Exclusive Interview: Director Frank Oz
by Alex Billington
August 25, 2007
You may not know right away who Frank Oz is, but with a little reminder, you'll know his work. He first started his career in the entertainment business working alongside of Jim Henson as a puppeteer and soon the voice of a number of Muppets. Following that he landed another famous voice gig - Yoda in all of the Star Wars movies. His first directorial debut was the family film The Dark Crystal, which was later followed with his bigger hits: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, In & Out, Bowfinger, The Score, The Stepford Wives, and now this year, Death at a Funeral. We spoke with this Hollywood legend about his latest film, Death at a Funeral, as well as about low budget filmmaking, comedies in Hollywood, and much more.
Frank was one of the most delightful interviews I've ever had. It was great chatting with a true legend and inspiring to hear everything he had to say.
Alex (FS.net): When you first heard about the story, could you ever imagine making such a sad and morbid event into such a light-hearted and hilarious comedy?
Frank Oz: When I first heard about it… So what happened was, I got the script from a friend of mine, Share Stallings, who was one of the producers of the movie and Share had worked with me 10 years ago, and we're very dear friends. And I just read this thing and I just laughed out loud, which on paper is very unusually. I have trouble laughing at comedies on the screen, sometimes! It was touching; I thought it was a nice little story. I never thought about it, no, and when I made it I really didn't think too much about some of the taboos about death or anything, I just went for what the script told me to go for.
Alex: When I was watching I was thinking, to start off, it's a funeral and no one can ever find any happiness in it and you're watching it and laughing from start to end.
Frank: And I think that's got to say a lot about the script and the actors, number one the script. It's also because it's not a comedy, it's a farce, and I think that hasn't been seen for a long time - and I'm not giving myself credit, I'm giving the writer credit. Because a farce is a whole different thing from a comedy. A comedy these days means two $20 million dollar stars with some sort of conflict at each other or something. And this is peculiar in that it has to start slow because you introduce characters, then the second act is the situation, part of the second act and the third act is getting the hell out of the situation out of desperation. And so it's a slow climb as opposed to comedy where they want laughs right away.
So I think maybe because people hadn't seen that for a while, maybe that kind of script is something that sucks people in and takes them for the ride. I don't know, I don't really know…
Alex: You talked about the cast, how did you go about finding this cast. Matthew MacFadyen is hardly known here in America, and although the rest of the people are great like Alan Tudyk, nobody really knows them.
Frank: I was very fortunate. I went to London and auditioned for about a month and a half, I always do it live, I don't do it by tape. London has such a layered storehouse of actors because they're so trained, it's a different kind of depth they have than here because it's not part of our upbringing to have that kind of training, which is unfortunate. And I saw great actors and they just weren't appropriate, and these are great actors who are appropriate for their roles. So I just got lucky… Honestly, [Sidney Kimmel Entertainment], rightfully so, wanted to get some stars so they could market it. I never wanted stars, but in good faith we tried to get some stars, but for whatever reason, maybe because they didn't like the script, maybe because they weren't available, maybe there was no money because it was only $10 million dollars for the whole thing, for whatever reason we didn't get any, and I was thrilled… because I much preferred just terrific actors for the roles, because you don't have any extra baggage. So I was happy.
As soon as you see a star you've got to take 15 minutes to get over the fact you know who that is. And now with these wonderful actors, and as you said nobody really knows them, it's nice because then you can immediately see them as their characters.
Alex: Do you think it's harder to sell a comedy that has a very British feeling and is full of a British cast here in America?
Frank: The answer is I guess so, but I really don't know because I'm a filmmaker and I really don't know that answer. I think it's less that, than I think the fact that it's harder to sell something without stars. I think that's the most important thing, it's such a star oriented business now. I think it's more about stars than nationality to me.
Alex: A complaint I've heard a lot of with Death at a Funeral was there wasn't enough focus on the female side, and I don't actually believe this, it's just something I've heard. Is this something that just played out in the script or something that you considered in the editing process?
Frank: No, it's exactly the script. As a matter of fact, I made Keeley Hawes, the wife of Matthew, who's the real life wife and also the screen wife, I made her part larger for story reasons. I don't know, it always confuses me saying that there's not enough for women, or there's not enough for blacks, or there's not enough for Chinese, or there's not enough for Lithuanians. It's like, you're not writing for political reasons, you're not writing to be politically correct, you're writing for what's right. And these women, and men to a degree, are archetypes, because one has to be at certain areas. It always confuses me saying… I think this is what works, and that's what the script had. And I'm not going to say, there's not enough for women here, I'm going to put more in there so I get the female crowd - fuck that. What do I know?
Alex: Did you deviate much from the script at all, is there much improvisation?
Frank: Oh yea, a lot, a great deal. But you can't do improv without a great script. And also in every single movie, there's no exception here, every single movie I ask the writer to be with me all the time. So the writers are on the set every day. See I don't believe in answers on paper, that's where I think the biggest mistake is - you shoot the script, I think you don't shoot the script. What works on paper doesn't necessarily work on the floor. What works on paper may read funny or touching and then when an actor says it, it feels false, so I want the writer there to help me with the actors' improv, something that feels real. Even though it was based on a really well crafted and really well done script, we did a lot of improv.
Alex: In that same vein, what are your tricks to get the funniest moments out of the actors?
Frank: I try to get to the point where they do take after take and they're exhausted and have no more ideas and they're dry and then when they don't think, that's when they get the best take.
That's what [Stanley] Kubrick used to do, but he used to do it with like a hundred takes, he used to break them down. But I do it just not giving them time to think and they do the greatest stuff.
Alex: I was talking to Alan Tudyk before about improv and he was telling me he did a lot of it, so you had a lot to work with at the end.
Frank: Yep, exactly. And then I cut it down, because… There's a lot more Alan for instance. But, I believe the old adjunct of leave them wanting more. I think less is more, I don't think you want to see a lot of stuff. You just get a taste of it and you know… that's what I do.
Alex: You've directed a lot of comedies, right? Is that something you just enjoy choosing for direction or would you consider going somewhere else?
Frank: Well I have… I've done my musical, I've done my family film, I've done my special effects film, I've done my action/heist movie. So I kinda do that, then go back to comedy. I'm looking for… I'd love to do a horror movie, then do a comedy, then do a thriller, then do a comedy, then do a western, then do a comedy, then do a dark, sexual psychological movie, then a comedy. So comedy I enjoy doing, but… you just want to do other stuff, you want to explore.
I guess what happened, too, is that I get a lot of the best comedy scripts, but because I'm seen as a comedy guy, I don't get a lot of the best dramatic or thriller scripts or things like that. So I'd rather do a good script, whatever it is. And also, I haven't fucked up… badly. I mean, I haven't fucked up really bad. So they kept on asking me. When you're halfway successful with something, you just keep on being asked to do another thing. So that's why I had to stop and do The Score, I said I've got to do something other than comedy again, and then I'll go back to comedy. But I love comedies…
Alex: Do you have anything else you're working on next?
Frank: I'm looking for another low budget film, I really love the low budget. I actively looked; after Stepford Wives I just stopped and said I've got to do something low budget and go back to the purity of filmmaking and thank god I got this. So I'm looking for something else like this, another small one, I've been reading scripts… haven't found it yet.
Alex: Have you seen anything recently in Hollywood with low budgets that has really impressed you?
Frank: I don't know about Hollywood…
Alex: Well, just anything that has impressed you.
Frank: Well Once was stunning.
Alex: Yea, I agree.
Frank: The photography was shit…
Alex: That didn't matter!
Frank: Who cares? The guy… He was riveting. It was a beautiful story about friendship, it was gorgeous! And it was made for I'm sure like a buck-98! That's wonderful. I've seen The Lives of Others, which is a stunning movie, not big budget, certainly bigger than Once. I don't remember any low budget comedies, though, I don't know about that…
Alex: With what happened with Once and The Lives of Others and a couple of these low budget movies really getting big, I mean I know there are always these indie gems every year, but is it possible that Hollywood could sort of be catering towards these in any direction?
Frank: I don't know enough about Hollywood, because I live in Connecticut. I'm not part of that whole milieu, I'm not connected to that. My gut says that there's always going to be a place for these big movies with the huge stars, because I want to see them, too! And there's going to be a place for these big action movies, because I want to see them. But also, I get tired of the… and I think audiences are smarter than people think, I get tired of the constant pummeling and marketing of replicated movies, movies that are the same as others. The answer is, I really don't know, be damned if I know.
Alex: It's just interesting to watch the patterns, because the opposite effect was Evan Almighty, the biggest comedy budget ever and it just flopped.
Frank: But the question is, why do you have a big budget for a comedy?
Alex: Yep, exactly.
Frank: Because the comedy is not about production design. Comedy is about story and character and conflict, and the basic stuff. So I'm confused why they had to do that, it confuses me. They're very talented people, so… that was confusing to me. That's not where you put your money on comedy, in my opinion.
Thanks especially to Frank Oz and everyone at Sidney Kimmel Entertainment for the opportunity to interview a legend in Hollywood. I strongly suggest you go out to see Death at a Funeral as soon as you can, as it was one of my favorite comedies of the year.