'Little Shop of Horrors: A Q&A with Frank Oz
To the generation that grew up watching The Muppet Show, Frank Oz is the man behind Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear. To the Star Wars fanboys, he’s Yoda. To the under-10 set, he’s Bert and Cookie Monster. For lovers of musical theater, though, he’s the director who brought a nerdy florist and his bloodthirsty plant to toe-tapping life on the big screen. Little Shop of Horrors — a 1986 adaptation of the Off-Broadway show based on a Roger Corman film of the same name — holds a special place in our hearts for the music of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (of Beauty and the Beast fame) and that Mean Green Mother From Outer Space himself, Audrey II. With news breaking of a potential remake and rumors suggesting his movie will finally be re-released with its original ending intact, EW reached out to the filmmaker to learn what is in store for his cult classic, which screens tomorrow night as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “A Night of Oz.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Little Shop seems to have grown in popularity over the years. Are you at all surprised by that, given the film’s initial release?
FRANK OZ: Yes. It did only okay when it came out and it’s been nice [to see it become] a cult film. I was surprised, yeah. Although with me, I do my films, I work the very best I can, and I go on, so I don’t think about it too much. I haven’t seen it hardly at all since it opened up. I’ll be curious about the audience’s reaction, because this was made 25 years ago.
What drew you to the project as a potential film?
Initially, I was asked by [producer] David Geffen to do it and I read the script, and I went to the Off-Broadway theater. I said no, I couldn’t do it, because I didn’t really have a way in — a cinematic way in. And then a few weeks later, when I was working in Toronto on something, I had an idea that got me kind of into the cinematic aspect of it. So when I saw that, I said yes. The script was there already but was rather stage-bound, so I took about a month, a month and a half and rewrote it — not rewriting any main dialogue, just restructuring it. Taking some songs out and putting some in. Then David and Howard [Ashman] liked it and wanted to go with what I did, and that’s when I started studying the Off-Broadway show. I did a lot of research on how Howard’s show was constructed, and then I had to reconstruct it for film.
One of the things that I love about this movie is the fact that it has Ellen Greene in it, who starred as Audrey in the original production. It seems like so few movie musicals bring those actors onto the big screen. Was it a fight to get Greene for the film, because it’s been said the role was also offered to Barbra Streisand and Cyndi Lauper. Is that true?
Yeah, it’s true. I’m not sure about Barbra Streisand. I’m not sure if it was offered to her, but I know David wanted a star. I have a lot of respect for the people who started the project and [Ellen Greene] was the one member of the cast who I felt was so good that [she’d be] fantastic on film. So David allowed me to have a screen test with her and Rick Moranis in Los Angeles. Rick was “in” already…so we tested her and I showed it to David and hoped to sell him on her, and I was very happy we got her. She’s amazing. I couldn’t imagine any other Audrey, really. She nailed that part for four years Off Broadway.
Your film has also become legendary for it’s elaborate “lost” 23-minute ending. That finale preserved the story line from the show where both of the leads die and Audrey IIs take over the world, and it featured amazing sequences of cities being trashed by giant plant monsters. But all of it was ultimately cut from the theatrical release because audiences at the preview screenings didn’t react positively to it.
That’s putting it mildly! Going back to the beginning, Howard and I were in David Geffen’s office and we both wanted to retain the original ending, with the plant winning and the key people dying, and David was against that. He said you can’t do that, but again he knew Howard and I wanted to, so David supported us. The film was completed two years later and we went to San Jose for the first preview and everyone was very excited about it. This was, I think, the most expensive film Warner Bros. had done at that time. For every musical number there was applause, they loved it, it was just fantastic…until we killed our two leads. And then the theater became a refrigerator, an ice box. It was awful and the cards were just awful. They were saying that they hated us killing them. You have to have a 55 percent “recommend” to really be released and we got a 13.
It was a complete disaster. After that San Jose screening, I said, “Can we just try one more time in L.A. to see if the reaction is different?” David supported me and we did it, and we got exactly the same reaction, like 16 percent or something. Howard and I knew what we had to do: We had to cut that ending and make it a happy ending, or a satisfying ending. We didn’t want to, but we understood they couldn’t release it with that kind of a reaction. [Audiences] loved the two leads so much that when we killed them, they felt bereft. So, Howard rewrote it and I shot it with a satisfying ending. The original one was in color, but when we ripped apart the ending, we had to take out the tape and then we had to reshoot the new ending and then retape that for another preview. So therefore, after the Los Angeles preview, there was no color ending. It didn’t exist because we had to take it apart. So the black-and-white [version] was a dupe, a copy of the original color ending that was made. I’m not sure why we made it, but we made it and that’s the only thing that was left, because there’s actually no color ending left.
NEXT PAGE: Why the 1998 ‘Little Shop…’ DVD was recalled
Were you pleased with what you and Howard came up with in terms of this new happier ending? I noticed you left the plant alive as a little hint there at the end that he could still cause trouble. Did it satisfy you?
We had to do it, and do it in such a manner that the audience would enjoy the movie. It was very dissatisfying for both of us that we couldn’t do what we wanted. So creatively, no, it didn’t satisfy us and [in terms of] being true to the story, it didn’t satisfy us. But we also understood the realities that they couldn’t release the movie if we had that ending.
Did Ellen Greene take any pride in the fact that the audience was rooting for her so completely?
I never talked to Ellen about that! I never did. But you know, it’s a lesson learned because when the plant kills Seymour and Audrey on stage, the actors afterwards take a bow. The difference is in movies they don’t take a bow. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive.
In 1998, a special edition DVD of Little Shop was released and immediately recalled because it contained this black-and-white work print with your commentary track. It remains a highly sought-after DVD, though there’s been a lot of discussion over the years about why that ending was released in the first place…
When Warner put the first DVD out, they called me and said, “Do I have the original ending?” And I said, yeah, I had it in black and white. It didn’t exist in color. So I gave it to them to use, and then the DVD came out for a short time with that black-and-white ending as a bonus feature. And then I got a call from David Geffen, and David said, “What are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean?” “Why did you give them the black-and-white version?” I said, “That’s all I had, I thought you were fine with that. I figured you and Warner were working together.” He said, “No, no, no — I have a color version.” “You have a color version?!” He said, “I have a color version. I don’t want the black-and-white version out, I want the color version out.” And so, you know, he’s the producer, so “Okay fine, it’s okay by me if you have the color.”
Did he end up having the original ending in color?
He did not. I think he thought he had the color [version], but he probably didn’t understand the work print aspect of it. He probably assumed that there was a color ending somewhere. I was surprised. I thought maybe he duped it in color. David halted all the DVD sales because he wanted the better version of the ending, but that never came out. I’m assuming it’s because, David, in all sincerity, wanted to do a great job and thought he had the color and then probably someone told him, “We don’t have color,” and I think it kind of went away then.
There have been rumors that the film will be re-released this coming Halloween with the original ending. Is it going to be re-released, and if so, will it contain the black-and-white work print or something more?
I don’t know actually, it’s interesting. They mentioned the idea of doing a DVD release and I thought, “That’s fantastic,” but I never knew about it. They just called me and told me. I was never part of it. I’m just thrilled they’re doing it.
And to be clear, the color version of the original ending doesn’t exist anymore?
The color ending doesn’t exist. No, it’s still the black-and-white ending. It’s their film, so they’ll do what they want with it and I’m just glad that the audience has another way of seeing it.
Me too. Even though the work print is in rough shape, the huge rampage with the Audrey IIs looks so impressive visually, especially considering the work that must have gone into it.
It was all model stuff, that was the brilliant thing. I had to call Richard Conway who made all the models and spent so much time [on it]. He created the bridge and created the buildings and several Audrey IIs and created all of it, all on tabletop. It’s all old-fashioned, tabletop animation. Now that’s the sad part in all of this — not seeing his extraordinary work. It took about a year, and he built everything and shot everything. It’s just extraordinary. I suppose if the film were made today, it would be all digital.
Watching Audrey and Seymour’s deleted death scenes, I was struck by how difficult it must have been as a director to balance the humor and the emotional drama of the piece. Would you say that was a challenge or something you just took to naturally, given everything you’d done at that point in your career?
No, it was a challenge, I mean that’s why I said no immediately, because I couldn’t get it. It was a legitimate, really hardcore musical of 14 songs. It was a huge massive production with many different huge special effects and big ol’ plants and then there was comedy and guest stars. I couldn’t get my head around it, and that’s why I said no originally because I didn’t have a way into the film. The door opened for me when I realized that the girls — the three singers who were on stage and come in and out at the dentist’s office and at the plant shop — I realized I could just pop them around cinematically. I can put them on fire escapes, I can put them in the rain without getting wet, I can make them more magical. That’s what opened doors for me. Once that started, then I could put all those disparate elements together and felt comfortable about it.
