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Bret McKenzie On The Muppets
The Oscar winner on working with Henson's heroes

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Thanks to his Best Song triumph at the Kodak, Bret McKenzie has joined the long list of illustrious New Zealanders to pick up an Oscar. The Conchord turned his gifts for music and comedy to amazing effect on The Muppets' latest felt opera, winning the gong for his ditty 'Man Or Muppet'. We caught up with the digi-folk legend earlier in the year to talk gold-plated cats, singing penguins and The Hobbit.

Bret McKenzie On The Muppets

Where did you start the process of writing for the Muppets?
‘Life’s A Happy Song’ is the first song I wrote – and it’s the first song in the film. It’s an up-tempo, ‘Muppety’ musical number. Mickey Rooney sings one line, and so does Feist. Why them? They’re my idols. Mickey Rooney and Feist are my two heroes. No, they’re not (laughs) I wouldn’t do the job unless Mickey Rooney and Feist appeared? That was in my contract. I don’t know why they’re in there. James Bobin loves Feist so he wanted to get her in the movie. And Mickey Rooney, I don’t know how that happened, but it was magic. I ended up recording Mickey Rooney, which was a definite highlight. That was working with a piece of history. When he was in the studio, he was telling me about what Walt Disney was like. There aren’t many people who knew Walt Disney.

How did your Tex Richman track come about?
‘Let’s Talk About Me’ was written by a guy called Ali Dee Theodore, then I came in to write the rap. The rap has a Conchords feel because it’s a bit similar to what the Rhymenocerous might rap about. I had to teach Chris Cooper to rap, which was one of the highlights of the job. Our first session was online, so it was me and him freestyling on Skype. I wish I had it recorded - it was just too much... very surreal. You can imagine me and Chris Cooper exchanging lines from the Tex Richman rap. He’s such a serious dramatic actor that he took on the challenge of rapping almost Method.

Was there anything you couldn’t fit into the final edit?
I had to teach Chris Cooper to rap. That was a highlight. He’s a Method rapper.
Yes, Tex Richman’s song is really cut down in the movie. Most of the songs are actually shorter in the film. It’s a shame because he has one of my favourite lines: “I’ve got so much gold I gold-plate my gold.” And he gold-plates his cat! They actually made a gold-plated cat for the video, and it cost a lot of money to make this model of a cat that looks like it’s gold. And then they didn’t even use it in the film! (Laughs) James Bobin now has this golden cat in this office. I’m definitely going to try to steal it one night. I’m going to break in there and steal that golden cat.

Did you get to spend much time on set?
Not really. I was in the studio, preparing stuff, and then I was out of the country, doing a couple of other films. I missed the shoot, which was quite depressing. I was there for one day - Amy Adams doing a bit of ‘Me Party’. That song was added at the last minute. They wanted a song for Piggy and Amy to sing. So we threw together ‘Me Party’, an up-tempo party track about being lonely. It was quite a challenging project.

Miss Piggy is an icon. What’s it like writing for her?
Awesome. I think she’s the funniest Muppet, for sure. She’s got this constant internal conflict. She’s a blast - you can write forever for her. She oscillates between sweet and aggressive, which is where she comes to life. One moment she’s saying, “Kermie…” and the next she’s throwing him across the room. The thing about writing for Muppets is that they have quite restricted ranges. So Miss Piggy can’t go too high or too low. If she goes too high she sounds like a penguin. If she goes too low she sounds like Sam The Eagle.

What about those Muppet penguins? Hard to work with or consummate professionals?
Muppet penguins sing but they can’t talk. They can’t say words. Being in the studio was very strange, with these grown men making penguin noises and rat noises. The finale of the movie has maybe 50 different Muppets singing, and it took me over a week to record all these different animals. It’s a pretty strange job, when you’re at work for 12 hours recording penguins!

The same guy, Bill Baretta, does a lot of the penguins. But he’s very serious about the difference between the different penguins. “Now, Penguin 1. Okay, Penguin 2. Penguin 3. Penguin 4. Oh no, Penguin 4 sounds like Penguin 1!” (Laughs) While you were on set, you probably noticed, when they’re recording the Muppets sometimes they stay in character between takes. So that’s really bizarre.

Bret McKenzie On The Muppets
Bret McKenzie (top right) and the rest of The Muppets team

Can you write lyrics for any of the Muppets or are there set rules for which can sing?
The rules of working with Muppets are interesting. One rule is that frogs, pigs and bears can all talk. But penguins and chickens can only quack and cluck, respectively. So with the songs, there were some lyrics that I thought the chickens were going to sing, but you couldn’t have chickens singing those lyrics. It was just, “Cluck cluck cluck!”

Also, you can’t break down the world of The Muppets. So they’ve always existed and they’re definitely not… One lyric I wrote early on for ‘Life’s A Happy Song’, I was going to have a character going, “I remember when I was just a piece of felt” - and you can’t do that. The other thing is, you’re not allowed to use the word “puppet”. Which was a challenge when I was trying to rhyme with “Muppet”. You’ll notice that in one of the songs, I rhyme “Muppet” with “Muppet”.

What was your personal highlight?
The Muppets have quite a restricted range. If Miss Piggy sings too high she sounds like a penguin.
One of those moments where I pinched myself in the studio was recording Kermit the Frog singing ‘Rainbow Connection’. I guess that was a very surreal I’ve-made-it moment. “I’ve made it! I’m recording Kermit doing ‘Rainbow Connection’!” It’s a classic.

How much have the Muppets influenced your career?
Like everyone my age, I grew up with the Muppets. I started off as a drummer, so I loved Animal. I didn’t really need any education on the Muppet world - I just needed a reminder. These characters are deep in our subconsciousness. We just know what they do and what they’re like. I think Conchords was influenced by the Muppets, because it was one of the few TV shows that used music and comedy, and did it really well. So it’s not like Jemaine and I sat down watching the Muppets, but there are definitely some similarities. I’ve been describing Conchords as Muppets meets Curb Your Enthusiasm.

What can we expect from you in The Hobbit?
I’m returning as an elf. It was in Wellington so I could pretty much walk to work. It’s still a small part - I did a couple of days on it earlier this year - but it was great to get my pointy ears back on. It’s in 3D, so the ears will be extra pointy. You’ll be able to touch the ears.

What’s your Elvish name?
I’ve got a proper name this time: Lindir. In the book he was a musical elf. This time - if I make the edit - I speak in Elvish. But I don’t sing. They haven’t asked me to do the theme song yet! Maybe this time it’s me and Annie Lennox. Ian McKellen, it turns out, is a big fan of Flight Of The Conchords. He and I had a good time on set, coming up with ideas for The Hobbit: The Musical. We’re still developing it. (Laughs)

Did you have to shave your beard off again?
Oh yeah. I look like I’m 12. I looked much more like a girl in The Hobbit. I looked like a hot girl.

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