A Hidden Life
It’s one of the year’s best and most distinctive movies, though sure to be divisive, even alienating for some viewers, in the manner of nearly…
“You could get lost in a sky like that,” marvels Gonzo (Dave Goelz) in James Frawley’s 1979 classic, “The Muppet Movie.” He and his friends have become halted in their journey toward pursuing stardom in Hollywood, forcing them to spend the night around a campfire perched in the middle of nowhere. As Kermit (Jim Henson) and the gang hang their heads in sorrow, Gonzo’s gaze remains skyward, prompting him to sing one of the many masterful songs on the soundtrack penned by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher.
Every bit as wistful and profound as the film’s most iconic number, “Rainbow Connection,” Gonzo’s bittersweet ballad, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” not only illuminates the depths of the character’s soul—pondering where he truly belongs—but also echoes the innermost feelings of the man who performed him. In the end credit roll, Goelz is the only major puppeteer credited among the Muppet designers, since that was the job for which he was originally hired full-time by Henson just five years prior. The 1976 debut of “The Muppet Show” marked Goelz’s promotion to principal performer with his role as Gonzo, the furry blue misfit who grew to become one of the most beloved and versatile of all the Muppet creations.
Four decades after its theatrical debut, the Muppets’ first big screen vehicle hasn’t lost an ounce of its charm, hilarity, wonder or poignance. In his enthusiastic review on “Sneak Previews,” Roger Ebert hailed the technological breakthrough of Kermit riding a bicycle as “one of the great moments in cinema,” likening it to the first time Jolson sang or Garbo laughed. Though the life Henson and his team brought to their ingeniously designed creatures is the very definition of movie magic, it is its underlying humanity that has made it resonate so deeply throughout the subsequent generations.
In Frank Oz’s sublime documentary, “Muppet Guys Talking,” released exclusively online last year, Goelz joined four of his longtime colleagues, including the late Jerry Nelson (a.k.a. Gonzo’s fondest fowl, Camilla), for an unforgettable conversation about what made working with Henson such a liberating and life-altering experience. Now the late Muppet creator’s daughter, Lisa Henson, is executive producing an enormously ambitious ten-part series that serves as a prequel to her father’s stunning 1982 fantasy, “The Dark Crystal.” Goelz will be among the all-star cast in “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” which arrives on Netflix at the end of next month.
With “The Muppet Movie” returning to theaters on July 25th & 30th in honor of its 40th anniversary, courtesy of Fathom Events, Goelz spoke at length with RogerEbert.com about the spiritual and philosophical power of the Muppets, his excitement about revisiting the world of “The Dark Crystal,” and why Brian Henson’s 1992 holiday perennial, “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” is his favorite Muppet picture, while sharing a wealth of priceless stories in between.
Your observation in “Muppet Guys Talking” that the Muppets celebrate “the degree to which we are all lost” caused the word “lost” to leap out at me every time it’s mentioned in “The Muppet Movie” upon revisiting it, from the running gag about Hare Krishna to the fact that Zoot can’t remember his own name.
I was certainly lost at the time. I was just beginning as a puppeteer, and I found myself in the thick of Hollywood working with legends. My colleagues were also legends to me, and I was like, “I don’t even have a right to be here. What am I doing in the middle of this crowd?”
Did that feeling of being an outsider inform your approach to playing characters like Gonzo, particularly when he sings “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday”?
It probably did inform my characters. I think it’s true for all performers that each character comes from a part of yourself. You just isolate that part, amplify it and then try to make it lovable, and in my case, that’s what I tried to do. All credit for that song has to go to Paul Williams because he started working on it when he was writing music for the movie. It was a speculative song that he wrote because he related to Gonzo. Paul saw Gonzo as a flightless bird, and that struck him as poignant somehow. When we started making the movie, I was told that Paul had written the most amazing song for Gonzo, and that they would be writing it into the film. He played it for me, and it was just a profound, lovely song. It didn’t have an on-the-nose meaning, but it touched on universal themes like old friends who’ve just met. It’s one of my favorite scenes in my whole career, and that’s just because Paul felt it and wrote it.
Was this the first glimmer of Gonzo’s soulfulness?
It may have been the earliest. The same year that “The Muppet Movie” was released, there was an episode of “The Muppet Show” where Gonzo decided to leave his friends and go to New Delhi to become a movie star. That was intended by Jim and the writers to be a serious moment, and it scared me. I was afraid to perform it because I was escaping into these characters in this funny, absurd world, and to actually do something that would take true pathos was frightening to me. It felt like it was too revelatory, and I was very uncertain when we recorded it.
