The first time Warner Bros. screened Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz’s 1986 film musical, test audiences ate it up like a bloodthirsty plant devouring a sadistic dentist. They rooted hard for Seymour (Rick Moranis), the nerdy 1960s shop assistant who makes a devil’s bargain with a man-eating plant to win the love of his co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene). Every scene met with laughter and applause — until the plant devoured Seymour and Audrey, and the audience went silent. After two previews and many livid comment cards, Oz and screenwriter Howard Ashman decided to scrap the original, 23-minute ending — in which the plant eats everyone and takes over the world — in favor of giving Seymour and Audrey their happily-ever-after. Oz has no regrets. “My job is to entertain,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment, and the new ending was “more satisfying to the audience.” However, film fans have long mourned the disappearance of the original ending, which included a heartbreaking reprise of Audrey’s ballad “Somewhere That’s Green” and a fantastic montage of the plant, named Audrey II, rampaging, Godzilla-style, across New York City.
This month, Little Shop of Horrors will be screened for the first time nationwide with its original, darker ending restored. Oz wonders if the film will have a new resonance in the Trump era, when America’s real-life monsters thrive on blood, greed, and the misguided good intentions of countless Seymours. “It will be very interesting to see if, in this new political and cultural climate, if there will be any association with that, with the plant. Let’s just say that,” says Oz. The original ending, he acknowledges, “may still be too dark for people, and I accept that. It may not be as satisfying emotionally, and I accept that. But on the other hand, the reason Howard and I wanted it was that it is the Faustian legend. Seymour does have consequences for his actions. We needed to omit those consequences to keep the audience happy, which I agreed with, by the way. I think we had to do it. But now it will be very interesting to see.”
Little Shop of Horrors is adapted from the 1982 off-Broadway rock musical by Ashman and Alan Menken, itself based on a 1960 Roger Corman B movie. The show ran for four years in “a crummy little theater on Second Avenue,” as Oz remembers it, and he wanted to bring that claustrophobic downtown atmosphere to the film. “I didn’t want to turn it into a Hello, Dolly! musical. It had to reflect that grunge spirit,” he explains. At the same time, he felt that if he shot a truly realistic, on-location version of the city, the audience wouldn’t go along with the characters bursting into song — which is how Oz felt about a certain other iconic New York film musical.
“As much as I love West Side Story, it’s really bogus, because they’re not going to be dancing on the streets on a rumble in New York,” he says. “As brilliant as the film was, that world didn’t support that action, in my opinion.”
“Every film is artifice, right?” he continues. “Scorsese is artifice. It’s not real. People aren’t actually getting really killed in Goodfellas. But one has to create, in my opinion, an artifice in which the world the characters inhabit can be believed. And so any actions within that world are believed, because of the tacit arrangement one makes with the audience, which is, ‘OK, I’m creating something, I’m asking you to believe in it, I will be honest to that world if you will continue to believe in that world.’”
To create a “quasi-theatrical world” for his singing characters (including Steve Martin as Audrey’s abusive dentist boyfriend), musical narrators (a Motown-style trio played by Michelle Weeks, Tichina Arnold, and Tisha Campbell-Martin), and talking plant puppet (voiced by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops), Oz had the entirety of Skid Row constructed on an indoor soundstage (specifically Pinewood Studios’ “007 Stage,” built large to house the James Bond films). His preferred set-design process is unorthodox. “What people usually do is say, ‘OK, build me a set and I’ll work around it.’ And I do the reverse,” Oz explains. A year before shooting began, Oz brought production designer Roy Walker to the empty soundstage, where they played songs from the Little Shop cast album and mapped out the set on the floor with tape.
“I’d play the ‘Dentist!’ music from the off-Broadway show, and I’d say to Roy, ‘OK, here’s where the motorcycle stops, and Steve gets out,’ and then with that music, I would count how many steps it would take for Steve to get from the sidewalk to the front door,” Oz explains. “And so he would tape that. And then I would go with the music and guesstimate how many steps it would take to get inside his office, and then Roy would create the wall there. … And then when he created the set I knew musically how much time and how many beats it would take to get from one to the other.”
Once filming actually began, Oz says, “Every freaking day was a challenge.” That’s largely because one of his lead characters was a 13-foot-high puppet. Though Oz came on board with unimpeachable puppet credentials — he created many of Jim Henson’s iconic Muppet characters and directed both The Dark Crystal (with Henson) and The Muppets Take Manhattan — the plant Audrey II presented a daunting task for a director. At minimum, according to designer Lyle Conway, four puppeteers were needed to perform the character; for the climactic number, “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space,” 51 puppeteers were required. “If I wanted to move that plant from one part of the store to another,” says Oz, “it took two days.”
While Oz is proud of the film’s creative camerawork — the jaw-dropping growth of the plant, the verse in “Dentist!” shot from inside the patient’s mouth, the swooping crane shot at the end of “Somewhere That’s Green” that he’s quick to credit to Ashman — his favorite moment in the film is one of the simplest and most touching. “It’s not about shots for me as much as emotion. And I think my favorite song really is ‘Suddenly Seymour,’ because the song is so stunningly full and beautiful that Howard wrote,” says Oz. “These two damaged, sad souls, connecting at that moment, that’s what’s most memorable to me.”
Little Shop of Horrors remains popular enough that the possibility of a remake has floated around for years. “There are a couple movies of mine that have already been remade, which is weird because they usually let the director die first,” Oz quips. “There’s been talk about Little Shop for a long time. I know nothing about it. But I think it’s wonderful. I mean, put it this way: I think it’s wonderful if it’s good.”
As for Oz — whose post-Little Shop films include Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob?, In and Out, and Death at a Funeral — he hasn’t directed a feature film in a decade. “It’s not that I’m off, it’s just that things have changed,” he explains. “Sometimes I have worked on scripts that I liked and they couldn’t get the money for them. And the scripts that I am given are often scripts that I just don’t want to do. And I’d rather not work than do something I don’t believe in.” (He did recently direct an independent documentary about the creation of The Muppet Show called Muppet Guys Talking, which will receive a digital release in March.)
If there’s a thread that runs through all of Oz’s films, and Little Shop of Horrors in particular, it’s humor untarnished by cynicism. “I just do what I do and the human being I am comes out through it. I don’t think optimism is really something I identify with as much as purity and innocence,” says Oz. “I believe in my heart, without being a goody two-shoes, that there are people in the world who are really good, and unfortunately it’s the people in power who are often not. And the people who are not in power are the ones I’m making it for.”
Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut will play in theaters nationwide on Oct. 29 and 31. For tickets, visit Fathom Events.
Watch the trailer for Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut:
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