Brian Henson Talks ‘The Happytime Murders’, Dragon Con, and the Muppets!
During Dragon Con this year, yours truly got to interview Brian Henson. For those that don’t me, you may not be aware of my love and admiration for the Henson family, for those that do know me – you know I’m basically the biggest Muppet fan alive (aside from Jason Segel – who I will let claim the title as 2011’s The Muppets was amazing – and I credit him for bringing Muppets back to the big screen).
Alright, ramblings aside! If you’re a fan of Muppet movies and like something with a bit more adult-themed humor, the recently released Happytime Murders is the film for you. Jim Henson’s son, Brian Henson, directs the film, which tells the story of a string (pun intended) of puppet murders – and a disgraced LAPD detective-turned-private eye puppet takes on the case.
Myself and my ATLas Podcast co-host, Matt Rodriguez had the opportunity to sit down with Brian during 2018’s Dragon Con, and we asked him not only about the film, but also all of the questions we’ve always wanted to ask about working with puppets and Muppets!
Check out the full interview below!
What would you say it was that inspired you to move into this direction, for Happytime Murders?
Brian Henson: I have a stage show called “Puppet Up! Uncensored”, and it’s an improv comedy puppet show that I’ve been doing kind of since 2006. It started that I was just trying to find a new tone of comedy to do with puppets, and it’s a show that’s been organic. It sort of grows and changes over the years. And we still perform. We put it out for a couple weeks a year. But I get to see audiences have real-time interaction with the puppets. And in a safe space where there’s no kids, what do they want? “The safe space with no kids,” sounds ridiculous. And where do they want to go? And they just delight in going in a bluer, more adult direction. And it’s interesting, because it’s still very sophomoric, in terms of the humor, but it allows the adults to go to that place, if they know that it’s a safe space without kids. So, I wanted to do something scripted, something in that vein. But I wanted to use some improv comedy.
So doing “Happytime Murders” and trying to bring in some of that improvisational comedy, but then making it adult, and then … I could have made it as a PG-13 movie quite easily. It’s really language, and then just a couple of sexual moments in the movie that really push it over the top. But it would have been quite easy to rein it back to PG-13. But the problem that I was concerned was that I’m known for being mostly family friendly, and I thought, “If I do PG-13, people are gonna still bring in their young kids. So that isn’t gonna work.” So that’s why I went to very R-rated, and knocking on NC-17, because I wanted to make sure it was going to be distributed as for adults only. So that’s why I went that far that direction.
And it’s kind of like a guilty pleasure. It just is ridiculous to watch puppets behave in this way. It’s kind of delightful for us to do it, and for the audience, it’s like, “Oh, it’s so wrong, it makes me laugh,” kind of thing. So it was just something I wanted to try, coming off of “Puppet Up! Uncensored”.
Were there any scenes in the film that were just too far, too outrageous, that you’re like, “Okay, yeah, even though this is hard-R, we can’t include this in the final film?”
Brian Henson: No, not really. No, not really. Because it wouldn’t have been funny, probably. There are a couple scenes that go kind of further, even than I kind of intended them. The studio loved the sex scene in the office, for instance, so much that it was cut double the length that I intended it to be cut. So it pushed a little further than I had thought. But again, there’s a very stupid, innocent choice in the middle of that scene, which is a puppet ejaculates silly string. And it’s such a stupid idea that it is a scene that goes too far. The sex scene is definitely a scene that goes too far. And if it was a little more biologically accurate or something … If it was gooey-ed liquid, it would have been a hideous scene, and nobody would have liked it.
The pornography store scene, where they’re making a pornographic film, and it’s a cow being milked by an octopus: again, it’s just such a stupid idea in the middle of it, which is an octopus milking a dairy cow, is like a ridiculous, kind of innocent idea. Now, if we had done something that was graphically puppets doing what people do in hardcore pornography films, it wouldn’t have been funny at all. We would have all gone, “Oh, that’s kind of going way too far.” So both of these scenes do go too far, but they do it with a really stupid, simple, not R-rated concept bang in the middle of it.