That episode, along with Paul’s song, were the beginning of Gonzo’s soulful side, and it took many years to fully bloom, which happened on “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Jerry Juhl had Gonzo play Charles Dickens and I got to read that incredible narrative prose. That’s been the most exciting arc for Gonzo over the years. He started out as insecure, then he became crazy and bombastic and excited about everything, and then he became soulful. What a role like that gives you as a performer is a collection of moods to play. You can have Gonzo be any of those three things now because they’ve all been developed.
Your ability to move Gonzo’s eyelids plays an essential role in conveying his various emotions, an upgrade from the original puppet with eyes fixed in a sad expression.
That’s right. After the first season of “The Muppet Show,” they were really after me to bring more energy to Gonzo—more excitement and passion for his stupid acts—and I said, “Well, it’s really hard because he looks so downcast.” Incorporating a new eye mechanism solved that problem, and the actual mechanism that I built was a copy of the one that was used for Big Bird. It’s a linkage between the two eyes. You move one eyelid, and the other eyelid moves through a mechanical linkage. It’s a fork with a prong riding in the center of the fork, and in looking at the Big Bird mechanism, it made me realize that I could use the same concept for Gonzo.
The access of their eyelid movement is not parallel. It doesn’t run through both eyes, it’s angled so that their eyes open to the sides, so I literally just built the same kind of mechanism for Gonzo because it was exactly what was needed. At some point, we did a fan convention for the 25th anniversary of “The Muppet Show.” Gonzo was on “The Today Show” with Kermit and Maria Shriver, and the mechanism failed. When I tried to open the eyes, only one of them opened and it created this crazy expression right on air. Kermit noticed this and said, “What’s wrong with your eyes?”, and it turned out to be a really funny moment. I contended that the Muppets still look good after all these years because they continue to have work done.
I imagine many of your most inspired on camera moments are the result of improv.
Oh yeah. [laughs] It has to be done with a certain amount of looseness.
Jim Frawley was just from a different culture. He had done “The Monkees” on television, among other things, and he did a great job on the movie, though but I didn’t get to know him closely. Jim was producing, so I think he had a lot of say in how the movie was shot. That kept our tone on track. From my point of view, it was exciting to be working in sunshine after a couple years in rainy London. That was enough for all of us. We were just so happy to be out there in Los Angeles, driving around in the sunshine, so the set was very friendly. It was a nice crew.
Among the film’s multitude of guest stars, whom would you cite as the most memorable?
In those days, our guest stars tended to be very established legends. Today, we have so many celebrities that we work with all age groups, including people who just got famous as well as stars who have been around longer, but generally I’d say the guest stars we have today are much younger than the ones we had in those days. It was a narrower field of celebrities, and they tended to be legends like Bob Hope. Edgar Bergen was such a sweet man. It was a joy to have him on the show, and then to have him back in the movie. In fact, he happened to die while we were shooting, and his wife asked Jim to come speak at his memorial in Beverly Hills. A little group of us went over there and Jerry Juhl had written some nice remarks for Kermit. Jim got up and, with Kermit, said, “I just want to pay tribute to Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and what they did for our people.” [laughs] It’s such a lovely line.
I was kind of anxious about working with Richard Pryor because I was very aware of the pain and frustration and anger in his work. But he was very businesslike when we did our little scene together. We got finished with it, he was fine and I didn’t get hurt, so that was nice. It was just such a surreal experience for me. I literally grew up five miles from the studio where we shot the movie, and five years before, I had nothing to do with any of this. I was working at a drawing board in Silicon Valley, designing logic comparators, and then five years later, we’re on the world’s most popular television show, we’re making a movie, we’ve had a stream of legends on the show and now in the movie, and I couldn’t believe it.
The viewer is able to share in the Muppets’ surreal adventure when they break the fourth wall, inviting us to be in on their jokes and share in their epiphanies.
Jerry Juhl wrote that screenplay and Jerry had been with Jim since almost the beginning. Jim worked with his wife Jane, at first. They weren’t even married at the time they started their career, and after she left, he brought in Jerry Juhl, followed by Don Sahlin. Don was a great puppet maker and Jerry was a puppeteer and writer. Puppeteering scared him so much that he drifted over into writing because he didn’t really want to perform anymore. Then Frank Oz came in, so the four of them were the Muppets for a long time—those four guys and a secretary. So when Jerry wrote this movie, he was really writing about the whole journey that he had watched Jim take. I loved that he did the movie that way, and I’m sure he did that with Jim’s full cooperation. It was a great way to not only express Kermit’s journey, but the one that Jim took in gathering his collaborators.
