AUSTIN, Texas—Recent movies about Jim Henson’s famous Muppets have focused on a few stars, including Carol “Big Bird” Spinney and Kevin “We’re Not Talking About Him Anymore” Clash, but Henson always manages to steal the spotlight from the story . You might think that Muppet boys talkinga documentary starring as many as five Muppet firsts could be an exception to the rule.
No chance. Directed by and starring the legendary Frank Oz, this new film focuses five times on the man who created the Muppets—and is perhaps the most moving and full-fledged tribute to the man since his 1990 commemoration in service in New York.
Opening the door for Fozzie
Of the assembled actors, Oz will probably be most well known to Muppet fans, thanks to his lineup of popular characters (Yoda, Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Bert, etc., etc.). The rest of the assembled group represents a lot of Muppets, including Jerry Nelson (The Count, Mr. Snuffleupagus), Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew), Fran Brill (Zoe, Prairie Dawn) and Bill Barretta (Pepe, many of original creations from Henson).
Filmed shortly before Nelson’s death in 2012, the film consists almost entirely of one casual conversation, punctuated by occasional outbursts from one actor. One of the film’s most surprising facts only becomes apparent halfway through: These people haven’t gotten together in over five years. This is especially surprising because of the amount of chemistry and comfort the actors have around each other, whether they finish each other’s sentences or lovingly scold each other. (At one point, the actors sing to Oz in hopes that he will make his “camel” impression, and the joke, which is never revealed, makes the film’s director noticeably blush.)
You won’t find a complete personal history of an actor, let alone a major retelling of Muppet history. Still, some actors remember important professional and personal histories, and a few of these surprise fellow castmates. The common thread is vulnerability and uncertainty, which the actors express in different ways.
Oz and Goelz talk about their characters reflecting elements of their personalities, which they say they have explored through their characters as a kind of therapy. A telling detail is Oz’s description of Fozzie Bear as the only Muppet who “didn’t have a key” to get into the Muppets studio building, yet banged on the door every day. In a Q&A after the screening at the film’s South By Southwest world premiere, Barretta clarified a point from the film by telling a story about his father calling his Muppet work “acting shit.” Then he gestured to his castmates and said, “I was able to find a safe place to do my acting.”
(While the title of the movie states) Muppet GuysBrill points out that she never really felt “one of the guys”. She emphasizes how comfortable and accepted she felt with her castmates, but she attributes her characters’ quirky, more assertive traits to her own position as one of the few women in the Muppets group.)
An elevator full of Muppets
The anecdotes on the cast’s TV and movie set contain notable revelations about the rigging required for certain scenes. The most amazing thing came from Muppets conquer Manhattan, in which about seven Muppet characters climb a giant pole. The idea of simply dragging inanimate characters onto a pole wouldn’t work for Henson. Instead, his crew built a thin-slotted elevator on which the puppeteers actually lay, bellies down, holding out their hands and manipulating arms and legs all the way up. Oz complained on behalf of his castmates, saying that if any part of the rig broke, the actors would have crushed each other.
The talk revealed a few other insurance busting rigs. A motorized crane would have chopped off a puppeteer’s arm if a Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas rig had somehow broken down, while actors in the John Denver Muppets special had to sit for hours in a pit next to an open flame, a giant propane tank, and individual cups to urinate in. Everyone laughed at it, as if a compelling “Muppets by a Campfire” series was worth watching.
Throughout the conversation, the callback requests to Henson were consistent and seemingly non-stop. Henson was somehow the reason for everyone’s career, they all admitted, and Dave Goelz in particular was amazed at the course of his Muppet interview. Goelz flew to Los Angeles for an extended talk with Henson, but the boss was gone. Henson’s mother had died just the day before. Goelz was told that the interview would be postponed… one day. He was stunned and tried to give in, but Henson insisted. “Jim was just like that,” Goelz said.
“I think about Jim every day,” Oz says later, and the rest of the cast nods fervently in agreement. Their professional lives were forever changed, but it wasn’t just Henson’s tireless work ethic, nor his insane ability to direct a gang of puppeteers and perform at the same time. Henson had a way of pulling the loudest, craziest, most lifelike performances from his cast without even telling them to do it. (A few cast members agree that during filming, he would simply repeat a request to “do it again” until each had stretched their acting limits; at that point, he’d finally reply, “that’s okay.”)
In addition to participating in strenuous puppetry situations — like the one where he was submerged in a tank so he could put a banjo-playing Kermit on a pond — the director also offered incredible generosity to everyone else on the cast and crew. The group fondly recalls an anecdote about Henson failing to reprimand a young, clearly overstrained crew member on his first day at work. “It would have ruined the kid,” Oz notes, then clarifies that no one else in Hollywood would do the same.
Not much for this Labyrinth fans
These anecdotes never feel overwrought or out of place as the actors sum up decades of their craft. Henson was just a common element in the workplace — like giant, slippery eyes or colored felt — and even the youngest member of the crew, who barely worked with Henson before his death, pondered the impact of the Muppet creator in the Q&A After the movie. “Everything I’ve learned about Jim, I’ve learned from the people I work with,” said Barretta. “It’s a feeling, how you interact… that’s what Jim created.”
This is by no means a fancy looking movie; you don’t get much more than a single, lit attic space. And in terms of historical record, the film has some major gaps, none of which are bigger than the cast’s memories that ended around 1990. There is never any mention of the Henson Company’s weaker production over the decades, and while the cast pays tribute to the formative puppeteers and performers who have since passed away, they hardly have anything to say about Spinney or any other cast members.
For these cast members, as for many fans, a specific subset of the Henson era has frozen and crystallized out in time — and the conversation’s focus on that limited period favors the documentary. These actors’ heartfelt, off-the-cuff odes, centered on both Henson and each other, are quite moving, despite incredibly low production values. Muppet boys talking won’t take long to become Muppet Fans Crying.
The film is not yet ready for a wide release. Visit the official website to sign up for updates.