The Muppets return to the big screen in Disney’s exciting new “Muppets Most Wanted” directed by James Bobin from a screenplay he wrote with Nicholas Stoller following the success of the Muppets big-screen comeback two years ago. The Muppets are back with a completely different story that starts seconds after the first one ended and features an all-new human cast — Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey and Ty Burrell — that star alongside Kermit, Miss Piggy and the gang. The sequel is an old-style caper based on a fun premise with classic movie tropes and an evil doppelganger – a bad-guy, evil-frog, Kermit the Frog lookalike named Constantine who creates mayhem for the Muppets on their European tour.
At the movie’s Los Angeles press conference, Bobin, producer Todd Lieberman and songwriter Bret McKenzie talked about what it was like doing a new action comedy musical, the brilliant new song “We’re Doing a Sequel” that McKenzie wrote to open the film, the logistics of filming in different locations and incorporating the music into the Spain and Berlin sound, balancing the main roles with the cameos and figuring out the best fit for the story, Bret’s creative work space in a Hollywood Blvd. strip mall, using their kids as a test audience, balancing adult references with jokes that kids will get too, the musical nods to classic Hollywood films, the Muppets legacy and why they have a great place in entertainment history.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: In the past year, there were two Hensons that died sadly, Jane and John. I’m wondering if there are any Hensons still involved in the Muppets and whether or not you were able to connect with the original vibe?
JAMES BOBIN: Well I know that Lisa and Brian have seen the movie and love it, which is always very important to me because I want to see Jim’s legacy to us. And certainly in the first movie, when we were filming in Los Angeles, Brian came on set twice, and he and I talked about making Muppet movies. In fact, he and I are now the only people who’ve ever done two Muppet movies, so I share that with him. His opinion to me is obviously very important. On this one, it was harder because we were in London, so I didn’t see him this time, but I know he’s a fan of the movies, so I’m thrilled by that.
Q: What was it like going out there and doing it a second time?
JAMES BOBIN: I thought let’s make it harder. (Laughs) That’s what I did. Let’s make an action comedy musical movie.
Q: What was it like working with the Muppets again, especially Miss Piggy? I know she’s rather demanding.
JAMES BOBIN: She gets no easier, I’ll tell you that. (Laughter) No, it was great. You know, if you know people, it’s so much more fun working with them because it’s like your family back together again. It’s really lovely, and so it’s so pleasing to see them all. It’s like being here again today. I haven’t seen you for a while so it’s nice to see everybody again. It’s lovely. But no, it was just fun to see everyone again and I was very clear in my head as to what we’d like to do next. And it’s why the movie starts seconds after the last one ended. I felt the Muppets could just address the problem that Nick (Stoller) and I had which is, what is the film going to be about and what’s next? I thought well, let’s just address that and do it in the movie itself so you have this thing where they go, “What should we do next?” And then they sing a song called “We’re Doing a Sequel,” which Bret so brilliantly wrote, and it addresses that issue up front with all the cards out straight away.
Q: This is a great sequel.
JAMES BOBIN: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Q: Bret, I had a question for you about the music and coming up with the songs. I noticed one of the songs was “We’re Doing it Again and Again.” Was the original title for the film going to be “The Muppets Again”? Or was it always going to be “Muppets Most Wanted,” and did you think about putting “Most Wanted” in?
BRET MCKENZIE: Yeah, the film was originally called “Muppets, the Muppets Again.”
JAMES BOBIN: Well spotted. (Laughs)
BRET MCKENZIE: And so, the first song, “We’re Doing a Sequel” ends with the Muppets all singing “It’s the Muppets again,” because we thought it’d be great for the song to have the title of the movie in it. But then, well after we’d filmed it all, Marketing decided to change the name of the movie. (Laughter) And so, we tried going “It’s the Muppets Most Wanted,” and it really didn’t sit very well on the mouths of the Muppets, so we did “Again.” (Laughter)
Q: Could you talk a little bit about the logistics of filming on different locations, and also, for Bret, about the music and trying to incorporate it with the Spain and Berlin sound?
BRET MCKENZIE: Sure. Muppet films are never easy to film because the Muppets have no legs. You may not notice this, but they have no legs, so things get very complicated wherever you go. It’s easier indoors. You’ll notice that a lot of work now is on stage, but what I love about Muppets in the real world is they live in the real world, and you create a sense there’s a real world out there whereby Muppets and humans happily co-exist, which is my favorite thing. I think it’s an illusion we all want to believe in. On location, we always have the puppeteers perform on the ground. We have to raise things like your door handles and various things like that to help us out. It’s all quite technically complex, but on stage it’s very straightforward, because we then just raise the entire set four feet up, and the cameras come up four feet in the air, and the puppeteers themselves can then stand up. That means they can kind of group together as closely as possible. That means you have nice group shots rather than being all far apart. There are lots of challenges when you’re filming Muppets, and the days can be very long, but at the end of the day you look around and you see these incredible characters behind you in their home and it’s just really fun. It’s a fun place to be and it’s kind of why it’s so fun. For the cameos, they come on set and they meet these characters that they’ve loved all their lives, and it’s just a lovely moment for them. It’s a very pleasurable experience for everybody. It really is.
JAMES BOBIN: It’d be fun to see a Muppet film where you saw all the guys crawling around on the floor.
BRET MCKENZIE: Yeah. (Laughs)
JAMES BOBIN: And then, if the movie screen could lower down and you could see underneath the shot, it would be great.
BRET MCKENZIE: Yeah, you’d be like showing our workings out and stuff like that.
Q: Bret, it was great to see Jermaine in the movie. Can you talk about the cameos? Were there people that you specifically went after or were people coming to you? Also, how did you balance out the cameos with the people who are playing full on roles because Jermaine’s role seems more than a cameo?
JAMES BOBIN: It’s a part, sort of a cameo. When Nick and I write the script, we’re writing people’s names in often, and obviously certain people have to be that person. You can’t do the Christoph Waltz joke with anybody else, because it is about a waltz, so that’s impossible.
TODD LIEBERMAN: I think that one was reverse engineered in a way.
JAMES BOBIN: Right, maybe yeah. We made the joke first.
TODD LIEBERMAN: For a lot of the cameos, we have a list of people who want to be in the movie, and then as these guys go through writing the movie, we gather other intel of fans and the people we like and people that like us and then we do this grid.
BRET MCKENZIE: Intel meaning, just Google them. (Laughs) Google celebrity and Muppet. (Laughter)
TODD LIEBERMAN: We do a full on background check. And Christoph Waltz specifically was one where he was a massive fan of the first movie and really wanted to be a part of this one, and so that joke was reverse engineered.
JAMES BOBIN: Right, that’s right.
TODD LIEBERMAN: There are so many people who love the Muppets. It’s an interesting matrix to put together to figure out where people go correctly and how to fit all the people that love The Muppets in the movie, which hopefully we’ve accomplished.
JAMES BOBIN: A lot of people approach me just on the streets and asked if they could be in the movie, and more often than not, I got them. One of them was Lady Gaga. (Laughter)
Q: Given the location at the end of the movie, was there an attempt to get anyone from the royal family?
JAMES BOBIN: That’s a good question. We tried to get the young prince to be one of the babies. (Laughter) But, they never responded.
Q: Was Prince George not available?
JAMES BOBIN: They never responded. But we phoned a lot of times. This is true.
Q: One of the really impressive elements of this film is all of the touchstones you have to classic Hollywood films. Busby Berkeley and Arthur Freed are jumping up and down somewhere right now doing a two-step.
TODD LIEBERMAN: (Laughs) Good!
Q: Was this a conscious decision in terms of the musical construction and the visual pallet, because you’ve got “Kelly’s Heroes” and “Pink Panther” references and also the standard MGM musicals with the proscenium at the beginning? How did you go about developing those aspects of the film?
JAMES BOBIN: Well, for me personally, I always believed the Muppets have a great place in entertainment history. They kind of live in that world. The Muppet Show was set in an old theater and it works for them. So generally, I love the idea of making a movie with a huge number of references and movie tropes, of course, just things that you may remember from other movies. It plays so well for them that when we put this together, I just loved the idea that you have this leeway to do that. It’s very rare to have a chance to do that and make reference for the movies you love, and that’s what I wanted to do with this film and throughout the whole thing. Like you see Fozzie and Walter in the desert, it’s like a David Lean shot, and that kind of idea that we have the Swedish chef from “The Seventh Seal.” That’s a great thing you couldn’t do in most movies. It’s just really fun, but it’s very much a conscious choice. But also, because I feel that, as I said, Muppets lives in that kind of great entertainment history world so that when you do a musical number it kind of has to be Busby Berkeley, and why not, because it’s something I’ve always loved and Muppets is the perfect excuse to try it out. So, we talked about the idea, and that brilliant song that Bret wrote fit in so well like that. It just worked out well like that.
BRET MCKENZIE: It was such a golden age for musicals as well. So I guess those years are so influential on us now because of what they did with the videos and the films for the musical numbers. I’m jealous of that time. It seemed like the actors spent most of their times doing dancing and singing lessons, and then they came on set and knew all their moves and they could do them. They could all sing as well. Whereas now you’re dealing with actors who can’t dance or sing but think they can.
JAMES BOBIN: (Laughs) But we love them.
BRET MCKENZIE: But they’re great in other ways.
Q: For each of you, what was a hopefully constructive criticism from the first film that each of you really took to heart and wanted to apply this time around?
TODD LIEBERMAN: We had an amazing time on the first film obviously, and I think with the idea of being able to set up and reset a little bit, this movie for us was the ability to just kind of go a little wilder, and so, it’s not a criticism or anything that we’ve learned necessarily other than the ability to have more fun. Hopefully, this movie showcases the wackiness that the Muppets embody, but also maintaining still the heart that we had in the first movie.
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, but it’s also the chance, because in the last movie remember we had to try to put the gang back together again, but this time you have everybody from the very beginning. So I guess in some ways it feels a bit more Muppets now. I don’t know. I mean, I guess it does.
TODD LIEBERMAN: Well, that’s another good point, because in the first movie the emotional story was centered around a human being and a Muppet that we created from whole cloth, whereas this movie the emotional story centers around the Muppets.
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, which you know, we love.
Q: Bret, when constructing these songs, did you feel an added pressure to follow up the Oscar winning “Man or a Muppet”?
BRET MCKENZIE: Yes. (Laughter)
Q: Or do you feel that now that I said it? (Laughter)
BRET MCKENZIE: Nope. (Laughs) Yeah, but what can you do? You know there’s a little bit of pressure, and on my piano at home, I have the Oscar. It sits on my piano, and so occasionally I’ll be working and looking at it and thinking, “Oh God, that’s not good enough.” (Laughter) But then, I moved to LA to work on the songs, and we hired a space on Hollywood Boulevard, an old shop, and I put a piano in there. It was like this dusty old shop to hide away and work on these songs, and these guys came and visited, to listen to the demos. It was quite a funny scene because people would be walking by hearing this, me hitting on, you know, playing the piano, and occasionally they’d walk in and they’d say, “Is there music lessons going on in here?” (Laughter) or “What is this? Is this some sort of art installation?”
TODD LIEBERMAN: Because it looked like a strip mall.
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, it was literally a strip of stores and there was like a clothes shop and a dry cleaners, and then in the middle of it was Bret’s weird shop.
BRET MCKENZIE: We liked to call it “Muppet Solutions.”
