Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie in ‘Labyrinth’ (TriStar Pictures c/o Everett Collection)
Thirty years ago this week, the fantasy film Labyrinth brought together the talents of two legendary, gone-too-soon artists: Jim Henson, who conceived and directed the dark comic fairy tale, and David Bowie, who starred as goblin king Jareth and composed the film’s songs. Working alongside them was Jim’s son Brian Henson, who served as the film’s “puppeteer coordinator” and co-performed the dyspeptic goblin Hoggle. Already an accomplished puppeteer and effects artist at age 21 (he figured out how to make the Muppets ride bicycles in The Great Muppet Caper), Brian Henson went on to become a director (The Muppet Christmas Carol) and producer (Farscape, Sid the Science Kid), and now serves as Chairman of the Jim Henson Company. To celebrate the film’s anniversary, Yahoo Movies spoke with Brian Henson about his experience working at the center of Labyrinth.
‘Labyrinth’ director Jim Henson with the goblin character Hoggle, voiced and co-puppeteered by Jim’s son Brian Henson. (TriStar Pictures c/o Everett Collection)
“I was responsible for how to get the characters to do what they needed to do in their scenes,” Henson, now 52, tells Yahoo Movies. This simple description belies an unusually demanding job. Labyrinth, a dark, comic fantasy about a teenage girl named Sarah (Jennifer Connolly) who journeys through a mythical maze to save her brother from a goblin king (Bowie), is populated with dozens of custom-made puppet characters. Brian Henson hired 40 puppeteers and trained them for months before production began. At the same time, he was working with the creature makers and effects artists at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to assure that their puppets — from the 8-foot-tall Ludo to the finger-sized Worm — would function as intended on film. (Remember: This was before everything could be “fixed” with computers in post-production.)
Watch Brian Henson demonstrate the complex puppetry behind Hoggle in this clip from the 1986 documentary ‘Inside the Labyrinth:’
On top of all that, Brian Henson provided the voice and mouth movements for Hoggle, the goblin who reluctantly guides Sarah. Hoggle was the most technically complex puppet ever committed to film at the time, requiring five puppeteers to work in sync: one inside the costume (little person Shari Weiser) and four to manipulate the animatronic face via radio controls. Originally, a sixth person was hired to perform Hoggle’s voice, but when syncing up the voice actor with the puppeteers proved impossible, Jim Henson delegated the job to Brian.
“I was 21 and I was trying to perform a grumpy old man who regrets everything who’s ever done in his life, so it was really kind of a stretch for me,” Henson admits. That was okay, though, because Jim Henson intended to replace Brian’s Hoggle voice with his own in post-production. “Which was perfectly fine with me! Because I was doing the worst [English] accent,” Brian recalls with a laugh. After filming, Jim Henson (who voiced Kermit the Frog and Ernie, among other Muppets) made several attempts to record a new voice, but decided that none were as good as Brian’s. “I went in and [re-recorded] a lot of it because my soundtrack was full of mechanical sounds from the puppet,” says Henson. “So coming out the other end, it was fantastic for me. I was much more expanded as an actor, as a performer.”
Of all his Labyrinth memories, Brian’s most vivid is a laughter-filled afternoon shooting a simple scene between Hoggle and Bowie’s character Jareth. Of course, in this case, “simple” is a relative term: Hoggle’s five puppeteers were present, and the juggler Michael Moschen was hiding behind Bowie to perform Jareth’s right arm (which manipulates crystal balls in gravity-defying ways throughout the film). In the scene in question, the goblin king tosses Hoggle a crystal ball, which transforms into a peach when Hoggle catches it. (Watch the finished scene below.) “It was take after take where, up would come the crystal ball, he’d try to roll it on his hand, and it would fall out of shot,” Brian says, cracking up at the memory. “And David would start laughing, and then Michael would get nervous, and [David would] say, ‘No, it doesn’t matter.'”
Jareth (David Bowie) tosses an enchanted peach to Hoggle (voiced and co-puppeteered by Brian Henson) in a scene from ‘Labyrinth:’
Then came the next shot: Hoggle was supposed to catch the peach and ask, “What is it?,” to which Jareth would reply, “It’s a present.” But “for whatever reason, it always tickled David — it’s obviously a peach!” says Brian. “So Jareth would throw it to Hoggle, and Hoggle would say, ‘What is it?,’ and David would be off camera and say, ‘Well, it’s a peach for chrissakes!’ And it would make me laugh and laugh. But then we couldn’t get through a take! It was killing my dad. And poor Shari, who was inside Hoggle, was like, ‘You guys, would you stop? I’m trying to catch this stupid peach!’”
Brian Henson, Chairman of the Jim Henson Company (Getty Images)
Throughout shooting, Bowie — who took the job on Labyrinth because he wanted to work with Jim Henson — bonded with the director. “I think my father didn’t know what to expect necessarily with David,” says Brian. “But Dad really took to David very quickly and vice versa. They both have really naughty senses of humor, and they both love to laugh and they love to get people laughing. I think honestly, to my dad, that was always the best character trait.”
But it was Bowie’s work ethic that really blew Jim Henson away. In addition to his performance, which involved learning choreography, working one-handed with juggler Moschen, and enduring multiple takes with complicated puppets, the musician composed five original songs. Brian was in the room the first time Bowie played his demo tracks. “My dad was expecting what you’d usually get from the songwriter demo tracks: a piano with just a voice track over the top. And David came in with fully finished tracks, with the Harlem choir singing the backup. And he had done it so fast!” says Brian.
In the larger scheme of things, Brian remembers Labyrinth as the first time he felt like he was working alongside Jim Henson as a peer. “Whenever I would do the Muppet effects sequences, I was a kid on a school break. But by the time we made Labyrinth, I had just made Return to Oz and Santa Claus: The Movie. I already knew half the crew, and many of them had no idea I was even Jim’s son. It created a sort of relaxed and professional relationship where my dad and I could totally be father and son and have all of that, but he didn’t have to protect me.“
And he’s pretty sure it was terrific for Bowie, as well. “I think David saw it as, ‘Oh, this is great, now I’m making a movie, I get to kind of slow down. Because he was a fast-moving guy, David,” Brian says. “For him, it was like a little bit of a break.”
Watch a home-video ‘Labyrinth’ trailer: