As set visits go, there’s never been one quite like our day spent in Thra, for The Dark Crystal. From the wondrous mind of Jim Henson, anyone over a certain age – and with an unwavering sense of adventure – will have become completely immersed in this world back when the original film was released in 1982. Now, not far off 40 years later, it’s time for us to revisit this magical kingdom, by way of a 10-part Netflix series entitled The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
We set off to a newly-opened studio complex on the outskirts on London, greeted instantly by a vast room full of tiny creations. It was full of animators, there were sketches on the wall, small models adorning the floors, and you had to be careful where you stepped (or what you leant against). The last thing the poor Gelfling’s need is a big human footprint on the Kingdom of Thra (where this prequel series is set). From here we went into the creature workshop, where skilled craftsmen and women were painting, designing and building the characters we eventually grow to love. Just one look at a passing rack as it was wheeled along the group allowed us a glimpse of the whole myriad of creatures that enrich this landscape we’re set to indulge ourselves in once more.
The series works as a prequel to the original film, as we head to the world of Thra where the Skeksis’ still have a tyrannical power over the poor Gelflings. Though at the time we were on set there wasn’t a single cast-member announced, it has since assembled quite the range of vocal talent, with the likes of Mark Hamill, Helena Bonham Carter, Taron Egerton, Alicia Vikander and Sigourney Weaver amongst the illustrious collective, all desperate to get involved in a project that has transcended generations.
We had the pleasure of getting a few moments with executive producer Lisa Henson – who is and of course the daughter of the visionary Jim Henson himself. So, we started by asking, why England?
“There are several reasons for coming to England,” Henson explained. “One is the craftsmanship and technical knowhow of the British film industry in general being what it is, this is the location of choice for most fantasy films, or films that need big special sets that otherworldly or fantastical. To make sets in the classic way, that knowhow is really strong in England and it’s not strong in most other movie cities anymore. We have sets on this show that are like those from the 80s and 90s, you can actually walk on the set and it feels sort of immersive. As with the first film they have to create everything in this world, and one of the things that made the first so rewarding to watch is that all the plants and every piece of furniture, and every little prop had to be made for that film, because it’s not of the Earth, really. We’re following that same tradition, and that means having the very best of production design, set decoration, props. We have amazing feature film crew-members in all those positions. The other reason is that there’s a good base of puppetry talent. It’s something we keep track of, where can you find excellent puppeteers in the whole world. At the Henson Company we know where they all are, and felt comfortable coming to London with the amount of puppeteering talent that is here. We have three from America but the rest of the performing crew is English.”
Amongst those involved is Toby Froud, the son of Brian – who of course was a huge part of the original production, and in many regards the true originator of the material.
“My father took a strong interest in the artistic illustrations of Brian Froud, he saw in those drawings a kind of aesthetic and the possibility of bringing them to life in puppetry. They met and Brian started working in the puppet workshop in New York to do three dimensional versions of his art, so he and Brian worked very closely together in developing The Dark Crystal, and it was developed more fro the visual side than the script side. They worked on the visual development for years, and had a lot of money for development from my father’s patron at the time, who opened his wallet to let Jim realise his great dream of this big fantasy film. So they worked on the visual side almost to the exclusion of having a script, or a story for a long time, and the started working on getting a script. In the years that have gone by we do things differently now. It’s television, we know we have to have a great story, a complex and sophisticated story that will go over ten episodes, so we started with the script. Knowing that the visual basis of the series was going to be the aesthetic of the film we didn’t have to do as much early development, so we focused on the script development with the writers and with Louis. When we had all the stories and we knew what the shape of the series was going to be, then we started building and designing specifically what we needed.”
“It feels so authentic, when we go on these sets it feels like it’s the movie come back to life. There’s more of everything, but it feels so consistent with the original because of Brian’s continued involvement. He designed every character, and every creature, it’s all still by his hand, which is really exciting, and for the fans I think. Their son Toby became a design supervisor on the show, which has given the Frouds great comfort to know that it’s in Toby’s hands, and he’s done an amazing job. The Louis is our big new element, bringing his modern filmmaking magic to The Dark Crystal, and he’s an amazing filmmaker, so dynamic, he’s shooting puppets as they’ve never been shot before, which is very fun and challenging for the puppeteers. Louis promised Netflix that the show would have live-action and dynamism and wouldn’t have the pacing of the original film, and we were really able to execute on that largely because of his filmmaking skill.”
