Movies

Brian Henson On What Makes ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’ So Special And His Father’s Legacy

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After the passing of Jim Henson in 1990, the future of the Muppets was left in doubt. Henson’s son, Brian, was there to take the reins, however, and lead the most beloved puppets of all time into a new era. Despite the astronomical expectations, Brian Henson delivered one of the most beloved Muppet films of all time with The Muppet Christmas Carol, his feature directorial debut. The film has since become a holiday classic thanks to its blend of warmth and humor.

As he reflects on his legacy with the Muppets and looks ahead to future projects, Brian Henson, who now serves as the chairman of The Jim Henson Company, was gracious enough to talk with Uproxx about what made The Muppet Christmas Carol such a gem.

Can you tell me a little bit about the process of picking which Muppet would portray each Dickens character? Kermit was obviously the only choice for Bob Cratchit, but Gonzo’s probably not the first one that would come to mind for our narrator. Can you tell me a little bit about that process of finding a part for everybody?

Our first approach to it was to make it a little bit more of a comedy. At that point, we were going to put Miss Piggy in as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Robin the Frog I think was … I think it was Robin. I’m just not sure. I think it was Robin, was going to play the Ghost of Christmas Past. Gonzo was going to play the Christmas Yet To Come. It was a funnier, sort of lighter approach to the whole thing. Then, we fell more in love with the material and wanted to do something a little bit more sophisticated.

When we did that, we realized, you know what? The Ghosts really need to stay as Dickens describes them. Then we put Kermit in as Bob, and then we put Piggy in as Mrs. Cratchit, and then had all of their girls are pigs, and all of their boys are frogs. We just thought that was ridiculous. Of course, then obviously it made sense that Tiny Tim was Robin, which is why I’m thinking … I’m not sure that Robin was the Ghost of Christmas Past to start with. I can’t remember now. It might’ve been Scooter was the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Then, when we said we’re going to take a more respectful and kind of more sophisticated approach to the movie, then we put Kermit and Piggy where we put them, and that felt really right. Some of the others went because just the name just made you … Like, Fezziwig? Oh, it’s got to be Fozzie. Fezziwig? It’s not uncomfortable casting, because Fezziwig in the book is a gentle boss, but he’s a real boss, whereas Fozzie’s a little bit hapless, so our Fozziewig is a little bit of a mess in the way he’s running the business. You get the feeling his mother’s really the one running it.

What to do with Gonzo and Rizzo, that happened early on when Jerry Juhl was so in love with the book, and he came to me and said, “What I want to try,” which he didn’t really think had ever been done, and I don’t think it had ever been done. His feeling was, look, the Dickens dialogue is absolutely fantastic, as we all know from all the movies and stage shows, but the Dickens prose, when Dickens describes a scene or describes a character, it’s so, so good. He said, “I want to put a character in that is Charles Dickens.” Then we thought, “Who’s the least likely?” in order to make it funny, because we’re like, “Okay, that could be a kind of dry choice to do that. What makes it interesting and unexpected, and therefore better fulfills the promise of Muppets doing Muppet Christmas Carol? Gonzo was basically the least likely choice to play Charles Dickens, and then we put Rizzo with him just as his ridiculous little sidekick.

Then, pretty much almost everything that Gonzo says is straight out of the book. Probably 95% of his dialogue is Dickens prose, and maybe 5% are little asides and quips that we threw in there. That was, I think, a really genius choice that Jerry Juhl took in writing the piece. The truth is, there aren’t a lot of roles; Scrooge’s nephew needs to be a person, and some of the other roles. It’s true that there’s very little presence of some of the Muppet characters that people love, because there aren’t a whole lot of roles, but Kermit and Piggy, Gonzo and Rizzo, and Fozzie, they really get the biggest roles of the Muppet casting in there.

The way Michael Caine approached it was great … In the very first meeting he said, “Brian, I’m going to play Scrooge like I’m acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company. I’m going to never wink to camera. I’m going to adjust my performance at all because it’s puppets. I’m going to pretend that this is a very, very sincere, dramatic telling of A Christmas Carol, because I think that’ll be the funniest choice.” He’s absolutely right. That’s one thing that makes this film work so well, is Michael plays it absolutely real.

Yeah, definitely. That was actually my next question. Can you talk a little bit about getting him for the role? Was anybody else considered, maybe a more classically comedic actor?

