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The Muppets – Director James Bobin on why we see ourselves as muppets

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The Muppets - Director James Robin and Walter
The Tall & Short of it: Director James Robin, coaches one his stars, a new Muppet named Walter whose adventure in Hollywood – and around the globe – help bring the Muppets back together again © 2011 Disney Enterprises, Photo by Scott Garfield

James Bobin created, wrote and executive produced the successful series Flight of the Conchords for HBO, which received seven Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Comedy Series. He also created the Da Ali G Show in England and devised the iconic characterizations of Ali G, Borat Sagdiyev and Bruno, all played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Bobin’s new movie The Muppets reunites the stars of TV’s The Muppet Show, along with humans Jason Segel, Amy Adams and Chris Cooper. When Gary (Segel) and his girlfriend Mary (Adams), along with Gary’s brother Walter, come to Los Angeles, they visit the old studio where The Muppet Show used to be produced. During the tour of the historic facility, they discover an oilman, Tex Richman (Cooper), has plans to raze the building in order to drill for oil. Putting their vacation on hold, they track down Kermit the frog and persuade him to gather up the old gang to do a telethon to save the studio.

What is it about the Muppets that make them endearing and enduring?

The Muppets - Director James Bobin
And Action!: Director James Bobin enjoys another hilarious moment during the filming © 2011 Disney Enterprises

To me, it’s because we see a bit of ourselves in the Muppets. They are a group of people who always are hoping for the best. It’s an optimistic outlook at the world, which I think we hope we all cling on to. They are what we were in our childhood. We all started out as that very optimistic person and then throughout life things can knock you back.

I think the Muppets often feel like the guys we once were.

Do you see any similarities doing The Muppets and Flight of the Conchords?

Yeah, for me going from Flight of the Conchords to The Muppets felt like the same job. Conchords was basically a world whereby everyone had a weird world view and they were all a bit scared. The Muppets are all very optimistic, but they are all kind of inherent failures.

They aren’t good at what they do, and I love that about [them] because you instantly feel for the underdog. And I thought that was a very similar thing with Conchords and Muppets. They had a very similar tone in that sense, and also the music and the innocent charm of the comedy.

The puppeteers that maneuver the Muppets are so clever, did you allow them to adlib at all because they can be hilarious?

The Muppets - Director James Bobin and Jason Seqel
A Funny Thing Happened: Director James Bobin shares a laugh with Jason Seqel on the set of their new movie © 2011 Disney Enterprises

One of the first questions I asked about this job was how does it work? And the most important thing I learned immediately was that the guys who performed the puppets also did the voices, and they did them live. So therefore they can improvise.

And that is incredibly important, especially for me coming from a comedic background; a large amount of my work has been improvisation.

Saying that, on this movie it was harder because of the time restrictions, and obviously the puppets require a long and lengthy process in shooting. So there wasn’t as much achieved as maybe you can get sometimes.

But at the same time, they are completely free to do whatever you want to do. Often you would make stuff up on the spot, and it would really work well, particularly reactions to situations that were in the show itself.

Was it limiting at all, because the Muppets can only do so much?

The Muppets - Chris Cooper with Director James Bobin
So Good at being so Bad: Chris Cooper, playing the villainous bad guy Tex Richman, gets ready to make with the mayhem after a talk with Director James Bobin on the set © 2011 Disney Enterprises

Not really, because even how I shot it, I always set out an idea of what I would do were they real. And then from there on we work out how we would achieve that. And so the movie really looks like how I wanted it to look. In a sense I feel it’s quite expansive.
It feels big which is what I love about it, because obviously with puppets you’ve got the danger of being very small.

Can you talk about shooting the production number on Hollywood Boulevard?

I wanted to do a bigger closing number to round the movie off in the way we had the big opening number. And so I felt after Kermit’s great speech that it would be nice to spill out on this boulevard and have this great moment and then [they] realize they are popular again, and sing a song about it.

I was keen to always cast people in that dance number who feel very real. My brief was they must not look like dancers. The whole point is that they are real people of the world embracing the Muppets again.

The Muppets - Jason Segel and Director James Bobin
Riot on the Set: Jason Segel takes direction - and gets some driving directions -from Director James Bobin on the set © 2011 Disney Enterprises

Logistically it was a complicated thing. We had to close the whole boulevard down. We had the police come out and do crowd control. We did it in January, which is obviously a good time of the year to shoot stuff. It wasn’t exactly tourist season, which is helpful, and it was weirdly warm.

We happened to be very lucky with the weather. We got two warm nights in a row, which is amazing in January. Had it been cold, the [number] could have been very much smaller and shorter!

You’re not old enough to remember a world without the Muppets. What do you think the world would have been like if they were not here?

That’s a great question. I don’t know. I think it would be a sadder place without the Muppets. I really do feel that they have this great optimistic vibe about them, which is irreplaceable. It would be like a world without Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.