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.