James Bobin on the challenge of rebooting the popular puppets — and decoding the film's inside references
With Disney's film reboot of "The Muppets" expected to rake in a solid $42 million its first weekend – and a 97 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes — director James Bobin is smiling as wide as Dr. Teeth.
TheWrap talked with the first-time feature-film director (at left with the movie's Jason Segel) about his revival of franchise players Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Animal; how "The Muppets" wouldn't have been possible without the HBO series "Flight of the Conchords," which he co-created; and decoding the film's inside references.
So how do you segue from something like the adult-oriented "Flight of the Conchords" to the family-oriented "The Muppets"?
It was a logical progression. "Conchords" was also a musical comedy, and I was adamant this would be a musical comedy, too. I had a hunch that if I married the "Conchords" sensibility with the Muppets, it could work.
A few years ago on "Conchords," Kristen Schaal [who played the Conchords' fan, Mel] sung a very Muppet-y song with puppet cookies, "Like in My Dreams." Also, during breaks from writing, we would watch Muppet clips on YouTube.
The Muppets kept popping up in my life. When the call came, it was serendipity.
Still, how does a first-time director get handed such a storied franchise?
It was in 2009, and I had just finished the second season of "Conchords." I got an email from my agent that simply said, "Do you like the Muppets?" I said, "Of course." We had some conversations with producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman. We were very clear about the scope of the movie we wanted to make. I was very keen to express my idea for the musicality of it. We met with Disney's Executive Vice President of Production Kristin Burr, and it seemed to be a good fit.
They pretty much trusted me, and didn't lay down the law. I wasn't going to put the Muppets in a direction where I could hurt them.
With direct-to-TV and -video movies, the 2000s were maybe the roughest decade yet for the Muppets. How did you bring the franchise out of mainstream dormancy?
There's a cyclical nature to what people like in the world. Through time, things come around again. It it their time.
Did you have any cultural challenges in refreshing the veteran characters?
They haven't really changed that much, and it was important that they be the way people remember them. But Bobby Benson, the leader of the Baby Band on "The Muppet Show," had a cigarette permanently attached to his lips. Obviously, now you can't do that.
Did you feel pressure to live up to creator Jim Henson's legacy?
I've always liked the Muppets. I watched "The Muppet Show" in England every week as a child. The show was originally broadcast in England, and they're sacred, so I can't imagine what it's like over here. I didn't want to ruin people's childhoods, but I also couldn't let that impinge on my creativity.
Does "The Muppets" have any inside references that only fans will appreciate?
There are numerous, but I don't want to give away too many. There is a gathering of the Muppets, and Sweetums comes running out of a car lot. It's Mad Mooney's, the same car lot that was used in [the first Muppets film, 1979's] "The Muppet Movie." We found it in Sun Valley, north of Los Angeles. We repainted the building. It was amazing to find the place still intact.
I made the movie for people who obsess over the Muppets but also people who have never heard of them.
In a 2001 interview with Jon Stewart, Kermit said "The Muppet Show" was close to returning to TV. Is that still a possibility?
I don't see any reason they couldn't do that. It would make perfect sense.
Are you already planning a sequel?
My brain is so full of this, I haven't had the chance to think of anything else. On Disney's part, I guess how "The Muppets" does will determine if there is a sequel.
What about future plans for the "Flight of the Conchords"?
I'm sure we'll do something again in the future. My "Conchords" co-creators Bret McKenzie and Jermaine Clement love music and writing music, so I can't imagine they won't put out more.
What other projects do you have in the works?
I just signed a deal with HBO for another half-hour comedy series, still untitled — I'm very committed to the half-hour format. HBO is a natural home for me.