from the entire movie is when Animal comes in and starts the drums, I love that, it ties everything together really neatly, and Animal is awesome, you really want to see it, you really want to see him play the drums, and so when we see that next shot after Animal, and we come all the way back out into the theater, and you see that gigantic shot and the lights go up, it’s really lovely. And even when I shot that shot, I knew that was going to be a great moment, you can sort of see people tearing up behind you, and you think, “yeah, things are going well, that’s going to work, that’s good.”
The Muppets opens on Wednesday, November 22.
For more of our coverage of our fuzzy little friends, check out our Muppets Guide homepage.