Listen to this interview on the latest Den of Geek podcast (starts at 20:29)
It’s always exciting to see when genuine risks are taken in filmmaking. It can be easy to reach a tunnel vision of sorts with the typical entertainment that comes out, so when something tries to be different it becomes reason to celebrate, and it doesn’t get more different than The Happytime Murders. Coming from director Brian Henson and screenwriter Todd Berger, the film presents a unique world where puppets and humans co-exist and a sudden slew of puppet murders brings two cops together to clean up the mess.
The Happytime Murders is an R-rated puppet comedy, which is an extremely rare thing, but it’s also a hilarious, thoughtful takedown of the police genre. It likewise boasts an incredible cast, featuring Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, and Joel McHale. There’s a lot to love about this oddball project and it’s most certainly the only major film that you’ll see this year that features gratuitous puppet copulation.
Hence why we chatted with screenwriter Todd Berger about all things Happytime, including his 17-year long journey to bring this movie to life, the most incredible puppet sequence from the picture, and the logistics on some Happytime Murders and Meet the Feebles crossover fiction.
First of all, it’s clear that you have a real love and respect for puppets, but do you have a favorite film scene that involves puppets that really inspired you or got in your head?
Todd Berger: The first thing that just popped into my head—and I’ve never really thought about this before—is Miss Piggy riding a motorcycle through a window in The Great Muppet Caper.
It’s great that you mention that, because the moment that really speaks to me is in the original Muppet Movie where it’s just a big wide shot of Kermit riding his bike on the street and you’re like, “How are they doing that!?”
That scene that you’re referring to, where Kermit’s on the bike, actually came up a lot in conversation during production. We had all seen that moment when we were kids and had these similar awed moments in The Happytime Murders. Sometimes there would be CGI or wires to help sell something, but we have puppets doing things that you’ve never seen puppets do before and we hope we give people that same kind of reaction.
Did you intentionally try to really push the movie to be as technically challenging as possible and really try to impress people with what can be done with puppets?
When we first came up with the script 15 years ago, it was quite different. My friend, Dee Austin Robertson, came up with the characters, and story and then I went off and wrote the script. Our intention at the time, when we were these 22-year-olds, was to go to make it ourselves for fun. We’ll somehow raise $25,000 and do this! We quickly learned it’s not so easy to make a muppet project and we kind of abandoned it. However, in the original vision of the script, is was all pretty basic stuff. Then when the Jim Henson Company’s Henson Alternative branch contacted my agent looking for R-rated puppet films, and we luckily already had one done! So they read it and wanted to do it, but once they came on board, they really wanted to workshop the scenes and get into this universe where puppets and humans co-exist with each other.
So like in any given scene there will be numerous puppets in the background doing stuff. Additionally, they really wanted to push the limits of puppet technology, and it just made me realize how little I knew about actual puppeteering when I wrote the script! We had a dance sequence at one point that was supposed to break off into four or five different puppeteers wearing green screen and manipulating different parts of the puppets and really going for it.
It’s funny that you refer to the universe that you guys have created because I feel like there’s a real Who Framed Roger Rabbit vibe going on in the film in terms of this unique universe where human and puppets co-exist. Was that a big influence for you or a benchmark of sorts?
Oh absolutely! It was one of my favorite movies when I was growing up, and I loved the idea of humans and cartoons sharing a universe together. But when we put together this movie our inspirations were Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Meet the Feebles— Dee Austin Robertson and I actually bonded in college together over our shared love for Meet the Feebles—and then weirdly enough Training Day, because that was in theaters at the time. I watched that movie a lot. There’s a little bit of Heat in there too.
Hearing you say that, this film obviously tackles the cop genre, but have you thought at all about what a potential sequel for the film might look like and if it might try to mash-up any other genres with puppets?
Brian Henson and I have talked about in the future—now that we have the infrastructure in place—to not only do more Happytime Murders films, but also the expanded, connected universe where puppets and humans co-exist. So we’ve started thinking about other genres of movies that could be set in this world. Dee Austin Robertson and I actually sat down and hashed out an entire outline for like a puppet gangster film—Goodfellas with puppets. Who knows, maybe that one will be next? But we could do period pieces, Westerns, horror films… we’ve talked about them all.
I’m sure there would also be directors who are perhaps exhausted with a certain genre, but if they could tackle it again with puppets then they might be interested.
Exactly. They could see it as a challenge. You meet a lot of people who have always wanted to work with puppets.
One of the first seeds for this film is that your student film in university was a look at alcoholism that involves puppets, titled Manifest Destiny. Would you ever want to attempt to tackle a full-length big budget version of that?
Yeah! If someone wants to give me the money to make it, then absolutely. Every single day I can’t believe that people made The Happytime Murders, so it’d be beautiful if I could do that again. Manifest Destiny was basically the inner manifestation of your demons—like in the short film it was alcoholism and there’s this little puppet named Alky. So I wrote that, and Dee directed it and so we had talked about a feature version that would be a lot more Charlie Kaufman-esque, in which all sorts of puppets show up as representations of people’s inner demons, whether it’s gambling, sex addiction, or alcoholism. I love the idea of doing a feature version of that short’s idea and really exploring that dark world. It’s a super dark comedy.
