Exclusive: A Chat with Frank Oz

Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Cookie Monster and of course Yoda are just three of the voices that Frank Oz is famous for creating, but since the days of “The Muppet Show,” he’s established himself as one of the top comedy directors with movies like In and Out, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Bowfinger. His latest, Death at a Funeral, is a definite change of pace, being his first ensemble comedy using a mostly British cast, including Matthew MacFadyen (Pride & Prejudice), Ewen Bremner (Trainspotting), Alan Tudyk (Serenity) and Andy Nyman (Severance). It essentially shows what happens at a disastrous family gathering for the funeral of the family’s patriarch, and while Brit-comedies like Four Weddings and a Funeral are a definite departure point, Richard Curtis probably would never go as far into the raunchiness as Oz’s latest does.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Oz to talk about the origins of the project and a few of the other things he’s done.

ComingSoon.net: How do you feel about the movie moving from its June release date to August?
Frank Oz: I’m glad they moved it. This is not the usual film I make, which is $50 to 80 million. This is a $10 million movie and you can’t compete with that amount of advertising, so I’m very happy it was moved.

CS: Literally the day I heard it was moved to August, I saw five commercials on TV.
Oz: I know. It was a last minute thing and I’m thrilled. It’s really good. The summer is like… every weekend (is crowded) and to take on a big movie, you just can’t fight it.

CS: When I first saw the movie, I was surprised you were doing a movie with a British cast but then I went back and checked your bio and learned you were actually born in England.
Oz: Yeah, I moved when I was six months old, but I lived in London for nine years doing a lot of work.

CS: Did you consider this a return then?
Oz: Yeah, yeah, I have a lot of friends there and I worked with a lot of people there.

CS: Did you feel like you had some British sensibilities you wanted to explore?
Oz: I don’t know. I don’t think so. I don’t know even what British sensibilities are ’cause I can tell you that there are Brits who act American to me and vice versa. I guess the British sensibility is supposed to be one of propriety and all that stuff. Anyway, I don’t have that. No, I’m American.

CS: It’s funny because the movie’s fairly raunchy but the fact that it’s set in England and all have British accents makes it seem more proper and classy.
Oz: Well, that’s it. It had to be proper for people to act a certain way.

CS: How did the script land in your lap?
Oz: A friend of mine, Share Stallings, who was one of the producers and she used to work for me when I was at Disney years and years ago, and she brought me the script, and I laughed out loud, and she brought it to SKE (Sidney Kimmel Entertainment), and Bill Horberg I knew and he liked it, so that part was pretty easy.

CS: These days, indie comedies tend to always feel the need to include some dramatic moments but this is fairly straight comedy…
Oz: Well, yeah… for me, there is drama underneath it, there has to be. It can’t just be funny. It has to be about something. It’s got to be something that moves the audience. The audience doesn’t care but I care. I have to have that spine, because if it’s funny without any bottom to it, no one’s going to care.

CS: But also because it’s set at a funeral, there has to be some gravitas to the situation.
Oz: Well, it’s about a main character. It always has to be about one character and this is about Daniel (Matthew McFaden’s character) really, that’s the bottom line, and the man his wife always knew he would become. That’s what it’s about, but nobody has to know that.

CS: You have a great ensemble cast here, but who came on first?
Oz: The first one I cast was Ewen Bremner, because I saw him in “Match Point” and I thought he’d be great for this role, and then the last one I cast was Alan Tudyk, who plays Simon. He is terrific. They’re all great actors.

CS: Alan has the “Firefly” audience and Andy I just saw in “Severance” but none of them are really that well known here.
Oz: Andy’s great. I know I’m not supposed to say this because I’m the director and I worked with the actors, but there are actors I haven’t gotten along with a couple of times, but these actors, there wasn’t a bad apple. All 13 were wonderful.

CS: Was it nice to have a cast that were fairly unknown compared to some of your past casts?
Oz: Yeah, I prefer that because the audience can believe the characters sooner, and that’s all I want, I want the characters believed.

CS: What made you think of Matthew MacFadyen to play Daniel? He’s not that conventional a choice for that type of role.
Oz: I didn’t. I didn’t even know Matthew. I never saw “Pride & Prejudice” so I was very fortunate that I didn’t have a preconceived notion of his. Bill Horberg, the head of SKE, thought of Matthew and Matthew was good enough to come in and just kind of play with me. As soon as he read something, I knew he was perfect. He’s a brilliant, sublime actor.

