Frank Oz on In & Of Itself, Baby Yoda, Little Shop of Horrors and More
It’s almost impossible to classify In & Of Itself, the one-man off-Broadway show that’s now an acclaimed movie on Hulu, and that’s kind of the point. Its star, Derek DelGaudio, is a magician of unusual skill, but the show, built around true stories from his life, employs illusion only in the service of a complex, often unsettling, nearly hypnotic exploration of human identity that tends to leave audiences in tears, even the ones watching at home. For Frank Oz, 76, who directed both the stage and screen versions of the show, it’s yet another triumph in an improbably broad-ranging career. His long run as an in-demand director of now-classic films (Little Shop of Horrors, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?), with some pit stops in the Star Wars universe as Yoda, was preceded by years of performances as Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Grover, and other beloved Muppets. In a video chat from his New York apartment, Oz looked back at six decades of wizardry.
You tweeted that doing In & Of Itself made it feel like the last few decades of your career were a detour. That’s an extraordinary thing to say, after a career like yours. What did you mean by that?
Well, I began as a puppeteer when I was about 12 years old. And when I was about 18, I said, No more of this. I stopped it, because I wanted to be a journalist. Then, about halfway into studying that in junior college in Oakland, Jim Henson asked me to join him as a puppeteer. So here’s the very thing I quit. Now I’m being asked to do it again. And then I somehow got to be better at it, after years and years of working with Jim and Jane Henson. So I kept on doing it and doing it.
On the one hand, there was this joy of working with these people I love and the [Muppet] characters. It was such a incredible, golden time. And on the other hand, there’s an underlying dissatisfaction that that’s all I was doing. Then I started with Jim as co-director of The Dark Crystal, and I was happy I was doing something else. Although I was just learning. And after Dark Crystal, I directed Muppets take Manhattan, and that was successful. So then David Geffen asked me to do Little Shop of Horrors. And that was successful. Then Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. And I just kept on doing these large, popular comedies. Then I finally stopped and said, I want to do a heist movie. And we did that, The Score.
But all that time, I never tried to be a popular film director. I just happened to be successful. And every time I didn’t screw up, they asked me again. I love directing, so it was great. However, there was that part of me that was a bit more rebellious, that was drawn to controlled anarchy — which actually was the Muppets in the very beginning, when it was about four of us in two rooms. It was more experimental. That was great. But then, again, we got successful. So I’m really coming back to that kind of experimental feeling that we had in the first year or two in the Muppets. That’s where my heart always has been, in that kind of that art. I don’t know if you call it rebellious, I don’t know if you call anarchic, but certainly not status quo.
What were the initial discussions like with Derek about this show?
We were already friends, and he needed a director not just to direct the show, but to help him create the shape of a show, a real show. So he asked me if I wanted to direct it, and I said, it depends if I can contribute or not. He flew into New York and went through all the individual pieces, all his ideas. Yet they were disparate. They weren’t of a whole, and they weren’t saying anything. That’s where I came in and the discussion started.
How did you help make these pieces into a whole that said something?
Well, I think it was a hide and seek, really. As with any creative endeavor that’s worth anything, you struggle going down dark alleys, and you hit a brick wall, and you come back and try another dark alley, and you hit a brick wall, and you try another dark alley, and oh, there’s a little bit of light there. So you follow that light, and then you hit another brick wall, and it keeps on going like that.
My sense is that the way that Derek struggles with the term magician, and the issues of identity that are at the core of the show, is something that you relate to personally. How much of that drew you to this project?
Yeah. That’s the real reason, I think, at least in part. We’re both in the same situation. He is seen as a “magician.” Some people who don’t know me as a director with about a dozen feature films see me as a “puppeteer.” Now, neither Derek nor I are against being magicians or puppeteers, we’re against the perception that people have. The perception is often condescending and pejorative, as if it were a third or fourth value underneath comedy and drama and live performances. So when when I think of puppeteer, I think of years and years of work and the complexities, and all the things that people don’t understand. So, as you said, I’m well-suited because it’s about labels. Everybody is labeled. And he and I don’t like labels, because labels lead to stereotypes. And stereotypes lead to limitations of human beings.
Since it is, appropriately enough, a very hard show to define, how did Derek characterize what he was trying to do at the beginning?
