The Producers Behind 'The Muppets' On What It's Like to Relaunch A Classic, and the Possibility of a Sequel
Mandeville Films' David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman also discuss the pressure of turning theme-park rides into films ("Jungle Cruise" and "Swiss Family Robinson" are upcoming) and reveal "Phineas & Ferb" details.
David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman followed up their 2010 best-picture Oscar nominations for producing The Fighter with a resurrection of the beloved Muppets franchise for Disney, burnishing their status as one of the most eclectic hit-making duos in the business. A Detroit transplant, Hoberman, 59, earned his stripes as a Disney executive in the ’80s under Jeffrey Katzenberg, eventually becoming president of the Motion Picture Group during the early-’90s era of Father of the Bride, Sister Act and The Joy Luck Club.After leaving the studio in 1994, Hoberman founded Mandeville Films and hired Lieberman, a much younger Cleveland native, now 38, in 1999, just before they left for Hyde Park Entertainment. Re-forming Mandeville together in 2002, the pair resettled as partners at Disney and have been making modestly budgeted hits ever since — Eight Below (2006), The Shaggy Dog (2006), Beverly Hills Chihuahua (2008), The Proposal (2009) and Surrogates (2009). (Their successful foray into TV, Monk, ran for eight seasons on the USA Network.) With The Muppets, the married Lieberman and separated Hoberman — who between them have five kids — have more than $1.2 billion in worldwide grosses under the Mandeville name, with more potential homegrown hits in the works, including feature adaptations of Disney theme park rides Jungle Cruise and Swiss Family Robinson and a film version of the mega-popular Disney Channel hit Phineas and Ferb. The pair recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how their Midwest roots inform their tastes, why they’re like a Venn diagram and how shooting in Mexico nearly killed one of them.
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: David, you've seen Disney from the inside off-and-on for twenty-five years. What makes it an interesting place to make movies for now contrasted with twenty years ago?
David Hoberman: As an executive [in 1985], we were an extremely hands-on studio. And when I started taking over towards the end, I realized that hands-off management is also a form of management — when you actually let filmmakers do what they do. And I think we've been very fortunate in the last several years, Disney has trusted us. We don't make expensive movies, and they let us make the movies we do with all the support we can ask of them but they don't really intrude on our process as much as help us when we need help.
Todd Lieberman: Yeah, we view it more as a partnership because, thankfully, we've got very good relationships with all the executives here. There's constant communication, we’re always trading information. It's not like pitching the studio something and then them telling you do or don't. It's really a let's-figure-it-out-together kind of mentality. That’s why it’s a great place for us to be.
THR: How would you describe your working relationship?
Lieberman: David and I have been working together for thirteen years, so it's definitely evolved. When I started with him, I was younger and definitely a more inexperienced executive who hadn't worked in the studio system before. So I was very fortunate to tag along and attach myself to someone who had so much experience in the business and certainly the political navigations that it would take to work within the studio system.I learned an extraordinary amount from just watching him and being a part of his working process. I'd come from the independent finance world. David has really amazing development skills and so I drafted off all that. And as our relationship turned into a partnership, it organically grew and I got more mature and more confident in my own skills. We've been working together for so long, we're almost like a Venn diagram, where our brains are kind of meshed together, and generally they overlap and maybe there's one portion where mine extends out and there's one portion on the other side where his extends out.
Hoberman: Listen, we've gone through growing pains as any relationship does. I would put that more on me than Todd because I've always either worked for someone or people have worked for me. So for me it was an adjustment. I remember I said, “I want you as a partner.” But it took me a while to accept that, and over the last several years I've come to embrace it.
Lieberman: In a sense it's like a marriage. I see more of David than I do of my own wife. There are ups and downs in any relationship, and certainly with a partnership it’s the same. But what I've found is that we both are okay as males talking about emotion and kind of putting it all out there. Our communication skills are very transparent, so when there's something going on we don't hide it.
THR: What's been the hardest film to make over the years, and why?
Hoberman: Surrogates. It was a difficult film that had a lot of visual effects. We turned in the script for that film the night before the writers' strike. And when the strike was over, we started pre-production and we were ready to go, and yet we really weren't prepared because usually scripts are a never-ending continual process. By the time we opened things up, we realized during production that the script needs a lot of work.
Lieberman: For me it was Beverly Hills Chihuahua, where I nearly died in Mexico. It was absolutely horrendous. I lost seventeen pounds, I went to the hospital three times, I was puking once a week. It was just absolutely disastrous for me.
THR: What's been the most unexpectedly gratifying?
Hoberman: I'd have to say The Fighter.
Lieberman: Yeah. I was going to say The Fighter, as well. Because it came from a little story that we heard and turned into something that was well beyond what we ever would have hoped it could have been.
Hoberman: A lot of people wanted it when we sold it. But nobody wanted it when we had the thing put together.
Lieberman: The Fighter was extremely difficult to get going. That was probably the hardest movie to get greenlighted. But then once we got it going, it was an amazing experience.
