Brian Henson on Labyrinth 35th Anniversary and His Father’s Legacy - VRGyani News and Media

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Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Brian Henson on Labyrinth 35th Anniversary and His Father’s Legacy

While the fantasy adventure film Labyrinth, directed by Jim Henson and starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie, wasn’t a box office success during its initial theatrical release in 1986, it has since developed a level of popularity that has allowed it to endure, all of these years later. The story following a teenaged Sarah (Connelly), who must solve a labyrinth and rescue her baby brother when her wish for him to be taken away is granted by the Goblin King (Bowie), has even been commemorated with a special 35th anniversary 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray that includes rare and never-before-seen material.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, film and television director/writer/producer Brian Henson, who’s also Chairman of the Board of The Jim Henson Company, talked about the film’s gaining popularity over the years, how Labyrinth is like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, what goes into putting together an anniversary home release, carrying on the Henson legacy, what he learned from watching his father direct, their similarities in filmmaking approach, and what he’d go back and change with Labyrinth, now that the technology has evolved. He also talked about officially putting “When Love Is Gone” back into The Muppet Christmas Carol, and why it was out of the film for so long.

Collider: Thank you for talking to me. My childhood memories are filled with Sesame Street, The Muppets, Fraggle Rock, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and all of that stuff. I love all of it, I have the dolls and toys for all of it, and I’m always excited to talk about one of these projects. Every time Labyrinth hits one of these milestones, with it now being its 35th anniversary, are you surprised that it’s a movie people still love, still want to talk about, and that it can show in theaters again because people still want to see it?

BRIAN HENSON: Am I surprised? Now, I’m not surprised. I would say ever since 1993, I’ve not been surprised. The fact that the film was not received well when it was first made is really because it was so different. It wasn’t The Dark Crystal and it wasn’t The Muppets, and it was kind of Dark Crystal-ish, but then it was comedy and it was David Bowie, and I think people just didn’t really understand it. But then, it started doing just extremely well on home video and, over the years, it just gets more and more and more popular because nobody really did another thing like it. It’s like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That was a very unique piece that was not particularly successful when it was first made, but it’s so unique that it just goes on and gets stronger and stronger and stronger. I think Labyrinth is a little bit like that. I would say that the spectacle and the characters are the strength of the movie, and the story is a little bit lower down. That means it’s a really, really rewatchable movie. It’s almost like it gets better when you’re watching it again, when you’re not trying to follow the story quite as much.

There’s also a 35th anniversary edition Blu-ray that came out that includes artwork and photos and footage from the Jim Henson archives. How do you decide what to include in something like that, especially when it’s a film that’s been around for a long time?

HENSON: Well, I don’t really get very involved in making those choices. Nicole Goldman (Executive Vice President of Branding at The Jim Henson Company) and Karen Falk, who looks after our archives, curate that. We’re always holding a little something back, but at this point, we’re probably holding very little back. This time, we did put scenes in from an early cut of the movie, which I wasn’t entirely comfortable doing. My dad had done a preview cut of the film to play for an audience, and then the movie did have quite a lot more cutting done to it after that. We pulled some of those early cut versions of the scenes, and it’s really fun watching. I did a little narrative on top, explaining some of the strengths and weaknesses of some of those scenes. There is some stuff where it’s a shame that it got cut out, but you can understand why it would have been cut, just for the pacing of the movie. But there was some really great stuff that got cut from the movie, so it was fun to put those scenes back in. They’re not color corrected or anything. They are that early, overnight work print for a preview audience, but that’s still some pretty cool stuff. And we had some auditions of other actresses for the role of Sarah. There’s all sorts of cool stuff. On that one, we’re including original artwork that hasn’t been released. We’re probably always holding a little bit back, but I don’t know how much we’re holding back anymore.

There are not many families like yours, that get to carry on and develop a family legacy that is so identifiable. What does it mean to you to be a Henson, and to be carrying on and shepherding that legacy? Does it mean something different to you now, then it did early on?

