Interview: Nicholas Stoller on Writing The Muppets

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Arriving in theaters today, The Muppets make their first big-screen appearance in more than ten years thanks in no small part to the writing talents of Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller.

Longtime creative partners, Stoller first worked with Segel on the short-lived television series “Undeclared” and then on the big screen with Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which Stoller directed. They’re also set to release The Five-Year Engagement early next year, with Stoller again directing and Segel starring in a screenplay both collaborated on.

As he explains in this interview with ComingSoon.net, Stoller’s work on The Muppets gave the chance for the pair to live out a childhood dream, pairing stars like Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear with Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper and more. Read on for Stoller’s thoughts on the process of writing for an ensemble Muppet cast, dueling Muppet projects and preparing a screenplay for both cameos and song numbers.

Also, be sure to check out our video interview with Segel and the Muppets themselves by clicking here

CS: You’ve been working with Jason Segel for a while. How did this one come to both of you?
Nicholas Stoller:
We had finished “Sarah Marshall” and it had just come out. Jason had a meeting at Disney where they asked him about projects he might be interested in. He said, “What are you guys doing with The Muppets?” They didn’t really have an answer for him, which was kind of funny. I think that if I spent $500 million on something, I’d know what I was going to do with it. But he called me and said, “Would you like to write a Muppet movie?” I said, “Of course! That sounds amazing!” On the phone call, as he drove back from Disney, we riffed out an entire Muppet movie, with basically all the big movements of the movie. Obviously, a lot changed since then, but the big elements were there. How to get the Muppets back together and putting on a show to save the studio from an evil oil baron. All that stuff we kind of riffed on.

CS: There isn’t really anyone who isn’t a fan of the Muppets…
Stoller:
Just jerks, yeah.

CS: Can you talk about your own fandom and where you first came across them?
Stoller:
I grew up with “The Great Muppet Caper” because that happened to be the tape we had. My family had “The Great Muppet Caper,” the Zucker, Abrahams Zucker movie “Top Secret!” and a movie called “Scavenger Hunt.” Those were the three tapes we had! But I watched “The Great Muppet Caper” 800 times and then, of course, I became obsessed with “The Muppet Movie” and “The Muppets Take Manhattan” and “The Muppet Show” and even “Muppet Babies.” But “The Great Muppet Caper” is the one I’ve just watched so many times.

CS: So who’s your favorite Muppet?
Stoller:
I always loved Kermit, obviously and I love Fozzie. I feel like everyone has two favorite Muppets. There’s one that stirs your heart. For me, that’s Fozzie. He’s always telling jokes and failing, which is my deep fear. But there’s also a superficial one that you just think is the funniest and, for me, that’s Beaker. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve just been delighted and terrified by Beaker. That remains true to this day. What about you?

CS: When I was a kid, it was Gonzo, but nowadays Kermit is definitely the one I relate to the most. I just got to interview him the other day and it was incredible.
Stoller:
It’s so crazy meeting them!

CS: What was your own first experience sitting down and talking to Muppets?
Stoller:
I was at a table read, I think, was the first time. I had a little bit of trouble–and no one else had this problem–but I had trouble talking to the puppet instead of the puppeteer just because it felt so impolite not to look at the man who’s grunting and yelling and sweating. Very quickly you get sucked into talking to the puppet, though, and it becomes this magical moment where you are just in full conversation with a Muppet.

CS: It’s been exciting for quite a while knowing that the Muppets were coming back. I remember about two years ago, Disney made an announcement at their D23 convention that the film was going to be called “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made”, which was an idea that Jim Henson had planned years and years ago. Was that originally something you were working with incorporating?
Stoller:
No, there was a competing Muppet movie that had been around forever and I think that was that one. At the time, there was a change-up at the top brass at Disney shortly after that D23 and then they fas-tracked ours.

CS: When it comes to writing something with a lot of music in it, what’s the process of incorporating songs into the script? Are you also a songwriter?
Stoller:
No, but I’ve had experience writing for songs in a screenplay. “Get Him to the Greek,” obviously, has a lot of songs. I had experience helping conceptualize songs, but writing songs themselves is a whole different art form. We would put in the script, “Kermit walks down a hallway singing about how he misses all the Muppets to paintings of the Muppets. The paintings come alive and they sing back.” That’s in the script and we send it out to different songwriters. I forget which team did that, but it became “Pictures in My Head.” Brett McKenzie did a lot of the music and certainly redid a lot of the music. I didn’t do it so much on this, but sometimes you’ll change around lyrics or add lines.

CS: Similarly, how do cameos tie into the writing stage?
Stoller:
It’s a little similar. We write in who we would love to have because we kind of write generic cameo placeholders. It really comes down to–especially when all comedians love the Muppets and want to be in a Muppet movie–down to scheduling. We had Jack Black in there very early. A lot of the cameos in the final version were people that we put in there in very early drafts.

CS: If you did, I didn’t catch it, but did you sneak a cameo in yourself?
Stoller:
No, I didn’t. I don’t really do that, but maybe I’ll work on that.

CS: You tend to balance writing and directing. Was this ever a project that you thought you might take on as director?
Stoller:
You know, I was really excited to write it but I don’t think I have the visual panache to pull something like this off. James Bobin is such a brilliant visual director besides being super funny. He’s also amazing at musical stuff, obviously, from “Flight of the Conchords.” I knew we needed someone like that to pull it off. I’m much more interested, visually, in seeing a guy and girl having awkward sex. That’s what I like to shoot. (laughs) That’s my forte. I had been friends with James for years before the movie and when he expressed interest, I was just thrilled. I was actually like, “I really don’t know who else can do this.”

