Interview date: 12/04/2009
Run date: 12/17/2009
If there’s any question in your mind as to whether or not creativity is an inherited trait, then surely it takes only a glance at Brian Henson’s list of credits to know that he’s very much his father’s son. That father, of course, is the late Jim Henson, and both Brian and his sister Lisa have done a considerable amount to keep the Jim Henson Company alive, well, and very much a part of the lives of our children, including such series as “Bear in the Big Blue House,” “Sid the Science Kid,” and “Dinosaur Train.” For the adults, however, the studio’s greatest accomplishment is “Farscape,” a sci-fi series which has earned a tremendous cult following over the years, but with any luck, that cult will soon be entering the mainstream, thanks to the release of “Farscape: The Complete Series.” Bullz-Eye was fortunate enough to be able to chat with Henson in conjunction with the set’s release, learning about the origins of the series, getting his thoughts on the show’s legacy, and more…and by “more,” we mean that, yes, we did sneak in one question about the Muppets at the very end.
Brian Henson: Is that Will?
Bullz-Eye: It is!
BH: Hi! How long have you been waiting? I’m so sorry…
BE: (Laughs) It’s okay. Only about ten minutes.
BH: Well, anyway, I’m sorry. Look, I’m not doing a crazy-big battery of interviews, so don’t worry. Talking to you is important to me, and I just got held up on this other one.
BE: No problem. I just appreciate you taking the time. Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t begin with just a blanket thank-you to your entire bloodline, because as if you guys hadn’t given me enough with the Muppets and “Farscape,” you’ve also given my daughter “Bear in the Big Blue House,” “Sid the Science Kid,” and “Dinosaur Train.”
BH: Oh, well, thank you for saying that. How old’s your daughter?
BE: She’s four.
BH: Oh, great! Oh, she’s at a good age for those shows!
BE: Absolutely. She’s watched “Sid” since it premiered, and, in fact, I was at your studios when you had the kick-off for the show, so I was able to coast for quite awhile just on the fact that I could say, “You know, I actually met Sid…”
BH: (Laughs) That’s funny.
BE: But on the subject that brought us here today, I’ve been a “Farscape” fan since I discovered it upon its first DVD release, with the single-season sets.
BH: Well, I’m glad!
BE: Now, I kind of had the perception originally that “Farscape” was more or less Rockne O’Bannon’s baby, period. But I have since read that you guys actually came up with the idea together in the early ‘90s, except it was called “Space Chase” then. Does the truth lie somewhere the two?
BH: Well... (Takes a deep breath) We’re an enormously respectful company, and Rockne absolutely wrote the show, but it takes a team to do anything. And, yes, before Rockne was even involved, we were working on our science fiction series that involved an alternate universe where there were many quite extreme creature populations. It was a little wilder, had a higher content of comedy, but also still was quite adult, so it would still have life and death stakes, and it would have compelling stories for adults. But we weren’t very far along. I think we then started talking to creators who might want to work with us in creating in that vein, and we met Rock and liked him a whole lot. And then we started working together, and it was a very collaborative process, but every page of it was written by Rockne. But we were working on the show for four years before we went on air on Sci-Fi, so it was a long time, and, yeah, I was very heavily involved, and there was a lot of work from our London Creature Shop. There were a lot of people involved.
BE: I can imagine. So how much did the show evolve from the initial discussions to its actual premiere? From your side of it, it sounds like the more comedic aspects were changed somewhat.
