Brian Henson interview: The Happytime Murders, puppets, Muppets and Farscape

Brian Henson chats about his new movie, rude puppets, the future of Labyrinth and Farscape, plus a dab of Muppet Christmas Carol…

It’s often overlooked that Brian Henson was in his 20s when he made his movie directorial debut, The Muppet Christmas Carol. His father died in 1990, and he took on the running of The Jim Henson Company, and put together one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time. He went on to direct Muppet Treasure Island too, before taking his work off in all sorts of different directions.

Now, he’s back on the big screen with his new feature, the very rude The Happytime Murders. And he spared some time for a chat about it…

Greetings from the UK, that I gather was your second home at one point.

It was my first home for a long time!

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I’m conscious you did a lot of work here. The weather’s got really hot.

I was there for the two really hot summers though! What was it, 2006, 2007?

I think so! I’ve been reading about a mantra of your dad’s, about how he had a philosophy of don’t repeat yourself, innovate. And I’ve been following the story of this film for a long time. I’ve been following The Happytime Murders for a while, and it lands now in the middle of a year where 27 of the 31 weeks at the top of the US box office this year have been sequels or franchises. Even the trailer for this film though looks so distinct from everything that’s out there at the moment.

How does that feel, though, launching into the middle of that market?

Believe it or not, it’s been even harder than I thought it was going to be. I’ve been working on trying to get this made for about 12 years. I’ve had a good, shootable script for at least seven years. But it has been so hard to set up, because it’s so original.

Here’s the weird thing, and I’m going to say this: I literally set out to develop something really commercial, that I thought the studios would get instantly, and understand that it would be a commercial success instantly. And even with that, it was this hard to get it together.

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It’s been really hard! In the end it’s taken the old fashioned thing of finding a studio where the head guy – in this case Adam Fogelson at STX – saw my improv show, Puppet Up uncensored. He saw that and he loved it. He read the script to this and he loved it. But with a film like this, the modellers can’t model it. They always send the script off to the modelling department, who come back and say this movie is similar to these five movies, two of which were successes, two of which were were failures, one was in the middle. And then the model says you can spend this much money spending the movie, and that’s how much money you’ll make.

The problem with original films is they can’t do that. Because they can’t do that, the only way you can ever make a film like that is if the head of a studio goes ‘I don’t care if we can’t model it, I’m going to risk my career and say make it’. That’s what happened!

Where does your own company fit in, though, before STX got involved? How much of a movie like this do you need to have found before you get to the movie set, for instance? Because it seems to me, with your Henson Alternative firm, you’re back in the ethos of a small family company? Also, you’re coming off the back of a decade of theatre improv. How does that co-exist with a movie you need to plan? Does anything clash?

Well, I think what people are concerned will clash is that The Jim Henson Company is very well known for producing children’s television and family entertainment. And I’ve always pushed it a little bit.

Farscape was my series. That was probably the most adult thing that the company had done. And then when I started doing the improv show, I was just trying to find how to make puppets even funnier than anything we’d done before. I was trying to sharpen up the comedy, and then what I learned in front of live audiences was that they really delighted in the adult toned content. And that’s what pointed me towards making this movie. I think it works great. I think our company, we are an irreverent lot. We always have been. We’re a little bit subversive. We always have been.

But we created the label of Henson Alternative specifically so we could do stuff that was inappropriate for children, because the content was adult in nature. A lot of people would say that’s a very dangerous thing for a family company to do. But I think we’re kind of unique in that people expect us to be a little bit irreverent. And a little bit subversive. As long as people don’t accidentally bring their children…

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With Farscape we didn’t do that. With Farscape, it’s edging towards pretty darn adult. I didn’t want to do that as a movie. I wanted to make it clear that it’s not for kids with this one. It’s a hard-R rating. It’s clearly for adults.

I appreciate you’ve done a lot of directing over the course of your career. But you’re back on a movie set here. Your feature directing debut, you were in your 20s, in extraordinary circumstances following the loss of your father, and so much goodwill behind you. Now, you return to a movie set 20 or so years later. How, then, does goodwill measure up against a couple of decades of experience? How has it been different for you?

Hmmm. Hmmm. That’s a really interesting question. The truth is that I don’t feel the huge difference between a theatrical film and other things that I’ve done. Other people feel that more than I do. When I was doing Sid The Science Kid, with our digital puppetry system, which was just a new way of making television, to me that was very exciting. Completely different from this. Or when I made my Jack & The Beanstalk TV mini-series, for me it was the same as making a three hour movie. I think other people think I turned away from making theatrical release movies, and then decided to come back. It really wasn’t that carefully considered! It’s more that I wanted to make something exclusively adult, and I didn’t really know how to do that in television.

