He's the man with the hand inside Miss Piggy, Yoda, Bert, Grover, and Fozzie the Bear. And he's the director of comedy hits like In & Out, Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Bowfinger, and The Score. In short, Frank Oz is the man. We sat down in San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel to discuss his career and his new film Death at a Funeral.
Groucho: How did Death at a Funeral come to you?
Frank Oz: Well, it came in script form. And I have a friend who worked with me years ago and is a producer on this movie, Sherry Stallings, who developed it with Dean Craig for a while. And she brought it to me. And I laughed out loud, and I was touched by it. And that's how it happened.
G: As a director—more than most—you have extensive professional roots in England, and I wonder how that—
FO: Oh, you're right. I do have professional roots in England. (Laughs.) I was thinking I was only born there, but I worked there, too, a lot. Yeah, a lot!
G: Did that come into play at all in making the film—was that an asset?
FO: It might have been, without me knowing it. Because, having shot so much there, both as a director and performer, I'm kind of used to the way of working. So I guess, without knowing it, it probably did. I was comfortable, as opposed to interacting—coming in, working [for] the first time with a British crew. So I never thought about it. I guess it did help.
G: The films that you've done show an eclecticism and, to my mind, a resistance to the kind of run-of-the-mill, ordinary—
FO: Thank you.
G: Hollywood gloss, you know.
FO: Thank you.
G: Is that calculated on your part, or how much of that is good fortune in what you're offered?
FO: I think it's good fortune, but more—it's a combination of good fortune in what I'm offered—although there's so much I don't do. It's good fortune in what I'm offered, and also it's just my instincts on saying yes to what is offered, because I always look—I react; I don't look. I react, I think, to things a bit more subversive.
G: I think some would look at this film as somewhat of a departure, in the sense that it's very much an ensemble film.
FO: Yeah. Which I hadn't done, really. I never knew about it—I never thought about it—until afterwards. (Chuckles.)
G: There's obviously established actors in the ensemble, but it's not a star-driven project.
FO: It's not. Which is lovely.
G: Does that make your job different in any way?
FO: Well, yeah it does. I mean, there are stars that I've worked with, wonderful stars, who are, you know, gung ho for the project and are all there for me. There are other stars who need some coddling. And I don't like that. I'm tired of that. And they're mostly gung ho for the project, but when I work with a star that needs some coddling, it annoys me. 'Cause, getting paid well, let's just do the job and have fun. These stars didn't need—these stars were all there for nothing. Stars (scoffs): the actors. These actors were all there for me.
G: For the work.
FO: For the work.
G: Death at a Funeral presents an erosion of dignity, doesn't it?
FO: It does indeed. Slow, deconstructive. (Laughs.)
G: Is that where you see the humor of the film coming from, or where do you locate it?
FO: I think it's in that neighborhood. I think it's—I think whenever somebody tries to hold something down with all of their might, little things will always escape, that are funny. And I think in a larger sense, they're holding down this secret, at all costs. And when you release something, it's not funny. It's when you contain something, and the reaction to that containment is, I think, where the humor is. And also, with Alan Tudyk: here is a guy who is trying with every ounce in him to not be drugged up. (Laughs.) When he is drugged up.
G: That's classic acting advice, too, right? Is to not play the drunkenness, but—
FO: Always go against. Always go against. Always go against. Absolutely true. So, yeah, it's in that area. It's in that neighborhood, I think.
G: The conventional wisdom is that British comedy largely comes from working against the sense of propriety, or shattering propriety. Do you see that to be true?
FO: I don't know—you know, people have talked about that, and I—I guess I don't—every time we mention a generality, I bet you I can find another specific that doesn't fit that generality. 'Cause some people say the British humor is always the stereotypical tight upper lip. And I'm thinking about, "What about Benny Hill?" (Laughs.) And then people will say, "Well, people always love toilet humor, in Britain." "Okay, look at Upstairs, Downstairs. That wasn't—" I mean, there's always—there's always— So it's hard for me to generalize.
