It’s Time to Light the Lights!: On Set with The Muppets

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For entertainment value in my childhood years, I never had to look any further than the projects from Jim Henson Studios. The Muppets were everywhere – public television via Sesame Street, primetime with “The Muppet Show,” late night when Kermit would sub for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” or a journey to the land of Gorch on “Saturday Night Live,” and of course, the big screen with the classic Muppet films and other endeavors such as The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.

Growing up, every time there was a bit of a Muppet revival, I’d be sure and check it out, whether it was the later parody films or a simple guest appearance on a music video. I had mixed feelings when Disney swooped in and purchased the Muppets from Henson in 2004. I was hopeful, because of the potential… and the benefits of an owner with deep pockets. I was worried… because of the potential! I didn’t want the property to be used as a punchline… familiar characters used to attract kids and parents to theme parks or Caribbean cruises. So I was surprised, and excited, when I first heard that Disney was planning a new Muppet feature film. I turned downright giddy once all of the players were announced – Jason Segel, James Bobin, Bret Mackenzie, etc…

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In the years I have written for ComingSoon.net, I’d never asked management for a set visit. I was content with the occasional movie review and annual coverage from Comic-Con, but when The Muppets was announced, I quickly put my name in the hat. Fate played a role, too. When we were ultimately invited to visit the LA-area set, the dates chosen were all too familiar to me. I was going to be out of town… in Anaheim for a music convention. I was going to miss it. It took a full beat before I put it together. I wasn’t going to miss it–I was already going to be there!

It was a warm, mid-January day in Glendale, California as I rolled on to the location shoot for the new film, simply titled The Muppets. A section of Circle Seven Drive near the headquarters of local television station KABC had been shut down for filming. After parking and joining my journalist brethren, we were given a quick run down on “dos and don’ts” from the Disney folks.

Initially, there was talk of allowing Flip-style video cameras on location, but that was quickly snuffed out due to one chief concern… dead Muppets.

Now, this takes a bit of explaining, but when a Muppet is idle, sans muppeteer, it just kind of lies there… lifeless, with its eyes wide open. It can be a little off-putting, especially for younger kids, to see a fan favorite in that particular state. Thus the decision to quash the video request, or in fact, photos of any kind.

Once on set, we could see Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You, Man) mixing amongst the muppeteers and the Disney staff. Amy Adams (The Fighter, Enchanted), complete with curly locks and floral sundress… the picture of innocence, arrived a bit later.

As for the Muppets, most of the core cast was on hand. From our vantage point, we could see Kermit, Fozzie, Rowlf, Beaker, Animal, Scooter, Gonzo and a couple of new Muppets we’ll get to later. Miss Piggy was on set, but not central to either scene we saw shot that day.

The plot of the new movie is fairly straight-forward, and very “muppetational.” Walter (another new Muppet), the world’s biggest Muppet fan, and his friends Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) from Smalltown, USA, discover the nefarious plan of oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to raze the Muppet Theater and drill for oil recently discovered beneath the Muppets’ former stomping grounds. To stage “The Greatest Muppet Telethon Ever” and raise the $10 million needed to save the theater, Walter, Mary and Gary help Kermit reunite the Muppets, who have all gone their separate ways: Fozzie now performs with a Reno casino house band called The Moopets, Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, Animal is in a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management, and Gonzo is a high-powered plumbing magnate.

The scenes we were able to witness included Kermit’s brown ’80s-era Rolls-Royce – a clear benefit of the standard ‘Rich & Famous’ contract he and the crew were awarded at the end of the original Muppet movie.

The first scene was the arrival of the Muppets at KABC, where they journeyed to attempt to pitch their telethon. The shot used one of three Rolls-Royce’s on set and was really nothing more than the car-full of Muppets arriving at the television studios.

Here we catch our first glimpse of a new character in this scene… ’80s Robot. ’80s Robot looks exactly like a larger scale version of any generic sci-fi toy you would have seen on your local drug store toy aisle back in the early ’80s. Unlike most Muppets, ’80s Robot appeared to be almost 100% plastic. Not the traditional felt and cloth we associate with Muppets. To that end, it is probably incorrect to label ’80s Robot a Muppet at all. What we do know is that ’80s Robot is Kermit’s driver… as it is him in the driver’s seat of the Rolls for the scene. This was later confirmed on set by Debbie McClellan, Disney’s creative director for the Muppets (and again confirmed in the new trailer). Debbie spent a little time with us during the shooting of the second scene, which included Amy Adams and a horde of Muppets piled into the Rolls, including a new character, the villainous Miss Poogy.

Another Rolls was used for this scene. While the first one was a functioning car, this second Rolls was used mainly for stationary shots involving a lot of characters. The front seats and floorboard in this car were completely removed to allow for multiple muppeteers to operate several characters that would appear to be in the backseat. The muppeteers would be sitting on the pavement beneath the car and operating the characters overhead.

This scene had a bit of dialogue we could discern in the distance. Obviously another arrival scene, many of the core Muppets, along with Adams, were being chided by Miss Poogy. Poogy is the anti-Piggy. A ruddy, rough-looking pig adorned in leather and chains, Poogy addressed the others while sharpening a knife in her left hand. She was obviously getting the crew mixed up in something bad, telling them not to ‘worry about it’ and expressing surprise that they’d never ‘done this before.’

Debbie also shared a bit of info regarding some of the other older Muppets that will appear in the film, some of which, including Thog – a giant, blue, lovable monster, and Wayne and Wanda – Sam The Eagle’s favorite performers from the old Muppet Show, had to be substantially rebuilt prior to the movie.

Two days after our visit, the crew relocated to Hollywood Blvd. to shoot the big finale – an all-singing, all-dancing number, which if you’re a YouTube enthusiast you may have seen bits and pieces of by now. The finale involved around 150 individual Muppets in a single scene.

Midway through shooting the second scene, we were relocated across the street to begin interviews with Jason, Amy as well as have brief chats with producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, director James Bobin and writer Nick Stoller.

As the location wrapped for the day, the crew asked us to stay around for a bit of a treat. From across the street, muppeteers Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobsen brought over Kermit and Miss Piggy for an impromptu photo shoot with each of the media members present. It was a really cool gesture and resulted in one of my favorite pictures, ever.

CONTINUE TO PART 2 OF THE SET VISIT – ‘MAKING A NEW MUPPET MOVIE’ >>

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