Interview: Nicholas Stoller on writing ‘The Muppets’ for generations young and old

11.18.11 7 years ago

It had been nearly 12 years since Jim Henson’s beloved creation the Muppets had seen any sort of action on the big screen when Jason Segel took a meeting with Disney execs about potential properties the studio owned that might be of interest to him. The first thing out of Segel’s mouth: “What are you guys doing with the Muppets?”

The thing is, the studio didn’t know. “Which is funny,” screenwriter Nicholas Stoller says, “that a corporation lost one of their brands. I think there were a variety of corporate reasons. Things I don’t really understand. Like, I mean, 18 different people seemed to have owned the property in the past 10 years.”

That idea of “where have the Muppets been?” is what drove the original story process. Segel phoned up Stoller and asked, simply, “Do you want to write a Muppet movie?” And of course, Stoller jumped at the opportunity.

“I’m a huge Muppet fan,” he says. “I call the Muppets the gateway drug to comedy. Anyone who’s involved in comedy, unless they’re a bad person, loves the Muppets.”

The idea of a reunion movie made the most sense, of course, but there is an added element of reclaiming the Muppets for posterity. In the film, actor Chris Cooper plays a (comically two-dimensional) businessman aiming to buy the “Muppet Studios” to get at (what else?) the precious oil under the facility. Stoller and company conceived of a new character and life-long Muppet fan, Walter (himself a puppet, which shouldn’t work, but somehow does) who leads the charge of getting the gang back together for one last fund-raising variety show.

“The emotional stuff really came out of that,” Stoller says, “of like the bittersweet nature of when a group of friends breaks up or a family breaks up, the sadness of that and then trying to get them back together and trying to resolve their problems. I think the reason it resonates is — and this is something that we can’t take credit for — there’s kind of a meta narrative of all these people who grew up with the Muppets who are now seeing them for the first time in years.”

That re-experiencing of childhood was always going to be the added flavor to push the film forward. Stoller cites the “Toy Story” films as particularly powerful examples of fleshing out the sadness of having lost your childhood and wanted that aspect here as well.

“Not to get too deep, but I think there’s that element of it, too,” he says. “I watched [original song performance] ‘Pictures in My Head’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. I was a kid once, too. And I loved these characters as a kid. And I miss them as an adult. But I’m no longer a kid.'”

Being a Muppet movie, celebrity cameos were naturally essential. Segel stars alongside Amy Adams as the two central live-action leads of the film, while the aforementioned Cooper, Jack Black, Whoppi Goldberg and Zach Galifianakis, among others, fill out some of the other walk-on roles. And Stoller says the team had little trouble landing the actors they planned for in the script.

“It was pretty awesome,” he says. “The fact is most comedians, you know, they’re kind of earliest inspiration are the Muppets. So basically whoever we asked wanted to do it, and then it came down to scheduling. The few people who couldn’t do it was due to scheduling.”

Well, not everyone was so excited to be a part of it. When the project was percolating, Frank Oz — one of the originators of the Muppets as a puppeteer and the voice of characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and Sam the Eagle — said publicly that he felt the script wasn’t respectful of the characters. One can only imagine it was a misread of the running gag throughout the film (from the perspective of smarmy TV execs and the like) that the Muppets are irrelevant and outdated. Because at the end of the day, “The Muppets” displays incredible reverence for the material and is inherently ABOUT that reverence.

It’s unfortunate that Oz opted out of participating due to his take on the script, but Stoller takes it in stride.

“I’ve never met him or anything,” he says. “So I only know him as like a public figure. There are many drafts of the script. We wrote this over four years. I’m sure he read an early draft that we revised and I’m sure he’s weirded out other people are, you know, dealing with the franchise he helped start. But I think once he sees it, if he sees it, he’ll like it. I mean, we’re just trying to stay true to their vision. We’re trying to do another movie in the grand tradition of those first couple movies and I think, I feel, as if we succeeded.”

With that idea of the Muppets being outdated and potentially “irrelevant,” though, comes a question: How do they speak to the younger generation of today? There is something timeless about them, but finding that resonance was going to be a certain trick on this film.

“They kind of set the stage for a lot of modern comedy, whether it be ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Shrek’ or the Pixar movies or whatnot,” Stoller says. “So I think the big thing is — and I didn’t really understand this until I sat down and watched the final cut of the movie, as I had been focused on the comedy, the story, the emotional aspect of it — when the movie ended, I had a huge smile on my face. And that’s kind of the point of the Muppets, to put a huge smile on your face and make you really happy. It’s really about putting on a show and making people happy. And there isn’t really a lot of stuff that’s out there just to do that, that’s just about that.  And the Muppets are really just about that.”

Yet there is certainly substance in the film, not least of it being a running theme (tied to the Walter character) of finding one’s inner talent and having the courage to tap into it.

The characters’ collective talents won’t be on display as hosts of the Oscars this year, despite a valiant effort by an online grassroots campaign. But they will be when the film hits theaters this Thanksgiving. And one imagines a slew of adults will feel young again, while a smile will be put on the face of a whole new generation.

“The Muppets” opens nationwide Wednesday, November 23.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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