1985 was a good year to be a kid at the multiplex. The year’s biggest performer was “Back to the Future” — which earned over $210 million at the box office and is still a universally beloved franchise-starter, a tough trick that’s even harder to pull off these days — a time-traveling adventure film that came complete with a PG-rating, all the better to telegraph exactly who its audience was (basically, everyone). “Back to the Future” wasn’t a “kids movie” in the traditional sense, but it shaped millions of young moviegoers when it debuted in the summer of ’85, sealing its place as a perennial favorite for lots of children of the eighties.
Elsewhere, “The Goonies,” “The Breakfast Club,” “Teen Wolf” and re-issues of both “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and the animated “101 Dalmatians” all claimed spots in the year’s 25 best box office performers. Way down that list is “Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird,” another film made for kids — it was the first film to branch off of “Sesame Street,” after all — and one that languished as the year’s sixty-second best earner at the box office.
“Follow That Bird” made just under $14 million domestically, finishing even behind the critically derided “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend” and the third film in the “Porky’s” franchise. It should have been a hit, thanks to the long-standing goodwill for “Sesame Street,” the star power of some the show’s most beloved characters (if the film was made today, everyone would be talking about the “new Big Bird spin-off”) and its interest in providing plenty of comic relief for even the most Muppet-ed out parents.
Instead, the film has gone on to become something of a cult classic — at least, as “cult” as a feature based on one of television’s most enduring and beloved series could possibly be — and as it turns 30 this month, its director, Ken Kwapis, reflects on what “Follow That Bird” meant then, and now.
“Sesame Street” the series premiered in November of 1969. The first Muppet to ever appear on the series was Big Bird, an eight-foot-tall yellow bird of unknown origin and species (though most people seem to think he is a canary of some sort), played by master Muppeteer Caroll Spinney. That Big Bird would eventually star in his own feature wasn’t a surprise to anyone, but “Sesame Street” and its creative team weren’t eager to shoehorn their characters and their spirit into just any feature film, and they didn’t want just any director to do it.
Kwapis was, in his own words, “fresh out of film school” in 1983. The budding director had started rounding out his resume with a pair of after-school specials, one of which caught the eye of Lucy Fisher at Warner Bros., then the Executive Vice President of Worldwide Production. Kwapis and Fisher met, a meeting that went well enough that Kwapis soon hit the road — much like Big Bird — to meet with Jim Henson.
“I flew to New York,” Kwapis recently told Indiewire. “I met Jim Henson at his office, and I was very up front with him about the fact that I’d never directed a puppet in my life, and he was very encouraging and he told me that I should just talk to the puppeteers the same way I would talk to any actor.”
Henson took to Kwapis immediately, offering him the job on the spot. “It was a pretty heady moment when he — in the room! — said he’d love for me to direct the film,” Kwapis recalled. “Here he was, entrusting me to tell a story with characters that he and his colleagues had created.”
A Kids’ Story With a Darker Edge
Kwapis didn’t take the responsibility lightly — a fitting mindset for the feature, which isn’t as feel-good and kid-friendly as one might expect from a “Sesame Street” spin-off.
“Follow That Bird” doesn’t cover warm and fuzzy territory, as it follows what happens to Big Bird (played, of course, by Spinney), after the well-meaning (but extremely busy-bodied) Feathered Friends’ Board of Birds group decides that the young bird shouldn’t be living on a random street with a bunch of humans and garbage-swilling pals. Instead, the board opts to ship Big Bird off to a foster home in the middle of the country, effectively ripping Big Bird away from the only true home he’s ever known.
The film eventually morphs into a road movie, with Big Bird launching an escape from the appropriately named Dodo family, inspiring the rest of the Sesame Street squad to come after him when his plight makes the national news. It has a happy ending, of course, but it’s rough going for much of the film, particularly when Big Bird is snatched up by the circus, where he’s painted him blue and forced him to warble in a large cage.
