Tough Pig Incredible Journey

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Frank Oz Interview

Frank Oz: Your tape recorder reminds me of these big clunky tape machines we used to have on "Sesame Street." It's so nice to see that.
Capone: Are you talking about machines to tape your voices as you shot the show?
FO: No, we had songs to do, and the tapes had the piano tracks on them so we could rehearse the songs.
C: Very few people have commented on my machine before, but I had a feeling for some reason that you might. You seem like a craftsman.
FO: Well, it's so solid. It's nice to see the thing turning; you don't know what the hell is happening with the digital recorders. It's more of a mensch. It's not slick; it's a nice mensch thing.
C: Well, thank you. Completely unconnected to interviewing you here today, I've been going through the first season DVDs of "Saturday Night Live."
FO: I've been told about that, but I haven't seen it.
C: I'm just a little too young to remember that season when it was new, and I probably only caught select sketches in later years, but it's been so much fun to see the routines that "Jim Henson's Muppets" did on that show.
FO: I did an interview yesterday, and someone mentioned that. We did all the shows during the first year except the first one.
C: Were the Muppets segments actually live?
FO: Oh yeah. All live. It was fun.
C: How did that come together?
FO: Bernie Brillstein was Jim's agent and manager. He was also Lorne Michael's manager and Danny's [Aykroyd] and John's [Belushi] and I think even Chevy's [Chase] at that time.
C: Okay. The other thing I'm noticing about that season is the very throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks attitude about each episode. To have tThe Muppets in the middle of that season, I wouldn't call it a natural fit…
FO: No it wasn't a natural fit. Part of the problem was that it wasn't a natural fit. It really stuck out like a sore thumb after a while, and they didn't know how to write for the Muppets. And as much as we were on very friendly terms with everybody--we were very friendly with John and Danny--professionally, it was very tense. And eventually, fortunately, they did great, and we got an offer to do "The Muppet Show," so it worked out great for both of us.
C: Strange that you should mention that, because "The Muppet Show" DVDs are also just now starting to come out on DVD.
FO: Is it?
C: The first season is out, and the second season is set to come out later this summer.
FO: I didn't know that.
C: It's got to be kind of exciting to consider that more than one generation of viewers are getting to discover some of this great early work.
FO: It is, it's really nice. That's one nice thing about the new technology is that shows are brought back
C: My wife's maiden name is Grover, I kid you not. So the fact that I'm sitting here right now with you is making her very happy.
FO: I adore Grover.
C: And she's got a collection of Grover memorabilia that would shock even you. I'm sure you've been asked this before, but what is Grover?
FO: That's interesting. I used to do a lot of characters. I haven't done them for about four or five years, and a lot of the characters you work on hard, and Grover just sort of evolved; he just kind of organically came into being. He wants to help; he wants to do everything right. That's why he doesn't use contractions, that's why he talks that way.
You always have to have a reason why a character does things, and there's a reason that Yoda talks the way he does, there's a reason Grover talks the way he does. And Grover does that because he is trying his very best to do the right thing, and the right thing is to use the proper words. And he will try and help people, but don't cross him because he's kind of wiry. He's not a wimp.
C: And where did the Super-Grover identity come from?
FO: That came from the writers' minds. One of the writers, Jon Stone, who's one of the fathers of "Sesame Street," or Jeff Moss wrote it, both of them are two great friends who have passed away.
C: In having seen the first season of "The Muppet Show" recently, and looking at the host lineup for the second season, that must have been a really great time. The people that are hosting that show are show business elite, probably some of your heroes. I see that Peter Sellers is the host of one of the second-season shows. My God!
FO: Oh yeah, Peter was there. All those shows, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times. The only "worst" time there was is if you do 24 half-hour episodes every year, it's a tough grind. You don't have a lot of social time; anybody who does series TV knows that. But the other part, working with these talented people and Jim Henson, who was so brilliant, I always enjoyed working with.
We worked like hell, but we had a lot of fun. That part was absolutely amazing. And the people involved, Peter Sellers, Rudy Nureyev. In the first few months, we weren't on the air yet, so nobody knew who we were. We couldn't get any guests; once we were on, we got a lot of guests.
C: The second season is definitely…
FO: Yeah, that's when it hit hard. So many things. We had fun with Elton John. I remember we were singing "Don't Go Breaking My Heart," and he was wearing one of those wild feather outfits with the glasses. [laughs]
C: Was there a particular host you really remember being fun? Or really getting it?
FO: No. Well, Harry Belafonte's show. Harry really worked hard with Jim to put his signature on his show. So I have a lot of respect for Harry. But people like Johnny Cleese, Bob Hope's show is funny. Peter's show. Can't forget Rudy's show, that was pretty good. We had 120 guest stars, 120 shows in five years.
C: I remember around that same time that Muppet characters used to make appearances on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson.
FO: That's what we were known for at first. We were an act in the beginning. We'd go from the Perry Como show to the Bob Hope show to the Johnny Caron to Jack Parr to "The Today Show" to awards show. We did the Emmys and the Oscars, the Grammys, we did it all. Yeah, that's what we were in the beginning.
C: What was it about the relationship between Kermit and Ms. Piggy that people seemed to cling to and identify with?
FO: There's some sort of recognizable affectionate tension in any relationship. I think the complexity of the pushes and pulls in any relationship, in part, is what people saw. But the truth is, I don't know. People saw themselves in them.
