Ken Kwapis Interview. The director of Follow That Bird on how to direct muppets. Babble.com's Five Minute Time Out.Ada Calhoun
Follow That Bird was the full Sesame Street cast’s first big-screen outing, and they more than brought it. The plot: A meddling social worker decides Big Bird should be with his “own kind,” and places him in a wholesome suburban Midwestern bird home. The family, the aptly named Dodos (the kids are named Donny and Marie!) are stupid, smug, and closed-minded. When they dare suggest Big Bird should get a new best friend because Birds and Snuffleupaguses don’t go together, he rightly freaks out and decides to walk back to Sesame Street.
The Muppets and their human friends hit the highways looking for him, and Big Bird winds his way back to his urban paradise. Sandra Bernhard plays a waitress. Waylon Jennings is a turkey farmer. The Grouch is at his vile best. The result is one of the best road movies ever made, and a perfect antidote for any city kid who starts to dream about freshly mown lawns, kiddie pools, and two car garages. Believe us, kid, the film seems to be saying, it ain’t worth it.
Warner is re-releasing the film this week to celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, which gave us an excuse to chat with the film’s director, Ken Kwapis. Kwapis was fresh out of film school when he got the call from Jim Henson. He fell in love with the Muppets on sight and gave the movie his cinematic all, using as inspiration North By Northwest, Modern Times, and even Easy Rider to make what is arguably the best muppet movie of all time.
Babble spoke with Kwapis about cynical studio execs, the ascent of Elmo, and who Big Bird would transform into when he got tired. – Ada Calhoun
We are so excited about Follow That Bird coming out again. My two-year-old son is obsessed with it. What extras will the new edition have?
I think there’s an Elmo-related DVD extra. As you probably know, Elmo was merely a chorus member when we made Follow That Bird. He would not be plucked from the chorus for a few years.
Have you seen much of today’s Sesame Street? Do you have any thoughts about what made it so extra-special back in the ’80s?
I certainly wouldn’t want to compare then and now. But I can tell you that one of the things that I really appreciated about the Muppet characters and the Sesame Street characters is that as a storyteller, you always want to have characters who have a strong point of view and who are committed to that point of view. The worst thing in the world is to read a screenplay in which the characters just seem to exist to serve a plot – as opposed to, are defined by a really compelling point of view.
As funny as it sounds, doing Follow That Bird taught me a lot about character development. The Count has one agenda: He has to count things. He’s so single-minded. It applies to every one of those characters – that’s why to me, they’re so memorable and resonate with people. It’s not because they’re necessarily funny. They are – but it is because they’re defined by a really solid goal. Cookie Monster is hungry. Telly Monster sees both sides of any problem. He’s committed to not having a point of view. It’s like he’s single-mindedly committed to waffling.
What is Big Bird’s distinguishing feature?
Well, I think that . . . that’s actually a good question.
He seems kind of complicated to me.
He is complicated, but I think Bird – you know, I should really stop saying “Bird” like, “When I used to hang out with Charlie Parker.” The thing about Big Bird in the story: he has such a simple but very rich journey. He makes a decision that he would be happier with creatures of his own kind. And, over the course of the story he comes to discover that in fact he’s happiest among the incredibly diverse group that makes up the world of Sesame Street, both humans and monsters and animals. When I read the script in 1985, I was just struck by the thought of being able to tell a story that says we should accept difference. I thought, Well, that’s good. That’s worth spending a year of my life on.
It’s also one of the most pro-city movies ever. It’s the antithesis to something like Sweet Home Alabama or any of those movies where you go to the country and realize that’s where you belong.
Wasn’t that fantastic? I come from Southern Illinois, and I come from a small town. I don’t want to say it’s rural. I grew up in a town called Belleville, Illinois, which is essentially a suburb of St. Louis. I definitely did not grow up in an urban environment. So many films are about leaving the big city in order to find your inner peace, kind of a rural or more natural setting. Well, this is absolutely the opposite. I think one of the original ideas of the show was to speak directly to inner-city children and to make them feel that the world they’re growing up in is just as vibrant and magical as say the suburbs – or just as homey, I guess is a better way to describe it. At the same time, I don’t want to make it seem like it’s putting down people who live out in the provinces.
