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Thursday, January 09, 2014

AMC Theatres "Muppets Most Wanted" Set Visit

This set visit was
conducted and written by Zoe Hewitt

Driving around Los Angeles, itʼs common to see yellow signs attached to poles with some combination of letters and numbers on them along with a directional arrow. Iʼll let you in on a secret: those signs indicate a film, television show, or commercial filming nearby and if you know how to decode the signs, you can find yourself at the location for one of your media favorites. That was the case when I followed ʻM2ʼ signs as a guest of Disney on my way to the location of the "Muppets Most Wanted" movie shooting on Hollywood Boulevard.

Having shot most of the film abroad, the cast and crew were in Los Angeles wrapping up some scenes. Because movies (and television shows) shoot out of order, this Thursday night in May, though at the end of their schedule, was actually for one of the very first scenes in the movie. It picks up where the previous film left off.

Hollywood Boulevard had been shut down and a standard crew of approximately 150 were setting up lights, cameras, placing background actors and more for the big opening to "Muppets Most Wanted".

As press VIPs, a small group of us were ushered into a room deep within the bowels of the El Capitan theatre for some special interviews. We were regaled with meeting Walter (Peter Linz), Kermit the Frog (Steve Whitmire), Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) as well as Todd Lieberman, a producer, and Rahel Afiley, the costume designer.

There was something special about sitting in a room and having a "conversation" with the muppets. I couldnʼt help but watch Walter rather than his "handler", Peter. Mannerisms including checking his watch and running his hand through his hair made the puppet come to life; I could practically see his facial expression changing during the interview--something that is, of course, absolutely impossible!

If youʼre a muppet fan already, then you know that Walter is a new muppet who was "born" into the muppet world specifically for the last muppet movie. I couldnʼt help but wonder where you go to find puppeteers; itʼs not exactly a career that you can study for at Harvard or Yale. Apparently, there are actually puppet festivals and other events where these elite puppeteers are scouted and invited to come in and audition. Like any other acting job--and make no bones about it, these are actors, not behind-the-scenes crew who happen to hold up a puppet--they audition with voices and mannerisms for the character which they want to help create. Once they are hired, they are the new character. Until he retires, Peter will always be Walter. Anytime Walter appears on a tv show, sits down with Jimmy Kimmel, or does any other sort of appearance, Peter will be there. Itʼs the best job security in the world. The president may be voted out of office after four years, but once a muppet character, always a muppet!

Steve, Kermit the Frog, has spent more than 20 years bringing the green lily pad dweller to life. He took over after Jim Henson and I was told that watching Steve is similar to the experience of watching creator Jim Henson with Kermit: their mannerisms as people--not just how they control the puppet--are identical.

While I was surprised to discover Kermit (the muppet, not the person) seemed a bit smaller than Iʼd expected, I was even more surprised to see that (SPOILER ALERT!) Miss Piggy is actually brought to life by a male performer. In the vein of Bart Simpson/ Nancy Cartwright, Eric Jacobson is now linked with the most famous performing pig in the world.

Skilled in the personalities of their muppets, all three actors had amazing improvisational skills, conducting entire interviews as their muppet characters and responding to people around them without dropping their personas. The actors knew they werenʼt the main attraction and that was absolutely fine with them. I imagine it canʼt get old watching audiences react with delight to their puppeteering skills, even when youʼre talking about a group of journalists who may otherwise be considered a difficult sell.

Iʼve spent extensive time on movie and television sets over the years, but this was my first experience seeing muppets in action. It was absolutely fascinating! Although sets run the same way and jobs are similar, there are always interesting stories from any set and this one was no different.

Costume designer Rahel designed about 23 outfits for Miss Piggy during the course of the movie, more than for any other muppet or human actor alike. Rahel explained that each muppet has various "rules" for their costumes. For instance, the producers didnʼt want Miss Piggy in anything strapless because it would expose her arm joints. I had pictured the muppets as giant pieces of well put together felt, so this came as a huge surprise to me! Also, just like when designing costumes for people on any other project, sometimes there were multiples of each depending on if there was a chance that the costume could get damaged or ruined in a scene and back up would be needed.

A few of the people I met allowed it to slip that Miss Piggy wears a wedding dress during the movie. However, they all said: itʼs not what you think. So, will Miss Piggy marry Kermit in "Muppets Most Wanted" or will this be part of a dream sequence? Only time will tell.

Spending time on the set of "Muppets Most Wanted" was a fascinating experience. A huge thanks goes out to Disney for the invitation and access to the muppets and their human counterparts. Until the movie is released, Iʼll have to make do with my memories--and the scandalous (?) kiss I received from Kermit: hope Miss Piggy isnʼt too jealous!

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