'The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance' Started As A 'Labyrinth' Sequel Pitch Before It Became "Game Of Thrones With Puppets" [Interview]

Netflix doesn't only bring back TV shows like Full House, Arrested Development, Designated Survivor and Lucifer. They bring back movies, too. Netflix gave the Jim Henson Company a home for The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, a new 10 episode prequel to the 1982 Jim Henson-directed movie.Writers Jeffrey Addiss and Will Matthews pitched the show and produce it alongside Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Louis Leterrier directs the all-new tale of Gelflings, Skeksis and many more creatures in the world of Thra. The Jim Henson Creature shop brings them to life, utilizing the voices of celebrities like Anya Taylor-Joy, Taron Egerton, Caitriona Balfe, Awkwafina, Keegan-Michael Key, Simon Pegg and many more. Addiss, Matthews and Grillo-Marxuach spoke with /Film about the development of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, who reveal that they originally set out to make a sequel to a different Henson classic. The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance arrives on Friday, August 30 on Netflix. How did this begin? Was the Henson company looking for takes on The Dark Crystal or did you bring this to them?Addiss: We called them and said we have a sequel idea for Labyrinth. This is true. We had sold some things and had just enough name that we could start doing crazy things. We were like, "We've got an idea for Labyrinth" and they're like, "No." Didn't even hear it. "We're not interested, but we are taking pitches on Dark Crystal." It was luck. It was pure luck and they were like, "Would you be interested in The Dark Crystal?" And I was like, "Absolutely." I grew up with that thing. I watched that VHS over and over. I watched that making of over and over. I could draw, I could do all this stuff. I made a Mystic puppet in school. I was way into it. So we went in and we pitched our little hearts out. We didn't know it was a prequel series, so we had a whole pitch for a sequel. Then they said, "We're very excited to meet with you about our prequel series." We said, "Okay, can we come back next week?" Came back the following week, pitched. Louis was in that pitch and then a few weeks later we were in at Netflix because they had already knew they wanted to do the live-action after developing the animated. And we had a strong take and we just pitched our little hearts out. That's how we got the job.What was your idea for Labyrinth 2 since they're not doing it?Addiss: I don't want to say because it's so good, I hope it rolls back around until I'm comfortable putting it back out in the news. Every so often, I've leaned over to Lisa [Henson] and be like, "You know, we still got that Labyrinth pitch if you ever want to hear it." But we have an idea for that.If it's better than Fede Alvarez's....Addiss: I don't know what Fede's is so I don't want to say, because I've definitely been hinting at them for a while that I would like to know more and they have not told me anything so I'm just going to hold it in.Would this have been before Bowie passed away?Addiss: It was right around the time Bowie passed away. I remember our conversations came out of Bowie passing away and how you would do it now that Bowie passed away. We came up with something that we just loved.Is this Game of Thrones with puppets?Grillo-Marxuach: Yes, and to expand on that, we call it that because one of the things that we get constantly with this is look, the Muppets were intended for an adult audience but also for a younger audience. And I think that it's very easy to look at this show on the face of it and say this is a puppet show. That comes with a sh*t ton of assumptions. We approach this as a drama. We approached this as a high fantasy with a great deal of human emotion to it so the comparison Game of Thrones with puppets is not an inapt one because our narrative goals were very close to what Game of Thrones has accomplished.So I'm not the first person to say that.Grilllo-Marxuach: No, I think I was the first person to say that actually because we were saying it in the writers room years ago.Matthews: It became a good catch phrase to crystalize this idea of complicated narrative, intertwining narrative with real stakes and emotional depth. It was a good way to get everyone on board right from the beginning of this show is going to test the characters, push the characters. The audience will feel. It's not all one note.Had Jim Henson left behind any notes about the further world of The Dark Crystal that he didn't get to explore in the movie?Grillo-Marxuach: The Jim Henson Company is very invested in archiving everything they do. They have an archivist in house and of course Jim Henson is one of the most venerated creators in the history of pop culture. So everything is documented to the nth degree. There were in house sources that have cataloged all of the development of The Dark Crystal from the original up to the animated versions, all the comic books, all the YA books, all that stuff.Addiss: The sequel.Grillo-Marxuach The sequels, we had access to all of that. We also had in the room a very nice man named Joe Lee who wrote the YA novels and had been immersed in this world for a very long time because he's written a quartet of novels for it. Not to mention, we had Lisa Henson so this is something where we were told that everything that came before it vis a vis The Dark Crystal is canonical. Everything that was labeled or branded The Dark Crystal before was to talk to our show and not to be pushed aside, and that included a lot of the early development work.Addis: There were notes but there were not notes left behind by Jim Henson about a prequel. He had left notes about a sequel which was folded into The Power of the Dark Crystal which was a script that then became a comic book series. There were no notes from him I believe about prequel series.How did you invent new characters like Deet and Brea?Addis: So it's a combination of factors. Deet or Brea, which we created, it was about the story function that we needed. So we wanted to come into this very complicated world from three perspectives. From the top, a princess, Brea, from the middle ,the company guy Rian and then we wanted to come in from the lowest which was Deet, a Grottan who literally lived under the ground so that she could be sort of the eyes of the audience coming into this big new world. So they were created to serve story functions, and then along the way you fall in love with them. Was Hup the podling new to this version?Addis: Yes, Hup the podling we created for our original pitch, came from us walking around my apartment making sounds. What does he sound like? A lot of the names come from the sounds that they make. Deet is like from the sound meep, which is cute. Meep, squeak, deet and then Hup came from hey, hey, how ya' doing, how ya' doing, hup hup hup. Then it just became Hup at a certain point. We knew that we wanted to pair Deet up with somebody who had a lot of heart like Deet had but maybe was a little bit looser with playing by the rules. We thought that was a fun dynamic to bring to it. Matthews: Deet is so innocent, we thought it would be fun to pair her with a character who's a little more jaded, but there's no one more innocent looking than a podling so we liked that tension of this cute little guy who's already world-weary and wants to be more of a fighter.Were Jen and Kira ever on the table?Addis: Not for this because of the timeline and how far before the events of the film we are. The Dark Crystal Age of ResistanceWhat was it like to tell new stories in the voices of Aughra or The Chamberlain?Grillo-Marxuach: Aughra's kind of a double edged sword because she is an all seeing, all knowing character who literally simultaneously is the Crystal and she is the heart of Thra and she is the heart of Thra and she's in charge of Thra. So she occupies a great deal of real estate in the mythological scheme of this thing. Writing for her was a little bit of a puzzle trying to figure out how do you keep her from knowing certain things. The other thing about Aughra is Aughra is really kind of the snarkiest person in the show. So in a lot of ways, Aughra is the only one who can comment on the action from a slight distance on the action and even on herself. Aughra has one of my favorite lines in the show. She says, "You try to control Aughra. Aughra can barely control Aughra." Things like that with her sort of reflect the fun that you can have with that character. In a way, she's not an audience stand-in but she says a lot of things that the audience might want to say during certain times because she's just a little bit removed from it.Addiss: There was moments that we created of her literally just commenting on the room that we would find when we were shooting, or even in post when you can create moments because it's puppets and their mouths just go like this. We could inert lines wherever we wanted to and we had a little bit more fun with her all the way down the road. And then it's interesting with something like the Skeksis because one of the things we talked a lot about was how can we make them fun but also genuinely scary, genuinely evil in a way that we wanted to play with this line of every time you started to like them, they would do something horrible and remind you that they are horrible. We love to love our villains but we also need to be reminded why they're villains. That's a fun expectation to play with.Is Lore new too?Addiss: Lore is a creation entirely of the show. Lore was always in there from the start of our pitch. We knew we wanted something that felt like our Ludo from Labyrinth. We wanted something in the group that was much bigger, that had much more physical presence. At the time we had felt that that would be a CGI character and actually, Lore is very much practical and was done on set because the Creature Shop are geniuses. So we were like here's a thing, because Jim Henson had always embraced new technology. He was not against CGI in any way and was playing with characters and creating CGI characters. So we created Lore to fill this function within the group but also thought it would be fun to have a CGI character. The Creature Shop was like, "No, we're just going to do that" So Lore was on set walking around and beautiful.Grillo-Marxuach: There is CGI in the show obviously. We have visual effects, we have set extensions, we have rod removal. We have some stunt characters that do things that humans couldn't do, much less puppets. You're talking about a director like Louis Leterrier coming in and saying, "We need to change the visual language of how puppets are shot." He does that through using a lot of handheld cameras, a lot of different setups. It's a very different look than what the original looks like. I think the integration