While I did put my hand inside a puppet on the set of the upcoming R-rated puppet comedy The Happytime Murders, the film’s director made one thing very clear: “It’s not graphically sexual,” Brian Henson said. “The puppets cum silly string, but you don’t see their penises.”
Well. This is certainly not what one would expect from a Jim Henson set.
It’s October 12, 2017, day 27 of 40 on the Santa Clarita, CA set of The Happytime Murders. Henson, of course, is the son of Jim Henson, legendary creator of the Muppets. The company, Jim Henson Studios, sold the Muppets outright to Disney in 2004 but has long made other projects—films like Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and others. The Happytime Murders is kind of the modern evolution of that. It’s an attempt to harken back to the earliest days of Henson, when late-night TV and raunchy puppets were more the norms than Kermit the Frog and Big Bird.
“I feel like we’ve always been a little bit naughty,” Henson said during his lunch break on the set. “The Henson Company is considered a very family friendly brand…[but] I actually am deliberately rating [this] R because I want to make it clear this is for adults.”
The Happytime Murders stars Melissa McCarthy as Detective Edwards, a tough, hard-boiled Los Angeles cop whose partner, Phil, was the first puppet ever allowed on the force. Yes, this is a world where puppets and humans co-exist. However, the puppets are by and large considered second-hand citizens, which gives the film an immediate social agenda.
“I think when you can show the worst of us in a way that’s palatable for people, hold up the mirror in a way that’s still entertaining, it works on a subconscious level,” McCarthy said. “I always think that’s a good way to do it. If you can make your point to make them laugh, I think sometimes people can take it a little better. We can all use a mirror shoved up in our face. We don’t really love it, but we could all use it.”
Reality is shoved into the face of the characters in the film by way of a series of mysterious murders. Someone has begun to kill everyone who was involved in a former hit show called The Happytime Gang, and the case brings Edwards and Phil back together, years after a falling out. Elizabeth Banks, who plays Jenny—the only human cast member of the Happytime gang—likens the movie to Chinatown or Dick Tracy.
“You know that ‘70s vibe of working PI dicks? This kind of has [that] timelessness to it,” Banks said. “You’re not sure if it’s 2018, 1997, 1984, or like 1977. It’s this total mosh of eras.”
That timelessness will also come from the fact that the movie will show the Happytime gang both at the height of their fame as well as in their lowest lows. It spans decades as well as social and economic barriers, sort of like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, but instead of the Looney Tunes, it’s the Miskreant puppets of Henson’s world. “There’s definitely nothing child-like about it,” McCarthy said. “This is not like a raunchy kid’s movie. It’s really just a straight up gritty comedy that happens to have puppets.”
There are 125 unique puppets in the film, 40 of which were created specifically for this movie. The most important one, of course, is Phil, who is the male lead in the movie. He’s primarily puppeteered by Bill Barretta, a veteran who has performed characters like Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Swedish Chef, Pepe, and others, on and off, for several decades. But, unlike most puppet movies we’re used to seeing, The Happytime Murders will be using mostly full body puppets. The world is simply too expansive for the characters to only be seen waist up. In this world, puppets drive cars, they star in action scenes, they smoke, they strip, they have sex. Basically, there’s nothing the puppets can’t or won’t do in the movie.
That may sound easy but technically, it’s a huge challenge. “Most of these puppets are done by more than one person,” Banks explains. “So you will have two or three completely green screen human beings in green body suits working a puppet and you have to focus on the puppet, which actually is fairly easy. But there are three other human beings like right there in front of you.”
When you add two to three puppets per person and maybe up to a dozen puppets in any one scene, there are times with 25 or more puppeteers on set at once. That’s possible either through visual effects, like Banks said, or by going the more traditional route. All the sets for The Happytime Murders were built about four feet in the air and all the floors on the sets are completely movable, so puppeteers can stand below them, on the ground, while the actors on the set interact with only the puppets.
And let me tell you, working a puppet is hard. As part of the visit to the set, journalists were invited to try some puppeteering with actual Henson puppets. I was given a goat and, yes, I stuck my hand up his ass to work him. The only way to make it look real is for your arm to be fully extended above your head, and then by pointing the camera up so you aren’t in the frame. You then talk normally and move your arm from below the frame. That’s the easy part.
The hard part is, when you put your arm up, your natural inclination is to point your hand up. But the puppet has to look forward, so while your arm is fully extended up, your wrist must be bent down, in a very uncomfortable upside down “L” shape. That’s just one arm, too. For some puppets, one arm is up the “butt” while your other arm operates their arms with some kind of stick. Other puppets act more like a glove with different fingers stretched out to do different things. In the midst of all this, you have to act like this thing on your arm is talking and being normal, all while trying not scream because your arm hurts. It’s very, very difficult.
All that work is what makes a seemingly simple scene like the one shot on day 27 even more impressive. The scene was from the very end of the movie so I won’t share all the details, but it includes Phil and another of the human actors interacting. Barretta controls Phil’s left arm and head, while another puppeteer has his right arm. The puppet and actor exchange lines; then, as the angle around the shot changes, the puppeteers have to change in and out of the green suits, move positions and, at one point, even make the puppet stand up on two legs, all while keeping a compelling emotional connection that will anchor the finale of the film.
“It’s weird how you have this gravitational pull towards the puppet and not the puppeteer,” said Maya Rudolph, who plays Phil’s assistant, Bubbles. “You just see them doing this while you’re talking to them. It’s amazing. It’s not like anything else I’ve ever done.”
And while all the actors on The Happytime Murders agreed that working with puppets was easy, Hollywood didn’t feel the same for a long time. Henson read Todd Berger’s original script for The Happytime Murders in 2003 but passed on it. It wasn’t until a few years later he realized a more adult sensibility was a good direction for the company to take, and circled back to it. However, even with Henson committed, it took years for a studio to actually decide to make it. That final push came because McCarthy decided to come on board to star, produce, and even do a pass on the script. She recounts reading the script for the first time.
“By page two, when I read this—and I’m not exaggerating—Ben [Falcone, McCarthy’s husband] was outside and I walked out and was like, “I think I’m in.” He was like, “You’ve been gone 13 seconds. What do you mean?” I was like, “I know, but there’s a big street scene of gritty L.A. and they’re playing ‘I’m Your Puppet.’” He was like, “Why don’t you go read it?” And then, I came back out on page four and was like, “I’m just saying, I really think I’m already in.” I never say that. I wait until the very end and I think about it, but I had the strangest reaction to it. We all grew up with puppets, and when they’re inhabited in such a realistic way, there’s the little voice in the back of your head that goes, “I knew it! I knew they were real!” It’s everything you thought of, as a kid. They just talked to me.”
If the film is a hit, Henson admitted he and Berger have discussed other films that could take place in this world. But even then, those films would definitely not be for kids.
“My kids are like, ‘We can’t wait to see this!’ McCarthy said. “And I’m like, ‘I can’t wait to show you--when you’re 40!’”
The Happytime Murders opens August 24.