But it totally is – in this wonderful way! I grew up in New York City and I’m raising my son here, and so I’ve always been very pro-urban life. So I love how some of the jokes in there are just so ruthless about the suburbs. First of all, it’s called “Ocean View,” Illinois, when it’s totally land-locked.
Yep, that’s my hometown.
And then, when Big Bird gets fed-up with the Dodos, he says, with an edge in his voice, “Thank you so much. This was lovely, but I’m walking back to Sesame Street.” We actually use this line in my family now, especially when we’re having a bad time outside of the city: “Okay, that was great, but we’re walking back to Sesame Street.”
That’s so funny, because growing up in the Midwest – I assume like many people I have a kind of love-hate relationship with where I’m from. I’m sure the film spoke to me because of that. I guess the film sort of does put down the burbs. But, I’m not sure it puts down the country.
No, that’s pretty romanticized. Those farm kids are great.
In casting the brother and the sister on the farm I was just encouraged to not use precocious actors. That was my directive from Children’s Television Workshop: Put in non-actors. They didn’t want the Macaulay Culkins of the world. Part of the ethos of the show is that when they put children on, they didn’t want them to act. And so when you watch children on the show, by and large, they look kind of like children would. They’re just kind of sitting there, maybe even look a little lost.
Follow That Bird explicitly references a few classic films.
As a film student, I loved all sorts of road movies, whether it was Two-Lane Black Top or Kings of the Road and images of the road and images of sort of making a journey across the country. Easy Rider. Even simple things like at the end of, and this is an image I use in the film, the end of Chaplain’s Modern Times – you know, him walking down the road. There are wonderful shots of Bird just walking down this sort of barren landscape, just Big Bird and a road. And I’m very proud of my little North by Northwest homage. If you Google the phrase “North by Northwest homages,” someone has actually created a little posting, “The Top Ten North by Northwest Homages,” including The English Patient, Family Guy. Well, number one is Follow That Bird.
It’s amazing that you had all these really sophisticated people (Clint Eastwood’s composer, Peter Greenaway’s photographer, David Cronenberg’s production designer!) working on this children’s movie and taking it seriously. I feel like there is sort of a lot of cynicism in movies for children, where it’s like a throwaway thing because they think, “Oh, the kids won’t care.”
Believe me, there were plenty of people who felt that way that I dealt with on the film. This was in 1985. The whole era that began with The Little Mermaid up through Lion King and up through the present hadn’t started yet. There were no studios with family divisions at that time. Later, everyone tried for a minute or two. There was Fox Family, Warner Brothers Family Entertainment, with films like Free Willy, even Home Alone, in a way. In 1985, I don’t think the idea of a ‘family film’ meant a lot. That was like niche programming. Now, it is completely the opposite.
Did you encounter any problems with the studio because of it was a “family film”?
I remember pleading with an executive at the studio to give me more money so that I could use a crane for a shot. I wanted to have a big spectacular crane shot of Big Bird walking towards the fair ground that the Sleaze Brothers had put up. I wanted a shot establishing the fair ground that had a crane movement in it. And, the executive said to me, “Ken, we could put Big Bird on a Ferris wheel for ninety minutes and it wouldn’t make any difference to the audience.”
Oooooh. You should name names.
This was my first feature film. I had just come out of USC graduate school in filmmaking. I had directed a couple of after school specials. One of them came to the attention of executives at Warner Brothers who were looking to put together a Sesame Street feature. I met on it and the next thing I knew I was being flown to New York to meet with Jim Henson. So, you have to imagine, I’m barely twenty-five years old and here I am suddenly meeting Jim Henson, with the prospect of directing him and his partner Frank Oz and Carol Spinney, doing characters that they created.
