Quint loses his geek mind a little bit while visiting the set of MUPPETS MOST WANTED!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I've been dealt an incredibly lucky hand in life and that's something that never escapes me. I may grumble and bitch about the difficulties of covering Comic-Con or curse the world when I stare at a few hours of transcriptions ahead of me, but every single minute of every single day I thank my lucky stars for getting to do what I do for a living.
I've been able to check off a few crazy things from my personal bucket list over my 17 years in this business and the trip I'm about to relay is yet another box checkmarked. When I was a wide-eyed Muppet Show and movie loving child I could never imagine actually seeing the magic of The Muppets brought to life in person, but last year I got to do just that.
I joined a small group to visit the set of Muppets Most Wanted while pretty much the whole Muppets gang gathered at Los Angeles' Union Station to catch a train and begin the adventure that kicks off the new movie.
Walking through the real (and open) Union Station was already proving to be a unique tone-setter. If you've never been, it's an old train station that is just flat out gorgeous. Art deco designs remain to this day, so it was a great place to get lost in... which I did. For the life of me, I couldn't find the publicist and fellow movie writers. I actually found the platform the Muppets crew was shooting on first, but it was like a video game when you find a locked door, but don't have the key. The key in this instance was the Disney publicist, Marshall.
Thankfully I wasn't the only one having trouble navigating Union Station, so I didn't hold up the group and it wasn't long before our happy little family was assembled and headed to Tracks 11 and 12.
The platform was packed with crew, film equipment and set decoration, which mostly consisted of crates with “The Muppet Show” stenciled on them, the famous Muppet Show sign broken up into two pieces for travel and suitcases with various rats eating corn dogs and reading racing papers sitting on them. We were brought to a spot amongst the chaos where we could see them filming without getting in the way.
There's something about seeing Kermit the Frog in the felt that instantly reduced me to my 8 year old self. Even though Jim Henson didn't have his hand shoved up his butt, my brain was still muttering “Holy shit, that's Kermit! Right there! Kermit!” over and over.
The scene was Kermit addressing all the muppets and introducing them to their main mode of transportation. For whatever reason, Kermit was being shot against bluescreen. Later on they removed it and did the same scene with the fancy Amtrak train behind him.
If I were to guess I'd say they needed to shoot and the train maybe wasn't ready (it moved in the shot) or they just wanted a safety in case the timing with the train could never work perfectly... by shooting Kermit against bluescreen they could shoot a plate of the train moving itself and composite Kermit in there at whatever point.
I mentioned earlier that Union Station was still working... even The Muppets couldn't close down the whole station for the day without throwing mass transit into post-apocalyptic style hysteria. The very first take we saw of Kermit performing his dialogue they had to pause halfway through because an announcement about an arriving train blasted out of the speaker system. Showing how playful the puppeteers are, the guy working Kermit (Steve Whitmire) instantly started miming Kermit along with the announcement.
The next take the speakers were quiet, but a chopper flew over. Without missing a beat Kermit falls out of character, stops his movie dialogue, and became “Kermit, the actor” and said “Ah, Piggy's here.”
We must have been bad luck for the crew because for whatever reason the announcements kept coming with every new take and it got so Whitmire would stop mid-sentence and just point Kermit's face straight up in the air in an oddly human gesture of frustration.
It was amazing seeing how much of the puppeteers ended up in the puppets and vice-versa. Watching Whitmire play Kermit or Eric Jacobson playing Miss Piggy or Peter Linz play Walter was fascinating. Their faces contorted in the same ways as the puppets' faces and whole mannerisms changed the second the character was “on.”
Finally, after a few tries, Kermit got all his dialogue out. Here's what he said:
”Okay, guys! If we're going to take a world tour I figure we should travel in classic style. I booked us a tour train!!!!”
This shot was just Kermit, but the reverse had a couple dozen muppets in it and they oooh'd and ahhhh'd at the shiny new Amtrak train.
Kermit looks behind him and goes, “No, not that train... this train!” The Amtrak pulls away and a rickety old crappy train is revealed behind it.
”Isn't she a beauty?”
The air is let out of the group as they see their shitty new ride and other muppets look around at each other before slowly making a move to board.
When Kermit said “this train!!!” he was looking right at me and... yes, I squee'd a little bit inside. Sue me. Kermit was talking just to me and you're just jealous and shut up, I'm a grown man!
