Frank Oz talks career, Hollywood and being Yoda

Nov. 16, 2011, 12:59 a.m.
In a basement screening room of Cummings Art on Monday night, Yoda materialized in front of students of Adam Tobin’s Film Production class. Not the little green Jedi in command of the force, but the voice actor and puppeteer Frank Oz who crafted him into the lovable character we all know. Oz lists director, actor and producer on his curriculum vitae, and his account of the grueling process of finding life in an inanimate object proved more interesting than the emerald tutor himself.

He spoke of the difficulty of working with actors and directors from both sides of the camera and finding life in characters like Yoda. But with adjustment and labor, Oz voiced Yoda and conducted his every calculated movement along with a team of operators. The discussion — a true dialogue between speaker and students facilitated by Oz’s refusal to simply lecture — often took to this theme of perseverance as Oz directed students to follow their visions with aplomb.

Oz’s directorial career boasts star-studded productions and cult-classics including “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” “Death at a Funeral” and “The Stepford Wives.” He covered topics ranging from his experience directing actors like Marlon Brando and Edward Norton, to his role as Bert from “Sesame Street” and preserving artistic integrity in a world of test audiences and Hollywood producers.

“If [a producer has] a good idea I say, ‘You’re right and I’ll change,’ but it’s my decision,” Oz said. “I won’t change it because they wanted it. I’ll change it because I believe in it. That’s why I’ll change it.”

Oz’s words resonated with any Stanford student under the pressures from parents or societal expectations. In the end, Oz believes you should always go with your gut.

“[That movie] didn’t work,” he said. “And that’s because I didn’t follow my own instincts. I thought I should listen to other people and I shouldn’t have…At the end of the day you’re going to be saying, ‘Why didn’t I listen to myself?’”

Oz is not the first entertainer to speak with Stanford students; this quarter has already seen the likes of Michael Moore and Slavoj Zizek, and last year’s first day of classes saw an appearance by the cast and writer of “The Social Network.” Professor Adam Tobin, who orchestrated Oz’s talk, considers such speakers — particularly Oz — to be enlightening and responsive to the many Stanford students who hope to pursue careers in the arts and entertainment.

“[The talks show that] these are regular people and that it’s acceptable” Tobin said. “You could conceivably do work like this. People are tackling the challenges, but it’s accessible,” Tobin is encouraging but realistic about futures in Hollywood.

“The flipside is that it’s hard,” he continued. “It takes a lot of work and discipline.”

“If you want to get into film, it’s really hard work. Constantly. It’s great but it’s really hard,” Oz echoed, reveling in the challenging but fun work he has done.
Students questioned Oz about his own films, where he thought CGI was taking film and the physicality of the cinematic experience. Oz answered with anecdotes and wisdom about the business, descriptions and regrets with his own works.

Confident and inspired, Oz claimed he would never suggest his role as Cookie Monster on “Sesame Street” or Miss Piggy of “The Muppets.” And for all those fans wondering why the syntactically retro Jedi master speaks the way he does, Oz has his own idea.

“In my opinion, language is bastardized today,” he said. “The way he speaks is the way old Jedis speak. He is like an old Navajo trying to keep that language alive. He speaks that way hoping it will rub off…Trying to keep the integrity of being a Jedi, that’s what he’s doing with that language. He’s teaching without teaching.”

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