September 9, 2008

My Day On a Muppet Movie Set

Filed under: Feature,Reports — Tags: , , , , — Joe Hennes @ 10:21 am

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About a week ago, I found a post on a Brooklyn Heights blog with an image of a notice on a lamp post saying that “Muppets Prod, Inc.” would be filming in the area on Monday morning. Being a Brooklynite myself, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see real live Muppets, as I’m sure none of us could. So I woke myself up extra early and bustled down to the Heights for what I hoped would be a good show.

For those who don’t know, “Letters to Santa” (working title) is a Muppet Christmas movie set to premiere on NBC this holiday season. According to the description written on a notice: “Our characters are forced to give up their Christmas vacation plans, of escaping the NY snow, to help get Santa’s lost mail into his hands before Christmas Eve.” I don’t know about you, but I’m gripping the arms of my easy chair already!

I showed up at 8:00am and stood on a street corner in front of a Cosby-esque brownstone and watched as 16 people stood in the late summer heat wearing winter coats, hats, and scarves. There was no doubt about it, this was a Christmas movie. A synagogue had been altered slightly to look like a US post office. The people all stood impatiently as a mailman drove his van up to the building, walked up the stairs, and went back to do it all over again. And again. And again. I forget that when making a real film, one take is never enough. The repetition made me dizzy.

But still, no Muppets to be seen. That’s when I saw Steve Whitmire and Bill Barretta, and a minute later, Kirk Thatcher. Now, people who know me well know that I’m fearless when it comes to talking to celebrities on the street. I’ve approached many here in New York, and most of them are happy for the attention. But when Steve and Bill walked past, I suddenly turned to a nervous ball of sweat and shakies. Crap! There goes my chance. Might as well go home, head in my hands.

Knowing the fuzzy ones were nearby, I wouldn’t even think of leaving until I saw a Muppet, so I stayed. I waited until Kermit made his little green face shown, followed immediately by Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Camilla, Pepe, and a team of rat carolers (adorned with tiny reindeer antlers). They went through a scene a few times and while I marveled at the fact that there were real Muppets mere feet away, I noticed that the crowd around me grew and grew. Parents were holding their kids up in the air to see Miss Piggy, kids were refusing to go to the playground (lest they miss the frog do something funny), and adults were dumbfounded that this was actually happening in their neighborhood. One woman in particular was completely unfazed, as Brad Pitt was two blocks away just last year. Psshh, girl didn’t know what she was talking about: Frog always trumps Pitt.

During a pause in filming, Steve brought Kermit into the crowd to say hi to some of the kids (he did this several times during the day, and while this might get tiring to you or me, he seemed to find a new delight with every child he made smile, and rightly so) when I finally found the courage to introduce myself. He shook my left hand since Kermit was sitting on his right, and said that he loves ToughPigs.com (Hi Steve!), but he really must get back to filming and he’ll try and stop for a conversation later. Ok, that might have been a very polite blowoff, but at least he was enthusiastic.

During the next pause in filming, the crew took an ice cream break (ye gods, I want to work for these people!). Steve came and found me in the crowd. Come on, he said, I’ll introduce you to the guys. I didn?’t care who “the guys” were, I’d be following. Steve then introduced me to Martin Robinson, Tyler Bunch, Noel MacNeal, and Matt Vogel (Hi guys!). They were kind enough to chat with me for a while. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much info on upcoming productions (which was what most of my prepared questions involved), but I did get a lot of behind-the-scenes tidbits.

For example: Martin Robinson has no idea that people know what he looks like, as evidenced by the fact that I congratulated him on his recent marriage before he said his name. Puppet designer Jane Gootnick is the one responsible for the recent appearance of The Swedish Chef’s wedding ring. Dave Goelz performs, and has always performed, the eyes for Sweetums via remote. Martin Robinson was able to have his wedding on the Sesame Street stoop for free because nobody had ever asked before (though he did have to pay three unions since they were using a TV studio). And so on and so forth.