C: Did you have much to do with the physical look of the Muppet characters?
FO: When they were made, I'd give my two cents, but basically Jim designed them and they were made by the workshop people. I just performed them.
C: It makes sense then that your first few films--THE DARK CRYSTAL, THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN, and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS--were puppet-based works.
FO: DARK CRYSTAL was not my film. Jim asked me to direct, but it was his vision. He just asked me to help him direct and help fill certain voids. Then I did MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN and LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, and after that I started on DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS and moved away from the puppets.
C: LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS was a successful musical at a time when musicals were essentially dead on screen.
FO: I know. And it did fine. David Geffen [the film's producer] was the guy there. And Howard Ashman [the musical's writer] is a genius. It was very unusual to put money in a movie like that, but David did it. It was quite an endeavor for everybody.
C: I'd probably be banned from writing if I didn't ask a couple of Yoda questions. Have you ever been to a STAR WARS convention?
FO: Never. I don't do them. I won't do them. That's not my job. I create a character. I don't like to exploit characters, I like to create them. I just tend to do that. I don't do personal appearances or any of that. I've been asked to so many times, and I always say no.
C: That doesn't surprise me. I know that when you've been asked to do a particular voice during an interview or on a talk show, especially Yoda, you always decline.
FO: There are a lot of reasons. Certainly when I'm promoting a movie like this or any R-rated movie, I won't do it because I don't want people to think it's a kids' movie. And I don't want to be a trained monkey. It's like talking to a plumber and saying, "Hey, while you're here can you fix my sink?" I love the characters, but also I don't want to treat them cavalierly and just kind of toss them off when anyone asks me.
C: I noticed that your name has been attached to the new "Clone Wars" animated TV series as Yoda's voice. Are you, in fact, a part of that, because I remember you weren't a part of the original series.
FO: I know nothing about that. I haven't seen George for about a year. I could call him and find out, but I know nothing about it. Don't believe the internet. [laughs]
C: Believe me, I don't. I know you've talked about this before and I promise not to dwell on it, but what was your initial reaction when George Lucas told you Yoda was going digital?
FO: I thought it was great, because I'd done two, three movies with him as a puppet character, which is very hellish and very tough to do, for me and three other people. But George wanted the big fight with Dooku, and there is no way you could do that with a puppet. There's just no way; it's impossible, too many limitations. So George had no choice. And they were very respectful, Rob [Coleman, animation director at ILM] and all those guys.
There are actually a couple dozen people that work on Yoda now as CGI, and I'm the one that gets all the credit. Before, the voice was nothing compared to all the hard work I used to do; now I get the credit but don't do the hard work. They do the hard work. Yoda had to change. George wanted to do more things with the character, so he had to change.
C: Was there ever time when there would just be CGI for the fight scenes and everything else would be puppet work?
FO: No, never. But at the same time, George and Rob were very respectful, as I said. And whenever they did Yoda as CGI, they always referenced my performance in EMPIRE. They used that as the touchstone.
C: I think a lot of the fans who were appalled by the decision when they first heard it changed their tune once they saw that fight scene.
FO: Yeah, you can't stay still in one place; you've got to change. And it would just limit George's storytelling doing it the old way. He just couldn't do all the stuff he wanted to do.
C: He doesn't seem to cling to nostalgia in terms of technology.
FO: He just wants it to work.
C: This may seem like a completely bizarre question…
FO: And the others haven't been? [laughs]
C: Not compared to this one. Are you aware of the style of hardcore rock singing that is called "Cookie Monster"?
FO: I've heard about it! Somebody told me about it about six months ago, and I just cracked up. I haven't heard it, but those people must hurt their voice as much as I hurt mine.
C: Well, I'm glad that someone is keeping you up to date on these major world issues. In terms of the entire Jim Henson company, going from "Sesame Street" to "The Muppet Show" to THE DARK CRYSTAL, it seems as if the organization was growing up with his original audience.
FO: But don't forget, he also did--and I had nothing to do with it--five years of "Fraggle Rock." We never saw it as, you do this, then you do that. With Jim, you never stopped working. Whenever you did something, you did something else at the same time. I don't know if the progression was something that was planned by Jim. I just know that when Jim got excited about something, that was what mattered. I never got a sense of planning, except that Jim always tried to do the impossible and push the envelope. Always. DARK CRYSTAL may have had its problems, but it's an amazing vision. He wanted to make it like the old real Grimm's fairy tales that kids were actually frightened of.
C: I have this beautiful old coffee table book with all the sketches and drawings from that film.
FO: That's right, of the drawings. Those are beautiful.
C: With you being in the city of Chicago today, I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about your pivotal role in THE BLUES BROTHERS. Did that come out of knowing the "Saturday Night Live" guys, or did you know John Landis.
FO: I knew John. He was a fan, and when we did THE MUPPET MOVIE, I didn't know John, but he invited Jim and I to dinner. And John was always a fan, and as a matter of fact, there's that big scene at the end of THE MUPPET MOVIE where there are about 250 puppets, and John is actually handling Grover. And there's another director holding a puppet that I didn't even know about until later: Tim Burton. He was more of a fan, and we got to know John, and whenever he needed a prick in a movie, he's say, "Get Frank Oz."


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