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Monday, October 18, 2021

MuppetsHenson Exclusive: Muppets Haunted Mansion: A Conversation with Bill Barretta by Nicholas Napoli

We’re still days away from Halloween but Muppet Fans, Disney World Riders and Disney+ Subscribers have already had their first Halloween treat. Muppets Haunted Mansion killed most of The Muppets and still felt like one of the most Muppetiest productions I’ve seen since Disney purchased The Muppets back in 2004. We got Gonzo, Pepe, Sam the Eagle, Pops, Uncle Deadly, Johnny Fiama, Sal, Chip, Walter, Robin, Dr Phil Van Neuter, Howard Tubman, Beverly Plume, Joe the Legal Weasel, so many Muppets. As much as I like to believe that all these characters worked together offscreen, to get Disney to greenlight this scary idea of theirs, that’s not the case. There are people under those characters and behind those cameras and today I have the pleasure of interviewing one of them. Bill Barretta brings life to Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Swedish Chef, Mahna-Mahna, Pepe, Bobo Bear, Big Mean Carl, Bubba Rat, Howard Tubman and today he has taken the time to answer some of my Muppet Haunted Mansion Fan questions! 

(1) Bill could you explain how this whole process comes about, especially when at the beginning everybody was in lockdown. How does an idea get turned into a special on Disney+ during a lockdown? Does one approach Disney with just an idea or more of a rough script? Is it pitched as a Disney+ project or just as a Muppet project that needs a home? A crossover between Muppets and The Haunted Mansion, how does that come about, who suggested combining the two? Can you explain how fans got The Muppets to go from lockdown to Disney+ in a Haunted Mansion crossover? 

BB – Well, it seems that there are several questions here to answer, but I would have to say that the special came up from a conversation between the Muppet Studios and Disney+. Disney+ was looking for holiday specials with The Muppets, but I don't know exactly who it was that said the Haunted Mansion should be a part of it. And I don't exactly remember why Halloween became the holiday, but we started to talk and think about what kind of Halloween story would be fun to tell, which lead me to thinking about Gonzo. I liked the routine in The Muppets Take the Bowl live show, where Gonzo was performing his “World of Magical Delusions”. That he was now dabbling in magic. This could be a fun connection to a Haunted place. 

From there we started to think of how that could apply to the Haunted Mansion, and everything started to grow out of that. Things like, Gonzo wanting to go to a Halloween challenge at a Haunted Mansion began to feel like fun, the 100 th year anniversary of the disappearance of his magician mentor in that mansion, then The Muppets playing the roles of the iconic Haunted Mansion characters began to fit, Pepe going along for the ride thinking it was just a Hollywood party, fit. And ultimately, we decided that it would be great to tell a story about Gonzo overcoming his greatest fears. 

(2) The writing in this movie is perfect for The Muppets, these act like The Muppets, speaking, reacting, expressing, every character is written perfectly. “Don’t worry folks, we’re not going to be explaining all the jokes” says the Muppet Ghost as he breaks the fourth wall. That’s how you write for The Muppets, that in my opinion is a perfect simple example. I’ve always felt that when it comes to writing for The Muppets, not only must it be a well written story, it must be a well written Muppet story. Meaning having The Muppets act, speak and feel like themselves is just as important as the story they’re telling us. For example, the ending, when the title “Muppets Haunted Mansion” appears under a rainbow, how clever and something that fits perfectly in Muppet style writing when you combine Muppets and Horror, I really like that idea. This movie has a The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island vibe to it, it feels like Muppets from the 90’s, The Muppets at their peak without Jim Henson. Was this a difficult task for you when coming up with the dialogue for each character? Is there an example of a line changed for another character because it suits them better? Could you basically give us a little journey into your mind whilst writing this special and the focus on character consistency as well as story?

BB - No, it wasn't particularly challenging to write the characters because I'm pretty darn familiar with all of them at this point in my career with the Muppets. Also having such great partners to write with like Kelly Younger, Kirk Thatcher and Jim Lewis, it allows you to play and bounce the characters off each other, as if they were actually in the room. Because Kirk, Jim and I are so familiar with the characters and Kelly who had already gone through a character learning curve on “Muppets Now”, it was actually quite easy for us to create the story. I say easy, but of course there are always challenges. When you're working with such collaborative people with such brilliant minds it certainly makes the journey and the outcome a lot more fun and truer to the characters. We understand the history and evolution of these characters, so finding their voices isn’t the hard part. The hard part has been getting someone to give us the opportunity and to finally allow the crazy people in the room to run things. Thanks to the new heads of the Muppet Studios realizing the importance of what I’ve just previously mentioned and putting their trust in someone like myself in a much more meaningful position than ever before, I hope you’ll be seeing more and more Muppet productions like this one. 

(3) Every character was well written in this special but seeing as this was Gonzo and Pepe centric, they’re the ones who stood out for me the most. Pepe was used perfectly in this special, since his debut I’ve always liked the edge that Pepe brings to The Muppets, “every year same thing, same Muppets”. Growing up my friends’ thought Muppets were only for kids but they all enjoyed Pepe, they didn’t consider him a “childish” Muppet. In Muppets Haunted Mansion, Pepe was used at his best, which made the special better for it, “don’t trust free cheese”. I want to ask how difficult is it when writing for Pepe to get him right but since you wrote it, created Pepe and perform him, that answers my question, “but what did you know about love? You’re dating a chicken”. In this movie Pepe was teamed up with Gonzo and they work well together. In fact, the more I think about it, Pepe also works well teamed up with Kermit or Fozzie and especially Miss Piggy and my preference would be with Sam the Eagle or Uncle Deadly. Are there any characters in particular you would like to see Pepe teamed up with? Has there ever been a character that has not worked well with Pepe, maybe Robin for example? What was the inspiration behind having Pepe and Gonzo team up for this special? 

BB – Well, you seem to be asking several questions at one time, but I'll answer the Pepe one if that's okay? I would love to see Pepe do more with Scooter. I think they have a great dynamic. Pepe the unpredictable instigator and troublemaker, Scooter with his always prepared, willing and buttoned up approach. I think that makes for a fun dynamic and conflicts, but not in a cynical way. I also like when Pepe is with Walter, who he refers to as Howard, so I think there is some gold still to mine there as well. 

(4) For the longest time, Pepe alongside Bobo Bear and Big Mean Carl and to a degree maybe also Angle-Marie and Howard Tubman, were the only new Muppets to join the franchise and keep growing as characters throughout the years. Finally in 2011 Walter became the new Muppet and Uncle Deadly returned from obscurity. Slowly there after old classics have returned alongside new characters, giving The Muppets a fresh new feel to them. Beverley Plume, Joe the Legal Weasel, the Screaming Goat, all returning for this special. Alongside old obscure characters, who like Uncle Deadly are hopefully making a big comeback starting with Muppets Haunted Mansion including Johnny Fiama, Sal, Dr Phil Van Neuter, Mulch, J.G, Mo, amongst others. Newly introduced (or brought back from obscurity) in this special we have the “Dunn Dunn Dunn” Mummy and Skeleton Duddy, the Giant Squid, Old Lady Muppet, Carter and going way back in time The Dog from Jim Henson’s 1986 The Tale Of The Bunny Picnic. How important do you think it is to introduce new Muppets into the group? Fresh new characters for the old cast to interact with, Muppets with perhaps more modern personalities? Not even new Muppets, obscure Muppets introduced as new characters, old fans would be happy, new fans would have new characters to hopefully make a connection with. Do you think this is important? It was handled very well in Muppets Haunted Mansion, was this a conscious decision to bring back newly introduced characters such as Beverley Plume? And going back into the past and bringing back old classics like Johnny Fiama and Sal? Or is it just something that naturally fell in place as you told the story? 

BB - Once we knew that we were going to be doing a big ballroom scene, we wanted to fill the Mansion Hall with as many characters or ghosts as possible. So, with the help of the amazing Puppet Heap workshop, who looks after and takes care of all The Muppets, we went through their catalogue of characters with them and found all different characters that maybe we hadn't seen or just haven't used in a long time. And we began to populate the scene with them, which was a lot of fun to do. All those characters would of course include newer and older ones, and it just all felt right… so we went for it. 

