This is not his first go around at this. James Bobin is the writer and director of the Muppets Most Wanted who brings our life long muppet friends back to life on the big screen. Maybe writing the script makes directing easier? While in LA for the premiere and press junket, we got to interview James. Here’s the interview with this creative mind behind this latest family film!
James Bobin Director of Muppets Most Wanted
Q: So who is the most difficult Muppet to work with?
JAMES BOBIN: (He laughs) I’ll let you guess who the most difficult Muppet is who I work with. None of them, they’re all a total joy to work with. I’m a huge fan, I grew up watching the Muppets as a kid, so working with them for me is like working with my heroes!
Q: So while directing do you lose yourself in you’re only talking to the Muppets?
JAMES BOBIN: (He laughs) Not really, no ’cause, remember when I’m directing the stages are raised up like four foot up in the air, and usually it’s they cut a hole in the ground in front of me and which stands say 20 or 30 puppeteers and all the characters are held up. Uh, and in-between takes they had to come down, because the puppets often are very heavy, like Kermit is a sock so he’s easy to steer. But Piggy is like a, you know, she’s a pretty heavy puppet, so Eric’s arm just kind wears out through time. So he can’t hold her up the entire time. So in-between takes they come down, and at that point I’d come in and say my stuff. But sometimes, for example, like Statler and Waldorf, they’re often in the box, and I can’t see Dave and Eric, Dave and Steve underneath so I have to them at some point go, “Uh, okay, uh, can you just do that again!” (Laughing) Like that and to Stan and Waldorf as well, so it’s like really it’s them. So generally to puppeteers occasionally to the puppets themselves. But I do think that what’s funny about that is in my mind I know Steve Witmeyer who plays Kermit, but I also know Kermit. He’s a different person, and that is how good Steve is at doing Kermit, like he really, you know, when I’m in my off moments I just think on what Kermit’s doing, like I just know him very well, (We all laugh) like he’s someone I know. I mean, like he’s on my phone somewhere, he really feels that real to me.
Q: So what is the difference between shooting the first movie and then the second movie?
JAMES BOBIN: Oh, for me obviously it was the slightly different. The first movie I’d never worked puppets before, so it was a very big experiential learning curve of how to frame shots, how to make this world feel realistic, that these puppets were alive, breathing people who are interacting with humans and the world’s just, the world we live in, the recognizable world we live in happened to have puppets in it. That idea I love, and that’s a very important part of it. The training of the first movie was just getting, I think just getting to that level for me was an achievement. I could make a movie that like worked on that level. And so for this one I just wanted to push that a bit further. Because the last movie is kinda set in the theater for a lot of the final act. And the last, you know, most of it was and so I thought this time, well, we should just get out and about a bit more and just do some slightly more adventurous, bigger stuff. And, obviously, the fact that the movie’s kind of a caper movie with some criminal stuff in it, feels like you can do bigger action sequences. And, obviously, you never want to put the words “puppet” and “action sequences” in the same sentence as a director, ’cause that is very hard. But I like the idea of trying difficult stuff. It’s ambition about the movie I really like about it, it feels like a very different film to me. And the way I love both movies equally, but this film I feel like has slightly more ambition which I love about it and I think that’s when you’re doing a sequel there’s all sorts of things you have to deal with. One of them is you want to try and make a different movie. You don’t want to make the same movie twice, and that’s very important. Yes?
Q: When writing The Muppets did you take any inspiration from your funny show Flight Of The Conchords? And then do you think that adult humor and childrens’ humor are closer than we think?
JAMES BOBIN: (With a laugh, then a sigh) Good questions. Uh, adult humor and, I’ll do them in the reverse order. Adult humor and child humor, yeah they are kind of different but they can be the same. I mean, we’re all big kids, really, I am, I know for sure. And so often I find things like, things falling over, I will find that funny forever. Like Tom and Jerry makes me laugh as much as my kids might laugh. And that’s always gonna be the way. But sometimes it’s useful to have a thing that works on two levels, that they like it for some, a reason, and we like it for a different reason. And often that’s because we’re putting clever words into the mouths of puppets and so they see a blue thing with a funny nose and white hair, which is funny, but we hear them say smart words. And I love it, that idea works for both adults and children. Uh, and sorry, the first part I’ve forgotten now.
