Labyrinth with Jim Henson and David Bowie

Brian Henson looks back on working with his dad and David Bowie on Labyrinth

Contributed by
Apr 27, 2018

In 1986, Jim Henson directed a strange dark fantasy musical called Labyrinth that starred David Bowie and a whole lot of puppets. It wasn't a Muppet film and it wasn't like his previous entry into dark fantasy, The Dark Crystal (1982). It wasn't quite appreciated by the public at large at the time, but it's gone on to become a cult classic as audiences have caught up with what Brian Henson, Jim's son, always knew. It was the young Henson's biggest project to date — he now runs The Jim Henson Company — and he has incredibly fond memories of working on the project. And as he told SYFY WIRE in a recent interview, he may have had an even bigger role in Labyrinth than even most fans realize.

Over 30 years after its initial release, Labyrinth will return to theaters for Labyrinth - a three day fan celebration on Sunday, April 29, and Tuesday and Wednesday, May 1 and 2. The presentation will include introductions by Brian Henson and star Jennifer Connelly. After the film, there will be a special showing of an episode of the award-winning 1987 fantasy series The Storyteller. Brian Henson will discuss the episode, “Soldier and Death,” which was also directed by Jim Henson, and the special effects techniques that were a hallmark of Labyrinth, The Storyteller, and Jim Henson’s legacy.

Henson spoke to us about working on the film, his memories of his dad and David Bowie, and so much more.

Brian Henson

Why bring Labyrinth back at this time? 

It's the 30th anniversary. Everybody's thinking so fondly about David, and this is a weird and kind of wonderful departure he did in his career. Departure I don't know is the right word, but he was right at the top of his popularity. It was not long after “Modern Love” and he was huge at the time, and he so enthusiastically jumped on board this. He wrote all the songs himself, and they were great. And then he played this wonderful role where he's kind of making fun of the personality of a rock star. He plays this overly flamboyant, spoiled rotten, self-centered King of the Goblins. He had a wonderful sense of humor, David. And he has a wonderful sense of humor all the way through. I think he knew he was kind of making fun of himself, in a fun way.

I was looking at your filmography and Labyrinth was one of your early official acting roles as a voice actor. And you got to do Hoggle, of course, who is such a great character in the movie.

Well, I was doing bits and bobs since I was knee-high, always doing little bits of puppeteering. I was always shy to perform when I was actually voicing. I was a technical performer. Like even as a kid my dad would bring me in to do the weird puppet effects, like Muppets riding bicycles and stuff like that. I would do that stuff. But I didn't really consider myself a performer. I was a very shy kind of science-geek kid. Also an artist. I didn't think of myself as a performer. Actually Return to Oz, the movie that I did that Walter Murch directed, I performed in.

Labyrinth

You were Jack Pumpkinhead.

Yeah, and I did Jack Pumpkinhead. And when I did that it was because it was a technical puppet. They were looking for somebody who was technically minded who could figure out how to do the character, and Walter always told me that he'd be replacing my voice. And then right at the end he said, “You know, I kind of want to keep your voice.” Surprise.

So from then on I started being a performer as well. But even with Hoggle, it was a very, very technically complicated puppet. I think there were 35 motors in the head, and this was before we were using computers to assist in the performance. So trying to figure out how few puppeteers could work Hoggle and how it would work, that was really why I was there. Again, my dad was always going to replace my voice (laughs). And then in the end he goes, “You know, let's keep it.” And I was like, “Come on, Dad, that's hardly an English accent.” And he said, “No. It's just so weird. It's kind of good.”

So then through those years I never thought of myself as a performer. Not so much in terms of voice artistry. I was more doing the technical puppets. And then on Labyrinth I was also coordinating all the puppets. So I was trying to figure out how all the puppets would work.

You were in your early 20s when that film was being done. What was it like for you? I'm sure you'd been around puppets all your life probably, but this had to be different.

It was all just an interesting roller coaster. I mean for me as a kid I did not think I was going to go into Muppets, cause every kid does that. I was resistant as a teenager. My dad was suddenly really famous when I was about 12 and it kind of annoyed me. And I thought I'm going to be an astrophysicist. That's what I'm going to do. And by the time I was I like 17 I'd already done enough work where now I was thinking about going to film school, and stuff like that. And then I went to college and hated it. I went to a college I didn't like. I went to the University of Colorado. So I just wanted to get out. I applied for a transfer to Wesleyan, and then I had to wait one semester.

And while I was waiting, Return to Oz had auditions in London. And I went, “Oh, I'll go an audition, and if I get the role I'll do it and just postpone Wesleyan for another semester.” And basically I just went from movie to movie to movie. I kept postponing college and I never went (laughs). So I was working full-time from the age of 19. But it wasn't really by design. Originally I was filling time in a college transfer and just never completed the transfer.

Labyrinth with David Bowie and Brian Henson

By the time Labyrinth had started to shoot, I had just done two big films. I'd done Return to Oz, which was a long commitment, and I'd done a movie called Santa Claus: The Movie, a very odd movie with reindeer puppets. And then I went on to Labyrinth to work with my dad. And it was a really special experience for me because it was the first time I got to work with my father, not just I'm on summer break and I can do the bicycles for The Great Muppet Caper. It wasn't, “Oh, Brian's home from boarding school. Why doesn't he help out on this?” It was, “I'm here for the whole movie with you, Dad.”