CS: It seems like there’s screen time for every single Muppet. Was there a concentrated effort to fit them all in?
Stoller:
That’s the hardest part about writing a Muppet movie. What’s easier about it is that, when you sit down to write a script, you have to figure out not just the plot but the characters and the tone and the world. With the Muppets, the characters, the tone and the world is all set up for you. It’s just the plot that you’re trying to figure out and maybe the theme to a certain extent. All of that is sort of straight-up. The hard thing is that, with most movies, most scenes have two people in them or maybe four. A hard scene is four people and, with The Muppets, multiple scenes have 20 characters in them. It’s hard servicing all those characters. You very quickly sort of zero-in on Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and, to a lesser extent, Animal. Then for the rest, you give them a joke here and there.

CS: One thing that was pretty amazing about the puppeteers is that they’re completely ready to improvise movement and dialogue on the spot. Is that something that was allowed for in the script?
Stoller:
Oh, yeah. I’m a big believer in that kind of comedy. That’s the way I direct stuff. We wrote the script as tight as we could and we left hoping that the puppeteers would improve on it. They’re just geniuses. Eric Jacobson, who does Piggy and Fozzie, improved one of the best lines in the movie. I mean, I work with actors who improv lines but even they very rarely improv jokes. He improved a proper joke as Fozzie during the Emily Blunt scene. She says “She can’t see you until September” and then Kermit goes, “But that’s months from now!” Then Fozzie says, “You think that’s bad? Once I had to wait a whole year for September!” He improv-ed that and that’s a joke. That’s not just a funny line. There’s a subtle difference, but that’s a proper joke. The ability and the brain it must take to come up with something like that – I can’t even remember jokes, much less improv them.

CS: There’s a balance in all Muppet films between fiction and reality. Some of them they’re playing characters and others they’re playing themselves. Jason Segel was saying the other day that he sees this film as a fiction with the Muppets playing themselves and that, as a troupe, they never really went their separate ways. How does that mixture of fantasy, reality, and faux-reality play into the writing stage?
Stoller:
Yeah, there’s really the two kinds. There’s one where they’re themselves, like “The Muppet Movie” and then ones where they play other characters as an adventure. To bring them back, we needed to tell the story of where they’ve been, so it was necessary, but I also just a little bit prefer the ones where they play themselves. I don’t know why but when it gets too adventurous, it just gets away from their roots as vaudevillian comedians. That’s more my taste.

CS: There are so many callbacks to past Muppet adventures. Was it ever a worry that you could end up going too far in that direction and make it less accessible to new audiences?
Stoller:
You know, we wanted the movie to operate on three levels. One is for just kids, so we have kind of goofy humor for kids. One is for adults and then a third level for big Muppet fans. So there are a lot of homages and little bits and pieces here and there to appeal to Muppet fans. We wanted to get nostalgic, but not too nostalgic. We also didn’t want make people to feel outside of it if they weren’t too familar with the property. Honestly, that’s something that the Muppets kind of started, but “The Simpsons” does a really good job of that. Something like “Shrek” kind of operates on those two levels. There’s the big, goofy Ogre humor and then there’s the more sophisticated kind of topical stuff.

CS: One of the most inspired bits of casting in this is Chris Cooper as Tex Richmond. How quickly did he sign on?
Stoller:
You know, when we wrote Tex Richmond, he was at the top of our list just because it seemed so funny to have him. We had originally written Tex pretty arch, but When James came on, he said, “You know, he should be like Ken Lay or Jeffrey Skilling.” That really opened him up and made him quite grounded. We toned him down a little bit for that. But Chris Cooper was our top choice and fortunately wanted to do it. We were so lucky. He was our top choice. Amy Adams was our top choice. I was so excited and happy that she wanted to do it. Jack Black was our top choice to play that part. It was really thrilling to get all those people.

CS: What would you say was the biggest challenge in pulling the screenplay together?
Stoller:
Well, Disney was awesome, but it took awhile to get the ball rolling. It takes a certain amount of will to get a movie made no matter what studio you’re at. Jason and I worked on it for four years and the first two years of that it wasn’t greenlit. It was kind of in this grey zone. Once it got greenlit about two years in, then it really started moving. But those first two years were a little weird. Jason did a really awesome and strategic thing which was, as soon as we closed our writing deal, he went on talks shows and started announcing that a Muppet movie was happening. It’s just really funny. You don’t know how many scripts I’ve written that just haven’t been turned into movies. You know, most scripts aren’t turned into movies. It was kind of an awesome move by him to just start announcing it. He was just like, “I’m going to announce it because if they decided not to make it, it just makes Disney look dumb. Maybe it makes us look dumb, but mainly it makes them look dumb.” So it was kind of a funny move, but Disney was super cool. It just takes them some time to figure out the property and all that stuff. They’re spending the money to make it, not us. It’s easy for us to be like, “Make it!” We’re not the ones putting up the millions of dollars.

CS: And outside of Muppets, I know you’re finishing up with “Five-Year Engagement.”
Stoller:
Oh yeah. I’m on post on that right now and really excited about it. It’s Jason and Emily Blunt, Rhys Ifans, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie. It’s a fantastic cast and it’s pretty different. It’s an R-rated romantic comedy. We had our first test screening and the audience response was positive. There was also an awesome thing were girls were laughing at different stuff than what guys were laughing at. You could feel that it’s going to be a good movie to spark conversations between couples, which is what I was hoping for when we started.

The Muppets is now playing in theaters!

(Photo Credit: DJDM / WENN.com)