James Bobin interview: Muppets, Alice 2, Statham

We talk to the director of Muppets Most Wanted, James Bobin, about the film, about Alice In Wonderland 2, and about Jason Statham...

Heading into UK cinemas today is the brand new Muppets movie, Muppets Most Wanted. Directed once more by James Bobin, he spared us some time to talk about working with The Muppets, the complexities, the preparation, the bits that were cut and more. Here’s how it went…

Mild spoilers for Muppets Most Wanted lie ahead…

The Muppets continue to popularise quite an old fashioned craft. More than just puppeteering, too. What are your feelings on it? Because my understanding of doing a Muppets film is that the preparation is arduous, the shoot is arduous, the post-production is a little bit lighter?

It is to a degree, but remember too that in post we have to deal with the fact that they have rods that have to be taken out. So there’s still a huge amount of visual effects work, even though it doesn’t necessarily seem it. There’s no CG work – we don’t ever have a CG character, because it’s about puppeteering, felt, fur and texture. They’re real. But every single shot is still effectively a VFX shot, as we have to remove the rods from the arms.

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But basically, you’re right. The very prosaic boring answer is it’s in the planning. That’s how Muppet movies work. Because of the way the characters work, and because of the way shots work. For example, Kermit’s height. At chest height, he’s okay when he’s in a group of humans. But when you see him standing up full body, he’s like two foot tall, so obviously there’s a height discrepancy! You have to plan the sequence of shots.

Then on location, there’s something like the door handles have to be a different height. You can’t have the doors a different height, because the handles would be too low for the Muppets to hang on to.

On location, the guys roll around on little wheelies, and then they hold their hands up, so they can get to the four foot, five foot range. But obviously that’s far too high to reach a normal door handle. So on a location set, we have to put door handles higher on the door than you would normally do. Things you never would consider on location, all of those things come up! Things that you expect to be fairly straightforward to do in a normal movie, is hard in a Muppet movie.

Trey Parker and Matt Stone said when they got into making Team America: World Police that they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for.

[Laughs] And also they used marionettes, and that’s possibly even harder!

Hand puppets… one of the first questions I asked when I got the job was how effectively do they work? I didn’t really know. I needed to know for sure that the person operating them could talk live with their mouth, and improvise. And they are fantastic at doing that. It feels very real when they do it: the hand action is matched by your own voice. There’s no voiceover, no work after, it’s all live. That’s really fun.

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So hand puppets in a way are possibly easier than marionettes! Hand puppets have a very natural rhythm to them, all the way back to Punch and Judy. And that’s centuries old. It’s amazing that in 2014, in the world of the internet and computer graphics, that these guys still exist, and people still love them.

My theory is that it involves a suspension of disbelief, which is a very rare thing to ask of kids these days. Children when they come on set talk to Kermit, they don’t talk to Steve [Whitmire]. The job that I have is basically to keep that idea alive in a movie, to make people believe that there’s a world out there where puppets and humans live together. I love that idea.

I like to think that you and Bret McKenzie had a bet, that when you put the lyrics together for the sequel song. And the bet was how many reviews of your film would quote lines of that song back at you. So: who won?

[Laughs] We always knew that it would be a ballsy move! Actually the original line I wrote for that was that they cost twice as much but they’re half as good! But it doesn’t rhyme, so we couldn’t use it!

I thought that sequels are always notoriously hard to do, so why not address that up front rather than try to hide it?

But this isn’t a sequel…

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No, I know. But to some people, it kind of is. Certainly to my daughter, she’s only aware of the other Muppet movies because of the last one. So for a new generation it is a sequel. It’s why we play both hands: we say it’s a sequel, and admit it’s the eighth one at the same time.

You’re right, it’s not a sequel. But for those who thought it was, who were expecting to see the same film again, I wanted to address it.

The first film was getting the family together again, so this was very much about what happens next. In a Muppet movie, you can ask that question on the screen!

