Frank Oz for “Death at a Funeral”

There’s more to Frank Oz than the puppeteer and voice behind classic characters Miss Piggy and Yoda, he is a filmmaker responsible for diverse hits as Little Shop of Horrors, What about Bob and Bowfinger. His latest film, Death at a Funeral, explores the highs and lows of dysfunction with a British family. Oz talked exclusively about directing and muppets, to Paul Fischer.

Question: You have made some really exquisite comedies in your illustrious directorial career. What was the particular attraction for this one, which is a little bit different from what you have done before?

Oz: You know, it’s not an intellectual answer I can give you, it’s visceral. I just laughed out loud and I was touched by it. And I think that’s why I did it.

Question: We’re used to seeing you direct a number of slightly bigger studio comedies.

Oz: Not slightly. A LOT bigger.

Question: What were the particular challenges for you, in terms of going from one extreme to the other in terms of budget?

Oz: That’s an interesting question. I can go on forever, and I won’t, do worry about it. I just a couple of years ago had done a very, very expensive movie, and I was looking for something totally the opposite, something very small. This is only $10 million, and I’m used to $80, $100 million dollar movies. So you’re right. I was looking for this to get back just to the purity of being a director, working with actors. And this, the difference is, the budgets on the big ones, you have a certain kind of pressure. I love pressure, I love making decisions under pressure. And that kind of pressure is more, you know, if the movie fails will the studio head be fired? If the movie fails will the stocks go down? Things like that. When you do a $10 million picture, the pressures are, can I get this shot with the money that I have? I know we don’t have enough money to work overtime, so how can I get this shot when I know that my schedule is running out and I can’t afford this piece of scenery. And then the speed I have to work in is different. So the pressures are different. I love working under both. But this was a delight mainly because of the script and my 13 glorious actors.

Question: Films about dysfunction families have been around for a while. What can you do to try and make that theme different?

Oz: It wasn’t about dysfunctional families. I find that a bore myself. You tell me what family isn’t dysfunctional. So I don’t know what, you know, if one talks about dysfunctional families, I’d like to have someone point out to me, what is a functional family? I don’t think it exists. I think to some degree, because we’re so humanly imperfect, our relationships are humanly imperfect to our families. So, you know, it’s not a theme that I was exploring at all. I was exploring something else. Again, nobody else has to be concerned about it, because it’s only the director, but it was for me not about dysfunctional families as it was, more about a man, a husband becoming the man that the wife always thought he could be. That’s what the movie’s about for me. And every decision I made along the way was a tributary of that spine.

Question: I know who Jane Asher is, and I know who all these British actors are. I was talking to another journalist the other night, who is much younger than I am, American, and of course didn’t know any of them.

Oz: They don’t know anybody.

Question: Was that a job for you to find actors to play these roles rather than recognizable movie stars?

Oz: The joy of working with extraordinary actors, whether they’re $20 million actors or one thousand dollar actors, is just to find the actors. This particular movie was made for $10 million, so we were limited in whom we could get in the first place, so we knew that. But we were not limited in England the way we are in America because England has such a culture, a depth of talent of acting because of the training, that’s extraordinary. So I had a wonderful opportunity to get so many actors in to audition. And I was thrilled to work with people who were not huge stars. By the way, huge stars like Steve Martin can, you know, Bill Murray, etc., I love working with. But this was a joy because it was all about the project, it wasn’t about big trailers, it wasn’t about anything else. And these people, as far as I’m concerned are just on the cusp of stardom. And I don’t care, I just want to work with great actors, and this, I was just very, very fortunate.

Question: Talk about working in England. I guess as an actor you—

Oz: I’m not an actor.

Question: But as somebody who used to be an actor, you worked on the Muppets in England. And of course on Star Wars

Oz: Did a lot of work in London. Lived there for about nine years.

Question: Was it fun to be behind the camera and working, you worked in Ealing on this, right?

Oz: I worked in Ealing. I’ve been behind the camera for about 20 years, and I haven’t performed for the camera for about 10 years now, I haven’t done that for many, many years. I’ve always wanted to be a director and the puppeteering was kind of an accident. Ealing Studios has such a history and it’s so wonderful to work there. Little studio. It was a joy. And I’ve worked in Shetland, I’ve worked in Pine Wood, you know, and EMI, or what used to be EMI. But Ealing was a very special because of all the history in the wall that’s in the walls.

Question: Right. They redefined the sort of classic British comedy of the fifties—

Oz: Absolutely. Also, those scripts were written with great craftsmanship, too. And that has a lot to do with it. Besides the fact that Peter Sellers was there, and so many other actors, it was also the scripts that were done with great craftsmanship.

Question: You have been around a long time, as you mentioned. Do you miss that kind of writing? Do you think that kind of writing is lacking?

