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This could be the beginning of a puppet cinematic universe.

Last October, just when Southern California was putting out their Halloween decorations and preparing for spooky mayhem, Santa Clarita Studios was experiencing another type of darkness — The Happytime Murders. I went with a group of journalists to the set where we got the chance to speak to some of the cast, crew, and puppets.

On a day almost exactly halfway through production, we visited the Henson puppet shop on set, watched a pivotal (and spoiler-filled) scene from the finale of the film being shot, and chatted with stars Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, and Elizabeth Banks in addition to producer Ben Falcone and director Brian Henson about the unique experience of creating a film that stars both humans and puppets.

Here’s are a few facts we learned about the upcoming film and the puppets who star in it while on set.

“Happytime” Refers to a Puppet TV Show From the ’80s and ’90s

The Happytime Gang was a show in the ‘80s / early ‘90s which starred a bunch of puppets and one human named Jenny (Elizabeth Banks). “I liken it to like The Electric Company meets like The Simpsons,” explained Banks. “So it was not animated and it was not the Muppet Show. It was more like it was on five days a week, three times a day. And it was just something people loved like Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” When the puppets from the show start being murdered, the first ever puppet to be admitted to the LAPD, Phil (Bill Barretta), reunites with his old human partner Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to help investigate.

Brian Henson Once Thought the Idea Was Too R-Rated

Brian Henson directing The Happytime Murders.

Brian Henson directing The Happytime Murders.

The original script for the film was brought to Henson 14 years earlier by writer Todd Berger but Henson thought it was too dirty and passed. But a few years later after starting the live, and very R-rated, puppet improv show Puppet Up!, he remembered the script and got in touch with Berger thinking it would be a good direction for the company to go in.

However, if you’re thinking The Happytime Murders is just an R-rated puppet movie, it’s also got heart. “You think you’re seeing a shock comedy with puppets where puppets are doing what you never thought they would see, but then it actually is actually a really compelling story,” explained Henson. “And the characters are really deep and well-developed characters, so it’s sort of a one-two punch. I think people will come in thinking I wanna see puppets doing what I have not seen Henson style puppets do. But then what they get is actually a really good movie with really good characters.”

Falcone and McCarthy Were on Board Almost Immediately

Melissa McCarthy in The Happytime Murders.

Melissa McCarthy in The Happytime Murders.

Melissa McCarthy read the script and immediately liked it. “By page 2, when I read this – and I’m not exaggerating – Ben was outside and I walked out and was like, ‘I think I’m in.’,” said McCarthy. “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 4 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.”

Falcone read the script and was also on board. McCarthy then did a pass of her own on the script. “The script was so good that my pass was really just clarifying what I wanted to say,” she said.

Social Commentary in How the Puppet/Human World Is Set Up

Elizabeth Banks in The Happytime Murders.

Elizabeth Banks in The Happytime Murders.

There are practical, physical aspects of the world in The Happytime Murders that indicate how humans and puppets co-exist, like walk signs for humans and puppets respectively, but the social tensions are fleshed out as well. In the world Henson created for The Happytime Murders, the puppets themselves are treated as second-class citizens. “We thought you know what, let’s go with the idea that puppets are so, they so are ‘have-nots’ in this world that the best they can do is try to exist in a world that’s been created for human beings,” said Henson.

For Banks, that was an aspect of the film that appealed to her. “We’re not just here to entertain we actually want to say something with everything that we do as artists,” she said. “And I feel like that was the opportunity here, to talk about marginalized communities and racism and misogyny and just all of it and how we approach marginalized communities generally as a society and historically, there’s a lot at work here which is really interesting but we’re having fun at the same time.”

McCarthy says showing cultural commentary in a palatable way is often more effective than preaching. “If you can make your point to make them laugh, I think sometimes people can take it a little better,” she said. “We can all use a mirror shoved up in our face. We don’t really love it, but we could all use it.”

