On the timeline of classic cinematic puppets, Yoda walked so Sir Didymus could ride. Star Wars‘s pint-sized Jedi Master and Labyrinth‘s dog-mounted knight may be several galaxies apart, but they share two major things in common: a creative team and… a walking stick. That may sound like a minor thing, but legendary illustrator and conceptual designer Brian Froud — who worked on 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1986’s Labyrinth alongside his wife and creative partner, Wendy — makes it clear that the stick represents a major contribution to both characters.
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“A stick is a useful thing,” Froud tells Yahoo Entertainment about Yoda and Didymus’s preferred walking accessory. “It gives the puppeteers something to do. When we did Yoda, Frank Oz [who puppeteered and voiced the character] would talk about how to manipulate him in the early days while we were mocking it up making a puppet. He said: ‘Give him a walking stick, and I’m going to be all right.'”
The Frouds remembered Oz’s words while designing Sir Didymus for Labyrinth director Jim Henson years later. “A lot of his character comes out from a very simple device,” Froud says of the fan favorite knight who helps Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) on her quest to rescue her infant brother Toby from the clutches of David Bowie’s Goblin King. “Didymus is very demonstrative with that stick: he’s always bashing things or tapping things. Once Yoda had the walking stick, Frank got how he walks: he’s hunched over, and moves slowly. The stick moves forward and he comes with it. That way you suddenly got character, and that’s what happened with Didymus, too. So watch out for the stick!”
Labyrinth may not have matched Empire‘s box-office grosses when it premiered in theaters on June 27, 1986. But over the succeeding 35 years, the film has become a pop-culture touchstone with new generations of young viewers getting lost in the fantastic world that Henson and his collaborators created and populated with all manner of fantastic beasts. You can get a closer look at some of those creatures — which are housed at Atlanta’s Center for Puppetry Arts — in our exclusive AR experience above, with commentary from Froud.
“At the time, I don’t think we as the creators grasped how generations of kids — especially young girls — would really respond to the story and the emotional journey that Sarah goes on,” the designer says now. “And it’s longevity is precisely because of that.”
And Labyrinth may soon live on the big screen again: Last year, Deadline broke the news that Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson had been hired to helm a potential sequel that’s being penned by screenwriter Maggie Levin. (Henson died in 1990.) “Because Labyrinth takes place in a labyrinth, around every corner you can come across a new adventure,” teases Froud, who isn’t currently involved in that project. “It can literally go off in all sorts of directions. It’s also very dreamlike, so you can play around with time and space. It’s always a world you could return to at any point in the story or any point in time.”
In a wide-ranging interview, we spoke with Froud about his years-long collaboration with Henson — which also encompassed 1982’s The Dark Crystal and 1987’s The Storyteller series — the key role his son plays in Labyrinth and his best David Bowie story.
Yahoo Entertainment: You and your wife, Wendy, worked with Jim Henson for years on a variety of projects. What was the general nature of your collaboration like?
Brian Froud: It was an absolute delight to work with Jim. I mean, he could drive you crazy now and then! [Laughs] But his creative input was always: “How can we make this better?” and that was always good to hear. He was always busy, which meant he was always somewhere else. Time was really precious to spend with him, so we would show him what we were doing and often the response would be “Hmmm.” He wouldn’t say very much! But it was about figuring out how to build these things better. So my design processes were often very loose drawings, because it was important to get a general feel for the character at the beginning, but it was no good being too specific too soon. I kept my designs fluid so we could always make something that had a personality that was coming from the puppeteer.
In the case of Labyrinth specifically, the overall design aesthetic is medieval fantasy. Was that always the approach?
Before Labyrinth, we had spent five years doing The Dark Crystal and we were just exhausted by it. We said, “We’re never going to make another film again.” But after a screening in San Francisco, Jim said, “Should we make another one then?” And we said, “Well, why not?” I think we’d had a couple of drinks at that point! [Laughs]
So that was the beginning of it. At the time, Jim’s daughter, Lisa, was majoring in mythology and was exploring Hindu mythology in particular. That sounded really interesting, all these gods and goddesses flying across the sky in chariots. Jim said, “What do you know about that?” and we said, “Absolutely nothing!” So we looked at each other for awhile, and then he said, “Well, whatever it is, this time I want to put people in it,” because Dark Crystal had only featured puppets. And suddenly I had an idea: What the Muppets did really well was have their star surrounded by these crazy creatures. So I said, “What about a baby surrounded by gnarly goblins?”
Jim loved the idea of goblins, because he always loved monsters. If there was a monster in it, he was in! The juxtaposition between a cute little baby and these creatures would just be great. And in Northern mythology, goblins are famous for stealing babies and taking them away. And then we said, “What about a labyrinth?” In my mind, the labyrinth was the hook to put on our story because it could represent so many things. When we came back to England, I painted a picture of a baby surrounded by goblins. And that’s what started the film.
Later on, we had Terry Jones from Monty Python come in and take a look at the script and the creatures. He was a medievalist, and picked up a lot of what my influences were in terms of the landscape and creatures. I love medieval art so that really did sneak in. When he came around the studios and looked at all the designs, he noticed my sketchbooks and started to rifle through and kept seeing little sketches in corners and got very excited about them. He said, “I’ve got to write about this!” So he went away and rewrote the script with all-new characters! [Laughs] We did a furious rebuild at the end, but by then we knew what we were doing so it wasn’t too bad.
For the character of Sir Didymus, how many different incarnations did you go through before you arrived at what we see onscreen?
It was always fairly close. One of my favorite things are these medieval knights that were mercenary knights called Landsknechts. They were famous for having very flamboyant costumes and huge hats with lots of feathers. So Sir Didymus is really a miniaturized version of that. Of course, it was always useful for those knights to have a sword, but in Didymus’s case it’s that stick. Jim always liked the idea of animals, so the idea of him being a fox seemed to come naturally. I think it came from him having those whiskers. The odd thing about puppets is that they don’t do very much, so in the design you really have to figure out how to create elements that can be expressive.
Didymus also rides his trusty steed, Ambrosius, in the film, and the reason he looks like a real dog is because we had to use a real dog to move him across the stage! It’s hard to imagine now, but we didn’t have greenscreen back then. Now, having Sir Didymus riding on a dog-like creature wouldn’t be a problem. And the dog actor was great. I can tell you that the worst animal actors in the world are chickens. They’re hopeless! There were all these chickens running around the goblin town in Labyrinth, and we had a chicken wrangler who couldn’t wrangle them at all. They just did their own thing! I think they were Method actors. [Laughs]
The Goblin Knights that Didymus fights at the end are encased in armor. Is there anything beneath those helmets?
No, there isn’t. I’ve always loved armor and what’s great about an armored figure is that it’s a completely different texture to what you’d have as a creature. It separates out visually. I love those big enclosed helmets, so it was a great opportunity to get some shape and form and make them large. The idea of coloring them differently actually came from the British series, Thomas the Tank Engine. If you peer into the costumes, you’ll see little numbers on them which are references to steam engines. And there are drips of oils, so they really are archaic steam engines. That’s the in-joke about those characters.
I’ve always thought that the Four Guards look like playing cards. Was that the specific influence for those characters?
You’re right — those are playing cards. It’s also an Alice in Wonderland reference. The impulse initially was, like with so many things, Punch & Judy. It’s just having a square with a hole in it and a puppet that peers over the top. I thought that was great, but also a bit boring. What I like about playing cards is that you have heads at the top and the bottom, so we could put a puppeteer down below.
Because they were guards, we knew they could be stationary and now you can start puppeteering through the wall. Everything is working for you. And then when you’ve got someone like Terry Jones come along who has an ear for dialogue, the thing comes to life via how it looks and also what it says and how it moves the story along. It’s all about creating the illusion of life. That moment where life happens in front of your eyes is always magic. It takes your breath away.
Did Jim Henson ever consider making another Labyrinth during his lifetime?
He didn’t. It took five years to make The Dark Crystal and three years for Labyrinth. They were long hauls, and there was always something else to do. About two or three weeks before Jim died, he phoned and said, “Should we do another one?” But that was going to be something else, not Labyrinth 2. He was always wanting to do something new and push the boundaries of what puppets could do. And we kept learning more and more as we were doing these movies.
Your son, Toby, plays the infant Toby in the film. What is it like for him to watch the movie now?
Well, the fun thing about that is that the first thing I ever drew for Labyrinth was a baby and goblins, and we decided that the baby needed to be a year old or something like that. By the time we got around to making the movie and realizing that we needed baby, we luckily had one in our house who was the right age! [Laughs] Bizarrely, Toby looked rather like my original drawing. So he was perfect for the part. And he was also used to being around all these gnarly, rubbery creatures from being in our workshop, so it didn’t faze him.
Nowadays, he’s delighted about his part in film history. He’s been to various conventions where they dress up and the thing that spooks him the most is they throw a fake baby around! That gives him a queasy moment. But being part of that in his early days gave him his career. Toby’s absolutely intrigued by puppets and puppeteering and makes puppets and directs. It was great to work with him as a baby, and having recently worked with him again on Netflix’s Dark Crystal series was wonderful.
I’d be remiss not to ask you for your best David Bowie story from the set.
We were a few days away from filming, and we were still trying to work out David’s wig. We had gone through it maybe being more wolf-like and feral, but it just looked a bit weird. Jim and I went to his dressing room with a present we’d made for him. It was a little flute out of an animal bone, and we presented it to him. He took it and started to play it. He suddenly leapt up onto the dressing room table and hunkered down and played it! It was the spookiest, most beautiful thing. He just was in this Pan-like fairy thing, and I thought, “Ah, we’re going to be all right.” He never got to play the flute [in the film], but that was one of most magical moments of my life — being shut in a tiny room with David Bowie playing a flute! [Laughs]
Labyrinth is currently streaming on HBO Max; visit the Center for Puppetry Arts’s official site to learn more about the museum.
— Augmented reality produced by Becky Horvath
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