November 23, 2011
Guest: Jason Segel & Nick Stoller
TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
[Soundbite of movie, "The Muppets"]
STEVE WHITEMIRE: (as Kermit) Miss Piggy, it's time for our song.
ERIC JACOBSON: (as Miss Piggy) Okay.
TERRY GROSS: Kermit, Miss Piggy and their old Muppet friends are reunited in the new movie "The Muppets." My guests are the film's writers, Nick Stoller and Jason Segel. Segel is also one of the film's human stars.
[Soundbite of movie, "The Muppets"]
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (as characters) (singing) It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights. It's time to meet the Muppets on "The Muppet Show" tonight. It's time to put on makeup, it's time to dress up right. It's time to get things started - why don't you get things started"
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (as character) I always dreamed we'd be back here.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2 (as character) Dreams, those are nightmares.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) It's time to get things started on the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational - this is what we call "The Muppet Show."
TERRY GROSS: "The Muppet Movie" opens in Smalltown, USA, the home of Gary, played by Jason Segel, and his younger brother Walter, a Muppet who lives among humans. Walter would give anything to meet another Muppet. So when Gary and his girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, plan a vacation in L.A., Walter insists on coming along and taking a tour of the old Muppet studio.
But when he gets there, he finds the studio is dilapidated and deserted, and he learns an oil baron plans on tearing it down to drill for oil underneath unless the Muppets can raise $10 million to buy the studio.
So Walter, Gary and Amy set out to reunite the Muppets and stage a telethon to raise the money. Before writing the screenplay for "The Muppet Movie," my guests, Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, collaborated on the film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Segel also stars in the CBS series "How I Met Your Mother." Stoller directed "Get Him to the Greek."
Jason Segel, Nick Stoller, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed the film. Congratulations.
JASON SEGEL: Thanks a lot. It's really nice to be back.
NICHOLAS STOLLER: Thank you so much.
TERRY GROSS: So let's start with the premise of the movie, and the premise is that, that Jason, that your younger brother is actually a Muppet who's having trouble finding his place in the world because he's never met another Muppet. He's never met anybody or anything like himself.
TERRY GROSS: How'd you come up with that as the premise?
SEGEL: Well, Nick and I came up with it together, but the character of Walter is sort of an analog for me in getting this Muppet movie made. He's a wild Muppet fan who when he finds the Muppets, they're not in the place that he was when he, you know, the Muppets that he grew up with. And so he sets out to try to make them as famous as they once were, which is - that was sort of our goal in making this movie.
TERRY GROSS: To rescue them from being washed-up?
SEGEL: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, comedy really moves in cycles, and I think that the kind of purity of the Muppets had been taken over by a more cynical sense of humor. And so we set out to make a Muppet movie that harkened back to, like, the late '70s, early '80s Muppets that we grew up with.
STOLLER: We also have been, you know, asking ourselves, like, where have the Muppets been? Why hasn't there been a Muppet movie? And so - in such a long time. And so we put those words into Walter's mouth.
TERRY GROSS: So in the story, so Jason, your character and your girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, are going to go to L.A., and Walter really wants to come and go to the Muppet studio. And you finally decide, okay, you're going to take him. And everybody's so happy you're all going to L.A. together.
And then there's this great production number called "Life's A Happy Song." And so, like, hundreds of people are down Main Street in Smalltown, USA, that's the name of the town, singing this song. And it is so - it is just really, like, so delightful.
So before we hear the song, talk about asking Bret McKenzie from "Flight of the Conchords" - he's one of the co-stars and co-writers of the songs in that show - to write this song. He did several original songs for "The Muppets" movie. What did you tell him you wanted from this opening production number?
SEGEL: Well, Nick and I had written a rough sketch of the idea of the production number, you know, when we were writing the script. And then when James Bobin came on to do the movie, he brought Bret McKenzie along with him, and James Bobin directed many of the "Flight of the Conchords" episodes, and he was one of the creators.
We didn't have to tell Bret much in terms of tone because he is - he's by nature very Muppety. The Flight of the Concords themselves, it's a very Muppety kind of vibe. It's two wide-eyed innocents making their way through tough New York. And so he knew what to do with that number right from the start.
STOLLER: And in our initial meeting with James, I'd been friends with James for a few years, but in our initial meeting on this movie, he said the movie should open with a song that's about how everything's great, but everything's not great. You know...
TERRY GROSS: So - but everything is kind of great in that opening.
SEGEL: Well, you know, hidden beneath the surface is Walter feeling like he doesn't quite belong in this town. And the Amy Adams character is feeling like our relationship is a bit stunted because of how close I am with Walter. So very, very subtly, under the surface, we plant the seeds of the problems that are going to come up later in the film.
TERRY GROSS: True to all that, okay.