Like I said, the film moved. It moved. I always wanted to work with Tim Curry, and then I did in Muppet Treasure Island. But at one point, we were thinking, “What if it is a more comedic performer, like Tim?” Again, as the film… as we put Gonzo in as the narrator, as it started coming together, we were thinking, “No, you know what? This really becomes an opportunity for a great actor to do their Ebenezer Scrooge.” We kind of went in that direction in the casting. We thought, “Who is a mature and highly respected actor that deserves their turn as Scrooge?” That brought us to Michael. Michael is the first person we offered the role to. We didn’t offer it to anybody else first.

The music in this movie is some of the best in any Muppet production. Do you have any insight into what the two cut musical numbers, “Room in Your Heart” and “Chairman of the Board,” what they would’ve looked like had they been filmed?

Oh, no. I shot them both.

Oh, you did?

Wait. “Room in Your Heart,” I did not shoot that one. I did shoot “Chairman of the Board.” Of course, “When Love is Gone” was not in the theatrical release, and is presently missing, which is a real shame. It was on the video release.

It’s not on my DVD, though. I was very sad to discover that.

I just remastered the film. I remastered it a couple of years ago, and Disney has lost the film.

Oh, no!

Yeah, I know. I think they will find it because I keep reminding them, “You’ve got to go find it.” “Chairman of the Board” I shot, and it was fun, and we just didn’t need to be there with that young Scrooge that long. It’s a really good song, and if it was being sung to Michael Caine, it maybe would’ve made more sense. But the problem was, it was a young boy actor who really had no dialogue or anything. This was young Scrooge, and then Sam sang a whole song to him. It just felt like it didn’t need to be in the movie. It was kind of disrupting the flow. I didn’t shoot Bunsen and Beaker doing “Room in Your Heart.” That, I didn’t do.

You’re right, it is some of the the best music. It was Paul Williams’ comeback, which was great. He had come out of a number of years of not being in good shape, and I always felt like The Muppet Movie was by far the best music that the Muppets had ever done. I also thought that John Denver, his songs with the Muppets also work very well, but in that country direction. I reached out. I had to search out Paul, and that was really his comeback. He embraced it in a wonderful way, and invested himself wholly in it, and wrote, I think, a terrific bunch of songs.

It’s what gives heart to it. The whole film is a conflict of Dickens and Muppets. Visually, that’s what it is. Visually, it’s the cold, stark, naked Charles Dickens reality, mixed with the bright, colorful, irreverent Muppet mentality. You have a Muppet deliver Charles Dickens’ dialogue, it just takes on a whole new flavor that’s really delightful. The musical numbers had to support that Muppet energy that was coming into the movie, to balance up the film a little bit so it wouldn’t become too sober.

I was listening to the DVD commentary, and you mentioned how difficult it was to shoot Bob walking down the street with Tiny Tim, when they’re singing together, because it involved a full-size puppet walking. Can you break down a little bit the specific logistical challenges that came with trying to pull that off?

Yeah. My dad traditionally — not so much in the third Muppet movie, but in the first two — he always wanted to do something new with Kermit. He put Kermit on a bicycle in the first movie, and then the second movie, put him on a bicycle and doing acrobatics. I wanted to do something new with Kermit, and I wanted to see him walking and dancing, which we hadn’t really seen in a clever way.

The way we did that is he’s walking on a cobblestone textured barrel. It’s a rolling barrel that he was walking on. The puppeteers are standing behind the barrel with a green screen behind them, and the puppeteers were all dressed in green. No, blue, because Kermit’s green. They were all in blue. Then we took the camera and took the street out of the set, and we tracked a camera back, and then we composited them together so that the rolling barrel that is the street, you don’t know it’s a rolling barrel. You just think it’s the street that he’s walking on, and the background is moving away. Then we composited out the puppeteers, and that was the first time somebody did that kind of level of sophisticated compositing with puppets. It came together … It was really lovely. I just knew I wanted to do it in a shot, and then we liked it so much.