Do you think your student film might be something extra that’s included on the DVD or Blu-ray?
That’s a great question! I watched it again recently, and we did wonders with it. I think that’s a great idea, but the only roadblock that I can think of is maybe the music rights. We were in college and we didn’t really know about those kind of things. The music is baked into the film, and it’s got stuff like Nat King Cole’s Christmas songs in there. So the legality of actually putting that on the Blu-ray may be a challenge, but I think that’s a wonderful idea that I’m definitely going to bring up!
I think it’s really great that you actually have puppeteer Bill Barretta play Phil Philips rather than some A-list celebrity. Was that a difficult push at all to the studio?
Oh yes, and that was a sticking point for Brian for years. The movie took a long time to get made, and one of the things that we’d often run into is that we’d find an actor or actress that would be interested and think it’s great, but they’d want to be the puppet! But the way the Henson Company works very much says that puppeteering is done by professional puppeteers. This isn’t like animation, and so a lot of people just don’t understand how this is done. This isn’t something where like you record your voice and then a puppeteer comes on-set to like mimic that or something. That’s not how it works, because the puppeteer actually needs to be able to act with the other actors. So if someone does want to play the puppet role in something like this, that’s great, but you better learn puppeteering.
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Were puppet sex scenes something that you were quite adamant made the cut? Did those go through a lot of changes?
So when we were trying to frame this world, we really spent some time thinking about the stock things that puppets would do and how they would do them differently than humans. Stuff like how puppets aren’t drug addicts—they don’t do drugs—but they do have a weird reaction to sugar and can become addicts known as “sugar smacks.” Or like how puppets are afraid of dogs.
The two are at war with each other, because dogs just see puppets as toys. So a dog off their leash is like a unique thing that puppets have to worry about. So finally, some overly kinky sex scene that may pop up in the film isn’t necessarily kinky for puppets. That could just be the norm as far as puppet sex goes. So always from the beginning, we wanted to go all out there. However, we also wanted to make it very clear that this film is not for children. Do not bring your kids to this movie. So there may be an overabundance of sex in the trailers and marketing, but it’s mostly there to steer the kids away and make it clear that this is for adults.
I’ve heard that there was a singing penis puppet that unfortunately got cut out of the final edit? Can you elaborate on that?
That was one moment where we were like, “Do we need this?” What was funny about that though is that we really spent some time thinking on the logistics of it and what it says about puppets and anatomy. So there’s a scene where there’s a puppet bartender who says that he also has a puppet penis. That made us think if the penis is then a separate puppet with its own personality and mind, or is that it just an extension of the bartender, which then means that it’s a regular thing for puppets to be anatomically correct. It got really complicated, but in the end it wasn’t really advancing anything.
Part of the fun of this movie is that it takes place in this alternate universe, but with the Henson Company officially on board, was there ever talk to actually turn Happytime [the show within the movie] into Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock, or was that just too much of a legal nightmare?
It was actually quite clear from the beginning that Brian wanted to make it obvious that this does not share the same universe with those other puppet properties. I even think that at one point there was a scene that had a picture of Kermit in the background and Brian noticed it and got rid of it, because this is not the same world. It’s a new universe and that stuff won’t be referenced. This is obviously an R-rated film and once you start to do that cross-pollination with children’s properties, it gets a lot messier.
Can you talk a little on just how exciting it is to be a filmmaker these days? Obviously there is still an oversaturation of franchises out there, but the fact that films like this, or Sorry to Bother You or Taika Waititi’s Jojo Hitler can find homes is pretty special.
I get so excited when there is an original movie out that’s not just a franchise or some IP. I definitely like to support that and the more money that these movies make, then the more they will make of these movies! I love Marvel movies as much as the next guy, but I feel like we’re just going to run out of stuff! If we keep just using more IPs and characters, then we’re eventually going to run out of IPs. In 30 years, there will then be nothing new at all!
It’s funny to think that when I was growing up in the ’90s that nothing was based on anything. It was all new content! Then you’d get like The Brady Bunch Movie and movies based on old TV shows, and now there are comic book movies. What all of these big films mean though is that all of these huge films or micro-budget movies get made, but none of those “middle” movies, which were my favorite, are happening anymore. When people ask why they should see The Happytime Murders, I tell them that it’s funny and that they’ll have a good time, but that it’s also important to support original movies for the greater good.
If there were one real puppet, whether it’s from the Muppets, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, ALF, or whatever, that was in the film, either as a quick cameo or a full-on role, who would it be?
Let’s really go for it here and somehow bring in the Meet the Feebles cast into the Happytime universe. I mean, “The Happytime Gang” is a show that existed back in ’90s in this universe, but there also could have been a rival show in New Zealand called Meet the Feebles and maybe some of those characters are still around in 2018 and meet up with the Happytime Gang? I think that’d be pretty great.
The Happytime Murders will be in theaters on Aug. 24th.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem and his perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.