And then, a lot of the scenes are just … It’s just a lot of language, for the most part, all the way through. I never wanted to do anatomical parts of puppets. Again, it would have been … That’s not even funny, anymore. I don’t know what would be funny about that. And I didn’t want to … I just don’t … I didn’t want to go into the sicko violence direction, cause I just don’t … I’ve never enjoyed it. I’ve never seen any version of it that I enjoy anyway. I don’t like cutting … Instead, what I was doing was, let’s play a dog … Three happy, excited dogs pull apart a puppet like it’s a stuffed toy, and they’re having a ball doing it, and then playing it where everybody is reacting as if it’s a horrible, gruesome, modern, gory scene. That was, again, kind of a simple concept mixed in. But I never would have thought to actually get hard-R in terms of violence in the movie.
Where do you get your inspiration for some of these crazy scenes?
Brian Henson: With “Happytime Murders”, it started as a script from Todd Berger. He wrote the first draft without me. And it was a film noir, it starred Phil Phillips, it was a lot more parody. What I was looking for and bringing to it is again, what is that simple … And I say “stupid” in a good way. What’s the simple, stupid idea that you can mix in here, to justify using puppets, and because it’s puppets, makes it funnier? So, silly string, milking a cow, puppets are terrified of dogs cause dogs excitedly want to rip them apart like stuffed toys. It’s just a funny, stupid idea. When you shoot a puppet with a shotgun, it just blows up into fluff in the air, and the reaction to fluff in the air is as if it’s hideous and gory. So it’s just stringing together those.
There was a lot of others that were in it that didn’t make it into the final cut. Edwards, Melissa’s character, was meant to be fighting the urge to act like a puppet because she was part puppet inside, which I liked, because then it was that stupid, simple idea that she’s starting to want to dance and sing, and is fighting it. But we didn’t end up doing that. And she had an addiction to sugar, which we played a little bit in the film. But it’s looking for those … That’s sort of what delights me, is designing a world where you just changed a few of the rules, because of the world, and that that creates a new dynamic.
With creating new characters and figuring out their personality, what comes first? How does a character’s personality play into the design of the puppet? Or does it … What comes first?
Brian Henson: In movies, it’s different. With “Happytime Murders”, it’s an all original movie, so you don’t have time to do the other way, and the other way is probably our favorite way, which is … If you have a TV series, then you create these scenes where you call them revolving doors, where the unexpected character comes through the door, and now almost anybody can have a go at what that is. So it could be a puppet builder has just created something on their desk and then said, “How about using this?” And then some puppeteer … Or, some puppeteer may have a voice that they know that they wanna try, and they’re looking for a puppet to put it together with. Or, most as often as not would be the writer, who’s writing a character, that then you have to design and build. I love the revolving door of TV series, so that’s really nice. When a puppet has been built just to do one line, to walk into one scene and say one line, everybody loved it so much. But then you write another scene, and then next week another scene, and another scene, and then that character just builds and builds and builds, in success. I think that’s a great way to build a character, create a character.
But with a movie, it has to exist in the script first, because you’re doing the script thing before you start building any puppets. And then, you have to start building to the script. In this case, we also have a bunch of puppets, like 120 puppets, that we use for Puppet Up! — Uncensored, which are a weird mishmash of puppets that we’ve built over the years, that aren’t from known shows or movies. And they all sort of throw … So sometimes we wrote the script, and sometimes we’d be pairing up characters that we already had. But then others, you have to build them, and so then it’s scripted first, and then you have to get designers. We had a slew of designers who were doing designs for all the characters. And then puppet builders start building them. With “Happytime Murders”, it’s not sculpting. Mostly, mostly, it’s not sculpting. Mostly, it’s fabrication, fabric up, fabrication, fabric and foam.
Obviously you’re using puppets, you’re using puppeteers who aren’t gonna onscreen. I know during the credits we see a little bit of that behind the scenes look. But can you talk about what it was like on set and having to film around all this?
Brian Henson: It wasn’t … When you see the behind the scenes at the end, they’re showing specific sequences where lots of puppeteers are in green screen. We didn’t do that all the time. In the old days, with the Muppet movies that I produced and directed, like “Muppet Treasure Island”, “Muppet Christmas Carol”, 95% of the time the camera … You’re seeing what the camera saw, and we hide the puppeteers, and we hide everything. Cause it was very expensive back then, and very rarely would you do a shot where you’re removing a puppeteer. Nowadays you can do it much more often, so puppeteers can … It’s always great to get … If you have the choice of having a puppet standing against a wall, who’s performing, and all the puppeteers are reaching through the wall, which is a very hard way to perform, versus the puppet is standing out in the room, and the puppeteers are just right there in the room working the puppet, but then you’re gonna remove them digitally later, you’ll inevitably get a better puppetry performance out of it. So we use that technique very extensively in the movie, where the puppeteers were there, in front of the camera, and then we removed them digitally.
