Since breaking into Hollywood in the early '00s, writer/director Nicholas Stoller has written jokes for such big-name comic actors as Jim Carrey, Jack Black and Russell Brand. But those assignments paled in comparison to his most recent gig, scribbling jokes for Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the Muppet crew for their upcoming big-screen relaunch, The Muppets. Paired with his good friend and collaborator Jason Segel (who starred in Stoller's directorial debut Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and served as both the co-writer and human lead of The Muppets) Stoller describes The Muppets as a "dream" assignment. He spoke with us on the phone from Los Angeles about the four-year process of writing the movie and why Kermit never, ever says anything mean.
TWoP: Did you grow up a Muppet fan?
Nicholas Stoller: Oh yeah. I call them my gateway drug into comedy writing. There were the first thing that I watched that got me interested in comedy. The video I watched over and over again just because it happened to be the one we had in our house was The Great Muppet Caper. But I quickly became obsessed with The Muppet Show and all the other Muppet movies. I was born in England -- though both of my parents are American - and there's something about the Muppets where they have this combination of English and American humor. There's a general anarchy that speaks to American comedy like Saturday Night Live and British comedy like Monty Python. They meet somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean.
TWoP: Obviously you're a director in your own right -- early on, did you contemplate directing the movie yourself or were you just interested in writing it?
Stoller: I just wanted to write it. I didn't think I had the visual panache to pull the movie off. James Bobin and I were friends for years before this and I was very excited when he wanted to direct it. He's just a brilliant visual director -- the musical numbers in Flight of the Conchords are just astounding. My own interests lie in a guy and a girl having awkward sex with each other. That's what I'm good at shooting, while James is good at shooting lavish musical numbers. So for the best of the franchise, I thought someone else should direct it. [Laughs]
TWoP: You and Jason have collaborated before. When did he involve you in this project?
Stoller: He had a meeting at Disney and they asked him which franchises they owned that he'd be interested in and he said 'What are you guys doing with the Muppets?' They said 'We don't know,' which is strange for a giant corporation not to know what they're doing with one of the most beloved titles in the world. Anyway, he called me right after that meeting and asked 'Do you want to write a Muppet movie?' On that call, we pitched out the big macro moves of the movie. Obviously, there are a lot of differences between that first draft and the finished product but the big moves -- like needing to get the Muppets back together again and and saving their theater -- that's the same as it was in that initial phone call. But the whole thing took about four years. Like I say, it took college. We wrote it over the course of two years and didn't know whether it was going to get greenlit and then once it did and James got hired, there was an additional two years before shooting started.
TWoP: What kinds of story points fell by the wayside during the writing process?
Stoller: We had this initial idea about a Willy Wonka-style reveal in which the oil baron [played by Chris Cooper in the movie] who wants to going to tear down the theater and drill for oil would actually turn out to be Kermit in a human suit. He did the whole thing on purpose to get the Muppets back together again. And Disney executives were like, 'No, kids aren't going to understand this,' which they were absolutely right about. So that was one thing that changed. Also, the characters of Gary [played by Segel] and Walter were different in initial drafts. Gary was a ventriloquist on the boardwalk in Venice, California and Walter was his puppet and they had this amazing act. Then we'd reveal that Walter is alive and a Muppet and wants to be part of the Muppets. But the Muppeteers explained to us that in the world of the Muppets, the Muppets think of themselves as being alive. They're not perceived as puppets. That's one of those rules that makes the world work.
TWoP: You had to satisfy two different companies here, Disney and Henson. Were they comfortable with your approach to the characters? In recent interviews, Frank Oz has said that he wasn't entirely pleased with some of the material in the script, which is why declined to participate in the movie.
Stoller: We didn't really get notes from the Henson Company, but we did hear from the puppeteers, who know this stuff backwards and forwards. And they'd have little suggestions here and there, like 'I'm not sure about that joke.' There were moments where Kermit says something a little bit mean and the puppeteers told us, 'He never says anything mean, ever. Even if he gets exasperated, he never gets mean.' Stuff like that we would change because we're new to this world and those guys are the reason it's been around for so long. In terms of Disney, I've worked at Universal for the movies I've directed and they're super cool and offer lots of creative freedom. So I didn't know what Disney would be like, but they were totally onboard with our vision. They got it. There are a lot of weird jokes in the movie and at no point did they say 'Take that out, people won't understand it.' They just wanted to make sure that the story and the characters were clear. At one point, they flew us up to Pixar so we could do a table read for them and make sure the storytelling was clear. So that was their main concern.
TWoP: The early Muppet movies have a self-aware attitude about them -- the characters know that they're in a movie. Was that something you wanted to bring back here?
Stoller: Yeah, as a comedy writer, I'm always praying for the day I can tell a self-aware/break-the-fourth-wall style of joke. I don't get to do it often, so it was awesome to do that here. In the original Muppet Movie, they literally carry the script around with them and refer to it. That kind of thing is just part of their world. As long as you're not undercutting the emotional moments too hard with that stuff, it's kind of a natural thing.
Click here to read our interview with The Muppets music supervisor Bret McKenzie.
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