Chairman of The Jim Henson Company, Brian Henson, remembers Return to Oz fondly.
"It’s seared in my memory—in a good way," he says.
It’s been nearly 30 years since Return to Oz. How do you remember the film?
It’s seared in my memory—in a good way. It was a big movie, but it was the first film I did as an adult. I think I was 19 when I auditioned and 20 when I did the film.
How did you get the role?
[Former Muppet Workshop sculptor and designer] Lyle Conway, who had done a lot of work with my dad [Jim Henson] at The Henson Company, had gone off to do Return to Oz. It was before we had a Creature Shop [Jim Henson’s Creature Shop is a division of The Jim Henson Company that provides visual effects, animatronics, and puppetry services] in London or anything like that. Lyle was looking for smart performers who understood animatronic-y-like characters, kind of like what we did for Dark Crystal [the 1982 Jim Henson-produced film], not just hand puppets like the Muppets.
Did your dad give you a recommendation?
I think my dad just told Lyle you should audition Brian because he’s done all the radio control and marionette stuff with the Muppets and he sounds actually like the right balance. So I flew over and auditioned.
Were you confident you’d snag the role?
I actually flew over to audition because I wanted to see a girl that I had met [laughs]. I did not think I was going to get the movie. And then I got the movie and did the film.
Tell us about the making of the film.
Well, the way we used to make movies back then, everything had to be done in the camera, not in post [production]—which I kind of love but will never come back. Movies were not post-production heavy back then. So we started five months before shooting. There was a team of us that were on the movie throughout a big chunk of the film—most of the film, actually. We would start with mockups, then we would rebuild them and rebuild them and rebuild them. That’s the way we used to make movies. You’d have this long build, stroke, rehearsal, puppet development process—and the puppeteers were there throughout this long process.
Stewart Larange (in the Jack Pumpkinhead costume) and Fairuza Balk (as Dorothy)
rehearse a scene with director Walter Murch.
Who were the main characters in Return to Oz, and who brought them to life?
With Return to Oz, we split the characters up into little teams. There was a team that did Billina the Chicken [a yellow hen], led by Steve Norrington, who went on to become a great director [Blade, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen]. The Jack Pumpkinhead team—Chris Ostwald was the main builder, and I was the head performer. He and I were the same age, and we became best friends. There was the Gump team [a moose-like character fashioned from a sofa and palm fronds] led by Lyle Conway himself because he was also a performer. There was the Tik-Tok team, there was the Tin Man team, the Lion team, and the Scarecrow team. The Billina, Jack Pumpkinhead, and Tic-Tok team worked the most because we were in almost all of the scenes in the movie.
Tell us about Jack Pumpkinhead.
Watch the film and you’ll see Jack is sometimes a puppet and sometimes a costume [worn by an actor]. So there was a “movement” guy who wore the costume, played by Stewart Larange. Now Stewart at the time was a top “body popper,” which at the time in the UK was a very popular form of dancing [involving the quick contraction and relaxation of muscles], and it was so popular that there were competitions all over the country [laughs]. I guess you could say it was robotic dancing—being able to move your body like you’re a robot. It was really very slick. Stewart was the one we put in the costume. We always had to make sure the puppet’s movement matched what Stewart was doing when he was in the costume.
Did you coach Stewart on how to move?
Yeah, yeah. He came in a little bit later, and then he and I worked on how to merge the movements of the puppet and him in costume.
When would you use Stewart and when would you use the puppet version of Jack Pumpkinhead?
Every time Jack is a walking figure, it had to be Stewart. All the other shots were of the puppet. All the wide shots when you see Jack walking would be Stewart.
How did the physical production differ from puppeteering, say, a Muppets film?
It’s quite different, because you’re basically shooting a live-action movie, not a puppet movie. [Director] Walter Murch had a real shooting style that was very important to him. He’s a very careful, considered director. He really knew what he wanted. Whereas with a Muppet movie, you design how you’re going to shoot the movie around what puppets can do. This was different. We kind of had to figure out how to do every shot he wanted to do. We had five or six versions of every puppet, so the moment when Jack stands up full figure is actually a puppet made to complete that one motion. It was a different time when you could really take apart every shot and really build and prepare for every shot. Which is similar to the way post-production is approached together today, but pre-production never is anymore.
Just part of the cast of Return to Oz on the set of the 1985 Disney film.
Left to right: Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, Dorothy (Fairuza Balk), Billina the Chicken,
Jack Pumpkinhead, Scarecrow, and Tik-Tok.
Could you describe Walter Murch and his visual style?
Well, Walter is rather an extraordinary genius. It takes a while to get to know him. But he’s got one of the most sophisticated creative minds I have ever come across. I don’t even know how many Academy Awards® and nominations he has for sound design and film editing [five Oscar® nominations, two Oscar wins]. He really understands filmmaking. And coming from the editing room to the floor, he was very clear what he was going to need when he got into the editing room. There wasn’t a lot of overshooting, which is really good when you’re doing a movie that’s full of effects. He knew exactly what he was trying to get technically and visually.
Murch is obviously a big fan of the L. Frank Baum Oz books. Are you as well?
Walter is a huge fan of the L. Frank Baum books—as my dad [Jim Henson] was too—and when I was a kid, my dad gave me a collection of Bomba the Jungle Boy books and the L. Frank Baum Oz books, and I loved them and read them as well.
It’s interesting I came in as the young man on that film, but I totally knew the books Walter was coming at it from, and I knew he did not want to make a sequel to the MGM movie The Wizard of Oz; he wanted to make the L. Frank Baum movie, he wanted to make a movie of the books. Which is darker, it’s scarier, it’s more of a Grimms’ fairy tale kind of tone. So he was keeper of the tone. He knew what he was looking for. And it’s an odd tone.
What do you think of the movie today?
When you watch the movie, it has a unique and unusual tone.
When was the last time you saw it?
I decided to show it to my daughter when she was six—thinking to myself, well, it might scare her—and she fell in love with it. She actually watched it over and over and over. So I haven’t returned to it in the last couple years, but I saw it at least three times in the year or two before that.
It’s a strangely mesmerizing film.
I know. It weaves an odd spell over you. It’s interesting. It’s creepy. And that’s what fairy tales were designed to be. Little morality lessons like that.
There’s an interesting backstory about the making of the film. Murch—a first-time director—had a few problems getting shooting off the ground, and some of his rather high-profile friends famously rallied to his side, coming from around the world to the Return to Oz set in England to offer advice and lend their hands.
Brian Henson (seated on throne) and other puppeteers and technicians
pose for a shot during the making of the film.
Were you there when they visited the set?
The movie was trying to survive the transition into new leadership at Disney. And it looked like it wasn’t going to survive that transition. With Walter, he had a whole big team in London, and we’d all been working for months and months and months. And it was tough because there was talk of shutting down the movie, and then there was talk of changing Walter—that he just wasn’t a commercial enough choice as a director, even though there never would have been a project if it wasn’t for what Walter had done for years. So then there was thinking that maybe we’ll continue it with a more commercial director.
Must have been a tough time on set…
It was a tough time. I think shooting got postponed. And Paul Maslansky, the line producer, was put in a very awkward position of trying to act on instructions coming from L.A. It was a very awkward atmosphere for a little while, and Walter took the unusual route of calling George [Lucas], Steven [Spielberg], and Francis [Ford Coppola] and saying, “Guys can you help me?” And they all got on planes, which is pretty impressive, and they all just sat on set. And now you have Paul Maslansky calling L.A. and saying, “Well what do I do, I have the three biggest directors in the world saying they want to see Walter direct this movie?” And then I guess in the end, I guess they said, “You know what? If those three guys are vouching for him, there must be more to him than we know.”
What was his problem, do you think?
