Bret McKenzie on The Muppets, The Oscars and The Hobbit
If Bret McKenzie loses the Academy Award on February 26, it's all my fault. I jinxed it. I realized after I left the Walt Disney Studio lot yesterday afternoon that I'd asked him where he was going to keep his Oscar, and pointed out a little too often that he's heavily favored to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Man or Muppet" from last year's comedy sensation The Muppets. He seemed genuinely excited to be nominated, and was happy to talk about the origins of the film's soundtrack, the influence of original Muppets songwriter Paul Williams, alternate versions of the song "Man or Muppet," and how they would have performed the song if the Academy hadn't made the bewildering decision not to perform the two – just two, mind you – nominated songs at the ceremony this year. Find out what might have been, and how Bret McKenzie taught Chris Cooper to rap, in our interview below. (Don't worry, we asked for a Hobbit update as well.)
CraveOnline: You’d worked with director James Bobin before. Were you the first person he talked to, to do the music for The Muppets?
Bret McKenzie: No, no, no… Well, James Bobin, who directed The Muppets and co-created The Flight of the Conchords… They got dozens, possibly hundreds of demos. They just opened it right up. They got lots of indie songwriters, lots of Disney musical songwriters, people who worked on Disney’s other films. James was working through the songs and hadn’t found the opening song he needed. Because he had a really specific idea to have it start smaller, and then get really gigantic. So yeah, he called me and asked if I’d write an opening song. So I came in quite far into the mix. They’d already finished the script and stuff.
Were the ideas for the songs in the script? Had they worked out lyrics?
They didn’t do lyrics, but they had ideas. Sometimes visual ideas. “Everything’s Great” was the title of the opening song. And he wanted a song that was really positive, that Jason [Segel’s] character and the little Muppet guy, Walter… That [showed] their lives were going really well.
How did “Man or Muppet” start?
So “Man or a Muppet,” at that point, was a card saying, “Man or Muppet.”
So they then said, “Write a song about being a man or a Muppet.” And they had the idea that there would be the reflections. Jason’s Muppet would be reflected in the window, so that was part of the idea. And also it was at that point in the movie when the characters were questioning their identity.
What was your relationship to The Muppets before that?
I grew up with The Muppets, yeah. I grew up loving The Muppets, so I knew the characters and I knew the world really well coming into the film.
Were you a Paul Williams fan?
Yeah, massive Paul Williams fan. That’s something I did, once I got the job, I started really listening to all those early recordings from the early films, that Paul Williams did. The early films.
Phantom of the Paradise…
That’s something I have to watch.
You should watch that. That movie’s amazing.
But yeah, I wanted to get the Paul Williams/Kenny Ascher sound for this film.
Did you try to contact him at all? Or did that not occur to you?
That didn’t really occur to me, but yes, it would have been awesome to get Paul Williams to write a song for it.
I know sometimes people just call to get their blessing. It’s sort of like asking someone’s father for their hand in marriage.
Yeah, yeah, yeah…
You’re going to do it anyway. You’re just trying to be polite.
I think he liked the film.
Unfortunately, we just heard yesterday that they’re not going to be performing either of the Oscar-nominated songs at the ceremony.
Yeah, I found that out last night as well. And that’s a shame, because it would have been fun to get a man and a Muppet up there.
Were you hoping to do that yourself?
I don’t know whether I’d do it. It would probably be… Well, now that we’re not doing it, it doesn’t really matter… But I think ideally it would have been Jason and Walter, maybe get Jim Parsons and maybe some extra Muppets to do [backing vocals]. I don’t know, maybe I’d play piano or something.
You know you’re going to win, right?
You’ve got 50/50 odds. No one has better.
The odds are as good as they could ever be! I’m never going to get a better chance of winning an Oscar.
Have you seen Rio?
Yeah, it’s great! The song’s really cool, the Rio song. I’m happy to be [just] an Academy nominee. It’s still a great title.
Where are you going to put your Oscar, if you get it?
On my piano.
You’re going to look at it while you’re writing…
[Mimes playing piano while looking up at his Oscar] – Duhn…! Argh, this song’s not good enough for an Academy Award nominee! [Thinks] – If I won, yeah. I was thinking of, from now on there’s going to be a lot of pressure when I write songs. It’s gotta be better than this!
You already won a Grammy. Is the Oscar bigger than the Grammy, do you think?
Oh yeah, definitely. There’s something about the Oscars, that the whole world watches that ceremony. Do you know what I mean? The other ones are kind of smaller.
Out of all the songs that you wrote for The Muppets that you wrote, is there anything that didn’t make the cut? Or an alternate take, like a reggae version of Man or Muppet out there somewhere?
[Thinks] – There are a lot of different versions. I did one that was more like Harry Nilsson’s “One.” I’m a big Harry Nilsson fan, so anything that might sound like Harry Nilsson, I’m like, “Try it this way! What else did Harry Nilsson do?” Because “Man or Muppet” is more like “Without You.” [Sings] – “I can’t live…!”
There are dozens of Chris Cooper alternate rap versions.
I noticed there’s a long version of Chris Cooper’s song on the CD, with his character’s backstory.
Oh yeah, the opera break! Yeah, there was an opera break.
It’s actually weird that that was cut, because it’s the only time we get his backstory, in terms of why he’s evil instead of just being “evil.”
Oh, I know. Yeah, you’re right. That was not my job. Chris Cooper, it cuts back to him as a child, and all the Muppets are laughing at him, his friends are laughing at him, and he doesn’t get the joke, and that’s why he hates The Muppets. They cut that pretty early on. Generally the songs get shorter and shorter as the editing process goes on. They want to keep the rhythm of the movie going.
How early was it that you found out Chris Cooper could really rap?
I had a great Skype session with him.
Did you have him do that song, or did you have do some Jay-Z?
I had written that rap, so I was rapping it to him and he’d rap it back? We said it was a practice, but actually it was me trying to find out if he had rhythm. Because sometimes you just don’t know.
Tell me you recorded that.
We didn’t record it!
Damn it! Best DVD extra…!
I know, it’s crazy! It would have been so good. I don’t know what we were thinking, but at the time everyone was really stressed because we couldn’t get the connection to work. It was supposed to be like… We were in a fancy Hollywood studio, he was in Boston. It was meant to be a perfect recording. But in the end it was just me and him on Skype. There was a delay. You know how on Skype there’s a slight delay? Which, when you’re rapping, is very weird. But he’s got some mad flow.
I’ve got to go, but in The Hobbit does Figwit get to sing, or kill anybody?
No, there’s no sword. I’m not an elven warrior. I’m still a dude hanging around.
I’m picturing you with a lyre and a giant feather in your cap…
I think it was tempting to try and do something like that, but they didn’t want to be too silly. But the film, for what it’s worth, it’s going to be great. It’s really pretty amazing.