Hoberman: In terms of gratification, I’ve got to put The Muppets up there. Because here's a movie that we developed, we made and we thought we made a good movie. I never thought that The Muppets would be one of the best-reviewed movies of the year.
Lieberman: I didn't realize the amount of pressure that was on this movie, because of all the people that love the brand and what could have gone wrong with it, until after we had made it. And finally when the reviews came out, I said to myself, “Wow, what would have happened if it wasn't received well?” In retrospect, thank God it turned out like it did.
THR: How were you able to feel at ease putting it in the hands of screenwriters Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller? How did you know you could trust them with it?
Lieberman: Well, they’re unbelievably talented. Everyone knew the box we were allowed to play in, and everyone was and still is a diehard Muppet fan. So it wasn't like anyone was trying to reinvent the Muppets. We just wanted to honor and nod to them. And we all wanted that same goal, so it was never the idea of, Do we think that Segel or Stoller or [director James] Bobin or anyone is going to take this into R-rated territory, because that’s what they are known for? There were never those discussions.
THR: After you're nominated for best picture for a film like The Fighter, does it change your taste in any way or make you less likely to make a movie like Beverly Hills Chihuahua moving forward?
Lieberman: My taste has always been and will always be all over the map. I love blatantly commercial movies, I love comedies, I love hardcore dramas. When I was at Summit, I was involved in movies like Memento and American Pie and Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. I've always been that way, and our slate is reflective of that. So for every Muppets or Phineas and Ferb that would be considered blatantly commercial, we want to do the very best job we can for those movies and make them commercial. But we also like to do movies like The Fighter and other things that we are developing right now that are harder, grittier, dirtier.
Hoberman: I come from Disney. They weren't known for making dramas and star-vehicle movies, and that’s how I was brought up. I was brought up in the studio system, where we had to make a slate of movies and that slate of movies included any number of different kinds of movies. So when I became a producer, I had a real desire to want to make some dramas, but my reputation didn't allow it. I hired people from New York, I tried every which way I could to make movies like The Fighter. So it's not for lack of wanting. If anything, what The Fighter did is step up our desire and outreach to try to bring some more of those movies in and let people know that we want to make more of those and that we can do them well.
Lieberman: Exactly. Our taste is reflective of doing them. Now people can see that we can do them.
THR: When the studio throws you something like Jungle Cruise or Swiss Family Robinson that is based on an iconic ride, the expectations are obviously huge, especially post-Pirates of the Caribbean. What kind of pressure do you feel?
Hoberman: I have an attitude that I've developed as an executive, which is I really don't think about it. And I mean that honestly. We didn't with The Muppets; that was a huge responsibility trying to reboot that movie. All we can do as producers is to set out and make the best movie we can. If we get scared or nervous, or if we're too cognizant of what the outcome could be, we'll be influenced by it, and I don't think we'll make the best movie we can. I used to feel that way about doing an entire slate of movies, if I looked at how much money I was spending in the old days — which Jeffrey Katzenberg pointed out to me once. I had a freak out attack.
THR: You're making 21 and Over, the directorial debut of The Hangover writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, which we can assume will have some raunchy material in it. Is there anything in particular that we can look forward to?
Hoberman: You can look forward to a great throwing up scene.
THR: What's going on with Phineas and Ferb now?
Lieberman: It’s a big priority for everyone at Disney, and we love the show. So we hope that one is the next one for us.
Hoberman: Michael Arndt just turned in his draft.
Lieberman: The idea is to take those characters from animation and put them in the live-action world, kind of like Robert Zemeckis did with Roger Rabbit. Another world that we have never tackled is animation, so that will be an exciting learning opportunity.
THR: Do your Midwest upbringings inform your tastes as filmmakers?
Lieberman: A hundred percent, totally. My feeling is when I go back to Cleveland I'm reminded of where my taste came from, which is very populist.My parents were well educated, but we have very commercial sensibilities, and so even the smaller movies or the indie-style movies that we make — and I guess you could put The Fighter in that category — are still populist entertainment, they have a commercial appeal to them.
Hoberman: I have been out here for so long. I am pretty ensconced in Los Angles and Hollywood. My taste for making movies was really formed in my years at Disney.
THR: Is a Muppets sequel in the works?
Lieberman: We’ve been discussing the potential for something. We don’t know what it is or anything about it, it just started coming up recently — very early, nascent discussions of something potential that I wouldn’t even say is definitely going to happen.
THR: If you were Muppets, which ones would you be?
Hoberman: I'll pick Gonzo for Todd. Todd is the kind of guy who's out there and all over everything, he's fearless and he's not afraid to take chances and do crazy things.
Lieberman: By the way, I do eat a lot of chicken. I think David's Kermit because you don't really get a rise out of him, he doesn't go too low, he's pretty steady, at the center of the action.
MANDEVILLE'S TOP 5 FILMS
- The Proposal (Disney, 2009): $317.4 million*
- Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Disney, 2008): $149.3 million
- The Fighter (Paramount, 2010): $129.2 million
- Surrogates (Disney, 2009): $122.4 million
- Eight Below (Disney, 2006): $120.5 million