'The Happytime Murders' Writer Todd Berger Tells Us About The PG-13 Draft That Was (Thankfully) Thrown Out [Interview]

The Happytime Murders has been a long-rumored film since the beginning of the millennium. For years, it kept on almost getting made. Now, Brian Henson has finally directed The Happytime Murders starring Melissa McCarthy as the human cop in a world of deranged puppets.

Todd Berger co-wrote The Happytime Murders with Dee Austin Robertson. In the film, puppet P.I. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) stumbles onto a murder case when femme fatale Sandra White (Dorien Davies) hires him. Phil has to reluctantly team up with his former partner Connie Edwards (McCarthy) to solve the murders of The Happytime Gang cast.

Berger spoke with /Film by phone this week about his long journey to making The Happytime Murders. Find out how it almost ended up being PG-13, how Brian Henson got involved, and just how difficult it was to make puppets behave like naughty adults. The Happytime Murders opens Friday, August 24.

The Happytime Murders has been in development for so long. Did it change over the years?

Oh yeah, sure. It's been 15 years and it started as a very, very more straightforward and insular kind of script. When Dee Austin Robertson and I, who created the characters with me, we were going to do it ourselves. So we were writing this to be a low budget indie. We were like, "What's the cheapest way we can make a puppet movie? There'll be like five puppets in it." As the years went on and that didn't work out, when we hooked up with the Henson company, the world got expanded because the Henson company rolled in, was like, "You know, we have 100 puppets that we've already built. Not only will we build the brand new puppets but we've already got a bunch of puppets that we created" for this improv show that they have called Puppet Up. They were like, "We want to expand this world and really play up that this is a world in which puppets and humans coexist. Where can we put all of these puppets? In the background and side characters." Then plot things changed a little, although the plot's pretty similar to exactly what we wrote a long time ago. The humor progressed, especially when Melissa McCarthy came on board. She brought her style to the movie and it's a lot funnier. I'll admit, it's a lot funnier than I thought it would be just from my own script. She took it to a whole new level and made it her own. The last draft I worked on before she came on board, the character was a man. She came on and, although she didn't really feminize the character or anything, she took the character and just made it her own. Her just riffing and interacting with the puppets, especially Bill Barretta who plays Phil Philips who is pretty amazing and funny.

So she Ellen Ripleyed it.

She did, yes, exactly. There are jokes in the movie that where characters are saying she's a man, but that's just how the script was written because she was a man not long ago. So they just kept the jokes. It wasn't even a joke. It was because she was a man. When a puppet offers to suck her dick, it was because she was a man. Now they just kept the line anyway that the puppets think she's a man.

Did she do a script draft on it?

Yeah, when she came on board, she did a pass to change her character from a man to a woman and change some dialogue for herself to make it more Melissa McCarthy-ish. Other than that, the plot and the characters are all exactly the same. She pretty much took her part, did a pass on her part.

Did The Happytime Gang become a reboot since Fuller House and all the other classic shows have come back with reboots?

It's possible. Considering the cast was murdered, you'd have to hire new young hot puppets for the 13 episode Netflix series. It's inevitable in this world since it was so beloved. They probably already got a three season order from Netflix to do the new Happytime Gang with all the hip young millennial puppet versions of the original cast.

You hooked up with Henson in the last 15 years. Do you know if Jim Henson in his time had ambitions to do an R-rated puppet movie or more adult shows?

Yeah, just from talking with Brian, that was always on the table. That was always kind of the plan. He would talk about his father did the first season of Saturday Night Live. The puppeteers always really enjoyed in between takes of all the children's entertainment, riffing and being really blue and trying to get the crew members to laugh by being really blue. That was always something he thought his father was planning on doing but never got to. Not to speak for Brian, but he seems to have never thought this was totally out of bounds. They have been doing this Puppet Up improv show for years before they came upon The Happytime Murders and decided to do Happytime Murders.

I'm sure most moviegoers have never seen Avenue Q, but did you have to think of what Avenue Q had done and what the movie can do differently?

I've actually never seen Avenue Q just because I've never crossed paths with it. So I don't even know what's in Avenue Q. I know a couple of the song titles and I know people talk about it all the time, but I've never seen it. I've seen Team America and I've seen Ted and a couple episode of Crank Yankers. Dee and I first came up with this idea in 2002 because we had done the short film in college in 2000. I wrote the first draft of the script way back then and then over the years, we watched as Crank Yankers and Greg the Bunny and Avenue Q and Ted, all these other puppet things would show up, or that Angel episode "Smile Time." Every time something would come up, people would be like, "Hey man, that's like your script. That's like that movie you wrote." I'm like yeah, it is, I know. I was so sad watching the world go by and them making adult puppet entertainment and not being able to get mine made. And then finally got mine made but no, I'd like to see Avenue Q at some point. We just never crossed paths.

If you'd come out 15 years ago, you could've been the Dante's Peak and Volcano of R-rated puppet shows.

Exactly, the Armageddon/Deep Impact.

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Did Brian ever ask you to make it raunchier?

