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<i>The Dark Crystal</i> producers on their Netflix prequel: “It ain’t <i>The Happy Crystal</i>”

The Dark Crystal producers on their Netflix prequel: “It ain’t The Happy Crystal

It took nearly 37 years for the land of Thra to return to screens; after a frequently delayed movie sequel to the Jim Henson all-puppet fantasy epic The Dark Crystal was finally abandoned, after a series of novels and comics set the course of events that would lead to the eternal reign of the cruel Skeskis and the near extinction of their Gelfling subjects, The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance debuts on Netflix today, August 30. It wouldn’t have gotten there without a successful pitch from writers Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews, who were teamed with Lost scribe and Middleman creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach to assemble a prequel series that rests on the tiny shoulders of a wrongfully accused soldier, an inquiring noble, and the empathetic outsider who has seen what’s to come of the war between Gelfling and Skeksis. (Also: The Podling Hup. Please don’t forget about Hup.) The A.V. Club spoke to Addiss, Matthews, and Grillo-Marxuach about staying true to the vision of the original film (even its darkest impulses), the surprising discoveries they made during their own journey to the Age Of Resistance, and why it’s easier for a puppet to emote than it is for a puppet to pick up a bar of soap.

The A.V. Club: How much did the actors know about their characters and about the story when they came in to record their vocal parts?

Jeffrey Addiss: We would send them a packet: The scripts, and then we wrote up an “introduction to your character” kind of a thing that included some photos and things like that. Sometimes they were given cuts of episodes, sometimes they weren’t. And it was really hard on them because we had already shot it. So they had to match the tempo of the puppeteers and what was there. Now there’s a lot you can bring to the performance and a lot of nuance and shades and even entirely different interpretations, but they had to ultimately match that rhythm, those mouth flaps. And we spent a lot of time counting mouth flaps to make sure all of our lines would fit in perfectly.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach: One of the things that’s so interesting about The Dark Crystal from the acting point of view is that you’re really looking at composite performances—and the voice cast has been very gracious about pointing this out—built from one or more puppeteers doing their work on stage, the work that The Creature Shops did to create those those puppets—because the aesthetics of the puppets also tell the story of the character—and then we have this incredibly talented voice cast coming in to augment what has already been done and to give it their own spin. These performances were built over the course of years. And one of the reasons why I think the show works so well is that you’re seeing so many talented artists coming together to create just one single character.

JA: It was funny because the voice actors would start to get protective of their puppeteers. They wouldn’t like to hear that their puppeteer also did other characters. And I remember Taron [Egerton, who plays the Gelfling guard Rian] joking, “Neil [Sterenberg] doesn’t need to do any more characters. Neil should just do mine.” They’re very protective of their puppeteers because they’re very protective of these characters and feel very “It takes a village.”

AVC: That spirit of collaboration seems both thematically appropriate to The Dark Crystal and the work of Jim Henson, in general.

JG-M: The Jim Henson ethos is extraordinarily collaborative. And one of the things that we loved about working on The Dark Crystal is that that spirit of collaboration bleeds into every part of it. We were put together as an arranged marriage to write this show—with Jeff and Will having developed the show and me coming in later to help them with some of the managerial stuff in the writers’ room. And we made a great unit. And then you’re talking about everybody else who’s coming into this—some of whom worked on the original including puppeteers, artisans in the costume and Creature Shops, designers—so you’re really talking about a big sort of communal effort. And I think that’s one of the reasons the show is as great as it is.

Will Matthews: What I loved about that process, is it’s also what the characters went through. They were also coming together to solve a problem bigger than themselves. They were also trying to do this thing across different cultures and groups and even across time. They were on the same journey we were. And that was pretty cool.

Illustration for article titled The Dark Crystal producers on their Netflix prequel: “It ain’t The Happy Crystal”
Photo: Kevin Baker (Netflix)

AVC: Much of the film’s reputation is built on how much it scared its fans when they were younger—what sorts of considerations did you make in terms of elaborating on those aspects of the franchise, or introducing your own frightening images, like the peeper beetle?

JG-M: We had two mottos in the writers room. One of them was “no childhood left unscarred.” And the other one was “It ain’t The Happy Crystal.”

We as fans of the original embrace the darkness because that’s part of Jim Henson’s vision. And the one thing to understand about how it was part of Jim Henson’s vision is that it was never done blithely or gratuitously. Those things happened where they happen because that’s where they needed to happen. And when we looked at the same thing—“Should the show be dark or light?”—whenever we went dark with these things, we were thinking about “How does the darkness suit character, story, and plot” rather than, “Hey, the original is dark. So let’s scare some people.” It was very important to us that everything worked toward a cohesive whole. The darkness is part of that. So for us, finding that place where the darkness was motivated was the challenge. We could come up with dark stuff day in and day out, but you just don’t throw it in there in the hopes that it’ll, you know, give somebody some puerile thrill. You do it because it serves the story and character.