(5) Pepe, Bobo, Johnny Fiama, Big Mean Carl, Bubba, Angle-Marie, Howard Tubman and then we have Dr Teeth, Rowlf, Swedish Chef and Mahna-Mahna. What is the difference for you between those two groups of characters when performing them? Those you inherited from Jim Henson, do you have to approach them differently when performing them? Such as having to be more conscious of how they would react or what they would say or by this point does the flow come naturally like with Pepe and Bobo? Dr Teeth singing “Dancing In The Moonlight” at the very beginning of Muppets Haunted Mansion was great, I immediately knew it was Dr Teeth singing. Dr Teeth and Rowlf sound the same but still sound different somehow, you manage to capture that too, amazing. If I hear only vocals coming from Dr Teeth or Rowlf, I know which one is which yet I can’t describe what the difference is, can you shed some light on that? 

BB - Yes there is a difference between performing characters that I've created or collaborated on, versus characters that someone else created first. I’m not really a voice match artist, so when I'm performing Jim's characters, they are fair impersonations at best. What I try to do is hopefully present to the audience a certain feeling or essence of the original character to help compensate for that imperfect voice match. Afterall, the voice is really only ten percent of the character for the Muppets. It’s the other ninety percent or the characteristics and personality of the character that makes them who they are and their uniqueness. I will never be able to actually become Jim's characters, because they weren't born from me. So yes, I need to be more conscious, rehearsed and thoughtful about the choices that I make for those characters. As opposed to performing my own characters which are a part of me, and so I feel more comfortable being able to live more in the moment with them. 

The difference between Dr. Teeth and Rowlf, and what I believe you're hearing, is something that Dave Goelz explained to me years ago. He described what Jim Henson looked like when he would perform Dr. Teeth. He said that Jim would grit his teeth with a big Cheshire cat smile. And so, when I perform Dr. Teeth, I keep that in mind and actually perform him that way. Rowlf has a more rounded playful, innocent quality to his voice. Dr. Teeth is more down and dirty, grittier and pushes through his teeth when he speaks. At least that's my approach and maybe that's what you're hearing? 

(6) I was so surprised by Gonzo in this special, he was perfect, this is the Gonzo I grew up with, “cool, I hope it’s finally something scary”. Since Gonzo never left us and has always been performed by Dave Goelz, I hadn’t realized that I missed Gonzo, classic Gonzo, who in my opinion came back in full force in this special. “Hey since you’re on a break, could you contact somebody from the great beyond?”. I think my favourite part about this special is getting this particular Gonzo to show up, I also like how Gonzo has matured throughout the years and this special balanced classic crazy Gonzo with matured Gonzo very well. Near the end, when Gonzo is locked in room 999, talking to his older nose shrivelled self was brilliant writing, Gonzo has so many layers, I’m so happy this scene exists. As a fan, I feel this Gonzo is different to say Gonzo from The Muppets (2015), “Oooh indoor lightning, fantastic”. From being worried that his mother hadn’t contacted him since she left on her holiday in 2015 to being excited to be scared in 2021, why is that tone in Gonzo so vastly different sometimes? Is the writing for these characters really as important as I believe it is or does that not play as big a factor? “Oh yeah? Well, I have faced my fears and homicidal brides are not on the list”. How important was Dave Goelz input in getting this particular Gonzo back, did he have any or was Gonzo simply written perfectly within the script? Could you give me an idea what factors took place to give fans this particular version of Gonzo? Is it just understandable knowledge of the character within the writing process or more to do with Dave Goelz’s input on the character? 

BB – Well, as I mentioned before, working in a room with people who are very familiar with the legacy and history of the characters, makes it a bit easier to get closer to the characters true voices and personalities. But, more importantly, yes Dave did consult on the script and make sure that things felt right for him, for Gonzo. 

For me, I always try (if I’m in that position) to get any scripts or creative to the performers as early as possible, so that they can have some real input before and while it's being written. That unfortunately, is not often the case due to various reasons, but is most likely why sometimes the voices of the characters might have missed the mark in the past. Sometimes these scripts come too late and makes it very difficult for the performers to always navigate and stay completely true to the characters because the script is dictating the story and the jokes. You don't always have time to fix those things that should be fixed, but when you have a writing room that is aware of these obstacles for the performers ahead of time at its inception, then the material gets shared sooner than later. And in turn, is more successful. 

