You probably know Frank Oz from portraying Muppet/puppet characters like Yoda, Cookie Monster and Miss Piggy, but he’s also an accomplished director and voice actor. Beyond his Star Wars and Muppets associations, he’s directed films like What About Bob?, Bowfinger, the original Death At A Funeral, the Stepford Wives remake and the 1986 adaptation of the off-Broadway musical Little Shop Of Horrors, which received its Blu-ray release this week that includes the apocalyptic 20-minute ending that was cut out due to poor test audience reception back in the mid-1980s. But anyone who understands the real nature of Little Shop‘s tale of “id gone wild” — a nerdy florist named Seymour achieves fame through his ever-growing, blood-sucking plant, secretly feeding its murderous impulses while trying to win the heart of the women he loves — knows that the kaiju-like rampage of gigantic Audrey IIs across America is truer to the nature of the story, especially as that was the actual ending to the stage production (albeit on a smaller scale). Who cares if all the main characters die — that’s why it’s called a cautionary tale.
I spoke with Oz about ten of his great movie projects for MSN, and we delved more deeply into the history of Little Shop as well as his views on big budget filmmaking today for A.D.D.
It went over very well at the New York Film Festival. It was wonderful to see.
I think it is more appropriate for what the story actually is.
You’re exactly right. The happy ending was there because the San Jose preview and the Los Angeles preview [in the ’80s] were wonderful until we killed the two leads, and then it was unreleasable because they hated it so much. So [playwright/screenwriter/lyricist] Howard [Ashman] and I had no choice but to make a happy ending. Howard had meant it to be a Faustian tale of course. You’re absolutely right, it is better closure.
Do you think that if this film had been made within the last 10 years that that ending wouldn’t have even been an issue?
That’s a good question. Sadly enough, for our age now compared to 25 years ago, we’re a bit more cynical, which is sad. And also these days people feel that musicals are concert films. They don’t understand characters all of a sudden breaking into song. It wouldn’t have had as strong a reaction as it did during the two previews. These two people really showed the nuances of Seymour and Audrey. They were loved, so I think it would’ve been half and half.
Do you think Little Shop would’ve worked as well as if it were done with modern CGI?
I think it would’ve had to have been approached from a different angle. I think you couldn’t do the film as we did it — everything was live, and today it would be too expensive. I think it probably would’ve worked with CGI if whoever did it created an environment that the audience believed those characters lived in. Does CGI make the world in which they live so different that it pops out, or is it organic? If it’s the latter, then everything is cool.
What are your recollections of working with the late Howard Ashman and a young Alan Menken?
Alan is wonderful, and he did the music. I worked with Howard 95% of the time, and he was a genius. His clarity was extraordinary. He knew the roots of musical comedy and understood them very, very well, and he understood the structure of musical comedy. I remember one of the nicest phone calls I received was in London when I was shooting. What I often do is assemble pieces together, like a five-minute piece to show the producers and the screenwriter how things are going. I assembled the rough cut of “Somewhere That’s Green,” and I sent it to Howard in Los Angeles. He called back and said he never imagined it could be that good. That was a wonderful phone call, but essentially when I rewrote it, I didn’t touch a word of dialogue. It was totally about changing the sensibility. As a matter of fact, I always urge people to improvise on all my movies. The only movie that I told people to do exactly what was written was what Howard did. He had four years of tweaking that. He was brilliant.
Getting back to Little Shop Of Horrors, do you have any fun stories from the set?
One thing is that the shoot went on so long that we had a ping-pong table there, and we played ping-pong in between [takes] just to keep everybody alive. There was one scene we had to take out because there was ping-pong [going on] in the background.
How long did it take to shoot that angle through the mouth in the dentist’s office?
I don’t know how I thought that up. You don’t think of these things when you’re writing it. Once it was performed, that shot was probably a couple of hours. That was a very short shot.
Is there any dream project that you haven’t had a chance to do yet?
I love to do different things all the time. I don’t like to repeat myself. That’s the kind of thing I look forward to doing. I did a TV show last year, I did a small play in London, and I may doing a low budget thriller. I go from piece to piece learning new things. That’s what I like. There is a movie called Ump that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I worked on it when I was at Disney. It’s about a hit man, and it’s fantastic. It’s a dark comedy about a hit man who gets injured while trying to assassinate somebody, and he hides in a small New Jersey town. People find out he’s a hitman, and they want to hire him to knock off people in the town.
I miss a lot of the film sensibilities from the ’80s. Obviously I grew up then, and people tend to look at their childhood with rose colored glasses. But it seems like a lot of movies have gotten too big now.
I think many of those movies are not movies but business decisions.
That being said, I thought The Avengers was awesome.
I did too.
But I don’t think they need to be spending $200 million to $300 million on every superhero movie.
And that’s just making the movie. The budgets are usually more. You’ve got to spend half of that on publicity and marketing. Movies are now these big gambles, and oddly enough they’re the ones that are easier to make a decision on because the payback can be so big. There are also a lot of movies on lower budgets you can make that are pretty damn good. The executives are under the gun to have big profits because corporations now own the studios, whereas 25 years ago they didn’t.
What do you think that after all these years your fans would be surprised to learn about you?
That I do the laundry. My wife doesn’t. I think what they would be surprised to find about me, and any other director, is that when you approach a project you’re always excited but uncertain. You have doubts on things, but you have to move forward. Sometimes people think that because these guys are successful they must know what they’re doing, and if you know what you’re doing that means there’s arrogance there that doesn’t leave room for discovery. I’m like anybody else who questions myself in hopes that he makes the right decisions. I think one has to innately trust one’s instincts but be open to anything that could contribute to one’s vision of what one’s doing.