You’re correct in that the film was a love letter from someone who watched “The Muppets” as a little boy. He didn’t know the canon as well, and I don’t think it came off as well as “The Muppet Movie” by any means. I wouldn’t put them on the same level.
Me neither. I agree with you that “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is a perfect film, in part because of Gonzo’s chemistry with Rizzo the Rat (Steve Whitmire), not only in the film, but on the uproarious commentary track.
Muppet performers have historically formed into pairs. Jim and Frank were the originals, and their chemistry together was astonishing. If you watch Ernie and Bert segments, Ernie will say something that is a little bit provocative, and then Jim will pause, waiting for Frank to respond. They somehow were able to keep that dialogue even and trust that the other guy was going to jump in with the right thing. They never talked over each other, and it was just elegant the way that they performed. Then Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt became a duo and they had the same kind of chemistry when they did the Two-Headed Monster on “Sesame Street.” They worked together on a lot of things, and they were just natural partners. Jerry, a cool, laid-back hipster, and crazy, wild Richard Hunt somehow were able to work together.
So then Steve and I started to develop that, and it really came to fruition when we did “Fraggle Rock.” We realized that we could say a couple of key words to each other and know exactly what we were suggesting. We hardly had to speak, we just were on the same wavelength and had so much fun doing Wembley and Boober together. Their neuroses would mesh really nicely. One day, I was trying to have Traveling Matt come back into the Rock through the hole in Doc’s workshop, and he got his backpack stuck. I suddenly thought of how to make a funny entrance, because with Matt, clumsiness was always a factor. I always tried to find a new way for him to be clumsy, and then during the show, for him to get clumsier and clumsier to make it interesting.
Steve was just leaving—he was done for the day—and he was at the door when I said, “Steve, can you come back for a second?” I had asked for Matt’s legs, and all I had to say to Steve was, “I want Matt to get stuck and then get released and go over frontwards.” So Steve was there with the legs, which weren’t even attached to the body. Matt burst through, took a forward dive, his feet came over, and then he jumped up, stood on his feet and said, “I’m alright!” Steve could do that on the first take because he’s a master puppeteer, and he just knew exactly what I was thinking of. We did two takes, and then went on home. That’s the sort of chemistry that is really, really fun. I feel that now with Matt Vogel and David Rugman. Those are two of the amazing guys performing with us today.
Were there certain aspects of Jim that Brian emulated when directing “The Muppet Christmas Carol”?
Well, Brian is a different guy, and all of the directors we’ve had are different from Jim. They’re just different people, but having said that, I had a lot of fun making Brian laugh on the set. It was a weird time frame because his father had recently died, and he was going to direct a feature for the first time. It had to be so hard, and he really rose to it. He did a masterful job on “Christmas Carol” and “Muppet Treasure Island.” I just thought it was amazing. His emphasis was a little different from Jim’s. Jim’s focus was primarily visual and Brian’s was a little more on the script, so he worked a long time in ADR replacing dialogue and tweaking lines. There was much more prose for those films than what I had done with Jim, but I thought that Brian was really faithful to the spirit of the enterprise, and he made my two favorite Muppet films. “Christmas Carol” is at the top of the list, and “Treasure Island” is right underneath it.
When I watch the cast sing “The Love We Found” at the end of “Christmas Carol,” it makes me cry every time because it feels as if they are singing about Jim and the group he brought together.
Some of those songs certainly apply to our group. They were written for the movie, but they happen to function for our group too. I will also say that I cannot watch “Christmas Carol” without crying. I haven’t been able to do it, and I think it’s because of the fact that I can relate to the redemption story. The genius of Dickens was that he made the ghosts—this is off-the-nose writing—in such a way that you could perceive them as ghosts that come to Scrooge, or as a creation of Scrooge in his dreams. I like to see it as the latter, with Scrooge contemplating where his behavior will lead, and ultimately creating his own redemption by suddenly realizing what he was doing in the world. The dream sequences with Scrooge and the ghosts culminate with him wiping the snow off the gravestone and finding his name there. His life has played out, he’s miserable and forgotten, and he’s added nothing to the world. His dream has made that clear to him, and he wakes up determined to change everything. God, it’s just powerful and empowering, as well as a great piece of literature.
I love how the words “chains” and “change” blend together in the “Marley & Marley” number, articulating the two options for Scrooge’s future
Oh my god, yeah! Well that’s Paul Williams as a lyricist. He is just a brilliant, eloquent person. If you ever get the chance to see him host an event, go there because he’s so much fun to listen to.
The film is also remarkable in how it never allows the comedy to undermine the seriousness of the Dickens text.
I agree, and how it works is a mystery. It’s so hard to find that balance. I’ve read that the people at the Charles Dickens Museum in London consider “The Muppet Christmas Carol” to be the best film rendition of A Christmas Carol. The only thing that I can speculate about as to why is that the injection of humor releases your guard and allows you to cry. If there’s a poignant moment and you’re not quite feeling it, or you’re not quite ready to release your emotions, when something funny happens, it sort of opens the floodgates, and the next thing you know, you’re sobbing. Maybe the way that humor was injected into the piece strengthened it.
I was deeply moved during your “Muppet Guys Talking” interview when you observed how working with this creative group has been “a spiritual experience.”
That thought first occurred to me at Jim’s memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It was packed with five thousand people, and then there were a thousand more people outside in the rain listening to the service on speakers. The workshop had spent the whole week building hundreds and hundreds of butterflies, and they were passed out at the door where people came in, so at any given moment, there were butterflies hovering above the heads of everyone in attendance. It beautifully expressed the lightness of Jim’s spirit, and it was so moving. Every time I looked into the crowd, I was overcome. Near the end of the ceremony, all the performers were in the center of the space, and I looked out at this round window at the opposite end of the church. The window was predominantly blue, and in the emotional state of my vision, it looked like the planet. I had been working with them for 17 years, and that was the moment when I realized, “This whole thing has been a spiritual journey.”
The fact that the rainbow at the end of “The Muppet Movie” materializes after a sudden catastrophe and is welcomed with the line, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending,” is all the more poignant in light of Henson’s passing. To me, Henson is the rainbow, and those he has touched continue to bask in the warmth of his uniting light.
You’re so right. It’s a powerful symbol, and there are so many ways you can interpret it. One way is that when everything goes wrong, just trust in the universe. Just trust that if you keep carrying on, your luck will change. Other people could see it as someone up there looking out for us. It’s a symbol that’s just off-the-nose enough to be interpreted in many, many ways, and in art, that’s hard to do. I just love any art that has that kind of openness. It’s like an invitation for the viewer to participate.
You also mentioned in the MGT interview that your years with the Muppets led you to have a family. Was this a result of how the work dealt with real emotions in a way that was therapeutic?
Your question is a really good one, and you’re right. It certainly was therapeutic to me, and it led me to therapy when I was about 40. It was a very healing place to work because it enabled you to work out your own feelings. All artists speak for us, and that applies to any kind of art, whether it’s dance or painting, anything. These people are out there saying things that they are compelled to say, working out their own issues through their own material. We all have issues that are universal, so when we recognize—even unconsciously—our own issues being expressed by an artist, we find ourselves a little purged, a little relieved that our issue has gotten out there, and a lot of times, we’re not even aware of it. I think that’s what’s going on. It’s certainly what was going on for me when I was doing the work. It was allowing me the chance to express my issues, and I think that resonates with the audience in our case because there is an underpinning of philosophy in our work. People respond to it often without knowing why.
How does the upcoming Netflix series, “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance,” go about capturing the essence of Henson’s artistry in the original film, which I can attest is jaw-dropping in 70mm?
The show is benefitting from the institutional memory of how to make a fantasy like that and how to film all the characters. The original movie took five years to make, and was in the development stage for around three years. It was a process of experimentation learning how to build the characters for that movie, and then a lengthy process of building sets. Brian Froud designed everything in the movie, so it was a massive project the first time out. This time, now that we already have the Creature Shop going, they’ve built many more puppets because there are Gelflings populating the series. They did it in five months, then flew everything over to London. It was just a stunning achievement. Before the filming started, I saw all these characters under construction, and it was being done more or less the same as it was the first time.
The set is so impressive, as is the way that the characters are performed and shot. Alice Dinnean has burst into the stratosphere with her performance as Brea in the series. She really found her world, and did a great job. The cast also includes other performers who have come up behind us in the British world of puppeteering, and they are just unbelievable. Whereas there were only two Gelflings in the original film, the series has about 50 or 60 of them, and they come from seven different Gelfling tribes. Some of them are in caves and have bigger eyes, while others live underwater and have adaptations to help them swim, and so forth.
It’s a massive undertaking, of course, and Brian has designed everything in the series as well. God, it’s exciting. I should also note that director Louis Letterier and his DP, Erik Wilson, actually shot the show. These guys not only lit and directed it, but they were working handheld cameras for the entire series, so it is very dynamic. Of course, there are some crane shots and some CG work in it for things that would be hard to do in puppeteering, but most of it is handheld and in-camera. I told Lisa that Jim would be so proud with what she’s done with it.
Your character credited as Baffi in the series resembles Fizzgig, the adorable fur ball that you played in the original film. What meaning does that character hold for you?
Almost nothing. [laughs] It’s paradoxical. If you think about it, he has basically that one joke onscreen where he’s fluffy and cute, he rolls and he hops, and then all of a sudden, this enormous, vicious mouth appears. It’s just a sight gag, and there’s no real character development for a role like that. It’s really easy. From my standpoint, it was almost inconsequential, but I’m happy to hear that it works in the film and that audiences like it.
What makes Fizzgig a memorable character is the way in which you bring him so vividly to life with every quiver and snarl. That is the true magic of the Muppets. The voice is only a fragment of the performance.
It’s the weirdest thing when people assume that, as a puppeteer, you are only responsible for the voice. People treat it as though it’s animation—somebody does the voice and somebody else animated it—but it’s not, it’s a full performance. It’s all in one. Once in a while, we change the voice afterwards so it doesn’t sound like the Muppet people. Fizzgig was a simple thing to perform, really easy and fun. I actually had more fun playing the Garthim Master because I had a lot of interior life for him. I’m not sure it comes across on the screen, but I always thought of him as an obtuse general. He’s not too bright, but he somehow became a general, and for him, I referenced my short career in the military before I became a conscientious objector.
The military always struck me as a cartoon, a caricature of society. It has the same hierarchy that we have in the regular world, but it was a caricature of it. When the general comes in to review the troops, you stand in formation with about 400 people, and he drives by in a jeep, standing up to look at the soldiers. I don’t know what the hell he’s supposed to be seeing, it’s just a bunch of guys standing there, but it’s a caricature of when I worked at Hewlett-Packard, and the bosses came through. Everyone gets ready—you tidy up your area, and prepare to show what you’ve been working on—and all the guys did was just walk down the corridor. It’s the same as in the military, where it’s taken to such a silly extreme. Standing up in a jeep! [laughs] I just had a lot of fun imagining that character. Of course, we always ad-libbed between takes, and we had so much fun ad-libbing with them because they were really reprehensible characters.
The dinner that the Skeksis indulge in together is hilarious in its nauseating detail.
Duncan Kenworthy, our associate producer, was just off-camera winding up these little toys that he had dressed to look like crawlies, which were a delicacy for the Skeksis. They loved to catch one of the crawlies when it ran down the table so they could throw it in their mouth and eat it. I’ll never forget Duncan scurrying around, setting up crawlies and running them through the shot. When the Skeksis ate, they drooled a lot, so we had K-Y jelly dripping off their lips and teeth, and Duncan was there applying more KY to them. It was all silly, but we had a lot of fun while we were shooting. Anytime you worked on something with Jim, you had fun.
After hearing the stories in “Muppet Guys Talking” about how the hot air balloon ride and the climb up the drain pipe were shot in the second Muppet movie, I am convinced that Henson’s 1981 musical, “The Great Muppet Caper,” is one of the most astonishing technical feats in cinema.
Jim was always trying to push the art of puppetry beyond what it did before. They shot the Piggy water number in “Caper” for at least a week. They built the swimming pool above ground on a stage, and Frank would be in there, wearing weighted shoes. There was a guy underwater with air for Frank, and there was somebody else pushing air through Piggy’s nostrils so that bubbles would come out of her nose in the underwater shots. In the “First Time it Happens” number, Jim did a wonderful swish-pan, a tilt downward on Piggy when she started to dance. It covered a cut so you saw the hand puppet of Piggy at the top, and then the camera swished downward and landed on her feet, which were really tap dancing. It allowed a real dancer to actually dance with her feet, wearing the costume of Piggy’s feet and dress. It was that simple, and the cut works brilliantly, yet another example of Jim finding a way to do something new.
While we were shooting the darkroom scene where Gonzo is developing the photograph, he had to reach out and focus the enlarger. Since there was no digital wire removal at that time, we tried to get the arm wire at the bottom of the frame. In this case, I really needed to reach up high, so I built a little notch in the baseboard of the enlarger, and if I worked with great precision, I could keep Gonzo’s arm wire behind the vertical shaft that was supporting the enlarger. Jim was delighted that I was able to set it up so I could move at just the right angle, preventing the viewer from seeing the arm wire. Then I could rotate the arm wire and make it look like Gonzo’s hand was focusing the enlarger. That was a little thing that I worked out onset, and Jim was so tickled. He just loved incorporating an innovative use of puppeteering.
The driving scenes are easy to take for granted since it really appears as if the Muppets are in command of their vehicles.