Oh from Conchord’s, yeah, yeah of course, yeah I think whenever you make anything you can’t help but put an imprint of yourself in it to a degree. So when you do like a show like Conchords and move into Muppets you can’t help but bring a bit of–– of that, your personality, with you. Especially when you have half of the Conchords working on the movie with you, of course, because Brett writes the songs and so Brett and I worked together for a good, you know, while now. And so be it set out on the streets of New York and Conchords or set on the streets of London and Muppets, there’s some of it’s Bert in many ways. And then, you know, in many ways the Conchords Muppets aren’t that different, they’re both quite innocent. I don’t know but Conchords is the quite accessible innocent, sure they’re very kind of likeable innocent people. And the Muppets are also very innocent, likeable people. So it didn’t feel like a huge leap going from Conchord’s to Muppets, so.
Q: How much filming do you actually do?
JAMES BOBIN: A lot, I mean, it’s, the principal photography, which is a good money 95 percent of the film was in London. We shot on the stages at Pinewood, which is just about a half an hour outside London, and then even places like Berlin and Madrid are also shot in or around London. Because going to Berlin with the entire Muppet cast and crew would’ve been a very expensive endeavor in doing it. And London is, as you know, a very ancient historical city, and therefore has lots of different architectural styles in it. So you can kind of get a rough idea, “this looks a bit like Madrid,” ” this looks a bit like Berlin,” and certainly enough with some, you know, added set dressing and stuff, you could really feel like you’re there. And so most of the movie was shot in London, and in or around London. Which is kinda nice because the Muppet show back in the ’70s, uh, was made in London and not many people know that, you know. I mean, it feels like a thing that just, well it felt very much like a homecoming for Muppets. Because of the Muppet Show being from London, these guys felt like they were coming back. And they actually ended up hiring, uh, a lady who is the only female puppeteer and who back in the ’70s worked on The Muppet Show, and being back in London now I could hire her again to do the characters that she did in the show in the ’70s. So she–– she reappears in this movie as, Annie Sue Pig, which the Muppet fans amongst you will know as Miss Piggy’s great rival from Series 4 and 5 Muppet Show, has this kind of blonde afro. And she’s back in the movie, ’cause Louise Gold was available. And that’s a really fun thing.
Q: Do you approach celebrities to do cameos, or do they come to you and say, “I want to appear in the movie?”
JAMES BOBIN: Uh, the, generally we write them in for the right specific idea in mind, then we have a person, or a type of person in mind, quite often it’s the actual person who we write in. Like, you know, the Usher is gonna be played by Usher, that’s a good, that’s that joke, you know? Uh, and but sometimes there are roles which are just like “a guy who’s delivering something,” or “a waiter” or something where by it could really be anybody. And then we start finding out just subtly who are Muppet fans. And people who we know, and we hear about who like the Muppets. And then, for example, of course Christoph Waltz I knew, we heard liked the Muppets, and I thought, “Well if here’s a Muppet show today, obviously what you do with him, his name is Waltz, you are going to do a Waltz with him somewhere, and somehow that came about that way. So it’s kind of, it’s mostly us writing people in, but sometimes we hear about people that want to be in the show too, and so…
Q: On the last film you were just the director, on this film you’re the writer and director. How does that transition feel to this…?
