Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets went off his usual route when he created The Dark Crystal, and we all believed that it was just a one-time gig away from what we usually know and love him for. However, that just wasn’t enough for him and so he decided to work on Labyrinth.
Initially, it was supposed to have something to do with Indian mythology and yet, he and the conceptual designer for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, Brian Froud, realized that neither of them knew anything about that subject. Brian says, “But what flashed into my mind was goblins and Jim’s eyes lit up. Then the idea of the Labyrinth occurred to me, because the thing about labyrinths is that they can have a metaphorical sense – they don’t have to just be a literal place.
They can be something else as well. . . “
They also decided based on past experiences with The Dark Crystal which was only puppets and The Muppet Show which had the most success when it paired real people with puppets, that Labyrinth was going to feature humans along with latex monsters. “That set the whole film really,” said Froud. “I had an instant vision of a baby surrounded by goblins, which I thought would look really striking. In European fairy tales, that’s what goblins do – they steal babies. I painted a picture of a baby surrounded by goblins, and then continues to paint other conceptual things, just ideas for characters. And the story developed from there.”
George Lucas even teamed up with Henson as executive producer of Labyrinth. “The reality of the art and science of puppets, and trying to create realistic rather than abstract puppets, was really what Jim and I had been working on from the very beginning, ” says Lucas. “How can we make these look like real creatures? It’s a struggle because it’s a technological exercise more than anything else. Jim’s ability to combine old puppet techniques with state-of-the-art was his genius. He really understood how to make-believe and then make it real.”
Labyrinth’s narrative was left up to Canadian poet and children’s author, Dennis Lee. However, this project also happened to include Terry Jones, who had the idea that Jim Henson might like the monsters in his book, Erick The Viking enough to adapt them into film. He said, ” Jim came round to my house in Camberwell and I remember he couldn’t take his eyes off our dog, which was a long-haired Jack Russell terrier. It eventually became the basis for the knight, Sir Didymus. Mitch The Bitch was immortalised in Muppet form!“
Gonzo was the voice of Didymus (Dave Goelz):
However, Jones was not impressed with the creative poet, Dennis Lee, although he was surprised by him saying, “Rather than write a script, he’d written a poetic novella,” Jones recalls, “and he hadn’t actually finished it, so it wasn’t even a complete thing. I can’t remember if Brian Froud had been designing from this novella or not, but I didn’t really get on with it, so I discarded it and sat down with Brian’s drawings and sifted through them and found ones that I really liked, and started creating the story from them. I think the only thing I kept from the novella was Hoggle squirting the fairies. I thought that was funny!”
Also, Jones and Henson did not see eye to eye. For example, Jones wanted to come up with an environmentalist parable. He also wanted to keep the Goblin King off-camera until the end to reveal him like the Wizard of Oz was but this idea was declined by the director.
“Jim said he wanted it to be more a young girl’s coming-of-age story,” Jones remembers, “and he wanted to show the centre of the labyrinth sooner, because he wanted to play around a lot there. I really thought we shouldn’t see the centre of the labyrinth before the girl does, otherwise what’s the hook for the audience? The other thing, of course, was that Jim wanted to approach Michael Jackson or David Bowie to play Jareth, and have him sing and appear all the way through. I had to re-write it to fit in with that.”
So, Jones obliged and then Jones reveals, “Jim said to me, ‘Er, well, I think we’ve messed it up. It’s not funny now – can you do something with it?’” laughs Jones. “So I basically pulled it back to my second draft. I was actually thinking at one point about taking my name off it, but then Jim rang me up and said he’d like to give me sole screenplay credit, and I just couldn’t for the life of me think how to refuse!”
David Bowie was brought into this movie while he was backstage during his 1983 tour by Froud’s designs and a video of The Dark Crystal. David already had a passion to write children’s songs for an entire movie saying, “I’d done The Laughing Gnome, so I thought I might as well go all the way!” – Bowie was impressed by a screenplay that he found to be “amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and with more heart than many other special-effects movies”.
Froud says this about Bowie after meeting him briefly on the set: “I met David in his dressing room, and gave him this flute that we’d made out of an animal bone. He leapt up onto the dressing table, with the mirror with the lights round it, and he hunkered down and played it, and he just became this extraordinary Pan-like figure. It was wonderful. But he never did it in the film!“
Bowie considered the character Jareth to be at best, a romantic, at worst “a spoilt child, vain and temperamental – kind of like a rock star!”
Froud explains the character that Jennifer Connelly plays, Sarah, is reaching the age of sexual awakening, is a lustful fan of Bowie-like rock stars, and therefore creates Jareth in a Bowie-like image. “We’re not looking at reality, we’re inside this girl’s head,” explains the artist. “There are references to all sorts of things in his costume. There’s the danger of a leather boy in his leather jacket, which also has a reference to the armour of a certain type of German knight in it; there are references to Heathcliff from WutheringHeights; and the tight trousers are a reference to ballet dancers. He’s an amalgam of the inner fantasies of this girl. Everyone always talks about Bowie’s perv pants, but there was a reason for it all! It has a surface that’s fairly light, but then every so often you go, ‘Oh, my God! How did we get away with that?!‘”
Sarah prays for the goblins to take her baby brother away in the first place and the majority of the beasts that she meets on her quest to get her brother back can be glimpsed before she even enters the labyrinth. They are the stuffed toys, games, bookends and pictures in her bedroom. She even has books on her shelf like Alice‘s Adventures In Wonderland, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak which is a book about a girl who is jealous of her baby sister! “Jim was an admirer of Sendak,” says Froud, “but we based Labyrinth on a European folklore. We can only assume Sendak was using the same sources. The link between his work and ours was only noticed well into production.”
Finally, Terry Jones admits, “It sort of fell between two stools,” Terry Jones says of the film, “It didn’t really end up as the story I wanted to tell, but I don’t know if it was quite the story Jim imagined either. I think I was a bit nervous about how much of what I wrote would end up in the film, but it does mostly resemble my second draft. The hands that help Sarah down the shaft are mine and the hat that talks back to the old man. The Bog Of Eternal Stench? Yes, that sounds like me!”
Even Goelz adds, “At first I felt the girl was not sympathetic,” laughs Goelz, “but I’d never had a teenage daughter at that time. I didn’t realise that this is a normal thing! Once the film came out, I watched it a few times and I started to really feel what it was about, and now I love Labyrinth. It’s all over the place but it’s so good in its own way.”
Froud also adds, “It wasn’t ‘cobbled together’ exactly,” he says, “but Terry was writing new scenes very late into production. He kept flicking through my sketchbook and going, ‘Ooh! I like that!’ The door-knockers and the hat were classic examples. Terry just ran with that stuff. It didn’t end up as his whole vision, but it wouldn’t have been the same without him.”