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.