A long time ago, Muppet master extraordinaire Jim Henson and his creative minions came up with a strange and wonderful dark fantasy musical that mixed David Bowie and his music with fantastical puppet creatures for a coming of age tale that should never have worked. And yet, 32 years after Labyrinth first premiered, the cult classic that's more popular than ever is returning to theaters for a three day "fan celebration" on Sunday, April 29, and Tuesday and Wednesday, May 1 and 2.
One of the primary puppeteers, Dave Goelz, offered us a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Labyrinth in this exclusive interview with SYFY WIRE. Goelz played several characters including Sir Didymus, the dog-riding protector of the bog's bridge.
Labyrinth followed the story of a teenager named Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) who, upset that she has to watch her baby brother, wishes that the Jareth (David Bowie), the Goblin King, would take him away. However, when baby Toby is kidnapped by Jareth and the goblins, Sarah sets off on a magical journey through the Labyrinth, running into many strange creatures and adventures along the way as she tries to save her brother. Beyond the two human leads, most of the other characters in the film were created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop.
As for Goelz, after decades of working as an actor, puppet creator, and puppeteer in TV and film, on everything from The Muppet Show to Dark Crystal, Goelz still continues to work on all things Muppets, including the upcoming live shows at the O2 Arena in London this summer.
Goelz talked with SYFY WIRE about the creation of some of his Labyrinth characters, why he believes the film has gained cult status, and about the one thing he'd like to tell Jim Henson if he could.
It's great to hear that Labyrinth will be re-released in theaters after 32 years. Are you going to try to see it at a theater?
Dave Goelz: We're in New Zealand right now... There's a Jim Henson Retrospectacle, a 21 day festival of screenings, and events and panel discussions and stuff. So we came over here to celebrate our friend Jim.
That's awesome. I imagine he would have loved that if he was still around.
We're really having a lovely time. Turn out is nice. There's a lot of people over here who we find out are already our friends through our work.
What's it like to get a blast from the past?
It is that because I don't watch these things at home too much... It's a good opportunity to sit down and have a look at it... We started out a little rough and got better and better. I think the most startling thing about it is really to realize that we have this bond with people who are in the audience.
People grew up with you guys, in a way.
It's different for us. If we were actors and people knew what we looked like, then we'd get feedback all the time. But we have normal lives. My dry cleaner has no idea what I do for a living. Our relationship is about dry cleaning. He's a really good guy and that's it. It's different than being an actor, where everybody shouts out when you go by.
Yes, but you've helped create characters that are every bit as memorable to the fans as any human actor would be.
It's true. It's true. We get this little taste of it when we do things like this, and we realize we're connected to the world. It's nice to have a taste of that.
You must have experienced that with Labyrinth. When the film first came out it wasn't really very popular, but it's become this cult classic. When you were working on the film, what were you expecting as far as reception?
We never know what to expect. While we're working on these things, we're pleasing ourselves and we're trying to make the best work we can. We don't know whether the public will like it or not. An interesting insight on what you just said is that when we screened The Muppet Movie over here the other day, that had been, at the time it was released, a huge hit. The audience that came for that was a good-sized audience, but the one that came for Labyrinth was absolutely a packed house. So the two have traded places. The failure has become a success and the success has waned a little bit. I wouldn't say waned, it's just that Labyrinth has gained over the years.
What do you think about it coming back to the movie theaters after all this time? Maybe getting a new round of fans or grown up fans bringing their children to experience the film?
I've been just like the audience. When it initially was finished, I thought it didn't work that well for me, because I thought the Sarah character was not sympathetic enough in the beginning of the film. I remember telling Jim at the time, “I don't find her likable in the beginning, so it doesn't make me want to go through the story with her.” Then, over time, as I grew and changed, had children, had a teenage daughter, I suddenly appreciated what that was all about and how scary it was to transition from childhood to adulthood. And when I see the movie now, it just breaks me up every time. It's profound and it's so much about that moment when you're standing on the precipice of adulthood and it's alluring and scary, and you don't know how you'll cope with it. Whether you'll have to leave childhood entirely behind. The movie gives you permission to take some of it with you. I love it.
You played a bunch of characters in the film, including Sir Didymus, Firey #3, One of the Four Guards, the Wiseman's Hat and the Left Door Knocker. What was your favorite character?
I think I really enjoyed doing Didymus. I enjoyed his internal conflict, trying to decide whether he should help Sarah or not... I guess Hoggle had that too, whether to help Sarah or not, because they didn't want to get in trouble with Bowie's Jareth... When we rehearsed Didymus, we built all those beats in. He had to consider the alternative and decide what to do, how helpful to be. And we just worked with our crew, all five of us, doing Didymus. So you have to rehearse everything syllable by syllable when you're first shooting. And we had it all planned out as to how he would go through his thought process. We included extra stuff so that in editing they could use what they liked best.
