Frank Oz has potty-trained more children than probably anyone else in the entire world. Well, not literally, but he has been a huge help in the process for parents worldwide as the voice of Sesame Street’s Grover, Cookie Monster, and countless other characters from the Jim Henson universe (including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and many more). But being a great voice actor and Muppeteer is only a small piece of what Oz has accomplished in the world of film and TV. He’s directed classics like Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob?, The Dark Crystal (alongside Henson himself), The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Talk about an amazing resume.
Hot on the heels of the release of the Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut Blu-ray (finally containing his newly-restored original ending) this week FEARnet chatted with the legendary director to discuss that infamous original ending, his affinity for darkness, and the origin of Mike Wazowski’s name.
FEARNET: It’s been a long time since Little Shop of Horrors was released in 1986, but it’s become this enormous cult classic. Did you know you were making something that special back then?
FRANK OZ: Well, I knew it was special because there are not many movies that have fourteen songs, a plant that weighs a ton, and a lot of guest stars, comedy, and drama. Yeah, so I knew it was special. I didn’t know if it was going to be successful or not.
FEARNET: Did you think it might have this long lasting effect that it’s had?
FO: No, no. When I work on a project, all I do is work on the project. I just do my very best and hone in as much as I can and then it’s up to the Gods after that. You know the Movie Gods. I just do the very best I can. You can never tell. If I’m thinking about the future of this thing, then I’m in trouble. I should be thinking exactly what I’m doing at that moment.
FEARNET: You took this film and concept that had been done before but not successfully and not in anyway like what you guys did, and you’ve made it something that’s resonated for years. Do you feel like Little Shop of Horrors is doomed to that remake or reboot fate in Hollywood?
FO: I don’t know. It’s a tough thing to say. If people love Little Shop… it’s in great part to Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, certainly. But I don’t know. I think it’s an expensive thing to do. It was very expensive then and now, of course, it would be done with CGI and even that would be expensive. So I think the economics of it would be the thing that would hold it back.
FEARNET: Yeah, I think you’re probably right. I’m sure someone will probably try at some point, but I don’t know if it’ll work.
FO: Yeah, well, if the try, I hope it does work. It’d be great to see another version of it. I’d love that. But I think that we’re in a different time economically and I don’t know – unless you get huge, massive stars to star in it – that’s a different story.
FEARNET: Watching the film again this past week, I’m struck by how amazing your cast was. You had Rick, Steve, Ellen, John, and all these amazing people. Do you think there’s anything out there that can get Rick Moranis out of retirement because we all want him back?
FO: (Laughs) I just had dinner with Rick a few weeks ago. He’s a dear friend. You know, his most important thing was his children. He decided that he had to take care of his kids and his career was secondary. Yeah, I think so. I think, at this point, the kids are in college and so at some point (and if the project is right) he might. He likes to work; he doesn’t like all that showbiz stuff around it. If the project is right and if it touches him then, yeah, I think so. He’s a very, very talented guy.
FEARNET: You managed to get all these people at the prime of their comedy careers. How did you manage to assemble them all in one awesome musical, horror comedy?
FO: You know, I don’t know. (Laughs) Here’s the thing… It wasn’t really me that much. It was David Geffen a lot. What happened was that even though I said no at the beginning, eventually I said yes to do the movie and then David recommended Rick. I had never heard of Rick because I was in London shooting scenes from Muppet shows, Star Wars movies, etc. So I was in London for years and I’d never seen Rick on any TV whatsoever. That was from David. So, of course, I met Rick and we instantly got along and I saw his stuff and knew how brilliant he was that was cool. As far as Steve goes, David recommended him also and I had worked with Steve previously on The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Show, so Steve and I knew each other very well, but it was David’s idea. I remember going to Steve at his place and him saying that what he didn’t want to do was a copy of Fonzie, which was at that time still playing. He said he wanted him more like Elvis. I said, “That’s great. That’s cool.” So that was that. I did bring Ellen into it. David wanted a star and there were various stars talked about and I said, “Can you please give Ellen a shot? Can I screen test her because I think she’s the only one who could do this right?” So I quickly screen tested her with Rick helping us and then showed it to David and he said, “Ok, cool.” I’m so pleased I brought Ellen in because I can’t imagine anyone else doing Audrey. As far as the other people go, I knew Billy [Murray] too but he was David’s idea. I asked for Chris Guest and it just kind of went like that. It all just kind of falls into place. Sometimes you’re lucky and I got lucky this time. I got lucky several times, actually. (Laughs)
FEARNET: You had some critical and commercial success with your previous films. Did you feel like doing this quirky horror comedy musical was a risk at the time or do you think things like The Rocky Horror Picture Show paved the way a little bit?
