Bret McKenzie won an Oscar for his songwriting in the first Muppet movie, and now he's back for the second. We spoke to the Flight of the Conchords co-founder, and he spilled all his secrets on finding the melody for a new generation of Muppet films. Plus his animated NASA series, and his next fantasy musical.
The first Muppets movie you worked on was a huge success, you won an Oscar and the public totally embraced these classic characters all over again. How did the Muppets' success change Hollywood? Are people more open to doing musicals now?
Bret McKenzie: I think Hollywood is more excited about making films with singing puppets. The one difference, following the first film, was that a lot of people wanted to be in the next film. And it was much easier to get cameos. Whereas the last film, people were kind of suspicious about what we were doing. Obviously because the Muppets hadn't been around for a while. But after the success of the last film, we were able to get so many great cameos. And I love that, because it felt a little bit more like the original films, full of cameo features.
Do you have a number? Do you know how many cameos are in this film?
There must be 50 cameos. Maybe 1,000 cameos, if you include the extras. It was great, because we got people like Lady Gaga, Tony Bennett [and] Celine Dion. Unbelievable.
What do you have to remember, when you're writing music for the Muppets? How is it different for writing for yourself or Flight of the Conchords? How do you find your inner Muppet voice?
I have a green felt suit that I put on. [Laughs] One of the challenges was, the songs have to relate to story and character. But they also need to have a heart to them. So, that's a challenge. Playing with the character but also making them feel sincere and honest at the same time. I think songs work well when they have something genuine within them. Obviously that's quite tricky when you're doing a song like "We're Doing A Sequel." But I think we pulled it off.
That's one of the great things about the Muppets, their complete sincerity. I feel like your character had a lot of those sensibilities, do you relate to the muppets? Are you much more honest than normal humans are?
I love comedy that is sincere. I find it funny when a character is being honest in what they're doing. I love comedy songs [to be] sincere, and as real as possible. So it plays against the ridiculousness of a silly song. Whether I'm like a Muppet, I'm not sure. Having worked on the Muppets for a few years now, I'm starting to think most people are like Muppets, actually.
The Muppets Most Wanted is missing a huge voice with Jason Segel. "Man or Muppet" and "Life's a Happy Song" really leaned on him and Walter a lot. How did you prepare for a sequel that doesn't have that voice? How does that change the music in Muppet Most Wanted?
I definitely missed Jason on this film. He brought so much love and his Meatloaf playful performance. But the new film, I think the characters share the load more. Ricky Gervais really came through. He's got a bit of a rock voice underneath it all. I don't know if you are familiar with his 80s music career, but he has a great voice. We spread the songs over: Kermit gets a song, Piggy gets a song. Actually the bad frog, Constantine, gets a lot of songs. I don't know if you noticed there's probably too many songs sung with bad Russian accents. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. I think we were trying to go for a Cold War comedy [feel].
That's weird thing about doing a bad accent is you start in one place and then you slowly drift into another accent and the next thing you know you're in an Irish gulag.
Yeah my accents often end up Irish — no matter what, they are they always end up Irish. I would be curious to see what the Russian audience thinks of the performance. They did have a Russian dialect coach on set, which was pretty ridiculous because I think it was a bit of a waste of time trying to make the frog sound genuinely Russian.
[The dialect coach] is just drinking in the back on set... Do you know the actors you're going to be working with before you write the songs? Like would you have written the "Number 2" song different if Ricky Gervais hadn't been cast?
You know, what I'd already written the song before it had been cast. Ricky Gervais came on quite late. Yeah no, I wrote that song… I usually just write them for myself and make the person sing how I would sing it.
He really goes to town on that song.
He goes for it. He does make it his own… He's a very confident man. He came into the studio and acted like he was Frank Sinatra. And did a couple of takes and got out of there. But luckily, he has the goods.
What was it like being in the studio with Celine Dion?
It was incredibly to work with Celine Dion. But I use the words "worked with" loosely because we never met each other. She recorded all of her part in Vegas. I didn't get to work with her, but it was awesome having her in the song because she's absolutely a powerhouse. Obviously she's no Miss Piggy, when it comes to singing, but she's pretty good. I'm hoping that Miss Piggy and Celine Dion join forces for a Vegas Diva off.
I'm so excited that you're passionate about making fantasy-ish musicals. We freaked out when we found out that you were working on a fairy tale musical with [Muppets director] James Bobin — how is that going?
It's going great, we've almost finished the script and I've started to write the songs.
Is this going to fill the Princess Bride hole in this generation? We have nothing like it.
I would be very happy if it was that good.
What is it about live action fairy tales that were SO easy to get made in the 80s but not right now? Everything has to be so gritty and dark, besides the Muppets. There's a void.
I agree everyone is obsessed with making the world dark. Taking quite joyful stories and then giving them a dark twist. TV's like that as well. Maybe life's… everyone… I don't know it doesn't make sense... That wasn't a very good answer to that. I know what you mean but I can't articulate it.
What's going on with your NASA show? Are you going to voice it?
I'm doing character designs at the moment. And it turns out my drawings are very stick-like. Might need to get some help with those. It looks like a seven-year-old drew the show.