It is an incredible opening number, and beautifully misleading…

It’s not even part of the film! It’s really just a thing that exists in its own world! The idea of the film comes up during the song, but that’s it!

I presume at some point you finishing the recording of the song, declaring the movie being called The Muppets Again (its original title), and then someone in Disney marketing dropped the bombshell that they were changing the name to Muppets Most Wanted…

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[Laughs] Yeah, that was a great conversation!

It’d been called [The Muppets Again] for a long, long time, then one day they said that it was a strange title, they weren’t really sure it was strong enough, which was fair enough and I do get it. It did mean that the song was a bit odd though, and we did talk about a thing where it cancels itself out by ripping the title up. And it kind of does that in a way, visually. It goes from a Busby Berkely kind of thing to a much more kind of Enemy Of The State feel. The movie does change course quite dramatically!

When you sit down and write the film, and you come up with action sequences like the breakout at the start or the song and dance number with Constantine, does the director in you want to punch the writer side of yourself in the face when you work out just what you have to do?

Definitely definitely! My job on this is two hats, and those two hats are in competition and conflict. Often my writing hat is writing cheques that my directing hat can’t cash! [Laughs] But you always want to obey the writing hat. The directing guy is basically trying to do whatever the writing guy puts together. It’s all about ambition and ideas. You always want to aim high.

The opening sequence, where Constantine goes does the corridor, that’s a very complex scene. Days and days of puppeteering, as you can imagine. Each shot is 50 takes, a really complex thing. So it’s particularly galling when someone says ‘why did they put a CG frog in?’ It’s not a CG frog! It’s Matt Vogel puppeteering! Those things take a long time, but when you write that, it’s so fun, and so different from the first movie. It’s like an action movie straight away.

As a director, you’re left wondering how do I do this?

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You’re just silently sobbing for several minutes in the corner?

It’s basically doing a Mission: Impossible takedown! But it’s just one day at a time, you just break it down. Storyboard it, sequence it, talk to puppeteers about what they can and can’t do. You create rigs, so we had a spinning Constantine rig where we put a rod through the middle of his body. He spins like a Catherine wheel, and that really helps his natural rhythm. You have to build mechanisms to make the puppet move in a certain way.

So you’re the Christopher Nolan of puppet movies then?

[Laughs] Sort of. I’ll take that, that’s a good quote. But you have to be imaginative about how you approach this. We knew he was going to be a very agile frog. So then you have to start thinking about at what point he becomes a remote control puppet. Remote control puppets go back to the 70s, and these are literally remote control. They run on AA batteries, operated by a guy. They have mechs, arms and things. So when you see wide shots in the distance, often there’s a remote control puppet in there.

That’s how they did the bicycle sequence in The Great Muppet Caper. A remote control puppet. Kermit on the bike in The Muppets was actually harder – that was wires. In the second one, once you have a group of bikes, you can tie them all together. It’s much easier!

With Constantine, we knew he had to jump a lot, so we wanted to create a puppet where he could flip and move around. There are something like 16 different versions of the puppet in that opening sequence.

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Did the Caper fan in you want to sneak the Happiness Hotel in the background somewhere?

[Laughs] No, but that idea that there are Muppets are in the world, we could do that this time. Last time, there were getting back together again, so we couldn’t do them just appearing. They had to be drawn together. This time we had the freedom, having them together… it’s like when Kermit gets sent to prison, there are other puppets there. That world exists there. That was very liberating to me. I’ve always liked that idea, that the world is a mixture of humans and puppets. If you did any more, you’d definitely do sequences in a restaurant where it’s half puppets, half humans.

When I did a set tour for Muppets Most Wanted, Beatrice’s hat from the Royal Wedding had been made into a Muppet version. That didn’t seem to make the final cut?

It’s there somewhere! It’s in a group shot.

