TR Interview: James Bobin, Master of Muppets (Most Wanted)

Mark Fellman

You might think one would have to be a hardy soul to manage the chaos of the Muppets for two movies, but James Bobin had already worked with Ali G., Borat and Flight of the Conchords. After that, Kermit and company – even with the addition of evil Kermit doppelganger Constantine – were a dream come true, in many ways. Muppets Most Wanted opens today, so you’ll be able to judge how he did, but until then, here’s my talk with him about the various challenges in handling such an important legacy to us fans.

Luke Y. Thompson: When you’re on the set, is it like Method – do you have to address the Muppets as the Muppets, or do you address the puppeteers?

James Bobin: [laughs]Well, it depends. Mostly the puppeteers, of course, because they’re people and they’re standing there, so you’ve got – sometimes, you have to address the puppet, because Statler and Waldorf, for example, are in a box, and I can’t see Steve or Dave, so I go, “Yeah, Statler” – you are basically talking to Statler and Waldorf, but generally the puppeteers are the people you’re talking to between takes, yes.

LYT: Spinning off from what Doctor Bunsen Honeydew says in the opening number, that this is actually the seventh sequel, sort of anticipating the nerdiness…

JB: [laughing]Yeah!

LYT:…which of the previous movies, if any, do you consider canon, and in continuity with these?

JB: [chuckles]It’s hard to say, because obviously the Caper is a movie which I’ve watched many times, I really loved, and this movie is a caper itself. But it’s not the same. There’s obviously no point in making the same movie twice. I was very keen that this movie should not be the same movie I made last time, but also it shouldn’t be the same movie as made 30 years ago, you know?

For me, one of my favorite – personally, my favorite movie from the past is the original, but also the Muppet Christmas Carol. I’m a huge fan of. Because Michael Caine in it is so incredible. Because it’s a very difficult trick, pulling off the believability of a guy who genuinely believes they’re real, and a guy who in a Dickensian environment, believes his staff are rats is an amazing thing to pull off, and it’s such a funny place really. He’s just such a natural performer, and I’ve always enjoyed that one. But yeah, it kind of feels that this one is different, because there’s a direct continuity from the last one. It carries on from where the last one finished.

LYT: Mm-hmm.

JB: Which is unusual, because as you know, most of them are just resets; they’re completely different, so this one does have a sense of continuity about it. So I don’t know – yeah, it is the seventh one, I guess, in many ways.

LYT: Would they remember that they had a jewel heist caper in England before?

JB: [chuckles]Gonzo going like, “We did this before, didn’t we?” [laughs]

LYT: I was wondering if Charles Grodin…

JB: Yeah, I guess if Charles Grodin stood up somewhere – yeah, well, you know – yeah. Because you want to be part of that, but you don’t want to get too far down that road. I mean, it’s hard, because they are very self-aware, so they are very aware that they made movies in the past. For example, Bunsen knows this. But you don’t want to draw too much attention to it, I don’t think, because there are lots of people who don’t know that.

LYT: Another thing with the first one – there was such a bond between Walter and his brother, and then in this one, he’s completely forgotten.

JB: [laughs]Well, if you look very closely at Walter’s bunk, there were lots of photographs of Gary up there. So he remembers Gary in that sense.


JB: But yeah – it’s one of those things. So in a way, it’s a nod to continuity, but it’s a completely different story. The whole world has moved on and changed, and so it’s just one of those things.

LYT: It also sort of implies that maybe the first one was a movie they made, and this…

JB: [laughs]This is what really happens.

LYT: …this is what really happens.

JB: Yeah, well, that’s the great thing about Muppets – they can work on a number of levels. And who really knows which level they’re really at? What is reality in the Muppet world? It’s like Inception. It’s like many dreams back – where is reality?

LYT: You yourself were on a reality show once, weren’t you, way back when?

JB: HA! Not really – I was once in a documentary many, many years ago, yes (1995’s Modern Times: Flatmates). In my very youth, yes – not on a reality show, no. It was a documentary. Very much the idea of my friends who I was living with at the time. And if you know, if you ever, ever have the misfortune to watch it, you’ll notice that I don’t say anything in it at all, the entire time, because I was working in – I was very aware of their angle, and so I didn’t say anything!

LYT: When you look back at movies like The Great Muppet Caper and the bicycle scene in there and the things they achieved without being able to digitally erase the rods…

JB: Yeah – incredible!

LYT:…how important is it to you to pull off stuff to you without relying on digitally erasing the rods?

JB: It is important, but remember, they also had the luxury of time that we don’t have, really. That sequence, for example – the Muppets driving in the Caper where they ride bikes from Battersea Park is like four days. We just don’t have that time any more. We’ve got a lot of stuff to do!

But I always have a rule of thumb that even if we are doing CG compositing, and we are doing blue screen rod removal – whatever – we always have puppeteers perform it. We never go down the road of having a full CG character, which you could easily do. But it feels heresy to me to do that. It feels that the joy of this movie is the Muppets exist. They’re real; you can touch them. There are very few forms of entertainment in the contemporary world that exist like that, and Muppets are the last bastion of it, and it would be shame to lose that, so it’s very important that it stays the way it is.

LYT: If you ever had some of the ghost Muppets, I guess, would you do them digitally or would you try to do the sort of back – projection tricks?

JB: Yeah, who knows, they did the ghost Muppets, I think, in the Christmas Carol, they just performed them, made for see-through. Classic blue screen – original blue screen. But yeah, I don’t know. You always want to try to keep it real, because I feel that, again, it’s so important and so part of the fact that it doesn’t feel – it’s very hard to make digital un-perfect, if you know what I mean.

LYT: Yeah.

JB: And Muppets aren’t perfect.

