As you can tell from my review, I loved The Muppets. But it's easy to take for granted just how difficult rebooting Jim Henson's most beloved creations must have been. Director James Bobin of Flight of the Conchords makes it look effortless but he had a risky road ahead of him, remaining faithful to the characters while introducing a new Muppet into the mix. Bobin is a delightful, gregarious fellow, and had a lot to say about the tricky job of making the Muppets seem real without ruining their magic. We also talk about how they slipped in some F-bombs, why an almost forgotten Muppet character has returned to the fold, and all those crazy celebrity cameos. (And be sure to check out our other Muppets interviews with Jason Segel and Kermit the Frog himself!)
CraveOnline: What was the pressure like? You had the responsibility of making a Muppet movie, but was there pressure to make The Muppets “hip?”
James Bobin: No! There was never pressure to make anything hip. You just do what you like. The golden rule is “Don’t try and be hip,” because then it instantly becomes un-hip.
You become ‘Space Jam.’
Yeah, it’s like, don’t ever tell people what’s cool. Don’t ever do that. You just do what you like, and then people hopefully like it. Your audience is a reflection of your taste. Even going to back into Conchords. [Flight of the] Conchords was never supposed to be a “hip” show. People who were hip sort of liked it. It wasn’t my fault. They were losers. They were guys who wore terrible, odd clothes from the Seventies because they [got them in] the Seventies. It wasn’t because they were cool, vintage clothes. […] Yeah, you never, ever set out to make anything hip. It’s just a disaster.
Well, you succeeded in not making them hip.
Thank you, thank you. It’s supposed to be from the heart, is the point.
Well, the Muppets were always kind of dorks to begin with. They were naïve, they were hopeful, they thought they could solve any problem by “putting on a show.”
Right. Innocent losers. Which is great. As we all are, I think. That’s why you have empathy with them.
That’s why Walter does, anyway.
Yeah, and Walter’s the same. He’s a guy who’s grown up on his own, in a town where he’s the only Muppet in town. That’s kind of hard, his life. So he finds these kind of people who kind of feel like him, who are like him, and so obviously he identifies with them. Again, I think that’s the theme that resonates with a lot of people. They feel that somewhere, there are my people. I love that idea.
Talk to me about the creation of Walter. Because again, you created a new Muppet. I was initially worried…
Of course! Whenever you hear that.
Because they’re throwing themselves into the movie.
Anytime you hear that, there’s going to be a new character, you’re all, “Oh no…” It’s like in The Simpsons, when they did that great episode about the skateboarding ninja dog.
Oh yeah, Poochie!
Poochie! Right, Poochie is a guy who’s created by the network to make it cool. They just have this disastrous idea, and they have another random character who’s just living in [The Simpsons’] house. The Simpsons were always very honest about that sort of thing. Literally, the death knell of any great idea is that committee coming together to create a character to put in the show, because the demographics demand it. So Walter could never be that. Walter had to be the torchbearer of the Muppets. He had to be a true fan, who has issues and wasn’t this great, successful, cool guy. He’s kind of slightly nerdy, and had a great carrying on with his brother Jason [Segel]. That thing that David [Hoberman, The Muppets producer] said before: you just accept that they’re brothers. We never say what happened, who there parents…
I was worried we were going to find out that he was Janice’s love child, and was adopted.
Yeah, you just don’t want to go there, you know?
It wasn’t important.
It doesn’t matter! You just buy it.
Anyone can be born a Muppet in this world.
Right. Being a Muppet’s a state of mind. It doesn’t matter. That’s what it is: it’s about an ethos, an idea. So Walter was never a problem for me. I loved the idea. I just thought, straight away, I’ll buy that. That’s fine. All the best versions of how this works are when people totally believe the Muppets in the world, and my favorite achievement about the movie is that I’ve created a world that you totally believe. Muppets, or puppets rather, and humans coexist. There’s never a question that, [laughs] why is there a guy over there who’s a half frog thing? It’s just an amazing thing. That’s what I’m really pleased about.
And you took the Muppets seriously. I think my favorite scene in the movie, beyond the Cee Lo Green “F**k You” song, which is awesome because you managed to drop a whole bunch of F-bombs in without anyone noticing…
[Laughs.] There you go.
But my favorite scene was this one really frank conversation between Kermit and Miss Piggy about their relationship. And what shocked me was that I’d never really thought of Kermit as being the wrongdoer in the relationship, and now I totally see Miss Piggy’s side. He’s emotionally unavailable.
Yeah. It’s that complex thing. The classic thing about them is that they’re both talking and [never] listening. That’s one of the fundamental things about their relationship, and it feels to me that that’s a very true description of how relationships often are. And they obviously play it for gags the entire time, but they’ve been together for a very long time, and so I felt that it would be wise to have a scene whereby they address their issues. And they’re in Paris, it’s nighttime, he looks just like Liam Neeson. [Laughs.] It’s the only time in the movie when he wears clothes, apart from the show.
In ‘The Muppet Babies’ they established the relationship between Miss Piggy and Kermit as, she has this crush on him that’s overpowering, and he just wants no part of it…
But you watch the movies and they have a relationship.
He just doesn’t want to address the relationship.
No, it’s something that’s important to him but he doesn’t quite know how to say it. That’s something, again, I can really identify with. It’s a very true reflection on how relationships work. And one of the proudest things about this movie is how emotionally, it holds up. You invest with the Muppets. You care about the relationship between Piggy and Kermit. You care about Walter’s relationship with Jason. You care about what’s going to happen to the Muppets. It’s really important. So when it works out it’s a really nice, poignant, triumphant moment, and people really re-embrace them.
Is Jason, or anyone in particular, just a big fan of Uncle Deadly? I haven’t seen him since the show…
You. Uncle Deadly was your idea?
Uncle Deadly is British. I am British. That’s a coincidence. I always loved him from the show. I thought he was a great, kind of malevolent spirit of the theater, and it felt to me like, if you’re going to have henchmen for Chris [Cooper], you need to have a brains and a brawn. So Bobo’s the brawn and Deadly is the brain, and they actually work brilliantly as a double act, because Matt Vogel, who does Deadly, is hilarious, and Bill Barretta, who does Bobo, is hilarious. So they riff really beautifully together. Most improvisation, of the Muppet kind, is from them. When we cut to scene where they clean that statue, there’s this improv where, “Oh, you got me in the eye!” You buy that’s the world. They’re really over there, next to Chris. He’s reading The Economist [laughs] and they’re over there, cleaning a statue. That little improvisation moment, that’s the world. That’s the world they exist in. It just helps you.
Another thing in the world Muppets exist in is the celebrity cameo. There’s so many. Did you have anyone who just couldn’t do it, or got cut out?
Well, as you know there was the weird thing where the script got leaked for a while. So there’s the annoying thing. We had some placeholders, and now everybody thought, “Oh, these guys are all going to be in the movie,” and it was never that case. It was always like… it was this kind of person. But after a while, I was very keen that the cameos should service the movie and not vice-versa. That’s the whole point, right? That’s what they’d always done. In The Muppet Movie itself, they had cameos of two kinds: playing themselves, and then “Bob Hope as Ice Cream Man.” I love those ideas.
I love Elliot Gould in ‘Muppets Take Manhattan.’ He’s just a cop who says, “Nah…”
Yeah, it’s awesome. Exactly. I wanted to do both of those things. It was a very encouraging sign to me that people we asked pretty much all said yes. When we went to Amy [Adams], Kermit and Jason made a video for her. They did a little tape. But for cameos, it was just a question of, “Are you around today?” We shot in L.A., which helped a lot, of course. We shot on weekends. They brought their kids to set. And all these things were in our favor, but at the same time there was great groundswell of love for the Muppets, which I think has always been there. I think people don’t always realize how much they love the Muppets until they think about it, which is great.
Real fast, because I’ve got to go, apparently: ‘Muppets 2.’ Are you going to be involved in that? Have you even talked about it at all?
I’m still finishing this one. [Laughs.] I haven’t got the RAM in my head to think about that right now. Yeah, of course. I mean I’d love to, but who knows?