HENSON: Yes, maybe, but not very much different. It’s an interesting legacy, my dad’s legacy. He’s the guy who stopped making The Muppet Show after Season 5, even though it was the most successful show in the world, and nobody would do that. My dad was always like, “Let’s do something different. Let’s always do something original. It’s okay if the audience doesn’t get it, if we have a good reason to do it.” It’s a fun legacy because it’s a legacy about innovation, it’s about character, it’s about doing something good for the world, and it’s about creativity. And then, then of course, that is largely puppet characters, animatronic characters, animated characters, and elements of fantasy, and using fantasy to emphasize creativity and to inspire people to be creative. When you’re in fantasy and animation, you’re also in a parallel world where you can actually make some powerful comments about our society without people taking it directly. They actually can take it in more deeply.

RELATED: Jennifer Connelly on 'Snowpiercer' Season 2 and Why 'Labyrinth' Is Still "Really Special" to Her

It’s a wonderful legacy because it’s unpredictable. If we really continue the Jim Henson legacy really well, it means that we have no idea what we’ll be doing, and we shouldn’t. That’s exciting. Maybe to a degree, in the early days, I was doing a little bit more of, “What would Jim have thought in this moment?,” whereas now, as I’m older, it’s more broadly, “What would Jim have thought?” I realized that he was very excited about original, innovative, creative ideas, and an original, innovative, creative idea that isn’t his and probably wouldn’t have come out of his head was just as valid and just as exciting to him. That allows us to spread our wings a little bit in what we make and not think, “Would Jim have made this?”

What was it like to watch your father as a director? What did you see in his style and approach, as a filmmaker, that most stood out to you?

HENSON: He was very excited about the visual aspect directing, and what was being shot, how the characters looked, what they were doing, and how we were gonna get them to do things. Doing the Shaft of Hands in Labyrinth was an enormously impossible thing to pull off. It really was virtually impossible, and because of that, I think that scene was extremely exciting for him to direct. For my dad, it was much less about getting deep into the mind of the characters and delving deep with the actors, and it was much more the very unusual moments and unusual characters doing scenes that were like nothing that had ever been done. That was always what excited him the most. And he was very detail-oriented, although not as detail-oriented as Frank Oz, who was the most detail-oriented.

Did that affect the way that you approached directing at all, or do you feel like you come from a different place with it?

HENSON: I’m quite similar, in a lot of ways, because I started by being excited about doing the impossible things. That’s what excited me. Early stuff that I did with my dad, when I was 18, included the rats in the kitchen in Muppets take Manhattan because it was a combination of marionettes and they were radio controlled and getting them to run out of the restaurant. One shot took me about a month to prepare, where they run out of the restaurant and it lasts about two and a half seconds. And there was doing the bicycle scene in The Great Muppet Caper, which was very long marionettes from a crane and the crane was driving. I was much more of a special effects guy, at that point when I was very young. I wasn’t a professional. I would be working in and around school. Then, I’d be excited about, “Give me two things to do in the movie that I’ll do really well.” That also made me excited about the Shaft of Hands type of scene, where you do that really impossible scene.

I probably potentially enjoy working directly with actors more than he did. I’m saying this, but on Labyrinth, he and Jennifer were very, very close, and he and David were very, very close. It’s odd. I feel like he was almost just a little uncomfortable telling them what to do, in a weird way. I’m more comfortable about just getting into it with an actor. I won’t list the actors, but I’ve worked with actors who have a reputation as being very difficult and very demanding to work with, and then I have a ball working with them. I like the very demanding ones. I’m like, “Really? You wanna talk about this for 25 minutes? Okay, we can do that.” But we’re similar.