In “The Muppet Movie,” I remember the driver was tucked way back in the Studebaker. There was a place for a guy to steer from, and he was driving using a monitor, with a camera in the front nose of the Studebaker that could see ahead. He was driving from that image because he couldn’t see anything else, so we were always in danger of him smashing into something, but luckily, it didn’t happen. In “Caper,” Beauregard is driving a little Austin taxi that crashes right through the front door of the hotel. We recorded the exterior shot on a real street in London, with Jim, Frank and I on the back floor of the car. The seats had been taken out of the Austin, so we were sitting on apple boxes and moving blankets. At the wheel was a stunt driver wearing a Beauregard costume, looking out of Beauregard’s mouth.
The idea was that we were going to go through this door, which had maybe three inches clearance on either side. It was a balsa wood door, but it was in a building with real stone pillars on either side of it. The driver was going to hit that at about 20 miles an hour, and we were back there joking about what happens if he hits one side or the other. I think we did just one take of that, and we couldn’t see what was going on, aside from looking at monitors with our characters on them. We were just thinking, “I hope he hits it. He’s going pretty fast.” [laughs] But Jim’s luck held. Somehow he would try these things and they’d work. Gonzo’s stunt of flying with the balloons in “The Muppet Movie” was easy for me. There was a radio-controlled Gonzo hanging from the balloons, which were supported by a cable, and since we couldn’t remove the cable, we had to make it as slim as possible. I was working Gonzo’s mouth and head by radio control.
The story of filming the opening sequence in “Caper” is especially terrifying, with the two helicopters circling Kermit, Fozzie and Gonzo in the hot air balloon.
It was crazy. We did it for a week, out in Albuquerque. One helicopter had a sling underneath it with a camera operator, and the second helicopter had Jim, Frank and I inside doing scripted dialogue. There was also a sound guy with a Nagra recorder in our helicopter, and we were working our characters in the balloon by radio control, so their heads and mouths would move as they went through the dialogue. The only trouble we got into was that the camera operator had to shoot with a long lens so that the helicopter wash wouldn’t blow the balloon away. They had to be far enough away in order to not effect the balloon, and with that long lens, there was a certain amount of vibration transmitted down from the helicopter to the cameraman’s sling that caused a lot of the shots to be unusable. But we had a great time in Albuquerque. [laughs] The altitudes were high, the margaritas were strong, every dinner was an experience, and then in the morning, we would go back up into the helicopter.
I like how the stakes are raised in the third Muppet movie, Frank Oz’s 1984 “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” forcing the characters to pound the pavement, rather than promptly receive rich and famous contracts upon arriving in the Big Apple.
The overall theatrical sensibility of it, with the human characters playing that youthful naiveté, was not quite as convincing to me. I think the film is in a different category, but that said, there was a lot of innovative stuff in it. Jim directed the rats cooking in the kitchen. That was his own little sequence that he brought in, and he worked with Faz Fazakas to build the mechanisms for all those things. It was so cute and so clever.
But the performance part of it that I remember most was when Kermit gets separated from the gang and winds up working in an ad agency. All the frogs that he’s working with sound like impressions of Kermit, and we were teasing Jim with it, because when we’d talk to him, he’d often go, “Hmmm, I don’t know, Dave, what do you think?” So as the frogs, we exaggerated our syllables while saying, “Hmmm,” between lines. It was an extended satire of Jim’s way of speaking, and he loved it. He was like, “That’s great!” [laughs] That’s my favorite sequence in that movie because I just loved sending up Jim.
Among your other show-stopping roles is Sir Didymus, the canine knight in Henson’s 1986 fantasy, “Labyrinth.”
That was a weird experience. The vibe on the set was different because we had different key people on that movie, and it wasn’t as much fun on the floor. The guys who were running the set were more serious, so it didn’t allow for as much play. I played one of the Fireys, and there was a team of puppeteers performing each of those creatures. Our second unit director was very, very serious, and I had this goofy character who could turn his lower jaw off to the side. When the second AD would start counting down, he’d be like, “Okay, five, four, three,” and I would tease him by having my guy say, “I bit my cheek!” It would just break everybody up, and for us, it’s that kind of horseplay that adds energy to the scene and to everybody. It drove the AD nuts. He just hated the fact that I constantly had some little interruption just before we shot. [laughs]
As for Didymus, I had a little team of about four other people working the character. We rehearsed that three-page scene he has at the bridge for about a week, breaking it down syllable by syllable, so that we knew exactly what everybody had to do for each line. We’re performing the character’s expressions with cables, and a lever is attached to each cable, so if Didymus has to sneer, we have to rehearse precisely when to pull the correct lever. We just worked it out, and then got comfortable with it to the point where we could ad lib too, which is true of all of those complex characters, like the Skeksis, that had four to six people operating them. You could ad lib with them after a couple of weeks. But anyway, after we were really well-rehearsed on the bridge scene, I went down to the High Street and bought a folding beach chair so I’d be comfortable when I was working. I only had so much energy and I wanted it all to go on the screen. I don’t want to devote some energy to the fact that my leg hurts because I’m kneeling on an apple box.
