The great Oz speaks

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By Michelle Devereaux

True, Frank Oz has made his living for the last twenty years as a director of glossy, big-budget Hollywood comedies: from the mega-hits (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, In & Out) to the occasional colossal flop (The Stepford Wives). And for the discerning nerd, Yoda always he will be. But for me, it's hard not to meet the man and think of him as anything but a pig. Oz not only provided the voices of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, and the Swedish Chef, among other classic Muppet characters, he's also a master puppeteer in his own right.

So how to "keep the Muppet questions to a minimum" as instructed by the publicist on the occasion of his new movie, Death at a Funeral? (Especially when Oz himself makes an off-the-cuff remark about going "whole hog"? Well, it helps that Funeral is actually pretty amusing. An ensemble farce about a repressed English clan attending the funeral of a patriarch with a scandalous secret, the film features British vets like Rupert Graves, Robert Vaughan, and Ewen Bremner, plus American actors Peter Dinklage and Alan Tudyk (a standout). I sat down with Oz to discuss the movie, his desire to become a master of the "dark" arts, and other things (sigh) no
Muppet.

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San Francisco Bay Guardian: How did you get involved with Death at a Funeral?

Frank Oz: I had a friend who worked with me years ago -- I had a Disney deal and she was a development person. She gave me the script [by Dean Craig]. I loved it, laughed out loud. I don't react that way to scripts often. And I was touched by it.

SFBG: So you had been specifically shopping around for a smaller film?

Oz: Absolutely. After my last big one, I wanted a small one.

SFBG: Was there anything specific about The Stepford Wives that turned you off big-budget productions?

Oz: When it gets that expensive I don't listen to myself. I saw it as an intimate movie about relationships, and other people saw it as bigger. And there was so much money involved I thought I better listen to them, and I shouldn't have. You have a cast like that -- Nic[ole Kidman] had just won the Oscar, and you've got incredible actors like Glenn [Close] and Christopher [Walken] and Matthew [Broderick]. It just exponentially gets bigger and bigger. I should have just gone with my own instincts. My fault completely, nobody else's fault. And yet, I really love so many aspects of it.

SFBG: Is it true you were born in the UK?

Oz: Yeah, but I was only six months old when we moved to Belgium, and then moved here to the United States, to Oakland, California. My hometown is Oakland.

SFBG: What differences do you see between the British comic sensibility and the American one?

Oz: I don't. I have no idea. I never approached [Death at a Funeral] as a British comedy or an American comedy. I just knew what makes me laugh and what touches me, and what makes other people laugh.

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Death = funny.

SFBG: But you did say that Death at a Funeral couldn't have taken place in a culture without a great sense of propriety.

Oz: Without a sense of a class system that had to maintain a certain way of acting.

SFBG: Do you think that informs the British style of farce?

Oz: Yeah, but it would inform Japan also, and any other nation or place that one has to act a certain way. But I don't think it's peculiar to Britain.

SFBG: You shot the movie at Ealing Studios, which is famous for its very English, madcap '50s comedies. You never had them at the back of your mind?

Oz: Never. If I start to think about other movies then I'm in trouble. All I do is follow my instincts and think about this movie. I never think about other movies. I mean…subconsciously I might.

SFBG: When you were doing the initial read-through with the cast did you think the movie was going to be funny?

Oz: In my heart, yeah, because I loved these cast members and the script was terrific, but the first read-through is never as funny because everyone is scared to death around the table. So everybody is under pressure. People laugh, but it's usually forced laughter.

SFBG: Does your rehearsal process help with that?

Oz: Oh yeah, absolutely. I did a great deal of that. The British actors -- I was afraid they wouldn't jump in but they did. They jumped in whole hog, and it was wonderful. I use improv as a tool, and then I'll use it to shoot also occasionally.

SFBG: So you did improv in the rehearsals and worked that into the script?

Oz: No. Well, yes and no. This particular movie, it happens in approximately real time. It happens during an hour and a half, an hour and 40 minutes. So when I rehearsed, [there were] the four actors in the library. Then I had to cut away to the bathroom, and then I'd come back to the library 30 seconds later. So I'd say to the actors, "Let's pretend we're on camera here for 30 seconds. What would you be doing?" and then they'd improv for 30 seconds. And then I'd say, 'Stop. OK, 30 seconds are over; that's where you're standing.' So that was a tool to kind of keep the continuity going. Other times, I'd just improv on the set [during the shoot]. You can't ad lib unless you have a terrific grounding of script. When things are working, and the writer's on the set, and the actors are on the set, and I'm on the set, and things are flying, we forget where the ideas are coming from, and it doesn't matter.

SFBG: Did you enjoy working with a true ensemble cast for the first time?

Oz: I loved it. Working with these particular actors, who were trained so wonderfully, in a low-budget movie, which was not even $10 million [in cost]. There's a spirit there, an energy. It's wonderful.

SFBG: You've said that you make all your actors audition. Did you really make Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro audition for The Score?

Oz: Audition is a loose word. I can't cast somebody because they're Marlon Brando. I can't cast somebody because they're Bob De Niro. I have to sit down and talk to them. I didn't audition Peter Vaughan here because he had trouble reading because of his eyesight. So I had to talk to him and discuss character. Yes, I did audition Robin Williams. Yes, I did audition Richard Dreyfuss. But for some people the audition would be just sitting and talking. Marlon, I had to. I wouldn't cast him unless I sat down for two hours and talked with him. I would never cast Bob if we didn't sit down and talk about the role. Couldn't do it. How do I know all of a sudden Bob isn't going to pla it with a Lithuanian accent? I have to know their version. You've got to know that, otherwise you're in trouble.

SFBG: Have you ever thought about doing another thriller?

Oz: I'd love to. I can't find the scripts. Comedy is kind of my mainstay. I just talked to my agent about this. There's a comedy being offered to me and I said I can't do it unless I do something dark first. I just don't want to do comedy, comedy, comedy. I'm looking for something dark and small. A thriller, a horror movie, I don't care. I don't want to do comedies all my life, as much as I love them.

Death at a Funeral is now playing in Bay Area theaters.

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