Film

Brian Henson: "I depicted a puppet ejaculating Silly String"

The Happytime Murders, the new film from Brian Henson (son of Muppet maestro Jim Henson) is a very grown-up puppet caper. Henson explains why it takes puppetry back to its bawdy roots

Happytime Murders Brian Henson

Puppetry is an ancient art form. Nobody can tell you how it originally came about, but in most cultures, puppetry has been used in a bawdy way and for political statement. There’s a tradition using puppets for being a little bit subversive. In a lot of Eastern Bloc nations, puppetry companies were often doing political shows because nobody else could get away with it without being shut down.

When people think of highly imaginative art forms they think they’re for kids. But just as animation does adult things, you can do it with puppets. Happytime Murders is in the film noir genre. It’s a fun place to start from if you’re going to have adult content with puppets. We worked on 15 drafts over several years tightening the story so we’re not relying on parody.

People love all the stuff they loved when they were kids but they grow out of it and are looking for something more memorable and unique. If you go into the R-rated arena it allows you to create unforgettable and original moments.

I comedically depicted a man ejaculating using a puppet and silly string. Now, that is funny only because I used Silly String. We all know what Silly String it – it’s just a toy people play with at kids’ birthday parties. If I used anything other than Silly String, it wouldn’t have been funny, it would have just been a scene with a puppet ejaculating.

There were a few choices like that. The only reason a character is shooting a porno film in his shop is because we came up with the idea of a puppet cow being milked by an eight-armed octopus – the cow is in orgasmic ecstasy. The idea of milking a cow is so innocent, turning that into explicit sexual pornography is outrageous.

Puppetry, in essence, is about audience baggage, as appose to the actor’s baggage. When an actor comes in front of camera, the audience makes hundreds of assumptions instantaneously the moment they see them. They make assumptions about their skin colour, weight, hairstyle, by the kind of glasses they’re wearing, the way they walk, the way they’re sitting.

They make all of these assumptions about who that person is, what they are like and what kind of person they are and the actor is forced to work within that box. If they push outside that box too much, the audience is not going to believe the performance.

Brian Henson Happytime Murders
Brian-Henson-puppets
Brian Henson has followed in the footsteps of his father, Muppets creator Jim

This doesn’t happen with a puppet. When a puppet comes out, the audience is wide open to what that puppet’s personality is going to be. and the audience feels that when they are engaged in the process of figuring out what kind of personality the puppet has as its performing, as appose to working off hundreds of instant assumptions. That’s because you can break the box of the audience’s expectation of the character. You can’t really do that with actors. You can’t have a pretty little girl talk with a man’s voice and have it be funny.

A puppeteer’s first instinct is to try to give a puppet the same character and voice that they think it would have if it was a person. They try to get it as close as they can – and then they do something really boring. When puppeteers pick up a puppet and do something unexpected it’s much more entertaining.

The Happytime Murders is out in cinemas from 27 August

Images: Henson Alternative

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