James Bobin took flight from Flight of the Conchords to direct The Muppets to incredible success. Now, he’s back helming the sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, and this time out, he also co-wrote the script with Nicholas Stoller (who wrote the first film with Jason Segel).
We caught up with Bobin for an exclusive chat where we talked about working with old friends (including Oscar winner for The Muppets Bret McKenzie) as well as what his eight-year-old self would say back in England if he were told he would be writing lines and directing his beloved heroes from The Muppet Show.
Bobin also dishes the fine line that is the cameo machine that the Muppets are known for. How many cameos are too many and how did he choose which superstars made the cut for Muppets Most Wanted?
Movie Fanatic: Jason Segel and Nick Stoller wrote the first one, and you wrote this one with Nick. What was it like writing with Nick and being part of the process from the beginning?
James Bobin: He’s a friend! I’ve known him for years before we wrote together. So, it’s that thing where you have the friendship going and you hang out together and that’s very much what writing is these days. It felt natural and easy. It’s a helpful thing. I knew him five years before The Muppets. In fact, The Muppets came about because I knew he was writing it. I love the guy and it’s been a huge plus point for me with this entire Muppets journey. I knew it would be a pleasure, and sure enough… it really was [laughs]. We have the same sense of humor and a shared love of the Muppets and both love Ricky Gervais, Tina (Fey) and Ty (Burrell). It was a dream team.
Movie Fanatic: I can’t imagine anyone else doing it, but why was Ricky Gervais perfect to be Mr. Badguy?
James Bobin: The character he plays is so like the characters he’s brilliant at playing. He has this incredible sense of delivering deadpan lines and sly or mean lines. He makes a perfect Muppets villain. He’s cynical… he’s everything they’re not. Also, he’s got this childish nature. It’s weird. He has this childhood innocence and this wild laugh [laugh]. It’s very Muppets. I knew if you combined these elements, you’d have this bad guy who is going to be funny as a mean guy. He’s going to believe Constantine, the frog, is real, and treat him like a real character. But, at the same time, at the end of the day, Dominic Badguy is a guy you quite like. I love that about it.
Movie Fanatic: What was it about working with Bret McKenzie? It’s so natural. He won an Oscar for writing music for The Muppets and his songs on this are simply astounding.
James Bobin: It’s the same thing with music as it is with writing the script. He’s a friend and the people you hang out with will have a similar sense of humor. And that comes through in the music. When I have an idea for a song, like We’re Doing a Sequel, he instantly gets what that should be. For me, it actually saves a lot of time. And you know what, it gets better with time. It’s very rare that he produces something that I’m not feeling, and usually that is only because it doesn’t fit the story. For example, when we were doing the I Can Give You What You Want song with Constantine with the cheesy, 1980s disco number, it started out like a rock and roll Jerry Lee Lewis-type number, which was funny. Somehow, it didn’t feel right for the character. I knew Constantine so well, but Bret hadn’t met Constantine at that point, so he didn’t know the character. Within a day, he changed it to what you hear now. It’s amazing.
Movie Fanatic: Does he continually surprise you?
James Bobin: Yeah, he writes so well, so quickly. The lyrics to The Interrogation Song, sung by Ty and Sam (the eagle), is like a huge Broadway number. Singing words that rhyme that move along the story is very difficult and he just does it effortlessly. I’m lucky that I know him. He’s so humble and nice, you see the guy stand up and win an Oscar… you just don’t believe it!
Movie Fanatic: One of the things about the Muppets that we’ve loved for decades is the cameos. For you as the director and shepherding the story, is there a certain point where there are too many cameos and how do you make sure they fit?
James Bobin: They always serve the movie, that’s rule number one. We don’t put them in the movie because they’re famous. They have to move the story. It can be for a joke, or they fit the role. Occasionally we get people who love the Muppets, like Christoph Waltz. It was easy to write a joke about him liking waltzing… that’s a great Muppet Show joke! Generally, we have an idea for them in the script stage because it works for the movie. We’re lucky the Muppets are so beloved, because when we call people up, they say, “Sure!” Generally people we ask, do it -- which is amazing, because in this business that is not always the case.
Movie Fanatic: You filmed the last movie here in LA. Was it nice to leave here and film in London?
James Bobin: It was like a homecoming. The Muppet Show was made in England in the 1970s. It felt like a very Anglo-American collaboration, so it was nice to go back. The first one, I felt like the Anglo coming to America to make the movie. This time, I felt the Americans came to England. It was a poetic thing that the Muppets should be shot in England. The best part was that I could hire Louise Gold, who was the only female puppeteer who worked The Muppet Show in the 1970s and is still around! I hired her and brought her back. It’s fantastic!
Movie Fanatic: If you could go back to your eight-year-old self and tell him we were sitting here talking about you making a Muppet movie…
James Bobin: He wouldn’t believe it! [Laughs] There’s no way! Especially in those days… England’s such a small country and America was the great culture exporter back in those days. The idea of me writing lines for Fozzie would blow my mind as an eight-year-old!