G: You've said that you consider The Score your most important professional accomplishment to date. Can you elaborate on what that film means to you?
FO: I said that?! Holy shit, where'd I say that?
G: It was probably a loaded question: they asked, "What was the most important accomplishment—"
FO: Yeah, I think—that sounds really self-aggrandizing, doesn't it? Fuck. (Laughs.)
G: You just answered The Score; you didn't say, "This was most important—
FO: Okay, well—if I said it, what I meant to say was: for me, being able to—which I had told my agent to stop: "I can't just keep on doing comedies." For me it was important to show that I'm not just a one-trick pony. As much as I love comedies and continue them, I think that was what I meant by "It was important for me," to stop, and do something else. And then go back to comedies again. So that's what I meant, not, not—I sound like a fuckin' asshole. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) Do you feel that that had the desired effect in terms of changing how people perceive you?
FO: Yeah, it did. Before, they would never even give me dramas, only the best comedies. Now I get the best comedies, but they're not afraid to give dramas any more. Now it's different.
G: Did you do your customary civilian test screening for Death at a Funeral?
FO: Absolutely: always do. Comedies, I have to. I have to.
G: And, of course, that's a long tradition, going back to the Marx Brothers, who would test their material on the road and see how the audience reacts. What do you come out with from one of those screenings? Do you have nip-and-tuck editing notes?
FO: Well, I always record every screening I do: not video, but audio. So I can transfer it, and when I edit, I can judge where the laughs are. The editor tells me, "Oh, that was a big laugh there," and I say, "No, it wasn't. It wasn't a big laugh. Here, let me show you." (Chuckles.) Because everybody always wants it to be a bigger laugh than it was. And I'm very hard on—I'm very serious about the comedy. But what I tend to do is—people, unfortunately in my opinion, they listen to cards and focus groups. I listen—I don't really read cards at all. What I really do is I listen—kind of an overall broad wash. But I take my instincts more importantly. If everybody all of a sudden reacts one way, then I can't turn a blind eye to it. But I'm not gonna look and say, "Oh, thirty percent of the audience liked this, and fifteen percent liked this." I can't do that; it's ridiculous. So except for kind of a broad wash of reactions, I listen to myself.
G: A potential challenge with this film is that the cast of characters could be described—I don't know if you would—as universally unpleasant. Apart from the honesty of that, did you see a challenge in bringing the audience along with them?
FO: I didn't think that, but you're—the reason, if they're unpleasant, is because—Dean wrote a wonderful script—it's because every actor in this movie—maybe not Daniel—every actor is selfish. Every actor is self-involved, thinking about themselves.
G: But we all are.
FO: We all are, but not to the degree that these guys are. These guys actually want something, and for an actor, that's extremely important: to have a very clear line about what you want. And because some of these actors want very superficial, petty things, they come off as not pleasant people. Yeah, it's interesting. I didn't plan anything; it's just the way it was written.
G: Right, right, right. There's a certain deliciousness to that, too. I was just wondering if that was a tonal concern.
FO: Nah, I didn't—you know what? (Sighs.) If I don't go—I have to go into a movie just sensing innately what that tone is. And if I start thinking about tone, I'm in trouble; I shouldn't be doing the movie. So I—
G: If you didn't see that tone or understand that tone—
FO: Then I shouldn't have touched the movie. I shouldn't have touched it. Then I should just leave it alone. Any questions about tone.
G: That makes sense. Can you describe how the relationship between actor and director grows over the course of a project and, if you're lucky, over the course of several films.
