Premise: A look at Jim Henson’s life, the creator of the most famous puppet franchise of all time, The Muppets.
About: Weekes did not sell this script, but the script has gotten so much attention around town that he landed a lot of work from it, most notably the rewrite of the high profile project “Waterproof” for Legendary Pictures. (This is an important thing to note for aspiring screenwriters. You don’t have to sell a script to make money. It’s far more common that your script(s) becomes a resume of sorts. If someone likes what they see, they’ll give you a job writing one of their films). Edit: Now someone is pointing out in the comments that Henson’s company did indeed buy this and is producing it. I haven’t been able to confirm this so might someone from the project e-mail me and let me know?
Writer: Christopher Weekes
I hate the word “genius”. It’s become so overused I don’t even think it means anything anymore. Like when people call Tiger Woods a “genius”. Tiger Woods plays a sport where you put a ball in a hole. I don’t care if the man hits a hole in one every time he pulls out his driver. Under no circumstances should a golfer be labeled a “genius.” Albert Einstein was a genius. The Wright Brothers were geniuses. J.R. Tolkien was a genius. There’s a reason you rarely see me give a script a “genius” rating, because when I give that rating, I want it to mean something. But as long as we’re on the subject, I think Jim Henson was a genius. He created an entire universe of characters out of an artform many considered to be long dead. There was no roadmap for what he did. There was no “how-to” book. He just made it up as he went along. And to come up with something so complete, so alive, so unique, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of entertainment.
So it was with great interest that I dove into this offbeat screenplay, only to find myself swimming through one of the more schizophrenic pieces of drama I’ve ever encountered. I’m just going to say it straight up: The Muppet Man bored me to tears for 115 pages, then made me an emotional wreck the final 20. I would go so far as to say the final 20 pages of this screenplay would be one of the most memorable and emotional sequences ever filmed. I could not sleep after reading this screenplay, it hit me so hard. So how did I end up weeping like a little girl during a script that initially I couldn’t even muster up the energy to turn the pages on?
Well it starts with the biopic. I hate’em. And here’s why. How do you break down someone’s life into 2 hours? Or maybe this is a better question: Could you sum up your life in two hours? I certainly hope not. That would make for one boring life. But that’s only the beginning of this genre’s problems. Movies like short time periods. A life is a long time period. Movies like 3 acts. A life has 100 acts. In movies you pick when stuff happens to your character. In life, you’re locked into what happens to your character. And I’m not saying there haven’t been successes in the genre, but it usually plays out the same old boring way: We get a glorified documentary of a person’s life. And for a big old chunk of The Muppet Man, that’s how I felt.
It’s not that Weekes doesn’t attempt to dramatize the action. It’s that he doesn’t have a lot to work with. There’s a thin mystery surrounding Jim’s health going on in the present. When we jump into the past, we see his brother die as well as the life-long courting of his eventual wife. But all these things play out like set decoration – like background music in a play we can only hear. And here’s why:
I never cared about Jim Henson.
He’s introverted. He keeps to himself. We never know what he’s thinking. He’s passive. Do these things ring an alarm to any longtime writers out there? Yes, these are the things that you NEVER WANT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER TO BE. Characters who keep to themselves are always boring on film. If we don’t know what you’re thinking, how can we identify with or care about you? Scene after scene you’re dying for Henson to give you something – anything – but it never happens.
The script has a few sparks though. Its best moments come when the original muppets sneak in to have discussions with Jim. They very much mimic Jim’s energy: melancholy, beat up, tired. When we meet Kermit he’s 20 years older with gray hair and a pot belly. These muppets are not the muppets of your past. They’re at the end of their lives, like Jim, and there’s this overwhelming feeling of sadness watching them. Mrs. Piggy has gone on to marry another animal, and Kermit wants Henson’s advice on what he should do about it. I don’t really know how to describe it other than it just feels so…sad. Cartoon characters (puppet characters) aren’t supposed to grow old. They aren’t supposed to be serious. So when we see them experiencing problems just like us. When we see their age and realize that they’re mortal just like we are, it affects you in a way like nothing else ever has.
Which brings us to that ending I’ve been talking about so much. How did The Muppet Man turn into the most emotional finale since a certain giant ship sank ten years ago? It starts with Jim’s death. Jim Henson didn’t have cancer. Jim Henson didn’t have a heart attack. Jim Henson wasn’t in a car accident. He had a bout of the flu which he ignored for two weeks. He was tired all the time. He would involuntarily pass out. But because his personality was such that he never wanted to bother anyone, instead of going to the hospital, he waited for it to pass. But it didn’t pass. In fact, before he knew it he was coughing up blood and even *then* his ex-wife had to convince him to go to the hospital. They made it there before he died, but his condition was so advanced that the doctors couldn’t save him. He went into toxic shock within hours, then a coma, and less than a day later, he passed away.
I didn’t watch Michael Jackson’s funeral. But people tell me it was extremely emotional. From everything I’ve heard, Jim Henson’s funeral was one of the most memorable funerals in history. And if the script’s account is any indication, I have no doubt about the accuracy of this statement. As Jim lay dying in the hospital – hoping that the drugs would take effect in time – he wrote his children a letter. Jim’s son read that letter during his eulogy. When he finishes these heartwrenching last words, he looks out at the crowd. And when we turn around to see what he sees, there aren’t just hundreds of people staring back at him, but all of the puppets Jim Henson had ever created.
From Wikipedia: In the final minutes of the two-and-a-half hour service, six of the core Muppet performers sang, in their characters’ voices, a medley of Jim Henson’s favorite songs, culminating in a performance of “Just One Person” that began with Richard Hunt singing alone, as Scooter. “As each verse progressed,” Henson employee Chris Barry recalled, “each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters.” The funeral was later described by LIFE as “an epic and almost unbearably moving event.”
And if that scene doesn’t get you, in a brilliant touch, the final scene actually plays out in the muppet world. But not the muppet world of yesteryear. The one of today, with the old muppets, and Kermit The Frog desperately trying to find Miss Piggy to tell her that he loves her. If you don’t need a towel to clean off your keyboard at the end of this scene, there’s a good chance you don’t have emotions.
If you want to go that extra mile and really emotionally invest yourself in this experience, do what I did, go over to Youtube, and watch as many Muppets clips as you can. You begin to see what I couldn’t see at the outset of this screenplay – which is the love for life Jim Henson had, if only through the world of his puppets.
I’ll be interested to hear what you guys think about this one, but in the meantime, since I’m having such a difficult time categorizing the script, I’m going to cheat…
First 115 pages:
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
Last 20 pages:
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
Script link: Link taken down. :(
What I learned: I was recently reading Lucy V’s blog and she had a great article on the dubious second act. The second act is generally referred to as “conflict” because that’s what you want your character to encounter: CONFLICT. If there’s not enough conflict, the second act will feel bland. That’s exactly how I felt about The Muppet Man. There simply wasn’t enough drama to keep us involved in the story. Always remember that in order to propel your story forward, you need lots of conflict in your second act. And as Lucy says, throw your characters into the fire. Make it bad for them. It’s always more interesting watching a character struggle through tough times than seeing him waltz through life without a care.