Editors Note: As stated below, this conversation with The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance director Louis Leterrier was conducted before the announcement of the show’s cancellation. Though we would love for the program to find a new life, all quotes below must be taken into that context.
It’s been just over one year since The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance premiered on Netflix. A prequel to Jim Henson’s 1982 cult classic, Age of Resistance follows three Gelflings: Rian, Deet, and Brea, as they journey together on a quest to unite the Gelfling clans. Against all odds, they must rise against the evil Skeksis and save their world from the Darkening. The series received mass critical acclaim, winning over old and new fans by creating fresh lore without losing sight of what made the original so special.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance was a pivotal turning point for director Louis Leterrier. Previously known for helming Marvel’s The Incredible Hulk, Transporter 2, and Now You See Me, he might not have been the creative voice fans initially expected would carry on the Jim Henson name. Though it was the pure devotion and resilience of this french filmmaker that finally saw this project freed from its years in development hell. The result? A labor of love that harnessed the star power of Taron Egerton, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, Helena Bonham Carter, Alicia Vikander, Simon Pegg, Awkwafina, Sigourney Weaver, and Mark Hamill.
Despite winning the award for Outstanding Children’s Program at the 2020 Primetime Emmys, Netflix canceled the series after one season. On the day after it won too. Louis Leterrier is still signed on to direct a Bright sequel for Netflix, but it doesn’t make the timing any less rude. BEFORE this unfortunate announcement, we were lucky to sit down with Leterrier for an exclusive interview. We talked The Dark Crystal‘s legacy, the importance of modern puppeteering, and his place in the current state of the film industry.
The COVID-19 pandemic is increasing numbers for streaming, and considering that your most recent project was a Netflix gemstone, what are your thoughts on more films moving from theatrical releases to streaming?
LL: Listen, I’ve been working with Netflix and I’m still working with Netflix. Love Netflix. Love the idea of being able to have something available right here, right there, all at the same time. That said, I just love the theatrical experience. I discovered some movies on VHS – the generation I grew up in, I always had a backup to my theatrical experience. There was VHS, DVD, or another kind of home video window afterward. So there was always that sort of second-tier to experiencing movies. Streaming is different because it’s movies that aren’t available anywhere else. But the movies I discovered in a theater had such a greater impact on my life, my psyche, and my creativity. It just impacts you in such a different way. It’s funny, I did Dark Crystal last year – the original film… I had seen it once very young in a movie theater and it had such a tremendous effect on me.
I’ve watched it over and over again; the VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, etc. Right before we were about to shoot the show, we dug out the 70mm print of the movie. We watched it and it was like rediscovering it all over again. It’s almost like the theatrical experience. Almost like an out-of-body experience, like the ramp-up to a fight – a fight between two boxers. It can last 15 seconds, but there’s the whole ramp-up, the excitement, and all that stuff. It’s the same thing: you come over, sit down, and then you’ve got trailers that lead you to the event. The sound gets louder. The credits stop. I don’t feel my body for an hour and a half, 2 hours in a movie theater. I cannot experience this in real life. The lights dim down, they don’t turn off the lights immediately! That would be shocking. It’s like they swallow you into this world.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve got Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos at home, but it’s not the same. It’s just not the same. So I cannot wait. I was about to see The Invisible Man in the theater before they shut down. By the time I watched it, the movie was great but I was like, “Aww, I wish I experienced this in the theater.” As great as all these movies are to experience on TV, the initial experience needs to be in a movie theater. It’s the accumulation of so many amazing experiences – even bad ones, but so many experiences. You’ve got like a Pavlovian reflex of, you know… when the lights go down, you’re about to discover something amazing.
Moving into more of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, how did you manage to assemble such an all-star voice cast?
LL: Two things. First of all, it’s the Jim Henson legacy. The Jim Henson name has that romantic-like quality and memory of everything we’ve experienced. So when you say, “We’re bringing back one of the masterpieces of Jim Henson” – maybe THE masterpiece of Jim Henson – bringing it back in its original concept and methodology? There’s no compromise and I think actors and movie stars love it when you don’t make a compromise. It’s truly for art and not for commerce. Obviously, you have to find a middle ground, but this didn’t show like that. And people remember the original. Even if they don’t remember – and most of the time confuse it with Labyrinth, which is fine – they’re like, “Where’s David Bowie?” It’s something that they know exists in the zeitgeist and something important to be part of. It’s not Star Wars, but it’s not not Star Wars, you know? It’s indelible in the public consciousness and they know it’s part of a greater adventure.
