David Odell, an accomplished television and film writer and director, wrote the screenplay for The Dark Crystal, collaborating with Jim Henson. Odell also wrote for The Muppet Show, winning an Emmy Award for his efforts, and The Muppet Movie. Recently, he worked with Annette Duffy on a yet-unproduced screenplay for a Dark Crystal sequel. Beyond his work with Henson, Odell has written numerous screenplays for feature films including Supergirl, Masters of The Universe, War Lords, Battletruck, Timbuktu, and Cry Uncle. He has also directed episodes of Tales From The Darkside.
Working With Jim Henson
I worked with Jim Henson for five years on The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Show, and The Dark Crystal. He was the only genius I ever worked for. He was incredibly creative, astonishingly hard working, gentle, sensitive, kind, but with a wicked sense of humor. He was also unflappable. When disaster would strike, as it occasionally does in film and TV, he was invariably the calmest person on the set. He was a great leader, good at getting his collaborators to give him their best. I’ve never known anyone who inspired so much love in the people around him.
When I first started working with him I asked him what puppets could do. He launched into a great pep talk. “We can do anything with puppets,” he said. “The possibilities are limitless. They can swim, they can fly, they can do karate, they can eat things…” Then he paused, and started to chuckle. “They can do anything, except walk and talk.” It was true. Walking consisted of the puppeteer jiggling his arm up and down while the puppet moved across the stage. Talking consisted of flapping the puppet’s lips open and shut in a rough approximation of the syllables of the dialogue. To me, that conversation symbolizes a thing about Jim’s character: he was wildly enthusiastic and tended to ignore obstacles, thinking there was always a work-around. At the same time he was very practical and realistic and able to laugh at his excessive flights of fancy.
He was also a spiritual searcher. He had developed his own ideas that seemed to combine a little bit of theosophy, Hinduism, Taoism, and various new age philosophies. Before we started work on The Dark Crystal, he insisted I read a book called Seth Speaks. He had a lot of copies of this book and gave them away to people. (He also gave a copy to Brian Froud.) I was flattered that Jim wanted me to understand his spiritual insights before we collaborated. The book was written by Jane Roberts, a science fiction writer, who one day began channeling “Seth.” Seth was a multi-dimensional male being, outside time and space, who dictated monologues on metaphysics through her when she was in a trance, while her husband wrote them down in shorthand. One of Jim’s favorite lines that I wrote in The Dark Crystal script was when Aughra asks Jen where his master is, and Jen says he’s dead. Aughra looks around suspiciously and mutters “He could be anywhere then.” I couldn’t have written that if I hadn’t read the Seth book.
The spiritual kernel of The Dark Crystal is heavily influenced by Seth. I’ve always felt that the idea of perfect beings split into a good mystic part and an evil materialistic part which are reunited after a long separation is Jim’s response to the teachings of that book. Jim admitted that he didn’t understand the book himself, and that everyone would understand it — or not understand it — in their own way. But he thought it opened up a whole different way of looking at reality, which I think was one of his goals in making The Dark Crystal.
Another example of Jim’s different take on reality is the strange conversation Kermit has with his ghostly double in the desert in the third act of The Muppet Movie, followed by a star falling from heaven. That scene implies the idea of multiple selves, as in reincarnation or the avatars of Hindu philosophy. (The priest at Jim’s funeral, as Jim had requested, read a selection from the Hindu scriptures.)
I pointed out to Jim once the similarity in the endings of The Dark Crystal and The Muppet Movie. The roof falls away and the puppets are bathed in a blast of light from heaven, which seems to solve all their problems. I asked him if it was a personal symbol of something, like the Christian paraclete or the beginning of Genesis “Let there be light.” He said he had never connected the two scenes in his mind, but he found strange echoes of things were always turning up in his work. Another time I pointed out to him that both The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal have torture scenes in them, one done for comedy (with Kermit and Mel Brooks) and the other darker and more disturbing. I asked if he wasn’t a little bit into torture for some reason. He said “I hate torture. It’s so upsetting just to think about it. I think I must have been tortured in a previous life.”
Jim had seen some drawings by an English illustrator of crocodiles wearing elaborate jewelry and they were the seed for his concept of the Skeksis. Jim began imagining a film about a world that would have such creatures in it, a world unlike any ever seen before, that not incidentally would push the art of puppetry into new areas. He called this world Mithra. In 1977 he ran across the work of Brian Froud in a book called The Land of Froud. Jim said he knew at once that Brian was the artist who could make Mithra come alive. In February 1978 Jim was snowed in at an airport hotel with his daughter Cheryl. He sat down and poured out ideas into his notebook in one intense burst of invention. Planning for people to see The Dark Crystal more than once was one of the things Jim tried to design into it from the beginning. Producer Gary Kurtz had pointed out to him that one of Lucas’ brilliant choices in Star Wars was cutting his movie a little bit too fast for audiences to take in everything at the first viewing, which made them want to see it more than once.