STOLLER: There's a subtle darkness to that song.
SEGEL: There's a subtle darkness to everything we do, a very subtle darkness.
TERRY GROSS: Okay, so here's "Life's A Happy Song," with its subtle darkness.
[Soundbite of song, "Life's a Happy Song"]
JASON SEGEL AND PETER LINZ (as Gary) (Singing) Everything is great, everything is grand. I got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand. Everything is perfect, it's falling into place. I can't seem to wipe this smile off my face. Life's a happy song when there's someone by my side to sing along. When your alone life can be a little rough. It makes you feel like your three foot tall. When it's just you, times can be tough when there's no one there to catch your fall. Everything is great, everything is grand...
TERRY GROSS: So that's "Life's A Happy Song" from the soundtrack of the new Muppet movie, which is called "The Muppets," and we heard Jason Segel and the voice of the new Muppet, Walter.
Let's talk about staging this opening production number, in which, like, you have a Main Street, and you have, like, hundreds of people singing and dancing in a style that harkens to a lot of really, really corny production numbers. But it's so, like, not corny.
You're both pointing to what is corny about certain production numbers and doing it and not doing that corny thing at the same time.
SEGEL: Yeah, well, we wanted to - we wanted to sort of reference the old MGM-style musicals, which I love. You know, "Singin' in the Rain" is one of my favorite movies, and it's intentionally campy.
I think one of the mistakes people make about "Singin' in the Rain" is if you're young enough, it just seems like the past, but that movie was actually making fun of 20 years earlier than when it was made. So it's intentionally campy, and I think that was sort of a reference for us in terms of the musical numbers.
STOLLER: And the Muppets also are always winking. You know, there's a kind of a self-referential thing going on. And so with a little wink you can get away with a lot of campiness.
SEGEL: Yeah, absolutely. We had a great choreographer, a guy called Michael Rooney, who actually is Mickey Rooney's son, who did most of the choreography of the film. It was really awkward because Mickey Rooney makes a great cameo in the first, in the opening number, and I did not know that Michael Rooney was his son. And he kept...
TERRY GROSS: Oh, you didn't?
SEGEL: No, and he kept...
TERRY GROSS: That's so funny.
SEGEL: And he kept bossing him around, going, like, all right, Dad, get over here, Dad, get over here, Dad. And I went up to him, I'm like: You can't just call an old person Dad.
And he was like: No, that's my actual Dad.
TERRY GROSS: No, I had this all wrong, because it's funny, as soon as I saw his name - you see, I thought of Mickey Rooney right away because part of the movie is the let's-put-on-a-show premise.
TERRY GROSS: Because part of the plot is that when Walter, you know, gets to the Muppet studio and sees that the Muppets' old theater is like it's dilapidated, and they have to raise $10 million in order to buy the studio back, it's like, well, how are we going to do it? Well, let's put on a show and raise some money. And that is so Mickey Rooney. It's literally from "Babes in Arms" with him and Judy Garland. So I thought immediately of Mickey Rooney, and then I saw that Michael Rooney was the choreographer, and I thought Wikipedia time, let's see...
Let's see if he's - so anyway, I think what I'm trying to say is I can't believe that you didn't think of that.
SEGEL: Yeah, no, I really didn't put it together. I was really thinking about singing and dancing at that point. I hadn't really thought it through.
STOLLER: They also look quite similar.
SEGEL: They look like twins, exactly.
STOLLER: Michael Rooney looks like a tall Mickey Rooney.
SEGEL: Yeah, it's really true.
GROSS: Okay, so once you realized you have Mickey Rooney and his son on the set, did you talk about all of those let's-put-on-a-show kind of movies?
SEGEL: Yeah, well, he's - you know, it's funny. Like, he comes from an era that's sort of, it's bygone now, but he really was a Disney guy, you know, back in the old studio system.
And so he at the end of one of his takes, at the end of his day of filming, they said, all right, that's a wrap on Mickey Rooney, and Mickey Rooney said: Before I go, I'd just like to take a minute to thank the wonderful family at Disney not just for this film but for all of the wonderful films that they've done in the past and will do in the future.
I'm like, wow, that is from a different time. It was really neat to see.
TERRY GROSS: So Nick, you say that you already were friends with James Bobin, who directed your Muppets movie, and he not only did direct "Flight of the Conchords," but he directed a lot of "Da Ali G Show" with Sasha Baron Cohen, the American version, right?
STOLLER: Yeah, well, he directed - he did the British version. I think he started it with Sasha.
TERRY GROSS: Oh, okay, okay. So what...
STOLLER: I think he did the American, as well, yeah.
TERRY GROSS: What I find so interesting about that is that you've taken guys who have really, like, adult humor. I mean, "Da Ali G Show" is pretty adult, anything Sasha Baron Cohen does.
