"Dark Crystal" director on working puppet magic: "You have to imagine bringing life to everything"

Salon talks to Lisa Henson and Louis Leterrier about bringing back Jim Henson's "The Dark Crystal" for Netflix

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 30, 2019 7:00PM (EDT)

 (Netflix/Kevin Baker)
(Netflix/Kevin Baker)

In the 37 years since Jim Henson's iconic “The Dark Crystal” debuted, it's become a touchstone for fantasy film fans. Now, a new series is is taking us back to the world of Thra. Debuting on Netflix August 30, “Jim Henson's The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” has been a long time in coming — and it’s been worth the wait.

Set several years before the events of the film, the series is a resonant family fable for a dark age of misinformation, voiced by a cast featuring the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, Mark Hamill, Simon Pegg and Awkwafina.

Salon recently spoke to two of the people who helped bring the series to life — executive producer Lisa Henson, and director Louis Leterrier (“Now You See Me," “Clash of the Titans,“ and the first two “Transporter“ films) about the updated adventure and the enduring power of puppetry.

Watch our conversation here or read the q&a below. 

This series is such a beautiful piece of storytelling. For anyone familiar with the Henson-verse, it hits you in the gut so hard, because it's so faithful to the look and feel of the original film. It’s nostalgic, but it's also so modern and fresh.

Lisa, this world has been part of your life for so, so, so long. Your father began thinking about the original “Dark Crystal” almost ten years before the movie was made. Can you talk a little about what the origins for this unique, special, strange world were?

Lisa Henson: He actually worked for years in just pure R&D, working with the designer, Brian Froud, an illustrator whose work he absolutely loved. He brought Brian to New York and started with the puppet workshop and Brian experimenting with different type of puppetry techniques to translate this illustrated look into design. And he had something so unusual that doesn't exist today, a financial benefactor named Lew Grade, who essentially gave him a blank check for development.

One of the reasons the world of “The Dark Crystal” is so rich and well worked out is because they had years to work on it before they even really worked out the script. The script was one of the last things to fall in place on the original “Dark Crystal.” Now, we're able to fall back on all that world-building.

People talk a lot about world-building now creatively, but to have an exciting fantasy world, you really do have to have a believable and convincing world for it to take place in.

All the techniques that became the main animatronic techniques of the eighties and nineties, all that was really developed for “The Dark Crystal.” That animatronics workshop was the first of its kind. Everything that we needed today to make the show was done in that blue sky period.

It's a groundbreaking film in so many ways, and then this becomes another groundbreaking achievement. All of that work certainly had an impression on you, Louis. This is your origin story.

Louis Leterrier: It's a movie, and it's a relationship that a lot of people have with the movie. We all saw this movie not expecting to see something that immense and beautiful and quite jarring. It was so scary in a sense, that it hit and struck me in a place that completely re-wired my artistic and storytelling ability.

Everybody is a storyteller. We are born storytellers. But this film, there were  no actors, but it was clearly tactile. It was not a cartoon. When I was young, there was no CG, but it was either cartoon world building, comic book or movie world building.

"Star Wars" was out, but then this was all puppets, all tactile. You understood it was that, yet you forgot completely that you were watching puppets, and then you entered this world. Frankly, for myself, I never left it.

So what was it like getting the gig and getting to do this? Did you have to lobby?

Henson: No, we love him. He didn't have to lobby hard.

Leterrier: It was a dream. I come from France. I'd done a couple of movies that were successful. I had never done a French movie in France. I was doing almost fake American movies in France, and they were successful, and that opened the doors of great big Hollywood producers.

So, my agent says, "Oh, who do you want to meet, Steven Spielberg, everybody?" I was like, "No, I'd love to meet my childhood hero, or actually, his kids." We had an amazing, what you call in Hollywood, general meeting, where you talk about everything and how you grew up and what you fell in love with. Sort of like this conversation.