That’s really what pointed me towards let’s do a feature film. Then we can make it exclusively adult. We can make it hard R. That will protect it into its post-theatrical life.

You said that the script has been ready for years. There wasn’t a case here of a Clint Eastwood/Unforgiven moment was there? That the screenplay was in place, but you weren’t ready for it at that point? Or was it just trying to push the boulder uphill to get a yes?

I think it was that [boulder]. But it was also we needed the right cast. When Melissa McCarthy decided she wanted to do it, that’s what enabled us to go into pre-production.

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I was ready to make it. I wanted to make it at that time. It was really more of the sales effort. When I say that the script was ready, we did still do a lot of work on it. Melissa did some writing. In the last two and a half years, there’s been quite a lot of writing towards when the movie was ready to be made.

I talked to Nick Park earlier this year, and he talked about creating Early Man after years of Wallace & Gromit. One of the things he particularly enjoyed with that film was creating a brand new character set and a brand new world, rather than building on pre-existing characters and worlds. Can you relate to that? Has making something new been of appeal?

Well, sure. I think using a lot of the techniques from our science fiction and stuff like that, and applying it to puppets… I call these guys the Henson Miscreants. They’re pretty basic. They’re as basic as puppets or Muppets ever get. They don’t have eye mechanisms, they’re not terribly expressive. They’re very puppety puppets. And I really enjoyed the idea of taking very simple puppets, and having them do quite extraordinary things that you haven’t seen puppets do. Using all the techniques that we’ve learned in how to accomplish that. I did find that exciting.

Creating new characters…. I did really appreciate it, but for me, that part of it was hard. I was really happy with the way that came out. But because I have a television series background as well, I prefer developing characters in a TV series. Because then you can develop 50 characters, and the five that everyone loves continue and become the stars. Then you can make a movie off the TV series, because you know who the most popular characters are. Whereas if you write a script and you need these brand new characters in leading roles? You’re hoping you got it right! But I am really happy. These characters are all new, but the lead character appears to be working really well.

Have you built in the flexibility with the new characters that you can continue their adventures in any medium you like? Is that in your mind?

Potentially, potentially. It depends. I think that this character group, and The Happytime Murders in general, are pretty glued to an R-rating. I think that has to be true. Yes, if we went into a virtual environment or something like that, sure. Could we do comic books? Of course we could. I think probably most of the ideas I develop, because it’s the way we work, is it could work in all media. But this one will always be tied to an adult audience. That’s what I would apply to it.

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I know you’ve covered this a few months ago, but I have to ask. Do you have any progress on more Farscape or Labyrinth adventures?

I’m sure you’ve heard that I’ve been trying really hard with Farscape. And I’m going to keep trying. It’s just not quite right yet still.

Is there a particular roadblock with Farscape that the fanbase of that show could help you unblock?

No, you know what. No. It really isn’t. It’s one of those instances where it’s us, the creators, who need to keep working on it. And feeling no: that didn’t work that time. No, it’s still not quite working. It’s really down to us.

With Labyrinth, we’re exploring a couple of different directions. But nothing is at the point of scripting or pre-production at this point.

I’m sure this happens all around the world, but every year, I host a screening of The Muppet Christmas Carol. I go through the rigmarole of printing out the lyrics so people can sing along, but it’s a folly, as everyone knows them backwards already.

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I wonder, though: do you have any idea what you did? Do you ever get a chance to appreciate that you put a film that’s very special to a lot of people into the world, that’s still being seen in cinemas more than 25 years later? It’s such a piece of loveliness you put into the world.

That’s a very sweet thing to say, and I don’t really stop enough and think about it. It is lovely how popular and lasting that film is. Particularly in Britain.

Once you’ve got The Happytime Murders out into the world, do you have plans on what you want to do next? Or do you want to see what bubbles to the top?

Right now, I’m just going to wait to see what bubbles!

And with regards The Happytime Murders, what do you want audiences to take away? I’ve seen the trailer alongside pretty conventional blockbuster movies a few times the last few weeks, and I love that it gets such a different reaction. People actually stop talking to watch it!

I don’t know! I think it’s just an opportunity to delight at the outrageousness of what the film is doing. It’s telling a good story, but it’s outrageous at times. It’s so wrong that it’s right, that sort of thing. And at a time when everyone is so sensitive about everything right now, I think it’s nice to have something that’s so wrong it’s right. It’s an opportunity to laugh, and remember that we’re all taking it too seriously!

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Brian Henson, thank you very much.

The Happytime Murders is in UK cinemas from August 27th.