HOT SEAT – FRANK OZ
By SARA STEWART
August 12, 2007 (New York Post) — The white-bearded gentleman sitting opposite me looks fairly unassuming, but he is nothing less than the pre-eminent voice of my childhood. And millions of other childhoods. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone you know who isn’t familiar with at least one Frank Oz creation: Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert of “Sesame Street.” Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Animal and Sam the Eagle from “The Muppet Show.” And, of course, the fuzzy Jedi who needs no introduction: Yoda.
When not busy establishing himself as an indelible Muppet icon, Oz found time to direct some top-notch comedies: 1988’s “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” 1991’s “What About Bob?” and 1999’s “Bowfinger.” Not to mention “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984) and “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986).
His new movie, “Death at a Funeral,” is a comedy about what happens when you mix uptight British mourners, potent hallucinogens and blackmail. The film happily marks a return to form for Oz, who flew under the radar for a couple of years after his ill-fated 2004 remake of “The Stepford Wives.”
Q: OK. CGI Yoda: pro or con?
A: It had to happen. Because, first of all, it’s a different time. But also George [Lucas] had to do action sequences, and there’s no other way. I was totally supportive of it. If he didn’t do that, he couldn’t be true to his story. The actual character, in the first three movies, was very tough to do, very hellish. He can’t go out and jump and fight.
Q: So how do you feel about those first three old movies, when you go back and watch them now? Do they feel hokey?
A: What people don’t understand is that George fashioned those movies on an old series called “Flash Gordon.” And I used to see those, and the acting was not great, the effects were not great. But people always talk about the acting not being great in “Star Wars.” If you had fabulous actors, you wouldn’t have the fun. That’s not what it’s about. You can’t have a blast, a fun big movie, if you’re bogged down with the deep emotion of acting.
Q: Do the actors in your movies always bug you to do Muppet voices for them?
A: Yeah. But if people ask me to do voices on set, I say no – I won’t do them until the very last day. I’m not an easy lay! I’m not a cheap date. If I do the voices, they’ll take it easy. I want them to work hard. And so they know they’re not gonna hear the voices until the very last day.
Q: How do you feel about the direction “Sesame Street” has gone in, from the early days when you and Jim Henson worked on it?
A: It’s just become a kids show, instead of a hip show. I’ve told them that, so many times – there’s nothing I can do. I’ve given a master class in that stuff, but they don’t get it. They’re very nice people, and there are some really gifted people there. But the show was begun by people who were actually performers and actors.
The business now, it’s mainly about people who are more executive, and people who come from television, and there’s a difference, I think. I don’t often watch the show, but I did a little bit, to see how it’s going, and it’s become a little kiddie show, and it’s very sad. It was never like that with Jim and I, and everyone else back then. We always f – – – ed around, and did it for ourselves, and that’s changed. I probably should be politic and diplomatic – but I’m not.
Q: I’m going to guess you’re not a fan of their decision to make Snuffleupagus non-imaginary, so he’d be less confusing for children.
A: That’s bulls – – t, if that’s true. When that happens, the curriculum and the teaching aspect have taken over the imagination aspect, and it’s a shame. Everyone’s so f – – – ing politically correct, it’s ridiculous. People are much more discerning than other people think.
Q: Even kids.
A: More so!
Q: Do you think there’s some kind of unifying comedy principle that links fairly disparate movies like “What About Bob,” “Bowfinger” and “Death at a Funeral”?
A: I know this sounds reeeeeeally hifalutin, and really didactic, and come on, Frank, get off your f – – – ing high horse – but: honesty. And I don’t mean honesty in this world, I mean honesty in the world in which the characters live. I mean, “Airplane,” which is hysterical, I think is honest within its world. I try to be honest within the world I create.
Q: You sometimes go years without making a movie. Why?
A: Why do something I don’t believe in? I’m very blessed. If I had a mortgage and had to put my kids through college, I’d be the first one to prostitute myself. I’m very blessed, and I don’t have to.
Q: “Death at a Funeral” was a relatively short, and low-budget, shoot. Was there a lot of pressure involved there?
A: I love pressure. The shoot itself was a frigging delight. But there are other shoots that were not a delight. “What About Bob?” was tremendous tension. I like pressure, I don’t like tension. There were problems between the producer and me, and also Bill [Murray] and Richard [Dreyfuss] didn’t get along. But for me, as a director, that worked well for the characters. Behind the scenes, it was tough, but I was thrilled it worked on-screen.
Q: “Death at a Funeral” is kind of a new genre for you – the British comedy of manners. Are you going to explore some other niches now?
A: I’m looking forward to doing some tough action stuff, or horror stuff. I’ve been successful in comedy, so people give me the best comedy scripts, but they don’t give me the best thriller scripts, because they think I can’t do that, or God knows what. I did “The Score” just to show I’m not a one-trick pony. I love horror. I’m trying to get a script, but it’s so hard.
Q: This might be a touchy subject, but – what happened with “The Stepford Wives”?
A: I f – – – ed up. It was the first time I said yes to a movie that had no script. I saw the movie as a smaller relationship movie. And as it got more and more expensive, I thought, “Geez, maybe I should listen to [the producers] more.” And I didn’t do what I wanted, for the first time in all my movies. That’s where I screwed up.
Q: What did you do to recover after that?
A: I had lost my confidence, and I wanted to do something really small. I went back to my acting coach and audited three classes, to get back to the purity of what I was doing. And then I found this script [for “Death at a Funeral”] and I said, “Absolutely.” So I went back to what I love doing.
Born: Hereford, England
Unsung role: He played the Swedish Chef’s human hands on “The Muppet Show”
Misconception: He’s not Fozzie Bear’s namesake. Fozzie was named for Faz Fazakis, who invented a device enabling Fozzie to wiggle his ears
Cameo: Appears as a corrections officer in “The Blues Brothers”
On-set clash: While directing 2001’s “The Score,” Oz tangled with Marlon Brando, who reportedly told him, “I bet you wish I was a puppet so you could stick your hand up my a – – and make me do what you want.”
HOT SEAT – FRANK OZ