The wiz­ardry of Oz

Frank Oz may be known as the voice of var­i­ous Mup­pet char­ac­ters, but he is also a hit film di­rec­tor. He talks to Stephen Ap­ple­baum

The Jewish Chronicle - - ARTS&BOOKS -

FRANK OZ’S face may not be familiar, but his voice cer­tainly is to mil­lions of television view­ers and cin­ema-go­ers. He it was who voiced Miss Piggy, the Cookie Mon­ster and a whole gallery of mem­o­rable Mup­pet char­ac­ters dur­ing the 1970s. He also pro­vided the vo­cal chords for Luke Sky­walker’s mys­ti­cal alien guru, Yoda, in Star Wars: The Em­pire Strikes Back. And just in case that was not enough to ce­ment his place in the pop­u­lar-cul­ture pan­theon, he went on to di­rect some of the big­gest film come­dies of the ’80s and ’90s — in­clud­ing Lit­tle Shop of Hor­rors, Dirty Rot­ten Scoundrels, Hous­eSit­ter, In & Out, Bowfin­ger, as well as Mar­lon Brando’s last film, The Score.

Not bad for an im­mi­grant to Amer­ica who grew up not speak­ing English and never had any am­bi­tions to get into show­busi­ness. His ca­reer started only be­cause his in­ter­est in pup­petry at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the late Mup­pets cre­ator Jim Hen­son, who asked the then 19-year-old Oz to come and work with him in New York.

Hen­son be­came Oz’s friend and men­tor and sparked his movie-mak­ing ca­reer when they col­lab­o­rated on the am­bi­tious pup­pet fan­tasy The Dark Crys­tal (1982). The film was a mas­sive un­der­tak­ing, Oz re­calls, and would cost around $200 mil­lion to make to­day. “The truth is, I didn’t di­rect that movie, Jim did,” he says mod­estly. “It was all his vi­sion. For me it was an amaz­ing trial by fire.”

Oz sur­vived and went on to di­rect his string of hits. For years, his track record was im­pec­ca­ble — and then he went and re­made the low-bud­get 1970s satire The Step­ford Wives as a $90 mil­lion spe­cial-ef­fects ex­trav­a­ganza star­ring Ni­cole Kid­man and Bette Mi­dler. The 2004 movie was too big, too broad and too brash for most peo­ple. The re­views were ter­ri­ble and the film bombed. Oz was crushed.

“I’ve al­ways trusted my own in­stincts, and ev­ery movie, whether you like it or not, that’s my movie,” he says. “ Step­ford is some­thing that got so ex­pen­sive I felt re­spon­si­ble to lis­ten to other peo­ple, and it swayed my vi­sion.”

Grow­ing from “a very self-dep­re­cat­ing child with low self-es­teem” into some­one who fol­lowed his own gut-feel­ings had taken Oz a long time. The fail­ure of Step­ford caused him to lose con­fi­dence in him­self again. “I went back to my act­ing teacher for coach­ing, and to try to get back to the pu­rity of what I loved,” says the 63-year-old can­didly. “My con­fi­dence didn’t re­turn im­me­di­ately, though. I came back and it grew by tak­ing a chance.”

He is talk­ing about Death at a Funeral — a low-bud­get, back-to-ba­sics farce he made in Bri­tish with a mainly home-grown cast, which is re­leased in the UK this week. There are no big com­puter ef­fects or huge lo­ca­tions; just ac­tors, a di­rec­tor, a cam­era, and a witty script by Lon­doner Dean Craig.

“What­ever any­body thinks about this film, it’s not a com­bi­na­tion of me and the stu­dio and the pro­ducer — ev­ery­thing is me. Ev­ery de­ci­sion made be­hind ev­ery frame is me. Like I said to my agent when I was edit­ing: ‘If it’s a piece of s***, it’s my piece of s***’.”

In the event, strong re­views from Amer­ica and some au­di­ence awards from fes­ti­vals should en­sure that there is life af­ter Death for Oz. “It feels ter­rific to know you took a big chance and peo­ple seem to like what you like,” he smiles, ob­vi­ously re­lieved. “It’s a re­ally good feel­ing.”