We came up with that scat version of  Ghost of Christmas Present’s song … “It is the season of the spirit.” I can’t remember the title of the song, but Kermit and Robin are singing this scat version, and that one, we were in the recording studio and we just thought, “They’re dancing down the street. Maybe they should be humming.” I said, “Well, maybe they should be humming a little Christmas tune.” Then we said, “Let’s do one of Paul’s tunes.” Literally, we were just in the recording studio and just came up with the swing time for “It Is the Season”, and that got us to “Tis the season to be jolly and joyous …” The scatting is something that my dad always used to love to do. He loved to scat along with a song. To have Kermit scatting, Robin singing was kind of an ode to my dad, precisely what he would’ve done. It came out so nice that then the shot became more than just a little two second shot. It kind of becomes a moment in the movie, which is sweet.

Yeah, it’s a nice shot to establish Bob and Tim’s closeness. Do you mind if we talk a little bit about your father’s influence on the picture?

Yeah, he did everything before it.

Right. How far into development was this project at the time of his passing?

It was all after. Completely, yeah. Completely. My father died while he was making the Muppet 3-D movie attraction for Disney, and Frank Oz finished that movie for my dad after my dad passed away. We made a little documentary, a little bit of a thing about Jim that aired on television, a sweet little thing about the Muppets talking about Jim Henson. We wanted to do something really good, and we considered a bunch of different ideas. I wanted to take the Muppets in a different direction, actually, than he had. I wanted to not do the Muppets are playing themselves in another chapter. I didn’t want to just do Muppet Movie 4. In one, two, and three, all the Muppets are in our world, and they are performers, and they’re trying to make things work. I wanted to do something different. We hit on Christmas Carol, and we were going to do it as a TV movie for ABC. The script came out so good that Disney stepped in and offered to buy it as a movie instead. Then it became a movie.

My dad wasn’t part of it at all, except the production designer had just done a thing with my dad called Dog City a year or two before he died. The production designer’s name is Val Strazovec [and he] had done that for him. I just thought he was such an extraordinary production designer. My dad always loved him. I think bringing in Val really created a look for the film that was totally unique for the Muppets.

He had never even been involved. Actually, the choice of the material was from my agent at the time, Bill Haber, who loved the Muppets. I met him after my father died, and wanted some help. He came on to represent me and the Muppets. He was actually the one who said, “I think you should do A Christmas Carol. It’s such a great story. It’s such a wonderful story, and I think by doing it with the Muppets, you will do something that’s completely, really unique.” He was actually the one who suggested it. We read it and thought, “Wow, this really could be something special,” and very different from anything that the Muppets had ever done. In fact, if anything, the Muppets would always do the opposite. They would do the un-telling of a classic story, or the un-raveling. It was the first time that we took the Muppets and did a faithful and reverential telling of a classic tale.

A lot of people who were counting on this to continue your father’s legacy — fans, people who worked on these productions, that sort of thing. I imagine there was a lot of weight on your shoulders when you were, what, 27, 28 when you took everything on. Can you talk a little bit about those pressures in that moment in time?

I mean, it is everything that you would have thought. It was terrifying at the time, and it was a lot of pressure to take over… Just to be running the company was already a big pressure for me, and I’ll be honest, I did not want to direct it. I had approached a couple of other directors that were favorites of mine, and favorites of my father’s, and they both said, “No, you should do it.” At the time, I was really quite terrified of it. I also felt like, “I have an awful lot I need to already be doing, trying to run the company.” Honestly, it was like I had to direct it, because that was just what everybody was saying. Everybody was saying, “No, Brian, you direct it. You direct it.”

I had directed quite a bit. I had not directed a feature. I had directed television, and second units on features, but it was definitely a big step for me. It was scary, and I didn’t want to screw it up. We made it very carefully, and everybody just helped me tremendously. Frank Oz was a huge help all the way through, and the performers were incredibly supportive, and the shop people. It was a really wonderful atmosphere on set, very, very supportive environment, and we all knew it was working. As soon as we started shooting, we were like, “Wow, this is working. This is really working.” It’s a whole new direction, and it’s fun, and it’s poignant. Maybe it’s a little bit more poignant than people were used to the Muppets being, but at the time that felt right, in that it was the first big production after Jim’s death. It is a more touching and heartfelt story than the Muppets had done mostly up until then.

As we look at Disney’s work with the Muppets now, is it hard not being on the ground with the Muppets every day? Do you miss that sandbox from time to time, or is the challenge of new projects something that’s kind of pushing away the more hands on aspect of it?

