Interview: ‘The Muppets’ Co-Writer Nicholas Stoller17.11.11 # Interview # No Comment
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit down with the co-writer of The Muppets, Nicholas Stoller, who also directed Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek. He discussed how the new Muppets movie came about, what it’s like working with Fozzie Bear and how you write for thirty characters in a single scene.
Movie Moron: So is a press conference this size something new for you?
Nicholas Stoller: This is a bit bigger. Because this is The Muppets it’s a bit bigger. The Disney Empire is a bit farther reaching than the average thing. But they’re always pretty big.
MM: I love how everyone walks around the hallways with little microphones, like the president is in the building.
NS: I love the creative excitement. I want to have a junket just for my birthday.
MM: Free food and photo ops!
NS: The red carpet is my favorite. They announce “This is Nick Stoller, the writer” and everyone goes “HEY HEY! NICK! NICK!” and I just think, “you don’t know who I am, but I feel really famous.”
MM: It’s good that you can glean a little bit of that.
MM: I read a quote from the head writer of Saturday Night Live in the first season, when The Muppets were on, and he apparently hated them and said “I don’t write for felt.”
NS: I think I’ve heard that before, it might have been in the SNL book. Who was that … Michael O’Donoghue?
MM: I think it was, if Wikipedia hasn’t lead me astray.
NS: (re: himself) Comedy Nerd!
MM: So, how did you write for felt? Did you have to change your normal process?
NS: You know all comedy writers — with the exception of maybe that one — of this generation grew up on The Muppets. So I speak ‘Muppet’ fluently and when I sat down to write the movie — and we worked on it for four years — there were certain things about it, like rules and stuff, that we didn’t quite understand. But the tone I got, I knew it. And there’s obviously a big challenge of writing a movie in that you have to invent characters; with this movie we didn’t need to invent any characters, it was all there for us. The challenge was in learning the rules of that world and servicing the thirty characters. That’s the difference between a normal movie and a Muppet movie, there’s always twenty characters in each scene and you just have to be like “how do I do this?”
MM: Find the balance …
NS: … In a 130-page script, yeah.
Pictured here, moments after finding out his cat was murdered.
MM: Did you have trouble finding dialog and voices, especially for some of the secondary characters?
NS: I find it’s easiest to me … I mean, I haven’t had much experience writing for pre-existing characters, but when I’ve done it I tend to like reading the dialog more than watching. First of all, I re-watched all the original Muppet movies and watched Muppet Show skits and stuff, but I like reading it. Reading puts me more in the tone of that character.
MM: So you got a hold of the original scripts.
NS: Yeah, and then going on IMDB and just reading all the best Muppet quotes. I watched the all, but when you read the quotes … first of all, it’s just a testament to how sharp that writing is. You read a Fozzie joke from The Muppet Movie and it’s a sharp joke. And Fozzie was the hardest character for me to write because he tells proper vaudeville jokes, they have set-ups and punch lines. Even though sometimes they’re groaners they are “proper” jokes and I’m a modern comedy writer, I don’t write ‘jokes.’ I worked on a sit-com once and I was terrible at it! Not my forte.
MM: That’s really interesting. What was it like, the shift in your brain, especially for Fozzie because his jokes have to be good and bad at the same time.
NS: Fozzie was hard and he’s such an amazing character. But the puppeteers are amazing, the guy who does Fozzie improved jokes! He improved one of the biggest laughs of the movie, which is a joke, it’s not like a funny comment, it’s a proper joke. It was the part where Emily Blunt says “she can’t see you until September” and … SPOILER DELETED.
MM: Yeah, yeah, that’s a great part!
NS: Yeah, he improvised that!
MM: That’s awesome.
NS: It’s insane! They’ve so in the head of these characters, they just ‘get it.’ But a lot of the other characters don’t tell jokes so they are a bit easier to write for. Like Kermit, he was easy for me. I just felt so lucky to get to write for these characters.
MM: It seems whoever performs Kermit, maybe the character with the biggest shoes to fill, so close to the original Henson-performed Kermit.
NS: Steve Whitmire is amazing. He’s brilliant.
MM: When you think that a hand covered in felt can hold a close-up.
NS: James [Bobin, director] was saying that the most emotive kind of puppet was Kermit because you could sort-of see the hand moving through the felt.
MM: Did you do table reads with the puppeteers?
NS: Yeah, they did a table read early on. It was Jason and the rest of the actors were stand-ins because it was years before we shot. What they did was they shot Jason and they had a camera on Kermit but not on Steve, and when they cut it together you could watch the whole table read but it was just with the puppets. It was really cool because it seemed like the Muppets were actually there. It was really cool.
Pictured here, in a completely authentic behind the scenes photo.
MM: You said all this took years … the plot was hashed out during Forgetting Sarah Marshall, correct?
NS: Jason had a meeting at Disney and they asked him what properties he was interested in pursuing. So he calls me from the drive home and says “do you want to make a Muppet movie?” and I was like, “yes, of course, that sounds amazing!” and on that phone call, it was about a half hour, we hatched the big macro moves of the plot. A lot has changed since that first phone call, but the big moves are still there.
MM: Did Disney kick back any of your ideas?
NS: No, they were all very on board with being tonally true to the original movies. The only time …if we tonally went a little bit off … The Muppets are never truly mean to each other, so if a joke seemed like it was veering into a mean territory they would say it was too mean, but that’s not really … even with the hard R-rated movies I do with Jason I try not to be too mean and be nice to the characters. There’s no villain in Sarah Marshall, there’s no villain in Get Him to the Greek, it’s just a bunch of people trying to do the best they can, so [being mean] wasn’t really our go-to thing.
MM: ‘80s Robot was a new character, correct?
NS: Yes, ’80’s Robot, I invented that. I’m proud of that. I’ll take credit for it.
MM: Absolutely, it got some amazing laughs at the screening.
MM: Did you have any trouble pitching a new character?
NS: That was actually … it was a little bit of a combination thing. We were pitching around ideas and James had this hilarious idea that Kermit lives in a crumbling mansion with all these electronics from the ‘80s and so forth, that he drives an ‘80s Rolls Royce, etc. And I was like “oh, he should have one of those ‘80s robots that never worked and we can just call it ‘80s Robot.” Eric [Jacobson] does the voice and he’s amazing. I was very excited, I love that character.
MM: He’s got so many great jokes all the way through.
NS: Yes, and he’s got my … there’s always a joke that’s the writer’s favorite joke that no one usually laughs at, and my favorite one, it’s just the weirdest joke, but when they get to France ‘80s Robot says “my Minitel says that Miss Piggy is at …” and it’s just like Mintel? Who the hell remembers what that is?
(I didn’t, so I looked it up.)
MM: It’s your little stab, the joke that whizzes right past the kids’ heads.
NS: I know, I was like “how did I get that in there?!”
The Muppets is out in the U.S. on Wednesday. Review coming soon.