We also used avatars much more. I’ve never used avatars in a Muppet production. I haven’t done the more recent Muppet productions, but we were using avatars when … So that a puppet could … You could get a shot of the puppet running out of the room. You can’t do that with puppeteer removal, even. It’s too impossible to make a puppet run, so you have to use digital avatars. So we did do some digital work, but mostly a huge amount of composite.
You also play a crab in the film.
Brian Henson: Yeah. That’s a crab that I do in “Puppet Up!”, and so Bill Barretta … I don’t like puppeteering and directing at the same time. I find it virtually impossible. And my dad didn’t like it much, either. That’s why he only directed … Yeah, he only directed one Muppet movie, actually. I mean, he was a very opinionated producer, but he was like, “I’ll be the producer, and I’m gonna perform, or I’ll direct. I don’t really wanna direct and perform at the same time.” And I guess I’m kind of the same way. But Bill Barretta and I love to perform together, and we didn’t get a chance to in this movie unless I did that crab. So then he did the boar, and I did the crab, and we just did this one silly little scene.
For the characters in this film, will you ever use those characters in future films? Is there a potential for a future there for those characters?
A lot of the characters always live, are living in “Puppet Up! Uncensored”, as well, and do other little things. The lead main … The main characters, now they have names. If they’re a main enough character that they now have a name and a personality that’s been assigned to them, then they really kind of have to stay living in that world. So we would do something with them if we did something in television coming out of this world. I do really like this world that we’ve … this dirty, unfriendly, lots of social discomfort between … strife between puppets and people. It’s kind of a nice world to work out of, so I like the idea of doing something else in that world, whether it’s a sequel or a parallel story or some sort of TV thing. I like it. And then they would continue.
What is the prep to get all of the puppets ready for a movie like this? How long does it take you to design and build them?
I think we probably built around 40 new puppets for this, so it was a few months. We had a lot of puppets that we used from “Puppet Up!”, from the stage show. That was basically our archive of puppets that are unassigned. They don’t have personality, names, they’re not … It took a few months. I can’t remember, really, how many. But it’s a few months. You start with designers who just start designing. But on this one, also, there was quite a few puppets I just wanted puppet builders to just build it. Just create it on the desk. Cause sometimes that creates a really, really nice puppet, where the puppet builder is just working it, adjusting it, working it, adjusting it, and letting it be … Having it come out the way that they as the puppet builder see it, as opposed to necessarily coming out of the mind of a graphic designer, a character designer. But you start with the character designers, and then you start building.
The toughest one in “Happytime Murders” was Sandra, for sure. Characters that we always struggle with are good-looking. When they’re meant to be good-looking, it’s almost a no-win situation, because you have a good-looking man or a good-looking woman, and it’s meant to be represented by a humanoid puppet, well, unless it looks more like a human being, you’ll never be able to really communicate that it’s meant to be a good-looking character. So it always has to be kind of not human. So it kind of has to be a little bit ugly, even while it’s beautiful. Like, Miss Piggy is ugly and beautiful. But she’s actually a pig, so she’s actually easier, cause you have a really big gesture right in the middle of the face, this pig snout that you know you can use. And then the rest of it you can make it quite anatomical, make the eyes really beautiful.
But Sandra was tough, cause she’s human. And if you just sculpt a really beautiful woman, then when you try to puppeteer it, it will look like a zombie, cause now it doesn’t move enough. It looks awful. So you have to make it sort of … So Sandra is kind of duck-faced. Her mouth is too big, her forehead is too big. She’s just got a lot of things that are kind of weird and ugly about her, and yet, by the way her eyes … the details of her eyes, the details of her lips, the details of her hair, it is communicating, “I’m a good-looking woman.” But that’s the hardest, because it’s very easy to go wrong. As soon as you try to make something … a man be handsome, or a woman be beautiful, it gets tricky.
Are there a lot of prototypes out there, where you’re having to design and then physically puppet them to make sure everything looks right?
Oh no, we kept checking on them. No, while they’re building, I would keep coming through and checking on them. And some characters were … Phil was rebuilt three or four times. Cause we knew he was an issue right from years and years ago. I’ve been working up a version of Phil for probably five, six years now. Not all the time, but basically, “Let’s try again. Let’s adjust it a little bit, let’s do something a little bit different.”
