‘Disney’s Muppets Most Wanted takes the entire Muppets gang on a global tour, selling out grand theatres in some of Europe’s most exciting destinations, including Berlin, Madrid, Dublin and London. But mayhem follows the Muppets overseas, as they find themselves unwittingly entangled in an international crime caper headed by Constantine—the World’s Number One Criminal and a dead ringer for Kermit the Frog—and his dastardly sidekick Dominic, aka Number Two, portrayed by Ricky Gervais. The film stars Ty Burrell as Interpol agent Jean Pierre Napoleon, and Tina Fey as Nadya, a feisty prison guard.‘
That is the boilerplate pitch for The Muppets Most Wanted. Verbatim. If you think that sounds like it’ll be fun to watch, can you imagine being on set for a day watching the film actually being made? Well imagine no more…
It was Monday 5th March 2013 and a significant portion of the UK were suffering freak snow storms causing power cuts and travel chaos. Thankfully Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire (about an hour’s drive outside of Central London) remained unaffected. Obviously this was good for lots of reasons, but mainly because it did not interrupt Clothes on Film’s planned set visit to The Muppets Most Wanted which at the time was shooting there.
Our first stop after arrival (for anyone interested you generally travel to these visits on a coach, kind of like the patients’ outing in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Next) was the production office for a chat with production designer Eve Stewart. Costume is our thing, although you can tell a lot about a film’s overall style from production design alone. As Stewart explains:
“James (Bobin) has a love of retro films, so we looked a lot at The Pink Panther, we looked a lot at crime capers of the 60′s and 70′s, and we looked at Ocean’s 11. It’s kind of tongue in cheek our view of each country, including this country.”
Dotted around Ms. Stewart’s rather cramped working conditions were various photos and sketches of locations, notable including The Tower of London and St. Bartholomew’s priory church, a full photo character board of all the Muppets featured in the film (some in twos, e.g. Bobo and Thog, Statler and Waldorf), tiny set models and, best of all from our perspective, a Muppet to human height ratio chart. This is something we really wish we could have photographed, more as a curio than anything, as it brings home just how much consideration must be paid when building sets and finding or reproducing locations:
“All of our interiors are set builds. Without saying too much that’s all to do with the ‘mechanics’ of The Muppets. We’ve all grown up with the Muppets and bloody love them. What was great is when went to the Tower of London and asked to film there. Normally they say ‘no!’, but then they found out it was the Muppets. They like the Muppets better than James Bond!”
We are not able to spend long at the production office, but from a costume point of view the day has hardly begun.
The sign on the door outside indicates ‘The Muppets…Again!’ (previous working title) ‘Wardrobe’. Of course Wardrobe is not Costume, but it could be argued that as the Muppets are largely playing themselves they are actually wearing wardrobe items as opposed to costume (i.e. this is not a character creation). It’s still quite surprising to see that though.
Most of the magic seems to happen in two spacious, somewhat messy and very brightly lit rooms that resemble secondary school classrooms. Several racks of clothes are marshalled in a line along the back wall, all seemingly Muppet related and not for humans. For example one of the racks is marked ‘Piggy’, which, quite obviously, houses all the costumes worn by Miss Piggy. These particular outfits, which include a green sequin mermaid dress and Spanish flamenco outfit, are designed completely by costume designer Rahel Afiley. The designer ensembles Miss Piggy wears are housed on a different rack. She only wears one designer in The Muppets Most Wanted, personally chosen by Afiley for all of the London scenes, but for now that well known name will have to remain a mystery…
One outfit we did get a closer look was Kermit’s ‘Gulag costume’, a distressed light brown shirt and beige quilted trousers. As with all the Muppet costumes it has the look of perfectly rendered children’s clothing. In this instance there will also be a human version of this shirt and trousers set to match. Rachel Afiley describes how she approached the project:
“The last Muppets film was my first time. I needed help – what can and can’t be shown and what Piggy is able to wear. Anything that hangs like a sack is very unflattering on Miss Piggy. Well, it’s very unflattering on most women. Anything strapless is a no-no too. Not too much detail on the top, not too much detail on the bottom, because these areas might not be seen clearly. One of the best things about Muppets is that they don’t complain, so if you need to stick a pin in there it’s ideal. The good thing is we don’t really need doubles or multiples – Miss Piggy doesn’t sweat.”
Afiley was born in Ethiopia and began her sartorial life sewing clothes alongside her mother. As a young girl she fled to Sudan and Saudi Arabia with her family as refugees, finally settling in Norway. Eventually Afiley attended fashion school in the U.S., Atlanta, and later moved to New York for a career in styling and commercials. In 2008 she worked on the feature film Be Kind Rewind and the HBO series Flight of the Conchords, for both seasons, which is where she first met The Muppets and The Muppets Most Wanted director James Bobin:
“Because I’ve worked with James for years I know his personality, and what he likes. No matter how current the film is he always likes a vintage feel to everything he does. With any contemporary wardrobe we have in this film, we still try to put a 60′s feel into it.”