(7) Muppet music is so important to any Muppet production, after The Muppets (2015) and Muppets Now (2020) I was beginning to miss musical Muppets. Some of the reviews I’ve read online, many people were caught by surprise by the songs, meaning for many, Muppets and music wasn’t something that went hand in hand for them. Not only did this bring music back into The Muppets, it opens with an Electric Mayhem (Dr Teeth) song, what a way to start a special on the right tone, music and The Electric Mayhem. “Dancing in The Monnlight” by The Electric Mayhem seems to be the favourite, at least from the reviews I’ve seen. “Rest in Pieces”, “Life Hereafter”, “Tie The Knot Tango”, these songs were not just good, they were Muppet style good. Could you please tell me more about the music in this special? Was it a sure thing from the start that this would have music? Was it opted at any point not to have music, maybe the horror theme and music would not balance well? Is the music one of the reasons this feels so Muppety compared to past projects? Would you agree that Muppet productions need to always be somewhat musical? 

BB - I can't say that I actually believe that all Muppet productions need to be musical in some way because ultimately what works best for any particular project depends on the concept itself. So, there may be situations where music doesn't work, but I happen to believe and feel that music is at the root and the heart of The Muppets. I tend to want to have music in many things that we do if we can find a way to organically present it and not just throw it in for the sake of having music. 

As for the songs in Muppets Haunted Mansion I always wanted to have music in the holiday special. We knew because it was a shorter runtime that we would have to limit the number of songs, therefore I suggested that they be spread out in our three acts. Three songs - two shorter numbers and one larger production number in the middle. Once we had created the outline for the script, we each decided to take a run at thirds of writing the script. I took the first third, Kelly took the second third and Kirk took the third, third. These were first approaches at the material, but we knew that we would then sit together and combine and write together the entire script and lyrics.

It was a way to get us rolling along and moving quickly because we had a short window of time to get to production. For my section, I was inspired by the graveyard epitaphs at the Haunted Mansion to create the lyrics for that song. We used some of the original epitaphs but also created some new ones. Kelly wrote all of the lyrics for the big production number in the ballroom, and it was originally titled “Be Our Ghost”. When we found out we couldn't use the tune to “Be Our Guest”, which was the intention behind the song, (to spoof it but to pay homage as well), we tailored the lyrics to a different beat and style...Big Band. Kirk worked on the Bride and Pepe song, which originally wasn’t a Tango but ultimately developed and grew into that perfect style, knowing that we wanted to add that Spanish flair. We all had ideas as to what style of music we wanted to incorporate with these lyrics, but it wasn't until the brilliance of Ed Mitchell and Steve Morrell, that they would come together so beautifully with such great music and the melodies. Once again, a totally collaborative experience between people who are familiar with The Muppets and have been writing words and music for them for many, many years. So grateful. 

(8) Johnny Fiama and Sal! Fans got them back, last big production they had appeared in was 2005’s Muppets Wizard of Oz, almost seventeen years ago. 1999’s Muppet From Space was the last time I remember seeing Dr. Phil Van Neuter, thanks to Muppets Haunted Mansion he returned after over twenty years. Nigel (both of them), Mulch, Wayne, Wanda, Andy Pig, Randy Pig, J.G, Pokey, Mo, Beautiful Day Monster, we’re going so obscure I don’t even know the name of the red Frackle. As a fan I am so pleased to see Muppets from all eras appearing together. How do these more obscure characters end up appearing in the special, what is the process? Are they written into the script and therefor the characters are then used or is it more of a grab the first obscure Muppet character closest on the shelf and throw them in the mix? For example, is it important for the writer to be familiar with Dr. Phil Van Neuter so that he makes it into the production? If Polly Lobster, Clueless Morgan and Mad Monty were ever to reappear, would they have to be written into a script first? What reason would there need to be to rebuild Clueless Morgan and bring him back? 

BB - There has to be a very good reason for characters like Clueless, Polly Lobster and Mad Monty to return to a new production. If they don't have a substantial supporting role or leading role, then chances are these types of characters that have either decayed or need major refurbishment will not be able to be built. It becomes a cost issue. That type of investment must be considered as part of the projects budget, so the characters need to be essential for a major investment like that to be made. 

In the case of Johnny and Sal, Sal had already been refurbished a few years ago and there were discussions that we might possibly use the two of them on the new “Muppets Now” series. And they had begun refurbishing Johnny, but their involvement in the show just didn't pan out. Fortunately, we knew that these characters could now be used and found a great spot for them in the Halloween special as one of the Bride’s husbands…and her husband's sidekick. 

