I am going to tell you honestly: I may have had some pretty rad things happen to me in my life, but nothing was radder than learning how to operate a Henson Alternative puppet in front of a room full of people.
Visiting the set of The Happytime Murders was somewhat nerve-wracking for me. I’ve never visited a set, I’m still new enough in the city to get a bit star-struck, and I am terrified of the freeway. But: Brian Henson. The Henson family played a huge role in my upbringing, and lack of experience be damned, I volunteered. The movie itself sounded intriguing: in a world where humans and puppets co-exist, the cast of a once-beloved variety show is being picked off one by one, and two former partners (Edwards, played by Melissa McCarthy, and Phil, a puppet played by Bill Barretta) team up to solve the crimes. A gritty film noir with puppets, but not— let’s stress it, NOT a Muppet movie. R-rated puppet movies have been done before, but not by the Henson team, and it’s damned interesting.
This press day was the first that allowed guests on the set of The Happytime Murders, 40 days or so into filming.The STX lot in Santa Clarita, where most of the film was being shot, also served as a temporary workshop (Henson’s Creature Shop is located in Burbank). Here, 125 puppets were being used for the film, 40 of which were created specifically for the movie (the rest were mostly background characters used for Miskreant Puppets/ Henson Alternative, the arm of the Henson branch geared towards adult humor). One will recall, of course, that Jim Henson’s roots with the Muppets were not kid oriented; he started in the late night circuit for an adult audience. Thus, The Happytime Murders places the puppets back at their roots, or, at least, not far from them.
And as we made way to the most magical of rooms, the puppet workshop—like a high school art room, but way cooler—we were reminded of those roots. Puppets lined the walls to the ceiling; more were heaped in a pile on the table in the middle. An aging stripper puppet with sagging breasts sat, inanimate, with a cigarette in her hand (more on her in a bit).In this room a team of eight puppeteers found their home.
There is something to be said about puppets when they are not being manipulated: they are unnerving, the way a collection of clown statues or porcelain dolls would be. They seem seconds away from speaking to you. I am so used to watching them come alive on the screen that I eyed the anthropomorphic hamburgers a bit nervously. This place was almost like a triage. Puppets were being worked on as we stood there; daily, the puppeteers would reconfigure existing characters to create new ones.
As Brian Henson, and his father before him, are known to do, the effects of full body puppetry are being pushed and pushed constantly in the area of film techniques. Henson puppets are of course the top tier in puppetry— there is most likely no one more skilled or knowledgeable. Where once Kermit riding his red bicycle was a feat of genius, the puppeteers now are faced with the intricacies of pole dancing and smoking cigarettes. The evolution of puppetry is constant: one scene, shot in DTLA, had Phil driving a ’73 Dodge Dart down the street, two puppeteers lying in the car controlling him as a stuntman did the driving. The result: a puppet, driving a car, to the shock of passers-by.
The mechanics of puppetry are not easy. There are six different Phils, each for a specific set of activities. For every shot, there are at least four people rigging. And with every shot, the fun comes with the challenge of showing vs. hiding, using trickery and digital puppetry to create a realistic feel.Back to that stripper puppet:the “magic” of making her smoke is an e-cigarette inside her, rigged to a series of plastic tubing and a water bottle. Not as complicated you would think, but ingenious in its simplicity. The pole dancer? It’s a remote-controlled pole that spins and moves downward, with a remote-controlled puppet clamped onto it. The average amount of puppeteers on set is ten or so, three for each puppet. The strip club scene took 25. I couldn’t help but be a little awestruck with the knowledge of how these puppets come to life; as someone who has no idea how to hook up a television, I am enthralled with the how-tos of it all.
There’s constant rehabbing of each puppet; sometimes, they will have to gut one to make room for remote controls, or remove parts to turn them into whatever each scene calls for. And, something I did not consider: these puppeteers serve as the costume designers as well, fixing an outfit, or a hair that is out of place (I witnessed this while watching one of the final scenes be filmed; a collar on Phil’s jacket just wasn’t right, until it was).
The majority of the background puppets were built in New York, with Phil and other main characters made in the Burbank workshop; of course, Brian had an encyclopedic knowledge of what sort of puppets they already had on hand. In the workshop, we were introduced to a past and present day Goofer (the film flashes back and forth in time), a once respected member of the Happytime Gang, that has now fallen victim to the harshest drug of The Happytime Murder’s world: sugar, which he snorts through a piece of red rope licorice (and to welcome us, the studio laid out red vines and pixie stick powder on small mirrors. I did not partake).
Next, we were sent to a room set up so that we could each test our skills at puppeteering, should we want. Henson puppeteer Alan Trautman guided us through the process, and I, eager to fulfill a lifelong (and admittedly dorky) dream, went first. I chose a bunny puppet in a cute dress, and was immediately disoriented—I was made to look at a monitor to my right while holding the bunny, on my right arm, raised over my head. My left hand was controlling her arms. The trick is to composite the shot in the screen, and as Alan interacted with me using another puppet, I was dazed by having to move around him, opposite as to what I was seeing in the monitor. I was at a loss as to what to say—I do not have a career in improv, anyway. It was a blast to see everyone try their hand (literally) at puppeteering; when Alan said I did well and asked me if I had done it before, part of my heart exploded a little.
On set, watching the scene be filmed, was when everything we had been told by cast and crew came together. It was fairly unanimous that working with puppets, and especially with a Henson crew, was an otherworldly experience, that the puppets become real to the actors, so much so that Melissa McCarthy apologized to Phil—not Bill— when she bumped into him. The sets are raised, with removable floors so that the puppeteers can manipulate their characters. Bill and a second puppeteer donned a greenscreen suit and Bill kept Phil in character, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. It is easy to see how the actors can forget so quickly that they are working with “inanimate” objects—Bill is so good at his craft that, when he stopped and Phil slumped over, it is almost as if the puppet has died. As McCarthy, who both acts in and produces the movie, said to us, the humans are what make the puppets come alive: “It’s pretty dreamy, and certainly surreal”.
While, again, it is stressed that this is not a Disney owned Muppet movie—Miskreant and Henson Alternative are their own things, separate, and it was impressed upon us to be clear that this is not a movie for children (indeed, we were told that there are sex scenes, complete with silly-string ejaculate), The Happytime Murders does not seem to lack in the magical element of movie making, and I suspect this will be a must- see for anyone interested in dark crime dramas with underlying social messages—and puppets.
The Happytime Murders comes out August 24.