No matter who you are, or how old you are, there is a strong chance that Frank Oz’ work has had a direct impact on your life. Whether it’s his work as a puppeteer and voice artist on The Muppets, Sesame Street, and Star Wars, or as director of films such as The Dark Crystal, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Death at a Funeral, and of course Little Shop of Horrors, Oz has been one of popular culture’s most iconic figures for over half a century now. They do say don’t meet your heroes, but in Oz’ case I would heartily recommend at least an hour on the phone from across the Atlantic, which is exactly what he kindly gave Filmhounds in late August to discuss his cult classic as it turns 35.
This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here
Initially, Frank Oz’ name wasn’t in the running for the director’s chair on Little Shop. At one point, Martin Scorsese was attached and eyeing a 3D blockbuster, and at another John Landis was mooted to helm the film. Having co-directed The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson and gone solo with The Muppets Take Manhattan however, Oz suspects that producer David Geffen turned to him in the summer of 1984 because, well, when you’re tackling a picture with complex puppetry and big musical numbers, then getting the guy who has just made a film with complex puppetry and big musical numbers makes a lot of sense. To Geffen’s surprise though, Oz declined the gig. “I said no,” Oz recalls. “It was not that it was too big, but rather it was too complex. It was 14 songs and it was kind of real but not real, kind of theatrical but it had guest stars, and of course it had this plant growing to be eight to 10 feet tall and there was so much involved I couldn’t figure out how to make it work.”
A few weeks later though, while Oz was shooting commercials in Toronto, inspiration struck without warning like a total eclipse of the sun. “It just came to me that the three girls [Ronnette, Crystal, and Chiffon] were the key. The girls on stage were always exiting stage left or right and I realised, while a stage is basically 180 degrees if it’s a proscenium, film is 360 degrees, so I could pop them anywhere. And that was it, that was the key. So once I had that open up to me, I called my agent back and I said “Yeah, I’ll do it.””
Having found the cinematic vision for the film that previously eluded him, Oz’ first job as director was to get to grips with original show director and writer Howard Ashman’s script. “The script wasn’t right,” Oz tells me. Whilst Oz describes how Ashman’s words “were like music”, and stresses how he never changed the actual dialogue as Ashman had written it, he explains that the screenplay was still theatre bound. “It had a theatrical sensibility not a movie sensibility, so David [Geffen] asked me to rewrite it.” Oz did ask Ashman if he’d like to help out, but Ashman said no. “I understood where he was coming from, there’s a lot of musical dilettante directors out there,” Oz says with a chuckle. “But later on he saw that I actually knew what I was talking about because I grew up with musical comedy, and when he realised I had some depth, from that moment on he was always there for me.”
Such was Ashman’s wilfulness to help Oz that he wrote ‘Suppertime’ and ‘Mean Green Mother From Outer Space’ for him. ‘Mean Green Mother’ would of course go on to be the first song with profanity to get an Oscar nomination, and whilst tragically Ashman passed away in 1991 at just 40 years of age, his multifaceted genius and spirit had awed Oz. “It’s not just musical genius with Howard. I mean as a lyricist, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid and this [Little Shop] are stunning, there’s no comparison. But also as a director and a story writer you know, he was brilliant… he was very generous and collaborative and was always there to help – he was just wonderful.”
With Oz holding great reverence for Ashman’s work and the stage show of Little Shop, I ask him how he approached taking the show from stage to screen while keeping the theatrical roots of the piece intact. “My entire responsibility,” Oz tells me, “was to recreate the gritty Off-Broadway feeling of Little Shop as opposed to a Broadway show.”This meant that though Oz strove for believability with his film, with production designer Roy Walker shipping over tonnes of trash cans and hydrants and all sorts from America to give Skid Row a lived-in, grotty aesthetic, he never wanted to be mistaken for aiming for something that felt natural or bound to realness.