Honestly, I don’t think Walter had any problems. I think he was prepared, I think he knew what he wanted to achieve, but he didn’t know how to communicate in a Hollywood-friendly way. He’s a man of very few words who knows what he’s looking for. But I think in terms of problems… now I’m just guessing. I’m just assuming that him interacting with Disney executives in L.A. was probably a little confounding and probably confusing to the people in L.A. He was a quiet man but very stubborn and very determined. And he really has an eye and an ear for something very specific in a scene, and it’s not what you expect. There’s something specific that he thinks is the strength of the scene that wouldn’t be what someone else might think.
Do you have a particular memory of working with Walter that stands out?
I remember when we were in post-production. There was a scene where Jack’s head is falling out of the sky, and it lands with a thump on its body. And Walter said he needed to record the yell but he couldn’t do it in a recording studio—that it wouldn’t sound right. So he said to me, “Can you meet me at 5:45 in the morning on this street in London?” And I said all right [laughs]. And at 5:45 in the morning, I met him at the top of a hill on this street in London, and he said, “Okay, here’s my car. I’m going to go to the bottom of the hill and to record this with my reel-to-reel. When you see me wave, I want you to put the car in neutral and when it gets to speed, I need you to hang your head out the window while you’re driving it in neutral with the engine not running and scream at the top of your lungs; then just as you hit me, I need you to cover your mouth with one hand.” Because he really wanted to get the sound of me screaming as I was approaching him.
Well Walter is a legendary soundman…
Walter helped redefine sound design by going out with a microphone and headphones and just recording real and wonderful sound effects. And it was great seeing him do that on Return to Oz. He went out and recorded the sound effects that were most important to him.
Working with the Jack Pumpkinhead puppet on the set of Return to Oz.
As both puppeteer and voice actor, how did you prepare for the role?
As I said, I had never performed and I always assumed my voice was going to be replaced. So what I was doing was just trying to be real, in the moment, in the scene. I was trying to do, I guess, what any actor would do, certainly trying to consider who Jack Pumpkinhead was—he’s certainly a kind of infant and looking for his mother. He’s been separated by his mother, sitting in this storage room for years and years. And then he’s reunited with Dorothy, whom he’s decided is his mother. And it’s just a weird simple character that he’s incapable of lying. Incapable of being anything but 100 percent innocent. And that was rather delicious.
Now in terms of preparing for the puppetry, we had to rehearse every little moment of every scene. Any time he had to do anything, pick things up, we had to rehearse all that. And like I said, we had lots of different types of puppets and we would often set up a shot in the evening and Walter would say I really want it like this and this, and we would set up a shot and then realize this puppet’s not going to do it, and Chris Ostwald and I would stay up all night and build a new puppet. And that’s the way we would do the first shot in the morning.
What did you learn while making the movie that you might still be employing in your art today?
For me it was the first time I ever spoke [in a film]. Because growing up in my father’s family, I was the gadget puppet guy. My plan was to go into special effects and I was very into radio-control puppets and doing marionette effects and using strings and you know, trickery. That was what I really adored. I had never been an actor as a kid in stage shows, maybe one in middle school, but I never thought I was heading in any way in a performing direction. It was surprising to me to have a speaking role in the movie. And it was even more surprising that Walter didn’t replace my voice, and he replaced everyone else’s—except for Lyle’s. His voice stayed on the Gump and mine stayed on Jack. And Walter just thought there was an emotional honesty to my performance that just sort of resonated as real. It wasn’t jumping off the screen in any way. I watch it, and I think I’m doing a simple thing character-wise, but that was what he was looking for. So what did I learn coming out of it? I learned so much from Walter. I can’t even begin to tell you what I learned: how to break down a scene, how to create wonderful and unique shots—he was very good at all that.
What did you learn about yourself?
I also learned that I just loved working all night with Chris getting the puppet ready for the next day’s morning shot. And my father was somebody who would often work for two days on a trot without sleeping, and I discovered that I was similar. And I have to say it was Return to Oz that sparked in me that kind of obsessive passion for realizing some little thing that’s otherwise impossible unless you approach it obsessively.
By D23: The Official Disney Fan Club’s Max Lark