As told to
The director of Netflix’s prequel series reveals how Jim Henson inspired him to become a filmmaker.
He may be best known for helming high-concept genre fare like The Transporter and Clash of the Titans, but Louis Leterrier owes his love of storytelling to the vivid felt fantasies of Jim Henson. So when the opportunity to direct a prequel to the cherished 1982 family adventure The Dark Crystal for Netflix presented itself, the French filmmaker didn’t hesitate.
At an exhibition at London’s BFI Southbank, comprising iconic sets and characters from both the film and forthcoming series, Leterrier revealed how The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance allowed him to realise a lifelong dream, working closely with Henson’s daughter, Lisa and even attending ‘puppet school’ to bring the colourful world of Thra to a whole new audience.
“There was a book about the making of The Dark Crystal, by Brian Froud, that came out after the film was released, and that book, along with the film, are what first gave me the crazy dream of wanting to become a storyteller and a filmmaker. All these old pictures from the set where it’s 15 puppeteers hiding under the stage, operating the characters, that just fascinated me as a kid.
“Like so many people around the world, I was raised on Jim Henson. Whether it was Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, his creations were the first examples of visual storytelling that really captured my imagination. There’s a power and a tactile beauty to Jim’s art that is still so moving. There’s a reason his name is still on the title: he’s the reason we wanted to return to The Dark Crystal and the reason people are interested in this new series. I’m just the guy carrying the flame.
“I fell into making action movies. I was always more interested in stuff like The Dark Crystal, but when I was 26 a movie fell into my lap – it was The Transporter, and it did well enough that I was allowed then to make a more films. It’s easy to become pigeonholed when you have a successful movie, but I’m grateful for that experience. The main thing I brought to The Dark Crystal from my action movie days was this sense of world-building. Whether it’s a fist fight between Jason Statham and whoever, or a war between the Gelfling and the Skeksis, you’re taking the audience on a journey and in many ways it’s the same sensibility.
“I love creating big worlds – whether it’s action or fantasy of whatever – and I wanted to know how Jim did it. So I met with Lisa Henson, who had the rights to the Dark Crystal story, not as a director but as a fan who had a thousand questions about her father’s work. She told me that they were thinking about doing a Dark Crystal prequel, and asked if I wanted to be involved, so of course I had to say yes.
“I approached it from a fan point of view. I wanted to answer questions about the story and the world, like what happened to this civilisation, what made them go extinct? How did they become gaslit by this ruling class? What was the tipping point? I was very interested in exploring that, and the intention was always to make it so that people can watch this series and go straight into the film. It’s been a long journey – eight years – and I was really helped by the fact that Netflix gave us their full support from the beginning and financed a short film that allowed us to really figure out what we were doing.
“They even paid for me to go to puppet school. Puppets have been shot in a certain way for many many years, and I needed to understand how that worked, because the story demands real puppets. Of course we added some CG, but we didn’t want to change how things had been done before. So I first went to Atlanta and to New York and a few different places to see the original puppets and literally open them, look under the hood and see what was inside them. I put my hand in them, move them around, and got to learn the machinery of puppeteering. Without that, I wouldn’t have known how to shoot the series.
“I must say the puppeteers are the real unsung heroes, because no one will see them ever – their role is to be completely hidden – and yet they bring these puppets to life with their movements and their voices. Their voices are eventually replaced by voice actors, but the puppeteers determine so much about each character. They’re the real magic of The Dark Crystal.”
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance launches on Netflix on 30 August. Into Thra, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Exhibition runs from 23 August to 6 September at the BFI Southbank.
Published 23 Aug 2019
By Aimee Knight
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