'Follow That Bird' Turns 30: Director on Jim Henson's Feedback, Difficulty Shooting Muppets

Follow That Bird - H 2015
Everett Collection

Ken Kwapis tells THR about the surprising joy of cramming Henson and Frank Oz into the fuselage of a small plane to shoot the film, which was the last Muppet movie released before Henson's death.

Follow That Bird began quite a path for its director, who was a 24-year-old USC grad school dropout with just afterschool specials to his name when he landed the gig.

Ken Kwapis, who went on to direct such films as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), He's Just Not That Into You (2009) and next month's Robert Redford-Nick Nolte starrer A Walk in the Woods, made his feature directorial debut on the first-ever film to feature Sesame Street characters. The movie was also the last Muppet film released before the 1990 death of Jim Henson, who controls and voices two characters in it.

In honor of Follow That Bird hitting the 30th anniversary of its Aug. 2, 1985 release, Kwapis spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about stuffing Henson and Frank Oz into a tiny plane's fuselage, Big Bird's puppeteer constantly lifting weights on the set and why the film wasn't a bigger box-office success.

Kwapis was directing afterschool specials — until a young Amy Pascal saved the day

Kwapis was a grad student in USC's cinema program when he dropped out to helm a pair of afterschool specials. Kwapis says these TV movies were what caught the eye of a "young up-and-comer named Amy Pascal," who was heading up development for the production company putting Follow That Bird together. "Amy Pascal saw one of my afterschool specials and recommended me to [Warner Bros. exec] Lucy Fisher," Kwapis says, calling Pascal — who would later serve as co-chairman of Sony Pictures — "fantastic to work with." He credits both Pascal and Fisher for launching his feature directorial career.

Jim Henson and Ken Kwapis on the Follow That Bird set

Jim Henson's wise words

Fisher introduced Kwapis to Henson, and Kwapis was quick to admit to the Muppets creator that he was unfamiliar with how to direct puppeteers. "He just assured me that all I needed to do was talk to the puppeteers the way I would talk to any actor," Kwapis explains. "He was incredibly generous, and I'm still a little shocked — I think I was 24 when he basically entrusted me to a direct a feature film starring characters he had created." 

Big Bird's puppeteer got quite a workout

Henson (the puppeteer and voice in the film of Kermit and Ernie) and Frank Oz (the film's Bert, Grover and Cookie Monster) were both integral to Bird, but the castmember whom Kwapis worked with the most was, needless to say, Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer and voice of Big Bird. Kwapis points out that Spinney's job was a taxing one, as he was required to keep one hand in the air within the suit at all times to hold up the character's head. "[Spinney] often would do bicep curls with his other [arm], so [it] would be as toned as the one he used to operate Big Bird's head and his beak," Kwapis reveals.

How many puppeteers can fit into a biplane's fuselage? 

One memorable scene involves Bert and Ernie trying to track down Big Bird in a biplane, which Ernie decides to fly upside-down. To shoot the challenging scene, Kwapis had the plane's two aerobatic pilots wearing Bert and Ernie masks while actually flying the upside-down aircraft. For the other scenes using the small plane, Henson and Oz controlled the characters from inside its fuselage. "I will never forget listening to Frank and Jim debate the best way to contort themselves in order to fit into this uncomfortably small space," the director recalls. "They loved the challenge." 

A photo of Big Bird from the set of Follow That Bird

The toughest scenes to shoot? Any time a Muppet got behind the wheel

For Kwapis, the most challenging scenes were the ones in which a Muppet was required to drive a vehicle, as this involved needing to conceal both the puppeteer and the driver within the shot. He says about the scene in which the Count drives his Countmobile: "There's a puppeteer that's performing the Count, even as there's a hidden driver driving a car with [almost] no visibility." Even shooting the scenes of Cookie Monster riding in the VW bug with Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Olivia (Alaina Reed) was difficult: "Happily, [Oz is] very flexible." 

Henson's Fraggle Rock puppeteers were surprise additions to the film

The film shot in Toronto, which was due in large part to Henson knowing so many people there from shooting his HBO series Fraggle Rock in the city. In fact, the show's puppeteers proved vital to Kwapis' film. "Fraggle Rock was in production at the same time as Follow That Bird, so a lot of the secondary players and a lot of the background puppet characters were performed by the Fraggle Rock team," he says.

Here's how to get movie stars to join your film

As is the case with almost any Muppets film, celebrity cameos abound in Follow That Bird. "People have such affection for the Muppets that it wasn't tough to enlist people like Chevy Chase, Waylon Jennings, John Candy," Kwapis says. He admits that country singer Jennings, who plays a turkey farmer in the film, isn't known as a thespian, but the director calls Jennings' scenes "wonderfully conversational."

Kwapis also points out that he was able to nab Candy because the actor's SCTV cohorts Joe Flaherty and Dave Thomas co-starred as the villainous and aptly named Sleaze Brothers. "I've been an SCTV super fan forever, so it was a big thrill to work with the likes of Flahery, Thomas and Candy," Kwapis says.

Warner Bros. didn't quite think of everything when organizing a preview for youngsters

The studio opted to screen the finished film for an audience of children, but when Kwapis looked in the movie theater just before the start of the test screening, he was dismayed to find it completely empty. He was then informed that there was actually a full house, but he just couldn't see the audience members because their heads were blocked by the chairs in front of them, meaning the kids also couldn't see the screen. Kwapis' solution? "I asked everyone in the audience to stand up on their chair to watch the film," he reveals. He says the children "thoroughly enjoyed" the film, although he jokes that this may have been because "they mostly enjoyed being able to bounce up and down on their seats for 90 minutes."

The film remains beloved but "wasn't a hit" when it was first released

Kwapis appreciates that the film "has had this wonderful post-theatrical life," although it wasn't a smash success at the box office. Opening on the same day as Weird Science and Fright Night, Kwapis says his film "got lost in the shuffle," landing in ninth place with $2.4 million, en route to a $13.9 million domestic gross. "On one level, sure — it would have been nice to have bigger numbers. [But] for me, it was so thrilling to make a film that you could actually pay money and go see." As for why the film continues to delight viewers, Kwapis credits its "low-tech charm" and "simple but emotionally resonant story," and he appreciates that the studio was "wonderfully hands-off."

The film taught the director lessons for his later films

Follow That Bird involves dark subject matter, as the title character is kidnapped, painted blue and forced to perform. Kwapis says he and the film's team were in "constant discussion" to find the proper blend for a story that would be "upsetting in the right way but didn't completely overwhelm a young sensibility." He used a similar mindset when directing the youth-centric Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, which involves tragic twists. "In telling [Pants'] story, I was also mindful of telling the story on two levels — one that would be palatable to a younger audience, and one that would be understandable to an older audience," he explains.

As for the differences between helming Bird and his 2009 hit He's Just Not That Into You, Kwapis doesn't see directing the latter's A-list cast — which included Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, Drew Barrymore and Bradley Cooper — as more daunting than leading the cast of Muppets. "He's Just Not That Into You had many famous actors in it, but to be honest, I'm not sure that any of them is as well-known to the world as Big Bird is," he says. 

Email: Ryan.Gajewski@THR.com
Twitter: @_RyanGajewski