While we were milling about, an entourage of large black cars filled the street. None of us had any idea what was going on. Then New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg stepped out and readied himself for a cameo in the movie. Someone mentioned that he must be filling the role listed as “Handsome Celebrity Male” in the script. Well, they’re about half right (Sorry, Mike! I couldn’t resist). Then, just as quick as he appeared, Mr. Mayor fled into the night, joining David Dinkins and Ed Koch on the list of New York Mayors with articles on the Muppet Wiki. Yeah, I’m sure that’s why he agreed to it.

Puppet designer Bonnie Erickson, who, to my knowledge, hasn’t worked on a Henson production in some time, also showed up for the filming. It turned out that she lives only a few blocks away, and a phone call from Dave Goelz sent her running to the set. She also claims to enjoy ToughPigs.com (Hi, Bonnie!), and was just as thrilled to see the Muppets making a quality production as I was. And then her husband asked to take my picture, which means I’ve got to become famous quick, or else the photo will be worthless.

When the puppeteers got ready for the next scene, Steve pulled me aside again and helped me to find a cranny-like nook to squeeze into to watch the filming up close. When Kirk Thatcher saw this, he introduced himself (and no, Kirk, we almost never say you’re a bad director!) and took me into the director’s tent to watch the monitors over his shoulder. After every shot, Kirk would swear, yell, or wisecrack, then turn around and explain to me why directing is hard. And then I bit my tongue to keep from bringing up his appearance in Star Trek IV.

I then met Hugh Fink (formerly a writer for Saturday Night Live) and Andrew Samson who, along with Scott Ganz (not present), have been given a 1-year development deal with Disney to write for the Muppets. According to Fink, their pitch to Disney consisted of an idea for a Muppet roast and the previously announced election special. Disney loved the latter idea and had them sign on the dotted line. Unfortunately, now neither production is going forward, but they did write the script and screenplay for “Letters for Santa”, and they’ll continue to write for the Muppets for as long as the funny holds out. It seems that Disney’s finally getting a clue as to who their audience should be, and they’re showing it by hiring Fink to give them a “late night sensibility”, which sounds a whole lot easier to stomach than the ill effects of Studio DC.

I also discovered that not only did Paul Williams provide the music for the film, but it all stemmed from his original pitch. And that gives a whole new credence to the production. Add that to the great performers, Kirk Thatcher, and new writers Hugh Fink, Andrew Samson, and Scott Ganz, and we’ve got a Christmas movie that might just make it onto a few shelves. I know it’ll be on mine.

The last person I met was Kevin Frawley (apologies if I spelled your name wrong!), who talked up the recent Muppet productions with such enthusiasm that he gave me a true hope that the Muppets are back in the entertainment game for good. He also showed an unwavering faith that the Jason Segel-penned Muppet Movie will premiere in 2010, no matter what the trends of in-development movies are. He seemed genuinely concerned that the Muppets were previously only being kept barely alive for merchandising purposes and that he is making it his personal vendetta to keep them making quality productions. That’s a man I want fighting for the Frog.

At this point, I got a slight fear, like a sneeze about to ruin my family’s Thanksgiving dinner, that I might be looking over everyone’s shoulder a little bit too much. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that I may be there to have fun, but everyone else is there to work. So I made the hardest decision of my life and left the set. The puppeteers and crew were all incredibly cordial and never hinted that I was disturbing them, and a few made the offer for me to go back later this month (assuming they approve of this write-up, I suppose). So I guess I’ll do that. Y’know, if I’m still into Muppets by then.

It’s nice to know that we’re all on the same team, the fans and the creators. Everyone wants every production to be great, and everyone wants there to be more of everything. I want to thank everyone who took the time to talk with me, including the folks I mentioned in this article, the puppeteers, the P.A.s, the Creative Affairs department, and anyone I may have accidentally stepped on. Special super thanks to Steve Whitmire, who turned me from an outsider to an insider. Also for being the Frog.

There are a few things that I learned that didn’t quite fit into this article, so please head on over to the ToughPigs forum where you’ll get some more details about the Emmet Otter musical, the Muppet election special, and more. It’s also a great place to find me if you have any questions (but sorry, I won’t reveal plot details or anything said under strict confidence. However, I will plagiarize this book I have about ethics).

Joe@ToughPigs.com



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