No, Frank Oz is most famous because he’s the guy who made us believe that we do or do not, but trying is just a bunch of bullshit for whiny actors more lifeless than the puppet appearing opposite them. If you didn’t get that reference, then you’ve never seen The Empire Strikes Back, in which case … well, there’s no excuse for having not seen The Empire Strikes Back. Oz’s voice and puppeteering talents made Yoda one of the most popular characters in the Star Wars film series, and he again breathed life into him for the more recent trilogy in which the green gnome went CGI.
This month, the puppeteer and voice actor-turned-director is back with a surprisingly small British comedy called Death at a Funeral, which involves a death. At a funeral. There’s also sibling rivalry, explosive shite, trademark British bumbling, and a pissed-off little person on hallucinogens. Oz took some time out to talk with the Current about his new movie, funerals, and Yoda from his Connecticut home.
British humor is very different than American, and, even though your comedies have tended to be hybrids of British and American comic sensibilities, Death at a Funeral is very clearly a British film. Did that pose any challenges in terms of cinematic language or execution?
The reason it’s British is it was written by Dean Craig who is British and it’s set in London. I wouldn’t know how to shoot a British film versus an American film versus a Lithuanian film versus whatever. All I know is to shoot what I like and hope that other people like it, too. That’s all anybody can really do.
Death at a Funeral could be seen as a small film for you, in the context of your directorial career. Objectively, would you agree with that?
Absolutely, absolutely. This was only $10 million. I’ve only done big films, so this was actively looking for something smaller.
What about the “big movies” made you want to take a vacation from them?
I’d done all these big movies and what happens is that they become lumbering oxen because they have so much going on behind the scenes. Like if it’s a big-star movie, then you have make-up people, which means even more make-up people who have to be driven around. It’s the nature of the beast. So I really wanted to get away from that, a very small, compact situation where there’s no CGI, nothing that gets in the way of the actors and the camera. Not to dis big movies, because I’ll probably do big movies again, and the big movies I’ve done, except for Stepford `Wives`, I’m very happy with them all.
Choosing to take on a film comparatively smaller in production scope than most of your previous films, especially recent ones, did that free you in any way as a director?
The most important thing about working with a limited budget is it teaches you to answer questions creatively as opposed to wanting more money. Some questions can’t be answered on a small film like you’d be used to because it’s just too expensive. The limitation actually frees you creatively. It’s a paradox, and it’s a very nice paradox.
You’ve been making films for a number of years now and, with each one, your criteria for the ones you choose to make has certainly changed. These days, what kind of movies do you most want to make?
For some reason — I won’t begin to try to explain how — I’ve been very successful at comedy. I’ve done my musical. I’ve done my heist movie. I’ve done my family film. I’ve done my special effects. I’ve done all that, so I look forward to doing a horror movie, a thriller, a suspense movie.
What is it about funerals that makes such great fodder for comedy?
I don’t know that they do.
Rumor has it you’ll also be doing the voice of Yoda in next year’s “Clone Wars” animated series.
Nope. You read IMDb, don’t you?
That’s why we had to ask.
Don’t ever believe that stuff.
Have you made it through an interview since 1980 without being asked about Yoda or Star Wars?
`Laughs` Yeah, I think I have. •