'Death at a Funeral,' the New Dark Comedy from Oz Director Frank Oz started his career as the voice of Miss Piggy, the Cookie Monster and other Muppets. As a director, he had made star-powered movies such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. His latest film, Death at a Funeral, is a dark comedy with a cast not well known outside the U.K.

'Death at a Funeral,' the New Dark Comedy from Oz

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Director Frank Oz has built quite a name for himself in the film industry. But for most people, it's not the name they remember. It's the voice.

(Soundbite of show, "The Muppet Show")

Unidentified Man: Excuse me, Miss Piggy, the hospital's guests are coming up.

Mr. FRANK OZ (Actor, Director, Puppeteer): (As Miss Piggy) Good. Here's your first paycheck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: While working with Jim Henson, Frank Oz was Miss Piggy, the Cookie Monster and many other Muppets. As a director, he was behind the lens for such star-powered movies as "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Bowfinger."

For his latest picture, he's assembled a cast little known outside of the U.K. "Death at a Funeral" is a dark comedy about a family brought together by the passing of its patriarch. Upon arriving at the family's home in the English countryside, guests are treated to a series of unfortunate events, one more outrageous than the next.

(Soundbite of movie, "Death at a Funeral")

Mr. ALAN TUDYK (Actor): (As Simon) The coffin is moving, I tell you. There's someone alive in there. Don't you look at me, smart ass(ph).

ELLIOTT: A review in Variety magazine reads, With a circus parade of mourning Brits and enough appalling circumstances to set proper Englishness back to the dark ages, "Death at a Funeral" pits decorum against sex, drugs and dysfunction.

(Soundbite of movie, "Death at a Funeral")

Unidentified Man #1: I saw the door open. I saw…

Unidentified Man #2: I can't believe what a nightmare it has been.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's exciting, isn't it? Forget it, you're not listening.

ELLIOTT: "Death at a Funeral" opens next weekend. I asked Frank Oz if casting this movie without big stars might be considered a risk in Hollywood.

Mr. OZ: I don' know. I'm from Connecticut.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OZ: I don't live in Hollywood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OZ: I live up in (unintelligible) country about two hours up, so I don't know what's a risk and what's not. And actually, if it wasn't a risk I wouldn't do it. I mean, I like being a bit subversive. I don't like playing safe. Who the hell wants to play safe, right? So if it is a risk, all the more - all the better for it.

ELLIOTT: So this is a rather lovable dysfunctional family at its finest here at this funeral. At the center, we have the dead man's two sons, Daniel and Robert. Can you lie these two characters out for us?

Mr. OZ: Yeah. Robert went away to the United States and became a novelist and sells a lot of books. He comes back for his father's funeral. His brother, Daniel, has been holding down the fort and has been living in his mother's house with his wife. And Daniel is - wants to be a writer but is too frightened to say so.

ELLIOTT: Now, it gets a little bit harder for Daniel when Robert comes back and everyone is saying, oh, oh, Robert, you're going to deliver the eulogy, aren't you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OZ: Yeah. That's the part there. That's wonderful because Daniel, who's played by Matthew Mcfadyen, who's brilliant, he's really a very mild-mannered guy but the story truly is that Daniel becomes the man that his wife always thought he was. But until then, he's trying to this eulogy and everybody is hoping the famous brother will do it instead.

(Soundbite of movie, "Death at a Funeral")

Ms. KEELEY HAWES (Actress): (As Jane): (Unintelligible).

Mr. MATTHEW McFADYEN (Actor): (As Daniel): Every single bloody person wants Robert to do the eulogy. He was my father, too, wasn't he? I'm just entitled to do the bloody eulogy.

Ms. HAWES: (As Jane): Of course, you are. Of course, you are. And it's going to be the best bloody eulogy anybody's ever heard.

Unidentified Woman: Forgive me. Apparently, Robert won't be doing the eulogy.

ELLIOTT: There's another character I want to talk about here. Simon.

Mr. OZ: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Simon is engaged to the dead man's niece.

Mr. OZ: Yes.

ELLIOTT: He's a little uneasy about going to this family funeral. Apparently, his future father-in-law is not really fond of him.

Mr. OZ: Right. Simon is a lawyer and he's a junior lawyer, and very, very rigid and uptight.

ELLIOTT: So this uptight guy is really worried about this. His fiancee, Martha, thinks she can help and she decides to give him a Valium from her brother's medicine chest, so to speak.

Mr. OZ: Right.

ELLIOTT: Not a good idea.

Mr. OZ: No. The brother says he's becoming a pharmacist and actually he's a small-time drug dealer.

(Soundbite of movie, "Death at a Funeral")

Mr. TUDYK: (As Simon) I swear, I saw it moving. I must be going mad. Why am I a handsome pig?

Ms. DAISY DONAVAN (Actress): (As Martha) Oh, Simon, listen to me. I need to tell you something.

Mr. TUDYK: (As Simon) Ah.

Ms. DONAVAN: (AS Martha) You know I gave you some Valium earlier?

Mr. TUDYK: (As Simon) Yes.

Ms. DONAVAN: (As Martha) Well, it can turns out that it wasn't actually Valium at all.

Mr. TUDYK: (As Simon) Hm-mm.

Mr. OZ: The thing is with Alan Tudyk, who does a brilliant British accent. He's really from Texas. You know, if you're really good at what you do, you take it very seriously. I take my comedy very seriously. Alan did also. So when he's mad, really mad or when he's funny, it's always funny with discipline and rigor and that's I believe why Alan's so good.

ELLIOTT: What do you mean by that?

Mr. OZ: I mean, in order for you - you guys - the audience to laugh, we all have to work extremely hard and disciplined to make it look very free and funny. We can't all of the sudden just have - or I can't, anyway - just say, oh, that's funny and laughter, and move on. You have to fine-tune a joke.

At the end of the day, it still what makes you laugh. But it's what makes you laugh as a result of a lot of preparation and work and rehearsal.

ELLIOTT: Let's change gears a bit now and just take a bigger look at your career. I'd like to start by asking about some of the famous actors that you've worked with.

Mr. OZ: Uh-hmm.

ELLIOTT: Steve Martin.

Mr. OZ: Great. Wonderful, professional, sensitive, generous, brilliantly talented, amazing genius.

ELLIOTT: Marlon Brando. You were the last director to work with him.

Mr. OZ: Yeah. Sweet and childlike. And I think there's another part of him that was tortured.

ELLIOTT: Was it hard to direct somebody like that - somebody who is such an icon? This was in 2001 when you directed "The Score."

Mr. OZ: Right. I didn't direct Marlon. Marlon would not let me direct him. He hated my guts.

ELLIOTT: Really?

Mr. OZ: I think he let me direct him maybe once one day. But it was a very, very difficult situation where he hated me. And I handled him very badly and so he had a right to hate me. I told myself I would not let Marlon take over this movie, as he has done in some other movies. And instead of being nurturing and supportive, I was combative. And so I was too tough on Marlon. I was that way for about a day and a half and after that, I lost him. It was my fault.

ELLIOTT: Now, I also read where you had a problem with an actress. You ended up leaving the film - working with Cher on "Mermaids."

Mr. OZ: I left that film, yes. In "Mermaids," I think I prepped it for about two, three months then I shot for two weeks and then I left it. In part, it was my - I think my third or fourth film. So it's partly was my inexperience in how to handle the matter. And the other part was that, oh, it was an unhealthy set. How's that? And I didn't want to be part of it.

ELLIOTT: In that set?

Mr. OZ: Well, you know, there's, I mean, Cher, at that time, hated me. I imagine she doesn't even think about me now. But I think, in part, because of my inexperience, it was justified. But the other part was really bad behavior on her part and not very nice.

ELLIOTT: Were there those moments - when you were new to directing - when you thought to yourself, you know, maybe I should have just stuck with Miss Piggy even with all of her demands.

Mr. OZ: God, no. No. I love directing. I've always wanted to be a stage director. I've only directed one little stage piece years ago, but now I want to get back to it. But I've been kind of, you know, successful, fortunately, some doing movies. But I've never ever would want to do anything but direct. I love directing.

ELLIOTT: You got to start working with Jim Henson. You know, when you first started working with him, did you all realize at the time that you were doing something that turned out to be so revolutionary with "The Muppets"?

Mr. OZ: Oh, I don't know. No, we just went from gig to gig. We did hundreds of commercials first years and years ago. We did variety shows from "Ed Sullivan" to - we did it. A couple of dozen of it, it's all in shows, to "Bob Hope Specials" to et cetera, et cetera. But as we were doing it, it was during a "Muppet Show" that we realized how popular "Muppets" were. That was incredible.

But, no, no. All - if you start thinking about that, then you're really screwed. What you have to do is do your work, work as hard as you possible can, and have as much fun as you can. And that's all we did.

ELLIOTT: Here, you know, generations have now seen you play so many famous "Muppets" and Yoda from "Star Wars." You must, at some level, grow weary to always being asked to talk about that part of your career, are you?

Mr. OZ: No, I'm not. I'm not weary of it as long as it doesn't overtake the interview. But I'm proud of that work. I don't do it anymore but I'm very proud of that work that I used to do. Those characters are too meaningful to me to just throw away as party favors and make me look good. I don't like to use them as just kind of - when they're in my heart and they mean something to me, I don't want to just throw them away and - so I can be self-aggrandizing.

(Soundbite of "Muffet Show")

Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) Kermit. Kermit, won't you dance with me? Kermit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ELLIOTT: Director Frank Oz. His latest film is called "Death at a Funeral." It opens Friday. Thank you.

Mr. OZ: Okay.

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