LYT: Were the puppets for Constantine and Kermit completely distinct, or were any interchanged?

JB: No. Well, Constantine was a creation of many, many debates and meetings. He was always going to be Kermit-sized, and Kermit as a template for the creation of the character. But we had ideas we never used, like, he’s going to have thicker arms. Like more muscly. Or he’s going to be a slightly different color or tone of green. For a long time, he was like a weird, muddy green, like a different color, right until we shot him. We had a camera test one day, and we filmed these different colors, and I thought the scene when Piggy sees them together for the first time side-by-side in that, she has to have some trouble. He cannot be so obviously not-Kermit, so we ditched the idea and we made the same Kermit, and I’m really glad we did, because I feel like Matt’s performance of Constantine is so wildly different, in not only how he moves and holds himself, but also the shape of his skull, and his expression, and his grimace, that he’s clearly not Kermit. He looks like him, but he’s clearly not Kermit, so that was going to be enough, and that felt like clearly the right way to go.

LYT: Is this the first time Floyd has blinked, because I noticed that a couple of times?

JB: No, he’s always had a mech, I think. That mechanism has been in – he’s certainly blinking in the first movie. Again – people think Piggy blinks. Because your brain kind of fills in the gaps, I think, sometimes. But she doesn’t. But you know, that mech’s been around for ages, I’m pretty sure. Don’t quote me on it. Maybe it’s an innovation in the past 10 years, but certainly, since I’ve been working with him, he’s had the ability to blink. Maybe Matt wasn’t pulling it that much before – I don’t know.

LYT: With all the cameos in this, I think it sets the record for a Muppet movie, maybe for any.

JB: [chuckles]That’s a good thing to research, isn’t it? Who knows?

LYT: The one that I noticed, that I’m the most curious about, is Hornswoggle. That’s not one that the casual viewer is going to recognize. Even a wrestling fan, you’ve got to be sort of hardcore to know who he is.

JB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you’ll be unsurprised to know that we didn’t write that one into the script. We didn’t put – we are sometimes made aware of people who like the Muppets and who want to be involved and are keen to help out. And he – I just thought, I had seen him on WWE and whatever, had seen him being an interesting character, and I had seen him interviewed out of character, and knew Dylan was a lovely guy, and he was just kind of one of those guys who was really keen to do it, and I loved the idea of him being in the prison with Jemaine [Clement] and Danny [Trejo] and Ray [Liotta] – to make a little gang, and the gang is just a funny little group of people. They’re just fun.

So yeah, he came about because I thought he’d just be a fun kind of – and he’s great! He’s really fun, and he loves the Muppets. Have you ever seen his leg? If you ever get a chance, you meet this guy, ask to see his leg. He has the world’s gigantic – most enormous tattoo of all the Muppets going down his leg! All the way down here – like, a third of his leg is Muppets. You think, “Well, that’s a guy who likes the Muppets, so he’s perfect for the movie!”

LYT: Did you have anything to do with when the Muppets were hosting RAW?

JB: No. That’s all the marketing department. We make the movie, write the movie, direct the movie, edit the movie, put it together, put it out there. Marketing department is everything else. So we don’t even write their stuff when they go on chat shows and stuff, it’s just completely separate department. We are aware of it, and we get comments, but we’re not responsible for it. Like marketing will do the great Twitter trailers – it’s not us. That’s the marketing department.

LYT: The marketing is amazing for this.

JB: Oh, it’s really fantastic! It’s so good. It’s so complementary, and it’s so teased the movie up perfectly, because if you followed the marketing campaign, you’re going to like the movie, because they’re very much similar in tone, which was really helpful for me.

LYT: Do the puppeteers ever give you feedback, like “This character won’t do that”?

JB: Of course.

LYT: “I know this character better than you.”

JB: Of course! Of course! They inhabit the character. They’ve been doing it – Steve’s been doing Kermit for 30 years. I’ve been doing it for four years. He has every right to say that, so it’s totally fine. But all actors do that, anyway. If you give an actor a script, and say, “This is your character,” after a while they’ll start saying to you, “He wouldn’t do this.” And it’s fair enough, because obviously, when you ask someone to perform, you are asking for input on that thing. I’m very collaborative like that. I like the idea that they would say this, because it makes you question the way the story is going and how you’re working. And generally, you work something out, and that’s part of the creative process. It’s good.

LYT: There’s so much there, because you have the puppeteers, obviously, and then you have the Hensons. Do you talk to the Hensons about what the characters would and wouldn’t do?

JB: Not really, because they weren’t really – I mean, again, they’re kind of separate these days. They are involved in a kind of advisory way, because of their history with them. On the last movie, they were around a lot, because we were in LA, but this time we’re in London, so they weren’t there nearly as much. We saw them – occasionally they do things like costuming for us, but generally they’re not really that involved, rather than emails and stuff. So, yeah, we are – I’m always aware of the history and the tradition of the Muppets, and I always try to do justice to that.

LYT: OK. So last question – you’re doing the new Alice in Wonderland movie.

JB: Yes.

LYT: Is it true that this one is going to be more based on Through the Looking Glass?

JB: It is. Yes. Through the Looking Glass is the title of the movie, and she will get through the looking glass. Other than that, there’s not much… [laughs]. Like the last movie – it’s very influenced by, rather than the book itself, which as you may know is an eight-chapter allegory for a chess match.

LYT: Yes.

JB: It does not exactly lend itself to movies and stories, I think, frankly.

LYT: And they sort of mixed up the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen in the last one.

JB: Yeah, it’s a very disconnected series of eight events. It doesn’t really make for a great movie, so it’ll be based in that world, and it has that Looking Glass element, but the story itself is a different story.