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Oscar Worthy: It’s Time to Play the Music with The Muppets ‘ Bret McKenzie

Older fans will fondly remember Kermit the Frog taking to the stage and performing “The Rainbow Connection” during the 1980 Academy Awards when The Muppet Movie was nominated for Best Original Song. 22 years later, the same category is the The Muppets best chance at Oscar gold. spoke with the film’s music supervisor, Bret McKenzie (himself responsible for writing “Life’s a Happy Song”, “Me Party”, “Let’s Talk About Me” and “Man or Muppet” in the film) about re-teaming with director James Bobin, with whom he co-created “Flight of the Conchords”.

In addition to discussing his work on the film, McKenzie offers some details about his upcoming projects, which include a cameo in The Hobbit, the comedy Austenland and a potential “Conchords” feature film. How does the song-writing process for a film like “The Muppets” work? Is there just a space in the script with a “song goes here” note and details about what it needs to contain?

Bret McKenzie:
Yeah, that’s exactly right. I put that in front of me and sit down at the piano and start riffing. Just see what comes up.

CS: One of the things you’re well known for from “Flight of the Conchords” is doing songs in a wide variety of styles. How do select which Muppet is best suited for singing whatever part of a song?

I don’t know. It just kind of depends on how the songs fall into place. Sometimes the jokes are lyrical and sometimes they’re visual. I listened to a lot of the original Muppets material. I watched all the original Muppet Show episodes. I kind of drowned myself in Muppet material. Then I just started working on it and knew the style. I had grown up with the Muppets and was pretty familiar with the characters. I kind of knew them and was just lucky, I guess, in that sense.

CS: We spoke with Nicholas Stoller shortly before the film was released and he brought up the idea that everyone has two favorite Muppets: the one they most identify with and the one that they just love the most. Who are your favorites?

That’s great. I like Statler and Waldorf, the two wise-cracking guys. I love the way that, in the TV show, they could criticize the TV show within itself. That’s such a genius idea. If anything ever doesn’t work, you can just drag out Statler and Waldorf.

CS: Of the songs you wrote, did you have a personal favorite?

My favorite in the movie is “Man or Muppet” because I love the song and I love what James did with the filming. I think the song and the visuals really connect in that. Also, Jason Segal does just a stellar performance of the heartfelt ballad. I think it was the first night of filming, that song.

CS: Was there every any thought to making a cameo appearance yourself?

I probably should have. I was barely in the country, though, when they were filming. It seemed like whenever they were shooting, I was working on projects in other countries. I was only on set for one day.

CS: What’s the experience of being on-set and interacting with the Muppet performers?

Yeah, it’s great. It’s so cool. It was great in the studio because they would just be in character and between takes they would stay in character. I’d be in the recording studio and it really was Kermit or Fozzie talking to me.

CS: Likewise, I’d imagine it’s an interesting sensation getting back the footage and seeing the Muppets perform songs that you wrote.

Oh yeah. Amazing. Just incredible. On “Flight of the Conchords”, everything was done on such a small scale. With this, it’s just great to watch and enjoy these elaborate musical numbers. The opening of the film has hundreds of people dancing and it’s great.

CS: When you’re writing, what’s the process for realizing that a song doesn’t work?

There are a lot of steps along the way and it’s pretty clear when a song works because people react immediately and say they like it. Luckily, I know James Bobin so well and if he likes it, I get an e-mail back very quickly. If he doesn’t, the e-mail takes slightly longer and the e-mail goes something along the lines of, “It’s interesting…” (laughs) Which means he wants another vision. Songs like the rap song with Chris Cooper, we wound up doing at least a dozen versions of that, trying different ideas.

CS: On the soundtrack, it’s a much longer version with more backstory to Cooper’s character.

Yeah, he has a whole opera break. James wanted an opera break. We filmed it and I don’t know yet if it will be on the DVD, but it flashes to Chris Cooper as a child and he’s singing an opera. It was great, but it slowed the movie down.

CS: Having Chris Cooper rap has to be one of the more musically inspired moments in the film.

That was just an honor. Teaching an Academy Award Winning actor how to rap. I was his rap coach.

CS: You’ve got a number of other projects coming up. You’re set to make another appearance in the world of Middle Earth.

Yeah, I’ve got a cameo as an elf. Or another cameo. I was in “The Lord of the Rings” as an elf. I’ve got a few lines in Elvish. My character is called Lindir. I hang out with Elrond. We’re also finishing this film with Jershua Hess, “Austenland”. We filmed in England last summer and we’re sort of doing the final bits and pieces on it now. It’s a period comedy, so I get to dress up in Ye Olde-y clothes and be a stablehand. It was really fun. We’ve got Keri Russell and Jennifer Coolidge on an English manor. It was really, really great.

CS: How does your work on the big screen compare to the small screen?

Well, this is the first year that I’ve been working on film full time. Everything takes a lot longer. It takes years rather than weeks. Other than that, it’s really not that different. Working on “The Muppets” wasn’t all that different from working on “Conchords”. It was just an amazing thing to be writing these songs at my piano and then, months later, find myself conducting them in front of an orchestra. Being on a Hollywood soundstage is a really great experience. When you’ve got a big film, you get to do something like that that you couldn’t do on a TV show.

CS: Has there been any thought of bringing “Flight of the Conchords” to the big screen?

You know, we’ve talked about it. We’re working to come up with something, but we don’t know what it is. We don’t have a film idea. But we are talking about it. It’s a long, long way away, but it’s something I’d like to do, yeah. Having worked on a big screen musical, it gets me excited about doing more musical films. I feel like James Bobin and I were just getting going on this Muppets film. It’s a really fun world to play with if the studios will bank us. I’d love to do some comedy Busby Berkley routines.

CS: I did want to ask one thing about “The Hobbit”. You famously appeared in “The Lord of the Rings” as a character that earned the fan name Figwit.

Yeah. (Laughs) I wonder what Tolkien would think about that.

CS: So your new character, Lindir is actually from the book. Are we meant to think, after we see “The Hobbit” and then re-watch “The Lord of the Rings” that Figwit was really Lindir the whole time?

You’ll probably see, I’ve got slightly different ears. That’s how I differentiate my elf characters. The big difference for this character is that he’s in 3D. He’s a character that’s a lot more three dimensional.

Check back to see if “The Muppets” is included in the full list of Academy Award Nominations on January 24th.

(Photo Credit: Brian To /