Then you show them a few images and they’re like, “Okay wow, you did it for real.” They’re intrigued by the audacity of it. The thing is though, you have to start with one piece. You have to start with one or a few pieces of casting and then attract other people to the project. In Now You See Me, for example, that was Mark Ruffalo and Jesse Eisenberg who defined the type of movie I was making. Two very intellectual, quality actors – almost independent actors. And that’s how you get Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine and etc. So you build it up the same way with Dark Crystal. I started with Taron Egerton. Taron was actually one of the first people who responded to us.
You obviously also need amazing casting directors, we had Lillie Jeffrey and Reg Poerscout-Edgerton. He’s amazing and a quality casting director. He had a relationship with Taron because he cast him in Kingsman. When Reg and Lillie were asking, “Who could play our lead?” Reg said, “Well, what about Taron? I think he really likes Jim Henson.” We met with him and it was lovely. Very early on, even before we were done shooting, Taron was onboard. We were not going to be working together for many months, but at least I had one name to bring forward and say, “Alright, Taron Egerton is starring as one of the characters.” Then came Anya Taylor-Joy, Nathalie Emmanuel, and Mark Hamill.
Caitriona Balfe from Outlander was my friend, Sigourney Weaver as well. There were a few people that I knew personally and I was like, “Oh, would you be interested in coming around?” It’s also a smaller commitment. So it could be 4 hours of work to 3 days of work. For Helena Bonham Carter, that was like a 4-hour session. Same thing for Sigourney. It’s a half days worth of work for them to work directly with the director. It was just me and them and it’s the purest version of the art as you can get. There’s nothing, there’s no set. It’s just you and the microphone as you go in and perform. It’s technical because you have to somewhat match the mouth flaps, but you can bring so much and you can really create the character. It’s fun. It’s exciting, but it really starts with the Jim Henson name. At every stage, it started and ended with him. It was always like, “It’s Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal directed by Louis Leterrier. It’s not Louis Leterrier’s.” It was his project and I just picked up the torch, carried it for a while, and dropped it back in its place. Hopefully, I didn’t damage it.
You’ve already mentioned the original film, but let’s dive further into what attracted you to this project? After all, it took quite a while for it to finally make it to the screen.
My love for the original movie brought me to the project. I was not there remaking, redoing, or altering The Dark Crystal. To me, that is a perfect movie. It was more of meeting with the Jim Henson company and saying, “This movie was so magical… do you have something else in your drawers that we can work together on?” My initial meeting was more of that tone. It wasn’t like, “You know that movie? Let’s do a sequel!” But then they said, “Well, you love it so much. We’ve been trying to do a sequel for so many years, would you like to pick it up?” Of course I said yes, but then I was kicking myself. I was realizing that a sequel was very hard. The way the movie ended, it was such an exclamation point on life that it was hard to continue. Every idea I had or ideas that were in place for me were undoing what Jim Henson, Frank Oz, David Odell, Brian Froud – everybody that had worked on the original movie – it was sort of undoing their ideas. Doing a sequel just didn’t make sense.
Then I was realizing more and more, what I was getting excited about and what everybody was getting excited about was the mythology. How does a flourishing civilization get obliterated? It’s the story of a genocide. I had so many questions about the genocide that we decided that it might be the more interesting project to do. But the idea made it impossible to do as a movie. There was too much story to tell. You couldn’t do it. Around that time, 10 years ago was the beginning of this rise of expensive shows, you know, like Game of Thrones. So there wasn’t just one or two places to go to. Now there was streaming, there was international financing. There were different ways of telling your story in more than just one part or a sequel. So we regrouped, we put together a story. They had books written. I mean, it was a long process. We had to build a universe. We were creating a strict script. We were analyzing frame by frame. I would be like, “Let’s look over here, that’s a civilization, now let’s go backward. Oh, look at this mural. Now that points to this!” and so forth.
So we were coming up with rules altogether. But that took a long time. I was busy doing other stuff in the meantime, but it was such a bearing project, such an amazing project that I was staying on. I was like, “It’s just my passion project. It will never happen, but I just love doing this so much. Let’s keep going. Let’s keep going.” Until the day we got the call that Netflix was interested, we had time to present them what we had done so far. So we did and they said “That was great. We love it. Keep going.” We were like, “what… what?!” It was sort of like that masterpiece that you keep in the back of your mind and work on for your entire life – that no one will ever see. It doesn’t pay the bills, but it feeds your soul. And this was mine.
Is it true that the Gelfling puppets were operated by modified Wii controllers? Could you tell us more about that process?
LL: Yes! It’s true. I don’t know the exact name for it, a “dongle” I think. The Henson studio has devised a methodology that takes a digital puppet, a CG creature kept in a computer, but then you put your hands in these weird gloves and it transmits into the computer. With those gloves, you can make faces and everything! That’s how they do their animated Splash and Bubbles and Word Party shows. So they went back and were like, “Okay, we want to do this with real puppets. So how can we figure the face of the puppet, not with your regular, complex remote but just with one controller?”