AVC: And in terms of building Age Of Resistance from what came before in the franchise, what information and archival materials were you working from?

JA: It’s complicated. There were the YA novels written by J.M. Lee, who was also in the writers’ room. There was an animated version of the show that Netflix had developed that I think Rian came from—we created a lot of the characters, but Rian was sort of inherited. The idea of the clans and the structure—that came from the Henson Company working with J.M. Lee and the people who had worked on the animated show. We had this big garden and we thought it was our job to find the path through that garden. We had access to all of [Brian] Froud’s early designs. Henson Company has an archivist. And so we had an overwhelming amount of information, and then it was about finding our way. But sometimes the fun is the stuff you bring to it.

AVC: Having access to the Froud designs must’ve been a kid-in-the-candy-store-type situation.

JA: It was amazing. But what you quickly find is that ultimately everything serves story. So you have an overwhelming amount of information and art and beautiful things that were created, but if it doesn’t fit for the story that we’re telling, then it doesn’t fit for the story that we’re telling.

JG-M: If our story required something, we were always able to look at that catalogue—of images, of material—and find something. So there were two things: One of them was we have to use our own creativity to generate the story, to flesh out these characters coming at us from the original movie, from the YA books, from the comic books, from some projects that had been developed but not made. And we had this huge background that could serve our needs, but then we also had to make this into a cohesive 10-hour drama. And that was the big challenge.

AVC: Was there a character or a storyline that developed in that process that wound up surprising you?

JA: The long answer is Seladon [the eldest Gelfling princess, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Helena Smee]. She was a character that wasn’t much part of our original pitch—if at all. And [director] Louie [Leterrier] really wanted to investigate the relationship between the sisters, and so she really became the character that you see on screen through the writers’ room and through collaboration.

The fun answer is a moth. We were trying to get from point A to point B in an episode. We were trying to figure out how we get one of our leads from this point to that point. And it was J.M. Lee who threw his hands up and went, “I don’t know, maybe it’s a moth.” He was joking, but it’s a moth in the show because the answer was so weird. And it’s so perfectly Dark Crystal that when you watch the show, it’s an “oona-moth.”

JG-M: One of the things that we took from just the philosophy of Brian Froud and Jim Henson’s original creation was that this is a deeply natural world. You remember how in The Flintstones, there’s always a creature for everything? If Wilma was cutting a piece of cloth, she picked up a little bird and then used the bird beak to cut the cloth. And that was like scissors, right? So with The Dark Crystal, we looked at everything that had been designed, and one of the things you get is that this is a show that was made by people who truly believe in the power of nature. So our answer for a lot of the stuff that we came up with was “There has to be a creature for that.”

Illustration for article titled The Dark Crystal producers on their Netflix prequel: “It ain’t The Happy Crystal”
Photo: Kevin Baker (Netflix)

AVC: Given the success of Game Of Thrones and the Lord Of The Rings movies, do you feel like today’s audience is more primed for a fantasy story like this than the audiences of 1982?

JG-M: Absolutely. We have gone from a world where fantasy or science-fiction movies were not in the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time to a world where every movie in the top 10 highest-grossing films of all time is fantasy or science fiction: The Star Wars saga, Lord Of The Rings, Avatar. A lot of the audience grew up at the same time that I was growing up—they’ve grown up in an environment that is comics- and genre-friendly and genre-rich. So a lot of the tropes are very accessible and the job then becomes to make those tropes new, to make your storytelling different. You know that the challenges have changed from just mere presentation of genre to actually being able to innovate within it. The audience is ready for it, they hunger for it, and they know it better than they ever have before.

JA: You can see a specific example of that in the arc of Deet in the pilot episode. We originally had many more scenes with her that set up her journey. And what we came to realize is you didn’t need it because the audience is steeped in the conventions of fantasy, and her arc at the beginning is very Joseph Campbell. We know those pieces, so you can introduce her very quickly and send her off on this journey in half the scenes that we had originally intended to be in that pilot. And we think you get it, and she’s one of everybody’s favorites. And that’s because of the way that we introduced her, and the combination of Beccy [Henderson, Deet’s puppeteer], and Nathalie [Emmanuel, who voices Deet], and The Creature Shop’s work, and the way Louis shot it. But that first scene with Deet tells you everything you need to know.

AVC: Do you feel like the audience of 2019 is also primed for stories about abuses of power and misinformation like Age Of Resistance?

WM: Sadly, yes. Our hope is that everyone will see themselves, and their own situation, and their own world reflected in this world. Because there are no humans, there’s no character who looks like you, our hope is that means every character kind of looks like you.

