September 25, 2008

My Day on a Muppet Movie Set: Part 2

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Has everyone read Joe Hennes’ article from September 9th, in which he told the story of visiting the set of the new Muppet TV special Letters to Santa? (If you haven’t, you should click on this link right here and read it.) In Joe’s article he mentioned that he was invited by some of the Muppet people to come back for day of studio shooting. He recently took them up on that offer, and this time I got to come too.

I met Joe at the studio in the early afternoon. As we entered the stage, Joe said, “Nathan Lane is here,” and yeah, actually, there he was. He’s playing an airport security official in the special, which will also include appearances by Uma Thurman, Jane Krakowski, Jesse L. Martin, Tony Sirico and Steve Schirripa from The Sopranos, Richard Griffiths, Disney Channel star Madison Pettis, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. But with all those celebrities, is there any space in the special left for Muppets?


As a matter of fact, there is space, which is good, because the first scene I saw them shoot featured Bobo, and the Bobo puppet is frigging enormous. He’s so bulky that when Bill Barretta performs him, he has to wear a harness kinda thing to keep Bobo steady. One take ended abruptly with Bobo toppling over, which cracked up everyone in the room, including Nathan Lane. Lane found Bobo pretty hilarious in general, and he struggled to get through a few takes without laughing. Hearing Bobo speak inspired several people in the room to do their own Bobo impressions, which makes me wonder if the annual informal holiday Talk Like a Pirate Day should be replaced by Talk Like Bobo Day.

Between takes, Joe introduced me to director Kirk Thatcher, who told us that Letters to Santa was greenlit and put into production quite suddenly. The whole shoot, in fact, will total only 15 days, which is less time than I take between trips to the laundromat.

After the scene was finished, I met and chatted with Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz, and Noel MacNeal. Here’s the thing about real live Muppet people: They’re impossibly friendly, and they’re almost as interested in the Muppet fan community as we are in them. Several of them commented on the recent New York Times article about Disney’s big plans for the Muppets, which they described as “mostly accurate.” They did not, however, comment on the difficulty of the Sudoku in that issue of the Times.

After the scene was finished, it was time for the cast and crew’s favorite part of the day: lunch break! Joe and I talked some more with Steve and Kirk, as well as Bill Barretta. Among other things, they mentioned that Frank Oz had briefly dropped by the set last week to say hello. Apparently he’s a bit of a Muppet fan himself.

One thing that came up over and over again throughout the day was a feeling of optimism among everyone involved. All the puppeteers believe Letters to Santa is a genuinely good Muppet production in the spirit of the classic stuff. Dave Goelz described it as the best thing they’ve done since Muppet Treasure Island, with “the perfect mix of lunacy and heart.” I think every single puppeteer we talked to used the word “heart” in their assessment of the new special. This thing is lousy with heart. Which is great news for all the fans, unless maybe there’s a faction of fans who’ve always felt the Muppets would be better if they were really mean.


During the break, we also got to talk to Andrew Samson and Scott Ganz, two of the writers on the project (along with Hugh Fink, who wasn’t there that day). They have a lot of ideas for the Muppets, and I really got the impression that they’re One of Us. Or Two of Us, or whatever. They’re a couple of guys who grew up watching and loving The Muppet Show and the movies, and they want to see the characters get back to doing the kind of material they did in their heyday. Also notable: Scott’s wife Brooke ran the “Sesame Seventies” fan website a few years ago, which was a fun and groovy celebration of Sesame Street’s crazy disco records.

Soon it was time to start shooting again, and it was more airport stuff. One thing that struck me as the day went on was the fact that, although we only saw a tiny portion of the production, every single shot we saw them do had a joke in it, and all the jokes were funny. Unless we just happened to see the only funny scenes in the entire special, that bodes well. And as Joe pointed out, the performances seemed to get funnier with every take. If that’s always the case, how do they know when to stop?

Another thing I noticed: Muppet performing is hard work. The scenes we saw them shoot had several human extras, but the sets were not “built up” to allow the puppeteers to perform standing up, so they had to sit and kneel and crouch and contort and roll around on wheely things (which probably have a real name other than “wheely things”). And while we tend to take for granted that a Muppet can do anything a human can do, the mere act of Rizzo putting his coat in an airport security bin required several attempts to get right.

Of course, it would have been easier to just cut the Rizzo coat-placing. I’m sure it’s not crucial to the plot, but they kept doing it until it worked. I know this is going to sound cheesy, so maybe you want to skip this paragraph, but somehow it seemed very true to the spirit of the Muppets, and even to Jim Henson’s own creative philosophy. From Kermit playing the banjo in an actual swamp in The Muppet Movie to Gonzo driving a lawn mower in Muppets From Space, it’s always been about creating a world in which the Muppets are real, living beings. So they did take after take until Rizzo got it right. Man, if it had been a real airport, the people in line behind Rizzo would have been seriously ticked off: Just drop your coat, already! (And by the way, what’s this talking rat doing at the airport?)