The wardrobe area was dotted with Muppet clothing, some finished, some undergoing alterations, several sewing machines, fabric, thread, an entire table of Muppet hats – mostly fascinators for Miss. Piggy, and in the first room a very interesting ‘mood wall’ covered in reference photos and drawings. As the films always embrace a retro vibe most of the pictures were of Kermit and Miss Piggy from past movies and publicity shots. But there were several new references too. One was a telling snap of Kermit in full ‘detective mode’, i.e. beige trench coat and fedora, placed a few feet across from a photograph of Humphrey Bogart wearing an identical costume. In the second room were more tables with more fabric and various indeterminable costumes. The final rack in room 2 housed costumes for all the wedding guests (it’s no spoiler now to say Kermit and Miss Piggy are to be married at St. Bart’s in London, whether real or imagined), a mix of floral dresses, shirt and trouser sets and coats:
“With every country we visited we went for a theme with Miss Piggy. So, in Spain it was very red and black, in Dublin it was green tones, in Berlin blues and greys. And I have to say I love the crew here in London, and it’s quite versatile, because there’s no Union thing. Everyone pitches in and helps out, which is nice. But costume houses here…trying to find one red turtleneck took days whereas in LA that would take ten minutes. There are pros and cons.”
As we said, more on The Muppets Most Wanted costume design in an upcoming article. For now though we move onto the workshop.
The Muppets workshop, headed up by Jim Henson Creature Shop veteran Jane Gootnick, was our bridge between the costume department and lunch. Not that anyone was in a big hurry to eat because this was an Aladdin’s Cave of revealing delights that any Muppet fan worth his/her salt would hyperventilate over. Nonetheless it is not the easiest place to write about without a) giving the game away and b) being sued by Disney for giving the game away. To call it a Muppet abattoir would not be far off the mark.
What we did get to see was exactly how our little furry friends are clad for their appearances, which occasionally means more ‘assembled’ than ‘dressed’. Due to Muppets not necessarily being intended to wear people clothes, their garments tend to be created as the finished product by the costume department and then literally detached and reassembled on the puppet body. It is like the finished product is actually a 3D pattern and clothes as seen on the Muppets are bespoke. We watched one character out of the corner of our eye being fitted into his frock coat (for the wedding) that took at least twenty minutes just to slit into place. In fact we actually left the building before he was properly dressed. Obviously it is a laborious job, though you would never know it from the workshop team. They kept smiling throughout, even when we weren’t looking. Caring about the finer details makes a difference; they do not cut corners. An example? How about Beaker’s silver space suit with a tiny bow tie affixed to the front? They never miss a trick.
After lunch we made our way on set and spent the best part of an hour watching one of the film’s Gulag scenes being shot while being incredibly quiet and absolutely not getting in the way. In-between gawping we got to interview, or perhaps more accurately meet and greet, a couple of Muppet characters you may have heard of…
Miss Piggy is everything you expect her to be. Many imitate but none better. She is brassy, rude and fabulous. But ask about a certain big event happening in this story and she is oddly cagey:
“There might be wedding, there might be a very special white dress, but that is all I’m going to say.”
Piggy is immaculately attired, as you might expect, but no strapless for practical reasons. Plus she is a curvy lady and some of the same rules apply to puppets and humans. Apparently this is also the same for her beauty regime:
“I don’t feel like aging, I don’t feel like getting old. It’s just a decision you make for yourself, that’s all.”
Piggy knows her best side and makes sure that you stay on it at all times. As pleasant as it was chatting to Miss Piggy, she is such a busy dame and just so in demand the experience felt over before it began. She toddled off to make-up, but quickly bringing a smile to everyone’s face, Walter arrived.
Walter was introduced as a main character in the 2011 film. His success with audiences (and $165 million worldwide gross) is partly the reason we have a sequel now. Intended as pure goodness and innocence, basically a way in for those who are not that familiar with The Muppets, Walter struggled to understand his identity in the original story. Was he a man or a Muppet, or a Muppet of a man? He could not seem more comfortable now though, dressed in a shawl neck cable knit cardigan and white shirt, with Kermit watch of course. We can’t resist but compliment him, and at the same time remark that perhaps he is a little casually dressed for a wedding:
“No, this isn’t my wedding outfit. This is actually from James Bobin’s closet, we shop at the same store, if you notice his wardrobe. No, I’m not in a wedding outfit, and I could tell you why, but I don’t want to give away that part of the film. But that’s very observant.”
There’s much excitement as Walter shows us his wristwatch, THE Kermit watch seen in the first movie:
“It’s the real one, they let me keep it from the last movie. I’ve got him (Kermit) on my wrist. And in my heart. That was really sappy.”
Walter is about the nicest Muppet, or human for that matter, you could ever hope to meet. Even Miss Piggy appears to like him. Well, kind of.
You might think that hearing from The Muppets Most Wanted’s human star would be the highlight of our day, yet even Ricky Gervais understands that he is playing second fiddle to his puppet counterparts:
“I’ve loved the Muppets for 35 years. I am laughing all the time. It should be illegal, it’s too instantly funny. I am in my element.”
He is wearing a Lemur costume by the way; he is sitting at his dressing room desk dressed head to toe as a fluffy lemur. In retrospect, knowing the world of The Muppets this seems about right:
“It’s so uncomfortable. I don’t know what cats do. I said ‘I’m doing the film but I’m dressed a lemur or no deal!’ No, this is a costume. I am a master criminal that is all I can tell you. It’s like a onesie. Naturally I like to wear pyjamas so this suits me.”
On paper The Muppets Most Wanted is the kind of old school caper that pleases everyone. We spent most of the day giggling like children on our set visit despite it being cold enough to chill a Martini. These guys will do that to you. And, honestly, if can’t find something funny, or cute, or just plain adorable about cuddly Walter wearing a shawl knit cardigan better than Daniel Craig in Casino Royale then you might need medication.
The Muppets Most Wanted is released on 21st March.
With thanks to Disney UK.
You can watch The Muppets at LOVEFiLM.com.
© 2014, Lord Christopher Laverty.