Last month at SXSW, the documentary Muppets Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched premiered to much jubilation. The film is exactly as the name implies: some of the team behind the original Muppets (as well as Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and others), got together to talk about their time on the series, working with Jim Henson.
Directed by Frank Oz – who played characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Grover and has since gone on to become a celebrated director through films like Bowfinger and Death and a Funeral – the film’s SXSW premiere saw Frank walk the red carpet alongside his wife Victoria Labalme who produced the film, as well as Bill Barretta, Fran Brill and Dave Goelz.
In an experience which served as a personal life highlight for yours truly – who like many of you, grew up watching the Henson catalogue of puppet-related series – I had the chance to speak to everyone on the red carpet about getting the gang back together for the film. Here’s what went down when I spoke with Bill Barretta (Swedish Chef, Pepe the King Prawn, Johnny Fiama, Big Mean Carl, Bobo the Bear etc.), Fran Brill (Zoe, Little Bird, Betty Lou, Prairie Dawn etc.) and Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot, Bunsen etc.).
This film seems like a great opportunity not just for fans but for you as well to reflect on . What did you take away from the experience of making it?
Dave Goelz: It’s just the warmth. There’s a group of colleagues – this film just features some of the puppeteers, but we have more puppeteers, and we have rings of puppeteers in different cities, and we have a whole set of concentric rings of performers in London and Toronto who we work with when we’re there. And same thing for crew, cinematographers, designers, we have a Muppet workshop… we have this network of colleagues and friends. So every job I do is like a reunion. Every time. And I love it. Because for some reason, the people who are drawn to Jim are people that I really like.
Fran Brill: Like minded people. My feeling is that you didn’t last long working for Jim unless you shared his sensibilities in terms of what kind of person to be, and how you treated other people. And collaboration. And that you take with you the rest of your life. So there’s so much warmth between all these different collaborators, because you’re like minded. You’re there to do good things.
Bill Barretta: Yeah, you depend on each other. We rely on the people that are creating the characters. It’s a balance of everyone coming together, and trying to, at that time, everybody’s focused on that one result, that end result. So we all rely on each other.
Fran Brill: Everyone appreciates so much about the other crafts that exist in those worlds. I remember looking at the cuffs on Statler and Waldorf’s shirts, and I went “oh my gosh there’s double stitching on this!”. Like no one would ever see that on camera, but somebody who did that, took the trouble to make it that authentic. It’s the minutia,
Dave Goelz: Yeah, back in Jim’s days, puppet costumes would have real lined pockets. You could put things in them. It was so much detail – Jim never held back on any of that. He would get any fabric… it might have cost $4,000 a yard – but you’d only one yard *laughs*
Bill Barretta: Designers even outside of the Muppet world wanted to design and contribute in some way.
What advice do you give to the next generation of Muppeteers when passing on your characters?
Dave Goelz: We don’t pass them on! They pry them out of our cold dead hands! *laughs* No!
Fran Brill: Watching and absorbing. That’s what it was like for me, and I think for every puppeteer when they’re hired. It’s behaviour. We watched how Jim worked. And now the next generation sees how we worked. And how we treat each other and collaborate. And all of this comes from Jim.
Dave Goelz: It’s an uncanny thing. We have seven who work the Muppets right now, and I think three or four of them have never met Jim. But they watched the show as kids, and they somehow absorbed not just the characters but the ethos underneath the characters too. They come in very protective of the characters.
Bill Barretta: I hope one day that if someone takes on my characters, it’s someone who’s been close in a sense and has relationships. These characters and their relationships come from our relationships. I think that’s a really important part. It’s not just a random voice that comes because they sound like them… it’s about the essence of the whole character.
Fran Brill: It’s their souls! These characters have souls!
Dave Goelz: Exactly! And when Bill dies….
Fran Brill: Can I be the Swedish Chef?
Bill Barretta: Yes you can.
Muppet Guys Talking premiered at SXSW last month. To find out when it will be officially released, head to their official website and sign up to their mailing list.
Photo Credit: Matt Carey/Nonfictionfilm.com.