Nick Stoller is among the many, many people to emerge from the Judd Apatow school of comedy, having cut his teeth as a writer on Apatow’s short-lived TV series Undeclared, before graduating to feature films with the Apatow co-written Fun with Dick and Jane, which led to Yes Man, which led to Stoller’s first directing gig, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. And it was FSM, or more specifically Jason Segel’s Dracula puppet musical in the film, that led to Stoller’s involvement with Disney’s hopeful relaunch of The Muppet franchise.
ME: Do you remember what the first Muppet related thing you ever saw was? How were you introduced to the characters as a kid?
NICK STOLLER: We basically had a bunch of video tapes at my house –
Me: Tapes you made off of TV?
Stoller: Yeah, tapes we made off of TV. And at that time, you know, it was a pretty random selection of things that I watched over and over again. And one of them was The Great Muppet Caper; I watched that movie maybe 800,000 times.
Me: So has that remained your favorite Muppet film? Either for nostalgia or otherwise?
Stoller: Yeah, nostalgia, just cause I watched it so many times I know all the songs, I know ever beat of that movie. So for nostalgic reasons that has remained my favorite, though I love The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan, I love The Muppet Show. But The Muppet Show was strangely elusive, because I was a little bit too young for it when it came on, when it was on the air, but then it wasn’t out on tape or DVD, so I kind of missed that window. But I’d always see little blips of it here and there, and I’d be like, “What is that?! I want to see that!” If I was a kid now I’d watch the entire thing on youtube and DVD and whatnot.
Me: And once this project [The Muppets] became a reality, how did you guys [with co-writer Jason Segel] decide to dive in? Did you watch every Muppet related project you could find?
Stoller: What happened was that Jason had a meeting, a general meeting, at Disney, and they asked him about what things he was interested in, and he immediately asked, “What are you guys doing with The Muppets?” And they were like, “Nothing.” And so it was very self-propelled. Jason called me and asked if I wanted to write The Muppets, and I was like, “Um, yes, that’s amazing.” That’s the craziest phone call I’ve gotten. And we quickly beated it out. But there wasn’t some plan at Disney. And we came up with this idea very quickly; of the Muppet comeback, where have they been. As we were writing it we watched the original movies; I watched the original Muppet Movie with my daughter who is four… actually, wait… I didn’t watch it with her because she wasn’t even born yet. Or she was like a few months old. I watched it with her later! That’s how long this has been in development! But, so we watched some stuff, and once Disney hired [director] James Bobin, Jason and I sat around and we watched tons of clips on youtube of the old Muppet Show, so yeah, we definitely watched stuff to make sure we were hitting the tone right. But the tone is so – I know it, like it is a fluent language for comedy writers. It wasn’t hard to click into it. [He does a comical visual impression of himself writing.] This is me miming writing.
Me: So this was always the story of the film then? You didn’t go through a series of ideas and toss stuff out?
Stoller: A lot changed; we wrote many drafts. But the big beats of the story were always the same, from our first phone call. We very quickly said “comeback movie” “where have they been” “what broke them up” “we need a bad guy.” The bad guy’s name is Tex Richman. He’s an oil baron. In that first phone call we were riffing it out, and I was like, “Their studio is being bought by an oil baron, who wants to tear it down for oil.” Which just seems like the most arch, ridiculous thing ever. And so all of that was laid out very quickly. A lot of mirco stuff changed, but the big movements of the plot remained the same.
Me: So there are our core group of Muppets that you obviously must have, like Kermit and Piggy and Fozzie, but was there any sense for you guys of “Oh, I always loved this character, we need to make sure to give him something to do!”?
Stoller: The hardest part writing the script was servicing all the characters. When you watch the Muppet movies they service like twenty, twenty-five characters. Usually when you’re shooting a movie there are more like two characters talking, or maybe three people. In this there are like thirty “people” in every scene. You know you have to focus on Kermit, Miss Piggy and Fozzie, and then of course we have our favorites. I love Beaker. And we had a whole Beaker thing in our original draft, that didn’t make it, because you just have to figure out where to cut. And we also had Walter, our new character, so he was taking up real estate as well. You know who you need to focus on, and then you hope you can get one or two jokes from the rest of them.
Me: What was the Beaker storyline?
Stoller: The Beaker thing… (searching memory) It was something like Honeydew had an experimental self-propelled glider that would never stop, and he attached Beaker to it and for the rest of the movie you’d see him flying overhead. Like every once in a while he just flies overhead. And that was the gag, that you just see him in the back of scenes flying by.
Me: Once the ball got rolling, did Disney suddenly get interested? Did they have their own ideas for what the movie needed to be?
Stoller: It was so under the radar of what they were thinking about that we were given a lot of freedom to just write it however we wanted. I don’t know the particulars of the Jim Henson deal [Disney bought The Muppets in 2004], but we never got notes from Jim Henson’s company. It was all really from Disney. But Kristin Burr the executive on it was fantastic, and her office is filled with Muppets, and everyone was on the same page in terms of the aesthetics of the Muppets and the tone of the Muppets, and there was never any – we were all just trying to do right by Jim Henson’s legacy. And that was from the get-go. And from the puppeteers and people who work with the Muppets we got very helpful advice, about the rules of the world. In our original draft Walter pretended to be a puppet, and Gary [Jason Segel’s character] pretended to be a ventriloquist, and they had this amazing act on the Venice boardwalk. And we thought it was funny. And the puppeteers and people at Jim Henson’s company said “Muppets are people. No one thinks they are puppets.” There are rules like that that you’re not aware of even if you’re a super fan. [Untrue! Clearly someone needed to build a time machine and travel to the future to this past Monday to read this.]
Me: I was just explaining the plot of the movie to a friend and he asked me if Walter was adopted, and I noted that there isn’t any explanation whatsoever. Now knowing that you hadn’t originally been treating him as just a person who happens to be a Muppet, I’m curious, was there ever an explanation of where he came from?
Stoller: No. In The Great Muppet Caper there is a funny joke that Kermit and Fozzie are brothers, and not just brothers, identical twins. And they both smile, like “See we’re the same.” And you eventually see their parents and their parents are green Fozzies. So we were kind of ripping that joke off a little bit; filtered through many years.
Me: You can just be born a Muppet.
Stoller: Yeah. I think we tossed around if we should explain it, if a basket should be delivered to them, and then we were like, “No.” It’s funnier to just leave it as is.
Me: At what stage in the writing process did the songs enter.
Stoller: The Muppet movies are inherently musicals. So in our original drafts we put place holders where songs should be and maybe what the song should be about. Like this is a song of Kermit looking at photos of all the old Muppets and missing them. So that’s a slugline. And when James got involved, he’s such a musical genius – I remember in his pitch to us he said we should start the movie with a song about how everything is great, but everything is actually not great, and then we need to end [the film] with that song too. And he had a bunch of song ideas, and then he brought in Bret McKenzie, who is just a brilliant song writer. The songs really elevate the whole movie. In the script they take the place of a plot point. Jason has to decide if he’s a man or a Muppet, so we knew there had to be a song called “Man or Muppet.” And then Bret wrote an amazing song called “Man or Muppet.”
Me: Has there been any discussion yet of a second movie?
Stoller: We’ve thrown about ideas, but we kind of want to wait and see how this one does. As Jason always says, we’re a bit superstitious.
Me: Tell me a little bit about the upcoming movie you’re directing.
Stoller: I’m in post on a movie called The Five Year Engagement. Starring Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Rhys Ifans, Chris Pratt, Alison Brie, Mindy Kaling. It’s a very big cast. It just charts the ups and downs of a five year relationship. They get engaged in the opening frames of the movie and then we watch them as they try and fail over and over again to make it to the alter. I’m excited about it; it’s a project I’ve been working on for a long time. (faux serious voice) It’s funny and romantic and sad.
Me: Any musical numbers?
Stoller: There aren’t. This is the first thing I’ve done that has no music in it.
Then, after I’ve turned off my recorder, we some how wind up talking about Fantastic Fest and I end up telling him about the Belgian movie Bullhead. Good times.