As the director of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and co-writer and director of “Get Him To The Greek,” Nicholas Stoller has found enormous success shepherding original ideas onto the silver screen. But when he decided to pair up with his ‘Sarah Marshall’ screenwriter and star Jason Segel for an update of “The Muppets,” he faced a considerable challenge, not only in handling a beloved property, but figuring out a way to reintroduce it to audiences who, unlike himself and Segel, might not automatically be as in love with Kermit and company.
“We kind of started the story with what we think a lot of Muppet fans have been asking, which is where have the Muppets been?” Stoller said last week. “We started with a very practical [idea], because I was actually wondering where the Muppets have been. So going from that, we knew we needed a reunion story. Jason called me and very quickly riffed out this kind of reunion story, which was, the Muppets broke up, they’re no longer together, there’s a little bit of bad feeling between them, and then an outside Muppet, Walter, and Jason find out that the studio is going to be torn down by an evil oil tycoon, and then they get them all back together to save the studio and put on a show.”
Because the Muppets have been around for decades, they have an actual mythology that unifies their adventures throughout their existence, including a few rules even a reinvention couldn’t break. Stoller said that he felt comfortable from the get-go creating a new world for them, but admitted the folks who’d been performing them for decades had a few suggestions that changed aspects of the storytelling. “I grew up with the Muppets, and they were one of my earliest influences, so it’s kind of a weird thing to say, but I kind of like speak ‘Muppet’ fluently in a weird way,” he explained. “Because if we had done something like have Kermit cursing, it wouldn’t make sense, because it doesn’t make sense in their world. So there wasn’t really anything that I was like, 'Oh, I shouldn’t go there,' just because I wouldn’t have even thought to have gone there.”
“But the puppeteers gave us notes which helped us, which you’re not really aware of as a casual viewer but that help keep the world of a piece,” he revealed. “So like one of those was that in an original draft, Gary was a ventriloquist and Walter was a puppet, and they had this amazing act on the Venice Boardwalk, and then you reveal that the reason it’s so amazing is that Walter is actually an alive Muppet. And the [puppeteers] were like, ‘In the Muppet world, the Muppets are people – Kermit’s not a puppet, he’s a frog’ – so it’s important to keep the world whole and not ever refer to them in a joking way as puppets.”
The other thing he said he elected not to delve into too deeply was the hot-cold relationship between The Muppets’ two biggest characters, Kermit and Miss Piggy. “You obviously can’t get too adult with the Kermit-Miss Piggy relationship,” he said. “Like, very early on, we didn’t even write it down, but would the plot have been that Kermit and Piggy did get married and then they split up? Because that seems way too adult, and that’s not their relationship at all. They just never totally get together, or they aren’t exactly staying together. So you can’t get too adult with it.”
Music and musical numbers in particular have always been a staple of “The Muppet Show” and the Muppet movies, and Stoller and Segel were eager to include that element in their update. But he said that they merely found places in the story where a song would feel appropriate, and then left most of the songwriting to “Flight of the Conchords” star Bret McKenzie. “’The Muppet Movie’ is not a proper musical, but you tell part of the story through the songs, obviously. So we had placeholders [in the script], so for like ‘Pictures in My Head,’ for example, we kind of put in all bold, KERMIT WALKS DOWN THE HALLWAY SINGING ABOUT HOW HE MISSES HIS FRIENDS, THE MUPPETS TO PAINTINGS, AND THE PAINTINGS SING BACK TO HIM.”
Meanwhile, Stoller said that director James Bobin helped them get the story into shape with a suggestion for an opening number. “We originally opened the film just with scenes of Gary and Walter, and we didn’t really get into the music,” he confessed. “I think the first musical number may have been ‘Pictures in My Head,’ and James said there should be a song that starts the movie about how everything is great, but everything is not great. He added that, and that was a great way to very expeditiously explain what happening.”
In spite of the film’s kid-friendly bent, Stoller and Segel were eager to explore some deeper and more adult themes in the film, not the least of which being that growing up means coming to terms with who you are. While it may seem out of place, Stoller insisted it was reflective of a larger trend in family filmmaking that they appeal to and connect with more than just a core audience. “I think that kind of a big theme, no matter what the movie is, is what keeps the audience engaged.” He said. “I mean, Pixar has most recently done that so well with the ‘Toy Story’ movies. Like I remember in ‘Toy Story 3,’ when I was watching that I just started crying really hard at the end (laughs). Afterwards my wife was like, 'Were you crying because you miss your toys?' And I was like, 'No, I’m crying because our daughter is going to be grown up one day!'”
“I think what makes those movies classic is the fact that they’re not just toy adventures, they deal with big themes like growing up and losing your childhood and all of that,” he continued. “We were handed something which we couldn’t have created which was, you know, the Muppets are beloved, and people have grown up with them. And when I watch the ‘Pictures in My Head’ musical number for example, I’m also thinking, 'Oh, I remember Muppets when I was a child,' and it’s resonating on two levels which is kind of interesting.”
As a filmmaker in his own right, Stoller has several projects in development, including “Five-Year Engagement,” which he wrote and directed, and is finishing up right now. He indicated that working on “The Muppets” gave him license to do a lot of fun things he wouldn’t be able to in more straightforward stories, but it also combined ideas from his original works with a property that already has an automatic attachment to its audience. “What’s really great is that when you sit down to write a script you have to invent everything, and with Muppets you’re sort of handed the best characters ever,” he observed. “And what you can do with the Muppets that you can’t do with most other characters is you can break the fourth wall, which is really fun, you can do puns, which are really fun. And with Fozzie, particularly for me, he’s a hard character to write for because he tells proper Vaudeville-style jokes, and my style of writing is pretty natural – mine are more like funny lines, not jokes. So that was also a bit of a challenge, but that was fun to do.”
Connecting the dots between his other films and “The Muppets,” he continued, “the similarity between ‘Get Him To The Greek,’ ‘Sarah Marshall,’ ‘Five Year Engagement’ and ‘Muppets’ was that I always like to have a core sweetness in whatever I’m working on – and no villains, except for maybe [Chris Cooper's oil tycoon character] Tex Richman. I try to keep some emotional truth at the center of it, because I think that’s ultimately what makes movies interesting to watch.”
“The Muppets” opens this Wednesday, November 23rd.