BH: Well, it was more comedic, but I still feel like the comedy moments in “Farscape” make for one of the most delicious elements of the series, the fact that, at times, it really does get a little bit outrageous and absurd in a way that makes you laugh. It’s nice when it’s set over a dramatic storyline, and often it’s in the most dramatic situations that we have the funniest moments. Well, let’s see. Right from the beginning, Rockne latched onto the idea that…he really wanted to take the Earth point of view into the show. I think he felt that that was the first stepping-off point that would differentiate us from “Star Trek,” which was clearly the biggest thing around when we were first working on “Farscape.” He wanted to take an American and put them into this series so that our point of view could be our lead character’s point of view, so that when you watched “Farscape,” the lead character would be the audience’s point of view, which you can’t do in “Star Trek.” In “Star Trek,” none of the characters have our point of view because they’re not from Earth and they’re not from America. Right from the beginning, Rock said, “I need to get an American out there, a typical American guy, and I don’t want it to be an astronaut, but it has to be an astronaut to get him up there. So let’s think of a way that somehow there’s a scientist…” So that’s how we got John Crichton, who isn’t really trained as an astronaut. He was a physicist who had an experiment that he wanted to do with this little ship, and it was just a routine thing for NASA, and it was meant to be something he could do, even though he wasn’t very trained as an astronaut. But he got sucked into a wormhole and is now in an alien universe. So that was his first jumping-off point, and that never changed. He always knew that was the essence of the piece. And then we started creating alien populations and dynamics, and the bad guys were created. And initially the bad guys were too much like the Nazis, but clearly the Peacekeepers started…we wanted something that was a Nazi-like empirical presence. And…again, this was Rock’s idea, but we had to answer, “How do you keep the show moving?” Whereas in “Star Trek,” the way it keeps moving is that they’re on a mission, and their mission is to explore, so they always have to be exploring new worlds and new territories.
BE: Sure. The final frontier and all that.
BH: Exactly. So what we did was, we said, “Here’s what we need to do: we’ve got this bad empire, we’ll call them the Peacekeepers, and we have to figure something out in the very first episode that makes the Peacekeepers want to hunt our guy from Earth. And from then on, that’s what’s going to keep the show moving: the fact that he’s running from the law.” And as you mentioned, initially the show was called “Space Chase,” and we felt, like, “Okay, that’s a pretty boring, kidsy title,” but that’s where it was. So you can see that, from the beginning, we kind of had that pretty quick, and in a lot of ways, we never veered from that. We just started putting more and more bones on it, really figuring out what the Peacekeepers were, and eventually we were creating all the other populations. But the Leviathans…coming up with the Leviathans, I think, also opened up a whole idea. When we were initially talking, Rockne wanted Moya really to be basically a whale that flies in space, that it really is an organic life form, and a species that exists in space, and people just take a ride on Leviathans. And then we got caught in the conversation, and we said, “No, that’s a little too weird. What, are they walking around on goopy beds?” We did a bunch of production designs, and we thought, “Okay, this is a little odd. It’s not quite right, but the idea’s really cool and new.” So we came up with the idea that we’re with populations and species that have been around for so long that the Leviathans started as spaceships that somebody was building. And they were just spaceships, made of metal and wires, but because they’d made their computer processors self-aware, they started to rebuild themselves, and then they started to develop biologically. So now what we have is a species of spaceships, they are now alive, and they do reproduce. And that started this whole direction where we were, like, “Oh, how cool! So if we’re in a universe that has been developing for this long, then we don’t need a crew with a Scotty, who knows how to fix the warp drive, and we don’t need our crew to actually have any technical understanding of how this all works.” And that allowed us to go, “You know, this is pretty good, because we don’t need populations that know how to work their laser guns and know how to fly through space. We can populate this with characters that are not that intelligent.” (Laughs) They could be a little more primal and a little more primitive, and some of them don’t know how anything works, but they’re in a world where you can catch a ride. There are many different ways to move around. So, anyway, that allowed us to start to develop this very wild tone, where the characters are emotional and unpredictable and sometimes quite stupid, and they do things you don’t expect. It allows the stories to get a lot richer, and it allows the show to get much more passionate and primal and unpredictable than “Star Trek.” And that started us developing what we thought was a very exciting direction to take science fiction in.
BE: To talk about passion, with the whole will they / won’t they relationship between Crichton and Aeryn, were there lengthy discussions about how long you were going to make that last or not last?
BH: Well, yes, and again, this was very important to Rockne. At the time we were developing “Farscape,” nobody was putting central romances in anything on television. Everybody had said, “You can’t do it, it doesn’t work, and people are bored by it,” so shows were…everybody’s always attracted to each other, but if they have a one-night stand, they’re going to have a reason why they can’t talk to each other. There was really an anti-romance sort of movement. And this probably happened later in the development, the idea that Aeryn and Crichton should be, like, the biggest romance ever, and make it the strongest and most delicious romance ever, and to do it at a time when nobody was trying to do that. Now, I… (Starts to laugh) …I’m not entirely sure if it was done the way Rockne would… (Trails off) Well, anyway, we decided that the best way to do that was to keep pulling them apart, and not to just allow them to get deeper and deeper together, and not to allow them to date and then get married and develop their relationship to another level and be stable. We thought, “No, no, no, it needs to be absolutely not in question that they both love each other more than anything, but we’ve got to keep pulling them apart, and we’ve got to keep finding reasons why they can never just love each other.” And that was fun. But, really, it was done to make sure they stayed in love.
