Ken Kwapis (b. 1957) is a director and television producer working in the industry since the early 1980s. He has directed an episode of Steven Spielberg's Amazing Stories, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (with Blake Lively), and He's Just Not That Into You (with Drew Barrymore and Jennifer Connelly), as well as several episodes of The Office.
In 1985, he directed the first Sesame Street film Follow That Bird. He had just graduated from USC majoring in filmmaking, and had directed some after school specials that caught the attention of some Warner Bros. executives who contacted him about directing the movie. Kwapis cites several films as inspiration for working on Follow That Bird including, Wim Wenders' Kings of the Road, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, and Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest.
Speaking with Babble.com in 2009, Kwapis speaks to the idea of the film being pro-city:
“So many films are about leaving the big city in order to find your inner peace, kind of a rural or more natural setting. Well, this is absolutely the opposite. I think one of the original ideas of the show was to speak directly to inner-city children and to make them feel that the world they’re growing up in is just as vibrant and magical as say the suburbs – or just as homey, I guess is a better way to describe it. At the same time, I don’t want to make it seem like it’s putting down people who live out in the provinces.”
“In casting the brother and the sister on the farm I was just encouraged to not use precocious actors. That was my directive from Children’s Television Workshop: Put in non-actors. They didn’t want the Macaulay Culkins of the world. Part of the ethos of the show is that when they put children on, they didn’t want them to act. And so when you watch children on the show, by and large, they look kind of like children would. They’re just kind of sitting there, maybe even look a little lost.”
When asked about production and budget, and working on a children's film with the likes of Clint Eastwood's composer (Lennie Niehaus), Peter Greenaway’s photographer (Cinematographer Curtis Clark), and David Cronenberg’s production designer (Art Director Carol Spier):
“I remember pleading with an executive at the studio to give me more money so that I could use a crane for a shot. I wanted to have a big spectacular crane shot of Big Bird walking towards the fair ground that the Sleaze Brothers had put up. I wanted a shot establishing the fair ground that had a crane movement in it. And, the executive said to me, “Ken, we could put Big Bird on a Ferris wheel for ninety minutes and it wouldn’t make any difference to the audience.””
On directing the Muppets:
“I said to Jim [Henson] just very bluntly, “I don’t have any idea how to direct a puppet.” And he said all you need to do is talk to the puppeteers like actors. It didn’t even occur to me until I sat there in the office meeting Jim, how simply it works. Well, Kermit is nothing but Jim’s knuckles. And, the weird things was, as an adult, it suddenly put me under a spell. I watched adults on the set just sort of spellbound by the simple, beautiful puppeteering. It was so amazing to see, and I remember always thinking, “God, if these crew guys are so spellbound by these guys, think what children must feel like when they’re in the presence of these creatures.””
“When I worked on the film, by coincidence...I read Bruno Bettleheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment and his general thesis is – and he’s writing about reading, and stories that are told to one another – that each child will imagine what they’re able to tolerate. ... And that’s why [Disney's] Pinocchio is famously difficult for some children. When Pinocchio’s pal on Pleasure Island metamorphoses into a donkey, it is seen as a shadow on the wall, so even they had the good sense to imply the horror and not to show it so directly. It wasn’t like Bird was being punished for anything, and I guess I felt confident that the audience could go to a place where they were upset for Big Bird, but not despairing.”
- Babble.com March 2009
- "Ken Kwapis Interview. The director of Follow That Bird on how to direct muppets. Babble.com's Five Minute Time Out." by Ada Calhoun, Babble.com, March 27, 2009
- 'Follow That Bird' Turns 30: Director on Jim Henson's Feedback, Difficulty Shooting Muppets by Ryan Gajewski, The Hollywood Reporter, August 4, 2015