Ken Kwapis Interview. The director of Follow That Bird on how to direct muppets.'s Five Minute Time Out.


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.

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