CS: He almost seems to be playing a character closer to his own age in some ways and not like the perfect leading man he played “Pride & Prejudice.”
Oz: He was playing the handsome guy, but even there, he was so sensitive and beautiful and so emotional underneath that smoldering handsomeness, but here, I think part of the reason he did this, besides the script, is because he could flip 180 degrees. You know, most actors get typecast as either comedy or drama or handsome or lead or character, so he had an opportunity to show everybody what else he could do, so he on purpose, looked a little pasty-faced and gained a little weight. For him, it was great to do the flip side.

CS: But he’s still very much the straight man in this and reacting to what’s happening around him.
Oz: Yeah, but he’s not the handsome devil on purpose.

CS: I was surprised because I don’t think if I saw the two movies back-to-back, I’d know it was the same actor.
Oz: Right, and I’m sure that any actor would love that.

CS: How did you work on the script in terms of developing the characters? Once you had the cast together, was there a lot of changing things or developing the characters to play off their strengths?
Oz: Yeah, I always ask the writer to be with me at all times if he can, so the writer, who did a wonderful job on the script, but I had to change it and I changed it with the writer and the actors through rehearsal. I had about three table reads and I had pretty intense rehearsals for two weeks with the writer and even on the floor, for me, a script is never finished ’cause when I start shooting, then the script also changes and continues to change and even changes in editing, but on the floor is where it really lives and breathes so I want the writer there. We changed things and would ad lib, but you can’t ad lib and improvise unless you have a great script.

CS: Was this a script by a first-time writer?
Oz: Well, no, he did another movie called “Caffeine,” it didn’t do much, it kind of came and went, it was a low-budget film, so this is his second I think that was produced.

CS: This movie seems a lot raunchier than some of your other movies, maybe since “Bowfinger,” and definitely R-rated…
Oz: It’s R-rated because there are so many “f*cks” and “sh*ts” in it. “Bowfinger” only had one f*ck and I was only allowed one f*ck for PG-13.

CS: Was it nice to let loose and let the expletives fly?
Oz: Oh, yeah. I say “f*ck” all the time, so I’m thrilled to be able to do it.

CS: As do most people, and these days, R-rated humor is a little more accepted in some ways than it was.
Oz: The thing is, what’s R-rated humor? They’re saying to me that for a PG-13, you can only have one “f*ck.” Does that mean that R-rated humor is two “f*ck”s? That makes no sense. What is R-rated and PG-13? It’s one “f*ck”? Is that the difference?

CS: But then you also have some nudity…
Oz: There’s not lots of nudity, just his ass showing. No genitals.

CS: There’s just something that’s always funny about male nudity. Someone should write a thesis about that.
Oz: (chuckles) Well, I think it’s because he’s funny. He’s legitimately funny. He’s like me. I love how he works. All of them take their comedy very, very seriously and that’s how I work.

CS: Is this the first time you’ve had nudity in one of your movies?
Oz: No, I’ve had nudity before, but the first male half-nudity.

CS: I also thought Andy Nyman was very funny. Did you know his work beforehand?
Oz: Andy’s wonderful, he’s such a talent. He came in and auditioned for me. I never met the guy before. Now he’s a close friend of mine. We Email and call each other all the time and meet each other. He did a wonderful character role there. What you see is not Andy as a person. All these people they’re all character parts. Ewen Bremner is not that sleazy guy who looks like a snake and Daniel’s not that way and Alan’s not that way and neither is Andy. Andy is just one of these amazing actors, they’re all amazing. They’re all trained and know how to change and take notes.

CS: Is this the first time as a director you’ve worked with a British crew?
Oz: Not with a British crew, but all British cast. I shot “Little Shop of Horrors” in England and a lot of other stuff, but a full British cast, except for two people: Alan and Peter Dinklage.

CS: Is there a big difference between doing movies in Hollywood and over there?
Oz: I don’t do big Hollywood movies. I’ve done one movie in Hollywood, I think Bowfinger, and the others have been in France or in England or in Boston. I go all over the place. I don’t know the difference. There are good people and crews and not so good, but usually, most of the people are really good and they sometimes work a little differently, but it’s not that much difference. Some crews are faster than others, but not that much difference.

CS: Yeah, but this movie was done independently rather than in the Hollywood studio system, right?
Oz: Independently. SKE was the one who bankrolled it and it was totally independent. It’s a little small studio at that time but getting bigger.

