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Director Brian Henson on ‘The Happytime Murders’ and the Naughty Side of His Puppet Creations

August 20, 2018Ben MK

If you grew up in the '70s or '80s, you more than likely were familiar with the Muppets, Jim Henson's furry, fuzzy and flocked creations that entertained children the world over with their silly antics and suppertime shenanigans. But did you know that there's another, more risqué side to these cute critters?

In The Happytime Murders, director Brian Henson brings that very adult, very blue side of his father's creative legacy to the big screen, as Melissa McCarthy teams up with a hard-boiled puppet private eye named Phil to solve a series of homicides set in a world where humans and puppets coexist. But make no mistake, while the movie may look like children's fare at a glance, it's about as R-rated as you can get.

I sat down with the man behind The Henson Company and its more adult-oriented arm, Henson Alternative, to find out more about The Happytime Murders, including how the project came to be, the characters, and whether anything was off-limits when it comes to the film's depictions of puppet sex and debauchery.

First off, how did this project originate?

Henson: Well, I was doing a puppet improv show called Puppet Up! that I started in 2006. And I continue to perform that show, but that's where I was looking for a new tone of comedy with puppets, and was developing it in that show. And that was an improvised show, so I had the audience making suggestions every night of basically what they wanted to see the puppets doing. And that gave me a real good way of doing market research, if you like, on what the audience wanted the puppets to do. And where they kept going was in this very blue, adult direction — R-rated direction.

And for a little while I was uncomfortable with it, but I never got any reviewers saying that they were offended by the show. Instead, everybody said they were delighted with it, and they thought it was really fun to see that adult content coming from the puppets. I then actually went back to a script that I had seen earlier, that Todd Berger had written, and said, "Bring back that script," to him. He had a script called "Happytime Murders" that's quite different from what it is now, but a lot of it was in place, even then. And we did a lot of rewrites, probably 15, to capture this adult tone of comedy from puppets but put it in a scripted movie. So that's where it started.

And we've been ready to make it for the last 5 or 6 years, but trying to get enough money together. People wanted me to make it at a lower budget, and I couldn't; and I said I wouldn't. And to get the right cast. So when Melissa McCarthy said she wanted to do it a year and a half ago, that put us into pre-production.

Whether it's Fritz the Cat, Family Guy or Team America: World Police, there's something about seeing a more risqué take on what's usually considered material for younger viewers. What is the appeal of this type of film for you, personally?

Henson: Well actually, I think what it is is that for the adults they can laugh and appreciate it and have the same feeling that they had when they were children being naughty. Do you know what I mean? There's seldom a real opportunity where an adult can feel like they're being naughty and enjoying that. 'Cause usually doing something naughty is going to come with a lot of guilt and a lot of unpleasant feelings.

But I think by having puppets doing it, it's a naughty experience that can just be fun. And you can feel like you used to feel when you were 13, 14 with your friends telling dirty stories that you shouldn't be telling to each other. You can actually experience that feeling again, as an adult.

Can you tell me about the puppet character designs? Did you pull them mainly from the ranks of the Miskreant Puppets? Or were some of the puppets created specifically for this film?

Henson: Well, the Miskreant Puppets are all there, 'cause it's a world; we created a whole world with a minority population of puppets. So there's probably 120, 130 puppets in the movie. And then quite a few were built specifically for the movie, because they were called for in a specific way. Basically, all the main characters were built specifically for the movie, so all the Happytime Gang cast members, they were built just for the movie. And Sandra and Phil, the other two, they were built just for the movie. But most of the rest of them all came from the Miskreant Puppets.

Speaking of the puppets, do you have a favorite character in the movie?

Henson: I have a particular fondness for Phil, who's the lead, just because he's the puppet we've been working on the longest. We started designing him first; we were trying to get him right first. And I'm real happy with him as a puppet. And then I think Goofer is so much fun; he's like an old-style puppet that my dad used to do way back, but we haven't done much recently.

And actually, I quite like Sandra. Sandra is a female character that's meant to be very attractive, and it's always hard to do a puppet that's meant to be very attractive. Like, my dad did it with Miss Piggy, because it was perfect; she's a pig, she's never going to be actually attractive. So it's very hard to make a puppet that's meant to be attractive, 'cause it has to actually still be kind of ugly and puppet-y, at the same time that it's saying, "I'm an attractive character." So that was a particularly hard puppet to both design and perform, and I think the design by Drew Massey, who's one of the puppeteers, and that performance by Dorien [Davies] is really good. And it's not a very muppet-y puppet, 'cause it's meant to look quite humanoid.

Of course, with a cast that includes Melissa McCarthy and Maya Rudolph, the opportunity for improv must have presented itself a lot. Was there a lot of improv on-set?

Henson: Yes, and part of that was because the show that I developed — Puppet Up! — was improvised. The idea, though, was using the improvising to find a tone of comedy to then do a scripted piece on. But Melissa very much wanted to be improvising while doing the movie, and that's what we decided we were going to do; we're always going to improvise a little bit inside the scenes, even when it's just puppets. So bringing the improvising together with the technical process of puppetry was very tough, but also very rewarding and created a special new sort of thing. But Maya and Melissa and Elizabeth [Banks] and Joel [McHale], particularly, are very good improvisers, and had a lot of fun doing that.

There's one scene in the movie of a cow being milked by an octopus in the back room of an adult video and magazine shop... So was anything off-limits?

Henson: Not really. [laughs] But it was a cow being milked by an octopus. If we did a very pornographic scene with a humanoid that was similar to what you see in pornography, that would feel like we'd gone too far, and it wouldn't be funny. So yeah, that scene goes far; the office sex scene goes far. But the fact that the puppet ejaculates silly string makes it very, very funny. And you never see anything specific, you just see silly string flying around. [laughs] Those were the two scenes that are the most outrageous.

This question is more of a tongue-in-cheek one. As director, who was more difficult to work with, the puppets or the humans?

Henson: [laughs] Well, puppets are always more difficult to work with, honestly. And the truth is, what happens is actors — even actors who have a reputation for being difficult to work with — they come on set and they see how hard it is to work with puppets, how hard it is to get them to do anything. And when they get on the set with the puppets they very quickly go, "Uh, I'll just do whatever is easiest for the puppet." [laughs] So, in my experience, puppets are harder to work with. [laughs]

The Happytime Murders is in theatres August 24th, 2018.

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