BE: Scorpius is unquestionably a definitive sci-fi villain. Did he come about because of a desire to expand beyond the more human-looking type of villain?
BH: Yeah, and in fact, in the early stages, he was going to be a puppet, an animatronic character, but we ended up cutting it early on, even before we started making the show, because it was too expensive to figure out how to do it. But it was meant to be a really, really weird-looking creature (Laughs) And Rock’s idea was that he would be, like, the evil equivalent of Spock, which basically was how he came into the show in the end. He’s not a Peacekeeper, but he works for the Peacekeepers, and they need him because of how extraordinary his thinking is, because of how smart he is. But he’s just kind of evilly self-centered, and… (Starts to laugh) Okay, I guess where I’m going with this is that, yes, he was very alien, and initially the idea was that he was a really bad guy. It wasn’t until we got him on there that we were loving him so much that we kind of wanted him in even more and more. So we started putting him into the crew and getting him stuck with them for episodes on end, and then we started exploring how, y’know, maybe he’s not all bad. Maybe he’s just self-centered. Maybe it’s because of the awful, horrible childhood he had. And all that sort of stuff. So he’s sort of a sympathetic character, but at the same time, you always know he’s going to be a turncoat, and he’s always going to align himself wherever his interests are served.
BE: Aside from Crichton, given that he was the thrust of the show, who was your favorite character on “Farscape,” and why?
BH: Oh, you know what? I don’t think you’re really meant to have favorite characters…or, at least, I’m not! I’ll tell you, though, that the ones that I was most impressed with were…well, first, there’s Aeryn. Aeryn turned out to be a much more complex and just great character than I think we knew she was going to be, I think, and that was largely down to Claudia Black and her performance of that character. She just brought so much to that character. So I think that’s one of my favorites. Pilot’s also one of my favorite characters, and it’s also a great animatronic character. Animatronics…it’s very hard to do them very well. And I think Rygel is really good, too, but Rygel at times is not as strong as Pilot. The idea of this large animatronic character that is so alien and yet is so soulful…I feel very proud of that character, too. So I guess in some way Aeryn and Pilot rise above the others, but I love the whole cast.
BE: You brought up Rygel, which leads me to wonder: what’s the worst thing you ever heard anyone say about him? I’m sure he tended to be the lead argument for anyone who wanted to sneer, “Ugh, it’s sci-fi with Muppets...”
BH: Oh, I didn’t care. We knew exactly what was going on, because right from the beginning, that was what we…I mean, we gave the critics that comment, because John Crichton walks straight into the room and says, “What the fuck are you, a Muppet?” Or whatever. Of course, he doesn’t swear, but, you know, that was what we were doing, and we were doing it deliberately. We had this little character who just looked like a weird kind of toy, but ugly and icky and, by the way, he’s a monarch and a hugely powerful being where he comes from. But here amongst this group, he’s just an annoying little dog. So, anyway, we always knew what we were doing. We made fun of him like he was a puppet in a lot of ways. I mean, Rygel…if you have to hide Rygel, where do you hide him? You hide him in a garbage can! (Laughs) We were doing it in the writing room. You don’t hide him somewhere cool; you hide him in the garbage can. That’s the kind of thing we were always doing to Rygel. How do you humiliate him? How do you disrespect him? Because that was part of what we were enjoying doing.
BE: When the show was on the air, the audience was fairly limited. I mean, it was on Sci-Fi, and their profile wasn’t as huge then as it was now. Do you find that the show’s audience has grown, and that more people have stumbled upon it over the years?
