Frank Oz and that little voice inside

Special to The Times

FRANK OZ is worried about whether his voice will carry over the din of a noisy Manhattan diner. There’s no need for concern. He has one of the deepest voices imaginable -- and also one of the most beloved, considering the fact that over the past 30 years he’s voiced the syntax-challenged Yoda from the “Star Wars” franchise and also many of the edgiest Muppets, including Miss Piggy, Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert.

But all of that vocal work is just a sideline now. For more than 20 years, Oz has used that voice to direct some of the most talented actors around, including Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando, Nicole Kidman, Edward Norton, Kevin Kline, Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Bill Murray and Bette Midler.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t always been appreciated, which is one reason why he can’t wait for his newest film, “Death at a Funeral,” to land in theaters Friday. A black comedy about a proper English family that falls apart during a funeral, it was made for virtually no money (less than $10 million) and features a little-known cast of (mostly) British actors.


American audiences might recognize Matthew Macfadyen from “Pride & Prejudice” (he played Mr. Darcy) and Peter Dinklage from “The Station Agent.” But that’s about it. No baggage, no egos.

“I was so happy that there were no agents around,” Oz says, dipping into matzo-ball soup. “It was just ‘get the . . . job done.’ There’s a sense in a larger-budget movie -- it just explodes. It’s just the nature of it. And it’s a nature that I’ve lived with and enjoyed and will enjoy again. But the nature of this one was really: prepare, move like hell and ask people to help you out.”

Oz is reacting to the trials and tribulations he endured during his last several films, especially his most recent one, a remake of “The Stepford Wives” (2004) that starred Kidman, Midler and Matthew Broderick. It was big (a budget estimated at $90 million), noisy and unsuccessful. Characteristically, Oz accepts responsibility for what did -- and didn’t -- happen on the film.

“I didn’t listen to my instincts,” Oz says. “It was my own fault. It got too expensive and I started listening to other people, and I should have listened to myself. I should have said, ‘The hell with it, I’m doing what I’m doing.’ I should have said, ‘You know what, this is not the way I’m seeing it,’ and I should have walked away.”

It’s hard to think of another Hollywood director who would speak with such candor about his own failings and difficulties. For example, on “The Score” (2001), a heist film he did with De Niro, Norton and Brando, Oz freely admits that Brando “hated my guts.”

And he takes full responsibility for that too: “I was too strong. I held him back. I told him he couldn’t do things and he didn’t like it. I did not nurture the actor, which I should have done no matter who he is.”


Also in the guts-hating category are Wilford Brimley (with whom Oz crossed swords on “In & Out”) and Cher (“Mermaids,” a project that Oz left). Somewhere above this anatomical line were on-set clashes Oz had with Midler, whom he says was stressed because the “Stepford Wives” schedule conflicted with her planned concert tour.

It’s difficult to square these disputes with Oz’s personal demeanor.

He’s affable and considerate, though he is pretty excitable. He apologizes profusely for a scheduling mix-up that was not his fault, picks up the check, splits a cab and worries that he’ll keep his dentist waiting (when did a Hollywood director ever worry about keeping someone waiting?).

Despite all of his work with big studios and big stars, neither Oz nor his films -- notably his comedies “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” (1988), “What About Bob?” (1991), “HouseSitter” (1992), “In & Out” (1997) and “Bowfinger” (1999) -- screams Hollywood. He seems more light on his feet, more European, like a latter-day Ernst Lubitsch. Maybe part of that has to do with his origins (his mother was Flemish, his father Dutch, and he spent the first five years of his life in Belgium).

A case in point is “Death at a Funeral,” a farce that gets its laughs from an English sense of propriety. It doesn’t wink at the audience, it’s not tethered to pop culture, and it’s not obsessed with male misbehavior (although there’s plenty of that). It’s telling that Macfadyen, who was something of a stallion in “Pride & Prejudice,” is doughy and spineless here. His performance is utterly naturalistic, as are the other players’, even as the wrong body is delivered to the funeral, one guest freaks out on acid and another one drops dead.

“What I love about Matthew and all of the other actors is that I don’t see the sweat,” Oz says. “I hate seeing the sweat on the screen. I don’t want to see them working at comedy. I want them to be innately trusting of the material.”

For Oz this trust is developed during rehearsal and on the set, where he encourages improvisation, and even off the set, where he sometimes helps actors discover their characters’ back stories and relationships.

This shows where Oz’s heart is -- with the performers, which is ironic, given the run-ins he’s had with actors. It’s also an example of Muppet creator Jim Henson’s influence on him. Oz’s long association with the Muppets is something he used to downplay, but not anymore. It’s part of who he is and what he does.

“Now that I’ve done a dozen movies, I have distance enough to say, ‘Hey, I did pretty damn good work with Jim and all of the workshop people,’ ” Oz says. “I learned so much from Jim about how to play.

“That’s where the ideas come from. Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge.”