Director James Bobin came out to give Kermit direction. “If we're going to do this, let's do this properly. Old school.” Next take Kermit went crazier and way more enthusiastic. Old school indeed. Bobin clearly liked that take and asked for a few more like it before moving on.
I noticed between takes Kermit was either getting groomed with a safety pin or was receiving some sort of acupuncture treatment. It's not easy being green, I guess.
We were told that the train will take the Muppets to Europe... ah, the magic of Muppet travel!
After Kermit's shot, the crew was turning around to get the coverage of all the muppets listening to Kermy, which meant there was some downtime for the principal muppet cast, so we were told that Miss Piggy would soon grace us with her presence.
Imagine, if you will, eight or so geeks on a train platform crowded around a clean cut white guy with a puppet on his arm pretending to be a female pig and you get either the beginnings of a horror movie or a Muppets set visit. Thankfully it was the latter.
Eric Jacobson performed Piggy, but our interview was not with Jacobson. Hell no, we were there to talk with Miss Piggy! Strangely enough I found myself addressing Piggy and totally ignoring Mr. Jacobson within 60 seconds. When Piggy was answering a question I was looking at her eyes like I'd look at any human I was interviewing. Weird, isn't it?
Piggy was asked about whether or not she would have a musical number in this new film and she said not only would she have a musical number it was going to be a solo. In the last one she had to share the stage with Amy Adams (as she put it she “had a solo with Amy Adams”), which she obviously wasn't a fan of doing.
What about Jason Segel and Amy Adams? They're not in the movie, but will their characters be addressed? Piggy: “If you want to write them a postcard and address it to them, you may. I really don't see the point in it, myself. This is a Muppet movie. Nobody really cares about the humans!”
When asked about the rumor of her getting married in this film, Piggy did say that she does wear a white dress with a veil and a long train, but wouldn't say why she would be wearing an outfit like that. I knew she and Kermit were separated in the last film, but did they get a divorce? If so, a remarriage is probably a bad idea, Piggy. Plus you can't top the gorgeous wedding from Muppets Take Manhattan, right?
Piggy was complimented on her figure and asked if she had been dieting. With a laugh, she responded “I don't do any of that myself. I have people who do that for me.” True enough.
She also complained that Walter still sucks at bringing her her coffee, which Walter would later hear about during that interview, but I'll save his response for then.
During the interview the Amtrak train was backing into position rather loudly and Miss Piggy made sure to let the conductor know how displeased she was to be drowned out while she was giving an interview, but I doubt her voice carried all the way through the sealed compartment. She gave it the ol' Piggy try, though.
After the interview we had a chance to get a photo with Miss Piggy. How could you turn that down? I didn't. Funny story, when it was my turn I went up to Mr. Jacobson and he started posing Piggy. The lady taking the photo was giving him direction so Piggy was looking her best, which was a little confusing for me since we are both Erics. “Up and to the left, Eric. A little more left. Eric, turn a little more.”
Being the cheeky sort, I asked if I could give Piggy a kiss for the photo and got a curt “Just stand there” from the photographer. I took offense, but then later heard her say the exact same thing to another guy and realized she didn't hear my request over the noise of the trains and thought I was just asking what to do.
So, rudeness avoided and now I have a picture with one of the most famous actresses of the last 40 years.
Gonzo, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth and the rest of Electric Mayhem, Bunson and Beaker, Fozzie, Animal (ANIMAAAAALLLL!!!), Beauregard, Swedish Chef, Scooter, Lew Zealand and tons more were sitting inside, waiting to be brought to life. While Mr. Lieberman was talking they were retrieved one by one and paraded past us, getting ready for their group shot. So, forgive me Todd, but I was a little distracted during the chat...
I also noticed the guy in the Sweetums getup put his head on and was astonished to see that they made his mouth go up and down via a pretty simple, low tech method... the guy in the suit had his right arm come up through the center of the suit and moved the jaw open and closed. A puppeteer off-camera controlled the blinking and movement of his eyes. While they were setting up the next shot I ended up next to this guy and watched him fuck around with Sweetums eyes, making sure everything was ship-shape before the take went up. Turning to my left I realized the crate within arm's reach housed Animal's drum kit and something popped behind my eyeball. Probably just a minor (and harmless) geek stroke, but maybe I should have that checked out...
There were easily two dozen puppeteers sitting on the ground holding Muppets above their heads (some of them had one on each arm) with Scooter front and center. The rats played in this scene, too. They were also remote controlled so it looked like they were really reading their racing forms and eating their chili dogs.