And they found that because it’s one hand, it’s actually pretty easy to manipulate and you can double click the dongle – the thing on top that actually switches menus. They were able to reprogram these things. There were one or two virtuoso puppeteers that knew how to do both, the old-style puppeteering and the computer-style puppeteering. They were able to do all the movements and small stuff with Wii controllers. It was really cool and quite impressive to see.
This puppeteer, who’s absolutely genius, her name is Alice Dinnean. She was playing Brea. To train herself, she would listen to… I don’t know if it was Barbra Streisand songs, but very emotional songs and would think of that while performing. She was training herself through music, using all the expressions. So she could really go for the very subtle stuff. Looking at the puppeteers, I was like, “Wow. Incredible.” Normally you have to invent the process, and then learn how to become a master at it. It was a pretty cool thing to see. While being chased by me with a camera saying, “Go, go! Run, run!” That’s also one of the things that made it very helpful.
Is The Dark Crystal or puppetry something you would like to return to in the future?
LL: Yeah! I will never not do practical effects at least. I learned so much from puppetry. You have to understand, the whole set was puppeted. Not only the heroes themselves but the flowers, the wings, everything. The whole set became animated. So doing another Now You See Me or something similar, If I want to do another movie with magic, I would bring practical effects into that. There’s something also very organic about it, practical effects and having people behind stuff. For example, there was a moment in The Dark Crystal where Brea unleashes some books. She was in the library, all the paper and books start rotating around her. The background was CG, but the foreground, all the pieces of paper, books, and things flying around were puppeted by people with rods underneath running around.
It’s funny because it took the CG enhancement many, many steps to get to the perfection that two or three takes of doing that in real-life achieved. Organic life is brought forth so easily with great skill, naturally through performance and with great difficulty for computers because everything is dictatorial for computers. Ultimately, the best tool to recreate real-life is actually a real living, breathing person. With the mistakes we make, the banging into each other, the books bouncing off each other – that creates real life. Whereas the computer dictates that no book should interconnect. So it creates interesting paths and then you have to correct the path and everything. So all that stuff is what I’ve learned and I’m going to bring it to all the projects I’m going to work on from this point on.
Puppetry is definitely one of those mediums that will never go away. It can still be innovative and new even today, which is why it’s so amazing.
LL: It doesn’t get you all the way there, but the eye or brain accepts the leap of faith. You accept that that eye is not moving completely like a real eye does, but that’s okay. Whereas a CG eye doesn’t have soul. And as amazing and perfect as it is, and moving as much as it is, there’s something that doesn’t click. The way light bounces off, it just doesn’t feel… the brain is not tricked by CG. Or you could say it is – the more you look at it, the more you understand and start being tricked by it. Whereas the brain sees the fishing lines, rods, and all the stuff of puppets, but it sort of accepts and erases it. It then moves past and sees it as a real thing. It’s very interesting.
It’s just that much closer to a living, breathing character.
LL: Exactly. It goes back to everything we were saying from the beginning. It’s like the difference between experiencing a movie for the first time in a theater. It’s almost like you [Letterier makes a swallowing sound] are swallowed by the art of puppetry. Whereas CG, your brain keeps analyzing it. Sort of like, “It’s so perfect, but it’s not.” It keeps analyzing until it breaks it, until you understand the problems, and then it’s like, “Okay, now I understand. That’s how they did it.” Whereas puppets they’re like, “Yeah, it looks funky. Okay, move on.”
To end it off, what’s your advice to aspiring filmmakers who may be struggling during quarantine?
LL: Write, create, grow, read, watch movies. Watch shows, old shows, new shows, new movies. Just take time to watch again. To fall in love again with the art. Who knows, cinema might not exist anymore, but there’s been so much great storytelling and great cinema that has happened before. Conceptualize, come up with stories. Again, it might be getting back to what we were saying, like cinema as a whole might get even better thanks to that pause in production. Take a breather, watch, and then keep going. See where we’ve been, all the great stuff that has been made or the mistakes that have been made. Inspire yourself with great cinema. I personally cannot stop working. I wake up every day and I write and conceptualize. I take meetings, discuss movies that might never happen, because who knows?
We’re a creating breed. We need to dream, we need to create, we need to tell stories. I’ve crafted my life as a storyteller. It helps me to start telling stories. So the way to do that is by reaching out to all the great stories that have existed before. And that’s what it is, you know? Stay positive. I think, ultimately, you have to stay positive. I know it’s hard and the world is going to change and business is going to change and cinema’s going to change. But good entertainment and smart storytelling has always been great. Whether it was the cave painting to IMAX Chris Nolan extravaganzas. It’s amazing storytelling. Let’s be ready to keep telling great stories no matter the evolution of the medium.