With the Wednesday opening of Disney's The Muppets quickly approaching, co-writer Nick Stoller sat down with Spinoff Online to talk about bringing the beloved characters to the big screen for the first time in 12 years, and to answer the big question: Who's his favorite Muppet?
“I love Kermit and Fozzie, obviously, but my favorite as a kid was Beaker, and I don’t really know why! I was obsessed with Beaker,” Stoller revealed. “I also loved Sam the Eagle!”
Best known as the director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and its spinoff Get Him to the Greek, Stoller said the genesis of The Muppets began with that 2008 romantic comedy, which starred his co-writer Jason Segel as a composer working on an all-puppet rock opera.
“Jason just had a meeting with Disney around the release of Sarah Marshall, and they asked him if there were any properties he liked, and he said, ‘What are you guys doing with the Muppets?’ They said, ‘We don’t know,’ which is strange for a giant corporation!” Stoller laughed.
This worked to Segel’s benefit, as he immediately pitched Disney a Muppets film. “He called me afterwards and said, ‘Do you want to write it?’ and I said yes!” Stoller recalled.
While he and Segel settled on the film’s basic plot fairly quickly, once they began speaking to the original Muppet puppeteers, or Muppeteers, the script underwent several major changes.
“The big macro moves of the plot have always been the same -- they have to get the Muppets back together, there was always a Walter character, they have to save the studio from an evil oil baron,” he said.
However, early drafts contained a subplot in which Segel's character Gary and the new Muppet Walter worked together as a ventriloquist act. That was dropped once the Muppeteers explained that, in their world, the Muppets are seen as weird people, not puppets.
Stoller also revealed there were substantial changes to the film’s ending. “We had a really complicated villain plot in our original draft where it was kind of a Willy Wonka-style plot where we reveal at the end that Kermit is [evil oil baron] Tex Richman in a human suit -- he invented Tex Richman to get the Muppets back together. And Disney was like, ‘Kids aren’t going to understand that, that’ll just scare them,’” he recalled.
The writer also said they changed parts of Kermit’s story to fit the rules of the Muppet world, as set out by the Muppeteers.
“We had a joke that Kermit was super-rich and he flies them around on his private jet and that, at a certain point, someone’s like, ‘Hey, Kermit, why don’t you just buy the studio from Tex?’ and he’s like, ‘Uh, I can’t!’ And we make it kind of a joke," Stoller said. "But the Muppeteers were like, ‘The Muppets are always underdogs, Kermit can’t be rich.' So we changed it to him in the crumbling ‘80s mansion.”
Stoller's love of the characters began at an early age, although he confessed that when it comes to the Muppets, “No one is as big a fan as Jason!” He confessed that his lifelong love of comedy began with the Muppets.
“I call the Muppets the gateway drug for comedy," he said. "It’s the first thing you see and go, ‘I want more of that,’ and then you try SNL and Monty Python and you go from there."
He also named The Great Muppet Caper as one of his favorite Muppets films. “I was obsessed with The Great Muppet Caper," Stoller revealed. "That was the VHS tape we happened to have at home so I watched it a million times. They were the first comedy thing I watched.”
While Stoller and Segel’s Muppets is a comedy, much of the plot revolves around the serious drama of the characters trying to regain their enthusiasm for performing as a group. Stoller said that was a conscious decision, as he felt that, “The best kind of comedies are essentially dramas.”
“I kind of approached it very similarly to how I approached Sarah Marshall or Get Him to the Greek, which is the most important thing is the heart of the story that has some emotional depth to it," he said. "The jokes spring from that but they’re not what’s important. You have to start with what the story is about. We really started with that [reunion] story and then the jokes came out of it.”
That also led to the creation of the newest Muppet, and the star of the movie, Walter. “To tell the story we needed to tell, which was a reunion story where they got back together, we needed someone to inspire them to get back together,” Stoller said.
“We always wanted Walter from our first phone call about it," he continued. "We were like, 'We need an entry point for kids.' It would be weird to just have Kermit decide to get them back together. We needed someone to inspire them to get back together, and he becomes their inspiration. So when they are falling on hard times they look at the Muppet who is the fan who’s like, 'Where have you guys been?’ which is just me and Jason yelling that stuff. He’s the voice of us!”
But while he and Segel described Walter in their script, Stoller said they had no input on the Muppet's design.
“For a variety of legal reasons Disney did not want us to do any designs!” Stoller laughed. “It actually became a joke between Jason and I that I was going to draw every possible iteration of Walter -- but they obviously own everybody, so they really don’t want us designing anything!”
Turning to the Muppet mainstays, Stoller said that although he and Segel tried to be all-inclusive, sadly there were some characters, such as Bean and Rizzo, they just couldn’t fit into the script.
“That was the biggest challenge, writing a script that was servicing 30 characters," he said. "In most movies there’s normally two people talking or three or, if it’s really hard, four, but in Muppet movies there’s routinely a scene where there’s 20 characters."
Stoller said another challenge was writing the movie’s third-act Muppet telethon, which follows the format of the old Muppet Show.
“We studied episodes, and it’s funny because a lot of the skits from the original are on YouTube, and a lot of them are really hilarious, and they’re still really funny, but a lot of them are really weird!" he said. "You watch them and you have to get your head in a different space. I remembered the movies, but The Muppet Show was way out there."
He and Segel came up with multiple Muppet Show-style skits plus extra material to supplement the third act. “We wrote tons of different skits and stuff and they built in additional photography into the budget, so they kind of pumped up the ending when they did re-shoots," Stoller said. "[Director] James [Bobin] wrote a lot of that, I wrote some of it, Jason wrote some of it, just sort of pitching different ideas for the ending."
While Stoller enjoyed writing the telethon, he said his favorite scene is one of the more serious moments: the song "Pictures in My Head," in which Kermit reminisces about the heyday of The Muppet Show.
“I love ‘Pictures in My Head’ -- I love that scene," he said. "When I first heard that demo I teared up. So seeing the way James shot it, which was beautiful, was just amazing."
Although Stoller has no idea whether there will be a sequel, or if there are plans to return the Muppets to television, he said the goal for himself and Segel was to introduce the characters to a new generation.
“I just loved the Muppets so much as a kid, you just want to recreate that," he said. "I have a 4-year-old daughter, and my hope is that she sees it and loves it. That’s my biggest hope!”
The Muppets opens Wednesday nationwide.