FO: What an interesting question. Well, what happens—not only with actor and director, but crew members also—I'd consider the first couple weeks like we're all dogs sniffing each other's asses. We're all testing each other. "Does this director know what he's doin'?" "Does this actor know what he's doing?" Does the actor think, "Okay, does the director of photography know what he's doing?" "Does the grip know what he's doing?" You know, we're all testing each other. Very subtly. Very subtly, behind the—you know. And I think with an actor and a director, it's very important 'cause the actor is so extraordinarily vulnerable. And frightened. And he needs to know the director is really supporting him and on his side. So there are actors I've worked with who hate my guts. Uh, three. As a matter of fact. One who's passed away, sadly: Brando. The other two are Cher and Wilford Brimley. Um, and, uh, other actors, like Andy Nyman, and, I mean, other actors who I love, and are dear, lifelong friends. But I think after that breakdown period of sniffing each other's asses and saying, "Are we okay?", if their trust goes on, then you have a great time—then it's fluid and liquid and you play with each other. I mean, Steve Martin. Steve—fortunately, we've done four movies together, and we want to do more. But there's a trust there. He'll come up with ideas, and he'll give me the opportunity to say, "Yeaaah, not sure," "Yeah, that's great." I think it works differently with every actor, and every—there are some actors who are brilliant, but I don't become friends with.
G: What in an actor's technique do you find most agreeable?
FO: Say that again, because that "technique" is a loaded word. Say that again.
G: I guess what I mean is is there something in an actor's technique that when you see it, when you recognize it, you say, "Ah, this is somebody who's on my wavelength."
FO: Well, if I see technique, they're in trouble and I'm in trouble.
G: I see what you mean.
FO: I think if—
G: How about "method"?
FO: If I see training, if I sense a training—and these guys [Ed.: the cast of Death at a Funeral] are mostly trained—I can sense a training where therefore they're authentic without seeing any work. Without seeing technique. That's what I'm looking for.
G: And what about the actor's discipline? How actors approach the work: do you have a preference?
FO: Well, my preference is like these people. Using Daniel just as an example. Daniel knew exactly what he was doing. Daniel: Matthew MacFayden. He's a brilliant actor. And subtle actor. And, you know, the idea is he goes off, he does his own homework, and then he does it on the set. And that, that's great. Other actors need me to work with them. But he, he knew thet he, Matthew, had to set up Daniel as a kind of wishy-washy guy all the way through so he could turn. So I'd prefer actors who really do their homework and know what they're doing like I used to do as a performer. That's what I prefer. But some actors—a few actors are lazy, but most of them are not. Most are really hard-working.
G: I know what you mean about some actors, they do their work and they come ready to play and have a confidence, and others need reassurance that they're on the right track.
FO: The ones that are lazy will try to—a few of them I've worked with, not many— two or three who are lazy and will do the work as we're filming. And the character will change as a result. And I have to go back and reshoot the beginning because it wasn't the same.
G: That's interesting.
FO: I won't mention names. (Laughs.) On that one.
G: But when an actor is a little needier, do you find they really need what you have to offer or they mostly need the confidence to do their own work?
FO: You've got all good questions. I think the confidence. I think you're in such a vulnerable, naked position in front of that camera. But, if you didn't really, truly, innately somewhere down deep believe in yourself, you wouldn't be there. So what you need is the director to shut the fuck up and just say, "Everything's gonna be great," "You're loved," and little notes here and there. But "You're here for a reason, 'cause you're right for the role and you're talented." And that's needed, no matter who you are. From Brando on down. 'Cause if the writer or actor's really smart and knows what he's doin', like Matthew, I didn't have to say hardly—I mean, I'd just come up to him and say some notes occasionally—but nothing about character.
G: I think to some degree a film determines its own atmosphere based on the setting and the talent that's gathered, but to the extent that you set a tone for the production, how would you describe that? What kind of a film set do you like to run?
FO: I don't set a tone; I'm just who I am. And I like to have fun; even on The Score, we screwed around and had a lot of fun. I mean, why should I work my ass off, work so incredibly hard and not have fun? Drama or comedy. So it's not that I set a tone. It's kind of I am who I am; I hope people play with me, and if they don't, then I'm sorry. That's kind of the way it is, you know. I think a tone seems very calculating.
G: And you can't really control.