It was an awful lot, for a lot of years of my life. I supervised an awful lot of Muppets. I probably supervised more Muppet production than my dad did, even, because it was just a different time when there were more outlets. You had to produce more. It was a lot of weight, but it also… It meant I could never direct anything else. I kept coming back to, “Brian, you know we’ve got this slate of projects, but of course the most important one is the next Muppet thing, so can you run the next Muppet thing?” I was doing it with Muppets Tonight, Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island. I was doing several other different types of Muppets for home video, Muppet promotional videos. I was doing an awful lot of Muppets.

Do I miss it every now and then? Yes, I absolutely do. Am I glad that it’s not what I need to be doing every working day now? I am glad. The Muppets needed to move to a bigger company. We’re a small family-run company, and frankly, after doing six movies, it was clear that The Muppets needed a bigger, more permanent home. My dad always loved Disney, and he always wanted the Muppets to reside in the Disney theme parks. We were able to just sort of complete that circle and it worked very neatly. I think they’ve been, as a company, very, very supportive of the Muppets. They’re slow and they’re cautious, but they never cheat. They try to do things at the highest quality standard. I think the two movies they’ve done have real strengths and some weaknesses, and the TV series that they’re doing now has some real strengths, a couple weaknesses. I think for the most part, they really are trying their hardest. I think, for the most part, they’re doing really well, and they’re being very careful about it, which is good.

Do you have any new projects on the horizon that you’d like to talk about? It seems like The Jim Henson Company company is focused more on stuff that isn’t just for kids. Is that more where the brand is heading going forward, and carving out that kind of niche?

That’s kind of true of me, but the company itself, the very large majority of the work that we do is preschool television. Educational and non-educational, but children’s is our main business, specifically children’s entertainment. Me, personally, I’m sort of experimenting with pushing in different directions. Farscape was mine. I think it had always worked with my dad, that he did some things that were a little bit edgier. Things that I can do now that he really couldn’t do is like my “Puppet Up!” show, which is an R-rated live puppet theater show, is really wonderful. I’ve been enjoying doing that, mostly because I still love puppetry, and I want to keep doing puppets, but I also don’t want to in any way be competitive to the Muppets. I’ve been having a lot of fun with, basically, adult puppetry. The main project that I’m working on right now is an R-rated puppet and human comedy movie that I’m looking to start shooting quite soon. I don’t have an actual shooting date, but I’m just casting now on that.

How does the company adapt while holding on to the charm, and I guess for lack of a better word, humanness of the Muppets, and puppetry as a whole, what with digital animation, and the prevalence of computer animation? How do you guys find the balance?

We have our own sort of approach to it. A lot of the digital animation that we do is puppetry. We call it digital puppetry, where we actually use puppeteers and we do the animation in live time. We capture, and we call it digital puppetry. That’s the way we did Sid the Science Kid. That’s the way we’re doing, right now… Oh, that hasn’t been announced yet, has it? Word Party is a show that we’re just delivering to Netflix. We do some animation, digital animation, where it’s puppeteered animation, which is really cool. It’s a whole different approach, which is our approach.

We’re kind of a performance based company, so it’s true that we’re not going to go the special effects route too often. We’ll try and figure out how to capture spontaneity, basically. People often say, “What’s special about your approach?” To me, it’s spontaneous. When you can actually perform it with a director and your cast, you can capture a moment in time. You can capture real spontaneity. With visual effects, and with key frame animation, you can’t. You can do a really good job of impersonating spontaneity, like Pixar does a brilliant job of making it look like it just happened accidentally, and the camera just happened to be in the right place to capture that little moment in time, but they have to do it by planning it, and planning it, and planning it, whereas with us, when I’m shooting, I’ll usually shoot anything that we’re doing, particularly the puppet comedies and the animatronic comedies. We’ll do it until we’ve got it, and then once we’ve got it, we’ll say, “Let’s just have one more take for fun, and just let rip.” Often, those are the takes that unexpected things happen, and those are the takes that I largely use when I’m putting it together. That will always remain what excites us.

We did that show, Creature Shop Challenge, but unfortunately, the network couldn’t pick up a second season because their budgets were all slashed. It was a great show that showcased the talent of creature animatronic designers and builders, and then the performing of those creatures. The audience really, really responded positively to that. Right around that same time, that’s when Star Wars was announcing that they were going back to physical effects. They were going to go back to realizing it in the moment, because there is something just so special about that. I think there’s sort of a renaissance of performance-led character work, and it’s cool to see.

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