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

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

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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

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