Moviefone recently had the pleasure of speaking with Jim Henson’s son, Chairman of The Jim Henson Company and the voice of Hoggle, Brian Henson. He talked about his work on ‘Labyrinth,’ developing the project, why his father wanted to make the movie, casting David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly, voicing Hoggle, the legacy of the film and the long-rumored sequel.
Moviefone: To begin with, can you talk about the development of this movie, why your father was so passionate about making it, and the themes that he was excited to explore?
Brian Henson: I was largely in school. My job was training puppeteers, being the puppeteer captain, directing background action and performing Hoggle, so development I was aware of, but not intimately involved in. But I certainly know that he did ‘The Dark Crystal’ and although people love the movie and critics love the movie, there was generally a feeling of, “We kind of missed that Henson irreverence. We kind of missed having guest stars and celebrity mixed in. We kind of missed the music and we kind of missed some of the comedy.” So, my dad was trying to find the right project that was still fantasy because he loved what he was doing in ‘Dark Crystal,’ but a world and a story that could bring back in music, comedy and irreverence as well as all that stuff. So that was his thinking. Then the whole thing with a baby and losing a baby, I know that in the movie he does credit Maurice Sendak as one of his main inspirations for the movie, and you saw a lot of that in Maurice Sendak’s work. It was in his illustrated novels. There was a lot of babies in precarious situations, completely ignorant of the danger that they were in, and that tickled my dad. I mean, it’s a dark sense of humor, but there was a lot of that. Then my dad had three daughters and was very aware of that point in time, and I think that was very intriguing to him. I mean, the coming of age of a boy story we’ve seen done many times, but it’s a very different journey to a girl becoming a woman, and all the dangers that comes with that. I think that intrigued him a lot as a parent. Then the other thing is I’m sure that with five kids in the family, he must have heard, “That’s not fair,” so many times that I think the theme of, “It’s not fair,” was important to him. Life is not always fair because in ‘Labyrinth,’ Sarah’s constantly going, “It’s not fair. I did the right thing, and this is not fair.” Sometimes things aren’t fair, and you just must know if you’re right and if you’re a good person, then you must just keep trying. You just must keep trying.
MF: Can you talk about casting David Bowie and his contributions to the film’s music?
BH: I think my dad and David, that was a good combination. I know he was considering a few names. I was probably 21 when he was in that casting process. ‘Modern Love’ had only come out a couple of years earlier. I thought David Bowie was the greatest thing on the planet. I thought he was so much more. He was like a demigod to me. I thought he was really something special. So, I was super excited that he was casting David, and I think the two of them got along. I mean, other choices that he was thinking of had a similar work ethic, but David was a workaholic, and a wildly prolific creator just like my dad. So, they were both these wildly prolific artists, and I think that made it very easy for them to work together. I remember when my dad got the first recordings from David. He was used to working with songwriters who were writing songs for movies, where when you got the first recordings it was just a piano and a vocal. That’s usually what you heard but David brought in fully produced tracks with the Harlem choir singing in the background. I remember it was extraordinary. The music was great, but I think my dad would give David just a little bit of guidance, but really let David write the songs. They were his songs.
MF: Can you also talk about the casting of a young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah?
BH: Well, with Jennifer, my dad was casting for the character of Sarah. I mean, they saw a lot of actresses. I was the puppeteer for Sir Didymus for a call back for screen testing a short list. So, I was involved in screen testing probably 10 actresses. My dad was directing, and then ultimately my dad decided on Jennifer. He liked her the most and she did a fantastic job, but it was really a wide casting call. I know there were a few actresses that age that were famous at the time, they were all also interested. So that was Jennifer. She had to get through all the levels of callbacks and screen tests and all that, and just did a wonderful job.
MF: How did you end up playing Hoggle and can you talk about creating the voice for the character?
BH: (My dad) wanted me to try with Hoggle because I was the lead puppeteer, so Shari (Weiser) is inside the costume and she’s doing the body, she’s inside. Then me plus three other puppeteers were doing the face. I was doing the mouth. So, I had to voice it because I was working the mouth. Initially my dad wanted to try it with another actor, a cockney comedic actor, a British actor, who was older, and a very funny guy, to see if I could lip-sync while he was talking. But he had such a quirky timing, and he was so unpredictable, it was just impossible to keep up with him. He’d start talking before I was ready. We tried for only a day, and it was clear to my dad, he was like, “This is never going to happen.” So, he said to me, “I don’t know who the voice will be. It may be that actor, but it might be another actor. I’m just going to leave that. So why don’t you do Hoggle, but I’m going to replace your voice.” Puppeteering is more than a technical skill. Obviously, you’re delivering a performance, an emotional performance, but I never thought it would be me. First, I was terrified of doing a Dick Van Dyke (from ‘Marry Poppins’) and just doing a terrible British accent. I just made it kind of British, but also just kind of weird. I just slipped into this character. Then, because Shari couldn’t see unless the mouth was open, if the mouth wasn’t open, Hoggle would walk into a tree. So, then I had to come up with all these reasons to open the mouth. So, whenever he’s walking, he’s always saying, “Go, get out of the way.” He’s just always grumbling and mumbling to himself, literally as an excuse to keep opening the mouth so that Shari could see where the person was that Hoggle was talking to, or where the tree was that she would trip. That’s the way that developed. Then at the end, my dad said, “You know what? Your voice has kind of grown on me, so I think we’re just going to keep it.” I was like, “Okay, great.”
MF: Can you talk about the legacy of the movie and why it’s still popular to this day?
BH: I think that the legacy, the film just gets more and more popular. That’s one thing that’s wonderful about it. That’s one of the great things about fantasy in general, because even science fiction can date itself because its often science concepts that then actually have happened, but they didn’t happen anything like what you thought they were going to look like. With fantasy, it never really dates itself. Now, certainly if you look at ‘Labyrinth’ or ‘The Dark Crystal,’ you would say that’s a retro film art form. When we were doing these animatronic characters at the time, I think we genuinely believed that the audience would really believe that they were living creatures. Now, the sophisticated audience today that’s used to seeing sophisticated effects will look at what we were doing in ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘Dark Crystal’ and go, well, they’re puppets. They’re just good puppets. They’re cool puppets, but they’re puppets. The legacy of that is that the audience can really appreciate the artistry, I think. So, when you watch these films, particularly these big fantasy films from the ’80s, the artistry is so clear that as an audience member, you can really appreciate all those creative people, that army of creative people and what they did. Whereas if you watch a big Marvel film, it may have the same size army of artists working, but it’s just kind of hard to see what they were doing. Whereas when you watch these fantasy films from the ’80s, you see the sculpting, the conceptualizing, the painting and the fabric work, and you can really see all the artistry. So that can be very inspiring, I think, to a modern audience.
MF: Finally, what is the status of the long-rumored sequel?
BH: As for a sequel, I’m not allowed to say anything. I can say it’s still active. We are still very invested in it and are very excited about it. But I can’t say anything more about it.
“Where everything seems possible and nothing is what it seems”
1 hr 42 minJun 27th, 1986
What is the Plot of ‘Labyrinth’?
When teen Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) is forced to babysit her half-brother Toby (Toby Froud) she summons Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie) to take him away. When he is kidnapped Sarah is given just thirteen hours to solve a labyrinth and rescue him.
Who is in the Cast of ‘Labyrinth’?
- David Bowie as Jareth
- Jennifer Connelly as Sarah
- Toby Froud as Toby
- Shelley Thompson as Irene
- Christopher Malcolm as Sarah and Toby’s father
- Brian Henson and Shari Weiser as Hoggle