This extended to the film’s remarkable Pinewood set, where Walker had the sets built in such a way as to lean in and add to the entrapping claustrophobia of the place. “This kind of material cannot be naturalistic,” Oz says. “Some shows, they can go outside and on-location, but this had to be contained, and we were lucky because we had the 007 soundstage at Pinewood to work on.” To get even more into a mode of filmmaking that Oz describes as “reality but not reality”, the director also spent a solid eight months before shooting choreographing the films many musical numbers in his head, carefully planning them to accentuate the unnatural nature of the story and to feed into Little Shop’s unique atmosphere and tone.
Oz is also very appreciative of the collaboration between DP Robert Paynter and Walker – “terrific people” – on the film’s primary colour scheme, which gives it an improvised technicolour look that Oz credits with heightening the unnatural aesthetic of the film.
With script locked in and a clear vision, Little Shop’s stars assembled and production began. With his background in experimentation-driven work with The Muppets and Sesame Street, Oz tells me how he loves improvisation. And so you’d imagine – I put it to him – with Little Shop’s cast of SCTV and SNL regulars, there was a lot of controlled chaos on set. That’s not entirely the case however, as Oz explains. “I was very respectful to every single word Howard wrote, so I didn’t want to ever improvise any dialogue unless Howard okayed it, and I never asked because I felt that after four years he’d honed it so well on stage. Who was I to try and change it?” Expanding, Oz shares how “Rick [Moranis] didn’t really improvise because I asked him to be true to the script,” which is understandable especially given how Seymour is in almost every scene of the show and film, anchoring a lot of the absurdity surrounding him.
On the other hand, Oz recalls opportunities that did arise to go off-script. When John Candy turned up to play wackadoodle WSKID Radio DJ Wink Wilkinson, a minor role in the stage show, Howard Ashman was fine with some improv. Oz enthusiastically recalls how Candy “created that disc jockey as his own,” bringing him to life with his inimitable “wild schtick.” Elsewhere, there was also the small matter of one Mr Bill Murray, who makes a memorable appearance as unhinged dental patient Arthur Denton. Casting Murray was producer David Geffen’s idea, and Oz vividly remembers calling him about the part. “I said “Billy, do you want to do this thing?” And he said “As long as you know I don’t have to do the dialogue.” I said “Billy, I really don’t care what you say as long as he’s the sadist and you’re the masochist, I don’t care.”” And with that, Murray was sold, which then meant that Steve Martin as the Dentist had the tricky task of sticking to the script (and keeping a straight face). “Steve was the core of the scene,” Oz tells me. “It’s only because Steve held that responsibility that Billy could riff around like crazy. He held the core.” The result is a tour-de-force in unscripted hilarity and one of the film’s best-loved scenes.
As far as the rest of the shoot goes, balancing many musical, technical, and plot elements on a production that spanned well over half a year, Oz had a lot of fun and a fair bit of stress, mainly revolving around a certain extraterrestrial venus flytrap. “It was great, but it was also tense at times because it was such a tough thing to do,” Oz tells me. “The tension wasn’t between people,” he adds, before sharing a story centering on the tricky task of manoeuvring the mammoth Audrey II puppet between the three distinct shop sets they shot on. “When the plant was eight to 10 feet tall, in order to move the plant from one side of the set to the other for ‘Suppertime’, it took two days just to move the plant! We had to rewire and re-cable and everything, and I remember one time I had to have it moved by the next day, and I told Lyle [Conway]. He said “I can’t do it, it’s two days”. I said “It takes two days to do it? Wow, I’m fucked!” (laughs) …and so there was a lot of tension there as I didn’t give Lyle enough time. But Lyle, you know, he saved my ass and he got it moved because he’s great. But there was some tension in that situation because no one had ever done anything like this before.”
For all the tense moments and challenges of filming Little Shop, Oz nevertheless ended up creating a film that he is incredibly proud of. When I ask whether there were any particularly difficult shots or sequences that have stuck with him, a few come instantly to mind. “I am proud of ‘Suddenly Seymour’, which is my favourite number,” Oz tells me. The last shot in particular, done in one sweeping motion, which sees Audrey sing to Seymour from a balcony before he runs to her and they embrace in front of a beautifully painted sun, stands out to Oz. “I wanted it to be Romeo and Juliet, where he was up there and she was down below and then I wanted to make a huge emotional sweep where he runs up and grabs her,” he recalls. “That was about 31 takes and it was a very difficult move because it’s a crane shot where it needs to match and come in at the exact time and turn all the way around. I’m proud of that number partly because of the performances but also because, y’know, I love that song so much and we got the shot.”