JAMES BOBIN : Yes, yes two hats. Uh, it’s fine, what you find about it, though, is often you’re writing brain is writing checks so you’re writing brain can’t cash. And in this sense then often as a writer you have like the sky’s the limit, you can do anything. And you really want to try and, you know, be as ambitious as you possibly can. And then your directing head’s going, “Wait a minute, this is gonna be really difficult, and take a longer time and be very expensive.” So you have to be, you know, on both, generally the writing head always wins because you want to try to make the movie the best as you possibly can. Um, but at the same time for me it–– it feels slightly more of a personal one because obviously you can’t help but be, you know, when you write it’s really you. And so for me this felt slightly more, I guess, well it’s more of a comedy so it felt more personal to me ’cause I want a comedy. But, to be fair, on the last one as a director you also often help out with just a bits of writing here and there. So I did a bit of writing on the last one. It wasn’t a completely new experience. And I also have been writing for a long time so it’s not my first go, wasn’t the first movie, this is something I’ve been working on for a while and I knew Nick really well, and he’s our good friend outside of work. He’s just my friend. And so I knew working with him would be a, you know, and that’s one of the most important things about writing partnerships is having just a friendship. Because, you know, it’s like your friends, you just get on and you laugh together and we just write stuff down, and that’s the movie. That really helped a lot. It does make it slightly more personal this time, but it was–– was kind of, it always feels like when you’re directing something you’re kind of very raw anyway so it feels personal, whatever, if you write it I guess.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene?
JAMES BOBIN: Favorite scene? Wow, that’s a good question. What do I like? I really like Piggy’s song about Constantine and Kermit, that thing “Something’s So Right” song, with Celine. Because I really felt that that’s gonna, ’cause it’s like, Piggy’s wanted this thing all of her life, and she’s finally got it and it’s not gonna feel the way she thought it would feel, and I think that’s a very common thing to all of us. That’s something we’ve all experienced. And so to sing about that and say, “Why aren’t I feeling the way I would,” and “why aren’t I happy that I am about getting married” is really sweet I think. But also at the same time it’s kind of funny ’cause it’s got Celine Dion in it, and it’s like, it’s weird projection of the future and whatever, weird kids sitting there, the pink frog and the green pig, and that sort of stuff. It’s just really fun. So all my favorite scenes tend to have an element of humor to them and emotion, they’re both kinda working at the same time, and that’s pretty much my aim for the whole movie. You should feel emotionally engaged but laugh, be laughing at the same time. That’s a very difficult part of the trip. But that sequence I feel works very successfully like that.
Q: How much input did you have in the writing of the songs?
JAMES BOBIN: Quite a bit ’cause Brett and I have worked together for a long time, so generally what happens is that when I write the script I write an idea for where a song’s gonna go, and always I write, I usually write more songs than we have to end up with. I always write like 10 or 12 ideas in and then we cut them down to six or seven. But usually it’s because at this juncture of the story it feels like a song would be funny, or is a good idea for a song goes here. So normally in this which I write, you know, the title of the song, hopefully a funny title if I can, if I have a good idea. Or not. And then a brief, like, paragraph/description of what the song is about, and what it’s gonna do in the story. And then Brett just has that paragraph to work from and goes away and then comes back in about two months with an incredible song I usually like. And then I then say to him, “Well how about this,” and it still goes back and forth about the visual of bit, the storytelling of it, and the musicality of it, in one kind of go. So a fair amount, but in the actual of the writing of the music I have nothing to do with that. That is purely Brett’s genius and melody, that’s not me at all. Occasionally, I’ll help out with lyrics, but generally that’s also Brett. So, you know, I have often the initial idea and then he just does everything else, and I just say, “Great,” at the end.
Q: Have you started on the next Muppet movie?
JAMES BOBIN: (He laughs) No, too tired, sorry, no no no, no no no, I’m exhausted. Ask me again in another year’s time, but no no on, they’re sadly not, but, I mean, maybe, who knows. I love working with these guys, and as you know they’re my heroes, so I really loved it. So I don’t know when in, in what capacity it would be, I don’t know, but I would love to do more ’cause this is really fun. I mean, I’m incredibly lucky to have this job, it’s like my dream so, you know, I’m so pleased. Really.
MUPPETS MOST WANTED (In Theaters Now)