To have those on board who grew up in and around the making of the first movie adds a special touch, ensuring that the series is a steady blend of craft and passion; those who live and breath this world.
“I was a young adult, at University. I was around for a lot of the visual development, the building of the creatures, and to see a lot of the thought-process that my father went through in creating the film,” Henson said.
“My role is the keeper of the franchise. I’ve read all the books that we’ve published, the graphic novels, we’ve extended the world quite a bit through another medium, so coming into this that was all in my head and I could keep track of how the pieces would merge together. But ultimately, this series is not an adaptation of any of the books or the graphic novels. We’ve had a lot of fun these last ten years delving into the world of the Dark Crystal and not just encouraging people to watch the original film but to let artists and writers get creative with that world through the publishing primarily but also the development of the TV series, and we also had a fun, un-produced sequel script. So all that creativity around, new story-lines, prequels, sequels, origin stories, it really got everybody in our company so creatively engaged, even before specifically the writers of this series started working, we’ve been preparing to do something big with The Dark Crystal. We were either going to do a sequel future film, or at one point we were gonna do an animated television show. Interestingly enough, even though it sounds like a terrible idea now to an animated television show, a lot of the creative work that we did for that, ended up in this project, because we were very intrigued at the idea of doing a prequel story and going back in time before the movie.”
One of the newcomers, however, is director Louis Leterrier, and Henson was a keen admirer of the director, whose past credits include The Incredible Hulk and Now You See Me – bringing some cinematic flair to this ambitious 10-part production. And for Henson, she was impressed with how the director worked – and from a physical perspective at that.
“Two of the puppeteers have been going to the gym for months,” she began. “Some of the bigger characters are so taxing they’ve had to have special workouts to strengthen particular muscles. They all have strong shoulders from puppeteering, but they are pushed to their maximum doing this. The only thing that we all laugh about is that it’s very difficult for them to complain because the director wears a steady cam all day long. So with Louis operating that all day long, for 100 days of shooting, they have little to complain about, because he too is doing back-breaking work. He’s able to get a lot of his performers too with this incredible energy that he has.”
Another keen question we had what to ask Henson what ignited this return to Thra, and she admits it was just a small moment in the original film, but one that got their creative juices flowing.
“In the film they go into the ruins of what was once a Gelfling castle, and we always thought that was the most intriguing scene from the point of view of going somewhere with The Dark Crystal, and we were so entranced by the idea of recreating a Gelfling civilisation before it was attacked by the Skeksis. They had a beautiful world in Thra, which is the name of our world, it belonged to the Gelfling. So a lot got taken away from them, but what was it like when it their world? That became our jumping off point,” she continued.
“The themes are a little different from the movie, which was very much about good and evil and the idea that they’re not necessarily as different as you think they are, that they’re two sides of the same coin. That’s not a theme we’re spending as much time on now. There are definitely some relevant themes going on.”
Finally we just wanted to find out more about the legacy that belongs to the Henson’s, and whether she gets protective over anything that comes out branded with her father’s – and her name.
“The Henson name does mean something to the audience, to parents, to people who care about creativity, or doing something good with your entertainment power. We’re so appreciate that people have expectations that are positive. We’re not probably not quite as protective as other families because of the fact we’re still working creatively in the industry, so we don;t necessarily censor our own work, just because it’s Henson. Some families would be more protective because they’re no longer making new things, so they’d want to make sure their name is only associated with the original work. But since my brother and I are both making new projects, we can only be protective to a degree. We’re selective about the types of shows we get on board with, we won’t take our name off of it if we worked on it.”
“My father did have quite a specific way of leading creative groups, and we’ve all learned from that, although it’s hard to duplicate because he had such a particular personality. But we definitely all learned our creative leadership from him. This has intensity, it has some darkness and violence, but it absolutely is a Jim Henson project, as the first one was, which was also a little dark and strange.”
Dark and strange was right – but what she didn’t mention was breathtaking. When we finished our chat and moved onto the set it was hard to believe; it was like Disneyland. It felt like a theme park as we walked around in this Gelfling world, immersed in it completely, as though we too were on Thra. No matter what anyone may make of the material at hand, it’s admirable just how this show is put together, the craft, the ambition and skill, and the meticulous attention to detail. Given we’re dealing with puppets, operated by actual real people (!!!) it means we need a fully built set, and it was striking to see in real life (and something you can get a real flavour for if you head along to ongoing exhibition at the BFI Southbank in London. In fact, even the writers we had the chance to speak to were overwhelmed by how their words had been expanded upon and literally built in real life.