Another crane-involving shot Oz was particularly impressed that they pulled off was the ending of ‘Somewhere That’s Green’, where the camera pulls back from Audrey’s window, rising and rising as Skid Row comes back into focus and her dream life dissipates. “We didn’t have a crane big enough so we had to put another crane on top of the titan crane in order to do that shot, and that was a very difficult one to do.” It’s also touching to note that the shot, with its beautiful visual style, was written in the original script by Howard Ashman, a fact Oz proudly shared with me.
Of course, Oz couldn’t talk about difficult technical feats without mentioning Audrey II. “All the stuff with the plant was hard as hell,” he admits. And it’s no surprise. Not only did Oz employ over sixty puppeteers to operate Lyle Conway’s remarkable creation, moving it between sets at great pains to his creature designer, but – ever the perfectionist – he went to extraordinary lengths to give the bloodthirsty flytrap a perfect, nuanced lip-sync performance. As Oz tells me at length about how he shot Suppertime and Feed Me at 12fps, 16fps, and 24fps to nail the plant’s movements, thus meaning Ellen Greene and Rick Moranis had to essentially perform their parts in slo-mo so that everything would look as clean as it does in the final cut, the scale of the task he undertook and the genius it required to pull it all off using only practical effects leaves my head spinning. When I tell Oz how incredible I find the effects work, his voice fills with pride. “I think I might actually be proudest of that. Lyle and all the people that worked on it are so proud – every single frame of the plant is real, no opticals and certainly no digitals at that time. There were only two opticals in the entire movie. There was the subway in the background, and in the ‘happy ending’ we also used a lightning bolt. Everything with the plant was real, which is actually mind numbing as I think about it now!”
When filming was done on Little Shop, the film was test-screened in both San Jose and L.A. Whilst the audience cheered and applauded throughout the musical numbers, the deaths of Seymour and Audrey turned what looked set to be a hot ticket into a spectacle that made an icebox of the screening room. The reaction not only came as a huge disappointment to Oz and his collaborators, but also as a bit of a surprise. “I actually thought that it was supposed to be a funny ending,” Oz reveals. “I thought it was funny and I thought that there were scenes in there that I purposely made tongue-in-cheek. But what happened was people cared for the main characters so much that when they died and the plant won they hated it. I didn’t realise – but David Geffen knew – that after Ellen and Rick were killed there was nothing that could save the movie because they loved both characters too much. That’s why we changed the ending.”
In the “happy ending” Seymour kills the plant, saves Audrey, and the pair move to their picket-fenced dream home. Though this is a nice ending, and well executed, it subdues the Faustian symmetry of Ashman’s cautionary tale. When I mention this to Oz, who in the mid-2010s worked on an as-yet-unrealised revival of Little Shop with Ellen Greene that would have focused more on the Faustian nature of the show, he strongly agrees. “Of course! It’s only right he wins because he had a pact with the devil, and that’s what Howard had meant,” he tells me. Questioning why the story’s ending came across fine the first time round on stage but not on screen, Oz knows exactly where the difference is. ”It’s fine to do that on stage, to kill your leads, because afterwards the lights come on and your leads take a bow. In your movie the leads don’t take a bow – they’re dead, they’re gone!”
When Warner Bros. decided to celebrate Little Shop’s 25th Anniversary back in 2011 by releasing Oz’ Director’s Cut as it was originally envisioned, the filmmaker couldn’t have been happier. Not only because Ashman’s vision and his own were finally being seen on screen for the first time and WB had followed all of Oz’ directorial notes to the letter, but because visual effects master Richard Conway’s B-Movie homaging, Harryhausen and Godzilla reminiscent all-action climax – in which Audrey IIs take over the world before bursting through the cinema screen – was finally restored to its rightful place, offering closure for a somber day in Oz’ directorial career.
“One of the worst things I had to do as a director,” Oz recalls, “was after a year of work and five million dollars I had to tell Richard Conway – who did the brilliant animated stop motion work – that I could not use his stuff anymore because they wouldn’t release the movie. The scores were so low that they simply would not release the movie if I had kept that ending.” Oz takes a long pause and a deep breath, the first and only audible silence in our call. “It was hard, it was awful, because I had to tell Richard we could not use all of his stuff. It was just terrible. Years later though, when I heard that they were going to do it [release the Director’s Cut], I thought “This is fantastic!” I called Richard and I was so thrilled because he was at the end of his career, about to retire, and now finally the audience could see his brilliant work. That made me happiest of all when they released it.”
Something I was keen to touch on with Oz in our call is his director’s toolkit, something he has talked about in past interviews which – as you may imagine – is essentially the skills and lessons he has learned along the way in his career. Here, Oz takes the time to pay tribute to his mentor and close friend Jim Henson, the creator of The Muppets, who tragically passed away at the age of 53 in 1990. “I believe I’ve built my tool kit over the years. The Muppet movies we did with Jim were extremely difficult to do, very technical too, which led me to be able to accept really hard work – you cannot work any harder than on a Muppets movie! And y’know, Jim kind of created the impossible where he would never say no to something. If there was something he wanted to do he would always make things happen.” I ask whether Jim’s boldness and fearlessness drove a lot of the crazy things he did to make Little Shop work, and he says “if I hadn’t worked with Jim I wouldn’t have been able to do Little Shop… Every single movie that I have done, you know it doesn’t necessarily have a direct correlation to Jim, but it absolutely does have a direct correlation to the spirit of Jim and how we did things with him.”
Oz’ deeply rooted sense of gratitude and appreciation of the effort and talent of others also rings true when he talks directly about his experience directing Little Shop of Horrors, which he says he still feels great about 35 years on. “Little Shop of Horrors taught me so much,” Oz shares. “I mean Bob Gaudio doing all the music was stunning and, you know, I hold the credit and I should get the credit for being the boss and doing it the way I wanted to do it, but there’s no way on God’s earth that I could do it alone and all these other people don’t get the credit they deserve. You can’t make it unless you have other people helping you, and these were just the most talented people. It wasn’t just me alone, it was also Lyle Conway and all the other people involved in the movie. It was trusting those people to help me. I think that’s a key tool I had that not many people would’ve had. Everyone was incredible.”
Having recently appeared in both The Last Jedi and Knives Out, two personal favourite films of mine, I couldn’t help finishing my chat with Oz by asking him how he stays inspired after over 50 years in the business. “It’s interesting because on the one hand I am and on the other I’m not,” Oz muses, mulling over his answer. “I figured at my age now, 77, which is absolutely shocking to me – you’ll get to that too by the way and say “How the fuck did I get to 77?” And then you’ll look at your child who is probably married with kids and you’ll say “How did that happen?”” Oz laughs, a brilliant full-throated laugh, before continuing. “You know, I think by this time I expected to be wandering around my apartment in a dirty robe with a beer watching old Abbott and Costello movies. But truthfully I am busier than I have ever been. And it’s interesting, because half of me really enjoys just pottering around, being lazy, just taking it easy. But then the other half of me says there’s still this fire in me that if somebody asks me to do something – and if I really like it – I’ll say yes, and once I say yes I’m committed to it. Maybe there’s not as much fire as when I was younger but goddammit, I can’t help it, I’ve got enough fire in me to still want to do some stuff.”
I strongly implore Oz to keep doing some stuff, gushing about what he means to myself and so many millions of others before we say our farewells, and then proceed to do the only reasonable thing in the given situation. I go and tell my 10 week old daughter that her dad just spoke to Master Yoda, doing an awful impression as I continue introducing the next generation to the wonderful wizard that is Frank Oz.
This piece originally appeared in Filmhounds Magazine #8 – Available in print here
Photos courtesy of Ellen Greene