CS: I want to go back a bit, because most of us knew you from “The Muppet Show” and as part of Jim Henson’s crew as a puppeteer. When did you transition into being a film director?
Oz: I never wanted to be a puppeteer, never in a million years. No, never, never. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a journalist and then Jim asked me when I was about 19 to come out part-time and then I changed a bit and I wanted to be a stage director and I really still do. I still want to direct stage. The only thing I’ve directed was a thing at Joe Papp’s Public Theatre years ago, a little workshop piece, but I’d love to do more. Really, Jim Henson was the one who gave me all the support and opportunities. He was the one who wanted to be a movie director and as a result of him, on his coattails, he asked me to co-direct “Dark Crystal” when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It’s really his movie, not mine, and then he asked me to write and direct “Muppets Take Manhattan” and then I got asked by Geffen to do “Little Shop” and I didn’t f*ck up too bad, so as I didn’t f*ck up too bad, they kept asking me, and I never did get back to stage directing, ’cause I haven’t screwed up too bad, I’ve done okay. I also gave myself ten years to learn ’cause I was very fortunate. I never went to film school. I always learned on the street. In other words, when I performed in movies and TV, I always asked questions and I stayed late with the editors to see how they worked.

CS: This is a tricky question to ask, but were you able to bring anything you learned as a puppeteer to directing in terms of getting actors to do what you want them to do?
Oz: You know, people ask that a lot and first of all, you don’t manipulate anybody #1. As soon as you manipulate somebody, they don’t even want to talk to you. I don’t get them to do what I need them to do either. To me, that’s not what directing is. I think the only thing that really helps is… and again, you’re talking about two different kinds of actors here. You’re talking about the actors I work with now and the actors that perform the puppets. They’re still actors, both of them, so I always talk to the professional people under the characters. I think the main thing I learned from Jim Henson again was how to shoot movies, ’cause when I shot the Muppets—Jim taught me that—you couldn’t do master shots. You couldn’t do the usual shots, so therefore, you had to play a lot of games, so I think that helped me in filmmaking, because usually, people are used to master mediums, close-ups. You have to design your shots more with the muppets because you can’t do that, so I design my shots more now. I just don’t do the usual master, medium, close-up. I think that helped a lot, and that was Jim again.

CS: Your most famous character besides the Muppets is Yoda, which began as a puppeteering job and has now become more of a voice-over gig.
Oz: Just a voice, easy.

CS: How was that transition?
Oz: It was fine. For me, it’s easy. I did the first three, I think it was, it was very tough work, very sweaty and hard work, but then George went to CG, which is exactly what he should have done. He could not have done anything else, then I get all the credit and these two dozen people who’ve worked for a year of their lives at ILM, they don’t get any credit at all. And they’re the ones who work, I don’t.

CS: That’s funny because in both cases, George has pushed for you to get a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for the role.
Oz: You know who did that? George. He was the one who pushed and it was very nice of him. I know that George was the one who instigated that and it was very nice of him to do that.

CS: How do you tend to work with him on that? Do you do all of the lines before they animate or do you go in and do some afterwards?
Oz: With CGI? Or as opposed to the puppet? With CGI, and I don’t do it anymore, what we used to do is George would give me a script and we’d lay down a scratch track and we’d work with that scratch track for about a year and then they’ll come back to me and I’ll fly somewhere and loop it and correct the scratch track, and that’s pretty much how it is. For me, it’s a few hours of work, it’s nothing. At the end, for these two dozen people who work their ass off, and they don’t get any recognition at all, it’s odd.

CS: Do you keep in touch with George, especially now that he’s doing his animated TV show, which presumably will include the Yoda character?
Oz: We’re very, very friendly, but I haven’t talked to George for a long time, but I have no idea. I have no involvement at all with it that I know of.

CS: Do you feel proprietary about the voice and playing the character if there is an opportunity?
Oz: I feel proprietary to the character that’s in my heart. I don’t feel proprietary. It’s just in my heart. The actual Yoda character is owned by George, so he can do what he wants with it and whatever he does is probably not the same as what’s in my heart, but nevertheless, it’s close.

CS: Hopefully you’ll get a chance to reprise the role for the series.
Oz: Well, I don’t care. Actually, I think George Lucas did Yoda once years and years ago on a recording. That’s what happened, but Yoda is a dear and powerful character, but it’s really George’s.

CS: Do you know what you might do next as a director?
Oz: I’m working so hard to get scripts that I’m excited about. I’ve been reading, reading and I can’t find anything that I want to do.

CS: Do you think you might want to try to do more stuff in England now?
Oz: No, I think it depends on what the script is. I’d rather go back and do another drama instead of comedy. Although comedy is my mainstay, I haven’t done a drama since “The Score” so I’d like to go back and do another drama or maybe a horror flick or a thriller or something and then go back to comedy.

Death at a Funeral opens in select cities on Friday, August 17.

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