FO: You can't control a fuckin' thing. In movies or in life. (Laughs.)
G: Though you've quite rightly and sensibly protected your autonomy as a director, your commitment to the Muppets has I think really been appreciated by generations of fans.
FO: Well, I haven't performed for a few years now.
G: Right. You talked a few years back about possibly directing another Muppet film project.
G: Is that still something that could be on the horizon.
FO: I think it's possible. I think it's possible. You know, I just have to find the right thing.
G: Uh huh. There was some talk about a concept that Jerry and Jim and you had developed a long time back. Is that still something that you hope to do?
FO: Yeah, it's one of the possibilities. Where'd you get that from?
G: I read it online. In an interview.
FO: Really?! That's weird. Where'd you get it online?
G: Uh, well I think the original interview was, uh—
FO: My interview, or—?
G: It was an interview with you; it was an extensive four-part interview.
FO: A long time ago?
G: Well, it was around the time—you were prepping The Score when you said it.
FO: Okay, yeah. Well, I think that idea is one of the possibilities, you know. Yeah. Nothing's set, though. Just, you know.
G: What would stand in the way of that project happening, or what's the hesitation?
FO: Well, I think, um, y'know, making sure that the right people are available. 'Cause you want to work with the same puppeteers. 'Cause those people are your brothers and sisters, you know, there twenty-five years. So much of what worked with the Muppets are not just the anarchic quality and the irreverent quality, but the affectionate quality. And the affection comes from us working together a long time. So that's important, and all the same Workshop people. And making sure, number one, beyond anything else, it's always the script. It's always the script. So when the script is there, that'll change everything.
G: And is someone working on the script?
G: So it's sort of stalled, you would say.
FO: Yeah. Nothing's going on right now.
G: I wanted to ask you about In & Out as well. How nervous were the powers that be about that film?
FO: Nervous. It was the first time it was really a movie about a gay couple. It was a very—
G: Yeah, it was groundbreaking.
FO: Yeah, it really was. Yeah, they were nervous. They asked us to take some things out.
G: Oh really?
FO: Yeah, in the beginning. I forgot what it was.
G: Did those things end up staying?
FO: Mmmm, a couple of things we compromised on. But Scott Rudin is gay; he's a producer. And Paul Rudnick is gay.
G: The writer.
FO: And so they had a responsibility to the gay community, I think, and I was trying to be respectful as much as possible. But my job was to create human beings on that canvas, and to be funny.
G: Little Shop of Horrors is, in my opinion, a hugely successful film in artistic terms.
FO: Thank you. That was a bitch. A very challenging and satisfying bitch.
G: And I know it's in the nature of a director to Monday-morning quarterback and say, "Well, if I'd only gotten this through or been able to get this quite right." What in your vision were you not able to quite get what you wanted there?
FO: I can tell you right now: color. I wanted to make it more like Technicolor. And it's the closest I could get. And I wish I had—if I only had a digital interface, DI, it would've been—I would've popped the color in certain places. That's what I would've done.
G: Oh yeah. The color scheme is, I think, right. But I see what you mean.
FO: But I could've popped it more. And given it just a tiny bit more energy in certain areas. That would have been wonderful. I've always wanted to do that.
G: You know, George Lucas has pointed the way to tinkering. Would you tinker? Would you ever tinker with one of your films?
FO: Absolutely. But nobody right now is—
G: You'd have to get the money to do it.
FO: Exactly. Exactly. And unless they can see return, no one is going to do it.
G: Speaking of George Lucas, I know—I believe you're voicing Yoda for the new Clone Wars series—is that right?
FO: Not that I know of; nobody's asked me.
G: Do you feel proprietary about characters like that, that you've originated?
FO: Sure. Sure. Absolutely. I mean, they're all in my heart. And, again, I originated them with the help of the writers.
FO: And Jim Henson. And the other performers. Even the Workshop people. Y'know, you're never alone. You never do things in a vacuum. I mean, the person who does the character has to be the originator. There's just no two ways around it. But he doesn't do it alone. But I'd certainly do it again.