“I said to Jim just very bluntly, ‘I don’t have any idea how to direct a puppet.'” I said to Jim just very bluntly, “I don’t have any idea how to direct a puppet.” And he said all you need to do is talk to the puppeteers like actors. It didn’t even occur to me until I sat there in the office meeting Jim, how simply it works. Well, Kermit is nothing but Jim’s knuckles. And, the weird things was, as an adult, it suddenly put me under a spell. I watched adults on the set just sort of spellbound by the simple, beautiful puppeteering. It was so amazing to see, and I remember always thinking, “God, if these crew guys are so spellbound by these guys, think what children must feel like when they’re in the presence of these creatures.”
They really become the characters.
You feel like you’re talking to Grover.
I wanted to ask you about Big Bird blue, because when I asked friends of mine if they remember seeing the movie as kids, and a couple of them said “I remember Big Bird in a cage, blue, crying.” They said they’d been haunted by that image their whole life.
Oh gosh! That’s one of these tricky things where what seems so innocent to adults in a way. Wow, I feel like this falls under the category of how age-appropriate is a dramatic turn like that in the story.
It’s funny, because my son didn’t freak out about that scene at all. And he was, like, two. I don’t know if it was because it was later for these people who I talked with and so they’d seen Big Bird yellow for like ten years and then they saw the movie and they were you know traumatized by seeing him in this other state.
Well, you know what I would liken it to? And I thought about this when I was making the film – there’s something very unnerving about being suddenly transformed into something else. When I was a child, I was fairly traumatized by the sight of Pinocchio sprouting donkey ears.
I recently watched that for the first time since I was little. It’s terrifying.
I think that film is so remarkable, but when those boys on Treasure Island turn into jackasses, it is really, really upsetting. So, Big Bird, being painted blue and put into a side show is equally upsetting and I think part of it is that – not too exaggerate it, but they’re abusing him. It’s that challenge of trying to give the story a dramatic turn but not overwhelm the audience.
When I worked on the film, by coincidence, it wasn’t like I was using this as part of my preparation, but I read Bruno Bettleheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment and his general thesis is – and he’s writing about reading, and stories that are told to one another – that each child will imagine what they’re able to tolerate. That’s why Hansel and Gretel to a three-year-old or four-year-old is tolerable, because they will imagine as much as they’re capable of tolerating.
The difficulty with films is that an image can strip your gears as a child and run roughshod over your ability to keep things in check. And that’s why Pinocchio is famously difficult for some children. When Pinocchio’s pal on Pleasure Island metamorphoses into a donkey, it is seen as a shadow on the wall, so even they had the good sense to imply the horror and not to show it so directly. It wasn’t like Bird was being punished for anything, and I guess I felt confident that the audience could go to a place where they were upset for Big Bird, but not despairing.
Do you have any good backstage stories – we just talked to the producer of Faerie Tale Theatre and they were so debauched!
Yeah, I’ll bet. That was a total drugged-out scene. No, I don’t have any debauched stories to tell unfortunately. I don’t think that there were any Muppets sleeping with each other. The worst I would say is that Carol Spinney after a long day in the Big Bird suit would start to sort of slip into Oscar the Grouch, despite himself.
I was going through your bio and it’s maybe the best bio I’ve ever read. Do you have any career advice? You’ve done these incredibly successful things in all these different areas: The Office, He’s Just Not That Into You, Follow That Bird. How does that happen?
I guess you can never predict where you’re going to have a real creative experience. Like a lot of people, I had a certain snobbery against sit-coms. My assistant said, “Oh, just read the thing.” Well, it was a little half-hour show called The Larry Sanders Show, and when I read it, it was as if it came from a different universe.
I can’t tell you how many people told me The Office was doomed. “Oh my God, you’re going to get killed. It’s going to be another trans-Atlantic casualty. The original is so revered – what are you doing?” I can’t tell you how many people, when I told friends and acquaintances I was going to direct Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, said, “You’re going to direct a film about four girls and a pair of pants, huh?” But, I knew it was really meaty material.
You can’t really control the box office, you can’t control the critics, you can’t control so many things – the only thing you can control is the process. So, I feel like with each film, or television project, my measure of success is based on whether the process was a rich one, because that’s all I can control.
Images courtesy of Warner Home Video.