Former Muppeteer Frank Oz may be the voice of Miss Piggy and Yoda, but he also possesses one of the most distinctive filmmaking voices in Hollywood, directing such classic comedies as "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," "Bowfinger," and "What About Bob?"
In 1986, Oz brought composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman's off-Broadway musical smash "Little Shop of Horrors" to the screen, but had to excise his original ending which featured the murderous plant Audrey II devouring stars Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene, then conquering the world in a massive rampage of destruction. Although the reshot "happy ending" of the theatrical cut led the film to become a cult hit, the elaborate, effects-laden finale Oz had originally envisioned lay in studio vaults until Warner Bros. restored it for the brand-new Blu-ray release, out this week.
We sat down for an exclusive chat with Oz to talk about finally getting his devious ending to the people… whether they like it or not!
The new ending is fantastic, and it's very obvious it's coming from a place of ironic detachment. Dark, but also very silly.
That's exactly what it's supposed to be; it's tongue-in-cheek.
It must be very validating to have it restored, but if you didn't have the same sense of corporate responsibility and had the decision to release it theatrically today, would you stick to your guns?
I didn't have a corporate responsibility. The studios were not owned by corporations at that time. I had a responsibility to the audience. Also the studio, because they put a lot of money in, but, if this movie was for $10,000, I'd say "F**k it, I'll do what I want!" But this movie was $30 million — at that time a lot of money — and it's also out there for a large swath of the audience. If a large swath of the audience is angry because we killed the leads, who am I to say?
You know, it wasn't a question of sticking to your guns, it was a question of it couldn't be released because people were angry we killed the two people. Howard knew that, and David Geffen did. Howard and I wanted this ending, but we also were realists, we were doing this for an audience, not just for him and I. The audience was taken by these characters, how much they loved them, and we didn't realize that. We thought it was still like you, the experience would still be more arm's length, but it wasn't, they took them to heart.
This ending feels more representative of you, though, because of your penchant for dark, cynical humor.
I do. I like the darkness underneath it all, but part of the reason is as much as people wanted the happy ending, it was a cheat on the Faustian legend because Seymour sold his soul and he should be punished for it. They didn't want him to be punished — they liked him too much.
You still have a little hint of it in the theatrical ending with the little plant...
Just a little plant smiling, saying "We're not finished yet, guys!"
In much the same way that "Time Bandits" was Terry Gilliam's subtle transition film out of Monty Python, "Little Shop of Horrors" was your transition out of The Muppets.
I love "Time Bandits," it's great. Yeah, you're right, it was. Oddly enough, this was Part A of the transition, really, and Part B was "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," that was the next movie, but you're absolutely right. That's very perceptive, it was the main transition.
You still had the puppetry elements, the musical elements.
Yeah, it was the first one out of the umbrella of Henson, but at the same time it had that punchy, cartoony energy with puppets. It was a transition that helped me.
Then you actually had the experience of having one of your own films, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," turned into a Broadway musical. What was it like having the shoe on the other foot?
I know! I was very taken by it. I knew nothing about it. I saw it, I liked it. It's just different, it's just not the same, just like my "Little Shop of Horrors" movie is not the same as the off-Broadway. It was very flattering.
One of the best scenes in "Little Shop" is the cameo from Bill Murray. It's special, too, because it's the only movie he made in that four-year, post-"Ghostbusters" hiatus where he was off at the Sorbonne or whatever.
"Razor's Edge" and everything.
Yeah. What was that experience like?
It was David Geffen who wanted Billy, and I knew Billy just briefly — we played a little basketball as a matter of fact. I hardly knew him. David wanted him, so I called Billy and I said, "So Billy, you wanna do this thing?" He said, "Yeah, but do I have to say the lines?" I said, "Look, as long as you're the masochist and Steve's the sadist, I don't care." So that's what happened. Steve was the hub, he had his part solid, and Billy riffed around him, and every take was different, all ad-libbed.
How was that experience with him different from "What About Bob?" That was supposedly a difficult shoot.
It was hell. (laughs) It was very tough. There was a tremendous amount of tension on that shoot. Mainly it had to do with people wanting different endings. Richard Dreyfuss and Laura Ziskin wanted one ending, I wanted another ending, Disney wanted another ending. It was awful, and we finally had to reshoot the entire ending and have a new ending. It was tough, a very tough, tension-filled movie, to the degree that every time Disney called they were scared to call because they didn't know what was happening on set! (laughs)
You've been laying low since "Death at a Funeral." Do you have any projects percolating?
Yeah, there's a thriller I might be doing, a little thriller somewhere that's fun. There's a few movies I wanted to do and I didn't get to do them partly because they wanted me to be part of the horse and pony show getting the money and I'm just not doing that. There's a few movies that people wanted me to do but they were too safe. It's like you said, I like taking some perverseness underneath there. I don't like really safe movies, things that are just happy. It's really trying to get the material you like, and, once you get the material, can you get the right star and the budget? Sometimes the budget's too big so the thing goes away, or sometimes you can't get the right star and the thing goes away. That's happened too.
The kind of films that you make are exceptional because anyone can make a little punk rock angry movie for $500,000 bucks, that's great, but to make a studio film with teeth is almost more irreverent.
You're very perceptive, I don't think anyone's ever said that to me, but that's exactly what I like. I hate just whatever's on the surface. I like something with teeth underneath. "What About Bob?" had teeth because Bill Murray was just this far away from being a hatchet murderer and a stalker, you know? If he went just a little bit too far he could have killed everybody. (Laughs).
It is hard, because, when I did "In & Out," that was a gay movie and that was kinda cool to do something underneath without the studio interfering. I'm a populist director, though. I'm not an art director, I'm just not. I've always been somebody who has a sensibility that I hope is the same sensibility of others. It's come to me. I never planned any of this stuff, the studios came to me. If an independent came to me I might make different movies with more teeth, but they never asked me because I didn't f**k up enough.
Howard Ashman passed away in 1991. How do you think he would feel now that his original ending for "Little Shop" is finally seeing the light of day?
I think he'd be very happy to see it, 'cause he and I both wanted this ending. I think he would be smart enough to realize, like I think I do, that half the people, if not more, still want the other ending, BUT there's a kind of cycle/finality to a guy who sells his soul and is punished for it. As a writer, I think he would like that closure, as opposed to "guy sells his soul, kills people and then he's happy!"
Right, that's "The Godfather."
(Laughs). Yeah! So I think he would like it. He would like it.