Then very quickly, I explained to Lisa that I'd done this movie "Clash of Titans.” We talked about Greek mythology, lots of creatures, world-building and textures. I was showing my crew, because every time somebody new was starting on the movie was saying, "Watch ‘The Dark Crystal.’ This is what I'd love to do."

I tell this to Lisa, and Lisa said, "Well, we've been actually trying to do a sequel for a few years. Would you be interested, would you like to maybe partner with us and try to make it a reality?"

I immediately accepted, kicked myself after. I was like, "Oh, no." Because imagine, if I'm the guy who ruins “Dark Crystal.” I was like, ”No, stupid Frenchman. Why did you say yes?" That was nine years ago. We started working on it, kept working very hard.

Like Lisa said, yes, it's a wonderful world, but it starts with an idea, starts with a script, and we started developing the script. Then we kept going, kept going, kept going.

Henson: And then Netflix.

Netflix said that they were interested in doing a ten-part series, and they asked us, could we make the series look like a feature film? That was really the shocking moment. "Are we really going to have the possibility of doing that much ‘Dark Crystal,’ not just the feature film that we had been talking about, but a big premium television show with a huge sweeping story?"

Our executives at Netflix, from Cindy Holland to Ted Biaselli and Carolina Garcia, they're the ones who we can really credit for having made this a possibility. It was a pretty brave move to greenlight this kind of project that nobody's doing anything like anywhere.

You can see the ambition in every minute of it. I was talking to someone this morning about the series. He said, "Oh, I'm sure it's great, but it must be all CGI." And I said, "Oh, no."

It was a really important priority to have this as authentic as possible, even though you are using a lot of modern techniques.  The puppets are all real. You even kept original materials even from the London space, where other things had been sent off to museums, but these peripheral materials…

Henson: We were able to find plans of the sets and props that had been built. Of course, all of our puppets were in archives and able to be referenced. So yeah, archivally, we were able to really support this.

Because you felt that somewhere along the way you would be called again?

Henson: Oh, I've planning it. I’ve been planning for 15 years to do something, either a “Dark Crystal” sequel or a prequel. When we closed our Creature Shop in Camden, in London, we had so much in storage. Everybody was like, "You have to get rid of as much of what's in storage as possible." I said, "Yeah, but not anything from ‘Dark Crystal.’ We're keeping everything." And it's been really, really great that we did.

So the puppets were built based on these originals, and referencing them?

Henson: Some come back, but we have a much, much bigger cast — 75 puppets and so many Gelfling, where there were originally only two. It's key to the whole thing that we brought Brian Froud back, who is our true genetic line to the original ‘Dark Crystal’ film, who designed everything.

Leterrier: Brian Froud is the designer. Wendy Froud, his wife, it's a beautiful love story. They met on the original movie, they fell in love.

Henson: He designed everything, painted it. She sculpted the Gelfling characters.

Leterrier: She made them pretty. He loves scary, and she loves pretty. The two of them are perfect. They made a child. This child is named Toby Froud. Little Toby Froud is the baby from “Labyrinth,” the one that gets thrown around by David Bowie. And Wendy, Brian and Toby worked on our “Dark Crystal” show. It was an incredibly fluid relationship, and everything came through them, and onto the set.

You took some puppetry lessons. Why was that important for you to do?

Leterrier: I had done obviously a lot of movies before, but puppetry is a completely different art. You have an idea of how it’s done, but if you take a deep dive into this world you realize you know nothing.

And then Netflix, we need to give credit to our executives, because executives never see their names anywhere. Without them, there wouldn't be this show, there wouldn't me, because they loved it and understood what needed to happen. Cindy Holland told us, "Why don't you shoot a little test? We know what ‘The Dark Crystal’ will look like, we know Henson's Creature Shop, how amazing their puppets are. We know, Louis, what your movies look like and your dynamic approach to scenes. How do the two work together? Do a little test."

So we were like, "Okay, well, we'll do a couple of shots." "No, build a full puppet, do a full short film."

Henson: A test that would give the full look and feel of the show. That was a big investment and smart to do.

Leterrier: That was an incredibly smart investment. We all learned. Me, I learned the most, but we all learned what needed to be done with this.

Henson: We had some ideas about blending in more CG than we ended up using on the show. We realized that actually wasn't a good idea, and that what would look the best would be all puppets. We went for more puppets onscreen after doing our tests.

And it just has the right texture, ultimately.

Leterrier: It's about textures; it's very much about performance. We realized also, when shooting the show, that we needed to put together an incredible set of puppeteers, a main cast of puppeteers. They are the people that not only bring those characters to life, but everything you see on screen is alive thanks to them, from the plants to the birds to the trees, because we all shot on stage. We shot in a little industrial stage south of London for a year. Nothing was shot outside.

You have to imagine bringing life to everything. That's the job of the puppeteers. That's something that I learned from you, Lisa. When casting, I was like, "Yeah, let's just get the people that are available." She's like, "No, no, no, no. This person is great for this, this person is great for that."

Henson: We found incredible puppeteers who are so subtle, and they have such nuanced abilities. Many of these puppeteers were not the lead puppeteers in other shows. Most of them are not the leads from the Muppets. They have a very special, almost magical ability to bring emotion in the most delicate way to their puppets. Some of the puppeteers were shocked that they even got the leads. They were not expecting it, and suddenly they realized they were going to have ten episodes on their shoulders. But they all came through incredibly. They were intuitive, really special, special performers.

I'm someone who is familiar with this world, who comes into it with not just a knowledge of it, but a feeling, a real emotion for it. You have this very strong fan base who've really been the biggest part of why this movie has endured. It was not a huge hit when it first came out. It has become only bigger and bigger through the years. It has a very strong fan base, and then you have people who have absolutely no idea what the hell this is.

How do you tell a story that allows for both groups to have different experiences but come into it with a sense of, "I understand what's happening"?

Henson: It's really our writers. We have a great writing team, and they came to just this assignment as opposed to having been on the movie that we were developing, or part of The Henson Company. They came from that outside perspective to develop this TV series, and I think they kept in mind, in a really good way, how to develop lead characters that would bring you into the world.

They focused on three lead characters that come from very different backgrounds. The first episode and the second one, we really want people to watch one and two together. Each of those characters is a point of entry for the world, so you don't really have to know everything Gelfling and what they're trying to achieve.

As I was watching it, it's this world that really began back in the '70s. Yet, when you see this story that is about hope, about resistance, about misinformation, about the threat of darkness, about the environment itself, it feels extremely resonant and topical. What is it about this story that feels both classic and yet modern?

Leterrier: The themes were there, 37 years ago. We just expanded on them. It’s the idea of preserving your planet, finding the balance, respecting each other. These were the themes that were close to Jim Henson and Brian Froud's hearts, and then they followed through with and created this movie that almost is the exclamation point at the end of a long sentence. We just had to fill the gaps.

Henson: Also, because we are in a fantasy world, that allows us to be a little big in our metaphors. We really just have to tell an engaging story, and then allow people to find their own metaphors in there. It's world where the Gelfling are threatened by really bad villains. The Skeksis are extraordinary villains, and they [the Gelfling] are becoming aware. A lot of what the show deals with is awareness. When you become aware of what's happening, what should you do?

I think it's a great conversation starter for families who watch the show together. We really think the show is great for family viewing. There are a bit of spooky things for little kids, but if you're watching with parents, this is a good way to process darkness and dark things, because it's not really adult in that sense. It's not too dark.

I really love also that it is about finding the truth. Who is telling the truth, and who is misleading you? That feels a really important thing to teach our kids. Can you rely on what you are being told regardless of who it comes from? It feels really resonant for us as well right now.

Leterrier: The spooky nature of it was important for me to keep and then expand upon a little bit. I'm sure we made it a little scary. But for kids, it's a good thing, because that's when kids ask their parents why, and want to open to them. That's a relationship I've had with fables when I was growing up to scary movies when I was growing up, and books. That's what we want for the families to experience. It's really a show to experience together, to stop and maybe have a conversation. That's the idea.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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