“We kind of started the story with what we think a lot of Muppet fans have been asking, which is where have the Muppets been?” Stoller said last week. “We started with a very practical [idea], because I was actually wondering where the Muppets have been. So going from that, we knew we needed a reunion story. Jason called me and very quickly riffed out this kind of reunion story, which was, the Muppets broke up, they’re no longer together, there’s a little bit of bad feeling between them, and then an outside Muppet, Walter, and Jason find out that the studio is going to be torn down by an evil oil tycoon, and then they get them all back together to save the studio and put on a show.”
“But the puppeteers gave us notes which helped us, which you’re not really aware of as a casual viewer but that help keep the world of a piece,” he revealed. “So like one of those was that in an original draft, Gary was a ventriloquist and Walter was a puppet, and they had this amazing act on the Venice Boardwalk, and then you reveal that the reason it’s so amazing is that Walter is actually an alive Muppet. And the [puppeteers] were like, ‘In the Muppet world, the Muppets are people – Kermit’s not a puppet, he’s a frog’ – so it’s important to keep the world whole and not ever refer to them in a joking way as puppets.”
Music and musical numbers in particular have always been a staple of “The Muppet Show” and the Muppet movies, and Stoller and Segel were eager to include that element in their update. But he said that they merely found places in the story where a song would feel appropriate, and then left most of the songwriting to “Flight of the Conchords” star Bret McKenzie. “’The Muppet Movie’ is not a proper musical, but you tell part of the story through the songs, obviously. So we had placeholders [in the script], so for like ‘Pictures in My Head,’ for example, we kind of put in all bold, KERMIT WALKS DOWN THE HALLWAY SINGING ABOUT HOW HE MISSES HIS FRIENDS, THE MUPPETS TO PAINTINGS, AND THE PAINTINGS SING BACK TO HIM.”
In spite of the film’s kid-friendly bent, Stoller and Segel were eager to explore some deeper and more adult themes in the film, not the least of which being that growing up means coming to terms with who you are. While it may seem out of place, Stoller insisted it was reflective of a larger trend in family filmmaking that they appeal to and connect with more than just a core audience. “I think that kind of a big theme, no matter what the movie is, is what keeps the audience engaged.” He said. “I mean, Pixar has most recently done that so well with the ‘Toy Story’ movies. Like I remember in ‘Toy Story 3,’ when I was watching that I just started crying really hard at the end (laughs). Afterwards my wife was like, 'Were you crying because you miss your toys?' And I was like, 'No, I’m crying because our daughter is going to be grown up one day!'”
As a filmmaker in his own right, Stoller has several projects in development, including “Five-Year Engagement,” which he wrote and directed, and is finishing up right now. He indicated that working on “The Muppets” gave him license to do a lot of fun things he wouldn’t be able to in more straightforward stories, but it also combined ideas from his original works with a property that already has an automatic attachment to its audience. “What’s really great is that when you sit down to write a script you have to invent everything, and with Muppets you’re sort of handed the best characters ever,” he observed. “And what you can do with the Muppets that you can’t do with most other characters is you can break the fourth wall, which is really fun, you can do puns, which are really fun. And with Fozzie, particularly for me, he’s a hard character to write for because he tells proper Vaudeville-style jokes, and my style of writing is pretty natural – mine are more like funny lines, not jokes. So that was also a bit of a challenge, but that was fun to do.”
Connecting the dots between his other films and “The Muppets,” he continued, “the similarity between ‘Get Him To The Greek,’ ‘Sarah Marshall,’ ‘Five Year Engagement’ and ‘Muppets’ was that I always like to have a core sweetness in whatever I’m working on – and no villains, except for maybe [Chris Cooper's oil tycoon character] Tex Richman. I try to keep some emotional truth at the center of it, because I think that’s ultimately what makes movies interesting to watch.”
“The Muppets” opens this Wednesday, November 23rd.