of CGI and puppetry takes that even further. You're seeing the same kind of magic you would see in a Star Wars movie but you're seeing it done with puppets instead of actors.Did you get to create the different plant life in the forest and species like the Grunaks?Addiss: The combination of that stuff is a combination of a lot of different people's talents. Sometimes, yes, like the Grunaks we did create those within the writers room. We created a history for them and found something that would work. For something like the creatures running around Thra, that's a lot of different people's talents. Sometimes Wendy Froud, at one point, she looked around the forest and said, "There's not enough. We need more little creatures." So she just went and started taking pieces of other creatures that had been thrown out or scraps of things and assembled them into a number of new creatures that are all over the show now. So sometimes it's Brian Froud, always Brian Froud from the start but sometimes it's the Creature Shop. Sometimes it's Toby Froud. A lot of different people create them because we have so many creatures. Matthews: When the Creature Shop made the Grunaks, there's two of them. Affectionately they started calling one Will and one Jeff. They told us that in the way of like, "Hey, isn't this nice? You get a puppet." Jeff and I knew a little more about how their story was going to turn out so it was a mixed blessing. Grillo-Marxuach: The genesis of the Grunaks is interesting because we originally looked at the role that was going to be filled by those characters. There was a previous iteration of The Dark Crystal where they had these miner characters. We looked at them and said those would be great for this narrative need we have.Addiss: They were used in Creation Myths and had already done a thing, so there's one shot of one in the original film. You see a character who looks like a lobster almost with a hammer. They were expanded upon in the Creation Myths comic book so we couldn't use them because they had their own narrative. But we were always trying to look back to the original to see if there was something, some design. So a lot of the creatures and designs that you'll see are repurposed from Brian Froud's artwork, or pieces he didn't use in the movie or that he'd done for The World of The Dark Crystal and we would bring those into the show.Did you get to invent vehicles like the Skeksis carriage?Addiss: Yes, although I think a lot of that credit should go to Louis for that carriage and how he envisioned it and what he knew we wanted to do with it in terms of having fun. Grillo-Marxuach: Didn't we create the armaligs though?Addiss: That might have come from Louis as well, the fundamental idea of it and we ran with it. Louis was in the writers room a lot of the time. I think the carriages are really Louis' baby in a lot of ways. The armaligs being electrocuted I believe came from him. So he knew what he wanted to do and some of the fun he wanted to have with that classic feel of the carriage heist, a lot of that is his baby. Grillo-Marxuach: And there were certain things like, for example, the Crystal Skimmer where we were looking at a narrative issue of how do we get our characters from point A to point B. We know they have to cross The Crystal Desert. So this flying manta ray character became something that came out of the writers room and we got to see rendered fully.Addiss: There's a thing we realized at a certain point. Every show kind of has their own answer, right? How does Bones get out of whatever predicament Bones is in? Probably involves bones. In our show, the answer was usually some type of creature. Sometimes it's punishment. There's a creature for punishment. Well, for ocular castigation.Skeksis punishment is pretty brutal.Addiss: We had a lot of fun with that. It was one of the first tests. The answer is a creature. How do they punish you? You're going to see the Peeper Beetle who likes the soft meats. It was really about creating the weirdest thing that we possibly could.Matthews: That's one of the fun things about working on a prequel is in the movie, the scientist has a mechanical eye. The first time we see him in the show, he doesn't. So....Addiss: You also don't want to answer too many of those questions. It's got to serve the story. You don't want to have that moment where you like "and this is how that happened" and it feels separate from the story. It was wrapped into the narrative and we know we want to see the Chamberlain deceive and come out on top. You want to see Skektek the Scientist's journey into madness which is a lot of the course of the show. We needed to push that character as far as we could and see him abused.Grillo-Marxuach: However, knowing that we had to do that, there was also a very happy accident that happened which is that we went to the Creature Shop when they first sculpted Skektek. They didn't put in the mechanical eye in the sculpt because that's an add on so you don't have to sculpt it out of clay. The original mechanical eye was the cockpit of a Tie Fighter. Addiss: They got that same model of Tie Fighter, the die cast. They tracked it down on eBay and bought it so not only is it a Tie Fighter, it is the exact same model of toy which is a limited run. I don't even know what they spent on it.Grillo-Marxuach: Most expensive line item on our budget. Did you get to further define the magic of Thra?Addiss: Yes, and that was a big thing. The expanded world had