With a resume whose films run the gamut from “Wild Hogs,” “Beauty Shop” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” to “Traitor” and “The Fighter,” Todd Lieberman would either seem unlikely or ideal to produce “The Muppets,” opening Wednesday (11/23/11).
“Yeah, well, I used to describe my taste as ‘Memento’ to ‘American Pie’ – and everything in between,” Lieberman, 38, says, sitting in Gordon Ramsay’s toney restaurant in Manhattan’s London hotel. As if to prove the point, he mentions that his next two productions are “a hard-R college drinking movie” and “a zombie movie told through the eyes of a zombie.”
And … “The Muppets.”
“Look, I’ve been a lifelong fan,” says Lieberman, a Cleveland native. “I enjoyed them as a child. And now I can appreciate them in a different way as an adult.”
Lieberman is one-time actor whose career high points were playing Ronald Goldman in an O.J. Simpson-case episode of “Unsolved Mysteries,” and playing an illiterate high-school basketball star in an episode of “Sweet Valley High” (“But I looked like everybody’s uncle”).
Putting acting aside, he got a job as a receptionist at a company distributing soaps abroad, then graduated to buying films for foreign markets. He used that job to “hone my taste and figure out what I liked. Eventually I convinced myself that my taste translated to broad appeal, when a producer asked me if I’d help pick scripts and create projects. I think I’m able to spot talent. I could spot the lack of talent in myself as an actor. And I can spot talent in other people.”
Lieberman, who is partners with David Hoberman in Mandeville Films, says the pair became involved in the new “The Muppets” because of his and Hoberman’s strong relationship with Disney (where Hoberman was once chief executive of motion picture production). They had close ties to the executive who was handling actor-writer Jason Segel’s script for a new Muppets movie – and who was looking for producers to take the project on.
The film imagines a world that has forgotten the Muppets – until a fan convinces them to come out of retirement to save their historic studio. The reality is not quite that drastic, but the feelings aren’t far off.
“We exaggerated for dramatic effect – it’s not like the Muppets have actually broken up,” Lieberman says. “But they’re certainly not as prevalent, culturally and commercially, as they once were. They haven’t had a movie in 12 years; they don’t have a TV show. They’re not at the forefront of the media. So we decided to make that part of the story.
“That gives it all a meta quality – which is a nod to the nostalgia and the history of the brand.”
If there was any concern that the public wouldn’t remember – or embrace – the return of the Muppets, it was erased when Muppet Studios released a video of the Muppets performing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” – which has garnered more than 23.5 million views on YouTube: “There’s an absolute universal love for these characters,” Lieberman says. “My hope is that translates to lots of people who want to see this movie, that it transcends nostalgia.”
Still, given the R-rated nature of some of Lieberman’s output and of Segel’s films as an actor, they seem an unlikely combination for the ultra-family-friendly comedy stylings of Jim Henson’s creations.
“When you meet Jason, you can tell right away that he’s a genuine, heartfelt fan,” Lieberman says. “You talk to him and you sense the love. We all knew what we can and can’t do with this. It’s a PG film and we wanted to stay true to what the Muppets are. But it was fun to see how far we could take things in certain directions, in terms of irreverence and breaking the fourth wall.
“The comedy comes from innocence. This isn’t negative comedy. It’s not insult comedy that makes fun of anyone. It’s silly mayhem; it’s madcap silliness. It was also our intent to strive for and tell an emotional story. We knew that, while we would have zany comedy, there was a heartfelt emotional story here.”
Though he was a fan, Lieberman still had his eyes opened about the level of performance required to handle one of the Muppet characters. That was particularly true during a crowd scene, when he and Hoberman were enlisted (among others) to manipulate a Muppet in the background.
“It was a scene at the end with about 100 Muppets and they needed extra puppeteers,” he says. “I quickly learned how excruciatingly difficult it was. You have to keep your arms in the air for long periods. And you’re watching a monitor in front of you – but when you move the character to the right, it moves to the left on the monitor. It’s like a reverse mirror. It was very trippy; I was sweating profusely and I had a sore arm for the next week.”
As it turned out, a visual-effects supervisor told Lieberman later on that, as they were editing the scene, they noticed one Muppet that was leaning too far in one direction, out of synch with the others. So they’d edited it out of the scene.
“Of course it was mine,” Lieberman says. “I was heartbroken. But I understood. I’m clearly not designed to be a Muppeteer. These performers are true artists; it’s about so much more than just the voice. There’s a skill level required to operate and perform a character – to be able to show subtle expressions or convey worry. And then to coordinate hand movements with mouth movement – and you’re doing it all while scrunched in a ball out of view of the camera. It’s an amazing technical challenge.”Print This Post