If you were an 1980s kid it’s likely you were scared by three things. The Gremlins from, eh, Gremlins, The Fireys from Labyrinth and, perhaps most terrifying of all, the Skesis from Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal. Get ready to relive your childhood nightmares as the latter return to screens in a new series, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
"It was Jim Henson's sneaky way to introduce horror movies to kids," says Louis Leterrier, director of the 10-part Netflix series, which launches on August 30th. "They were like 'come see the next movie from the guy from The Muppet Show'!"
At the time the Muppets’ star was firmly in the ascendant. Henson had made five series of The Muppet Show and had a hit film with The Muppet Movie – now he wanted to try something different.
The Dark Crystal was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. A live-action fantasy film with not a single human on screen. Instead the cast were all puppets – with no green felt or ping pong balls to be seen. Henson wanted to create a realistic world, albeit a different one. As the opening narration of the film says, “Another world, another time, in the age of wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good – until the Crystal cracked.”
Cracking the matter of funding would be another story. Producers, keen to surf the Muppet wave, wanted Henson to continue with Kermit and Co. The way around it was a two-picture deal. Henson would get the money to make The Dark Crystal, but he would have to make a second Muppet film first.
So while shooting The Great Muppet Caper, Henson, along with Frank Oz (in his co-directing debut) and their team, worked away on populating the world of The Dark Crystal. An entirely new universe – everything from plants to trees and rocks – had to be created.
Upon its release the film performed particularly well in France, where it would go on to win the Grand Prix for Best Fantasy Film at the 1983 Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. As a child growing up in Paris, Louis Leterrier, director of the upcoming Netflix series, was obsessed with the festival and, in turn, The Dark Crystal itself.
“I saw this movie over and over and over and over again - on Betamax [an early rival of VHS] and then VHS. Even before I started working on the show I could draw 10, 15, 25 shots from the movie. So iconic. Absolutely terrifying. Absolutely beautiful. That’s what I fell in love with – what everybody involved in the project fell in love with – and what we decided to recreate and expand upon.”
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance is a prequel to the original film. The story follows three Gelflings – Rian, Brea and Deet – who inspire a rebellion against the Skeksis when they discover a horrifying secret behind their power that threatens their world of Thra.
To Dark Crystal fans the TV series has been a long time coming. The Jim Henson Company, after several false starts, had shelved a film sequel tentatively titled The Power of the Dark Crystal.
How does Leterrier describe the journey to getting the TV series made?
“It’s called rejection, my friend. Rejection,” he laughs. “You know it was a crazy gamble eight years ago coming back, bringing this movie out of the vaults of the Jim Henson company trying to possibly do a sequel.” Meetings with studios came to nothing.
In an age of CGI and explosive visual effects, recalls Leterrier, studio bosses were not bowled over by the idea of remaining faithful to The Dark Crystal’s puppet DNA. Yet during this time the deeper they dug into Jim Henson’s original Dark Crystal notes the more they became interested in the back story.
“What led this civilisation to be taken down?” asks Leterrier. “What led this civilisation to disappear from the face of this planet? Who are the Skeksis? I was much more interested in those ideas because, as interesting as a sequel is... [where] you expand on a universe you know... doing a prequel and actually creating something that you don’t know – in a sense The Dark Crystal movie is sort of the exclamation point at the end of a long, long sentence. So we have the exclamation point, but what are the many sentences that lead you there?”
Leterrier's passion for the project is apparent. After a year working – unpaid – on the show, Leterrier, along with Lisa Henson (Jim's daughter), decided to pitch it to Netflix.
"I felt like Luke Skywalker at the end, when he sort of uses the force to shoot his laser blast into the Death Star. That was the thing. 'Use the force, Louis. Use the force.' And then we pitched to Netflix," he says, simulating the sounds of Skywalker's lasers firing. "And they said yes!"
The scale of the series is every bit as huge as the original film. Some 75 different sets were used, more than 170 puppets were built, and 70 different creature species created for the series. Was that a big challenge to take on?
“It’s absolutely daunting,” he says. “But it came from the right place – from passion. If I go down in flames, if it’s the last thing I ever direct, I’ll be happy because I went down in flames – I did the best thing I ever did. The craziest thing I ever did, the way that I wanted to do it with the people I wanted to do it with.”
The credit list for the series numbers 2,500 people, with a voice cast that would make any Hollywood blockbuster – Taron Egerton, Sigourney Weaver, Mark Hamill and Helena Bonham Carter among others.
Many key players who worked on the original film have also returned. English fantasy illustrator Brian Froud – the film's original concept designer – is back, along with veteran Henson puppeteer Louise Gold.
Gold, who was one of the original performers on The Muppet Show as well as on The Dark Crystal, initially took the rumours of a possible TV series with a pinch of salt.
“I’d heard a rumour that this was going to happen. In this business nothing happens until it happens. And of course people say, ‘oh you’ll be involved. Of course you’ll be involved, you were in the original.’ I’ve heard that before,” she says.
Gold didn’t believe it until she went for a meeting with Leterrier. “I had to go and audition because Louis didn’t know any of us. Why should this old woman who was involved in the original be… I mean, is she still able to walk, let alone puppeteer?”
As for Louis’s side of things? “I thought that we just had her from time to time just because, you know, she’s a star. But she was there every day, helping everyone. She was fantastic.”
Considering the number of puppets and sets that were built for the series, is a second season inevitable? Louis takes a pause before answering.
"I think it's tempting the film or TV gods when you announce something. I've done that before!" he laughs. Leterrier, having directed the first Clash of the Titans film, expressed a desire to direct a second – only to have Jonathan Liebesman take directional duties on the sequel.
As a fan of The Dark Crystal, I tell Leterrier I don’t want to jinx it. “Yeah, no one jinx it! Okay, let’s make a pact. Everybody says okay. Thank you. That was a great gift. Let’s just take the 10 episodes. Then move on to something else and then possibly three, four, five weeks from now you’ll get wonderful news – but I’m not betting on anything.”
The Dark Crystal launches on Netflix on Friday, August 30th