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Thursday, February 07, 2013

The HeyUGuys Interview: Producer Todd Lieberman Part Two Working with The Muppets…Again!

By Ben Mortimer

Todd-LiebermanYesterday we published the first part of our interview with Muppets and Warm Bodies producer Todd Lieberman.

Today, we publish part two, where we focus on all things Muppets – from the reasons for shooting Muppets… Again! at Pinewood Studios to introducing his young sons to the characters.

HeyUGuys: How do your boys feel about The Muppets? I presume they enjoyed it.
Todd Lieberman: My younger son hasn’t seen it. My older son loves movies, has as early as he could sit up . I think I showed him Star Wars when he was two, and he sat through the whole thing and hasn’t stopped ever since. The first movie we ever saw in the movie theatre with him was Kung Fu Panda, and I remember my wife and I were talking about, “it’s dark”, and “people say the first time you go to a movie theatre with a kid it might be scary, they might freak out, you might have to take him out”, the lights went off, he was mesmerised, the movie started, he got up, stood in the aisle, and started punching and kicking as the Panda was punching and kicking. He was so into it. He loves movies. My younger son, I can’t tell yet. He doesn’t sit in the way my eldest son does, but the first premiere that my oldest son ever went to was the Muppets movie, and he loved it, he had a blast. Came to the set, hung out, met all the characters. Hopefully they’ll both come back to the set and have a good time.

As a grown adult meeting Miss Piggy was a high point of my life, so being a seven year old, or eight year old boy, that must have been fun.
Even for me. I remember meeting them for the very first  time, it was something weird, like “Wow. That’s my childhood right in front of me.

Did you get the voice disconnect thing? You know full well that it’s [Muppeteer] Eric Jacobson talking – you can see his mouth moving – but your brain convinces you that it’s coming from the pig.
Here’s what happens, and this is so interesting, I saw this with my kid. We’re on the set, and Peter Linz, who does Walter, came up to my oldest son, with Walter, and started talking with him. Not once, not one time, did my son look at Peter. He was talking to Walter. He didn’t even acknowledge that Peter was there, he was talking to the Muppet. There’s something, I don’t know what it is, an indescribable, instinctual something that allows your brain to digitally cut out that human being, and realise that there is a live character in front of you.

Because it’s not like they’re ventriloquists.
No. They’re not throwing their voices, it’s just there. It’s amazing. It’s an amazing skill, they are beyond talented. They’re amazing performers and improvisers in their own way; they’re not just puppeteers, they’re performers, they do the whole package and it’s really spectacular to watch.

What are the practicalities of trying to keep a performer hidden on a set?
It’s complicated, it’s very complicated, we’re always trying to figure out ways to hide them. Our sets are built three and a half feet off the ground, so they can go underneath them. When we’re in the real world, when we’re outside, they’re either lying down, hidden by potted plants – it’s really constructing ways so that you don’t see them.

And I presume when you’re shooting in something that is an open space, do you try to avoid members of the public seeing them being operated.
Yes. I guess, you don’t want tons of images going out there of humans and puppets connected, but at the same time, like we just said before, it didn’t affect my son at all, so I don’t think it would have a detrimental effect, but you want to keep the illusion for sure.

Why England?
This story is a European set story, so that was the creative driver, then we were lucky enough to be able to shoot here because of the tax break.

Because that was one of the things – when I was reading about the Ricky Gervais casting, no slight on Ricky, he’s a good comedian – but it did strike me, James Bobin, British writer/director, having Ricky Gervais on board might sneak you over the bar for the UK Production Tax Credit*
We had qualified well before Ricky, he was a pure creative choice.

Fair enough, but that’s one of the interesting things – there was debate the other day when Skyfall and Les Miserables were nominated for Best British Film BAFTAs. The requirement is that they qualify as British films for tax purposes, so are you looking forward to your Best British Film BAFTA nomination in a couple of years’ time?
What you’ll realise about me, when you get to know me even more is that you won’t meet a more superstitious person than I am. So speculating on my own things, talking about my own stuff will never come out of my mouth.

*’British’ films are entitled to a tax relief of up to 25% against their production costs. To access these, they have to be certified as ‘culturally British’ according to a set of criteria. 

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