James Bobin

Even if you take away his two Muppet movies, writer/director James Bobin is a guy you want to talk to. He helped shape Sacha Baron Cohen’s legendary Da Ali G Show and the HBO show Flight of the Conchords, and is helming the next Disney Alice in Wonderland film, Alice Through the Looking Glass. He also helped bring The Muppets back to the big screen in the 2012 hit and co-wrote and directed this week’s hilarious sequel, Muppets Most Wanted. This James Bobin fellow has it going pretty well.

We were lucky enough to speak to Bobin and discussed a myriad of topics. In addition to an Alice tease, we discussed the self-referential nature of Muppets Most Wanted, having to change elements of the story when songs have already been finished, the canon of the Muppets, the rules for shooting and working with the Muppets, action sequences, dance and much more. If you’re a fan of the Muppets, or filmmaking in general, I think there’s a lot to learn here. Read our full interview below.

The plot of this movie is pretty over the top…

What are you talking about? It’s a true story! [Laughs] We kept saying that it should say, “Based on a true story” as it opened.

Like Fargo.

Exactly, yeah.

But you guys get away with it because you could keep acknowledging [it's over the top] over and over again.

Yes.

Is that self reference something you wanted to have in there or was it just a creative way to solve the problems of the sequel?

It feels like it’s always been part of the Muppets universe. They are very self-referential. They break the fourth wall and talk about themselves a lot. And it’s a really useful tool, because, as you know, when you’re doing a sequel, there is a certain amount of expectation. There’s also a way you can either just not address it and let it go. But I thought. “Well, we should just have them pose the question about sequels and talk about it in a very open way” and so therefore instantly acknowledge that and then you’re dealing with that question straight away, which I really like. And also at the beginning of the movie, it’s kind of like “What do we do next?” Which is kind of the point of the movie in many ways. What do you do now that you’ve got the family back together again? We spent the first movie basically kind of putting them back together again. And now that they are together, what happens? And that, again, is a good question. And I love the idea of posing the questions to yourself as a writer in the movie itself and have the character talk about that. It’s fun.

Oh absolutely. And Jason Segel was one of the major forces of moving the first movie. How early did you know he wasn’t gonna be involved in this film?

Oh pretty early, ’cause we talked about it and he very much felt like he was done the Gary story, the arc. And we even discussed vaguely about him having a cameo somewhere in it, but then it worked out that there wasn’t a character for him. And he was cool and it was like one less thing. So it was pretty early on that Nick [Stoller] and I knew we’d be writing it and then we’d have new characters. You know, even though the movie starts seconds after the last movie finished, most Muppet movies have nothing to do with the one before, so it’s like a whole new story, new characters and just it was just fun to have the Muppets kind of be the focus of it more.

Yes, that’s a nice change. Now, in the first song they call the movie by it’s original title, The Muppets Again, and it reminded me of the first movie where Mary calls Walter the friend and not the brother. 

Are you asking about my inconsistencies? [Laughs]

I never talked to you on the first movie and I just had to ask. Can you talk about both of those points and what it’s like having to deal with an issue like that where it’s obviously that the song is done first and the movie doesn’t match it.

Yeah, it’s hard ’cause obviously you’re right. The song always comes first and when Mary sings about “Why is he with his friend,” not his brother, you think “Oh well maybe it’s fine, no one will notice it,” but they do. And it’s like one of those things and it basically all of it evolved. Initially Walter was just a friend, but then somehow being brothers felt more Muppety and that’s kind of a fun idea that they grew up together not realizing they were different. And that’s a very funny, sweet idea. And that gives us a slight, more emotional bond between brothers, the family connection, which I really liked about it. So the idea changed and then by the time the idea’s happened and changed, it’s too late to reshoot that stuff and you think “Well, there’s no point.” You could put dialogue saying “Brother” rather than “Friend,” but why do that? And certainly with this I felt that, they say it’s “The Muppets Again” with “The Muppets Again,” so obviously it’s in there, but it kind of works anyway. And if you didn’t know the movie was originally titled that, you’d never think about it.

Very true.

It’s only because that stuff gets out that it matters. So frankly if you watch the movie without knowing that, you’ll never notice it. But because you do know that, you do notice it. So, you know, I’m fine with it, it’s fine.

Okay. Now there’s lots of things in this movie you’ve never seen in a Muppet movie. I don’t wanna spoil it, but you know, in the Miss Piggy song, where we sort of flash forward, Walter was a new character in the first movie, here we have Constantine.

Yes.

Is there like a Muppets canon? Like who do you have to go to get approval to to say “We’re going to introduce this new character and he’s gonna be part of it” or we’re going to show what we show in the movie?

There’s no real canon in terms of “This is the rules you have to obey.” I mean, there are to a degree. When Nick and Jason worked on the first movie, they had this thing that said, “A list of rules about Muppets.” “They don’t talk about themselves as puppets” for example, which we still adhere to. And there’s a fun bit like this. But in terms of their back story, we are pretty much aware of what is out there and what isn’t. And therefore what we are allowed to do and what we’re not allowed to do. And so, also remember that Piggy’s song is conjecture. So it’s not definite. In the same way that in Muppets Take Manhattan when they get married, who knows, are they really getting married or not? You don’t really know and it’s still a question of debate amongst Muppets fans ’cause obviously they’re married on stage, but then  Kermit says to Piggy, “I thought Gonzo was gonna play the priest.” And the guy’s a real priest, you know what I mean? So who knows? Maybe if you’re really married on a stage, is that a real marriage or not? It’s a good question. And so I’m always, I love leaving those kind of things open. But yeah, so, you know, it’s one of those things I guess.

You wanna try new stuff out. I don’t wanna ever give definite answers of things. For me, it’s like Piggy and Kermit getting married, I’m not sure I wanna see that as one of the fans. Aside from the Director of the movie, as a fan, I’m not sure I wanna see it ’cause I like their relationship as it is. And I think if I give a full stop to it, where does it go? And I thought “I don’t wanna give a full stop to it.” It’s like “Dot, dot, dot” to me, you know what I mean? 

Like the end of Flight of the Conchords.

Right, yeah, dot, dot, dot, exactly. You know what I mean? That’s how it should be.

Another thing is, and I’m not super familiar with the Muppets movies, but this movie in particular had a lot of the Muppets living with the humans. Obviously we have Walter in the first movie, but here when they’re in Union Station, there are just Muppets walking around.

Yeah.

What was the idea behind that?

Well again, if you look watch the other Muppet movies, like Caper, the first one they did in London, they’re at a hotel run by puppets and it’s something I wanted to do in the first one, but you couldn’t because you hadn’t kind of brought them back together again. But this time out you can. So when they go to the prison in Russia, there are Muppets there already. And that’s great, because that’s what the world should be like. I mean, it really becomes like that once they’re back together again, the world has been inhabited by Muppets and humans together and it’s a fun thing for me. If you had a sequence of people driving past in a car, it be”Human, human, puppet, human, puppet.” That’s really fun and that’s a fun world to live in. So we try to do that.

Obviously it’s hard because sometimes when you go to the real world, you can’t put puppets in the background. That’s one of the terrible things about puppet films, you can’t have background puppets. You just can’t. Sweetums is the guy who’s in the background ’cause he’s a full body puppet, you know? But generally you can’t. And it’s a shame, ’cause I’d always love to do that. But you have to cheat and we did. It’s hard because when you go wide and full body, they often become almost too dull. Like you have to be very careful about that. They become real. That’s one of the great challenges about “The Muppet ladder” is that they just tie together puppets. You have to have a real sense of life about them, so, you know, it’s just hard.

That was one of the things about this movie too is you a lot of a full body Muppet. Constantine jumps around and does action full body.

Right. He does. It’s impossible to avoid. You’re making a caper movie. If you’re gonna have him, you’re gonna have action sequences and so I was very aware of that. So again, the rule of thumb is always there’s a man or woman in front of the camera operating a puppet. Always. So Constantine is never C.G.. He could easily be a C.G. Constantine an it’s probably save my life, as a filmmaker, but I love the idea that [puppeteer] Matt Vogel was in that guy and there’s someone else doing his body and there’s like four other guys doing the legs and so that guy is constantly, constantly is always being puppeteered, always. Even ultimately when you remove those guys from the shot and put it against a background, that is still puppeteering to me. And that is really important because it’s basically back to the beginning, the origins of this idea is its got puppetry. And puppetry is an ancient art form, it’s been around for centuries and it’s incredible that in the 21st Century, we still make films about it. It’s great.

Very interesting, I didn’t think about that. Now I loved seeing, you know, the Conchords back together, even behind and in front of the camera. Can you talk about casting Jemaine Clement in that role and, actually, all of the prison guys because they’re not cameos. 

JAMES: No, they’re roles, they’re actors, they’re roles. They have lines and they have characters and they have parts that are longer than a scene, so they’re parts for me. But yeah. You know, again, it’s that thing I always love tough guys dancing. It’s just funny to me. It always makes me laugh and I knew that if we had a prison routine, it’d be funny to have the idea that behind the tough, gruff exterior, you had this kind of Broadway demeanor. They all kind of break into it and so I’ve thought that if you’re gonna have tough guys, there are no two better tough guys than Danny [Trejo] and Ray [Liotta]. They’re generally scary people. And it’d be a funny idea that they love dancing. And what was really funny is that in real life Danny Trejo also loved dancing. They had to rehearse that stuff for weeks beforehand and they loved it. So I’d be like filming, filming, filming, turn around and over there I’d see like Ray Liotta dancing and that’s a really funny thing to see on a set. But Jemaine came back ’cause Jemaine’s a good friend and I knew I wanted someone who could do the Prison King. He’s a funny character and he’d be good at it and he also he’s got a mean Russian accent, so he’d be good for that. And he’s gotta sing and dance a song, so why not?

Absolutely. And last thing is your next movie is the Alice in Wonderland sequel. There’s rumors out there about maybe Sacha Baron Cohen, it’s called “Through the Looking Glass,” what is real about this movie right now?

It’s called Alice Through the Looking Glass. And we are heading towards hopefully filming sometime this summer in England. And the story is loosely based on the book. The book itself is a very strange book about eight chapters of an allegory of a chess match, so it’s not that. Other than that, can’t tell you much about it.

Except the release date.

The release date is Memorial Day, 2016, yeah.

Right. Well congratulations on this and good luck with that.

Thank you, man. Thank you so much.

Muppets Most Wanted hits theaters March 21. Click here to listen to our interview with Kermit the Frog.

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