Bret McKenzie is best known for being one half of the Flight of the Conchords, a musical comedy group that became the subject of an eponymous HBO show, or even his turn as the elf Figwit in “Lord of the Rings.” (Seriously, just Google it.)
Now, though, he’s the Oscar-winner for this year’s Best Original Song (beating out Sergio Mendes, Carlinhos Brown and Siedah Garrett for “Rio”). Sadly, the Oscar producers opted out of going with a Muppet performance of the song. Too bad, because we wanted to see Jason Segel belt at the Kodak Theatre. So did McKenzie. “We had big plans,” he said on the Oscar red carpet. “A big number on stage, with Jason and the Muppets, a Busby Berkeley-type number. They threw us out of the room.” (See the red carpet video below.) Audiences had to settle for an underwhelming short bit with Kermit and Miss Piggy in their seats.
Here’s our pre-Oscar phoner with McKenzie:
Jacob Combs: You were nominated for “Man or Muppet,” but is it your favorite song from the movie? Or is there another one that holds a special place in your heart?
Bret McKenzie: We won the Critics Choice Award for “Life’s a Happy Song,” but I think “Man or Muppet” is my favorite musical moment in the film, so I’m really proud that that’s the one they chose.
JC: I also watched the New York Times video where you and Kermit performed “Life’s a Happy Song.”
BM: Oh yeah. That was really fun.
JC: I loved it when you were rhyming together and he was trying to stump you. And when he says, “Life’s a taco,” you just kind of stopped playing and laughed!
BM: (laughs) Yeah.
JC: Watching that, it reminded me that the puppeteers are so much more than just people pulling strings. They’re actors and they’re singers and really almost improv comedians. Did you have a lot of interaction with them?
BM: I worked with them in the studio a lot, recording their voices. They didn’t have their puppets with them, though. That would have been one of the great things about working with Jim Henson. The people writing it were the puppeteers. And that’s different now—you have different groups working on it. It would have been amazing with Jim Henson and Frank Oz writing the jokes and creating the moments for themselves. Now the process has a lot of second-guessing in it.
JC: How so?
BM: Well, it’s just not such a cohesive creative team now. I’m really proud of the film, but it must have been incredible when Jim Henson was at the helm. Now I think you’re working with puppeteers who don’t so much own the character but are the guardians of it. So they make decisions based on the character’s history, but not necessarily new choices of their own.
JC: Tell me about your experience in the studio when them.
BM: Well, for example, Sam the Eagle would refuse to sing one of my lyrics because it didn’t fit with the integrity of his character.
JC: So you’d change it on the spot?
BM: Yeah, I’d rewrite it in the studio. To be honest, I think he made it right. Disney isn’t looking out for the Muppets’ integrity, it’s the Muppeteers themselves who really look after it.
JC: Right. So you didn’t interact with them and the puppets.
BM: Yeah, it was just the voices. But it is really a strange experience when you’re recording Fozzie Bear and in between takes, Fozzie stays in character and talks back to you. So I found myself talking to Fozzie and Kermit in the studio.
JC: And were you on set at all when they were filming the big production numbers?
BM: No. I was at the studio or out of the country.
JC: Then what was it like to see them up on the screen for the first time?
BM: Well, it was just like they looked when I grew up. It was great because they looked exactly how they’re supposed to look.
JC: So you’re a great fit for a job like this given your experience with “Flight of the Conchords,” but you might not necessarily be the most obvious choice to write songs for the Muppet movie. How did you come to be a part of the project?
BM: I absolutely wasn’t the first choice. I think other people must have dropped out. I got involved because James Bobin, who directed “Conchords,” was at the helm. And he asked me if I could help out. It worked out really well. We’ve worked together so much that it was very easy for us to transition from “Conchords” to “Muppets.” There’s a similar sensibility of musical comedy routines, and we have a real shorthand for working together. Honestly, it was like we were still working on the “Conchords,” but without Jemaine [Clement].
JC: So I read somewhere that you grew up watching the Muppets?
BM: Yeah. In New Zealand, there were only two channels when I grew up. So everyone watched the Muppets, pretty much.
JC: What was the other channel?
BM: The other channel played the dog show, which was a sheep dog competition.
JC: What was it like as someone from New Zealand to come into a project that is quintessentially American? I think the film pays this lovely, self-aware homage to stereotypical, small-town American life, and your first song really plays into that, but that wasn’t in any way your experience growing up.
BM: The combination of Nick Stoller, Jason Segel, James Bobin and I means that Jason and Nick could take care of the American world and James and I could bring in the Commonwealth. I think you can definitely feel Nick and Jason’s American voice coming through very strongly in the movie. When I watched an audience in New Zealand watching the movie, I realized how different the sensibilities are. New Zealanders are probably more cynical to what I would describe as the ‘Hollywood-ness’ of it. Americans love the sweet resolutions, whereas New Zealanders don’t buy into that very much.
JC: So do you find yourself somewhere in the middle?
BM: Yeah. I realize because I’ve been away for so many years coming and going that I think I now fit somewhere in between. I’m very comfortable with the Hollywood tone, but I still have a healthy dose of cynicism in me.
JC: Which makes a project like this ideal for you because it combines camp and sarcasm?
BM: Yeah. It’s a strange combination, and writing the music, I took it so seriously that then the irony comes out the other end. At least I think so. The opening song is such an incredibly sweet happy tune, but by the time that the musical number is done and Jason Segel is skipping around in his pale blue suit, it not only functions as a genuine musical number, it also plays as an ironic musical number. And that sort of combination is where James Bobin is so great at balancing those two worlds, the two tones.
JC: So what was the process like in terms of fitting the songs in with the script?
BM: When I came on board the script was in a sort of second draft, so they already had the song moments. So they had song ideas. Like they knew they wanted a song about being a man or a muppet. And then James had the idea of the man seeing a muppet reflection of himself. So I took those ideas and crafted them into songs. I was writing songs on spec, really. The challenge is to make the songs connect with the characters and the story and also work as songs in themselves.
JC: You went to the Academy Nominees lunch.
BM: It’s a very surreal experience. I found myself at a table sitting with Meryl Streep. There are a lot of movie stars at that event!
JC: Did she say anything brilliant to you? Or did you say anything brilliant to her?
BM: Nah, I was star-struck and incredibly shy. I sat there amazed and just ate my salad. But it was really fun. They take a photo with all the nominees, and I thought, it’s not often I’m going to be in a photo with Spielberg and Scorsese.
JC: You’re going to put that up on your wall, right?
BM: It’s going to be my new screensaver. Or I might get it made into a mousepad.
JC: So what’s next on the road for you?
BM: I’ve got a few things. The one that’s coming out in America next is a film called “Austinland.” It’s not a musical—I’m acting in a film with Keri Russell. It’s my first part in a rom-com.
JC: Is there any music in it?
BM: Well, my character plays a little bit of saxophone.
JC: Anything else?
BM: I want to do another studio musical. I’ve got some ideas, but they’re very early. I’m thinking something with singing dragons. I really enjoyed working with a studio and doing big scale musical numbers. Doing good quality musical numbers is a world that hasn’t been tapped enough, I think.
JC: So your dragon musical would have big production numbers.
BM: Yeah. I want to do big comedy musical numbers, like a Busby Berkeley routine.
JC: So do you have an iconic movie musical number that you grew up loving which was part of your inspiration for the Muppets?
BM: Well…”Mahna Mahna.”
JC: So it was the Muppets!
BM: Right! The other film I really liked “Bugsy Malone,” which is also a musical by Paul Williams. He was a big influence for me as a child.
JC: So you landed in the right place, it seems like.