So - and you've put them in service of a family movie. And I think it's the kind of family movie that truly adults and children can enjoy. But it's interesting that you went with people who are really known for adult stuff and for, you know, really funny adult humor, and used them for, you know, the family musical.
STOLLER: Yeah, I mean, well, with James, you know, he's just - "Flight of the Conchords," I think those musical numbers are just kind of amazingly staged. And he's just, he's such a brilliant and visual director, which usually doesn't go with comedy.
And so it seemed - as soon as he expressed interest, it was a no-brainer - and we really were excited that he wanted to do it. But I think, too, that like, at least in terms of the, you know, our R-rated past, is that there's kind of an essential sweetness, you know, to what, you know, we try to do.
And so that's not that dissimilar to "The Muppets." Even if in Sarah Marshall there's cursing and nudity and whatnot, there's - we're still trying to get at something that's not cynical.
SEGEL: Yeah, I think also there's - there's a misconception that a family film, it's sort of come to mean a children's film, and that's not what it has to be like. And so the Muppets have an inherent tone that it was never going to be dirty or raunchy, though I'm sure that some of the executives were nervous that we were doing the Muppets with a sense of irony.
It doesn't take long to talk to us to realize that we had a pure love for the Muppets. It was helpful to have people, though, who weren't thinking of it as a kids film but who were thinking of it as a family comedy and we're trying to make it as funny as possible for everybody.
TERRY GROSS: My guests are Jason Segel and Nick Stoller. They wrote the new movie "The Muppets." Segel stars in it. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
[soundbite of music]
TERRY GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, and they wrote and produced the new Muppets movie, and Jason Segel stars in it. Let's play another song, and this is another great song that Bret McKenzie from "Flight of the Conchords" wrote. It's called "Am I A Man, or Am I Muppet?"
And Jason, you sing half of the song, and Walter, the Muppet, sings the other half. Do you want to describe the premise?
SEGEL: Yes, this is about, you know, halfway through the film, if not a little later, and Walter and I, who are as close as can be, are starting to drift apart because Walter is realizing that he needs to be with the Muppets, and I'm realizing that I should probably grow up and further my relationship with Amy Adams. And we're having a hard time breaking away from each other. This was one of my favorite things I've ever done in my career. I think this song is so funny.
TERRY GROSS: It is really funny. So you sing it, and the new Muppet that you've created for this movie, Walter, sings it too. So here it is.
[Soundbite of song, "Are You a Man or a Muppet?"]
SEGEL: (as Gary) (Singing) I reflect on my reflection, and I ask myself the question: What's the right direction to go? I don't know. Am I a man, or am I a Muppet? If I'm a Muppet then I'm a very manly Muppet. Am I a Muppet, or am I a man? If I'm a man, that makes me a Muppet of a man.
PETER LINZ: (as Walter) (Singing) I look into these eyes, and I don't recognize the one I see inside. It's time for me to decide: Am I a man, or am I a Muppet? If I'm a Muppet, well I'm a very manly Muppet. Am I a Muppet, or am I a man? If I'm a man, that makes me a Muppet of a man.
SEGEL & LINZ: (as characters) (Singing) Here I go again. I'm always running out of time. I think I made up my mind. Now I understand who I am.
SEGEL: (as Gary) (Singing) I'm a man.
LINZ: (as Walter) (Singing) I'm a Muppet....
TERRY GROSS: That was "Man Or Muppet," featuring Jason Segel and the new Muppet Walter, from "The Muppets" soundtrack, and Walter is performed by Peter Linz.
So you had to create a new Muppet for this movie, the character of Walter, who's your brother, Jason Segel, in the film. So now that you had a chance to create an actual Muppet that would be part of the franchise, so to speak, what did you want Walter, the new Muppet, to look like and behave like?
SEGEL: The goal was that he was just a wide-eyed innocent who sort of - he reminds me of maybe what Kermit was before Kermit became famous, you know, when Kermit was still living in the swamp.
And I think literally in describing Walter initially, we said that he was completely nondescript, which was our version of sort of calling him the Everyman. We didn't want him to look too particularly like anything.
STOLLER: Yeah, in early drafts of "Muppets," people were always mistaking him as different creatures, thinking he was a rag, thinking he was this and that. So that was, you know, to make him like the Everyman. And we also, from the very beginning, his personality was kind of locked in. He was very enthusiastic. He fainted a lot, especially when seeing Kermit. He was easy - you know, he easily screamed at things. So yeah.
TERRY GROSS: And what was it like to cast the performer to play Walter? And what does it mean to play Walter? What does the performer have to do?
SEGEL: Sure. Well, we auditioned quite a few people to play Walter, and then Peter Linz walked in, and talk about a no-brainer. He really was Walter instantly. I'm glad you asked what the puppeteer has to do.
The sad thing is that their job is, at the end of the day, to be invisible. You know, you're not supposed to think about the puppeteer. But in reality, these guys are acting, they're puppeteering, they're singing, they're dancing, they're doing improv. A lot of times, you know, they're being contortionists. If a puppet is sitting on a couch talking, that means there's a puppeteer scrunched into a hollowed-out couch. And at the end of the day, you're not ever supposed to think about the puppeteer, and they're the true geniuses behind this movie.
TERRY GROSS: So how does it work exactly? These are - like the Muppets are all hand puppets, and the body of the puppeteer has to be hidden. That's quite a directorial problem too, isn't it?
SEGEL: Oh, yeah, the building of the sets is crazy and the logistics of what James had to do. You know, we - it's easy for Nick and I to imagine scenes. We wrote a scene that was supposed to 10 full-body Muppets running away in slow motion from an exploding building. It's easy to write it, and then James asked us how we were going to do it, and we said we had no idea. And he explained that that was impossible. So he had to do all the heavy lifting.
TERRY GROSS: Like for instance there's a scene - this isn't a special effects scene, this is kind of delightful - Jason, you and Amy Adams and all the Muppets, or a lot of the Muppets, are in a car together, you know, talking and singing. And you're of course so much bigger than the Muppets are.
TERRY GROSS: You've got this, like, big smile on your face, but I was wondering if you were actually in the car with the Muppets when that was shot, or whether you were kind of added in.
SEGEL: I was. No, no, we did very, very little CGI. I was in the car with Amy, and there were 10 puppeteers scrunched into the car below us. And we had so many Muppets in the car in that scene that Amy and I were actually puppeteering while we were sitting there.
TERRY GROSS: No, really?
SEGEL: Yeah, I had the puppet on either side of me, and Amy had a puppet on either side of her. So we were doing all of it. It was really cool. It was a cool experience.
TERRY GROSS: God, that must have been heaven for you.
SEGEL: It was. I was thrilled. I think I had Animal and Dr. Teeth on my hands.
And it was like - it was the greatest moment of my life.
TERRY GROSS: Now, are you allowed to do that? Like, franchise-wise, is that legal for you to do them?
SEGEL: It is, yeah. You know, what they do in cases like that is they add the voices in later. So you're puppeteering, and then the guys who do the voice of the puppets, who are operating the other puppets they do, are going to add the voices later. It's pretty crazy.
TERRY GROSS: When you auditioned for Walter, did you - of course you had to have the would-be performer sing, right, as part of the audition?
SEGEL: Yes, we sang. He and I sang "Love Will Keep Us Together" as a duet.
With him and Walter. We gave people, like, three or four choices of duets, and Walter
and I sang, Peter Linz and I sang "Love Will Keep Us Together." He was just great.
TERRY GROSS: Jason Segel and Nick Stoller will be back in the second half of the show. They wrote the new movie "The Muppets." Segel stars in it. Here's a song from the soundtrack featuring Chris Cooper. He plays an oil baron who's very egotistical, which is evident in this rap, co-written by Bret McKenzie. I'm Terry Gross.
[Soundbite of music]
TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Back with Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel who wrote the new movie "The Muppets" and served as executive producers. Segel is also one of the film's human stars. Stoller and Segel also collaborated on the film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Before making "The Muppets" they had to convince skeptics to trust that they wouldn't damage the Muppet legacy. Once they got the green light, there was a lot to learn.
So, when you got access to the Muppets for the movie, were there, like, was there like a book of guidelines that you were handed in order to, like, you know, honor the Muppets' legacy and work within the rules of the Muppet kingdom and everything?
STOLLER: There are a set of rules that, you know, our puppeteers, you know, explained to us as we were working on the script and so, you know, in our earliest draft Jason's character Gary and Walter were â he was a ventriloquist on the Venice Beach boardwalk and Walter was his puppet. And they had this amazing act and then you reveal that Walter's actually alive and wants to be a Muppet. And the puppeteers explained to us that we couldn't...
...that in the world, Muppets think of themselves as people. They're not, you know, Kermit the frog, he's not a puppet, and that that would kind of break one of the, kind of, cardinal rules of the world. And so we changed that very quickly, you know, to what's in the current â so there are a lot of kind of rules like that that make the world whole.
SEGEL: And then there are just rules that you know viscerally if you love the Muppets. Like, the Muppets are never mean to people. The Muppets donât get laughs at other people's expense. It's part of what I really loved about the Muppets is they donât even want to destroy their villains, for example. They want to reform their villains. In the first Muppet movie, Doc Hopper, played by Charles Durning, wants to cut off Kermit's legs and make frogs' legs.
And as opposed to destroying him, Kermit is like, well, maybe you should think about why you don't have friends. You know? Maybe you're just lonely and you need to be a happier person. I mean, it's like the Muppets are pure.
TERRY GROSS: OK. So in order to create Muppets that could be deceitful and nasty, you have, like, this cover band that you created called the Moopets.
TERRY GROSS: And it's, you know, like, you describe it, because I don't even know
what language to use now.
STOLLER: You're right. They're the only way you could create Muppets that were bad, was to literally do like the comic book style bizarro Muppets. So they're the exact opposite of the Muppets. They're Kermut(ph), Foozie(ph), Roowlf, and Animul(ph). They are the evil version of the Muppets. You're right, actually. They're the only evil Muppets I've ever seen.
And so they're â the big threat is that Tex Richman, played by Chris Cooper, who's just an absolute genius, has potential to get the rights to the Muppet name and his plan is to replace the Muppets with this evil cynical version of the Muppets - called the Moopets.
TERRY GROSS: And the Moopets have been working, basically, as a cover band. You know how a lot of old bands have like one member of the original band and the rest are all just musicians that they picked up. So it's a band like this.
STOLLER: Thatâs it.
TERRY GROSS: Like, one of the real Muppets is in the band, but everybody else is like a Moopet.
STOLLER: Yeah. Yeah.
TERRY GROSS: And everybody, like, and all the Moopets are really, like, they're mean, they're nasty, they're cynical. And so the song that they're singing in this - they're a lounge act at a casino. Is it Reno or Vegas? I can't remember.
STOLLER: It's Reno and it's called the Pachulo Casino and Fozzie Bear, the consummate performer, is the only remaining member of the Muppets performing in this band and he's taken all of the original beautiful Muppet songs and has changed the lyrics so that they describe the Pachulo Casino specials and hotel deals.
TERRY GROSS: And this is like a very sacrilegious thing to do in Muppet world.
STOLLER: It is.
TERRY GROSS: So, therefore, let's hear the Moopet version of "The Rainbow Connection" which is basically an ad for this hotel in whose lounge they are performing.
[Soundbite of music "Rainbow Connection"]
ERIC JACOBSON (As Fozzie) (Singing) Why are there such great deals on our hotel rooms? And continental breakfast is free.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN (As Roowlf) (Singing) Breakfast is free.
ERIC JACOBSON: (As Fozzie) (Singing) HBO in every room and Dreamcast if you
check in after noon. Free parking for cars. That's our deal. That's our deal.
(As Fozzie) (Singing) Our wedding chapel is 24 hours. No marriage certificate at the end.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Roowlf) (Singing) No marriage certificate, indeed.
JACOBSON: (As Fozzie) (Singing) (Unintelligible), you've found it, Pachulo Casino, the owners, the Moopets...) And me. Cha-cha-cha. (Speaking) Thank you. Thank you. You're a great audience.
TERRY GROSS: So thatâs the Moopets, the Muppet cover band of, like, bad guy Muppets from the soundtrack of the new movie "The Muppets." My guests, Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, wrote the movie. Jason Segel stars in it. And so when you got access to using the Muppets, who came along with that? In other words, were there any of the original performers? Did you have to do any casting for the Muppets? Did they all have performers who were still doing them? Did the characters all have performers who were still doing them?
STOLLER: Yeah. I mean, there's a group of kind of amazing puppeteers who've been voicing or, I mean, acting the Muppets I guess would be the right word to use.
STOLLER: You know, forever. And I think the only original performer is Dave Goelz who does Gonzo. But, you know, Steve Whitmire, who does Kermit has done it forever. As we said, Eric Jacobson who does Fozzie and Piggy. Anyways, there's a group that have just done it for a long time.
SEGEL: It's actually a pretty small world, the puppeteer community, so a lot of these guys also do characters on Sesame Street and they've been doing these characters for quite a while.
STOLLER: Bill Barretta.
TERRY GROSS: It's funny. You think that Kermit would sound very aged if the original performer were still doing him, but he still sounds like Kermit.
SEGEL: Yeah. Well, Kermit was originally Jim Henson, as I'm sure you know.
TERRY GROSS: Oh. True.
SEGEL: Yeah. When Jim Henson died...
TERRY GROSS: And that was 1990.
SEGEL: Yeah. Before he died he passed the torch on to Steve Whitmire, and Steve is one of the best puppeteers in the world. When you see the expressions that he's able to make â what is essentially a sock puppet make - you realize what an actual art this is. It's easy to pick up a toy store puppet and stick your hand in it and make it talk. But to make a puppet look wistful, I mean, I donât know how you do that except with years of experience.
STOLLER: I have a four-year-old daughter and I took her to the set and when she met Kermit, she just, I mean her eyes lit up. And it was just a really magical moment. I tried to recreate it at home but with not as much success.
TERRY GROSS: What did you learn about how Kermit's face becomes so expressive?
STOLLER: It's not just as â I wish you could see my hands - but itâs not just a matter of moving your hand open and closed to make the mouth move. Steve is using all five of his fingers like independent digits to manipulate different parts of Kermit's face. So he's able to go from angry, to sad, to smiling in very, very subtle ways that I imagine you can only achieve it with hours and hours of practice in the mirror.
SEGEL: You imagine that.
STOLLER: Yes. I've never done that. I've never stood for days at a time in front of a mirror.
SEGEL: I have, sadly, Terry.
TERRY GROSS: Yeah, I figured.
STOLLER: Also, the sock puppet is the most expressive of all puppets.
STOLLER: Which is why Walter's a sock puppet.
TERRY GROSS: Because his face is so flexible because it's a sock?
SEGEL: Yeah, that's right.
TERRY GROSS: My guests are Jason Segel and Nick Stoller. They wrote the new movie "The Muppets." Segel stars in it. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
[soundbite of music]
TERRY GROSS: We're talking about the new movie "The Muppets" with the film's writers, Nick Stoller and Jason Segel. Segel also stars in the film. So the technology of movie making has changed a lot since the first Muppet show and since the first Muppet movies, but has the technology for actually shooting the Muppets in a movie and that technology that the puppeteers use for the Muppets changed at all?
SEGEL: Well, the only thing â we wanted to be Muppet purists and we didnât want to employ any trickery like CGI or things like that because thatâs sort of the point of why we wanted to do a Muppet movie, was to revert back to those original movies and the TV show. The one thing we did use was the ability to do full body Muppets and we have Muppets walking and things like that, which they used very rarely back then. But we were able to get rid of puppeteers in very creative ways now. But, yeah, we tried to use very little new-fangled trickery.
STOLLER: And in fact, at one of the test screenings there was a focus group afterwards and there was a kid who was probably eight or nine, you know. They were asking him what he thought of the movie and he said, I was happy there wasn't any computer animation in this one. Which was a nice thing to hear.
TERRY GROSS: So tell me more about what the Muppets meant to you as kids. Like, which were your favorite characters?
SEGEL: I mean, you know, as being a, you know, comedy writer or comedy director, general comedy nerd, they're kind of the first thing I watched that made me say I want to do that. I remember, as a kid, you know, the Muppets very kind of quickly lead to watching Saturday Night Live and Monty Python and all of those other shows, but it's the first thing you watch as a kid that--
TERRY GROSS: For people who donât remember, the Muppets use to be - in the first season of Saturday Night Live, the Muppets are regulars.
STOLLER: Right. Yeah.
SEGEL: They also, I think, really set the stage for, you know, the Simpsons and for, you know, the Pixar movies and for a lot of, you know, family comedy in particular that appeals to both kids and adults. That's, you know, thatâs a little bit more complicated than just something that just appeals to kids.
TERRY GROSS: Now I've read, and a lot of people might've read this too, that there's a couple of people who performed Muppets in the past who think that this movie, kind of, like, violates some Muppet traditions and particularly because there's, like, a whoopee cushion joke so it's kind of like a fart joke. It's a whoopee cushion. So did you get any criticisms like that from the inside? From the Muppet family?
SEGEL: I think more than anything they were â they made those comments before they saw the film. I think that they were just nervous about what we were going to do. One of our producers put it best. We're by definition the step-parents in this, you know, and no matter how good the step-parent is, the kids are always going to be skeptical of them and give them a hard time. I think that now that they've seen the film they feel embarrassed that they made those comments. Because you saw the movie, Terry. It's like it's such a love letter to the Muppets.
STOLLER: Also, in our previous collaboration, you did show your penis.
[soundbite of laughter]
So they had reason to be a little nervous.
STOLLER: Yeah. I mean...
TERRY GROSS: That's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." yeah.
SEGEL: Yeah. I mean, and that literally is what they were nervous about, that these R-rated guys were going to come in and sort of try to reinvent the Muppets or something like that. And there's no reinvention going on here. If anything, we're trying to harken back to the Muppets that we love and get things back on course.
STOLLER: I'm not going to lie. We had endless hours of discussion about the fart shoes joke and it's such a Fozzie joke, you know.
STOLLER: He is - we're not saying the fart in and of itself - the fart sound in and of itself is funny. It's the fact that he thinks it's funny thatâs the joke.
SEGEL: I mean, that joke came down to such an issue of semantics, of them saying, like, well, it's fine if he calls them whoopee shoes but Fozzie would never say fart shoes. I mean, it got down to this weird issue of semantics, where it seemed like maybe there was more going on than just them being upset about this joke.
TERRY GROSS: That must've been - I wish I had a transcript of that conversation.
SEGEL: Yeah. At some point Nick and I were looking at each other and, like, this is a disagreement about something different.
TERRY GROSS: So what did you think it was really about?
SEGEL: Oh, I just think that they were nervous, a little bit, about new blood coming in. And justifiably so. Like Nick said, we were coming from very different, you know, beginnings than they were coming from. But I think that when they see the film they see that we were all on the same page.
STOLLER: I also think I didnât realize until, you know, working on the movie how much the puppeteers have lived and breathed Muppets for, you know, 30 years. You know, Steve Whitmire has worked on this for 30 years. And so, you know, if I had worked on something for 30 years and two guys came in and said we're doing the next thing, I would certainly have my back up, you know.
TERRY GROSS: So in the Muppets movie the Muppets do a version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
TERRY GROSS: And it's kind of like a Muppets tradition. They did a great version of "Bohemian Rhapsody" a few years ago.
TERRY GROSS: So, of all the, like, rock anthem kind of songs that you could've had them do, why did you come up with "Smells Like Teen Spirit?"
SEGEL: That was a James Bobin decision and it just seems like the opposite of, you know, what you would expect the Muppets to sing. I think part of the joke was that we could have Beaker do meep, meep, meep, meep instead of singing some of the more risquÃ© lyrics of that. And it works really well.
STOLLER: Jack Black is hilarious in that section of the film.
SEGEL: It also had to be, you know, I think James picked it because it had to be like a big anthem that they could just totally ruin.
TERRY GROSS: And it has words that I think are really â like, I could never make sense of the I'm albino, I'm mosquito part.
TERRY GROSS: Can you?
SEGEL: No. So we had the Muppets hold up cards saying, you know, what the lyrics were, an albino, a mosquito, and then when you get to my libido - what should be my libido, Beaker holds up a card that says meep, meep, meep-mo.
TERRY GROSS: Why donât we hear it? And this is the Muppets version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" barber shop quartet style.
[soundbite of music, "smells like teen spirit"]
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Muppets) (Singing) Hello. Hello. Hello. Hello. Load up on...bring your friends. It's fun to lose and to pretend. She's over bored and self assured. Oh, no. I know a dirty word. Hello, hello, hello, how low, how low, how low. With the lights out... Here we are now, entertain us. I feel stupid... Here we are now, entertain us. An albino, a mosquito. Hello, hello...
TERRY GROSS: So thatâs the Muppets version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from the soundtrack of the new film "The Muppets" and my guests, Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, co-wrote the movie and co-produced the movie and Jason Segel stars in the movie. Jason Segel, you have your own puppets. In "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" you put on, like, a vampire musical.
TERRY GROSS: Did you want to smuggle any of your puppets into the Muppet movie and have any of your puppets meet the Muppets and perform together?
SEGEL: We really wanted to have â or, I really wanted. I donât know if anyone else really cares. But I really wanted Dracula and Angel from "Sarah Marshall" to make an appearance in the Muppet telethon but we were not able to make that happen, unfortunately, for various legal reasons. But, you know, they exist now together in my house so anyone who wants to come over and see them all interact together, you're more than welcome.
STOLLER: They're appearing nightly.
TERRY GROSS: Wait. You have Muppets in your house now?
SEGEL: I was given my new favorite possession. I was given the Jason Segel Muppet for when I look in the mirror in the song "Man Versus Muppet" I see a reflection of myself that is a Muppet. And they let me keep that, so thatâs in my house now.
TERRY GROSS: Oh. Congratulations.
SEGEL: Thank you. It's very exciting. I play with it a lot. No joke.
TERRY GROSS: Oh, that's great. Are you learning how to work him by looking at yourself in the mirror?
SEGEL: Yes, I am.
STOLLER: Don't you have the remote?
SEGEL: Yeah. It's also radio controlled. That's an option on it. So occasionally I'll have people over...
STOLLER: Like a car. It's an option.
So I'll have people over and then I'll walk out of the room and I'll make the Jason Segel puppet come to life and make people talk to that for a while. And you keep asking why I'm still single, Terry.
TERRY GROSS: Well, I wish you both the best. I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.
SEGEL: Thank you. It's a real honor to be on your show again. Thank you so much.
STOLLER: Thank you so much.
TERRY GROSS: Jason Segel and Nick Stoller co-wrote the new movie "The Muppets." Segel stars in it. Here's another song from the soundtrack, a Muppet classic.
[soundbite of music "rainbow connection"]
STEVE WHITMIRE: (As Kermit) (Singing) Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what's on the other side? Rainbows are visions but only illusions and rainbows have nothing to hide. So we've been told and some choose to believe it. I know they're wrong, wait and see. Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers, and me.