“Because we’re building so much of it, it’s like my idea of old school filmmaking, it’s these big giant sets you can walk in,” writer Jeffrey Addiss said. “You can walk into a Gelfling village, they’ve built that downstairs. So unlike normal movies with green screen, everything is built, everything is made and fabricated and designed, so you are walking through your childhood.”
His writer partner Will Matthews agreed. “It’s the joy of collaboration. As writers we sit down and create the ideas, but then to see them brought to life, but also improved upon. You write, ‘they stand on a balcony’ and then it ends up being the most beautiful balcony you’ve ever seen. They bring such life and nuance. It’s amazing what all of these departments have brought to it.”
And this attention to detail isn’t just aesthetic either, it’s in every aspect. “We created a Podling language for the show, and their counting only goes up to six. We now have full Podling language with dictionary,” Addiss said. Before Matthews added, “Any number more than six is just ‘more than six’.”
We spoke to another of the writers, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and he also had something to say about the sheer joy in seeing this world come – literally – to life.
“I feel like we’re taking part in an old Hammer film, it feels so heightened and fantastical. It’s not just your childhood in that we all loved the Dark Crystal, but also like your childhood in that you grow up watching movies and you always imagine you walk into a movie lot and it’s all just people carrying giant props around, and there’s people with the giant telephone and all that, and we’re literally living that dream now. People carrying these giant turtles from outer space that invaded the planet Thra. This is pretty much how I imagined being a writer in Hollywood would be like,” he said.
“This is a collaboration that goes back in time. We are engaged in a dialogue with material that has been created over the last 30 years by some of the greatest geniuses of cinema. You get the sense that you’re not just working with a very talented team or artists from the present, you get the sense that you’re working on something that is part of a legacy. But the fundamentals of storytelling are no different to if they were on Lost, or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, and we want the audience to know they can come to this show and engage with it the way they would any other television narrative.”
It wasn’t just the writers who were realising their childhood dreams – turns out, a lot of the actors were petty pumped about getting involved in this project too.
“The best of the best in every discipline said, ‘that’s my childhood, I wanna be a part of it’,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “Because of the pull of this creative work that was done 30 years ago, and the affect it’s had on the childhoods of everybody involved here creatively, we are literally looking at a show that is not only being made by true believers, but those at the top of their game. Let me give you an example, the day after the show was announced, Andy Samberg literally called us from out of nowhere and said, ‘hey I’m Andy Samberg and I wanna meet with you guys’. People just kept calling and saying, ‘what can we do?’ because it’s The Dark Crystal, and they love it. That was incredibly gratifying.”
Well, you’ll be pleased to hear they did indeed find a role for Samberg – he plays ‘The Heretic’ in the show. But this is a film that is aimed at absolutely anybody, and for Grillo-Marxuach, this was a hugely important part of the appeal.
“I’m Puerto Rican, English is not my first language. When you grow up in a foreign country, what you se is a lot of television that is made in the United States, and you get a very white lens to the world and you learn to bridge yourself, or see yourself in characters who maybe don’t look exactly like you, or talk like you. It took 40 years for Star Wars to put a Latino character in the centre of a movie, and for me, at the age of 46 that was a huge breakthrough and I literally cried in the theatre. Because we are talking about these characters in The Dark Crystal who represent heightened archetypes, and are being portrayed with the full force of humanity through the puppeteers, because they don’t look like anything in the real world our hope is that anybody watching this, in any country, will see these puppets talking in their language and they will be able to project themselves into this alien world, because it’s a world where, the way the characters behave, really evokes archetypal and pure emotion without any of the strange barriers you get when you know you’re watching something that has been imported into your country,” he finished.
Addiss agreed with his colleague’s assessment, too. “Whoever watches this film around the world can feel like Thra is for them. When there’s no humans on screen you’re connecting to something much more fundamental and in a different way because you’re seeing a whole new world.”
So be sure to watch this, whoever you are, wherever you may be from. Honestly, we saw too many people working too goddam hard for you not to. It was a special day for what truly is a special series.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance launches on Netflix on 30th August. Also, don’t miss Into Thra, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Exhibition – which runs from 23rd August – 6th September at the BFI Southbank.