I think another reason we both got together is because again, we were friends. We knew beforehand that we both don’t like status quo. We both like to break things, to break the form. I’d rather break the form and be unsuccessful than stay with the form and be successful. I don’t like being safe. Neither does Derek. I said I had no interest in doing a magic show whatsoever. I’m not a magic maven. I’ve seen some magic shows, and they’re fun. The value is is seeing tricks, but there’s no emotional connection there. There’s no story. There’s no feeling other than “trick, blackout, applause.” But fortunately, he didn’t want that. What we need the magic for — or whatever you call it, illusion, magic, whatever — is each of those moments are sparks to continue the story. And underneath is the real story, the real struggle. And [the audience doesn’t] know it, but they feel it. And that’s why they’re connected to it. I know that sounds artsy-fartsy and highfalutin, but that’s true.
Could you talk about some of the most impactful notes you gave him along the way?
Well, I think the most impactful is, Derek tells this true story of someone calling him The Rouletista. [As DelGaudio tells it, someone he met in a bar once compared him to the legend of a man who repeatedly played Russian roulette and survived.] That was, for him, the beginning of years of wondering what the hell they mean by that. And every time anything happened in the workshop, any ideas that anyone had, I said, “OK, what has that got to do with finding out what Rouletista means?” What did those individual pieces have to do in strengthening the entire storyline, and the struggle? That’s the number one thing I did.
Struggle is a very important word to you. You’ve said that you’ve always made sure all your characters have “a struggle.”
It’s everything. In art and life.
One of my editors used to say, if you’re trying to write a profile of someone, what you should be looking for is their essential dilemma. I feel like it’s the same idea that you use for the importance of struggle for a character.
Yeah, every character I do in the Muppets has a struggle. You’re struggling, I’m struggling, the richest people in the world are struggling in some way — not necessarily to get food, to get housing. They’re struggling for happiness, they’re struggling for sanity, they’re struggling for relationships. We’re all struggling. That’s the very core of our being. And if there’s no struggle, I don’t think it’s worth it. And in this show, it was about Derek’s struggle. I said early on, “Derek, the only way you’re going to connect with people is to make it about yourself. Because those struggles that you have inside yourself are the only things that connect with people.”
Derek had always been resistant to showing his illusions on screen. So was there any hesitancy from him over the very idea of doing this as a film at all?
Yeah. We all know “magic” tricks are useless on film. On film you can do anything with the CGI, so nobody believes it. So Derek’s intent at first was not necessarily to make it into a movie. Derek’s intent initially was to record it so we would have a lot of material for historical purposes, if nothing else, just to remember it. Then, when the movie was being talked about, and it was shot, then the question is: We have all this footage, what do we do with it? How do we make it something that’s not just a movie? So we were back in the same dark-alley-brick-wall struggle.
What was the key breakthrough in making this work as a filmed experience?
The key was to stand back. The “script” we had was not a script so much as the experience of doing it for 500, 600, 700 shows. In order to switch it to a new medium, my thing was, like, “Hey, we got a lot of B-roll footage, we got a lot of this, how about we try this and that?” And the more I tried, the less it worked with Derek. The more we just stood back and let the film tell us what to do, that’s what worked. I know that’s an odd thing. But that really happens in film and editing. When you back off and just allow the film to breathe, it tells you what it becomes.
I can’t recall ever seeing anything like the sequences where you show multiple versions of the audience-interaction moments.
That idea came from Derek. And it was wonderful. And it showed, number one, that [the audience members] weren’t plants. They were all real people. You can’t hire that many plants who would’ve had to have been actors as good as, you know, Laurence Olivier.
Did you have to be careful how you filmed it, for fear of breaking the magic and revealing how he did it?
Mostly, the illusion holds. Certainly, we had to be careful with lighting, with angles. But our emphasis was on telling the story, not on making the illusions work.
The real magic trick of the show seems to be the profound emotional effect it has on most viewers.
We had people crying and they didn’t know why, and I kind of planned that. It all piles up, and you realize you’re emotionally involved, and you’re not sure why. That was the main reaction. That’s what I’d hoped for.
If you’ve now realized that this is the kind of thing you want to do, how do you take that forward at this point in your life and career?
Well, it’s a good question. Because now, I get some scripts, and they’re very good. I was asked to do a Broadway production afterwards, of a well-known play. I thought, Well, I love this play. But it’s basically the same thing. It’s the form. And that’s not my joy. My joy is to, as I said, break the form. Derek and I certainly are hoping to work together on on things. And there’s some ideas that I have on my own for writing some plays, or getting some ideas and working with somebody. But in general, I think the answer is, I don’t know how to move forward, except by rejecting the form.
You’ve turned down a lot of things over the years. Is it true, for instance, that you rejected an offer to direct the second Harry Potter movie?
That’s not true. It’s bullshit. No, they didn’t offer it to me. They asked me if I was interested. So it wasn’t really an offer.
So you preemptively turned down even the discussion of it.
Because the Harry Potter books never got to me. I love things that are grounded. I enjoyed the movies, but they’re not as grounded in human values and truths as things I like to be part of. But it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. My kids didn’t care for it, either. Not that they were bad. It’s just that that’s where we came from. The movies I enjoyed a lot. I wouldn’t want to direct it. If you direct something like that, you better feel really good about what you’re doing, because you’re the leader, and you’ve got to go forward.
After Stepford Wives in 2004 [with Nicole Kidman, Bette Midler, Matthew Broderick, and Glenn Close], which was obviously not a success, you turned away from big studio films. What happened there?
The experience was not a good one. And it was my fault, because I didn’t follow my instincts. That’s the only movie I’ve ever shot where I did not follow my instincts. Because it got so huge, with all these exquisitely talented people, that it just ballooned up. When you have big stars, you can’t help but balloon everything up, because the star rightfully has their own makeup person and the hair person, and then you have the assistant, and then you have the driver. My intent was have a small relationship movie. But once those stars — and it was a joy to work with them — came on board, it ballooned up.
I felt that I couldn’t quit. Because we had hired the people. And if I quit, those people would lose their jobs. But I should have quit. Because it was going in a direction that that wasn’t true to what I wanted to do. There’s some great things [in that movie] that I’m very proud of, but in general, as a whole. It didn’t work. With [the 2010 comedy] Death at a Funeral, I got back to regular moviemaking, for $10 million. And that was a joy.
To go back to The Dark Crystal, you’ve said that studio executives exited the first screening of that movie in complete silence.
They didn’t say a thing!
And that was after an incredibly grueling shoot.
Right now it would probably be a $200 million movie. Because it couldn’t ever be done again. It was incredibly hard. It was Jim’s vision. I earned the the title of co-director, but I was really assisting the direction of his vision. And he and I were so close. He knew that there were things that I could do that he wasn’t as good at. And he was also performing, and he trusted me. And I knew that I didn’t understand the vision like he did, but I could help him.
After that screening, all I thought was how I felt for Jim, because Jim was depressed. There was one terrific review, and after that, they were all bad. And, you know, I think part of the expectation was that it would like The Muppet Show and Sesame Street. Well, Jim didn’t want to do that. He wanted to have the feeling of a Grimm’s fairy tale — not the homogenized ones, but the real Grimm’s fairy tales, which are really fucking frightening. He was OK with scaring children. He felt it was cathartic and healthy.
Listening to your directors’ commentary on Little Shop of Horrors, it’s clear that you were already remarkably confident. I was lucky enough to see the original off-Broadway production of that show as a child, and you captured its sort of grungy vibe. How central was that goal to your work there?
I can’t tell you how happy I am to hear that. Because my number one goal was to keep the off-Broadway feel. Big movie musicals have sweeping crane shots, and they have people dancing. And if I went in that direction, I would have betrayed it. I needed to keep my eye on the prize, which was making a gritty, off-Broadway production still, no matter how much it cost.
Obviously Steve Martin comes in and does the phenomenal dentist scene, which also has Bill Murray in it. Was your deep connection with Steve forged on that set?
That was the part that made it happen. I had worked with Steve before. He was a guest star in Muppets Take Manhattan. He did a hysterical job playing the the waiter, delivering the finest wines of Idaho to the table. And he was also a guest on The Muppet Show. And we forged a friendship that allowed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels to happen, and allowed Bowfinger to happen.