I showed up onset with the chair as well as a music stand, which had my three pages on it. I had them memorized, but I don’t trust my memory. You can get so distracted with all the other things you’re thinking about that you forget what you’re going to say. So I had everything set up, and the AD was making fun of me. He was like, “What else do you need here? How about a margarita?” But I did three takes on that little scene, all three pages done in a take each. The first take was about ninety percent good, the second take was only about ten percent good, the third take was ninety percent good, and if you add it all up, you have the whole performance. I folded up my chair and my music stand, and walked away. At the wrap party, the AD came to me and said, “I know I was teasing you, but that was really amazing. You came in, just nailed it and left.” A lot of times you’ll do ten, fifteen, twenty takes to try to get it all working, and so three takes was a big deal. I loved the fact that he came up to me and said that.
When I spoke with Frank Oz and Victoria Labalme about “Muppet Guys Talking,” they discussed how Jim’s philosophy and the working environment he created could be applied to so many different professions and areas of life.
We were all hugely influenced by Jim. He had an effect on how Frank works as a director on his films. The difference between Frank directing “Muppets Take Manhattan” and directing “Muppet Guys Talking” is night and day. He was insecure on his first feature. The whole idea of placing the camera and composing shots was new to him. He had always thought about material and character interactions, and now he had to figure out where the camera goes. He was struggling with all that and having a hard time. We all hated him because he kept us after work to try to figure out how to shoot things, and now, he is the most collaborative guy as a director. With “Muppet Guys Talking,” we had weekly conference calls that we all participated in where we discussed how to create the poster and logo, how to publicize the movie and how it would be released. We all had a big part in that and Frank was just so gracious and so generous in including everybody and really benefiting from everybody’s point of view. This was the end result of Jim’s influence on Frank.
For those who signed up for the Below Stage Pass group on the MGT site, that film has been the gift that keeps on giving, enabling Muppet fans around the world to connect with each other via Facebook.
I think ultimately what is being spread is the ethos that Jim had, his philosophy. It’s about everybody having something to contribute. He wants everybody to win, and there’s an idealism underneath all that—the respect for diversity and the relishing in it. All of those things are really, really important and they are underneath all of our work. It influenced all of us and it changed my life profoundly. There is a spiritual component that we got from Jim through osmosis. He didn’t ever talk about it, he just did it. I was so lucky to meet that guy, and we all feel that way. Frank feels that way. Jim gave him his career as a director.
His worldview is the antithesis to the divided times we live in now.
We’re aware of that and are intent on creating something relevant for the world as it is now. When “The Muppet Show” got popular, it was just after Vietnam and Nixon, and people were just so hungry for some innocence and joy, and I think we have that now, too.
It felt entirely fitting when you and Frank played the guards of the subconscious in my favorite Pixar movie, Pete Docter’s 2015 “Inside Out,” since I’m convinced the Muppets reside within the subconscious of Pixar when they craft entertainment that appeals to all ages.
Almost everybody who works there was inspired by the Muppets, and through CGI, they’ve found a way to do similar work. The feeling in a Pixar movie is not the same as the feeling in our movies—we have more whack jobs around—but that said, you have characters like Mr. Potato Head in “Toy Story,” and there’s a lot of texture in their movies too. When we go to Pixar, we are always welcomed. They love our body of work, and we love what they’re doing as well.
For anyone tasked with writing for the Muppets, would you say it is imperative that they study the work of Jerry Juhl and the foundation that he built for each character?
Yes, but I think it’s very hard. It’s one thing to be a fan and love the Muppets, and it’s quite another thing to really know the canon and really know all the different characters and what their relationships are, and actually be able to write something good. Those are two different things. You can learn something without having any idea how to do it. [laughs] I cannot say enough about Jerry. He knew the Muppet canon and he knew everybody involved. He and I were very close friends and over the years, he has watched me grow as a performer and he watched me grow through therapy, change my life and really become transformed by it. It opened up my life in a huge way. He saw all of that stuff, and again, without ever talking about it, he just incorporated those things into Gonzo. He didn’t want to know too much about why he did things, he wanted it to just come to him organically. He knew enough about me to start adding the soulfulness to Gonzo.
