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Awards Contenders: The director of Netflix's Dark Crystal rescued the puppets from a fiery death
Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE will be talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV of 2019, and who have been nominated for various awards. Today, we speak with co-creators Will Matthews and Jeff Addiss and co-executive producer (and WGA-nominated writer) Javier Grillo-Marxuach about The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
Halfway through production, on one of the hottest days of the year, The Dark Crystal set caught fire. It was late at night, and French director Louis Leterrier was in a nearby edit room, working alone. He smelled smoke and heard an alarm, and when he made his way to the soundstage to see what was happening, the smoke was so thick he couldn't see his hand in front of his face. Firemen were called, and when they arrived, Leterrier drew a map to help them navigate the property.
"He drew it from memory," says co-creator Will Matthews. "These are two football-field-sized warehouses, full of stages. And he's doing all this in a panic moment."
Which may be why Leterrier neglected to mention the puppets. The firefighters rushed in with their hose to spray the burning set – and then ran back out almost immediately, spooked by all the eyes they found staring back at them. (The Skeksis didn't help.) At this point, Leterrier realized that he would have to help save the puppets himself, so he rushed in. "It was death-defying heroism," says co-executive producer Javier Grillo Marxuach. "It was like somebody from Backdraft. It was amazing."
With a security guard's help, Leterrier was able to save some 40 puppets: Gelflings, Podlings, Aughra, and every single Skeksis. (A wet Skeksis, by the way, weighs about 200 pounds.) Says co-creator Jeff Addiss, "Louis literally carrying the puppets on his back through a fire showed how invested he is. It's the perfect metaphor."
"All of us have an extraordinary veneration of Louis at this point," says Grillo-Marxauch. "If he told us to jump in front of a bus, we would do it — because we'd think he would probably be able to stop the bus with his bare hands." ("Or he would at least shoot that bus beautifully," Addiss adds.)
Leterrier and company see their Netflix series — which serves as a prequel to the 1982 fantasy film — as a project worth risking lives for; they've been obsessed with the original Dark Crystal since they were kids. Leterrier considers it the first film to ever scar him emotionally. Addiss once nearly failed an art class because he spent so many weeks trying to recreate one of the Mystics. ("The yarn hair didn't look quite right," he says.) Grillo-Marxauch fought with his mother for oven space to bake clay monsters (she wanted to make dinner).
It was that level of love that inspired the most meta (and most hilarious) moments in the series, which takes place in the nominated episode written by Grillo-Marxauch: the puppet show within a puppet show. "At the risk of arrogance," he says "that is my favorite thing that I have ever done."
The scene involves the Gelflings encountering a Skesis (voiced by Andy Samberg) and a Mystic (Bill Hader), who promise to provide answers to the questing heroes, via "that most ancient and sacred of arts" — a puppet show. Even the Gelflings roll their eyes at this. But the little show — created with the shadow puppetry and hand puppetry of Barnaby Dixon – packs in much useful history about the world of Thra. "It's our solution for how we give the audience a lot of exposition that some of the audience already knows," says Matthews. "It encapsulates everything that is a challenge and a joy about making a prequel."
The series is a loving tribute to the original movie. It does make some significant changes – bringing in the Skeksis and the Mystic who are friends, not enemies, and a Podling who is more than just a background character — but these additions challenge our assumptions about the world, without being a snarky deconstruction.
"We didn't look at The Dark Crystal as something we had to undermine," says Grillo-Marxauch. "And that comes from learning the mistakes of other projects trying to revive older material."
So the series is a labor of love, with occasional weird moments. Matthews was in the creature shop one day and saw a Skeksis Hunter suit being tested, with a puppeteer inside of it. "Then all of a sudden, he whipped his head around and started running, and I screamed and jumped out of the way. It looked like a skeleton that had come alive – it was terrifying!"
Well, in a fun way – a very fun way, says Grillo-Marxauch, "We will never stop evangelizing for this series," Grillo-Maraauch says. "We'll be 96 years old at the old folks' home and we'll still be talking about this thing."