G: What about, after becoming such a successful and seasoned director, going back and working as a performer on somebody else's set? Do you find it difficult to set aside your directorial impulse?
FO: It's wonderful. Whenever I worked with George, I just took orders. I mean, I just wanted to give him whatever I possibly—I gave him as many options as possible 'cause I know as a director he's got so much in his mind. So sometimes I'll throw a suggestion there, but not a directing suggestion to help him direct the character better. But no, I take orders. I love the idea of taking orders 'cause I make so many decisions during a day. It's so much easier to, y'know—
G: But if somebody comes to you wanting advice?
FO: Oh, yeah, I'll throw it in. But it's hard to give advice as a director. I think it's probably impossible unless you have the same vision as the other director. And then, I think it's foolish to do that because it may be good advice, but it may not fit how he sees the movie. And so it's more important for the director to take his own advice, and live and die by his advice, and even fail. But fail his way. [Rather] than somebody else's way. In my opinion.
G: I'm curious what your take is on shows like Crank Yankers and Avenue Q that have sort of traded on—
FO: Crank Yankers I haven't seen. I haven't seen that. Avenue Q, I know all those guys. Hell, we taught those guys, some of them. So I know all those guys. I think it's a very entertaining show, and a very heartfelt show. And these guys are very talented. Yeah.
G: At this point do you know what your next project is, or do you have various projects in development?
FO: I'm lookin'. No, I'm not a development person. I don't like to develop; I like to shoot. You get stuck in development, and you go on for years, and I just want to shoot.
G: So you go home to the pile of scripts.
FO: Yeah, I haven't found—I'm trying to do something again low-budget. I loved the low-budget experience. Loved it. And it's also less shooting time. You know, you can do more.
G: Less pressure?
FO: No, the pressure's different. The pressure is not a large, humongous money scale, which I'm used to all the time. But the pressure is more a day-by-day, minute-by-minute scale. "Do I have enough time to shoot this? Do I have enough money for this set?" You know, that's the stuff. I came from television. And that kind of pressure is what I'm used to also. But I think I like the energy in a small, low-budget movie like this. I really love the energy, and the people involved.
G: How long was the shoot for Death at a Funeral?
FO: Seven weeks.
G: And how does that compare to, say, Little Shop of Horrors?
FO: That was six months. (Laughs.)
G: (Laughs.) Right. That's a pretty big difference.
FO: Yeah. But most movies are not that—that was the longest shoot I've ever done. Except for Dark Crystal; that was longer. And that was Jim's movie, not mine really. But I think my normal is about eighteen weeks. More than two-and-a-half times as long.
G: Would you describe this film as a farce?
G: Technically speaking?
FO: Absolutely. Absolute farce, yeah. Which is different from a comedy. I mean, it could be under the comedy umbrella, but farce is very specific under that umbrella, yeah.
G: We've talked about your film-directing experience and your performing experience on film and on television. What was your experience of performing live—do you have background in stage work?
FO: No, I really only have background—performing with the Muppets and, before that, when I was eleven years old to about eighteen—I didn't want to be a puppeteer; I wanted to be a journalist—but I made extra money on the side, thirty-five bucks a shot, every time I did a show for twenty minutes for birthday parties and Christmas party, whatever else I did at that time. But whatever experience I did have was minor—[except] live with the Muppets. And we did a lot of live—not live shows on stage, although we did do Vegas once—but many live on television: Ed Sullivan Shows, we did a couple dozen Ed Sullivan Shows. We did live other stuff. Tonight Show. You know, all that stuff.
G: Looking at that Muppet era, was there a particular moment that you can remember saying, "This is the stuff. We're working on all cylinders here"?