JG-M: We live in the world, and the world is reflected back in our work. There was not an attempt to make The Dark Crystal into an allegory for anything that’s going on in the world directly. The story we’re telling is archetypal, and part of this archetype is that abuse of power comes as no surprise. There’s always been a push and pull between power and truth and those who speak truth to power. When this show goes out into the world, one of the cool things about it is that it’s being dubbed into 33 languages right off the bat. Netflix is releasing it everywhere, and because there’s no human beings in it and it’s all puppets, all of the dialogue is going to fit those mouths very well. If you’re watching this in Asia, there’s no reason for you to think that this show wasn’t made for you, and that it might reflect some of your own individual struggles in whatever country you’re watching this from. So it’s not that we decided, “Oh, we need to do an allegory for modern American politics.” It’s we wanted to make a defense for the moral high ground that will be universal. And the way the show’s being released is really supporting that.

JA: Also, aren’t we all sick of looking at people? [Laughs.] Boy, there’s a lot of people in the world, and a lot of terrible people on the news. And part of what I always loved about The Dark Crystal is there’s no people.

AVC: Why watch the news when you can study the craters on a skeksis’ face?

WM: Now with extra snot!

Illustration for article titled The Dark Crystal producers on their Netflix prequel: “It ain’t The Happy Crystal”
Photo: Kevin Baker (Netflix)

AVC: The Collector is a beautifully grotesque addition to the skeksis royal court. 

WM: And Awkwafina killed it. Oh my God, the colors she brought to that character. Because that character could easily be one note, and Awkwafina came in and was like, “Oh, I’ll take it from here.”

JA: “Hold my beer.”

AVC: What’s it like to write something knowing that it’s going to be portrayed onscreen entirely by puppets? What considerations did you have to make when you’re plotting out a scene that has to be conveyed through so many additional layers: The Creature Shop, the puppets on the sound stage, the actors in the recording booth?

JA: You have to make sure that your arcs are clear and your intentions are pure. One of the things that we didn’t know was how many different subtleties a puppet could communicate. The answer is “More than we thought,” but can you end a scene on a look? Turns out you can, but we were rolling some dice there.

We believed in the shop. We believed in the puppeteers. Wwe didn’t hold back. What we learned once we were farther into production was ways of making it easier on the production. But that was mainly in terms of picking up objects, or transferring objects hand to hand. Everything’s a race. Everything has to be specially done. If a character walks into a room, picks something up, turns around, another character walks in, they hand that object to the other character, and that other character walks out—you’re talking about three different setups of floors, four different setups of puppet, and that takes time. So do you need to do that?

JG-M: It is easier for a puppet to appear sad than it is for a puppet to pick up a bar of soap.

JA: So it’s not about “Can we do it?” It becomes about managing the time.

Fire was something that people were a little nervous about, because it’s fire and puppets. And it turned out that some of our favorite scenes are puppets sitting around a fire. So there was all kinds of things that we learned along the way. And luckily you’re doing it with The Jim Henson Company. They’ve got a pretty good handle on it.

And everyone is trying to solve problems together. We had a problem with torches. We needed the puppets to carry some torches to explore a dark tunnel. And open flame around puppets can get a little dicey, but we needed them to go down that dark tunnel and they don’t have flashlights. So what are we going to do? Well then the design team comes in and says, “When you say torches, what if it’s not an open flame? What if it’s this kind of glass and encasing this kind of creature?” And so everyone is rowing in the same directions and it just so happens that everyone is the best at what they do because everyone wanted to work on this project.

JG-M: The Creature Shop had been working on the show for, straight up, a year and a half. Then we opened the writers’ room—and Netflix had not announced that the show even existed. So it was one of the things that we were competing with all of these feature films and things like that for talent, for design work and all that. And The Creature Shop kept saying, “We can’t wait for the show to be announced,” because when the show was announced, and it was clear that it was The Dark Crystal, people came out of the woodwork to work on it. Talented designers, sculptors, artisans, because everybody grew up with this and so many people who are creative now saw this film as a beacon. It was a film that said, “Your tribe is out there. There’s creative, wonderful people out there who want to do the kind of work you do.”

AVC: So how does that level and length of pre-production factor into the potential for future seasons?

JA: We know how it ends. We pitched the ending in the beginning, in the first day. And now it’s about the journey, and the fun of it is figuring it out as a team. We know where they’re going. We don’t always know how they’re going to get there, but we’re looking forward to figuring that out if we’re given the opportunity to keep going. So that’s why we’re here talking about it: We hope we get to tell those stories. But you know, in the words of Aughra, “beginning, end—all the same.” Which, when you think about it, makes no sense.

AVC: A follow-up to the original film was in and out of development for decades. How does it feel to have brought Age Of Resistance across the finish line?

WM: It feels like the best way I know—oh my god, I’m going to cry—to say “thank you” to Jim Henson. I can take a bunch of pieces spread out on a table and build the story. There were a lot of pieces when we came in—people have been working on this, lovingly, for many years—and this is what I can do.

AVC: Now I’m choking up.

WM: [Laughs.] Let’s get back to the peeper beetle!

Managing editor, The A.V. Club