M&C Interview: Director Frank Oz talks “Death at a Funeral”

Acclaimed director and actor Frank Oz’s award-winning comedy “Death at a Funeral” is a pastiche comedy of errors, and ultimately is a resolution of sorts for a pair of English brothers separated by the Atlantic ocean and years of building resentments and hurt feelings.

A proper British funeral is hit with a cascading chain of unforeseen events that threatens to upstage the deceased, as the assembled living are bickering over eulogies, money, inadequacy, jealousy, an accidental dosing of LSD  and a diminutive blackmailing curve-ball from dead daddy’s past.

Tea anyone?

“Death at a Funeral” demonstrates director Oz’s ability to find the right actors to inhabit the characters perfectly, and he illuminates the fine lines of comedy and tragedy at these momentous events for people who are all connected in overlapping concentric circles of family, friendship and acquaintance. 

The fluid performances of all the characters keeps up at a typically fast-paced British comedy standard, and Oz had heartfelt praise and appreciation for Dean Craig’s script and his crew of key department heads that included DP, Oliver Curtis, and a cracking art department headed by production designer Michael Howells, who worked alongside art directors Matthew Robinson and Andy Tomlinson. 

Their work was dressed by set decorator Judy Farr, and dressing the cast was costume designer Natalie Ward.  The film was crisply edited by Beverley Mills with a lively accompanying score by Murray Gold.

The ensemble cast was also lauded by Oz, and included Matthew MacFadyen as Daniel, Peter Dinklage as Peter, Keeley Hawes as Jane, Alan Tudyk as Simon Smith, Andy Nyman as Howard, Ewen Bremner as Justin, Daisy Donovan as Martha, Jane Asher as Sandra, Kris Marshall as Troy, Rupert Graves as Robert and Peter Vaughan as Uncle Alfie.

Monsters and Critics spoke to Frank Oz from Connecticut on Saturday:

M&C: How did the script come to you?

Oz: I have to thank Share Stallings, a Disney Development mentor and friend of mine sent it to me, she’s also a producer on the film.  I laughed out loud when I read it so I knew.

Frank Oz on set of Stepford Wives

Frank Oz on set of Stepford Wives

M&C: Why are funerals so awkward, in your estimation?

Oz: I don’t know, for me they are usually sad affairs, just sad and painful. But the script written by Dean (Craig) was based on his own experiences as he had gone to a funeral that had sketchy elements and observations of the interlocking friends at this particular funeral.

But funerals are sad affairs.  Oddly though,  I was recently in California for a dear friend’s funeral service, for Oscar nominated costume designer, Marit Allen who I worked with in two of my movies, and it was bizarre to me how people avoid talking about anything specific at funerals. 

They avoid talking about the person and instead they network or talk business.   I guess it’s a self-defense mechanism yet I find that behavior at funerals bizarre, that people can’t talk about the person and why they are there?

M&C: Was it just a fluke that the spoiler at the British funeral was also an American?

Oz: It was a fluke!  Peter Dinklage’s part was written for a normal-sized person, and I decided I wanted to go after him and cast him for the part, he is such an amazing actor and I wanted to have him on this project. 

So the fact he was an American too, yeah well ‘the American asshole’ (laughs) but Peter’s work in ‘The Station Agent’ was sublime and I told him that a few minutes into the film people would think this is a sexual dwarf joke, but just banking on his acting eliminates the obvious size discrepancy visuals.

Frank Oz with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton on the set of The Score

Frank Oz with Robert De Niro and Edward Norton on the set of The Score

M&C: Your DP had some really intricate interior and exterior shots for a confined location, and have you worked with Oliver Curtis before?

Oz: Thank you for asking about the crew, Oliver did a brilliant job and he had a nine-day period of shooting in different weather, rainy days and light to contend with to keep the continuity in the final film, not easy, but he did a fine job managing the lighting in the backyard and lighting the entire film.

M&C: What about your art department – they dressed the location perfectly, it was full of interesting visual props.

Oz: Yes, the art department worked really hard, and it was a much more intimate crew.   This film was much smaller compared to a $100 million plus film like “The Stepford Wives,” and Michael (production designer Michael Howells) had found this wonderful house for a location, and the people were great, they actually wanted us there. 

A lot of the action of the film is dependent on the movement of the scenes back and forth between outdoors and indoors, so they all did an amazing job keeping it together.  But thank you again for asking about the crew, directors don’t make movies alone and I was fortunate to have so many talented people working alongside me.

M&C: What is your favorite kind of movie to make?

Oz: My base is comedy, I have been successful at it but at some point I can’t keep doing it, but what I am drawn to depends really, I’m a slave for the script, a great script is always key. And comedies are harder to find, really good comedies, and I think that I would love to do horror film – not gore, and drama, but again, it all boils down to a great script that excites me.

M&C: Which actors would you like to work with (or again)?

Oz: Oh well that’s a long list, Michael Caine, Steve Martin, Bob De Niro, Kevin Kline, there are so many I would love to work again with.  I was supposed to be meeting with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who is an amazing talent, and there are so many great actors out there.  But ultimately, it’s the script and the actor’s ability to absorb the character that will determine who is cast.  The script always tells me how to shoot something,

M&C: What was your favorite movie this year? Did the Academy get it right?

Oz: I don’t vote. I’ve been in the Academy for years but I simply don’t accept that premise; how can you have a “best”? I don’t get the concept at all. 

I know Paul Thomas Anderson and he made a fine movie with “There Will Be Blood”, but so did some other directors, so how do we decide to call what best? How do you choose this?

M&C: Well another on the spot question, what was your favorite scene in Death at a Funeral?

Oz: I was fortunate to have thirteen amazing actors and to pick a scene for me is hard, I can’t do this! There are too many but I will say the subtle scenes get me, when the coffin knocks during the service, or when Alan (Tudyk) who plays Simon is up on the roof, and at the end the scene with Andy (Nyman) and the Reverend Davis (Thomas Wheatley) all of that was ad-libbed and improvised, also Jane’s (Asher) scene while she was sitting on the bench too. There were so many I can’t pick just one favorite.

Death at a Funeral is now available at Amazon and AmazonUK. Visit the DVD database for more information. Click Here to read M&C’s review of the DVD.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.