“I think the thing that really distinguishes ‘Follow That Bird’ both from the ‘Sesame Street’ television show but also from the ‘Muppet’ movies, which tend to have plots about making it in show business, is that ‘Follow That Bird’ has this incredibly strong emotional content,” Kwapis said. “Big Bird really undergoes quite an emotional journey in the story.” The lesson that the film offered was universal. “It’s simple — leaving home to find home, but it couldn’t be more powerful,” Kwapis said. “You’re convinced that you’d be happier if you’d live with your own kind — you know, in Bird’s case, other birds — only to find out that your real family is this wild, diverse group of humans and creatures on ‘Sesame Street.’ It’s simple, but boy, it’s emotionally very potent.”
In order to keep the “Sesame Street” charm while also going into more emotional territory, Kwapis relied heavily on Spinney. “Caroll was really eager to push Big Bird to a place that the character hadn’t been to before,” he said, “but it was all in a delicate manner because he always wanted to retain that essential innocence of that character.”
The tonal balance proved tricky. “It was a delicate task because you want to service those dramatic moments, but you want to take care not to overwhelm a young viewer,” Kwapis said. “It was about trying to find that sweet spot where you could service the emotional content but not overwhelm young viewers.” The director believes he owes a lot to the film’s script, penned by Judy Freudberg and Tony Geiss, which he deems “really smart, and really witty.”
“They had to find a way to craft a rather dramatic story in a way that would be palatable for a young viewer. On top of that, they were writing a story featuring characters that had never been in any long-form narrative at all,” Kwapis said. “They found a way to balance the needs of an epic journey with the expectations of an audience that’s been watching a show that’s highly fractured.”
From Video-Taped TV Show to Feature Film
The film was shot in the summer of 1984 in Toronto (home to most of Henson’s “Fraggle Rock” puppeteers, making it a natural fit for the production), where a new version of the “Sesame Street” set was created, a bigger, roomier set meant to accommodate a larger cast of characters and the scope of the big screen itself.
That wasn’t the only difference between the series and the film.
“I was determined to give ‘Follow That Bird’ a rich look, if only to distinguish it from a video-taped television program,” Kwapis said. He hired cinematographer Curtis Clark, whose work on Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtsman’s Contract” had impressed Kwapis. “A lot of people thought it was a rather odd choice — you know, the guy who photographed this very arty film — to enlist him to photograph a film starring an eight-foot bird,” Kwapis said. “It just felt very important to take those characters and present them, literally, in a new light.”
The director also rounded out his cast with a variety of big-name cameo players, all the better to otherwise amuse an adult audience, including turns by Sandra Bernhard, Chevy Chase, Paul Bartel, Dave Thomas, John Candy and Joe Flaherty. Another unlikely star, singer Waylon Jennings, played the role of a turkey truck driver, party to one of the film’s great visual gags.
“One of the things that I always forget about is that Waylon Jennings drives this turkey truck that we had to change the height of the cab — because, of course, Big Bird is going to get into the truck at some point, and Big Bird is super tall. Nobody ever comments on this, the fact that Waylon Jennings is driving these turkeys around in this truck with this absurdly tall cab,” Kwapis shared. “Waylon Jennings and Big Bird actually have good chemistry together.”
Another “Sesame Street” Lesson
Although “Follow That Bird” wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, the film kickstarted Kwapis’ own career, providing the Emmy-nominated director with an unexpected perspective on how to tackle even the most challenging of productions.
“I think that when you’re young, it’s sort of a blessing not to know any better, so you kind of dive headlong into the situation,” Kwapis said. “It’s not a matter of being cocky. You just don’t know enough of how dangerous the water could be. I felt secure because the basic idea of the story was so strong. Bird needs to leave home to find home.”
He was always very confident about the unorthodox project. “There was never any doubt in ‘Follow That Bird’ what the emotional core of the story was,” Kwapis said. “It made me feel secure, even if I didn’t know what I was doing.”
The film ultimately gross just under $14 million at the box office, hardly making it a hit, but Kwapis took solace in a different kind of success. “I got reports from parents saying that their children had worn out the VHS, and they had to toss it out and buy a new one,” he said. “Parents were telling me that they had seen the film multiple times, and I said, ‘I’m not sure it stands up to that much scrutiny.'” It left with him, like a typical episode of “Sesame Street,” with a valuable lesson. “It was a great example for me,” he said, “that the initial theatrical run doesn’t tell the whole story.”