Interview with Frank Oz, the voice of Yoda and director of new comedy ‘Death at a funeral’

Q:
You get offered a lot of scripts, what did this film have that made it stand
out?

A: I was looking to do a very small movie,
something that’s just me, a camera and some actors in a room. I’ve been doing
the big ones with huge massive sets and huge locations and special effects with
CGI. I want to get back to the heart of movie making that I really love. I
wasn’t necessarily looking for a comedy, right now I’m looking for a thriller
or a suspense movie. I’m known for comedy so a lot of comic scripts come my
way.

 

Q:
What where your initial thoughts of a comedy based around a funeral; It’s quite
an unusual concept.

A: I didn’t think of the funeral aspect, I
thought about all the relationship aspects, that’s what appeals to me, I like
being subversive. I don’t like happy cute little comedies, I hate them. Part of
the appeal was that it’s a bit subversive; the other part was about the
relationships and what happens in these events that they lead.

 

Q:
Were there many changes made to the script to accommodate such a large cast.

A: We did have some rewrites and we also
improvised some stuff. Dean Craig wrote a terrific script that brought it all
together. Then I asked him to be on set everyday because I knew it would change
but essentially it was ready to go. What changed was a result of me, the writer
and the actors rehearsing for two weeks and learning that some things on paper
don’t work on set.

 

Q:
You mentioned you don’t like traditional comedies, do any particular comedies
stand out that inspire you?

A: ‘Annie Hall’ is a huge inspiration, it’s
fabulous. There’s some humanity and some smartness. Other comedies I like are
‘Monty Python’, ‘The In-Laws’ (not the new ‘In-Laws’ but the old one), ‘
Fawlty Towers’, I’m
blanking out but there are a few.

 

Q:
With such an impressive cast did you audition everyone or did you know who you
wanted to approach?

A: I had an open audition, there were only
two people I didn’t audition, first was Ewan Bremmner,  because I’d seen him in ‘Match Point’, I knew
I wanted him because he’s a terrific actor and so I had lunch with him and
hired him without an audition. Peter went without an audition also because I’d
seen him in ‘The Station Agent’ and I was blown away by that. The other actors I
kind of knew, but not really.

 

Q:
Did you leave the door open for much improvisation during the shoot?

A: Certainly during the rehearsal stage, to
get to the point of finding something more exciting. At the end of the day if it’s
new and it works you forget whose idea it was it doesn’t matter. This process
led into the shooting cause in the shooting, because when I get what I want, I
say ‘Ok guys, I got it, now lets have some fun, do it anyway you want to’.
Sometimes, I get s**t, but sometimes I get gold and for this film I got some
wonderful gold. Some scenes are so difficult to really script the dialogue, so
you gotta just let it flow.

 

Q:
One running joke in the film revolves around some sexual photographs that we
never get to see. The facial reaction of actors when they see the photographs
is hilarious; can you reveal what’s on those photos?

A: In rehearsal, when the cast saw it they
were fine, but it wasn’t as intense as I wanted, so for the shoot I approached
a certain gay crew member who will remain nameless and I said to him to ‘I need
some hardcore gay porno, the hardest you’ve got and don’t tell me you don’t
have any’. So he brought in photograph,, every time we had a new take we fed a
new one to Peter so he was seeing a new hardcore photo each time and it made
such a difference, what’s in your imagination is the worst thing anyway.

 

Q:
When you’re making a low budget movie is it nicer to work without the pressure
of having a major star involved?

A: Yes, sometimes big stars have big
demands, and other times stars who I deal with are wonderful. Steve Martin is
wonderful but sometimes top stars try to take over a little bit.

 

Q:
You worked with Steve Martin several times in the past on classics like
‘Bowfinger’ and ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’, do you plan to do any more movies
together?

A: We would both love to, we just can’t
find the scripts. Sometimes there are scripts but the schedules are all screwed
up. That’s the movie business for you, you love working with a guy but you
don’t see him for 10 years because you can’t get a movie project together. I’ve
been wanting to work with Michael Caine since ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels’ but
there’s just been no role for him in the movies I’ve been doing.

 

Q:
Going back to your first movie ‘Dark
Crystal’. It’s since become a
cult classic, if you were to do something like that today, would you do it with
puppets or would you use modern style CGI.

A: Well, I wouldn’t make anything like it again;
technically it’s not my movie. Jim Henson asked me to co-direct with him
because he knew I could help, there were certain things he was weaker in that I
was stronger with. It was 75% his movie, I really only directed his vision, its
not a movie that I would understand too well, I didn’t understand some of the
stuff that was going on when I was directing it because it was Jim’s idea.

 

Q:
But would you credit it as a stepping stone in your career?

A: Oh yes, I was delighted that Jim gave me
that opportunity to learn. It was a sixty-nine million dollar movie that’s two
hundred million dollars today. It was a HUGE massive undertaking; it was a
trial by fire. I was so grateful to Jim, because without his generous support I
wouldn’t be here today.

 

Q:
You’re famous for voicing many Muppets, including Miss Piggy and Yoda, how did you
get into the world of puppeteering?

A: It was a hobby of my parent’s, they
wouldn’t generally do shows it was more social. I think I did the puppets to
express myself; also I wanted to be a good boy. I really did it to please my
parents. I never really wanted to be a puppeteer ever but I got good at it
somehow. Here I was doing something for many years, that I was good at but it
wasn’t something I wanted to do, I wanted to direct, so it took a long time.

 

Q:
So your first proper job was being a puppeteer?

A: Well, number one, it was a way for me to
please my parents and express myself but yes, also it was a way to make a
little money. I did some shows for thirty five dollars for twenty minutes,
birthday parties and Christmas parties. Looking back, it was a wonderful
training ground for performing to live audiences.

 

Q:
Do you do any puppeteering now?

A: I stopped about 7 or 8 years ago. It’s
very limiting as a performer, its much more fun being a director, creating my
own worlds, it’s much more exciting.

 

Q:
You’re also one of the most famous voice artists, having voiced infamous
characters on ‘Sesame Street’, ‘The Muppet Show’ and ‘Star Wars’ is that
something you would return to?

A: No, I have no interest in it at all.
Maybe if George Lucas asked me to do something for Yoda in Star Wars, then
definitely, I love George. Otherwise I don’t really have a desire to do it, I
love directing.

 

Q:
On the subject of Yoda, what involvement did you have with the creation of the
character?

A: I used my toolbox with the help of other
performers I created a whole back story for the character and all his
movements, but George wrote it I didn’t create the character, I really
preformed him and fleshed him out. For the voice I studied old-men’s voices and
sent them a tape but George Lucas wasn’t interested, so they auditioned a lot
of people for Yoda. It wasn’t until a year later that they asked me to come
back and do it.

 

Q: Do you have much nostalgia for the
character of Yoda or for the puppet world in general now that they’re being
replaced by computer animation.

A: No, it doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t
have nostalgia about it, what ever works best for the audience, that’s the key
thing for me.