Few filmmakers have ever had as diverse a career as Frank Oz. The writer-director who brought you classic comedies like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and What About Bob? also directed the beloved musical Little Shop of Horrors, the all-star heist thriller The Score, and played Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. And he got that gig because of his impressive early career as a puppeteer working for Jim Henson and playing Miss Piggy from The Muppets.
Oz has a fascinating career and he’s not alone. In his new documentary Muppet Guys Talking (which you can watch here), he’s assembled other members of Henson’s puppeteering crew to share the stories about how they created their iconic characters, what made the Muppets so special, and – in a surprising revelation – how playing The Muppets sometimes endangered their lives.
IGN spoke to Oz about the project recently, and the first thing we asked was, after all these years… why now? (We also spoke about the past, present and future of Yoda, which you can read about here.)
“It wasn’t planned on now,” Frank Oz explains. “Actually my wife and producer, Victoria Labalme, she had been with us socially and knew the guys, and she realized that the manner in which we got along was very unusual. For us it wasn’t, because I had been with Jim [Henson] since I was 19. So for us that was everyday. But for her, she thought it was extraordinary to have people who are supportive of each other, who needle each other, who are competitive, who still have fun, who still love each other and really work hard.
“So she wanted to do this and I said no. I said no right away, because like I said, I’ve been doing this since I was 19, and to me I thought it would be very boring for people, because I did it every day. Then finally after about a year of noodging me, that’s when we started it. So there was no real date in mind. It just happened,” he continues.
Muppet Guys Talking isn’t a typical documentary. It consists, almost entirely of “Muppet Guys” who are “talking,” and that’s about it. It’s a conversation that’s been captured for posterity, and that was pretty much always the plan, according to Oz.
“We started in the beginning with hey, let’s have a dinner like we usually do, but then we realized that that’s going to be madness. We’re going to have to rent a restaurant and we’re going to have all those restaurant noises, and they’re going to have to clear everybody out and you have the waiters,” Oz says. “So that’s the only elaborate thing [we considered]. No, we had always planned to just have us all sit down because we’d never done that before.”
The finished film is only 65 minutes long, but don’t worry. If you want more of The Muppet Guys, you got it. ”We did about eight or nine hours of it, and there’s some great footage which will be included in this special package for later on. So we’re going to be mining all that footage to put in a bonus feature.”
And yet, despite having to cut all that footage, there’s one thing that Oz insisted on leaving in the film… the coffee break.
“You know, that was important because that mirrors who we are,” Oz explains. “It’s interesting… in The Muppet Movie, the very first one, the film runs out right in the middle of the film. The Swedish Chef I think just burned the film back. And we come out of the film and come into the screening room with the Muppets, where we started. We just stopped the film, and then we continued it. We had a big discussion about that and then finally Jim decided no, that’s us! We’re rambunctious. We just do it.”
“So I’m kind of mirroring that, which is, we are rebellious. We’re kind of scrappy and we really don’t care. We’re just going to show everything,” he adds.
Oz directs Muppet Guys Talking, which only seems fitting, since he made his directorial debut alongside Jim Henson helming the cult classic puppet fantasy film The Dark Crystal. It was a career transition that Oz had planned for a long time… sort of.
“I have always wanted to be a director, although a theater director, not a movie director,” he says. “But I was too frightened to tell myself I could do it. I didn’t have the courage to really say it out loud. And then Jim gave me the opportunities to work in film with 16mm, and I’d be cutting original neg and things like that, for years. And I told myself I was going to give myself 10 years to become a director, in movies, because I knew more about that than I did theater at that time.
“But Jim cut that short. During that time I learned everything I possibly could, but then Jim asked me to direct Dark Crystal with him before that 10 years was up, and that was extraordinary. And I was a bit shocked by it, but he knew I could help him in areas that he wasn’t very strong, but it was his movie. It was just something I always wanted to do: be a director. I was too scared to do it. And again, Jim gave me the opportunity,” Oz says.
And what, exactly, did Jim Henson ask Frank Oz to help him with? “There were no real individual responsibilities,” Oz says. “But he and I were pretty close and we kind of had a silent language where we didn’t have to talk. And he knew that I was better at staging than him, blocking for instance, and I was pretty good at talking to actors, and those two elements I think helped because it was such a massive project. Not that he didn’t block and he didn’t stage and not that he didn’t block the actors, but as a performer he knew I was able to do that and that could save him time so he didn’t have to do all that, because it was such a massive effort. Right now it would be about $200 million. We did [it] only because I think we were so close.”
The Dark Crystal is a film that is, as the title hints, quite dark, and has given more than a few kids nightmares over the years, particularly with its portrayal of the villainous, vulture-like monsters the Skeksis. But according to Oz, Henson always wanted the film to be scary.
“I didn’t think about it, I was just doing it,” Oz says. “Jim always felt that scaring kids was good, was cathartic for the child. So he wanted, what his goal in The Dark Crystal was – as he told me – he wanted to create a world like the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Not the sanitized version, but the actual, original Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which is scary as hell! He always felt it was a positive thing for kids. Certain kids can’t take it. Probably as a kid I couldn’t, but other kids can, and when they grow up probably they can take it more. But I never thought about it. I just tried to do the very best job I could.”