What do you remember about making the Ruprecht scene in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels work?
It’s hysterical. And Michael [Caine] is so beautiful, and also [Meagen Fay] was just terrific. What really happened was, Steve was so excited about the Ruprecht scene that for months beforehand, he kept on giving me ideas. “Hey, Frank, would it be funny if we did…?” And we had to get them down to just a few. And then on set some things were just made up at the time, along with his previous ideas. But it’s Steve’s genius. He’s one of a kind. I wish I could take credit.
Was the “may I go to the bathroom first” bit an improvisation?
What happened there was great. Steve came up to me said, “You know, Frank, I do this thing in my nightclub act,” and he showed me the thing about going to the bathroom. I said, “Oh, Christ, we got to do that.” [Laughs.] So it was just before the shot [that] he told me. It was brilliant.
With What About Bob?, did you see a bit of Bert and Ernie in Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss’ characters?
Yeah, and I think that’s true in a larger sense, too. Because, like Bob and the doctor, Bert and Ernie are opposites. Abbott and Costello are opposites. Jerry Lewis was opposite from Dean Martin. Opposites cause comedy.
It’s no secret that Murray and Dreyfuss didn’t get along. How did that affect things?
I was just trying to get the best out of both of them. Richard is a very structured person. And I’m not that structured. And Billy is very unstructured. So you have that opposite going also. And as a matter of fact, I just wrote Richard a letter, after all these years, because I was looking at that movie, and I realized how brilliant Richard’s work was. But yes, they didn’t get along. And in my perverse directorial intent, I was very pleased [laughs]. They’re not supposed to get along. It’s not that I was simpatico with Bill, but I leaned more towards the ideas that Bill had. But I am so grateful to Richard for his performance.
How did you pull off the scene where Eddie Murphy crosses the freeway in Bowfinger?
I kept asking the location scout, Do we have the freeway? Because we had to shut off part of the Glendale Freeway for that. It took her a couple of months to get permission. God knows what she did to get permission. She was just wonderful. And once we got the permission, we had to be ready. The late Bernie Williams, who was my producer on about a half-dozen of my films, did such a smart thing. Before we had 100 stunt drivers, and shot it on the highway, he got us the parking lot of Dodger Stadium, and we rehearsed it there, really to show Eddie it’d be safe. Because it looked dangerous. But we wanted to show Eddie that he would only be as far from the cars as he would normally be on the sidewalk in New York City.
When he did it for real, we had him run twice across the freeway with no cars whatsoever. Then, we would have one line of cars go through, then the next take would be another line of cars, then the next take another line of cars. Then we have all those layers, and in postproduction, we could play around and move cars around [using rotoscoping]. And this was in pre-digital times. We even used a cardboard truck that nobody knows about.
Eddie was in a previous movie called Golden Child where he walked across a freeway. And it wasn’t funny. It was just showing how spiritual he was. So I’m not sure he had much faith in what I was doing. And when he saw our scene for the first time, he said, “Frank, this is wild!”
With The Score, you were not only directing Marlon Brando, but also Edward Norton, not to mention Robert De Niro. Did anyone suggest that might be a bit too much to deal with?
I really felt Marlon would do a great character. That’s all I care about. And so I went and met with him for a couple hours at his home. And that’s another story [laughs]. Bob did say to me, “It could get crazy.” And I said, “Nah.” It got crazy. But it was not Marlon’s fault. It was my fault as a director.
I really thought Marlon was a humanist and a wonderful human being who was tortured, really tortured. The process was difficult for both him and me. Bob was wonderful. Edward did try to do some rewriting. And actually, there’s some work of his we used that was really good. Edward is a talented writer. But even if one is a talented writer, unless that writer sees what the director wants to see, it doesn’t help. In that one scene, he saw what I wanted to see, so I shot it that way. The reason I have so much time for Edward is it’s all about wanting to make it better. It wasn’t anything else.
You created various Muppets, and helped bring Yoda to life. And now they’re all owned by Disney. Is the lack of control or ownership over all of that any source of frustration?
Yoda’s a little different in that it was really George [Lucas] and Larry [Kasdan] who wrote it. And [designer/make-up artist] Stuart [Freeborn] made it. Jim [Henson] helped to a degree, and other people. But at the end of the day, what I did was put it together as a living, breathing thing. But I couldn’t have done it without those people. I’m the only one who’s ever done Yoda. So I feel good about that.