It was interesting being with the remote guys because one of the bigger jokes in this scenes is the excitement of their awesome train melting into disappointment. Sweetums is the biggest muppet, towering over everybody else and very prominent in the frame, and during rehearsal when the crappy train was revealed Sweetums' eyes opened wide in disbelief. I don't know why that struck me as funny as it did, but I just about lost my shit when I saw that. Simple, but a well timed reaction tick can be comedy gold.
The camera move pushed past the rats on the luggage as it follows Sweetums, bag over his shoulder, as he joins the group. The end of the shot turns into an over the shoulder shot of the muppets looking to Kermit as he was giving his big speech.
Piggy's voice (the other Eric, remember) was now puppeting Fozzie and improvised a bit with Walter (Peter Linz). They played around during rehearsal and Bobin liked it, so it became part of the rabble of the muppets talking over each other before Kermit starts his speech. Fozzie is freaking out about forgetting to pack his hat, which of course is on his head. Walter points that out and Fozzie relaxes.
It was just incredible scanning the sea of muppets and looking at the details brought out by the puppeteers. Beaker had his hands on Bunson's shoulders, Animal's reaction to the reveal of the shitty train was to squint his eyes and shake his head. Once again I was struck by how much of the personality of the puppets were on the faces of the puppeteers. Animal's puppeteer squinted his eyes and shook his head in time with his muppet.
Across the tracks was another platform that was active. There was not divider between the set and the public, so I can only imagine what it must have been like for commuters coming into Union station at that particular time and seeing all the muppets across the way. People were gathering, snapping cell phone pictures and one guy even yelled out “I love you, Scooter!”
When they got this shot, which was much more complicated since it involved dozens of muppets instead of just one and had remote control animatronics that had to be timed perfectly with the onscreen muppets, we got a chance to talk to Kermit, which started with him saying “I once again return as Kermit the Frog, the part I was born to play.”
Constantine was brought up. He's the imposter frog that looks a lot like Kermit and causes a bunch of mischief. Kermit was asked if he considered playing both parts since he looks so much like Constantine. The frog responded saying that he couldn't pull off the Russian accent, so one of Kermit's frog cousins was brought in to play the character.
Speaking of relations from the swamp, what's up with Robin? Kermit said that Robin has a cameo in the movie. He hasn't aged in the last 43 years, which means he's still 5 and going to school, so he wasn't available for much of filming, but they did find a spot for him do a small cameo.
One blogger mentioned that Tina Fey has said she has the hots for Kermit. He downplayed it, saying he thought that was just on camera, that Fey is a happily married woman and it's possible Miss Piggy will hear about it if any gossip starts spreading about their relationship being anything other than professional.
Kermit also spoke about Ricky Gervais, who he said will be an honorary muppet because “he's kind of our size.”
Does he get recognized on the street? “It's great being an 18-24 inch tall celebrity. You can just slip through the crowds and people leave you alone.”
Since we had seen these crazy roadie crates housing muppets, Peter Sciretta of Slashfilm had to ask Kermit about them and got an out of character laugh from the puppeteer (Steve Whitmire) before Kermit came back and answered “That's sort of like on Star Trek where they put you inside that thing and they zap you back to Hoboken, New Jersey. It's a one way ticket, but it saves on Fed-Ex.”
The last muppet we talked to was Walter (and his human Peter Linz), who was pretty funny. One of my favorite bits from the short chat was his response to being asked if there were any surprises as he got to know his Muppet Show idols. Was there anybody who wasn't exactly how he thought they'd be.
”Rowlf the Dog, surprisingly enough. It's right there in his name, “the dog.” Rowlf will sometimes come up to me and look at me like he's never seen me before. Then he sniffs me and he goes, “Walter!” I was not ready for that.”
He called back to that a little later on in the chat when he was alerted to Miss Piggy's criticism of his coffee-getting skills.
”Yeah, she still thinks I'm the coffee boy. She's another one who doesn't remember me, but it doesn't seem to help if I ask her to smell me.”
Everybody was a good sport. I think they picked the right geeky group to come to this set because everyone to the person played along with the central conceit of the muppets playing themselves and I was very proud of that. I can't imagine how annoying it would be to attend a press day filled with humorless stuck-up journalists. This was certainly geek heaven for this group.
The day ended there. Not for the filmmakers, just for us. We made it up to their lunch and then were sent on our way. It was a short visit, but a fun one. I hope you guys enjoyed reading along.