I invented a language for the Skeksis to speak, and a related language for the Mystics, using Indo-European roots. It demonstrated that Skexish was a cruder, uglier version of the Mystic language. But in the rush before principle photography started, nobody seemed interested in the performers learning a new language. They were mostly interested in whether the costumes would be inhabitable, if the characters would be able to move around without showing the cables connecting their TVs, and if the audience would be able to tell the different characters apart. So I stopped pushing the language, since I believed it would ultimately be replaced by English anyway. Some lines in the script were in Skexish with the English meaning in parentheses so the actors would know the subtext of the scene. But if the actors had to fill an awkward pause or felt the need to join in a crowd response, they would have to improvise. The only remnant of the original Skexish is in the judgment stone duel, when the Chamberlain shouts “Haakskeeka!” meaning “Judgment By Stone” or “Let the Stone Decide!”
Jim knew the Mystics and the Skeksis would move slowly (both for character reasons — they were very, very ancient — and for the practical necessity of moving the large, complex puppets), so Jim wanted to fill the frame with a lot of design detail, even in the scenes with the smaller, faster-moving characters. When the film was finished, he told me he loved watching it over and over, because “it was like a rich fruitcake, full of different ingredients, and every bite you discover something new and delicious.” (Jim’s high metabolism and active life allowed him to be a connoisseur of rich desserts, which he had with lunch and dinner every day.)
I wrote a first draft of the treatment in the fall of 1978 based on conversations with Jim and his story notes from the snowed-in airport hotel. Meanwhile Jim was busy doing Sesame Street, post production on The Muppet Movie, planning recordings, theme park rides, and video games, and gathering a crew of artists and puppet builders to create the creatures and the world of Mithra. Then in February we all moved to London to do the Muppet TV show at Boerum Wood studios. The TV show was done at the Lew Grade’s ATV studio, and across the street The Dark Crystal would be done at Elstree, where Kubrick had made 2001 and Spielberg had shot Indiana Jones. Gary Kurtz of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back would be co-producer. And Frank Oz would co-direct with Jim.
The puppet builders and designers were located in an abandoned post office that Jim had bought across the street from his house in Hampstead, up the block from the house where Keats had written the “Ode to a Nightingale.” Because Jim worked sixteen hours a day seven days a week he found it convenient to have the workshop across the street from his house. There was also a gourmet restaurant across the street where Jim often ate (he was fond of their desserts).
I lived in Highgate across Hampstead Heath. I would walk across the Heath from my house to meet with Jim at his house or at the workshop. And there were lots of meetings, with thirty artists and costumers and puppet builders sitting around with Jim and Frank, arguing about tiny details of puppet design and story concepts, looking at set models, Brian’s latest drawings, and Wendy Midener’s character sculptures. I remember one two-hour meeting that was about how many warts there would be and their placement on the faces of some of the pod-people. I once complained to Jim about all the meetings, and he said “Well, don’t forget, I’ve been running a crew of artists for years. You need to let them hash it all out, and then they go off and do their best work.”
When the movie was finished the distributor screened it for some test audiences in Washington D.C. and Detroit, Michigan. Whether as Gary Kurtz explained it, in their enthusiasm for the imagery Jim and Frank had cut out too much necessary exposition, or whether people had come expecting a light-hearted romp with Kermit and Piggy, audiences were bewildered and repulsed by the sight of grotesque lizards snarling at one another in meaningless shrieks. As soon as the movie started, people began walking out. The word quickly spread in Hollywood that Jim’s movie was a disaster. But Jim didn’t waver in his belief that he had made a good movie, and it was just a matter of tweaking it here and there. Jim was afraid that Lew Grade and his underlings did not believe it was a good movie, and would try to cut their losses by skimping on publicity and promotion.
While Jim was remixing the film, I got a call from my lawyer, Tom Pollock, who was also one of Jim’s lawyers. Tom told me that Lew Grade had sold his company, and therefore The Dark Crystal, to an Australian named Robert Holmes a Court. I said Robert who? He said “Holmes a Court,” and spelled it out for me. I said that’s a strange name for an Australian. Tom said “It’s a pretty strange name for anybody.”
My heart sank. I had complete confidence that the new version worked as a movie, but would the new owner release it with the necessary care?
Jim started screening the film again, mainly to show Holmes a Court that this was actually a good movie and encourage him not to dump it for a write-off. But Holmes a Court’s people couldn’t seem to work up any enthusiasm. The bad previews, the need to revoice the soundtrack, and the film’s delayed delivery had everyone in Hollywood saying it was a turkey.
But a strange thing happened when people outside the film business (civilians, as they are called) saw the new version. People could now follow the plot and found they could identify with the characters. Many confessed to being profoundly moved by the ending. People started calling the Henson Company asking when it would be released, because they wanted to take their friends, or their kids, or their parents.
The movie was scheduled to open at Christmas. Jim still didn’t feel it would get the right promotion, so he offered to buy back the film himself. Holmes a Court said “Sold!” and Jim was the proud owner of The Dark Crystal. Jim had broken the one rule they warn you about in Hollywood: Never put your own money in your movie.
The picture opened well and made about $40 million in its first two months of release. It’s since become a classic and a terrific seller on DVD, largely to people in their thirties who fell in love with it when they were kids. It’s also won a new generation of fans, in midnight screenings and TV, and spawned a full array of books, games, toys, lunch boxes, manga, and the current series of graphic novel prequels published by Archaia. Every time I see a midnight screening advertised I think, “Jim, you believed in it, and you were right, it really is a good movie.”
Copyright 2012 by David Odell