What he taught me was to promise the impossible. Buyers don’t wanna hear that’s what I do, but when I’m selling something, I never really know how to make it. If it’s not very original, I’m not gonna get excited about selling it. When I’m selling a production, we have a plan, but then there are a whole lot of areas that are like, “We have no idea how to do that. It’s never been done. We have no idea how to do it.” I think I got that from my dad. If you surround yourself with really, really talented people, there’s nothing more fun than promising the impossible, and then getting into it with a team of really talented people and finding that there always is a possible way to do it.

There’s been talk for a long time about doing another Labyrinth film. When I spoke to Jennifer Connelly earlier this year, she told me that she’d conversations about being involved with a sequel, but ultimately didn’t know what would happen. Is that something you would like to see happen? Is that still being worked on?

HENSON: I can’t talk about that. Anything around that is a secret.

Is there anything that you wish you could go back and change with Labyrinth? With all of the years that have passed and the way that technology has evolved now, is there anything that you wish could be updated or changed at all?

HENSON: That’s always a weird thing. In those days, we were just transitioning out of it all having to happen for real in front of the camera. Those days were really wonderful and wild. Doing the bicycle scenes for The Great Muppet Caper, it had to be real. Everything that you saw was exactly what was in the movie. Strings and wires had to be perfectly painted, so the camera couldn’t see them. Everything had to be invisible. Nobody does that anymore. Now, everybody just cleans it up in post. Labyrinth had some of the very early crossovers. So, the Firey sequence is a sequence that although it was shot live, it was a visual effects technique. It was very, very early and it didn’t actually work quite right. I’ve done a lot of work with this new 4K and it looks better than it ever has looked, but it was never done correctly. I’m really proud of how good it looks in this new release, but it still doesn’t look perfect. So, I would do that again a different way, and just basically do it on green screen with puppeteers dressed in green, puppeteer removal, and techniques that I’m using a lot now. On The Happytime Murders, I used puppet removal a ton. It’s a really great technique because it brings the puppeteers right up next to the puppets, so that you get a really good performance, as opposed to using rods going through walls and stuff like that. We would have done things a little bit different. The animation of Hoggle would have been more sophisticated and better today. But all of that doesn’t really mean anything because we were doing that for the first time, back then. Hoggle was, by far, the most sophisticated animatronic character ever created and looked great for being the first.

Are you officially putting “When Love Is Gone” back into The Muppet Christmas Carol?

HENSON: Oh, yeah, that’s happening. I thought it had already happened, but it hasn’t happened yet. They found a first-run IP of that scene. What happened was that Disney post-production had lost the negative. We had the long version of the movie, way back then, which we made a video master of for home video, and then we cut the scene for the theatrical release. Disney felt like we should cut it because it was perhaps a little bit slow and romantic for a young audience sitting in a crowded theater. I wasn’t angry with them, but I did say to them, “Can the deal be that after the theatrical release, the film lives on with the scene in?,” and Disney agreed immediately. The problem was that they lost the negative. So, we had that original video release, which was on standard definition video in 1992. That’s not what you can release nowadays, so it’s been unavailable for years, other than that low resolution version. The last high definition Blu-ray of Christmas Carol had an extra, which was that scene, but it was the low resolution video version, cleaned up as much as we could, but it never cleaned up enough to be able to cut it into the movie.

But about a year ago, Disney called me. They’d been searching for years and they were thrilled that they’d found a first-run IP of the scene. They didn’t find the original negative, but they found the first run inter-positive, which is an extremely clean version of the scene, almost as good as the negative, or frankly just as good as the negative, once you put it through color correction and clean up. So, we have reinstated it. It is reinstated in the newest master of Christmas Carol, but we did it too close to Christmas and it didn’t make it in last Christmas. I can’t guarantee it because I’m not Disney, but I’m 90% sure they’ll make a big deal of putting it in for this Christmas. My guess is even though they could have put it in at any point during the year, this year on Disney+, my guess is that they’re gonna hold it and make a thing of it in the fall. My guess is around Thanksgiving, you’ll hear about it and it’ll be in for this Christmas.

Labyrinth is now available on a 35th anniversary edition 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.



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