Finally, the Muppets have released their first Halloween special, and editor Alexandra Amick shared how she helped bring this haunted special to life.
Muppets Haunted Mansion dropped on Disney+ just in time for Halloween. Based on Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, Muppets Haunted Mansion follows the Great Gonzo and his friend Pepe the Prawn as they visit the Haunted Mansion in the hopes of spending the night. Little do the pair know that 999 friendly and unfriendly ghouls live there with the haunting desire to make Gonzo the 1,000th ghoul.
The Haunted Mansion is full of frights, but it is also full of gags and laughs. When the Muppets are added to the mix, the horror-comedy becomes a wild ride that leaves you chuckling, unnerved, and full of nostalgia.
No Film School spoke with the special’s editor Alexandra Amick, who shared how she was able to bring to life the humor and horror in the Muppets’ first Halloween special.
No Film School: How did you discover your love for editing?
Alexandra Amick: It was something that I always loved to do even if I didn’t have a name for it quite yet. Ever since I was 11 years old and saw Lord of the Rings and the—this is a very nerdy detail—but [I] saw all of the extended editions and behind-the-scenes documentaries on it. It’s an amazing documentary on how to make a movie, and I was like, “Oh my god, that’s a job,” so that was it. I wanted to do that in whatever capacity.
In high school, I took all the media classes available to me, and it should have been very obvious because I was the kid who would just hog the computer on all of the projects. Then, I went to college at Florida State University film school, and I think that solidified for me that editing is where I belonged. I think that I enjoyed the act of [editing] and the fact that it’s like writing the movie again with pictures this time. I’ve always been a visual thinker when I’m thinking creatively and very very rooted in the story and reader. I am very analytical and technical, so I think it was a really good melding of the left and right parts of my brain. Coming out of film school, I knew that is what I wanted to do, so I came out to Los Angeles, and that’s all I’ve been doing since.
NFS: I like how you said that editing is like piecing a puzzle back together. Things change when you start editing everything back together.
Amick: Definitely. I view it as a third rewrite of the film. First, there is the writer, obviously, and then the second is the director, cinematographer, actors, production design, and everybody is rewriting on the set and how it translates from the page to the footage. Then I take it and confront everybody else’s decision and have to rewrite it with the director. What works on the page doesn’t always work on film, and what you loved on set doesn’t always work in the edit bay. Even if it isn’t the same where you started, it means the same thing and has the same heart at the end of it.
NFS: How do you prepare to start a project?
Amick: With any project, it starts with the script. I like to read it first, for story, just to get a sense of where I’m going and what we are doing. Then, I read it again and start to think visually about what is happening here. I'm already looking for trouble spots... we are intercutting from here to here, what's a transition that can get us here smoothly. Then it is about doing your research.
I couldn’t go to Disney and re-ride the Haunted Mansion. Thank God people film themselves going through Disney rides because I would watch the entirety of the Haunted Mansion ride and refresh my memory [on what] is a very special part of this mansion, and I know what joke we are making now. I know what we are paying homage to. Then it is about watching Muppets’ history, other horror comedies, and all other kinds of stuff. Once I get into that mindset, pretty much everything I watch becomes research. It’s about first the script, then your research.
NFS: What was unique about working on this special?
Amick: Overall, when working the Muppets, one of the big challenges is that they ad-lib. Another inherently challenging thing is that they are puppets. A lot of people don’t think about [how] puppets can’t do everything that humans do, no matter how amazingly talented these performers are. They literally cannot do certain things. Then, there are certain angles you cannot shoot puppets from. For a human onset, if on the fly you can say, “I want to get a full shot, head to toe, of Will Arnett,” you just back up the camera, change lenses, there’s Will Arnett. If you want to do that for Gonzo, that’s a different puppet because they stop at the waist most of the time, so you have to have the full-body puppet. And because the legs are seen, that is extra puppeteers. There is no on the fly, let's get the full-body puppet in. They have to be very meticulous about what they shoot. Inherently, your footage is more limited than it would be with human beings—which is just a weird thing to say—[but] you still have to edit it as if you have all the footage and the viewer is never going to miss the fact that you could not bring in that full-body puppet.
On this particular one, there were a lot of technical challenges because 90% of the characters were ghosts. They were all shot individually on a green screen. So any shot you see that has more than one ghost, I’ve gone through every single take for every one of those characters and cut them out, and slap comp them in. The ballroom scene... we were handed a week's worth of footage of just characters on green screen. We had been given pictures of what the ballroom would be, but it was just hard. It was very difficult, but it gave us a lot of freedom because they were ghosts and we could just fly them around because we didn’t have to worry about them bringing in the full-body puppet. After all, we could just send [the bottom] to mist. It was very original and was a big deal beforehand.
NFS: What was your favorite moment from this project, and why?
Amick: There are actually two for different reasons. My favorite that was just a joy all the way through was the scene that takes place in the stretch room. Maybe it was because it is my favorite room of the Haunted Mansion, so I was very excited to do it. All of the performers in that scene were ad-libbing so much, and it was so much fun.
It was challenging because we shot on an AR wall, which is a big LED screen that interacted with [the performers]—it’s what they use on The Mandalorian—so it was that and full CG elements were going to be created that I hadn’t seen yet and had to cut in. It had its difficulties, but overall it was a lot of fun and made me feel like I was back on the ride when I was a little kid with the screaming in the dark. So that was one of my favorites just because the final cut was very close to my assembly, which is always a good feeling.
