Brian Henson’s not-for-kids division hits the big time.

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Happytime Murders
Opens August 24

The Happytime Murders has been a long time coming. In development since 2008, the lead human role has gone from Cameron Díaz to Katherine Heigl to Jamie Foxx, finally landing in Melissa McCarthy’s lap.

The Happytime Murders is a noir film at heart: in a world where puppets are real, a detective (McCarthy) and disgraced ex-cop (a grizzled blue puppet) must team up to capture the serial killer offing the cast of an ’80s TV show called “The Happytime Gang”. Tension between humans and puppets runs high, and making the case more difficult.

A Henson Alternative production (“the spice of what The Jim Henson Company makes”, says the chairman), The Happytime Murders is directed by Brian Henson, his first movie in that capacity since Muppets Treasure Island (1996). As a producer though, his credits go on and on and on (Firescape, Dinosaurs, Creature Shop Challenge).

Henson consistently advocated for diversity, even in the context of a bawdy romp: “We all should appreciate each other for our differences, not for our similarities,” he says. “It’s more exciting and leads to a better society.”

I spoke to Brian Henson earlier this week. He is a delight to talk to.

I assume it’s message about diversity is what makes The Happytime Murders relevant today.

Yes… except that I’ve been trying to make it for six years (laughs). It feels as true as ever, probably more now.

Why do you think adult-oriented comedies feel more subversive with puppets?

The thing about puppets is that they’re clearly not alive. Part of the fun is that your eyes tell you immediately they’re not, but your brain says ‘but they have a personality, and I feel that I know them’. In live-action comedies, it feels like it’s really happening in front of the camera somewhere and, when we get raunchy with it, it does feel a little more subversive.

How hard was to strike the right tone?

The tone of the film was developed out of a live improv comedy show — Puppet Up! Uncensored — I’ve been doing for 12 years. I was looking for something that would be more contemporary than The Muppets and, by doing the show every night, I had this great opportunity to gauge what the audience wanted from the puppets in a safe space.

How do you feel puppetry has evolved since you started?

There are different types. In Dark Crystal or Labyrinth, we tried to make the characters look more alive. This particular movie is in the tradition of more basic puppetry. The puppets are made of fabric, ping-pong balls and plastic, and you’re aware of it. It shouldn’t be modernized or become a more perfect illusion, or it’s no longer puppetry.

Speaking of Labyrinth, does the long life it has enjoyed surprise you?

Part of it is that it wasn’t such a huge hit when it first was made. There’s always someone discovering Labyrinth for the first time, while I bet you there’s no audience left to discover Star Wars.

Hoggle, the character you voice in Labyrinth, has so many great lines. Was it by design or did you improvise?

It was mostly scripted. The thing with Hoggle is that he had to be talking or making sounds all the time. We needed an excuse to keep his mouth open, otherwise Shari [Weiser], who was inside Hoggle, would walk into things, like trees. The only way she could see was through the mouth.

In The Happytime Murders, your team built a set for every scene. Was there a particularly challenging sequence from a logistical perspective?

Deliberately, there were plenty. The toughest ones were the raunchiest: There’s a sequence in the pornography store that doubles as a studio for puppet porn, where the murder takes place. The office sex scene required a lot of rigs to work.

Considering all your experience, is there any aspect of the movie-making process that remains a mystery to you?

Like any honest director, before you start shooting, you go “oh my god, I don’t know how to make this movie”. I am not one of those people who can visualize exactly how I’m going to cut a sequence and I kind of wish I was. Maybe that way I would shoot more selectively.

What’s the status of The Dark Crystal prequel?

The Power of the Dark Crystal is shooting right now. It’s going to be a 10-part miniseries for Netflix.

What about the Labyrinth remake?

Not a remake. We’re actively developing several possibilities, but we’re not in pre-production stage for any of them.

I would be remiss if I don’t ask you if you miss The Muppets.

I don’t miss them. I see them all the time.