Taking on something so beloved as The Muppets would be a pretty daunting task for anyone, but for co-writer, producer and star of the movie, Jason Segel, he seems to have it pretty much all together. He's loved the Muppets since he was a kid and he knows what he wanted to see in a new Muppet movie without making it too childish or too adult.
We got a chance to visit the set of the new movie in Los Angeles in January and talk with Jason about writing the movie, acting alongside the Muppets and having Amy Adams as the perfect co-star.
Q: Was there a lesser known Muppet that you really insisted on having in this film?
Jason Segel: Oh, man. Well, we're bringing out a lot of the Muppets from the archives. A lot of the guys from the old 'Muppet Show' - some of the obscure performances - make appearances, which I'm really excited about. I can't give too many away, but there are some old favorites of mine. Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphones appear. There are some really cool, weird ones.
Q: It seems like the older Muppet films were geared more toward adults, while the newer ones were more focused just for children. How does this place?
Segel: We're trying to harken back to the original three Muppet movies, The Muppet Movie, Muppets Take Manhattan and The Great Muppet Caper. I think that one of the things the original Muppet movies did amazingly well, and it's what Pixar does really well now, is that they don't condescend to children by feeling they have to dumb things down to the lowest common denominator. And when you don't do that, you get a family film in its truest sense. An entire family can sit and watch and enjoy it. The worst equivalent is 'Barney the Dinosaur' where parents are having to sit there while their kids watch this and the parents want to blow their brains out, y'know? This, I think, is gonna be the exact opposite. I think parents are going to be laughing as hard as kids are going to be laughing. We have jokes geared toward children and we have jokes that are geared specifically towards adults. It'd go right over a kid's head. It's a lot like what 'The Simpsons' does as well. There's something very special about a whole family being able to sit down and enjoy something together. That was our goal.
Q: How important is music to you in this film, given it played such a large part in some of the earlier Muppet movies?
Segel: We knew it was going to be a musical from the start, all the great Muppet movies are musicals, and when you look back at the great lineage of Muppet music, things like 'Rainbow Connection,' that is not a joke of a song. That is a serious song. If a legitimate musician put that song out they'd win the Grammy. And so we really wanted the music to be great. James Bobin was the perfect choice for this movie because he's been doing 'Flight of the Conchords' and it almost seems like he's been training for this. And then we brought on Bret [McKenzie of 'Flight of the Conchords'] and it's been a perfect union of their styles and the Muppet styles, so I think we're in really good shape.
Q: Is there a lot of breaking the fourth wall, like in the original Muppet movies?
Segel: Yeah, there's some self-aware humor. In the original script there was a lot more but we realized you only need a few of those moments to get that joke. But, yeah, we've got all the original style of Muppet humor. James is a great student of comedy and of the Muppets, and Nick and I are tremendous fans so we just tried to pay homage to some of that amazing work.
Q: Was there a period of adjustment getting your sense of humor and the Muppet team together finding a balance?
Segel: No, I think maybe there was a moment of weariness that I was doing this with a sense of irony. That there was a 'wink, wink' about it, like, 'Oh, cute, R-rated Jason Segel is now going to do the Muppets and make fun of it.' I think as soon as everyone arrived on set and saw that that wasn't the case and that this was coming from a very genuine and true place, we were all on the same team very, very quickly. We all share a love of the Muppets, certainly, but also a love of comedy. It's funny, it's really easy to dismiss -- part of the illusion of the puppetry is that you don't see the puppeteer. And so you forget that these are like amazingly talented people. They are not only puppeteers, but they're actors, and they're singers and they're great comedians in their own right, so it's been an honor to work with this group.
Q: Is there improv in a Muppet movie?
Segel: There is surprisingly. I did not expect that for a minute, but some of the best lines… I mean, these guys know the characters so much better than I could ever hope to. I can imagine what I think the character might say but these guys have been playing them for 10, sometimes 20, 30 years.
Q: Do you find that when you're doing a scene, the puppeteer disappears?
Segel: Yeah, I do. It didn't take long before you're looking right at the puppet. I have a bit of a challenge, as does Amy, in that the puppeteers need monitors so they can see what is going on because puppets don't have working eyes so they are working off monitors. But a lot of times we can see the monitor, so we can see ourselves act. And my acting is like mesmerizing. (Laughter) So, a lot of times I find myself just watching myself act when I should not be doing that.
Q: Did they let you actually work any of the puppets?
Segel: Yeah, I just operated Fozzie about a minute ago. I've done Fozzie, I've done Dr. Teeth and I've done Beaker so far. It's been amazing. That is what knocks your socks off. This is going to sound different than how I mean it, but my hand is inside Fozzie? That's amazing! (Laughter) I never thought that would happen.
Q: I know that you're a big Muppet fan. Hypothetically speaking, have you been able to take home anything from set?
Segel: I really want a lot of stuff that I see around here! They're very protective, certainly, over the puppets but I've gotten a few bits of paraphernalia that I'll save and treasure forever. And some really special photographs, like me with Kermit shooting the breeze. That's the greatest picture I've ever seen. I love it.
Q: Did you come up with Walter yourself?