FO: I would hope it’s a risk. If I’m starting to do safe stuff I should just quit the business. That’s the whole point, isn’t it? Not to do safe stuff.
FEARNET: At the time, CGI was barely a blip on the radar. What was it like to animate this enormous man-eating plant practically?
FO: It wasn’t possible to do CGI at that time with any kind of quality. I don’t know if this may have been the last real tabletop miniatures stuff because Richard Conway and his team was the one really responsible for it. It was a massive effort and a huge job, but again I’m the one who supervised it and everything. I did the storyboards, but it was Richard Conway’s work. I would be shooting the movie and I would go past his special effects stage and I’d look at the city he built, all that stuff, and then I’d go onto the next stage. It was mainly him.
FEARNET: Sometimes I sit back when I watch the film and think that Audrey II might be your Bruce the Shark.
FO: (Laughs) It was tough, but it wasn’t like Bruce the Shark. There was control in it and, mainly, we were not dealing with water, which is any director’s nightmare. It was very tough. At one point we had about forty performers, or animators, underneath with cables and all that stuff. It was huge, but it was controllable. It just needed constant rehearsal and I think we averaged about twenty or thirty takes every time we did it.
FEARNET: Let’s talk about the infamous ending. When everything happened with the DVD release being pulled and everything. Were you and Warner Bros. aware of how rare and valued that DVD became after it was pulled?
FO: I don’t know about Warner Bros., but I do know it was rare after it was pulled because people kept asking me about it and I knew there were hardly any left. I had one. I knew about that, but I wasn’t really in contact with David Geffen or Warner Bros. I had contact with David after the black and white went out because David called me and said, “What are you doing?” He didn’t want it in black and white. He wanted it in color. I said, “That’s cool. That’s great.” And then he took all the black and whites out and color kind of went to the wayside until he and Warner Bros. did this new restored version.
FEARNET: I know this is the original ending that Howard Ashman wrote, but is this the way you prefer to see the film now?
FO: Yeah, I do. It’s the way Howard preferred to see it too. My ending is not as silly as the stage ending. The stage ending was silly, but it was also touching. In part, though, that was the sensibility of the stage. I felt that if the film was too silly, after taking this whole journey with these people, you’d end up feeling betrayed. I also like my movies, to some degree, to have a little subversiveness. I like a little darkness. Although this is the one that Howard and I wanted (though I’m not sure Howard wanted it as dark as this). He was pleased that there was closure there, though. I mean, the guy kills some people and then he has to pay for it. In the happy ending, he kills some people and then he gets his girl. (Laughs) I’m pleased, and I think Howard would be pleased, that this is finally out.
FEARNET: You have this tendency to make these really fun, somewhat light, funny films and then hit people with this really dark ending. What About Bob?, for instance, gets really dark at the end. Was there a lot of pushback from the studio on that film to have a happier ending?
FO: No, that film had such extraordinary problems that I think the studio was just happy that we actually completed it. (Laughs) But, no, there was no pushback. There was a question mark about which ending to use. There were several endings. The ending that I wanted was not used. I was never happy, particularly, with this ending but, nevertheless, it’s the ending that got most votes in the screenings so that was fine by me. As far as the dark stuff, yeah, I don’t like to do happy, silly stuff. That’s just too bland for me.
FEARNET: You make really accessible films, but you’re not afraid to go to darker places within them.
FO: Yeah, I think that people don’t want to be blanded out. They want to have fun, but they want to be challenged too, in my opinion.
FEARNET: I think that’s what makes the film so much fun to watch.
FO: The great thing about What About Bob? is that Billy was right on the edge; that character could be really funny and endearing or he could have been a hatchet murderer.
FEARNET: I think the same thing is true about Richard Dreyfuss. He’s funny and he’s completely manic.
FO: Oh, yeah. He’s totally lost it and he was insane toward the end. Absolutely.
FEARNET: Did you ever imagine that Grover and Cookie Monster – all these character you’ve done voices for – would still be thriving after all these years?
FO: I haven’t performed the characters in maybe eight or nine years now. I mean, I perform Sesame Street maybe once a year, maybe one day a year, just because they ask me to. Just like Little Shop... though I tend to just work and do the very, very best I can and never think about the future of it. It’s like catching a pass in football; if you’re thinking about where you’re going after you catch it, you’re not going to catch it. So deal with what you catch first and then the rest will take care of itself.
FEARNET: Do you get people that recognize you on the street and ask you to do some of your voices?
FO: They recognize me, but they don’t ask me to do voices. They used to years ago, but I think they get it now that I won’t do it. (Laughs) But they do recognize me and usually they fans are really sweet. In the height of everything – Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Star Wars – it was kind of insane. Then, the fans got a little crazy, but now there’s real affection and they say, “It’s an honor to meet you.” How they approach me is different than how they approached me twenty-five years ago. It’s just really nice.
FEARNET: I think there’s a very big reverence for anything Henson-related. There’s so much reverence for these characters and the whole universe.
FO: Jim was a very singular human being and the culture that he created with all of us is a culture that I don’t know exists today. I mean, the closest thing probably would have been like the Monty Python culture, but it’s rare to have a supportive culture that has nothing to do with ego but only about the work and trying to do good work and have fun and work hard.
FEARNET: Monsters, Inc. is a huge favorite in this house. Can you tell us anything about what’s in store for Fungus in Monsters University?
FO: I honestly don’t know. Pete Docter’s a dear friend of mine and I had dinner with him about six months ago. During dinner he asked me if I wanted to do Fungus again in this one and I said, “Sure.” That’s the last I heard of it so I imagine that he’ll give me a call some time and I’ll come in the studio for half-a-day and do it. But there’s nothing that I know about it. Pete isn’t directing it. He’s doing his own new movie. So I don’t know anything about it.
You know, things like that… I did a voice for Zathura and a did a voice for Pete and I’ve done little things like that as kind of favors and for fun, so I don’t get deeply involved. I just do it because I like the people and it’s fun to do it for half-a-day. I don’t get deeply involved in it like I would Yoda if I was in a deep part of the movie.
FEARNET: So you’re looking forward to seeing it just like everybody else.
FO: Oh, yeah. I love it. Pixar is great. Pete’s wonderful. And it’s one thing about Monsters, Inc. that I love telling is the story of Mike Wazowski. Well, Pete Docter was a dear, dear friend of my father’s and that’s how I knew Pete before my father passed away and before Pete was known at all years ago. He was just an animator. So I got to be very friendly with Pete after my father passed away and so, in honor of my dad, he named Mike Wazowski after my dad, which was nice. Because my dad’s real name was Mike Oznowicz.
FEARNET: Wow. That’s a really great story.
FO: Yeah. He couldn’t say Oznowicz, so he got as close as possible with Mike Wazowski. I thought that was very sweet. And he also dedicated Up to three people and one of them was my dad. He’s a very sweet guy that way. He’s wonderful.
FEARNET: Is there anything else on the horizon directorially that you want people to know about?
FO: I don’t care if they know about it or not. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m not one of those guys who wants to publicize stuff. I figure that I just make the movie and put it out there and let the marketing do it. If it’s good, they’ll see it. If it’s not, they won’t. But yeah, I might be doing a little lower-budget thriller that I’m excited about. Something with a little sex and violence.
FEARNET: Well, that’s what we like!
The Little Shop of Horrors: Director’s Cut Blu-ray is in stores now.