(9) Most of these long-lost forgotten characters to have reappeared in Muppets Haunted Mansion are performed by no other than Brian Henson. Brian adds so much energy to his characters, Sal, Dr. Phil Van Neuter and Nigel being my favourite, though until this day, I still also remember Seymour. I really hope Brian’s characters continue appearing in new productions, performed by the man himself. I like knowing Brian Henson is involved with The Muppets, the more Henson’s associated with The Muppets the better. At this point in time, as a fan, for me, Sal is just as classic a Muppet as Scooter is, he fits perfectly within The Muppets and like Pepe adds an extra edge to the franchise. Fozzie and Kermit, Miss Piggy and Kermit, Grover and Kermit, Bert and Ernie, Rowlf and Miss Piggy, Jim Henson and Frank Oz were a very strong duo and it showed on screen. Jim and Frank understood each other, played well off each other, as fun as that is for them, fans in return get better chemistry and banter when watching these Muppets on screen. Gonzo and Rizzo, Bunsen and Beaker, Statler and Waldorf, Andy Pig and Randy Pig, Boober Fraggle and Wembley Fraggle, the same goes for Steve Whitmire and Dave Goelz. It seems like every Muppeteer has that specific person they connect best with and it shows through their characters. Pepe and Seymore, Johnny Fiama and Sal, Bobby Vegan and Samson Knight, I get a feeling your comedic duo is Brian Henson, would you agree with this? Do you think fans will see more of your chemistry together through The Muppets? Johnny Fiama and Sal, I want more. 

BB - I certainly hope so. Brian and I do have a very comfortable and natural chemistry together. I think it's apparent when we perform and just like you mentioned, with previous pairings of performers, I think we complement each other and find fun characters and relationships that are born out of our own. 

We always have fun when we're performing together, we make each other laugh, think, push each other to be better and find a balance that is always entertaining. It had been sixteen years (which is hard to believe) since we had performed Johnny and Sal together, but when we had the opportunity on this special, it really was like no time had gone by at all. It just felt natural. I'm fortunate to be able to work with so many talented people and sometimes I suppose you just find that match, that special timing unlike others. Not that when I'm paired up with the other amazing performers, that we don't have a connection, it's just sometimes it clicks differently. And that's most likely because of the relationship that exists below the characters, below the frame. I mean, Brian and I have known each other since we were seventeen. That has to mean something. I hope we’ll continue to do more…it's always the best time. 

(10) What I liked a lot about Muppets Haunted Mansion is how it felt like The Muppets were living in a world full of Muppets and Humans as opposed to just a “human world” with the main Muppets inserted into it. Granted lots of fans know who the obscure characters are, but when obscure characters are thrown into the mix, alongside Whatnots, then it feels like a Muppety world. The Muppet Ghosts dancing in the graveyard, The Caretaker (Darren Criss) accompanied by a Muppet Dog, The Mummy and Skeleton Duddy wondering around the mansion, the Giant Squid etc… It wasn’t just our main characters interacting with humans, it’s our main characters interacting with other Muppets too. 2002’s It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie handled this very well, just with it’s opening scene alone. 1992’s The Muppets Christmas Carol also tackled this Muppet world building very well and it made such a huge difference for me as a fan. Do you think creating a world full of Muppets is just as important as telling a story using the main characters such as Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal, Dr Bunsen, Beaker etc…? Was it a conscious decision to do this on Muppets Haunted Mansion or did it just naturally come about? 

BB - I think in the case of Muppets Haunted Mansion we primarily exist inside the Mansion, so it lends itself to being filled with Muppets. I also think this is why it feels like we're in a Muppets world with humans, versus a human world with Muppets. I personally love the idea that Muppets live in a world with us. I suppose great shows like Fraggle Rock, where you often spend more time in their world than in the human world is more along the lines of what you're talking about? Which I do love as well, but my preference is to put The Muppets in our world and if you choose to believe in them, then they are real and they do coexist with us. That for me is the most fun, that they/we are part of one world, everyone's world, not just a Muppet world. 

Many of the questions I’ve asked have also recently been answered on an all new The Barretta Brother’s episode, centred around Muppets Haunted Mansion. Join Bill, his brother Gene and all their guests as they give you more answers to these questions and many more. Thank you Bill for taking the time to answer all these questions, it’s very much appreciated.

- Nicholas Napoli

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