Brian Henson On Acting With Puppets And The Staying Power Of LABYRINTH

Just in time for the film’s 30th anniversary.

I had the honor of talking about Labyrinth with Brian Henson at this year’s Dragon Con in Atlanta, Georgia. The film is about to get a new Blu-ray and DVD with a big 4K transfer (to be released September 20) along with a return to theaters via Fathom Events September 11 (that's tomorrow!) and September 14. I’ll have a deeper report of all the crazy Labyrinth stuff I got to see at the convention in the next couple weeks.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Labyrinth, and the film remains remarkably popular. To what do you credit the film’s impressive staying power?

Well, it’s timeless for one thing, other than a brief scene in the beginning and at the end of the movie. The only thing that really dates it is the way Sarah’s parents are dressed. So in that sense it’s very much a timeless movie.

The themes are very universal. It’s a coming of age story. All kids go through puberty, and it’s uncomfortable and weird for everyone in a similar way no matter what era you’re talking about.

And then there’s the fantasy of the glam rock star. That sort of shifts around, but I think Brian Froud and my dad did a very good job of saying “let’s make a fantasy glam rock star, but let’s make sure there’s enough fantasy”. Had they put David Bowie in the movie playing one of his real looks it would have dated the film. Instead he’s sort of like a weird… he’s a goblin king but he’s also a glam rock star done in such a way that it doesn’t really date itself.

The artistic commitment to make the movie and all that’s going on with the art direction, creatures, and puppets and costuming is very inspirational and always will be. You watch the movie and you’re just inspired by what you’re seeing and that you know all of that was really created. And that’s very seductive. It’s a reality so different from our own, but I believe it. My eyes can see that I can actually walk around in there, which is sometimes not true with even some of the greats. Alice in Wonderland, the first one, it’s beautifully realized, and I really love the film. I don’t quite believe that I can walk around in that reality. My eye is telling me there’s enough here that’s been cheated, that even physics aren’t being adhered to.

Almost like a cartoon.

It’s almost like a cartoon. You know that it’s not real enough that you can go into it. Whereas with Labyrinth or The Dark Crystal, you know that’s a real space. I could really be in there.

When you’re working on projects that utilize all these puppets, do you think it’s ideal to also utilize human actors or, like The Dark Crystal, not have any humans at all?

I don’t think there’s any right way or wrong way. It is true that we have mostly chosen since Labyrinth to do everything with a formula of mixing people and creatures. My dad went to make the Storyteller series, it was a movie every half hour, so he had the option to do all sorts of things. He definitely chose stories that starred human actors interacting with creatures.

I can tell you in practice it’s easier to do it without the people. Many of the Dark Crystal sets, you couldn’t have stepped out on them. They would have collapsed under your weight. Those were sets that were made knowing there aren’t people walking around, and we can create everything.

It does help to have a human being in the mix to be the audience’s touchstone. Like when you watch Sarah run around in the labyrinth, you’re relating to her experience. You’re watching a person like you in that experience. That allows it to be a little bit more relatable.

I’ve read that David Bowie had trouble acting with the puppets at first. Is it sometimes hard for actors who have no experience working with these creatures to make the necessary adjustments?

Oh, absolutely. Of course it is. Initially it just feels wrong to them. Initially they feel like they’re at some birthday party. But then what happens is, all of them do the same thing where they sort of get it, and it clicks and then they start really enjoying that art form. What makes puppetry work is you’re breathing life and a personality into something that you know is not alive. That is compelling and entertaining. And as actors they sort of have to buy in to that. They know that part of their interacting with the creature is bringing it to life. Once they’re on board with that, then it becomes comfortable.

I don’t know that David had problems. I mean nobody, when they first walk in, knows exactly how to react to these creatures. If you watch birthday party puppet shows, they’re not correctly interacting with the puppets at all, usually. It’s not believable. It’s actually easier than they think. Actors come in thinking they’re meant to do something different because they’re working with creatures. Mostly you tell them, you just interact with them like it’s another person, but they’re small and curmudgeonly and ugly. Go ahead and use all of that, but interact with them like you’re talking to another actor.

One of the reasons we’re here is the new Blu-ray and the 4K transfer. With a movie that has so many practical effects, does that clarity give away some of the magic you guys created?

Yes, and I cleaned some of those up. I decided to. When the resolution means now I’m really seeing a string that’s holding a puppet, I cheated. The same way we’re using modern techniques to allow a 4K version, I decided it would be okay to use modern techniques to cover up a few things.

But for the most part I said no, just respect the movie and let the movie be the movie. I was working with people who wanted to do a lot more, and I kept saying no. Assume you’re doing nothing. You’re just making the film look the best it’s ever looked. Make the colors the best, the contrast, make all that look the best it’s ever looked, and don’t screw with anything. And then I stepped in and said okay, these are the very few spots that we will do a little cleaning up on. But we did very, very little.