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, literally it was very weird because the shop window is still right there, so you could see Bret at the back of the room just playing his piano as you look in on this lighted shop. It was a very strange place.
TODD LIEBERMAN: There was nothing in there other than a piano in the back of the room and a little couch. You could go in there and think either you’re going to get killed (Laughter) or you’re going to hear some music (Laughter). And so we all sat in there.
JAMES BOBIN: It felt like contemporary art to me. (Laughter)
BRET MCKENZIE: Yeah. And, having worked on the first film, Kermit sent me a Kermit phone which is a direct line to him so …
JAMES BOBIN: Oh, you got that?
BRET MCKENZIE: Yes, I’ve got that. It’s right here (holds phone up to show everyone). Once you’ve worked on the Muppets, we all have these.
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, I have one of these in my house, too.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s like the bat phone.
Q: What’s the number? (Laughter)
BRET MCKENZIE: He just calls me direct.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s just “1.” (Laughter) Yeah, he flashes green. It’s numeric Kermit, I guess 53, whatever that is. Yeah, he calls up and says, “You know, I need a song. A finale, you know? Can you work on that please?” (Laughter)
Q: When I was at the screening a couple of nights ago, a lot of the parents were laughing just as hard if not harder than the kids, especially at the reference to “The Seventh Seal.” How was it to balance adult references with jokes that kids would get too?
JAMES BOBIN: One of the challenges of this film is it has to be for everybody. I remember watching the Muppet Show in the 70’s and it was the thing I watched when I was six or seven, and my dad watched it with me, and my grandparents watched it with me. We were all laughing throughout, but I think we were probably laughing at different things. And it’s kind of what we’re going to do in this film too, whereby I now have children of my own and so I watch with my daughter. She laughs her head off and I laugh my head off, but again, probably at different things. And so, it’s that thing where we’re trying to do both things at the same time throughout, and for me, it’s about multi-layering the story and multi-layering the jokes on top of visuals and creating something which bears repeat viewing. That’s another huge thing about it. I love making a movie you can watch again, again and again because kids watch things a lot. My kids wear out the movies they love. They watch them again and again, and there’s no limit to how many times they can watch it. I love the idea that if you build something with enough depth and texture, you can watch it again and again and see new things every time, and that’s very important.
TODD LIEBERMAN: But the idea is, and from the beginning, we always set out to not make a movie for kids, but make a movie for everybody that kids also loved, and so if we laughed, we knew it would appeal to us, and then we also have kids, so we could use them as a test audience. (Laughter)
JAMES BOBIN: In fact, I did. My kids were always my test audience. I’d take home the dailies and show them what we’d been filming that day. Hence, in the last movie, there are a lot of chickens. They love chickens. The chickens cleaning the theater was literally my daughter’s favorite thing, and this time she loves the Henson Babies, the accomplices to Dominic, the creepy weird babies, and she was obsessed with them. So I kept saying keep the babies. They’re amazing. Keep the babies. People are going to love the babies. (Laughter)
TODD LIEBERMAN: Yeah, and I knew we had something good too with the interrogation song that Bret wrote when I brought home the demo and both my kids had commandeered my computer. They figured out my password, got into it, were listening to the songs, and were jumping around and jumping on the couches and quoting that exact song.
JAMES BOBIN: I think the children of Hollywood are more influential than the parents. (Laughter)
Q: You have a great self-referential joke with Robin the Frog. I’m wondering even now, two movies in, are you still struggling to figure out how to squeeze everyone in?
JAMES BOBIN: (Laughs) There’s a lot of people here. There’s a lot of people in the room, you know. It’s hard, because of course we have such a huge family of fantastic people to involve, and this time we brought people back like Annie Sue and Mildred Huxtetter and Pops, people that we haven’t used in the last movie. But there still are more people out there. Robin was just one of those guys I’ve always liked, but I don’t know where you’re going to put him, and so I thought that was a good joke, because obviously Rizzo wasn’t in the last movie very much. If Rizzo talks about it, then Robin should also talk about it, and I love that odd moment when he just says that’s it for him and the whole movie.
TODD LIEBERMAN: And while we were in pre-production, Rizzo the Rat sent us a video basically begging to be in the film. (Laughter)
JAMES BOBIN: And it kind of worked. So that’s a tip to other Muppets out there. Send me the video of you asking to be in the movie and I can sort it out for you. It’s no problem. (Laughter)
BRET MCKENZIE: Oh no! We don’t want that!
Q: How did you pick the cities and also Siberia which reminds me of the Cold War? Don’t frogs usually hibernate in the winter time?
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, well the basic rule about Europe in this movie is it’s a bit like Europe from National Lampoon’s European Vacation. It’s like an old movie trope version of what Europe is. In a movie from the 80’s, the bad guy would be a Russian, and the Constantine character for me – and I talked to Matt about this – is always kind of based on General Orlov from “Octopussy.” That’s my favorite Russian guy. And so, I thought that would be a funny character for Kermit’s doppelganger to sound like. This is just because this movie kind of feels like it’s of that era, sort of 60’s through 70’s through 80’s, and to those places. You know, in those times they were set in Monte Carlo or Montevideo, Buenos Aires. Yeah, but Berlin and Madrid and London were such fun. That’s the sort of feel those places have to me, so I felt that’s kind of perfect for a caper movie to have international locations like that.
BRET MCKENZIE: It’s a classic Cold War comedy. (Laughter)
Q: What were some of your inspirations when creating this story?
JAMES BOBIN: Well personally, I’ve always liked movies about big diamonds, like “The Pink Panther” and “The Thomas Crown Affair.”
BRET MCKENZIE: You just like diamonds.
JAMES BOBIN: (Laughs) I just like diamonds. No, I’ve just always found those films really interesting and they have a good energy about them which I like, and also because they are a genre of movies. Again, I was saying about Muppets having this great sense so they can kind of own genres and refer to them and be part of them themselves, and you know, they’ve done classic Dickens novels. Why not do film genres? And so, that was certainly an inspiration. But also the idea that in the last movie I really loved the bits where we could do bits in the Muppet Show, like squeeze them in there. So I thought why not do a world tour and keep putting the Muppet Show out again and again and again. And so you can combine the Muppet Show elements with this kind of caper style story, and that’s our film, and that’s where we are. And then the doppelganger, again, I think it’s just a classic old movie troupe about the guy who looks exactly like somebody else. Obviously, Kermit is the most beloved frog in the world, so the simple thought was, what if there was a bad version of this guy and that’s it. And then, Matt created his brilliant character and the rest is history as they say.
Q: How did the partnership with Vivienne Westwood come about with Miss Piggy’s dress? Did she come to you or was that written in right away?
TODD LIEBERMAN: Yeah, she was. She’s been a massive fan forever, and even on the first film, and she approached us collectively and it just happened that way.
JAMES BOBIN: And it felt very appropriate being in London filming in that she’s so iconically British, you know. I felt that’s really fun and she’s fantastic in the suit piece. They weren’t dresses but …
TODD LIEBERMAN: And I guess her sense of style too, which is, you know …
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, kind of interesting (Laughter)
TODD LIEBERMAN: Not conventional.
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah. Be careful what you say.
TODD LIEBERMAN: Much like how Bret dresses. (Laughter)
Q: For the director, I recognize the famous guests, but there are also two guests that you invited that I don’t recognize, and I understand your parents were there?
JAMES BOBIN: (Laughs) How do you know that?
Q: It’s in the press notes. (Laughter)
JAMES BOBIN: Oh, okay. I keep saying how do people know my parents are in this?
Q: Could you tell us about that scene and how that came about?