And after all that trouble with the Rizzo shot? They immediately did it again, with a shot requiring Pepe to hold various objects in each of his four hands, and drop them in the bin one by one. This required Bill Barretta, Matt Vogel and Peter Linz to squeeze in close together so they could each perform a prawn hand or two. I couldn’t help but think it’s a good thing none of the Muppet performers smell bad. Marty Robinson called that gag “a joke that’s easy to write, but hard to do”… but once again, they did it until it worked.

While this stuff was going on, Joe and I got a chance to talk to the aforementioned Marty, Matt, and Peter, and they were all a bunch of jerks. No, of course that’s not true at all. Like everyone else, they were as nice as could be and very enthusiastic about the new special. This was also about the time I saw one of the puppet wranglers stapling Kermit’s winter shoes together so he could hold them in the next scene. I think it would be amazing, when your friends ask you what you’ve been doing at work, to be able to say, “Oh, today I stapled Kermit the Frog’s shoes together.”

To a humble, slack-jawed yokel like myself, the whole process of shooting a big TV project like this is pretty impressive. Great care was taken for every shot to ensure that no puppeteers’ hands or heads were seen onscreen. Kirk Thatcher made sure Fozzie carried the same candy cane from shot to shot, for “continudity” purposes. And a few times, Kirk and the writers had to confer on whether or not a particular joke would be allowed in a Muppet special.


Speaking of which, here’s an interesting tidbit: Remember Gonzo/The Tin Thing’s line “Those are my nipples” in The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz? I thought that was pretty darn funny, but I was surprised it made the cut. Well, the story behind that came up during a discussion about what the Muppets can and can’t get away with: Dave Goelz thought up the line and jokingly suggested it to Kirk Thatcher, prefacing it by saying, “We’ll never actually use this, but it would be funny if Gonzo said…” And then Kirk put it in the movie! And that’s the story of Gonzo’s nipples.

The next scene we saw was an interaction between Fozzie and Bobo. Have we ever even seen those two talk to each other before? Here you have two of the greatest fictional bears ever (equal to Winnie the Pooh, and miles above Andy Williams’ Cookie Bear) and they’re both part of the same entertainment franchise, but I really don’t remember ever seeing them in the same scene. I predict that once viewers find out about this moment, they’ll flock to the special by the billions.

During this scene, Scott Ganz told us that a lot of the last-minute additions to this production were “stolen” directly from the script he and Samson and Fink wrote for the now-canceled election special. Which is reasonable. If you’re working on a new Muppet special, and you happen to have a perfectly good, unused Muppet script lying around, you might as well use it, right?

At one point, there was a young kid present on the set… I’m not sure who he belonged to, but he was having a good time. As things were getting set up for one of the last scenes of the day, Bill Barretta brought Pepe over to talk to him, which was pretty great, although I’m not sure the kid had any idea who Pepe was. Pepe asked him about school and his favorite subjects, but he politely rebuffed the kid’s attempts to stick a candy bar wrapper in his mouth.

It was also around this time that some glossy photos of the main Muppet cast (not to be confused with The MuppetCast) were making their way around the room. These were being autographed to give away to kids, and each puppeteer actually signed his characters’ names on each copy. Of course, they could have easily gotten some intern to do that, but instead they guarantee that those kids get the authentic John Hancocks of Kermit, Bunsen, Animal, et al. And for the record, Eric Jacobson does a lovely Piggy signature.

The last shot of the day required Kermit, Gonzo, Pepe, Rizzo, Fozzie and two penguins, so it was all hands on deck for the puppeteers (For those of you keeping score: Steve was Kermit while Noel was Rizzo, Peter was Fozzie’s right hand, and Matt and Marty were the penguins). This was some kind of POV shot, apparently taken from the perspective of another character watching the Muppets from a distance, and there didn’t seem to be any specific scripted dialogue.

This allowed the puppeteers to ad lib, and danged if they didn’t come up with something different to say for every single take. Once, Gonzo confided to Kermit, “If you run fast enough [through the metal detector], you don’t have to take your belt off.” Another time, Kermit noted that the security checkpoint is easier to get through when you don’t wear clothing.

After a few successful takes of this shot, Kirk Thatcher announced that it was a wrap for the day, and everyone quickly dispersed. Joe and I, amazed that we were allowed to stay so long without being politely kicked out, said our thank-yous and exited to the real world, a world where prawns can’t talk and bears rarely wear sweaters.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about Letters to Santa. And we know even less about the Muppet feature film that’s being planned for 2010. But I have to say, I’m feeling more optimistic about the future of the Muppets today than I have in quite a while. The creative people know — and they know that we know — that not every production from the last 10 years or so has been a home run. But the enthusiasm on that set was pretty infectious, and while I’ve been “cautiously optmistic” about most of the recent Muppet productions, this time around I think I’ll drop the adverb and just look forward to seeing what my favorite characters are up to this Christmas.

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