BH: Well, the audience…I guess a lot of it is the international attention. In England, it was on BBC 2, which is much more like being on NBC here, so there’s a lot more of the country that knows about “Farscape” in England. Has it grown stronger? You know, I think…because we worked on it for so many years and did so much “Farscape,” you can get deeper and deeper into “Farscape” and get involved in it, and if you’re a science fiction fan, that’s a really important thing. And it’s particularly great for this DVD box set. One of the criticisms of “Farscape” when we were on the air was that it was hard to catch up, that if you missed a few episodes and then tuned in, you might feel lost, and that might get you a little angry. That’s really why getting this show as a box set is a science fiction fan’s dream: because they really Aeryn’t episodes. You start at the beginning, and you’re gonna watch an 80-hour movie…and there’s no other 80-hour movie on the market! (Laughs) And you can just keep pausing the movie, and you can watch it for, y’know, months. But what’s great is that it does pay off to have watched all of the episodes, so the stories are more complex and have much broader arcs that can span across an entire season. Characters develop so much more on “Farscape” than on most TV series, where producers are more careful to make sure that, whether you tune into Episode 2 or Episode 32, you’ve still got the same show and the characters are still the same characters. Whereas on “Farscape,” we didn’t really do that, and we allowed the show to develop. And because of that, our fans of the show as the show was on the air…the fan base grew both bigger and deeper. And since we’ve come off the air, what’s happened is that more and more people have been introduced to the show on DVD, or they’ve been downloading it on iTunes, and they’ve been able to start at Episode 1 and go right through to the end. And they come out of that feeling like they’ve really had a rewarding rollercoaster. It really isn’t just episodic television.
BE: How many more stories are there to tell about life in the Uncharted Territories?
BH: Oh, there are infinite stories! How can you even ask? (Laughs)
BE: (Laughs) Well, I guess I ask because there’s been talk about webisodes in the past, but we still haven’t seen them, so…
BH: Yeah, well, actually, we’ve done very good creative work, so I know what we’ll do when we can do it, but…it’s been a little tricky just trying to line up where’s the right place to put “Farscape” back out there, and raising the money for that. It’s been a little tough. But we will get there.
BE: So how important is “Farscape” to the Jim Henson Company? Given how much time has gone by, is there ever any urge to just move on and create a new highbrow concept?
BH: Well, I think that we’re certainly not adverse to creating another adult science fiction concept. There isn’t a lot of…we haven’t made it a high priority right now, but continuing “Farscape” is a high priority, so in that sense, I think we’re still with “Farscape.” But would we not do another science fiction? No. We would certainly do another one if something came up. But “Farscape”…we’re a company that embraces everything. Look at “Dark Crystal.” We’re heading toward making another movie, and that’s, what, 25 years or more?
BE: When you see other sci-fi shows, do you see some of the influence of “Farscape” in them? Or do you at least think you do? (Laughs) Because I can see it in “Battlestar Galactica” and “Doctor Who,” in the sense that there’s more emotion to them .
BH: Yeah. And “Stargate,” even. When we came on the air, I don’t know where “Stargate” was at that point. The movie was definitely out, but I don’t know if there was a TV series yet. Maybe there was. I think we were producing at about the same time. But I certainly saw cross-feeding or cross-pollinating… (Laughs) …between “Farscape” and “Stargate.”
BE: If someone is watching the show for the first time by way of the box set, do you have any advice for them before diving in?
BH: No. They should just watch…but watch them in order. That would be my advice, because that’s the way you get the most rewarding experience…and it really will be rewarding. I mean, you could watch one entire season that isn’t Season 1 first if you wanted, but it really is like having the five “Harry Potter” books or whatever. It really does progress from where it starts. It’s not like normal episodic TV, where you can watch them in any order you want. Oh, and just one other thing I would add is that there are two versions of the box set that are out, and people should know that. The box set of the series is broadly available now, and that’s Seasons 1 through 4, and that’s a great product, but if people really want to also have the miniseries that finished it (“The Peacekeeper Wars”), that package is available exclusively at Best Buy. It’s also more expensive, but if they want all four seasons plus the miniseries all in one box set, then they have to go to Best Buy to get it.
BE: Speaking of the miniseries, in an interview on the box set, you basically credit the fans with getting it off the ground by helping put you in contact with investors. Without opening the floodgates, how important are the core fans to the future of “Farscape”?