FO: You know what? We—Jim (chuckles), that son of a bitch made us work so hard. (Laughs.) Every time we had a vacation, he'd say, "Hey, you want to do a—there's a possibility of doing this." You know, and we did it. Because we loved Jim. But we were just working and working and working. We never—I never really stood back and reflected. I tend to not do that; I tend to just keep on working, doing the job as best I can. So I didn't really reflect like that.
G: Do you and Steve Martin talk regularly about what he is cooking?
FO: No, last time I talked to Steve, there was a possibility—no, actually somebody else producing Steve's movie, doing movies that—it was something that didn't get to me. And I've asked Steve in the past, and sometimes movies that I have that I want him to do don't get to him. And so it all depends on script for both of us. But we email each other every few months. But not—because, y'know, you're so much closer on a movie set. And then he's also living 3000 miles away from me. I live in Connecticut; he lives in Los Angeles mainly. So we don't get a chance to see each other.
G: In your performing career, when you've lived with a character for a period of years, and that character evolves or develops, when you feel like you really have a character is it unlocked by a particular sketch that coalesces it for you, or is it something that evolves naturally out of just being in that character?
FO: You mean, is it locked at a certain time?
FO: That's a very, very good question because it's exactly what happens. There is a point. And I think it might even happen subconsciously and not consciously. There is a point where there's a [makes the sound of a switch clicking ] click, and from that point on that character's in your heart and you know that character. I mean, for years, I did a character called Bert. Not for—a year. For a year I did it. And I didn't like his character. And all of a sudden, I realized that, I realized what—'cause he was so boring as a character: he was just a stick; he couldn't move. Then I realized that was his strong point. He'd be a boring character. So everything he was is boring. Or uptight. And that was [makes the sound of a switch clicking ], and I clicked, and so I got that. And other characters, for other things. And they're usually very personal clicks, too. Things that I don't tell anybody else. But all of a sudden—and now I don't have to think about it; now they're just part of me.
G: What is a determining factor at this point in whether you would or would not perform those Muppet characters?
FO: Well, uh, you know, I used to perform the Sesame Street Muppets two or three days a year. But they haven't asked me. That I'm not gonna—I can't do until they ask me. And the other characters, they're nothing. There's not really been a venue for the other characters, really. There's not been—I think the key thing for me is to not have to commit to a long period of time. 'Cause I can't do that; I can't commit to a long period of time and then say no to a movie. You know, 'cause a movie takes a year of my life. And so what's difficult is to say, "Okay, I'll do this." And then all of a sudden there's a script I love, and I can't do it 'cause I committed for this period of time. So that, I think—the venue, the script, and the amount of time it would take for me: those are the key elements to me.
G: Do you think that CGI has decreased the demand for puppeteering? Or for a franchise like the Muppets?
FO: I don't think there's a correlation. I think if something is exciting, and fresh, it'll live by itself. And I don't think there's a—I don't think CGI enhances or stops. I think it's what it is, and—
G: But do you think that studios have a perception that that's true?
FO: I don't think the studios think about puppets. I mean, other than their little television shows for kids. But the Muppets are very unusual. It's the first time it's really happened in history, where any kind of puppets—and 'cause of Jim Henson, not 'cause of me—became so incredibly popular. Like 130 countries all over the world; it was the most watched show ever on television.
G: Right, yeah.
FO: And that's never happened before and hasn't happened since. So I think the studios don't really think about puppets at all. At all. I think that's just—in order to think about something like that, they'd have to have another group like the Muppets who all of a sudden come up and create excitement. But I think there's no correlation, at all. If something's good, and the time is right for it, it'll happen.
G: Well, I look forward very much to your next film, whatever that might be.
FO: Yeah! It's so hard to get something you want to do. Low budget is harder to get than high budget.
G: Well, thank you very much.
FO: Thanks. Great questions.
G: It's great to talk to you.
FO: Smart questions. Nice change.
[For Groucho's interview with Dave Goelz, click here, and click through for his reviews of Death at a Funeral, The Muppet Show—Season One, The Muppet Show—Season Two, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper,The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, The Muppets Wizard of Oz, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.]