Frank Oz: Muppets maestro discusses 'Little Shop of Horrors' and the remaking of his classics

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

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.

Wow!
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

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