Segel: Well, Nic Stoller and I did. We wrote the script together. He's my writing partner. Yeah, we invented Walter.
Q: How long did the design process take?
Segel: Well, we did not get to design him physically, because then they would owe us a lot of money! So we came up with him on paper and then they were very clear that we could not be involved in any aspect of the physical design of Walter. But it is pretty crazy when I saw him and I knew that he was born in our brains. It's like Nic and I had a little baby with our brains. Pretty crazy!
Q: How did the script and the concept change since when you first started?
Segel: The concept has stayed the same. Some of the particulars have changed based on finding out more about the Muppets. In the original script, to be honest, I think it's fine to talk about this - I don't see why it wouldn't be. In the original script, I was a ventriloquist and Walter was my puppet. But one of the things you find out that you really don't want to cross the line into mentioning 'puppet.' It becomes very, very complicated, because the Muppets are not puppets. The Muppets are living creatures in this world. So, as soon as I realized that, that made things really complicated to have a puppet versus the Muppets. One thing is a puppet, one thing is a Muppet so we cut that aspect of the story and it actually really simplified the story. So that was one of the things I found out just from just working with these guys.
Q: Were you or are you at all nervous to bring new puppets into this very beloved mix?
Segel: I'm not nervous about Walter one bit. Walter's the sweetest little guy you'll ever meet. He's like a really young Kermit. He's naive and he's sweet and Walter's thing is that he has never met anyone like him. Like I said, you don't use the word puppet, but he's my best friend and we grew up in Small Town U.S.A. -- literally the name of the town -- and he's never seen anything else like him except for the Muppets on television, and so his dream is to go meet the Muppets and kind of, maybe have a family. It really does have tones of a young Kermit.
Q: But there are other new Muppets too, right?
Segel: Oh, there's some other new Muppets, some villainous characters. They're not specifically Muppets. They're not very nice. But they're adorable. They're another great creation. I can't give too much away about them but they're really cool.
Q: Can you talk about infusing this film with references to all of the other films?
Segel: Yeah, we have some mention of the standard rich and famous contract from the original "Muppet Movie." We have a lot of things like that in there, because to me I just really wanted to pay homage to those movies that meant so much to me growing up. And I wanted the experience of parents -- our generation who were kids -- we'll remember those great movies, those great moments, and also being able to have our [generation] introduce our kids to the Muppets. That was my goal.
Q: Why was Amy Adams the right choice for the leading lady?
Segel: I wrote it for her. She was in my mind from the beginning, ever since I saw her in 'Enchanted' and this role is very different. First of all, she's like the best actress alive. To go from 'Enchanted' to 'Doubt' to 'The Fighter' -- this woman can do anything. But, she's able to do this wide-eyed naivete that is not part of her personality in real life. She's one of the most smart, on top of it women I've ever met. My character, her character and Walter are true innocents. And she's able to do that. She channels it through her eyes. And she can sing. She's totally game. She's up for it and she also really gets the joke. She was the perfect choice right from the start. I don't know what I would have done if we hadn't gotten her.
Q: Can you talk a bit about the challenges of doing the movie and the TV show at the same time?
Segel: Yeah, it's been tricky. I'm doing seven day weeks and true seven day weeks. My hard day is Tuesday into Wednesday. I do Tuesday daytime on the TV show, come here and do Tuesday night, night shoot, and then immediately go back to the TV show to do Wednesday day. So, it's a 36-hour-day. I sleep in my trailer or when they drive me to the set. I usually get back to the TV show at 7 AM and they start at 8 AM so I get like a quick little nap-aroo. But it's my dream come true so you can't complain about it. It's what I had to do to get the movie made and it's really tough to be in a bad mood around Kermit. As silly as that sounds, I show up here as tired as I might be and they bring out Kermit and it's 'Hi ho,' and 'Awwww, alright. I'll smile.' And the TV show is a pleasure to be on. We've been doing it for six years now and we've kind of gotten it down to a science. So, they have been incredibly kind to just make this schedule work because they have [excluded] me out of a day of filming every week. And my cast has been very patient about it. They knew that it was my dream. When I told them I was selling this three years ago I think all of us thought, 'Oh, awesome' but we knew it would be an uphill battle to get it made. And then once they said they were going to make it, everyone in my life was like, 'Alright, whatever you need, let's get this thing made.' Because I've had Muppet or Muppet figures in my house or my bedroom since I was a kid.
Q: Was there a moment when you were just completely starstruck?
Segel: Meeting Kermit for the first time was pretty crazy. We did a photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly where it was the first time they arranged all of the puppets. They did something called armature them so they were all in a pose. And I was sitting at this table and I looked around and it was every single one of them. It was like 20 puppets and I think what struck me is that I'm not an arrogant dude, but to be even the tiniest footnote in the Muppet lineage is nuts to me. That is insane. So, I feel very honored.
Q: Did you have a favorite episode from the TV show?
Segel: The Peter Sellers episode just slaughters me. It's so weird. (Laughter) No, it truly is. It's exactly why I love the Muppets. At the opening, Scooter comes in at the beginning of every episode and he's like, 'Five minutes to curtain Mr. Sellers.' And Peter Sellers is like, 'What should I do when I get out there?' [Scooter], 'All you should be is yourself.' [Sellars] 'But there is no Peter Sellers. I lost Peter Sellers some time ago. All I know how to do is inhabit a character.' And he goes on for like five minutes. And it's like the dude is having an existential crisis. (Laughter) And then he sings a song called, 'Whisky, Wine and Wild Women.' And it's why I love the Muppets. Kids are just thinking, 'Fun. A guy is singing a song with puppets.' Parents are like, watching Peter Sellers singing 'Whisky, Wine and Wild Women.' And that's exactly my point. You know what I mean? It's working on every level. It's firing on all cylinders.
Q: You have a lot of contemporary stars as cameos, but do you have any classic Muppet stars that make any cameos?
Segel: I'm not allowed to talk about a lot of them but we have some great cameos. Mickey Rooney kind of harkens back to that. Alan Arkin. We've got some really, really great cameos in there.
Q: When it was announced that this movie was happening, did you get a lot of letters or calls?
Segel: I got a lot of calls. Especially my contemporaries who have kids. They all wanted to be a part of it for their kids. And the idea of bringing their kids to meet the Muppets or even to be able to show them the movie eventually. So, yeah, people love the Muppets. There is a lot of Muppet love out there.
Q: Did you write any of the new songs?
Segel: No, Bret McKenzie wrote most of the songs and then we have a couple of reprises of some of the old Muppet songs. I wrote one of the songs, but it's a jokier song. Bret really just took the songs and ran with them and they are awesome. Really, really gorgeous. Yeah, they are catchy so kids will be bopping along, but definitely some of the lyrics are adult based. Part of the movie is Kermit trying to come to terms with the fact the Muppets aren't together anymore and there is a beautiful song that Kermit sings that's truly heartbreaking.
Q: Can you tell us what some of the Muppets are doing when we find them in the film?
Segel: I don't want to give too much away but we've got them in various states of success or disarray. Some are famous and some aren't doing what they wish they were doing. So everyone is doing their own thing and it's a bit of a struggle for all of them to come back and become the Muppet show again.
Q: Since this was dream come true to do this, is there anything left on your dream list of projects to tackle?
Segel: I'd like to be President of the United States. (Laughter) No, I'd like to play a villain in a superhero movie. I think I'd be really good at it. I'm like 20% creepy. (Laughter) No, I really am. I am 20% creepy. But when you watch 'Sarah Marshall,' the Dracula musical is funny, but it's 20% creepy. So, I really want to play a villain in a superhero movie.
Q: What about playing Vector in 'Despicable Me?'
Segel: Yeah, yeah, but I didn't get to do my creepy face. I do a really good creepy face.
Q: You did 'Despicable Me' with Julie Andrews. What was more impressive, meeting her or Kermit?
Segel: I must say Kermit. I can't say honestly that Julie Andrews was one of my childhood idols. I think she is awesome but Kermit truly formed my sense of comedy. I've said this before ad nauseum, but when you are a kid, Kermit is Tom Hanks. He's Tom Hanks or Jimmy Stewart for kids. He's truly the every man. Even as a kid wanting to be an actor I thought, 'That's what I want to do, that's what I want to be. He's so nice and sweet and he's running the show. Everybody loves him.' That was it.
Q: Can you talk about the challenges of working seven day weeks and all of the other things you're working on?
Segel: Yeah, well, Nic and I, we write in my trailer a lot. We start filming 'Five-Year-Engagement' as soon as this ends. Which we also wrote and Nic is directing. Y'know, it's hard, but I spent 21 to 25 totally out of work. And so, now that I have a chance to do stuff there is a part of me that feels like I'm not letting this opportunity pass by because you see it go away so quickly. It's very fickle. And I like writing. I genuinely do. I get tired and all that stuff. It's like the movie 'Alien' when the alien is gonna burst out of your chest. When I get an idea, it's kind of hard not to do something because it feels like the alien is gonna burst out of my chest. I'm not good at setting it aside and saying 'I'll get to this eventually.' I want to start writing it. Even if it means staying up all night which is basically what's happening at this point. I dunno. I'm a pretty lucky dude. It's tough to complain. I mean, look there's like a million Muppets over there? That's crazy. It's really insane. I bought a house. What do I have to complain about? A little lack of sleep? That's all right.
Q: Can you talk about incorporating Jim Henson studios into the actual film?
Segel: Yeah, that was something I wanted to do. The idea was born at the Jim Henson Studios. They designed the 'Sarah Marshall' puppets and while I was there I asked if I could see a Kermit or a Miss Piggy and they said 'We don't have them here anymore. We sold them to Disney. Disney owns all the Kermits and Miss Piggys.' And that literally was the moment that the idea was born – was that the Muppets weren't at the Henson Studios anymore and then it grew from there. And Nic Stoller, I must say, is just a tremendous writing partner and came up with a huge amount of the idea. And James Bobin, when he signed on, really refined the script. Yeah, we're a good triumvirate. Not since the days of Rome.
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