Frank Oz on Muppets, Disney, and Being Puppies at SXSW

The great director gets candid at the fest

Beyond the Muppets: Filmmaker Frank Oz talked about his career in movies at SXSW 2019 (Photo by John Anderson)

Legendary filmmaker Frank Oz got candid during Monday’s SXSW Interactive Featured Session – telling us how he really felt about his early directorial efforts, feeling pigeonholed, Disney, and his beloved friend and mentor, Jim Henson.

Indiewire's Eric Kohn interviewed Oz, focusing primarily on his work behind the camera – starting with The Dark Crystal. Oz said Henson asked for his help on the film because “he knew I had strengths he didn’t.” Oz compared it to cutting your teeth on a $200 million feature today. Mistakes were made. “I felt I had to know everything,” Oz said. “At the end of the day, I didn’t let my cast and crew breathe.” He took his lessons into Little Shop of Horrors, crediting much of his growth to Henson. “I wouldn’t have been prepared if I hadn’t have learned from Jim,” he said.

Given Oz’s high count of comedies, Kohn asked him about the nature of directing the genre. Oz was forthright. “Right now I don’t know a thing about comedy, and I don’t want to know a thing about comedy,” he said. “I want to be on the cliff of the abyss with my arms wide open.” Otherwise, the work becomes formulaic, and “comedy is spontaneity.” When Oz made heist flick The Score after Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, it was a deliberate genre switch. “I did it because I didn’t want to be labeled,” he said.

Toward the end of the session, they discussed Disney and its ownership of the Muppets. Oz labeled Disney’s effort “smarmy,” adding that “Disney doesn’t understand purity." He clarified that later: “The purity I’m taking about is the purity of character.”

But of course, he didn’t end on that note. The session concluded with an anecdote about two puppies Oz once had. When they were puppies, they used to get so excited when cars passed the barn, he said. As they grew up, it became mundane and the dogs grew unimpressed. “Our job,” he said, “is to be puppies.”

Featured Session: Frank Oz

Monday, March 11, 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm, Austin Convention Center Room 18ABCD

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