Well, it was actually a weird roller coaster ride because the first draft was hard R. When we first got with the Henson company, they were fine with that. Then we set it up somewhere. Maybe it was Lionsgate, maybe I'm getting the timeline wrong but at some point, I was brought in to do a PG-13 draft. They were setting it up somewhere or trying to get some financer interested who were like, "We like it, but it needs to be PG-13." I was actually brought in to do a polish where I made it PG-13 and it was like that for a little bit. Then everybody realized, "No, no, no, this is dumb. It needs to be R and it needs to embrace being R." So they actually told me to come back and said, "Not only put back in everything you cut out, but let's even go for it even more. We really want it to be clear this is not for children. Because if you make it PG-13, then eight-year-olds are still going to go see it. We really don't want eight-year-olds seeing it so we really have to make it R and really go for it. So over the years we amped it up and made it even more extreme.

You created these characters, then you get to see how the Henson company realizes them. How did you feel the first time you saw their puppets?

Oh my God, it was amazing. I'd been on a set before of something I've written where oh, there's the high school gymnasium as I described in the set. Oh, cool. I had met the Phil Philips puppet years ago because they built a prototype. It was so surreal, seeing this character that I had had in my head for years come to life. Then the really creepy moment was the first time I was on the set when we were shooting and they have a whole puppet room which had all of the puppets on holders, which is really spooky, like straight out of a horror movie. You walk in and you're surrounded by these ominous puppets hanging on these racks. So I walk in and then I'm surrounded by all of these characters that Dee and I had created. It was like seeing Sandra White and Goofer and Larry Philips, all of these characters we had come up with and now here they are. And they're made by the best puppet makers in the world. Like the Jim Henson Creature Shop is the Coca-Cola of making puppets. It was just amazing and really a career highlight for sure.

Can you write anything for puppets and the Henson team can do it?

So far. So far it seemed like anything you want the puppets to do, they'll figure it out. I went on the day when they were shooting the sex scene. They had built this hydraulic machine so that the puppet could thrust back and forth. Engineers had been called in to help build this machine and they really went for it. When we were developing the script, we'd be like, "Oh, we'll have Phil run across the street." And Brian would be like, "If we do that, it's going to take three days and cost a bunch of money. What if we just cut and he's already in the building?" Oh yeah, that works too. Just having Brian and the team know what puppets can do and can't do was helpful. So there were certain battles they wanted to try to face, like how can we get a puppet to smoke cigarettes or how can we get a puppet to dance? Then there's other things you don't think about that seem simple, like a puppet climbing a ladder. Then they're like, "Yeah, that would be really time intensive for a puppet to climb a ladder so let's not do that." You have to choose your battles.

Did you specify how long the sex scene went on for, or was that a Brian decision?

That was definitely a Brian decision. You know in Shakespeare when it just says "they fight?" I'm pretty sure in the script it was just like, "They have sex. He throws her on the desk and they get crazy." Then Brian just went to town with really mapping out what's going to happen in the scene, and they really went for it.

Did they also have to figure out how to do the leg crossing with puppets?

What's really crazy is it never even occurred to me that when a puppet is using two hands, one of those hands is from a completely different person. They literally call them the right hand. A puppeteer has the puppet in one hand and then another hand in the mouth. Then there's another person being their right hand. That's why even improv is technically difficult for puppets because you've got two hands being controlled by two different people. You don't think about certain puppet actions like crossing your legs takes more than just one person. It takes two or three or four different puppeteers manipulating different parts of the puppet body to do very particular things. It was fascinating to watch. There's a bit over the closing credits where you get to see the craziness of puppeteers dressed in green screen body suits manipulating the puppets in ways you didn't expect. Crossing your legs is more difficult than you would think. You have to think about where the different puppeteer's going to go. Do we have to green screen them out? Which joints of which body part is this person controlling? It was a task.

Did you have to write a legitimate mystery too?

Oh yeah. When Dee and I first came up with the plot, we're like inspired by Philip Marlowe novels and old school noir which we were obsessed with at the time. We were like let's kind of make this actually kind of overly complicated. Just like in Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep where by the end of the movie you're like, "Wait, what happened?" When Brian and the Henson company came on board, I was worried they were going to be like we need to simplify the mystery and make it more of a straight Se7en type serial killer movie where there's just a crazy killer killing people. Brian was actually like, "I love the fact that it's way more complicated than you would think and how can we tie character development into these things? How can we tie the sins of the past of a puppet character and the greater puppet world into this mystery and actually have it be complex and you have to pay attention." Like if you go to the theater too high, which I'm sure some people are going to, you might lose track of what's going on and when the big twists come, you're like, "Wait, what? How did... who? Huh?"

When it became a Henson project, did the idea the puppets and humans coexist conflict with the idea that the Muppets were always just actors?

Not only do puppets and humans coexist, but we tried to think of how would puppets be treated? Are puppets an underclass? Because puppets behave differently, puppets are addicted to sugar or puppets inherently want to sing and dance. Like it's in their nature. Or when puppets have sex, they have wild, crazy sex because that's just what they do. So what is life like for a puppet living in a world of humans and how are they treated? Part of the movie delves into that because even our main character, Phil Philips was the first puppet cop ever on the LAPD and was seen as a hero, but then he had a horrible mistake in his past that got him kicked off the force. He's now looked at as some kind of pariah because he's proved that puppets can't be cops. He set back puppet relations with the human community for years. We really got to step back and think, how would puppets do this or do that? One of the very first jokes we wrote in the first draft of the script that didn't survive is the idea that there's a crosswalk, and there's a button you press for the walk/don't walk line. There's a little puppet who just can't reach it. He's too small. Then later there's a smaller, lower button for puppets to press because the community has adjusted itself for puppets. That was super fun to explore because we wanted history. We wanted the idea that it's not like this is the only group of puppets. If puppets are everywhere, they're all over the country. There are puppets in New York. There are puppets in New Orleans and also they've been there forever. The puppets have always been around. It's not like puppets were magically created in the '70s. Puppets have been there throughout history so they have their own history with their own things going on and what's that like? That was fun to explore.

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If we apply this to the Henson world, does it imply that Muppets can die?

Well, man, I guess so. I don't want to speak out of bounds. I don't want to make any remarks about the Muppet world but I would think so, right? In our world, in the Happytime Murders universe, puppets are born, puppets get older and puppets can die. There are flashbacks to when puppet characters were younger. I guess if you think about it, if the Muppet Babies are child versions of The Muppets, which means they were born and get older and therefore they can get even older and someday die, if they can die, they can certainly be murdered. It's not like they're eternally the same age so they had to have been born from somewhere. So yeah, I think the answer is yes. We just blew the lid off this thing.

Is the Where's Waldo film going to be the next long gestating project we talk about every time we do an interview?

I guess so. I don't know what's going on with that one. Last I heard, Seth Rogen was taking it on. Even that was years ago so I don't know. It seems like one of those ones they'll just never figure out.

How long ago did you work on it?

That was in 2012. It was six years ago. I've also heard rumors they might do it animated which could be interesting. I think we'd all like to see it. It seems like a good VR project. Maybe that's the answer.

That's right, you could look around 360 degrees for Waldo.


Are you writing something else to direct?

Yes, I have a project set up. I did a project earlier this year called Cover Versions for Lakeshore Entertainment and then I have another project set up that we're going to shoot in the spring in January, February, March that's kind of like a political satire. I won't get too much into the plot but when I first wrote the script five years ago, it was supposed to be set in an alternate not too distant future where we built a border wall with Mexico. Then we started invading a bunch of countries. When I wrote it five years ago, everybody who read it was like, "What is this? This is ridiculous. The world's great." Now it's getting a little weird. It's a satirical comedy, very Coen brothers-esque kind of a road movie. Hopefully maybe we'll announce it soon and then I won't have to hide the plot anymore. We're supposed to shoot it the beginning next year.

Has Henson started talking about plans for a sequel to Happytime Murders not to take 15 years?

What's funny is actually years ago, there've been many times where it's kind of looked like we were going to go and then we didn't. At one point, we actually had a conversation about not just even a direct sequel to Happytime, but because we've now created this world, like the Happytime Cinematic Universe of a world in which puppets and humans coexist, what are other genres of stories we can tell. This is detective movie. This is a film noir buddy cop movie. What are some others? Is there a horror movie set in this world and what does that look like? Is there a western? At the time, Dee and I even came up with an idea that we might be dusting off. Who knows? Kind of a gangster movie, like a Goodfellas type crime movie, full on gangsters with puppets in modern day. Maybe it'll be an indirect sequel. Maybe it'll be a direct sequel if people love the movie and it'll be the further adventures of Phil Philips and Det. Connie Edwards.

Has there been any talk of how Phil Philips could mingle with other Muppet worlds? They'd have to be careful how he appears in more family friendly Muppet projects.

I think Brian is pretty intent on keeping the worlds separate. The Henson company is very aware of respecting children's entertainment. They wanted to be very clear this is an R-rated movie for adults. This is not for children. This is not a Muppet movie. I think even when we were shooting, at one point someone was going to put a Kermit the Frog poster in the background and they were like, "No, no, no, no, no. Not in the same universe. This is completely separate." So I would be surprised if ever one day the two worlds met. It seems like they really want to separate those things. Then on top of that, legally I think it's going to be difficult because The Muppets, Sesame Street and these puppets are all owned by three completely different organizations. I'm still waiting for a Meet the Feebles crossover. I want a case to bring Phil to New Zealand and meet the Meet the Feebles cast.

Have you talked to Peter Jackson for real since developing Happytime?

No, I haven't but I would love to.

This could be your "in."

I think he'll like it. I did actually get reached out, one of the puppeteers from Meet the Feebles named Danny Mulheron reached out to me because The Hollywood Reporter did an article last week. That's where I talked about how Meet the Feebles inspired Happytime. They interviewed him and he reached out and was like, "Hey man, best of luck. So great to see the spirit living on of bad puppets." That was awesome hearing from him.