Muppets Most Wanted’s Bret McKenzie on Winning an Oscar and Putting Songs in Muppet Mouths

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Image: Disney

On my trip to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, I met the only person who has both won an Oscar for songwriting and played an elf in several of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movie adaptations. I mean, I haven’t actually checked, but if there’s anyone other than the extremely-talented Bret McKenzie who fits both of those categories, I’d be more than a bit surprised.

McKenzie as Lindir
McKenzie as Lindir; Image: New Line Cinema

Bret McKenzie won a well-deserved Oscar for the song “Man or Muppet” from the 2011 movie The Muppets. He returned to write the songs for that movie’s sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, which hit theaters on March 21, which is why a group of other bloggers and I found ourselves talking with him. Since it wasn’t really relevant, there wasn’t a chance to ask him about his experience playing the elf Lindir, alas, but it was a fun time nonetheless.

If you haven’t yet seen Muppets Most Wanted, you really should: it’s not a brilliant film, but it’s definitely worth seeing. And the music is one of the best parts of the film, even if only the first song, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” rises to the level of “Man or Muppet” or “Life’s a Happy Song” from The Muppets. The soundtrack album for the movie is available, and a lot of fun to listen to – and its tracks, unlike a lot of songs your kids may want to listen to, won’t make you want to rip your ears off your head after hearing them for the 20th time in the space of a week.

Here are a couple of the highlights from the group interview with McKenzie:

QUESTION: So how fun was doing work similar to [The Muppets]?

BRET MCKENZIE: Oh it was really fun working on those, James and Nick Stoller sent me the script and there were lots of fun, great ideas for songs and then I got to add new ideas and the first song “We’re Doing a Sequel,” – they had the original idea, then I just started looking through the history of bad sequels and qualities of sequels and there’s so many. And there was one lyric, the first lyric in the song: [SINGS] “We’re doing a sequel, that’s what we do in Hollywood; but everybody knows that the sequel’s never quite as good,” that felt like a great start to the movie ’cause it lets the audience know that, first of all it’s a sequel and we know that it’s possibly not as good as the last one. [LAUGHS]

And that’s the way they wanted it ’cause the audience can’t but help go, “Oh is this gonna be better than the last one? Let’s see what they do.” So we kinda let them in on that. And that’s what I love about the Muppets is they can turn to the audience and look straight at camera and talk to them about how they’re making a movie. […] Like there was one lyric that Rowlf the Dog was gonna sing that was in the soundtrack but not in the movie where he goes, [SINGS] “We’re doing a sequel, how hard can it be? We can’t do any worse than The Godfather III.” [LAUGHS] It was a bit of a zinger, so we took that one out. But then I like how Piggy can talk about how “there’s no need to disguise, the studio considers us a viable franchise.” There’s some fun, it was really a fun song to write. It was good.

Group Bret
Image: Disney

Q: You won an Oscar for your song “Man or Muppet.” While working on the music for Muppets Most Wanted did you feel pressure to meet that kind of standard again?

BM: Yeah there was a lot of pressure because of the Oscar, but really what could I do? I had to get on with the job and just, you know, forget about that. I didn’t work on the last Muppet film to win awards.

Q: What is your general creative process like?

BM: They send me a script with the idea of a song and it’s usually quite a loose idea. For example, the ballad. It was originally called “Love Ain’t Easy,” and it was a Piggy ballad. And first of all I was nervous because Piggy is a great comedic character, but not a great singer. I was worried about her carrying an emotional ballad because there’s only so much of her voice that the audience wants to hear.

Thirty seconds is great, but a couple of minutes really starts being a bit painful. So I suggested we try and get a singer to help her and we were really excited when Celine Dion agreed. I’m hoping that these two divas will get like a Las Vegas Celine Dion / Piggy Diva Night. That’s my dream. Anyway so then I would write the song and adapt it for the characters.

Sometimes you get someone like Tina Fey, who’s got the role of a prison guard, and I always wanted to do this doo-wop song. I started working with her and I adjusted the song to suit her voice because it was the wrong pitch. We worked together to find her strengths, where her voice sits. And that’s one of the benefits of being the songwriter and producer of the songs as well. If it’s not working, I can just change the song.

Q: If you could be a Muppet, which Muppet would you be?

BM: I would probably be one of the two old guys, because they get a lot of the best jokes. It’s between them and Animal for me. Yeah. Animal’s great. And Swedish Chef is a guaranteed laugh at home. [IMITATES SWEDISH CHEF] Snoop du beshdabeers. [LAUGHS] Everyone can do a Swedish Chef, and the kids just love that character. He’s pretty fun.

Q: Whose idea was it to re-use an old Muppets song for the last musical number in Muppets Most Wanted?

BM: That was James’ idea and it’s a reprise of an original Muppet song [from Muppets Take Manhattan]. A lot of the audience won’t know that, but it’s one of the classic Muppet songs “Together Again.” But, of course, it’s “Together Again, Again.”

Muppets Most Wanted is in theaters now. Read my review of the film, along with 9 Things Parents Should Know about it.

Note: Interviewing Bret McKenzie was part of a press junket I attended that was paid for by Disney. All opinions expressed are my own.

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