It's June 28th, 2018. Finally, the interview is about to happen.
Erik and I had arrived early, and set up the equipment by the lobby kiosk -- populated by the colorful cast of FRAGGLE ROCK. Enough time’s left for Erik to pose for a quick photo with Oscar the Grouch (tongue sharp with wit, but spongy to touch), and I with Aloysius Snuffleupagus (a fond childhood friend, to whom I can finally give a hug).
Ms. Cheryl Henson arrives, and after friendly exchanges, she looks at our setup. “This interview’s about THE DARK CRYSTAL,” she smiles. “Shouldn’t we show something to do with the film?”
Erik and I exchange blank stares. “Whatever you guys want is absolutely fine with us,” I say nervously. “We don’t want to inconvenience you.”
“Let’s see what we can do,” Ms. Henson says.
A few people then appear, and set dressing ideas are exchanged with enthusiasm. Everyone is so friendly and courteous. Erik and I move our setup to another part of the lobby. A Skeksis’ throne is moved into frame – a thing of dark beauty, so mammoth it requires two people to move it – and a mounted poster of Amsel’s fanciful DARK CRYSTAL artwork is placed on the wall.
At long last, we’re ready to go.
“My father had so much respect for Richard Amsel’s work,” Ms. Henson said. “He got to work with him on a design for THE MUPPET MOVIE poster. And it was a beautiful design … (but) it didn’t wind up getting used. … Who knows why. But my father really enjoyed working with him, and thought he was an excellent designer. And so when it came to THE DARK CRYSTAL, he was interested in working with him again.”
Above: Richard Amsel's unused poster for THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979).
The two artworks ultimately used for THE MUPPET MOVIE posters were both done by another illustrative titan, Drew Struzan. Struzan’s first poster was a charming, whimsical play on Howard Terpning’s famous GONE WITH THE WIND poster, with a buxom Miss Piggy holding her beloved (if diminutive) Kermit in her arms. The second poster included the film’s human cast – a large ensemble of guest stars, hovering above Kermit and Piggy in a boat.
Above: Drew Struzan's posters for THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979).
Struzan’s work would prove to be the beginning of a longtime, fruitful creative relationship with Jim Henson and The Muppets. The artist had a magical ability to give life to those cherished characters on the printed page, and it continued with Struzan’s posters for subsequent Muppets films, including THE GREAT MUPPET CAPER, A MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, and MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND.
But THE DARK CRYSTAL was a very different kind of film – one that carried different challenges, maturity, as well as a darker sensibility and creative palette. Never has there been another film quite like it, before or since.
“I believe THE DARK CRYSTAL is the only film that has no humans at all, all puppets and animatronics,” Ms. Henson said. “Every single creature is built by hand, and operated by (hidden) people. …
“I worked very closely with my father on THE DARK CRYSTAL. I loved the idea that they were creating a world unlike anything that had ever been created before -- creating a world from scratch, where there are no humans.”
She turned to the artwork and motioned to the characters. “Richard Amsel did a fantastic poster that tells the story, and what is the drama of what this film is going to be. He captured Chamberlain, the one that lurks and comes after (the Gelflings). … With the castle in the foreground, (Amsel) really captures the darkness against the lightness. …
“Puppetry is the illusion of life. And it’s one of the subtle things that a going to give people the clue to who these characters are, what motivates them … that gives the impression of them truly alive. A puppet can do that in time and space, but to convey that in a flat, two-dimensional illustration – that’s a different skill. …
“Richard took those characters and created a poster that told the story -- that really gets into the narrative of the film. … An illustrator has to be able to capture that, because the movie is like an illustrated book, in a way, and so to really highlight those characters through illustration is really beautiful.”
The film also presented a significant share of creative and financial risks for Jim Henson.
Cheryl Henson explained: “So as they were finishing THE DARK CRYSTAL film, my father realized he needed to own the print and release it himself. There was a question of whether or not the new owners of the studio were going to actually release this film, and so my father really … took a gamble and used the money from the success of THE MUPPET SHOW to buy back the print. But that meant that all of our money, and … the (financial) future of our family and the company were all resting on this film. And it was very important that it get out there, and that it do well.”
Jim Henson’s personal investment allowed him to wield much greater creative control over the film’s marketing. He personally chose Richard Amsel's poster for the campaign.
“He was always involved in the marketing of his films, but being the owner of the print meant that he really cared,” Ms. Henson said. “It mattered very much to him. … He was involved in every aspect the films that he did, but this film had a particular place in his heart, and also a particular place in his financial future.”
I asked Ms. Henson how her father reacted to the news of Amsel’s death.
“I remember my father was very sad,” she answered. “He didn’t like to think of death as a sad thing. He always liked to think in terms of death as moving on. But The AIDS crisis was a total devastation of talent. And it was that killing off of talent that I think my father was most distraught by, …
“That’s a different kind of a sadness, a kind of a hopelessness in a way that really affected my dad. … It was that devastation of not only Richard being gone, but so much talent being lost to our world.”
There were other questions Ms. Henson kindly answered for us, filled with insight and surprises I dare not reveal here.
I look forward to sharing them once the film is complete.
I wish to give heartfelt thanks to Ms. Cheryl Henson, Erik Sharkey, and the following people among the Henson team for their support and assistance in making our interview happen:
The Jim Henson Foundation: Z. Briggs, Foundation Manager / Jason Weber, Art Director / Joe Roddy, Production Assistant / Susie Tofte, Collections Manager & Associate Archivist / Yannina Diaz, Director, Publicity / Nicole Goldman, Executive VP, Marketing & PR and Education Initiatives / Bill Kelly (Los Angeles office)