Tuesday , April 16 2024

SXSW 2024: Learning Directing with Frank Oz and Leonard Maltin

Even if you haven’t heard of Frank Oz, odds are you have heard him act and seen his directing work. Oz was interviewed by film critic Leonard Maltin and his daughter Jessie as part of the 2024 edition of the SXSW Conference and Festivals. The event was recorded for Maltin’s weekly podcast, Maltin on Movies.

Maltin, famous for 30 years on television’s Entertainment Tonight, teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and appears on Turner Classic Movies. He sat down with Oz at SXSW hot spot Esther’s Follies in front of a standing-room-only audience

Yoda I Am

If you’ve ever heard the Star Wars character Yoda speak, you’ve heard Frank Oz. Joining Sesame Street in its early days, he has also voiced, among others, Cookie Monster, Fozzie Bear, and Miss Piggy.

Oz also directs. His collection of awards includes four Emmys, the Art Director’s Guild Award, the Comedy Award, a Saturn Lifetime Achievement Award, two George Foster Peabody awards, and others. Among his many directing credits you’ll find The Dark Crystal, Little Shop of Horrors, What About Bob, The Stepford Wives, and Bowfinger.

Having just directed my first film in January, it was this list of Oz’s credits that encouraged me to stand in the long line to get into Esther’s Follies.

No Introduction

Maltin began with some humor: “Our guest today needs no introduction, and if he does to you, tune into another podcast. You’re in the wrong place.” It’s safe to say from the yelling and cheering that went on for the next hour that no one in that crowd needed to be introduced to Frank Oz.

Jessie Maltin shared how her daughter had recently become a big Sesame Street fan and how amazing she thought it was that what Oz had done maintains its power over the years.

Oz was quick to share the credit. He said, “As far as the Muppets go, there should be about 40 people standing behind me and one in front of me, Jim Henson. I’m kind of a hitching post. You can’t do this alone.”

Oz and Miss Piggy
Frank Oz and Miss Piggy

Director I Am

The Maltins talked with Oz about his early life as the son of immigrants. Oz shared how his father had been a puppeteer and how he began with hand-me-down marionettes. He talked about his early years with Jim Henson, when he was mostly a gofer.

When Henson got into filmmaking, Oz became his editor. Seeing how films were put together from the editing room sparked his interest in directing.

Henson asked him to help with The Dark Crystal, which he co-directed with Henson. Henson then asked him to direct The Muppets Take Manhattan. Oz recalled, “That was me alone for the first time. What I felt was there was so much I didn’t know. But I didn’t know enough to not do it.”

Taking Off

Oz continued, “After Muppets Take Manhattan, David Geffen asked me to do Little Shop of Horrors, and that’s when the passion for film started.”

Leonard Maltin said he was fascinated by how one person could both act in and direct the same movie. “You have to plan it, then execute it,” Maltin observed. “You’re thinking about the hundreds of things going on. Is the lighting right, are the costumes right, is my co-star hitting their spot, and then you must forget all that and become Fozzie Bear. When you’re done with the reading, then you have to go back to all that other stuff?”

Oz replied, “Well, Jim was amazing. He was always there to help. I learned from him, but he never taught you anything. He cared about the product. But over many years he never told me what to do, or the performers what to do. He only led by example.”

Little Shop of Horrors

Jessie Maltin asked what it was like directing Little Shop of Horrors.

Oz said, “That script was still written as if it was to be performed in a theater. Theater is 180 degrees, but film is 360 degrees. The first time I looked at it, I said ‘no.’ David Geffen was shocked because nobody says ‘no’ to David Geffen. But, I just didn’t know how to do it. Then I went off with Jim and the guys to do a gig in Toronto. When the pressure was off, it came to me.”

Working on Set

Oz’s conversation with the Maltins moved on to many of the famous actors he has worked with.

Oz observed, “It’s not like I sit back and say ‘get me so-and-so.’ These things just kind of happen and evolve. All these people I’ve worked with – Goldie Hawn, Bill Murray, Steve Martin, and Martin Short – one thing we have in common is we take our comedy very seriously.

“I tend to work with the two Rs in comedy – rigor and restraint. It may seem odd talking about restraint but in that world in which those characters inhabit, there is restraint.”

They talked about preparation for directors.

Oz said, “It’s all about the prep. In fact, I’m writing a book on prep. And, as a director, if you do the prep, the actors can smell it and the crew can smell it. And if you don’t do the prep, they can smell that, too.”

Oz and Dinklage
Frank Oz directing Peter Dinklage in ‘Death at a Funeral’

Marlon and Orson

Maltin asked a short question: “Marlon Brando?”

This was a reference to the 2001 film The Score, which Oz directed. It was Brando’s final film role and the only time Brando and Robert De Niro appeared onscreen together.

Oz replied, “It was difficult for Marlon and myself for three weeks, and I blame myself. Y’know, I worked with two really big stars, Marlon and Orson. I felt they both had a very childlike quality about them. It’s really what one wants – to keep that sense of wonder when you work. Picasso said it took him 60 years to learn how to paint like a child. Marlon had that and so did Orson.

“I had read the famous stories about Marlon taking over movies, so, I said to myself, I’m not going to let him do that. He did things that were not good for the movie and I was too tough and then I lost him. It was my fault, because our job as a director is to let things slide off our back and support that actor. Marlon was scared. Every actor is scared. So, I failed him.

“Because of his fear and distrust of people, and there was a reason for the distrust, he was a bit insulting to me. And then he came back to apologize to me and that’s when I got tough. And that was a bad time to get tough. I screwed up. It’s the director’s job to get the best out of the actors and to do that you need to have them trust you.

Director’s Job

“It happened with another actor, whom I wouldn’t let ad lib because the dialog was rhythmic not colloquial and he yelled at me, ‘You never let me ad lib, Frank.’  

“The important thing is never to do anything in front of the crew, so I said, ‘Let’s go into my office.’ He came into my office, and I said, ‘Here’s the real question. Can you work with me? That’s all that matters.’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and was cordial for the rest of the shoot. The important thing for the director is to get the job done!”

Hear and See More

You can hear the entire one-hour Maltin/Oz interview at the blog website and see Orson Welles with the Muppets below.

Next year’s SXSW will take place March 7 through 15. You can find out more at their website or on Twitter (@sxsw), Facebook , Instagram, or LinkedIn .

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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