McCarthy’s Character Was Originally Written as a Man

The characters of Phil and Edwards were so similar at the beginning of the process, Henson said he and Berger struggled to differentiate them. “And we thought you know what, I think they’re in a testosterone pissing match,” he explained. “They’re both trying to out-tough each other. They both break the rules. It’s just that one of them got thrown out of the police force and the other one didn’t, but they both probably deserve to be, but they’re also both great at their jobs. And they’ve all both got moral compasses that ultimately are pointing exactly the right direction.” Until they realized the characters were similar and that’s what made them work as partners. “And then when Melissa came in, it was remarkably little that we did to shift the character,” Henson continued. “Melissa’s approaching it as a tough cop who breaks the rules and is a testosterone pissing match with Phil.”

The Puppeteers Are Amazing Improvisors

Henson’s puppet improv show Puppet Up! inspired him to take another look at the script for The Happytime Murders, so it’s natural that puppetry improv is part of the film.

“Every time Drew [Massey], who plays several things in this, did a take, it was completely different, which both delighted and irritated me,” said McCarthy. “I was like, ‘Is this written down?! I really work on this, and I think you might just be saying stuff, off the top of your head.’ And each one was super specific, really funny and completely different. I was like, ‘I just wanna see where it’s written. We’re on your eighth take, and it keeps getting better and funnier. Now, I’m just jealous.’”

Puppets Bleed Fluff

While we’re used to seeing puppets in more kid-friendly settings, as the title suggests, The Happytime Murders has some puppet murders, but instead of seeing puppets in pools of blood, you’ll see all of their fluff coming out.

The Film Uses Very Little CGI Puppetry

According to Henson, puppeteering CGI has been around for about 18 years but doesn’t replace the need for puppeteers. In The Happytime Murders, everything is puppeteered, even if CGI is used.

“As much as possible we really are performing the puppets,” he explained. “Occasionally the puppets will be CGI, but I’m hoping invisible to the audience. And even when we do that, we real-time puppeteer CGI characters. We’re using the CGI sometimes because the puppet needs to do something that we can’t actually do in the set. Or we can’t actually do on location. But even then we want them always puppeteered.”

This Could Be the Beginning of a Puppet Cinematic Universe

Henson says he and Berger “have been throwing around ideas of intersecting storylines that can happen in this universe.” So this might actually be the beginning of a new puppet era.

The Puppets Deliberately Look Different From Each Other

125 puppets are used in The Happytime Murders and 40 of them were crafted specifically for this film. But the puppets don’t all look exactly the same. This came from Henson’s work on Puppet Up! He said originally the plan was to remake the puppets once the show became successful and they could afford it, but ultimately, they thought the mismatched look ended up working for them.

“This happens to be a world that is our world where puppets are alive and they get different jobs and stuff like that,” explained Henson. ” But they are all of these different looks, all sort of jumbled together. So it’s deliberately a wonderfully weird mixture of puppets.”

The Film Has Noir Vibes in the Vein of Chinatown

Joel McHale in The Happytime Murders.

Joel McHale in The Happytime Murders.

Banks describes her character Jenny as “a bit of a femme fatale” and says the film has “a little Dick Tracy in it” too. “I love that we are playing with noir and the whole sensibility of these [films] like Chinatown,” said Banks. “And yet with puppets. And I just felt like this was a great twist on classic storytelling and this character has some great twists on classic storytelling.” But she also said there’s “a timelessness” to the film. “You’re not sure if it’s 2018, 1997, 1984, or like 1977. It’s this total mosh of eras in this movie which I think is a great choice.”

Puppets Are Controlled by Multiple People Wearing All Green

Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy in The Happytime Murders.

Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy in The Happytime Murders.

In order to film the puppets interacting in the environment with the human actors the floors of the set are elevated and include panels that are removable, so the puppeteers can maneuver underneath to operate the puppets. And yes, puppeteers is plural. It requires multiple puppeteers clad in green to operate each puppet.