The second was also the hardest. It’s pretty much the last third of the movie. It is kind of that big moment that runs from when Gonzo is looking in the mirror by himself and Pepe in the attic... all of this is intercut. That sequence in the scene was not at all what was written. It was one of those cases where it read well in the script, but on set, our director, Kirk Thatcher, and Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta knew it wasn’t translating super well.
They had to, on the fly, make a lot of changes and decisions, and it came to me and putting it back together with the old and new combined work, but everyone knew it could be better, but that meant ripping the sequence apart. Rewriting it, adding scenes, and cuts, jumps, and jokes all over the place. But my previous work on the horror movie The Wind, that’s what we did every single day because that movie was always meant to be out of order. Every single day we'd just say, "This scene works, but it could be better." So I was fearless when it came to this.
The puzzle fits together, but if we take it apart does it work any other way? What ended up coming together was much better and stronger than what we thought we could get out of that sequence. It is one of my favorites just because I know all of the work that went into it.
NFS: How long did it take you to put those sequences together?
Amick: Not long enough. They shot for about three weeks at the beginning of April. I was editing while they were on set, so every single day I was editing. We had to turn around a cut a week after shooting. Then we had another two weeks to put together the version with Thatcher. Everyone was very forgiving [because] of the realities we were facing with the turnaround.
Those early versions worked, but we knew they could be stronger. That last section got torn apart with me working very closely with the executive producer, Andrew Williams. That came together over two days of back and forth. The bulk of that redo was a two-day venture.
NFS: The Muppets are famous for their constant ad-libs and off-script moments. How do you choose what moments make it into the final cut and which ones get left on the chopping block?
Amick: It’s very hard, but what it comes down to is remembering that you are telling a larger story. They are just famous for those ad-libs and it’s so much fun to watch their dailies. It’s always fun. It can be really hard to choose, but you just have to approach it [as] it is appropriate for where you are in the story, what’s appropriate for what this character should be feeling right now. Take it back to story and character. Gonzo and Pepe might say something ridiculous and Will Arnett will play off of them so well and say something just as ridiculous. This scene could be completely zany, but we should probably save that level for the next scene. It’s heartbreaking because there are some hilarious moments that no one will ever know about, but it would have felt too rushed if we had shown it there.
NFS: This special is blending horror, comedy, and nostalgia. How do you find that perfect balance while editing?
Amick: The script did that so well that I didn’t find it as challenging as it could be. I think horror itself is a great genre to use to blend with any other genre. That is what I like about horror, in particular, is the whole point of it is to subvert your expectations to scare you. It is something that you should just do anything with.
I think, sometimes, I pushed the scariest version of the scene, and Andrew Williams, who has children, said, “Too scary, too scary for the kids.” The hardest part of balancing those two was in that last third where we are cutting between Pepe getting married while high on spider grapes and the intensity of Gonzo becoming aged and decrepit. That was all part of the decision-making process was if we cut right now, then we undermine what Gonzo is going through and the horror of seeing yourself skeletal in the mirror, but over here, it would undermine the ridiculousness of the ghost grooms objecting to the wedding. It’s hard, but in this case, we had a strong foundation to build off from.
NFS: Do you have advice for aspiring editors and filmmakers?
Amick: I think the best advice for any creative mind is to create. Don’t wait for someone to give you a project to call yourself an editor. You have a better camera than I ever had on your phone. Just go out and shoot something and cut it together. Don’t spend a lot of money, don’t call in a lot of favors, just start creating art, and create art that you want to see. Don’t create things you think other people will want to watch because then you lose the point of creating in the first place. The more you do the things you like, the better you’ll get at it.
Specifically for editing and anyone who wants to write for the screen is to write. Practicing writing... something with narrative that you can really understand the story. When you have 10 takes per ghost and they are all ad-libbing, you need a really strong sense of where your story is and how you need to tell your story in the strongest sense.
If you want to be a strong screenwriter, then you need to know how to edit, because you need to know how your words are interpreted after going through so many filters. I think a lot of the best scripts that I read have a visual language even if they are not calling out shots, but you can see that they’ve thought about how a director will use this, how an actor will move through space, how an editor will interpret this and their transitions between scenes flow—you can see how this all comes together. Then, just do it, go for it.
NFS: Thank you so much for your time. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you would like to add?
Amick: It is just a fun thing that everybody who worked on [Muppets Haunted Mansion] is a fan. Everybody who watches it and views it is very passionate about it. Everybody on the inside is equally passionate about it. From Kirk Thatcher to myself to... I mean, everybody is a fan of the Muppets. I had this amazing moment where we were in the sound mix towards the end of the project when everyone was very tired.
Sometimes you can lose the glamour of working in movies, and we were working on the scene with the two hench monsters, the mummy and the skeleton, and I made a comment that they reminded me of the characters, Dead Tom and Old Tom, from Muppets Treasure Island, and they said, “Oh, these are actually the same puppets.”
I said, “Oh my gosh, you know, my favorite joke in all Muppet history is about Dead Tom being dead.”
But I am sitting next to Kirk Thatcher and he was like, “I wrote that joke.”
All of the glamour came back, and I was re-energized, and just felt so incredibly lucky to go from the kid reciting that specific joke to now being a part of the Muppets’ first Halloween special. This is all so amazing.
NFS: It’s the relighting of love and passion that makes a creative space flourish.
Amick: Definitely, you have to have that because filmmaking, in any aspect, is so hard to do. Those little moments reignite that passion.