And when it comes to the puppetry, I was kind of his number two. He was concentrating on what was immediately in front of the camera and I had to get everything else going. So we worked really closely together and I think that was a really great experience. It was the first time I could work with my dad just as two colleagues, and I found that we really, really got along well. It was a great very trusting relationship. And that part was really great.

When it came to David, he was just very disarming. I think I was pretty central to my dad choosing David. He was trying to choose between Michael Jackson and David Bowie, and I... had a pretty strong opinion. And then when he hired David, it was great. Like I say, he was a very disarming guy. When he walked into the room it was terrifying to everybody because he has such a unique look, and he was so famous at the time, and so gorgeous. Oh my God, at 40, he was like, that was his prime. When he walked in it was terrifying for all of us.

And then he's just a fun-loving, joke-cracking, East End Cockney boy, which none of us really expected. We expected David to be a little bit weird, and ethereal, and off in his own space, and we were worried that when he starts talking we won't really understand what he's talking about... Instead for David, the lighting crews, the grip crews, all those people, they were his people. It's an East End-dominated industry over there, particularly at the time. So for David, it was great. He got to be his own roots self. And he would go to the pub on the studio lot every evening after shooting. He'd go and have a drink with the whole crew. He just relaxed completely, which was really fun and wonderful for all of us.

So he was really down to earth?

Yeah, really down to earth. But then in the film, he loved making just bold and weird choices, and my dad loved it. They would laugh a lot together. My dad always enjoyed people he could laugh a lot with and David always had these fun little twists that he wanted to put into every moment that he was on screen. They really had a ball working together.

Labyrinth with David Bowie

And then when the film finally came out, it wasn't very popular. But then 30 years later it's coming back to the screen.

I think the film has consistently done better in every year than it did the year it opened. Which is very odd.

It must have been disappointing for your dad.

Oh, it was very disappointing. If he had been alive still today to see how the gross revenue has consistently performed... It's turned out to be great success in the long run. But at the time, I think... I don't want to read too much into what my dad would have said, but the general feeling was he'd done The Dark Crystal. It was a huge, huge effort. It took many, many years to develop a whole new look and style and feel. And it was received as too weird, Dark Crystal was, a little bit by the industry. Not so much the audience. The audience was like, “Wow! This is real deep fantasy.” But it wasn't funny and and it wasn't full of music, Dark Crystal, the way that people expected Jim Henson to be.

But he knew he wanted to keep working in that world, that universe of fantasy. So he and Brian Froud came up with Labyrinth as the next one. But I think he thought he was responding to what the world wanted. If you're going to do another thing like this then bring in some of the funny, like the Muppets, and bring in some of the music like the Muppets and bring in a guest star, like always worked on The Muppet Show. So we brought David Bowie in. We introduced the music, made the music a strong element, and make it funny. And he brought in Terry Jones [of Monty Python] and he made it funnier. I think he felt, “Well, this is what I probably should have done with Dark Crystal.” And then he was very surprised that it didn't do well.

Jim Henson and Brian Henson

And I think largely it's just because it's so unique. It's just not like anything. And not surprisingly it just started doing better and better and better over time, but over a long time because not a lot of people saw it in the theater. But then they recommended it to other people so, when it came out on home video it was a big rental hit, and it keeps playing and playing and the audience just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. But I think at the time nobody could understand it. Is it a Monty Python movie? Is it another Dark Crystal fantasy movie? Is it a David Bowie vehicle? I think people couldn't really understand it.

There's more than just the movie playing in theaters. There will be interviews and more.

When people go and see Labyrinth if they stay, we also put in an episode of The Storyteller... We did this incredible TV series called The Storyteller, which we produced in London, nine episodes and then four episodes of Greek myths and put them together. It was 13 episodes of The Storyteller series. And it went on to a weird schedule here in America and they weren't all seen. It kind of went away. But in Britain, the series won the top BAFTA award as the best television series. It's an extraordinary TV series that we did that was half-hour like movies. Every episode is a different story and a different movie. John Hurt is the Storyteller, but every half-hour episode is a completely different story.

Basically, we took what we were doing on Labyrinth and brought to the small screen what we were doing on the big screen. It's a really great series that people don't know very well. So there's one episode of the series at the end of the movie if people want to stay and watch that.

Is there anything else coming up you'd like to talk about?

We're trying to continue the world of The Dark Crystal, and Lisa [Henson] has been very integral in producing that. So they're doing a big miniseries in the Dark Crystal vein.

And I'm working right now on Happy Time Murders, which is a wild, R-rated puppets and people crime thriller set in Hollywood. It's a really cool and weird and wonderful piece. And it's R-rated so it's really odd for me. But I'm really enjoying doing it. We're meant to release it in August and hopefully we will. We might have to push it. I don't know.

I miss Farscape. Just saying...

I know. It's so close to my heart and been such a hard slog trying to develop it into a movie, but I'm still trying.

Here's a look at Labyrinth trailer: