Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Muppets

Frogs for snakes

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If you’re the sort of person who can’t turn away from a show business scandal with leaked memos, insider anecdotes, and accusations of bad conduct on both sides, the last two weeks have offered a pair of weirdly similar cases. The first involves Frank Darabont, the former showrunner of The Walking Dead, who was fired during the show’s second season and is now suing the network for a share of profits from the most popular series in the history of cable television. In response, AMC released a selection of Darabont’s emails intended to demonstrate that his firing was justified, and it makes for queasily riveting reading. Some are so profane that I don’t feel comfortable quoting them here, but this one gives you a sense of the tone:

If it were up to me, I’d have not only fired [these two writers] when they handed me the worst episode three script imaginable, I’d have hunted them down and f—ing killed them with a brick, then gone and burned down their homes. I haven’t even spoken to those worthless talentless hack sons-of-bitches since their third draft was phoned in after five months of all their big talk and promises that they’d dig deep and have my back covered…Calling their [script] “phoned-in” would be vastly overstating, because they were too busy wasting my time and your money to bother picking the damn phone up. Those f—ing overpaid con artists.

In an affidavit, Darabont attempted to justify his words: “Each of these emails must be considered in context. They were sent during an intense and stressful two-year period of work during which I was fighting like a mother lion to protect the show from harm…Each of these emails was sent because a ‘professional’ showed up whose laziness, indifference, or incompetence threatened to sink the ship. My tone was the result of the stress and magnitude of this extraordinary crisis. The language and hyperbole of my emails were harsh, but so were the circumstances.”

Frankly, I don’t find this quite as convincing as the third act of The Shawshank Redemption. As it happened, the Darabont emails were released a few days before a similar dispute engulfed Steve Whitmire, the puppeteer who had been performing Kermit the Frog since the death of Jim Henson. After the news broke last week that Whitmire had been fired, accounts soon emerged of his behavior that strikingly echoed the situation with Darabont: “He’d send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director,” Brian Henson told the New York Times. Whitmire has disputed the characterization: “Nobody was yelling and screaming or using inappropriate language or typing in capitals. It was strictly that I was sending detailed notes. I don’t feel that I was, in any way, disrespectful by doing that.” And his defense, like Darabont’s, stems from what he frames as a sense of protectiveness toward the show and its characters. Of a plot point involving Kermit and his nephew Robin on the defunct series The Muppets, Whitmire said to the Hollywood Reporter:

I don’t think Kermit would lie to him. I think that as Robin came to Kermit, he would say “Things happen, people go their separate ways, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about you.” Kermit is too compassionate to lie to him to spare his feelings…We have been doing these characters for a long, long time and we know them better than anybody. I thought I was aiding to keep it on track, and I think a big reason why the show was canceled…was because that didn’t happen. I am not saying my notes would have saved it, but I think had they listened more to all of the performers, it would have made a really big difference.

Unfortunately, the case of Whitmire, like that of Darabont, is more complicated than it might seem. Henson’s children have come out in support of the firing, with Brian Henson, the public face of the company, saying that he had reservations about Whitmire’s behavior for over a decade:

I have to say, in hindsight, I feel pretty guilty that I burdened Disney by not having recast Kermit at that point because I knew that it was going to be a real problem. And I have always offered that if they wanted to recast Kermit, I was all for it, and I would absolutely help. I am very glad we have done this now. I think the character is better served to remove this destructive energy around it.

Elsewhere, Lisa Henson told the Times that Whitmire had become increasingly controlling, refusing to hire an understudy and blackballing aspiring puppeteers after the studio tried to cast alternate performers, as a source said to Gizmodo: “[Steve] told Disney that the people who were in the audition room are never allowed to work with the Muppets again.” For a Muppet fan, this is all very painful, so I’ll stop here, except to venture two comments. One is that Darabont and Whitmire may well have been right to be concerned. The second is that in expressing their thoughts, they alienated a lot of the people around them, and their protectiveness toward the material ended in them being removed from the creative process altogether. If they were simply bad at giving notes—and the evidence suggests that at least Darabont was—they weren’t alone. No one gives or takes notes well. You could even argue that the whole infrastructure of movie and television production exists to make the exchange of notes, which usually goes in just one direction, incrementally less miserable. And it doesn’t work.

