by Ben Mortimer
We’re in Ricky Gervais’ dressing room on the set of the new Muppets film. He’s currently explaining how he almost missed the opportunity to star in the movie due to scheduling conflicts. And he’s doing so while dressed as a lemur.
“I’ve loved the Muppets for about thirty-five years. I used to watch them every Sunday.” Gervais reveals, “I’ve got older brothers and sisters, and even when I was young, I saw them laughing at what I thought was a kid’s show. And I thought, ‘there’s something else about this kid’s show’.”
Gervais isn’t alone in his love of the Muppets. There’s something about Kermit and Co. that’s captivating, whether you’re a young child, or a grown adult. And I speak from very personal experience. About two years ago I was sent to interview Miss Piggy, when the last Muppets movie came out. And it was, without hyperbole or exaggeration, the best and most magical day of my life.
What was particularly interesting about that day was the level of planning, and logistical effort that was clearly put into it. Even down to fairly simple things like using tall chairs in the interview room to accommodate the Muppeteers, and dummy microphones at the press conference. The whole thing felt like every detail had been meticulously thought through in order to bring the Muppets to life. And that was just for a one day press junket. Making a movie with the Muppets is an even greater undertaking.
“James [Bobin – the movie’s director] has got a love of retro films,” explains Muppets Most Wanted’s production designer, Eve Stewart, “so we looked a lot at The Pink Panther, we looked a lot at crime capers of the 60s and 70s, around there, and we looked at Ocean’s 11.”
Every inch of her studio space has been consumed by the production. Table tops are covered with pages upon pages of design drawings. The walls are lined with images of the Muppet cast – including several who didn’t make it into the last movie – along with a planning calendar that stretches across the entire twenty foot length of the back wall. And then there are the scale models; whole sets built in miniature: Russian Gulags, English cathedrals, and the Tower of London. All crafted to the finest detail, and balanced on any surface sufficiently flat and paper free to support them.
And while her team work furiously to get things ready for the next day’s filming, Stewart spares a few moments to discuss the unique challenges working with the Muppets has presented, “My colour choices have been very particular, in that I’m very aware of having to show the Muppets off to their bright best. So my colours tend to be sludgy, and I tend to ‘Muppet avoidance’, so I won’t do any bright greens” she explains, “it’s also textures as well, because they’re all fleecy guys, so I’m trying to constantly do shiny, very textured surfaces, so they’re thrown forward in your visual interest.”
Of course, the challenges involved in working with the Muppets aren’t limited to colour choices, “All of our interiors have been set builds,” explains Stewart, “and that’s dictated a lot by – without saying too much about the mechanics of the Muppets – you’ve obviously got to get a lot of mechanics and puppeteers out of frame. So we do tend to build things very high to get them underneath.”
“It changes the way we work slightly in the fact that we’re quite resistant to doing too many bits of built scenery in the middle of a floor, because we’re always taking them out, so we’ve had to devise a very quick, disposable floor method where we can take out great sections of floor very quickly to get loads of puppeteers and their monitors inside.”
Just how much work goes into the sets becomes clear a few moments later, as we’re escorted onto one of the soundstages. The set is almost entirely enclosed, and we’re confronted with plywood held up by scaffolding – although even from here it’s clear how Muppet-centric the design is – the whole structure is on a platform several feet off the ground. Then, as the crew take a break from filming, we step inside. Into an almost exact replica of the jewel room at the Tower of London, “We went down there often.” Stewart recalls, “You’re not allowed to take photographs you know. We had to draw really fast in our books, pretending like we were just really interested.”
The production actually filmed some exterior shots on location at the Tower of London. It’s fairly unusual for the Tower to accommodate a movie crew, but as Stewart reveals, “we said, ‘it’s The Muppets’, and they said, ‘we love Kermit even more than James Bond’, and the drawbridge was lowered”. Ultimately, however, there were shots that simply couldn’t be achieved on location, and so in the next sound stage down from the jewel room, Stewart and her team constructed a replica of the roof of The Tower of London’s keep, The White Tower.
Compared to the cramped interior set, the rooftop exterior – still very much inside the soundstage – is vast and open. Surrounded on all sides by an enormous, blue curtain that hangs down from the gantry fifty feet above. As with the set in the adjoining room, this one is also raised several feet from the ground by a scaffold, but it’s not enclosed, which gives us our first glimpse of The Muppets for the day, as they rehearse for a take.
From our viewing position, about thirty feet back, it’s not entirely clear what’s going on, although slightly further forward, James Bobin and several of his crew huddle around a set of monitors, watching the action unfold. A few of the throng of journalists in our party crowd around behind them, desperate for a glimpse of what’s happening. And then Kermit turns up.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. We’re on the set of a Muppets movie, and earlier in the day we were told we would be interviewing him. And yet for every journalist in our group, actually seeing Kermit, in the felt, less than three away, was almost enough to strike us dumb. Almost. Until the Dictaphones came out.
“So this is a scene where I land on top of the Tower of London, or at least the Pinewood version” Kermit begins, “I have just saved Miss Piggy from the clutches of the evil Constantine, and this is sort of the action hero portion of my performance that I do today. My Bruce Willis. And that’s why I look like this. I’m a little bit, sort of sleeves pushed up. I have to get tough in this scene, a whole new role for me.”
“Is that quite difficult, being an action man?” One of my colleagues queries.
“Well yes, it is, because I’m quite small. It’s hard to be respected when you’re only 18 inches tall and trying to be tough.” When asked how, he continues, “Well, I clench my fists – which I won’t do at the moment – and I just say things like, ‘I’m gonna stop that helicopter’, y’now, stuff like that.”
The ‘evil Constantine’, Kermit refers to is the movie’s antagonist, and his own “not so evil twin”, although as Kermit is at great pains to point out, there are differences, “His collar’s a little shorter”, he explains, “and he speaks with a Russian accent”.
Which becomes clear, when Constantine joins us. It’s so strong, that one journalist remarked, that he sounds like Vladamir Putin.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about” Constantine dodges.
Kermit offers an answer, “He looks like Vladamir Putin, I think of myself more as Patrick Stewart”.
The conversation moves on, as a journalist notes that The Muppets are now one of the countless properties owned by Disney, “Usually in the Disney fairy tales, when a Frog is kissed by a nice girl, he turns into a prince”
Kermit stops him, “Yeah, there are a couple of key parts of that. One is, well first of all, I try to avoid being kissed randomly by girls, for that reason” he pauses, before giving us the second part, “Quite frankly, it’s quite a good judge of whether it’s a nice girl or not. He did say ‘nice girl’”.
It’s only when the 1st AD calls for a rehearsal, and everything goes quiet, that the reality of the situation –I’m a grown adult, having a conversation with two talking frogs – begins to cross my mind. But before the thought can properly form, Kermit pulls me straight back into the illusion of disbelief, as he whispers, “How dare they shoot while we’re trying to talk?”
The strange thing is how easy it is for the illusion to win. Even for the cast of the film, who interact with the Muppets on a daily basis. With the cameras about to roll for a take, we slip off the stage, and head down the corridor, to Ricky Gervais’ dressing room. He holds court, talking about how he became involved with the film, and how he nearly turned it down for fear of not being able to do a good enough job. Then he gets on to a conversation he had with Constantine between takes,
“We were just standing there, and he said to me, ‘’You had lunch?’, and I said, ‘yeah, I had cottage pie. What did you have? You eat flies, don’t you?’, and I said, ‘do you ever eat Butterflies?’”
Gervais then slips into a perfect, Constantine-style Russian accent, “’Yeah, they look pretty’”. Gervais continues, “And I said, ‘does the fly wriggle?’ and I realised that all the extras were – we weren’t doing it for anyone, but [they’re watching us, saying], ‘this isn’t even the film. We’re not filming’”.
And it seems that that level of respect is mutual, as Walter, the newest member of the Muppet gang, and the star of 2011’s The Muppets, explains. With just a hint of sarcasm, “Ricky Gervais is fantastic. In fact, it’s great fun having him on the set, especially when we first started, because right in the middle of a take, he’d just start laughing”.
Walter’s role is considerably slimmed down from the last movie, a fact that he attributes to “the whole Constantine thing”, but he still has several key moments in the film, including a scene where he jumps from a moving train. A shot that he claims to have pulled off in one take. As he puts it, “there’s a lot of movie to shoot, so you can’t waste time jumping from a moving train, and miss the train going in the opposite direction”.
That level of professionalism is the same for all of the Muppet cast. Tina Fey, who plays Nadya, the commandant of the Russian gulag the gang find themselves in, describes them as, “consistently more talented, and more reliable than their human counterparts” she recalls, “I’ve seen the Muppets carry the human actors next to them a couple of times already. I’ve spent most of my days here with Kermit. He’s very, very impressive. He is the Daniel Day Lewis of frogs.”
It’s Fey who is performing with her scenes when we return to the soundstage. And one of the most notable things is that, although the shot she is in is a close up on her, Kermit is still performing his part off camera. According to Fey, this is far from unusual, “Kermit does his off-camera lines. Normally a movie star as big as Kermit would be somewhere in his tiny trailer, but Kermit is always very good actor etiquette. He’s always there”.
But then, these sorts of things, the professionalism, the lack of cynicism, and the fact that they’re always performing, even when it’s just for their own amusement, are why the Muppets are so fantastic. A lot of hard work goes into the technical side of the Muppets. Elements like tall stools to hide Muppeteers, and dummy microphones for them to talk into. They aren’t necessary. The real joy of the Muppets is that even with the trick laid out in front of you, and with all the parts on display, it still works.
As Gervais puts it, “I think that’s the important thing about creativity, people have got to be willing to suspend their disbelief, and I think that’s the charm – particularly in comedy, and particularly when it’s for kids, as well. I think you’ve got to try to remember how nice it was to be fooled. And I get that every single day. To answer your question, I was blown away. And the novelty hasn’t worn off… If someone said, ‘what’s your best day?’, I’d say, ‘spending time with a talking frog’”.