TERRY GROSS: You can see clips from the new Muppets movie on our website, freshair.npr.org. Where you'll also find a link to my 1988 interview with Frank Oz who has performed several Muppet characters including Miss Piggy and directed the 1984 movie "The Muppets Take Manhattan." Coming up, David Edelstein reviews Martin Scorsese's new film adaptation of The "Invention of Hugo Cabret." This is FRESH AIR.
[Soundbite of Music]
TERRY GROSS: Martin Scorsese has made his first 3-D film, "Hugo", an adaptation of Brian Selznick's illustrated novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
12:51:51 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
In "Hugo", Martin Scorsese has hired himself a bunch of A-plus-list artists and techies, and together they've crafted a deluxe, gargantuan train-set of a movie, in which the director and his 3-D camera can whisk and whiz and zig and zag and show off all his expensive toys - and wax lyrical on the magic of movies.
12:52:15 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
The source is Brian Selznick's illustrated novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," which takes place in 1931 and centers on an orphaned 12 year old, played in the film, by Asa Butterfield, who lives in a flat in the bowels of the Paris train station.
12:52:32 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
Hugo's guardian, his drunken uncle, had the job of setting the station's clocks until he suddenly went missing. So now the boy, to cover for the disappearance and stay out of an orphanage, does the job in secret, stealing through tunnels, up rickety ladders, and over catwalks, careful to avoid the station master played by Sasha Baron Cohen with his relish for orphan-catching.
12:52:56 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
Hugo's only company is a semi-complete automaton, a kind of mechanical man that his late machinist dad, played by Jude Law, seen in flashback, discovered in a museum storage area. The boy has a supernatural inkling that the automaton holds the key to his future; alas, the key the automaton doesn't hold is the one that would wind it up and set it in motion. Thatâs missing.
12:53:22 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
Scorsese, working from a shapely script by John Logan, is hell-bent on bedazzling us. He and production designer Dante Ferretti pack the screen with clocks and gears and cogs and other round objects that also evoke film canisters which show up later, when pioneer fantasy filmmaker Georges Melies turns up as a character.
12:53:48 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
The 3-D cinematography by Robert Richardson is calculated to tickle you, most obviously in shots in which the station manager's Doberman Pinscher sticks its long snout into your face, more subtly when the train station is layered with booths and passengers at all kinds of levels, and when overhead shots create odd spatial tensions in the frame.
12:54:11 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
Scorsese has studied the best 3-D films, not just Cameron's "Avatar" but Hitchcock's "Dial 'M' For Murder," and, as far as I'm concerned, redeemed this increasingly tiresome form. Cameron has agreed, calling "Hugo" at a recent screening, a masterpiece. I liked the film a lot, but am not so ready to use the M word.
12:54:32 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
When Melies appears, the movie becomes a plea for Scorsese's film-preservation cause - which I'm 100 percent behind - but which introduces an element of self-consciousness that pulls the narrative off the rails. For all the wizardry on display, "Hugo" often feels like a film about magic instead of, well, a magical film - something Steven Spielberg has made with his 3-D movie "The Adventures of Tintin", opening in December.
12:55:00 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
The simplest things in the film come through strongly, though, like the performance of Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz as his new 13-year-old friend. On a rooftop above Paris, Hugo evokes the connection in his inner world, between humans and machines.
[soundbite of clip of "hugo"]
12:55:19 |ASA BUTTERFIELD|, ACTOR
(As Hugo) Right after my father died, I would come up here a lot. I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason. And that means you have to be here for some reason too.
12:55:57 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
Those kids have a wonderful transparency, and the rest of the cast is a treat. Baron Cohen finds all kinds of bizarre notes in which to express his ardor for a flower-stand worker played by Emily Mortimer, among them, a rictus grin that suggests Peter Sellers. That grizzled genre vet, Christopher Lee, now Sir Christopher, lends majesty to the role of a bookshop owner.
12:56:22 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
Sir Ben Kingsley, as Moritz's godfather, who runs a toy stand, is mysteriously cold and brittle, even cruel, but when all is revealed we warm up to him. At its best, in scenes with the automaton and its Mona Lisa smile, and in an explosive runaway-train nightmare, Scorsese is as deft as Spielberg.
12:56:43 |DAVID EDELSTEIN|, MOVIE CRITIC
But when he shows us a famous clock-hanging sequence in Harold Lloyd's "Safety Last" and tries to replicate it, he's trying too hard. The clips from such Melies wonders as "A Trip to the Moon" show a delirious unreality that's a world away from "Hugo's" literal-minded wonders. But for all my reservations, you must heed the subliminal advertising in the title: You Go.
12:57:10 |TERRY GROSS|, HOST
David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can watch clips from "Hugo" on our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download Podcasts of our show.
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