BH: Oh, hugely important.
BE: You seem very much like the go-to guy for “Farscape” these days. Do you feel like your profile within the show has gotten higher since you directed “The Peacekeeper Wars”? Because you were always there, but suddenly you were out in front and directing it.
BH: Well, I’d directed the first episode, too…
BH: …but from the beginning of the show, I was supervising all of the production design, what the show was going to look like, what the creatures were, how we were going to make them, and how we were going to make this show. And going down to Australia, we actually shot Episode 3 first, but I directed that and was working with all of the other directors. The show was made under a co-production agreement with Australia whereby all the directors of the series would be Australian. And we said, “Okay, that’s great, but I want to direct the first episode, just so that people can actually see what we’re thinking of, how the cameras are going to be working, how the tone works, and from then on, it’ll be all Australian directors.” So I was always very much a director presence, but initially I could only direct that first episode, and then I worked with the other directors. But then when we did the miniseries, we weren’t doing it under the same co-production arrangement, so I was able to direct that one and produce it.
BE: So do you, Rockne, and David (Kemper) all still stay in touch as far as spitballing ideas?
BH: Yes, but, I mean, how much do you stay in touch with… (Stops, then starts again) Yes. The answer is “yes.” Mostly I was working with Rockne and Ricky Manning on the creative work for the next chapter of “Farscape,” when we’ve been working on what you’ve been hearing about, the webisodes and whatnot. Definitely Rockne and I stay in touch, always.
BE: Is David still involved?
BH: But there’s no “still.” (Laughs) We’re not in production. Rockne has been involved in everything, so Rockne has been working with the comic books, and Rockne has been working with Ricky Manning on the creative for the webisodes. But that’s all that’s going on right now in terms of “Farscape.”
BE: Obviously, I’m sure he would be proud to have his name on it, but what do you think your father would’ve thought of “Farscape”? Was he a sci-fi aficionado?
BH: No, I don’t think he was an aficionado, but he was always impressed by anybody trying to do something new. He definitely enjoyed “Star Trek” and would definitely see all of the movies. But, yeah, I think he would love it. What we were doing was something quite new and original. Tonally, it was original. The creatures…certainly, what we were doing with creatures and visual style and camera style was, for television, completely innovative and new. And, y’know, I think my dad would be very proud of anything that our company makes where you go, “Wow, you guys all got your creative six-guns out and are shooting all over the place!” (Laughs) And that was definitely a series where everybody was very creatively invested. I mean, when you watch “Farscape,” that’s an army of artists, all 100% committed.
BE: And, lastly, for the obligatory Muppets question, I was just curious about the status of the next Muppet movie.
BH: Well, as I’ve said to other people, that’s really a question for Disney.
BE: Oh, okay.
BH: Yeah, you should talk to Disney and ask them. I really only…I mean, obviously, I know everybody over there, but it’s really a question for them to answer. You know, they’re trying to make sure the next thing that the Muppets do, the next big thing, is a theatrical movie, and that’s good. That’s something that I’m very supportive of. It’s taken them awhile to come ‘round to thinking that that’s what the next thing that the Muppets should do, but I’m very glad that that is what they’re thinking now.
BE: Did Jason Segel come and bow at your feet when he started talking about doing a Muppet movie?
BH: No, but, again, you’re assuming that he would’ve come to me. (Laughs) Jason went to Disney to talk about doing a Muppet movie. Yeah, we’re not the office that is developing Muppet product right now. We’re not running that. We’re helping Disney wherever we can and consulting with them, but it’s not being developed out of our story departments or our folks.
BE: I just didn’t know how hands-on you were with it. Like, for instance, are you involved at all as far as, say, with the Muppet Studios on YouTube?
BH: Well, they haven’t been doing a lot, but I help when I can. There’s just not an enormous amount of activity there.
BE: Well, the “Bohemian Rhapsody” clip that’s making the rounds right now is certainly blowing up.
BH: Yeah, but it’s not like it took three months to produce or anything. (Laughs) But, yeah, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is good.
BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Brian. Like I said, I’m very psyched that “Farscape” is out in its entirety, so I can explore it from top to bottom.BH: Lovely to talk to you, too, Will. Take care!