With Didymus, he was also riding a dog and a dog puppet at different points. There was a lot of complexities with that character.
We had the real dog and the dog puppet. And when they crossed the bog, those were stones that were hydraulically controlled so they could go under water or they could come up and be visible. When the real dog was induced to hop across the bog on those stones, they had a harness on the dog so he couldn't fall into the water. And in addition to the harness, we also had Didymus rigged on with a radio-controlled head, so I could actually make him turn his head, move around, and talk while he was riding the real dog. And the dog slipped off the stones I think just about every time, so we had to do it a bunch of times and the dog was always rescued by the cable.
Is it harder to do a big character like Hoggle, where you can put somebody inside the puppet, or a small character like Didymus?
None of it's easy, I'll tell you (laughs). It's always complicated. We had to be able to coordinate all of our work. Ludo, for example, played by Ron Mueck, was just Ron inside. But I believe there were radio-controlled features, like eyes and so forth. So you still have to work with people that you couldn't talk to very easily. Imagine doing a take on the set and right off to the side is sitting somebody with a radio-controlled eye mechanism. He needs to talk to him and say, “Don't blink until I say such and such a word.” And it's hard to communicate when you're in a suit like that.
Character by committee.
It really is. There isn't an easy way to do all this.
Has technology made puppetry easier now?
That's a good question. The big difference in the fantasy creatures is that you use radio-controlled facial features now. In those days, we used cable-controlled. There were people crawling along on the floor next to the main character and each one of them had a cable with a lever on it. And so one guy would make the eyes move left and right, and that's what his lever did. And somebody else would make the eyebrows work, and so forth. Now you can do it with radio-control. The Henson Company has a system that allows you to program facial expressions. You don't have to work each feature by itself... You can actually program it so that you press a button and it makes them happy. Press another and it makes them confused, and so forth.
You played several characters in Labyrinth, including Firey #3. Tell me about doing the Fiery dance scene with these creatures dancing around with the heads popping off. It's such a big production number.
The Fireys were at least two puppeteers per character. They stood about chest high to us. They were that big. Because of that we were wearing black and they dressed the entire set in black. And then the camera was on a special camera dolly that was digitally controlled so it could repeat its moves. So if you moved the camera and shot something with us in black, you could then take the draping off the set, take us away, and run the camera through the same movements and shoot the set. Now you had two different pieces of film. One piece of film just had the set on it. The other one had our figures and everything else was black. And then optically that was combined. Those were the days before digital compositing. It was combined at ILM optically on film to get the final result.
It must have been crazy with all these people running around.
When you're shooting that way and you have people in black suits, you have to also not stand in front of any part of the puppet. Like if your arm crosses in front of the puppet the effect will be that part of the puppet disappears in the final shot. So that's another consideration. When you're manipulating, you have to plan everything so we are upstage of the puppets, you know, behind the puppets, so the camera doesn't see us. And so you don't block the puppets.
Is there anything else you'd like to add about Labyrinth?
I really believe in that picture now, and I just absolutely adore it. If Jim could come back for a moment I would just tell him, “Jim, I was wrong. I was wrong. It's a fantastic picture.” That's what I would like to do. I'd like to correct my unreasonable assessment of it. It's something that I love seeing. I can't get through it dry-eyed. It always affects me.
Why should people go see Labyrinth at the movie theater for those three days?
Oh, I wouldn't tell people what to do... The truth is that people actually see different things in it. Some people love the fantasy element. They love the trips through the Labyrinth. They love all the characters and puzzles and encounters they have to solve. Others love the Bowie music, which is stunning. It's some of my favorite Bowie music ever. The production of Underground is stunning. You can't not love it with the gospel singers and so forth. I would suggest that people go on YouTube and listen to Bowie's recording in the studio as he recorded Underground for Labyrinth. You'll see he was a master of what he was doing. He wrote every harmony for every singer on the record. He was at ease. He was comfortable. He was clearly at the top of his game when he recorded that. You just can't not love the song. That's a nice thing to do before you see the movie to see how he recorded the song.
You've done all these amazing characters. You've been an actor. You've created puppets. You've had an amazing career. What do you think when you look back?
I know. It's been remarkable. It's more stuff than I can remember actually. I'm constantly being surprised when someone mentions something that I don't even remember doing. We're looking back right now because Labyrinth is coming back. Dark Crystal is being made for television... And all of these things to me are just a chance for us to gather around and celebrate all the stuff we've been able to do together.
I read somewhere that when you started you felt like an impostor in the beginning.
Oh, I did.
And yet, you have 101 credits just as an actor. And that probably doesn't cover everything. I'm sure they've missed some stuff. You have an incredible body of work.
I'll tell you, I never anticipated it. I just didn't have any idea whether it would succeed and how much we would do. It feels great to look back on that and just savor it. It's really been a busy life.
Here's a look at the orginal trailer for Labyrinth: