Interview: Frank Oz On ‘Little Shop of Horrors’…And Directing A New Muppet Movie

It’s a few hours before the world premiere of Frank Oz’s intended, original cut of the movie musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” and he’s pretty sure it’s going to be a massive failure. “I think the same thing is going to happen,” Oz told us while we chatted in a New York hotel. “People are going to look at the cut and say, ’Oh, but we loved those guys, why’d you kill them?’ Maybe the intellect will take over, and say, ‘Oh, how interesting to see the new one,’ but I have a feeling a lot of people are going to be annoyed like last time.”

Jumping forward into the future, I can tell you it wasn’t. The packed crowd at the New York Film Festival ate the original, darker ending up, laughing and cheering, as well putting Oz’s fears to rest. And the rest of you will have the chance to check it out when the movie hits Blu-Ray on October 9th, seen in its original form for the first time in nearly thirty years.

“It was a surprise to me,” said Oz, “As Warner Brothers did it without my knowing! They did it per my notes, showed it to me, and I thought, wow this is fantastic!” Oz was particularly impressed with the level of detail involved, from recreating the colors, to redoing sound effects and music.

The real joy for him, though, was that puppet creator Richard Conway finally has the millions of dollars of work put out in front of an audience that might appreciate it. “He worked for about a year on [the ending],” said Oz. “I had to call him and tell him he couldn’t use any of the stuff. And now, he can see his stuff for the first time, and his friends can, and his family can. I’m thrilled for that.”

For those who don’t know the whole story, “Little Shop of Horrors” was a hit Off-Broadway show, then became a movie musical a few short years later. During the first test screening in Santa Fe, the audience loved the film…until the ending hit, and – spoiler – the two leads, played by Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene died. Then, in Oz’s own words, the audience went “ice cold.” The ending was immediately cut, replaced by the happier ending that played in theaters. So why did it work so well on stage, and not on film?

“David Geffen said it right off, you can’t kill your lead characters in a movie,” said Oz. “When you’re in a theater, it’s always a wide shot, no matter where you are. Even when you’re in front, it’s still a wide shot. In a movie, I tell you where to look, and that’s a close up sometimes. A close up registers emotion much, much more. You get sucked in by the characters more. Even though it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and a slight distance…you’re sucked in by that tight shot.”

The other thing that hurt the film? As Oz plainly put it, “When you kill the characters in theater, they come out for a bow. In the film, you think they’re dead. And rightfully so.”

So how did Oz go about shooting both endings? How did he make it work without completely destroying the original film? By choosing a specific point, and going from there. As Oz described it, from the point that Seymour (Moranis) pulls Audrey (Greene) out from the killer plant Audrey II, she falls down, he asks her if she’s okay, she says, “Yes… No,” collapses, and, “that’s my cut point,” said Oz. So in the original, Audrey asks to be fed to the plant. Instead, in the version shown in theaters, Jim Belushi plays a character who doesn’t show up until far later in the original cut, giving the characters motivation to fight back.

As Oz described it later at the screening, he and writer Howard Ashman knew exactly what to do after the disastrous Santa Fe test screening, immediately writing a new ending and shooting it a few short weeks later.

Luckily, the same thing – as we noted – didn’t happen at this screening, but Oz nevertheless lamented the possible reason. “Sadly, I think audiences have gotten more cynical,” he said. “It’s hard enough to do a movie musical. It used to be musicals were so great because the emotions were so big you had to sing what your feelings are. Musicals to people now are rock concerts. It’s an odd animal, a musical.”

Another aspect that makes the movie odd nowadays? The puppet effects, which Oz felt would be impossible today, for the surprising reason that, “They’d be cost prohibitive.” Turns out, it’s far more expensive to do physical props, like the plant in the movie, versus digital effects, “Because you don’t have the control, you have to build everything. You have to build a plant that’s a ton, that’s thirteen feet tall… Or you can do that on a computer.”

That doesn’t mean – despite calling the process “Hell” – that Oz doesn’t like using puppets. “There’s a tactile experience, the way we did it,” said Oz. “But nevertheless there’s not enough money to do that… To build a plant that thirty people work, when one person, or ten people can do it on a computer.”

Moving on, we asked whether Oz would want to take on a musical again, and after a pause, he noted that, “I don’t think it’s whether it’s a musical or not, or if it’s a thriller, or whatever… It’s how good is the script. If the script excites me, it doesn’t matter what it is, I have no choice! I prefer to do new things. I’ve done my thriller, and my heist movie, and my family movie, and my comedies. I like to do new things all the time. But at the end of the day, if the script excites me, I have to go with that.”

Picking up on a particular emphasis in his speech, we asked whether he was working on a thriller right now. Oz noted he didn’t like being that guy who talks about his other projects, but, “Yeah, there’s a possibility,” said Oz.

Okay, then what about The Muppets, while we’re pushing things here? “I haven’t worked with the Muppets for about ten years now,” said Oz. “They ask me to do Sesame Street maybe one day a year, and that’s fun. But I love directing, I really do. I was performing for about thirty-five years, so I love my characters, I love the people I work with, but I’m directing now.”

So what about directing another Muppet movie, we asked really pushing the thread way too far? “Yeah!” said Oz. “Yeah, again, it’s all about script, script is god to me. Not that I follow it word for word, but if there’s a great blueprint, then yeah. It depends on that damn script… That’s what everyone wants in Hollywood, a great piece of material.”

So… Can we get the man a good Muppets script already? Cool.

“Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut” hits Blu-Ray on October 9th.