De­spite be­ing made by an Amer­i­can, Death at a Funeral is quintessen­tially Bri­tish. But then Oz has ties here. He worked in the UK for nine years, and was, in fact, born in Hereford.

His Jewish fa­ther, Isi­dore Oznow­icz, came from Am­s­ter­dam and fought in the Dutch Brigades in the Sec­ond World War. Frances, his Catholic mother (“she was pushed into the re­li­gion and gave it up”), hailed from Bruges in Bel­gium. Al­though they were not re­li­gious peo­ple, Oz re­mem­bers hav­ing an ortho­dox Un­cle Abra­ham in Am­s­ter­dam.

“He was, like, six foot four, which is prob­a­bly where I get my height from,” he chuck­les. “So on my fa­ther’s side a lot of the Jewish cul­ture was strong, and a lot of his rel­a­tives went to the camps. But even though he didn’t prac­tise, ob­vi­ously just be­ing a Jew was enough and he had to run like hell.”

Oz’s par­ents be­came refugees and headed for Bri­tain via North Africa and Gi­bral­tar. “There was only one ticket out of Morocco, so my mother used that,” says Oz. “There was some story about dress­ing her as a boy. Later, my fa­ther went to Eng­land to make sure she was safe, and then went back to the Dutch Brigades.”

Six months af­ter Oz was born, his par­ents moved the fam­ily back to their home in An­twerp. There, his fa­ther dug up a pup­pet of Hitler that he had buried. “Pup­petry was their hobby,” says Oz. “They weren’t pro­fes­sion­als, and when the Nazis in­vaded they had to make sure the Hitler pup­pet was hid­den, be­cause they didn’t want them to see them mak­ing fun of him.”

In 1951 the fam­ily em­i­grated to Amer­ica, be­gin­ning what Oz de­scribes as a “typ­i­cal im­mi­grant story” in­volv­ing liv­ing in a “shack” in Mon­tana and his fa­ther “work­ing like hell” to im­prove their sit­u­a­tion.

His up­bring­ing has given him an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the un­der­dog, he says. “Where peo­ple might see im­mi­grants and say: ‘Get out of here’, I see im­mi­grants and see us. My sis­ter was born in the United States [he also has a brother who was born in Wolver­hamp­ton] but I re­mem­ber not speak­ing the lan­guage and be­ing ashamed of that, and then want­ing to be Amer­i­can.”

When Oz took up pup­petry at the age of 11, it was partly be­cause he dis­cov­ered that he could use them to ex­press sides of him­self he was scared of re­veal­ing. “You’re not re­jected, the pup­pet is, so there’s one wall be­tween you,” he ex­plains. But mostly, he says: “I think I wanted to please my par­ents.”

He never dreamed of be­com­ing a pro­fes­sional pup­peteer, or even a film-maker. As a teenager, he thought he wanted to be a jour­nal­ist. “But re­ally what I wanted to do was di­rect theatre — I was just too scared to ad­mit it to my­self. But then when I was 19, Jim [Hen­son] asked me to come to New York to work part-time for him, and it just ended up be­ing for­ever.”

It could have been a lot shorter. Be­cause of his then low self-es­teem, Oz says it took four years be­fore he dared to do any voices. “I guess peo­ple would say: ‘Oh, Frank Oz, he’s got it made. He knows how to do it like that’,” he says, snap­ping his fin­gers. “But I didn’t think very much of my­self and Jim was about ready to give up on me be­cause I was too fright­ened — un­til he forced me into it.”

Hen­son died un­ex­pect­edly of bac­te­rial pneu­mo­nia in 1990, aged 53. The loss of his friend has made Oz de­ter­mined to make the most of the time he has in his own ca­reer. “I’m fright­ened of not be­ing here and not do­ing the things I wanted to do. I’m at the be­gin­ning of a new phase and there’s many things I still want to do, many projects — theatre, movies, a sus­pense thriller. I’ve not done one of those yet.”

PHOTO: AP

PHOTO: AP

Frank Oz has di­rected a string of film hits, but it is as the voice of Miss Piggy ( left) and Star Wars’ Yoda that he may be best re­mem­bered

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

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