JAMES BOBIN: That’s funny. Well, I live over here. I’ve been here for ten years, so my parents I see fairly occasionally but not that often. I was filming in London so I saw them pretty much every day. They happened to be on set one day and I said, “We’re doing a scene with a crowd and we have a spare hat, so please go in and join.” So if you watch Frank Langella I believe delivering the line about that window being 800 years old, you can see my mum reacting behind him and I think doing her best acting. It’s very good, very good acting.
BRET MCKENZIE: So they’re at the wedding?
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, the wedding. The blonde lady behind Frank is my mum, but yes, that’s supposedly a secret. (Laughter) Apparently not, though.
Q: Was that one of your surprise cameos?
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah, my mom exactly, yeah. It’s funny.
Q: For Mr. McKenzie and Mr. Bobin, how closely do you guys work together on the songs and finding the right tone and fit for the storyline?
JAMES BOBIN: Very closely. I mean, we’ve worked together for maybe ten years now. It’s such a joy working with Bret, because I have an idea and he’s kind of ahead of me on it all the time, and it’s pretty much a back and forth. Often it’ll start with a title or a funny idea we have for a song and a placeholder in the script, and that’s all it is. It’s like a title and a brief description, and then from that paragraph we’ll give it to Bret, and he will come back with an amazing song. We go, “Yeah, that’s it. Perfect. Thank you very much. Let’s do something else now.” It’s like that. It’s that good, and it’s very rare that he delivers something I don’t like. It doesn’t happen that often.
BRET MCKENZIE: No, occasionally but yeah. There’s a bit of back and forth so James and Nick (Stoller) would come up with the idea usually or the moment in the film that needs a song and then they’d throw it to me, like the opening “We’re Doing a Sequel” was the idea and they had some ideas, had some good lines, like they often suggests lines that don’t rhyme which is not that helpful.
JAMES BOBIN: Yeah. “We’re doing a sequel. It cost twice as much but it’s half as good.” (Laughter) It didn’t make it, but I didn’t mind, Bret.
BRET MCKENZIE: I just play around with it and I guess try to combine the idea for the song and also make it a song that works by itself, which is kind of the challenge, and then play it back for them usually just on piano, with me singing, doing my now quite extensive catalog of Muppet impressions. (Laughter)
JAMES BOBIN: And he’s really good now. Really!
BRET MCKENZIE: I can do Miss Piggy. I can do Miss Piggy quite well.
JAMES BOBIN: Come on, come on, come on!
BRET MCKENZIE: So here we go. Come on, guys. Let’s see. It’s Sunday morning. Okay, here we go. (Laughter) So it’s (starts singing like Miss Piggy) “How can something so right…” which is an absolutely ridiculous job. (Laughter and Applause) So that’s my weird career.
JAMES BOBIN: On the new soundtrack CD, there are the demo versions that Bret himself sings.
BRET MCKENZIE: Oh, there are. Yes.
JAMES BOBIN: And they’re really great. Some of them you can’t even tell it’s you. (Laughter)
BRET MCKENZIE: The Muppets could tell. (Laughter) They’re horrified.
JAMES BOBIN: No, I said you.
BRET MCKENZIE: (Laughs) So I then play a sort of rough version and then we get together and work out the bits. James often has an idea that’s visual that he needs to change the lyric to suit the visual and then we record it with the Muppets. There’s lots of back and forth and I might suggest a visual idea, like I love the ballads which Piggy sings with Celine Dion. I was working on that and I had this idea that what if we had this flashback, this sort of dreamy moment where Piggy is sort of thinking about her future and she sees her with Kermit growing old and she pulls out a little… Basically, I thought it’d be fun to have a little pink frog and a little green pig (Laughter), and it was an idea that was around from the last film that I hadn’t got in, and I was like “Ahh, it could be there,” and then James made that cool shot. (Laughter) I love those moments where I’ve got the song idea and then the video comes back, because I’m not on set so I don’t see them doing it. And James manages to lift the song higher with the video.