Parent & Child: What was your favorite part about directing Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird?
Ken Kwapis: Well, this was my first theatrical film as a director. I was 25 years old, fresh out of graduate school at USC, and not only was I directing a feature film, but I was directing Jim Henson and Frank Oz doing characters that they had created. They were incredibly generous with me, an absolute novice. So, I guess the greatest part for me was realizing how brilliant the Muppets are, and how relatable all the characters are, and how utterly magical it is to watch the puppeteers at work.
P&C: How has your work with the Muppets influenced your work as a successful film and television director?
Kwapis: When I met Jim Henson I said, “I don’t know how to talk to a puppeteer because I have never directed a puppet before.” He replied, “Just talk to us like we’re actors.” So, one of the things I discovered and really appreciated about the Muppet characters was that they are all incredibly well-defined as characters. And weirdly enough, I think that working with the Muppets really helped me as a screenwriter and a director in general because you always read scripts that lack well-defined characters. I think I also realized that the reason these characters resonate so much with the public is because they’re so relatable. It sounds kind of simple to put it like this, but I relate to Cookie Monster because I’m hungry. So, on a very fundamental level, there isn’t any difference between my approach to directing Cookie Monster and my approach to directing the cast of The Office. If I look at the characters in front of the camera and say, “I’ve been there, there’s a human quality there,” then I know I’m on the right track. For me, the surprise of working with the Muppets was realizing how much humanity they had, even though many of them are monsters.
P&C: Are there any Muppets you get along with particularly well?
Kwapis: One of my favorite characters is Telly Monster, who is still part of the Sesame Street repertoire. Telly Monster is a character who always sees both sides of the issue and is committed to never having a point of view. So, even though his character is waffling, he still has a single-minded approach to waffling. It was also a pleasure to work with Carol Spinney, who plays Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Oscar’s chauffeur, Bruno the Trashman. Bruno is a full-body suit that Carol wears, so he just mystified all the adults when he walked on the set. By the way, I should note that Elmo had not yet been plucked from the background during the making of this film. This was before Elmo became popular. I don’t know if I identified with any particular character; however, I must confess I grew very fond of Snuffleupagus. I’m not even sure why. He’s this wonderful creation operated by two puppeteers — like an old vaudeville horse — where one puppeteer operates the front end, while the other operates the back. To tell you the truth, I never met the guy who played the back end because he was always in character before I arrived on the set. I used to talk to him through a little flap in the outfit, and I never knew what he looked like.
P&C: Was there a particular aspect of Big Bird’s story that inspired you during the direction of this film?
Kwapis: One of the reasons I was able to leave school and begin directing is because I directed a student film that was a musical. So, one of the things that I love about Follow That Bird is that it allowed me to direct musical scenes. I also love the theme of the film, which, in keeping with the mission of the Children’s Television Workshop, is a very socially progressive-minded theme. From Big Bird’s journey, we realize that being with your own kind isn’t always the best thing. Instead, acceptance is the key to Big Bird realizing that his real family isn’t a group of birds, but rather a diverse collection of people and creatures. It’s just a beautiful, simple journey that he undergoes.
P&C: What do you think is so important about this film, and why should kids watch it?
Kwapis: Well, what’s wonderful about the Muppets is that just because the characters are designed for a young audience doesn’t mean that everything is sugar-coated. The beauty of a character like Oscar the Grouch is that he doesn’t have a sweet thing to say about anybody. And yet, how many children have a classmate who is a grouch, who always sees the glass half-empty? However, the real value of this film is that it is still relevant today. The health of our planet is based on our ability to accept one another. Believe me, there are films with millions of dollars worth of visual effects, but they cannot touch the magic of Frank Oz and Jim Henson at work as puppeteers.
P&C: Did you have a favorite television show growing up?
Kwapis: I was a little old for Sesame Street, but I was not too old for the short-lived, Boston-based PBS show Zoom. I loved Zoom. I think I had a crush on all the girls in the Zoom cast.
P&C: What’s so great about working with kids?
Kwapis: I find adults terribly predictable, and children never cease to surprise me, which makes them such a joy to work with.