The Godfather Part III gag got cut from the version of the sequel song you use in the film. But not from the album version…

Yeah. That was because we felt I think that it was a little mean. I love that joke. Bret didn’t mind the lyric, but he was one of those voting against it. But on the album you think, fine! Maybe it’ll be less well known on the album.

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Is there anything else that didn’t make the final cut?

Not entire scenes this time, just sequences, jokes, little bits and pieces. Actually, we did cut one scene between Ricky Gervais and Constantine. Obviously if you have two characters called Number One and Number Two, there are going to be certain jokes. And there was a scene where they get stuck in a toilet together… it lasted for about ten minutes! It killed us on the set, but didn’t make the movie. It is on the DVD though!

Your immediate future isn’t Muppets-centric now. You’re definitely doing Alice In Wonderland 2 next?

Yes, I’ve already started. I’ve loved working with The Muppets for the last four years though so no doubt if anything else happens, I’ll be involved in some capacity.

But I’m definitely doing Alice In Wonderland 2. I can’t talk about it very much though. I’m right in the middle of it, and production is imminent.

A lot of the headlines about this film over the last week are down to it not making two trillion dollars in its opening weekend.

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Yeah, yeah, I saw that.

Obviously Muppets films tend to endure an awful lot. But it still raises questions about the future of Muppet films in particular – I’d assume that other media will still keep them busy! Do you personally think we’re still looking at a healthy future for Muppet films, and does the weekend box office disappoint you a little? Is there a Muppets 3 you want to push through?

It’s one of those things really. Muppet films never follow on from one another, and this one’s unusual, in that it picks up seconds afterwards. But then it resets itself into another film – it follows tradition and breaks tradition.

Whatever film is done next can be anything it wants to be. I really hope they stay around. It’s the last bastion of this centuries’ old form of entertainment, and there is so much animation, so much CG. I think that’s fine. But I think there’s something special about keeping this form of entertainment alive. I think there’s a market for it, I just don’t think it’s this great big massive thing. I think this film will just keep going, and will make its money. That weekend just happened to have a big young adult movie coming out at the same time. It’s hard to compete against.

For me, I’m pleased that children still read books though! There’s definitely a market for it though.

So do you think we’ll see another Muppets film in the next few years?

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I honestly don’t know. I hope so. It depends how it does in the long run.

But you’re definitely out of the next one, by the looks of it!

Alice doesn’t come out until 2016, and I’m on that for a long time. About three years of my life. Post-production is 18 months, because the film is basically built in post. It’s a backwards film: it’s the exact opposite of Muppets. Muppets is incredibly analog, Alice is very digital. And for me as a director, I get to explore new areas. It’s the complete opposite end of the problem!

Going back to box office for a minute, the great unsaid is that Muppet films have never really, as a rule, made too much money on their original release. Only two of them have ever gone over $50m in America anyway.

Yeah, but they last. And people watch them again and again. It’s like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. People still talk about those films a lot. They made their money, but they weren’t hits.

Watching Dark Crystal now having made Muppet films, it really strikes me just how ambitious that film is. In terms of the constructs, the builds, the puppeteering.

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Then you get to Labyrinth, where you have 30-40 puppets on set at one time. You have a big wedding sequence in this film that matches that number?

We had pretty much every puppeteer in England in that scene. They had a lot for The Muppets Take Manhattan, and also in The Muppet Movie, that final shot on the soundstage. That famously has around 100 of them hanging out. We must have had around about 100 puppeteers on that day, and you block shoot that. You have half, then the other half. There are literally not enough puppeteers in the world to put that scene together in one! But it’s fun, and it keeps it alive. It’s that idea again where the Muppets exists in the world, mixing with humans.

So then: the big question. What’s your favourite Jason Statham movie?

Jason Statham? [Laughs] That’s a good question. You know what, I’m not even sure I’ve seen any Jason Statham films. Is he in The Transporter?

He is.

That’ll do. He’s always around, he lives in L.A. I see him at various parties!

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James Bobin, thank you very much!

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