Jerry was just a rich pot of honey. We would have many, many dinners together because we loved food and loved cooking. He relished life and he relished teasing people—and was very subtle about it. There was only one character in “Fraggle Rock” who ever left the Rock, and that was Traveling Matt. Every week, we’d go out for half a day with a remote crew and shoot a segment. I was actually able to make suggestions for Jerry to help make the character grow. Matt began by misunderstanding things oftentimes, and after that, I added clumsiness because I thought, “It’s very hard to try to do a scene where Matt talks to a parking meter and thinks it’s alive, and make it funny.” It sounded very frustrating, so I made him to be an inept, clumsy explorer. Then I’d get further along with it and I’d say, “Jerry, how about we build denial into Matt? When he gets thrown out of a store, his postcard will say, ‘I decided to leave.’ You’ll hear his narration saying that as you see him being lifted up and thrown out of the store.”
He had those three flaws—intellectual, emotional and physical—and it made him so much fun to work with. I was always looking for ways to get those things in, and Jerry was a great collaborator. There was also a devious side to him. He loved tormenting me, so he would write Traveling Matt into the city dump, sitting on top of a pile of garbage. Jerry never came out to a shoot. He’d stay in his office, and I’d know that he was there typing on some other script. He’d look at his watch and say, “It’s 10:30. I bet Dave is being buried in garbage right now.” Then he’d smile to himself and go back to work. That’s how evil this guy was. [laughs] Of course, I’d have garbage piled on top of me so that Matt would be sitting on top of it. Jerry also wrote me into a chicken coop with about a dozen chickens that was maybe seven or eight feet square. I was lying down, and it smelled just awful. The cameraman was in there with me, and the two of us worked out the shot to figure out how to cover the action. It was a disgusting place to be. I went back to tell Jerry about it, and I saw the little smile on his face.
The next week, Jerry wrote me back into the same zoo, and now I was in a small pen with a 700-pound sow. The zookeeper said, “If she starts to roll toward you, just get out or you’ll get crushed.” When Matt talks to her, you don’t know what she’s going to do. She could attack me for all I know. Then Jerry found out that I didn’t like to go on roller coasters, so guess where Traveling Matt went? On a huge roller coaster, of course, and I had to ride it thirteen times to get all the shots. I sat next to Matt with a fake arm on the seat behind him, and I had to look confident and happy, as if I were enjoying the ride, while Matt had to look terrified. That night, I came back to the studio, went up to Jerry and said, “I like roller coasters now.” [laughs] Those were the kind of pranks that would go on, and he did them in such a loving way. It was really like someone putting too much pickle relish on your hot dog.
That reminds me of your stories about how Don Sahlin would rig explosions on your desk, causing piles of paper to fly into the air. This sort of playfulness must’ve upped your game by keeping you on your toes, ribbing each other like family members.
You’re absolutely right, and it does make the work better. Having visitors in the studio makes the work better. If there are kids there, we always go over and talk to them as the characters. We’ll shut off the cameras between takes, and get a dialogue going with them. It’s about making an immersive environment where everybody in the room feels like they are participating, and they are. Jim would take suggestions from anybody in the studio. The janitor or the prop man could stop Jim and say, “Hey, I have an idea. What if Fozzie did this?” And Jim would always stop, listen, consider it carefully and have a conversation about it. Then he’d decide whether to use the idea or not, but the person felt included. If Jim thought it was a good idea, he would use it, and so everybody in the room was invested. I think that feeling gets on the screen.
What’s weird is that among the people who work on the “Muppet Show” characters for Disney, only two of us actually worked with Jim. The others were kids at home watching us, but that underlying philosophy that I always talk about soaked through the screen and became infused in them. They come in so respectful of the body of work, and they are highly protective of the characters. They are totally committed to making sure that the characters are respected and portrayed faithfully. I think that’s another bit of evidence of Jim’s reach and his influence on people. Some little kid sitting at home gets that it’s about more than just being funny.
Well, I can honestly say, Dave, that interviewing you, Frank and Victoria has been the thrill of my professional life. I cannot thank you and your colleagues enough for keeping Jim’s spirit alive.
Matt, I want to thank you too because this has been a lot of fun for me, and I can feel your appreciation for all this. It’s been a great chance to remember Jim and remember the joy of all this work we’ve done. I know that I relish the process by which we work and I can tell that you do too. I will be savoring this conversation.
“The Muppet Movie” will be on over 700 screens courtesy of Fathom Events on Thursday, July 25th, and Tuesday, July 30th. For tickets and showtimes, click here. “The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” will premiere on Netflix on Friday, August 30th, and “Muppet Guys Talking” is available for purchase on its official site.
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