It’s the other Muppet characters where I’m not frustrated as much as I’m hurt. Because the people doing my characters are friends, and I’m grateful to them. But you can’t really do another person with growth. I mean, I can mimic you nodding your head there with your black T-shirt on. I can mimic you, but I can never grow, because I don’t know who you are really, inside your soul. But the characters aren’t growing.
Just like if I tried to do Gonzo [who was the work of fellow Muppets creator Dave Goelz], I wouldn’t grow. They’re great, they’re doing the best they can. The problem is not not they’re doing it. And there’s a woman there called Lee Slaughter who really loves the Muppets and is trying to change things. Prior to that, Disney didn’t have a clue. They didn’t understand the purity that was needed, the affection between the puppeteers that was needed. They felt they bought the puppets. And they didn’t understand it really wasn’t the puppets. It was really the people who do them, who worked together for 20 to 30 years.
It’s odd that I was never asked to help as part of it at all. And I think it is there’s some hubris there, but you have a vast company like that, and Muppets is only a tiny drop in the bucket for Disney. They’re thinking, “If we need help from other people, why did we buy it? We have people who can do that. It’s just puppets.” I compare it to a fan of Formula One racing who jumps in the car, and he thinks he can do it himself. He doesn’t really get it. And that’s kind of what happened with Disney. Again, that was before, and I’m not angry at them. I just feel sad that they that they felt that they couldn’t ask for help from the performers who did it for 30 to 40 years. But now I feel the intent has changed tremendously. Lee is really doing her best. I know the intent is completely different, which is really nice.
Obviously, everyone is curious to hear your thoughts on Baby Yoda.
That’s something I had nothing to do with. I didn’t know about it until it came out. And I haven’t seen The Mandalorian. I heard it’s fantastic, and I really want to see it. A friend of mine, Robert Rodriguez, is directing a lot of them right now. But I had no idea about that Yoda. So, I mean, it’s nice. It’s an outgrowth of my work, but it’s a brand-new work. There’s growth, so I’m all for it. I know nothing about it, but it’s really cute.
You’ve been suspicious of cuteness in the past, though, as was Jim Henson.
Oh, I hate cuteness. Well, I hate pejorative cuteness. To me, puppy dogs are legitimately cute. But people would say the Muppets were cute, and we wanted to kill them. But I do think Baby Yoda or whatever that little character’s name is, is legitimately cute.
Grogu is the name.
Grogu? [Laughs hard.] I think he’s legitimately cute. Not pejoratively cute. I’m not being condescending. Jim disliked being cute so much that we had this character named Bean Bunny and made him really cute, so the audience can call him cute, and stop calling the others cute. But the trouble is, they actually started liking him.
Do you happen to have any specific memories of duetting with Johnny Cash on “Jackson” as Miss Piggy? Because that’s just a phenomenal moment.
There’s a book being written about me, and I’ve been doing during the interviews for months. The writer ask asked me about every single guest star, and he asked me that question. And I love Johnny Cash, but I have no recollection whatsoever. Jim created the work, and I had to deliver. So I wasn’t part of the creation process of meeting Johnny Cash or the other guests, and talking about what they’d like to do. As a result, it’s very difficult to remember when there were so many guest stars. It’s terrible. I should be hypnotized, because I must have some great stories.
You had a long string of cameos in the films of John Landis, where you usually played some kind of jerk.
Whenever John had a small part, and it was a prick, he thought of me [laughs]. John and I are friends, and he was a fan of mine. We met during The Muppet Movie, actually, at that end scene with all of the 250 puppets. He was holding Grover there in the big crowd —Tim Burton is also holding somebody in that scene. So we got to know each other, and when John asked me to do those roles, I said yes, not to be an actor, but rather to help me as a director. I think every director should get in front of the camera and shoot for one day, so they know how frightening it is.
People still quote from your moments in those films, like when you mock Dan Aykroyd with “it’s an opera” in Trading Places.
I know! “It’s an opera!” And also holding up that used condom [in Blues Brothers]. John sent me some German postcards, with me holding up the condom.