For Rudolph, it feels like she’s got the easy end of the gig. “I feel like I’m doing a lot of the non-heavy lifting when somebody’s in like full head to toe green, their faces covered and they’re under another person and they’re operating and I’m just sitting there chatting with the puppet,” she said.

Sorry, Canada, Maple Syrup Addiction Is Real and It’s BAD

McCarthy’s character Edwards has some flaws, one of them being an intense maple sugar addiction. “I open my refrigerator and it’s lined with maple syrup,” said McCarthy. “That’s what I have in my flask, at all times. It’s a love letter and also a cautionary tale, mainly for Canadians.”

Henson also told us about the dangers for puppets who have sugar addictions. “The idea is [Edwards] gets to maple syrup because that’s as far as people will go,” he said. “But the puppets who are sugar addicts, they go all the way to a level of sugar that doesn’t exist. We imply that there is sugar that is so sweet that only puppets could eat it. If a person ate it, they’d immediately go into sugar shock.”

There’s Nothing Puppets Don’t Do, Including Drive!

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The Happytime Murders shot a scene in downtown Los Angeles where Phil is driving a Dodge Dart and the puppet was actually driving. Naturally, the people sitting in traffic were…confused. Falcone said there were certain technical challenges to shooting stunts with puppets. “If it’s a person you’re like, ‘Okay, let’s set up for the stunt’ which has already got a little tricky, you know, you’ve got like three or four shots and you’re trying to figure it out and make it look exciting and neat,” he explained. “And this [film], you know, you’re like, ‘Okay, well let’s, she doesn’t have a hand in this size. We can’t do it in there.'”

They seemed to agree that having Henson was a huge asset. In fact, his experience might be just what makes it work, says McCarthy.

“There is no way to do this without Brian Henson,” she stated. “It’s really crazy, but he’s grown up with it. It’s in his DNA. There are things where I’m like, ‘That looked fine. That looked amazing, what they just did.’ And he’s like, ‘The gate was off.’ He’ll just see something in it and know that later it won’t look [right]. He’ll come in and change something on the puppet and then we’ll do another take and I’ll be like, ‘Oh god, it’s better! It’s better!’ It’s so frustrating because you don’t see it. You don’t have the eye, but he’s seeing it in real time.”

Puppets Like Jacuzzis Too

In The Happytime Murders there’s a jacuzzi scene which answers the question you’ve been wondering for years: Can puppets get wet? The answer is yes. “They soak up a lot of water,” said Henson. “You have to work through the wall of the Jacuzzi through a giant rubber glove. And don’t ever let the rubber glove invert or the entire Jacuzzi will go back into the rubber glove.” Noted.

Did We Mention This Film Is R-Rated?

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Henson thought the original idea was too R-rated, but now, he says it’s actually intentionally so. “I actually am deliberately rating it R because I actually want to make it clear this is for adults,” said Henson. “And if you do it PG-13 and just skate the edge and do a PG-13 movie if I did it, I’d still have an audience full of five-year-olds and that would be a problem. So by making it R-rated, I’m making it clear it’s for adults.”

And it is 100% for adults. The puppets in The Happytime Murders do everything humans do. They curse. They die. There are even some sex scenes. “We’ve not been censoring ourselves,” Henson said. “We did have a bar scene with a bartender puppet that had a singing penis, which was a very funny joke that we decided not to do. So that one won’t make it in the movie.”

“I think we all identify, I think we all feel connected to these puppets,” said Rudolph. “And we all, just like anything else you’d want to see them kind of in real-world circumstances like that’s — its kind of like the payoff of all these years of having these puppets in our lives. It’s kind of like, ‘oh my God, I’m getting to see them, you know, barf on the street, have sex, and curse somebody out and act like humans.'”

And McCarthy agrees that’s part of the appeal. “Somebody was saying that there’s always that thing, when you watch something from The Muppets, one of the movies, or Sesame Street, there’s always that inkling of, when the lights go off, somebody says cut, and they walk out the back door, do they go into the real world and have a life? This is really seeing behind the curtain,” she explained.

The Happytime Murders is in theaters August 17.



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