Oz: It’s strange. I was just in Cannes. This sounds like I’m name dropping, but I was there last week for the Film Festival. Which was extraordinary, the biggest outdoor screen in Europe. Four stories high, there are eight thousand people on the Piazza Grande. It’s funny, but there are 22 films shown there, the Piazza Grande. Bourne Identity to Hairspray to Knocked Out to Japanese films to Italian films, I think. And our film won the audience prize, the favorite of the audience. And it’s just a little film, and I have a feeling, people are saying it’s fresh. I think it’s fresh because it’s older. I think it’s fresh because it’s really crafted well, you know? By the writer. And it’s really done well by the actors. That’s how it gets it.

Question: What are the challenges for you as you get older, to find good material as a filmmaker?

Oz: I’m not quite sure what you mean by getting older and finding good material.

Question: Is the material getting harder to find because what Hollywood is churning out now is probably different than what it was when you were starting out as a filmmaker.

Oz: I don’t think age has anything to do with material that you get. I think success has to do with the material you get. If you’re successful you get material, you can be 105, it makes no difference.

Question: Let me rephrase that. Are your criteria now different than they were five or 10 years ago?

Oz: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. I’ve done about a dozen films and I’m very happy with almost all of them. And so, but it’s very much Hollywood has become much more about marketing, and I tend to like story and character more.

Question: You say you got into puppeteering by accident. Was it difficult to make that transition into being a director?

Oz: It wasn’t difficult because it was such a long process. Jim Henson was one of the people who gave me the opportunities and support; without Jim I couldn’t do this, couldn’t have done this. But I gave myself about 10 years to be a director. And I learned, not in film school but as I performed for the various movies that I’ve done, my film school was looking and listening and asking questions of the director of photographytl and the production designer and the grip and staying late and watching the editing sessions. That was my school. And so it wasn’t hard because it was just kind of a natural process over the years, learning to the point when Jim asked me to co-direct with him. It wasn’t hard, I guess I’m saying the transition occurred without me even knowing it.

Question: You still go back to puppeteering.

Oz: No. I haven’t done it for years.

Question: You don’t do the voice of Miss Piggy, that kind of thing?

Oz: No, I haven’t done that for I don’t know how many years.

Question: They have released the second season of the Muppets TV show on DVD. Do you ever look back on those early things and say to yourself, Hey, I worked with some amazing people back in the day.

Oz: Listen, no, I don’t look at my work. I move on. But I’m very much aware of how blessed I was to have been in that situation. Very blessed. I worked with extraordinary people. Number one, Jim Henson. But besides that on the Muppets, the other performers, and of course the guest stars.

Question: The guests are absolutely astonishing.

Oz: Yeah, they are astonishing. It’s interesting in the first few months we were shooting and nobody knew who we were, so Jim had to beg people to be on. Then finally we came on the air and everybody wanted to be on. We were very fortunate. Yeah, the guest stars, we had about 120 guest stars for five years and they were amazing.

Question: What’s funny, the second season, Steve Martin was a guest star. It’s rather funny, you worked with him as a director and actor. Did you guys sort of laugh at the fact?

Oz: He’s one of these extraordinary people, also an amazing writer, who just accepts you as you are. Accepts you as a performer. I asked to do—David Geffen’s idea, I met with Steve, and we knew each other as performers and then he accepted that I was a director and moved on.

Question: I assume that when Lucas does this TV show, The Clone Wars, you’re going to be involved in that.

Oz: People have said that. I think they’ve read IMDB, which you should never believe, and they said I’m involved. I have no idea even what it is. I have no concept of what it is.

Question: What about your future plans as a director?

Oz: Well, looking for another low budget film, because I had so much film. Low-budget films are less about marketing and less about story and character, which really takes even more. I’m trying to find a script, I haven’t found one yet.

Question: It’s been three years between them. Stepford Wives was the last one, yet?

Oz: Yup.

Question: Is it frustrating waiting like that?

Oz: No. I’m a very good lazy person. I’m not a workaholic. Stepford Wives was a huge, huge picture, and it was not a successful picture. It was not one, even though I was very proud of it as a work, and about many, many things about it,, it was not one that I did a good job on. It was my fault. So I lost confidence after that. It took me a while to come back up. I found this and I knew I wanted to get away and get back to the material. As a matter of fact I went back to my acting teacher and we went to acting lessons and coaching and the heart and soul of what I love doing.

Question: Do you have at this point any unfulfilled ambitions? Something you’d really like to do?

Oz: Yeah. Mainly I just want to do good work. That could be theater or movies. All kinds of different movies. I haven’t done a horror movie, I haven’t done the thriller, I’ve done musicals. I’ve done my family drama, I’ve done my special effects, I’ve done my action heist movie. And I love doing comedies, but I want to do other things, too, and theater, and still being a good dad to my kids. Number one to everything else. And enjoy life. But you know the old saying: Man plans and God laughs.

Question: Plan and I’m sure you’ll be fine.

Oz: All we can do is go with it, right?