The early ideas for a new Muppet movie looked good on paper – get the classic gang together, defeat the bad guy and live happily ever-after. It worked well in 1979’s The Muppet Movie with Kermit and the others on the road to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune while being pursued by the nefarious Doc Hopper (Charles Durning), who wanted Kermit to be the spokes-frog for his chain of frogs legs restaurants. At its heart, the first film was a road movie. The new film, The Muppets, explores a similar classic theme… a take on the ‘Save our town’ genre. One big question loomed… would the new Muppet film – the first by Disney – be a kid’s movie or would it retain the adult themes that made the early films so appealing?
“We’re trying to harken back to the original three movies – ‘The Muppet Movie,’ ‘Muppets Take Manhattan’ and ‘Great Muppet Caper,'” confessed the film’s lead and co-writer Jason Segel. “I think one of the things the original Muppet movies did amazingly well, it’s what Pixar does really well now, is that they don’t condescend children. They don’t feel like they have to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator. And when you don’t do that, you get a family film in its truest sense. An entire family can sit and watch it and enjoy it.”
In fact, it was Pixar the Muppets team turned to early in the process of making the new movie when they were looking for feedback on some of its ideas. The crew loaded up last July and visited the Emeryville headquarters of the digital animation giant for a script read-though and critique session.
Segel, who pitched the idea of a new Muppets movie in a general meeting with Disney a few years back, also didn’t want the idea of a gimmicky film going forward. While he is known by most for his role on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother,” his film career has been decidedly more blue, with movies like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man.
“I think maybe there was a moment of weariness that I was doing this with a sense of irony,” said Segel. “That there was a kind of ‘wink, wink’ about it. Like oh cute, R-rated Jason Segel is going to do the Muppets and make fun of it. As soon as everyone arrived on set and realized that was not the case and that this was coming from a very genuine and true place, we were all on the same team very, very quickly.”
The script evolved a bit from its earliest versions, where Segel’s Gary and his roommate Walter (a small, human-like Muppet) were actually a ventriloquist act.
“In the original script, I was a ventriloquist and Walter was my puppet,” said Segel.”But one of the things that you find out is that you really don’t want to cross the line into mentioning ‘puppet.’ It becomes very, very complicated, because the Muppets are not puppets. The Muppets are living creatures in this world. So, as soon as I realized that it made things really complicated… to have a puppet versus the Muppets. You know… one thing is a puppet, these things are not puppets – it became complicated. So we cut that aspect of the story and it actually really simplified the story.”
It was Segel’s involvement that spurred others to jump on board, including producers David and Todd Lieberman, as well as co-star Amy Adams.
“Our goal, since there hasn’t been a Muppet movie in 10 years, is to sort of if we can, freshen it up,” said Hoberman. “What interested us is Jason Segel’s involvement and Nick Stoller. We’re trying to do a Muppet movie for 2011. We’ve got James Bobin from ‘Flight of the Conchords’ to direct, so we’re trying to make it as contemporary as possible, but also pay homage to and be respectful of who the Muppets are and what they have always been to people.”
“We want to honor the irreverent humor and the sense of what those Muppet movies were back then and hopefully infuse a little bit of emotion into the story,” added Lieberman. “The technical aspects of making a Muppet movie are way more complicated than you would imagine going into the movie. You’ve got people with puppets and building the sets three to six feet off the ground to make sure people can walk around… and how to stage these scenes. It is actually tricky, but it’s been educational and fun.
Segel confessed that Adams was involved in the movie a long time before she even realized it. Working with writing partner Nick Stoller on the initial script for the film, Segel envisioned the actress as Mary, the female lead and girlfriend to Segel’s character Gary.
“She was in my mind from the beginning… ever since I saw ‘Enchanted,'” he said. “She is able to do this wide-eyed naivete that is not part of her personality in real life. I mean, my character, her character and Walter and kind of ‘true innocents.’ She is able to do that. She channels it through her eyes. She was just the perfect choice right from the start. I don’t know what we would have done if we hadn’t gotten her.”
To ensure that he did get her for the part, he enlisted the help of the top frog himself. Instead of calling her up, or her agent, and asking about her availability, Segel sent her video message.
“Jason sent me a DVD where he and Kermit invited me to be a part of ‘The Muppets,'” explained Adams. “It was really cool. Once Kermit asks you to do something it is really hard to look at him and say ‘no,’ so I was hooked.”
Segel’s attraction to Adams for the role was also driven by her singing and dancing ability. After all, like most of its predecessors, this Muppet movie is a musical. But singing and dancing wasn’t all the stars were asked to do. Having big song-and-dance numbers with over 100 Muppets involved can create some interesting logistical challenges. In order to have enough working Muppets in some these shots, Segel, Adams, the producers and just about anyone else with a functioning arm was asked to pitch in.
“We shot a scene where there where 100 different Muppets in the scene… and there weren’t enough performers to perform the tasks so David and I actually controlled a Muppet each,” confessed Lieberman. “The amount of time that you have to keep your hand in the air is harder than any gym workout anyone can do. After about five minutes I was dripping with sweat. These guys are incredible shape.”
“I’ve done Fozzie, done Dr. Teeth and I’ve done Beaker… so far,” added Segel. “It has been amazing. That is what knocks your socks off. This is going to sound different than how I mean it, but ‘my hand is inside Fozzie?!’ That’s amazing, man. I never thought that would happen.”
Segel’s genuine admiration for his felt-based co-stars may end up landing him in hot water. His passion has him eying various set pieces and props that may ‘disappear’ shortly after their role in the film is completed.
“I really want a lot of stuff that I see around here,” he said. “They are very protective, certainly over the puppets, but I’ve gotten a few bits of paraphernalia that I’ll save and treasure forever. And some really special photographs… like me with Kermit shooting the breeze. That is the greatest picture I’ve ever seen. I love it.”
“Jason wants everything,” added Adams. ‘Seriously, he’s like… look at that ‘O’ in that sign. I’m going to take it home. Everyday he sees something and he’s wondering how he can acquire it. He is clearly a single man because his whole house is going to be… if there was a woman involved she’d be like ‘Im sorry. I’m sorry… but we are not going to have a big Muppets logo over our driveway! It is just not going to happen!'”