Both men responded by trying to absorb more creative control into themselves, which is a natural response. Brian Henson recalls Whitmire saying: “I am now Kermit, and if you want the Muppets, you better make me happy, because the Muppets are Kermit.” And the most fascinating passage in Darabont’s correspondence is his proposal for how the show ought to be run in the future:

The crew goes away or stands there silently without milling or chattering about bullshit that doesn’t apply to the job at hand…The director [and crew]…stand there and carefully read the scene out loud word for word. Especially and including all description…The important beats are identified and discussed in terms of how they are to be shot. In other words, sole creative authority is being taken out of the director’s hands. It doesn’t matter that our actors are doing good work if the cameras fail to capture it. Any questions come straight to me by phone or text. If necessary I will shoot the coverage on my iPhone and text it to the set. The staging follows the script to the letter and is no longer willy-nilly horseshit with cameras just hosing it down from whatever angle…If the director tries to not shoot what is written, the director is beaten to death on the spot. A trained monkey is brought in to complete the job.

Reading this, I found myself thinking of an analogous situation that arose when David Mamet was running The Unit. (I’m aware that The Unit wasn’t exactly a great show—I don’t think I got through more than two episodes—but my point remains the same.) Mamet, like Darabont, was unhappy with the scripts that he was getting, but instead of writing everything himself, he wrote a memo on plot structure so lucid and logical that it has been widely shared online as a model of how to tell a story. Instead of raging at those around him, he did what he could to elevate them to his level. It strikes me as the best possible response. But as Kermit might say, that’s none of my business.

Written by nevalalee

July 19, 2017 at 9:02 am

Reflections in a googly eye

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Last night, my wife and I caught a performance of Stuffed and Unstrung, the decidedly R-rated improv comedy show featuring puppets from the Jim Henson workshop. The evening was fun but uneven, like all improv, and I’d say that the cast was significantly better at puppeteering than at improvisation—but I still had a blast, and I left the theater full of admiration and envy for the performers involved. I’ve always had a certain fascination with puppeteers, especially of the Henson variety, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand why. As the wonderful documentary Being Elmo makes abundantly clear, not only is this a challenging art form in its own right, but it’s an emblem of what all the other arts should aspire to be—a medium where all you need for creative expression is a few dollars’ worth of fabric, some googly eyes, and the willingness to work at it for the rest of your life.

A novelist, as I’ve said before, needs to know something about everything, but that’s nothing compared to the skill set that a puppeteer has to master. A few minutes at the touring exhibition of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World is enough to fill you with awe at the range of Henson’s abilities—in addition to his more famous talents, he was also a gifted animator, illustrator, graphic designer, and experimental filmmaker—but he’s only the most illustrious exemplar of a vocation that encourages every performer to be a jack-of-all-trades. Even on the professional level, a puppeteer can be expected to write his own material, build his own puppets, sew his own costumes, design sets, handle camera and sound equipment, and draw alternately on the various skills of the actor, clown, acrobat, voiceover artist, singer, comedian, and mime. And it’s a job that continuously challenges the performer’s inventiveness: many great routines or characters begin as solutions to technical problems, only to evolve into something singularly beautiful and weird.

It’s no surprise, then, that even the earliest surviving performances by Henson, Frank Oz and others are bursting with ingenuity—this is a medium where you need to try everything once, often under considerable constraints. These can be constraints of money, space, or even time: Henson’s big breakthrough came with his commercials for Wilkins Coffee, which had precisely ten seconds each to tell a joke and deliver a pitch. And such limited resources can lead to surprising solutions. Henson made the first version of Kermit out of one of his mother’s old coats, and there’s a long tradition of creating puppets from whatever happens to be lying around. In short, it’s the most economical form of theater there is, and as a result, it often flies under the radar, as in the former Soviet Union, where, according to the director Peter Sellars, the most subversive and experimental drama was being performed in the puppet theater.

We’re left with something close to art in its purest form, at least when it comes to the reactions it inspires. When I was a child, I don’t think I ever made a distinction between the Muppets on Sesame Street and the human performers around them: they were all just members of the same cast. Even today, it takes a special mental effort for me to picture the puppeteers standing just below camera range. (At Stuffed and Unstrung, much of the action unfolds on two video monitors to either side of the stage, so even with the performers right in front of you, it’s easy to forget that they’re there.) A bit of felt and foam rubber, in the hands of a skilled performer, turns into real person, with its own personality and emotions. The more I think about it, the more amazing this seems, even though it’s not so different from what all art hopes to do. In the end, we’re all puppeteers. It’s just the lucky ones who get to do it for real.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2012 at 10:13 am

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