There are photos floating around of a dream sequence that also didn’t make it into the theatrical cut. In it, Seymour seems to be running around some columns, surrounded by mist. Was it shot and does it still exist?
That’s so interesting. You’re the first person who’s asked that! That was cut early on. I don’t even know how you know about that, my God! I’ve forgotten about that! I don’t know where that is. I cut that because I felt it just didn’t work and that was before the first preview in San Jose. It was the right choice, so I don’t even know what happened to that. It didn’t really add value to the entire cut.
NEXT PAGE: On a ‘Little Shop…’ remake
I don’t know if you heard about this, but just last week news started to break about a potential remake of Little Shop…
I saw that too! I know nothing about it. I saw that and thought, “I’m really curious to see this!” [Laughs]
It’s apparently going to star Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the playwright behind Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, is said to be involved. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen that show…
Well I did, but first of all, I think Levitt would be great as Seymour. Terrific. I did see Spider-Man, but I saw it in the first week of previews and it was dreadful. But this is the playwright who supposedly saved it and reconstructed it. So maybe it’s good news!
What are your thoughts on remakes in general? Is it something that’s bound to happen? Is it something that fans and people such as yourself, who worked on previous versions, should embrace?
The only reason for me to make a remake is if you have another take on it. I mean, I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels as a [version of] Bedtime Story because I felt that what was there, we could make a little bit better. And I guess when they did the stage play of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, they felt they could do a different take on that. And when I did Death at a Funeral, I know Chris [Rock] wanted to have it in such a way that the black community could see it, because it was [previously] all whites. Nobody from the black community saw [my version]. So if there’s a legitimate reason, yeah. And if it’s much better than the original or equally good, like the incredible Godfather Part II, that’s stunning, then there’s a reason to make it. But just because you own the property and “Hey, it’s 20 years later, what the hell, let’s just make it,” no, that doesn’t make any sense to me.
You’ve spoken a bit about your concerns regarding the Muppet franchise, which has come back and had a resurgence in recent months. Were you pleased to see the property embraced again so passionately by audiences? The film did pretty well…
It did great, and I’m pleased the affection for the Muppets is still so incredibly strong. You know, I probably shouldn’t be talking about that film because I have my own feelings about it. I don’t want to hit it, but there’s things that people don’t know about the actual shooting of it, and I probably shouldn’t get into it. I do feel that everybody enjoyed it and that’s great. For me, it was a homogenized version, but you know, that’s the way they saw it. If it comes from me, it’s going to sound like sour grapes and I don’t want that. If people love the characters, they love the characters. They’re just a little bit different to me, that’s all.
When I stop and think back on all the characters that you’ve had a hand in creating, and how they’ve affected not just my generation but the generations before and likely the generations to come, I’m a little awed by it. Do you ever look at what you’ve accomplished and think, “Wow — these are things that stay with people their whole lives!” How does that make you feel?
For years, essentially I didn’t think about it because I just kept on working and enjoying work. Even when I kind of stopped performing — although I’ll do Sesame Street one day a year just for fun — even then didn’t think about it. I just spent my time being a director. But since I’ve been recently married this past year, my wife’s the one that’s really brought to my attention that what I did has more value than I think. So, the answer is, I’m slowly at this late date starting to understand that not only did I have an impact, but I had the impact because of Jim (Henson) and all the other guys too. I’m the last guy standing of the original four, so I know when people compliment me, I know that’s not just me. I know I represent Jim and all the other guys [writer Jerry Juhl and Muppet designer Don Sahlin].
Is there one character you particularly miss performing the most? I would think it would be Miss Piggy because you’ve had so much time with her, but you’ve performed as Bert, Cookie Monster… The list goes on.
I don’t know. I get asked that a lot. I love Piggy because of her layers of neurosis. She covers all the pain she’s in and that’s what makes her funny. I love all those neurotic layers of her and I love different parts of other characters: Fozzie’s insecurity and Cookie’s obsession. I love that stuff. I think Piggy’s harder because I’ve gotten older now and when you get older, your voice goes a little deeper and so it’s harder for me to get the highs I used to. But I guess the character that’s closest to me probably is Grover. If I had to give an answer I’d probably give that one. Other characters I worked on, but that one just organically came about.
Little Shop of Horrors will be re-released by Warner Home Video in the fourth quarter of 2012. For more information on BAM’s “A Night of Oz,” or to purchase tickets, visit bam.org.