Looking back on your career, I’m curious, what was the most challenging scene that you had to film? You talked a little bit about the running, you can’t make a Muppet look like it’s running. But is there any other scenes, when you look back, that maybe is easier now because of technology? Or what was the most challenging?
Brian Henson: Everything that was challenging is a little easier now. We pretty close to never use marionette effects anymore, and I used to be, in our company … For a little while, I was the go-to guy if we were gonna do something with marionette effects. Ever since I was 17, and I did the bicycle scene in “Great Muppet Caper”. But if we did that again today, we would be doing something else. We would have the puppeteers riding alongside, wearing green, and matte them out, or something like that. We wouldn’t do cranes with 30-foot strings. It seems crazy, the whole idea. Puppets walking full-figure, puppets running full-figure, these are always the trickiest, and you don’t wanna just default to 3D animation, digital animation, because everybody’s doing that, and it’ll just start not being a puppet anymore.
But I can’t specifically … Mostly it’s walking. Mostly the walking stuff is what … And full-figure, just full-figure stuff is much easier now. Even sitting in chairs was hard. A puppet sitting on a couch is pretty hard. You have to hollow out the couch. You can’t actually reach far enough through a couch to work a puppet, so you have to remove all of the couch structure completely, except for the edge of the cushion, and then figure out how to get a puppeteer inside there, or two or three sometimes. So yeah, that’s … It’s interesting. Now, it means that puppets … Puppets always used to be a little too glued to all the walls, so that you could work them through the walls. Or glued to the floor, sitting on the floor. You would see … Like “Labyrinth”, tons of sequences are goblins leaning against the walls and sitting on the floor, cause you can reach through the floor up through the bottom, and you can reach through the wall through the back or the back of the head. Whereas now, what you do is, “Nope, let’s get them all in the room.” And it looks more natural. Now they can be standing in the room. But it’s a lot of puppeteers that you remove.
I also wanted to ask you about convention culture, and Dragon Con and your experience here. Is there a fan moment that really sticks out to you, that you really remember?
Brian Henson: Not particularly … This is only the second Dragon Con I’ve been to. I came two years ago, and then now. It’s fantastic. The energy is great, from these fans … Actually, all three tracks are really pertinent to my work. Fantasy and science fiction and puppetry, obviously, all. So it’s like the perfect con for me. Mostly, I get probably the most blown away by the contests that we do. We just did a Creature Shop Challenge live, we did Dark Crystal Ball with a costuming contest last night, and two years ago we did Labyrinth Ball. And those are really amazing. What I love is people from completely different fields, who can do really extraordinary film characters and creatures and costumes. And that’s what really blows me away and is really fun to see. One of the winners tonight, I guess she was 19, and she said coming to the con two years ago inspired her, and then she was a winner tonight. So that’s always fun, too. It’s fun to see people just getting inspired to be more creative, particularly in America. I feel like America in general is much less creative than it was when I was a kid in the 70s, in the late 70s. It just feels like it’s not as creative, it’s not as artistic. And it’s kind of not true. It’s there, it just needs to be let out.
What would you say, as far as someone that wants to get started in making puppets? Where is a good place to start?
Brian Henson: The interesting thing is … I mean, there are programs that you can do. University of Connecticut has a good program. But honestly, I think that some of my favorites, they’re usually self-taught. It’s usually people who have taught themselves to make a puppet, and just started making them. Or they got a puppet off the shelf, and they started puppeteering. Nowadays, which is very different from when I was a kid, you can set up a camera, and you can make videos, and you can put them on YouTube and share them. All of that stuff was absolutely impossible when I was a young person. So in that sense, mostly what I would say to people now is just do it. Just give it a shot. Particularly with puppetry. Animatronics, it’s harder to make something that looks realistic. But the winner tonight, the winner of the Creature Shop Challenge, she’s a forensic pathologist from Australia.
You couldn’t get further … Yeah, she performs autopsies. You can’t get further away from creature designing and building. And she’s taught herself everything. She said she does everything, just with off the shelf materials. She doesn’t … She tries to make things look like what she’s seeing, but she doesn’t know anything about the materials that we use in the industry. And the results are really, really stunning. So I just say now to people, “Yeah, just do it.”
Any chance of a status update on the Fraggle Rock movie?
Brian Henson: You know what, Lisa’s been the one, my sister, who’s been working on the whole “Fraggle Rock” thing. So I can’t really comment. I can say that they are not in a close to pre-production mode of any sort.
Happytime Murders is now theaters!