done a lot of that. Joey had set a lot of those ground rules. Joe went even farther I think with magical abilities from a lot of the Gelfling of certain things that they were able to do. We pulled back on that a little bit for now because we didn't want it to feel like everybody was a superhero. We wanted them to feel like they were all part of Thra and that they were all a little bit more of the land and a little less "special" coming into the story. That's really a combination of a lot of the expanded world with what we did in the room.Is the Dream Space new?Addiss: Yes, that was a thing that we created in the writers room, 100% because it's just a question of you start to try to apply logic to the movie. You start to say why do these things happen? How do they come together? Then look for possibilities. One of the things that we did in the show was look at very much the logic of the Crystal. Why does the Crystal drain? If the Crystal's here and it's reflected through a thing, what makes it pull essence out of you because the Crystal's not supposed to be evil or bad, right? But that is a cruel act. So that became the establishment of the polarity of the Crystal and how you abuse it. The logic of it pulls the essence this way. Why does the essence go into the tubes? Even in the movie, right? It doesn't totally line up as well as you might like, so we made that work in terms of you see those big billows. You see the essence pulled forward and then slammed backwards when they turn on the machinery. Everything was thought about logically and that's also part of the Dream Space.Grillo-Marxuach: We developed this idea that Thra has a very sensitive psychic plane basically. So dreams can be a shared reality because they already have the dreamfasting ability. A magic user with the ability of an Aughra would be able to literally open up an entire plane. Look, it also served a narrative goal which is that we needed those characters, they've been apart for much of the narrative, we needed for them to be able to come together and being able to take the dream mythology that already existed in the movie and in the other versions of The Dark Crystal and pulling it into a cohesive whole helped us quite a bit.Addiss: Because we knew narratively we needed to bring them together but we didn't want them all together quite yet. We had some more space for them to do things apart. So the dream space was a way to bring everybody together without literally having to move them all into the same room.Why did you decide to identify the locations on screen?Addiss: It was a big talk. It was something that came in later and it was because we're just throwing so much at you. Part of the thing when you're coming into a project that has this many, the YA novel and the books and the movie, is that the lore is complicated. That's why we named a character Lore. The lore is complicated. We needed to make sure that the audience was being brought on this journey in the most efficient and natural way possible. Sometimes that means that you've got to put those slugs there so that they understand where they are so that they're creating emotional connections, right? Brea is synonymous with Ha'rar in the beginning. Deet is in Grot. Rian is in the Castle of the Crystal with the Skeksis. We use it lightly. You'll notice they fade. We're not doing it all the time but in the beginning, there was a lot of talk about we need to make sure the audience knows where they are so they can enjoy the journey.Grillo-Marxuach: One of the things that makes this a good time for this project is that there have been so many Lord of the Rings movies. There has been so much high fantasy on television, Game of Thrones and its ilk, so the audience has an ease with the tropes of high fantasy that it might not have had 37 years ago. Nevertheless, we're expanding this world so much that you do have to take the audience by the hand and give them a little bit of guidance.Matthews: And Marvel did it so well.Addiss: Marvel did it and also didn't Star Wars start doing it as well?Grillo-Marxuach: They did it in Rogue One but not any of the others.Addiss: We were looking at the other properties as well, how you use it most sparingly and efficiently.Did your pitch include plans for multiple seasons or would you have to start over again?Matthews: The mandate was a little odd. We were told to pitch a one season series that ended. And we thought okay. So we did. We went to Netflix and we pitched all 10 episodes, here's the arc, here's the ending. The ending is very important to us, but it was an ending. They loved it, they bought it, we did the pilot, we do the test and then we get the greenlight. As we're heading into the writers room, Netflix says, "But, that pitch was too much story for one season so break it into at least two." So the mandate changed. We have an ending very clearly in mind. I think it was one of the things that set us apart in the pitch but how long the middle is will depend on the audience.So it was never the ending of season one.Grillo-Marxuach: No, there is an ending that addresses the end of The Age of Resistance with what comes in the movie and all of that but we're not really at liberty to discuss it. We hope that the audience will show up in droves and that we will be greenlit and we will be able to complete this story. That much said, you can watch Age of Resistance without even having seen the original and you'll get a full story that will be very satisfying.