The Dark Crystal is a beloved fantasy film whose legacy has almost become bigger than the movie itself. Released in 1982, the movie didn’t fare well in theatres, but it’s since gained a strong following and an expanded lore. So, what does Netflix’s The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance bring to this growing universe, and how do you tell a story of hope when we know things don’t end well? We asked the creators.
During San Diego Comic-Con, Gizmodo had a chance to sit down with co-creators Will Matthews and Jeff Addiss, and co-executive producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, to talk about how they developed Age of Resistance and what it was like seeing it come to life. We’ve included a transcript of the discussion.
Gizmodo: When you’re doing a prequel series, you already kind of have an idea how it ends. Since it’s about resistance and hope, and these heroes, how do you ensure that there’s hope that comes out of it—
Javier Grillo-Marxuach, co-executive producer: — when we think about the aftermath of a genocide, is that what you’re saying?
Gizmodo: Yeah, exactly.
Jeff Addiss, co-creator: We have an answer and we have a really good answer, and we are leading to that answer with this show. But if we told you, it’d give part of the fun away. But I think that part of the reason that maybe we got the job is that we walked in and said, “Here’s our answer to that question.”
Grillo-Marxuach: This show goes through, you know, a significant amount of time. You’re going to genuinely see hope where you may think there isn’t any. And I think that was one of the things that was very compelling to me, about what these guys wrote and what they put together before we started working on the plot of the season, was that there was an answer to that. And it’s a wonderful one.
Gizmodo: The series has been in the works for a long time, for several years. When you were coming into this story, how much lore were you getting and how much were you able to explore on your own?
Will Matthews, co-creator: I was definitely a fan of the original Dark Crystal movie, but a more casual fan than Jeff. So I came in and had to read everything, and then you had the zealot of a convert. And so now I know everything from a very bookish point of view, and all the rules and all the lore. And Jeff has it more intuitively, he just feels it from the love.
Addiss: There was a moment he corrected me once, and I was like, “Oh, things have shifted.” And he was right!
Matthews: We’re going to need a clip of that playing on a loop. That was sort of the fun and the challenge of working with such a beloved property, with such a storied history. You come in with the canon of the film and everything that’s come since: the comic books, the YA novels, the manga, The World of Dark Crystal according to Aughra. And so you have to take all those pieces and you have to build a new whole, and we added some of our own pieces. Playing with the lore was really challenging, but I think some of the most fun.
Gizmodo: When you guys were building this world, you’re coming into it with a very iconic movie that a lot of people recognise. At the same time, there’s people that really know a lot about the lore — the Expanded Universe stuff, you might say. How do you balance between the hardcore fans who might know this world really, really well, and those who either just know the movie — maybe saw it as a kid — or maybe haven’t seen it at all?
Addiss: Maybe they have memories of a Podling being drained, and that’s it? Or, as we joke, they think it’s Labyrinth? Because that happens often! The Dark Crystal, with David Bowie.
Gizmodo: Right. “You remind me of the babe!”
Addiss: What we really focused on is how we bring the audience into this world. We really thought a lot about the people coming to this show who don’t know, who don’t have that relationship to all the material. So you try to build the characters in such a way that they allow you a different way into this world. So our three lead characters each start with different perspective on the world: From the bottom, from the middle, from the top.
We constructed it in a way that we’re hopefully giving you a big glimpse into this world through the eyes of our three lead characters. We spent a lot of time talking about the best way to do that, the best way to structure that. And [director Louis Leterrier] was a big part of that as well. Even down to the editing, in terms of who we see and when and how that comes in.
Grillo-Marxuach: We also live in a world where the audience is a lot more conversant with genre. You know, we’re not making this [show] in 1982, we’re making this [show] in a post-Game of Thrones, post-Lord Of the Rings world. So, even the casual viewer now has a much higher threshold for sort of understanding high fantasy.
Gizmodo: The story centres around these three Gelfling, and the Gelfling were at the heart of the original film, but — especially in terms of the film — we know so little about them, and their civilisation is basically gone. How did you work to build the Gelfling and their civilisation? What can we expect to learn about them and their world in this show?
Grillo-Marxuach: Well, the YA novels sort of began to set a lot of that template for the kind of flower of Gelfling civilisation being in full bloom. We have seven kinds of Gelfling in this TV show, so you’re seeing an entire spectrum of civilisation. You’re seeing a planet that is developed, that has societies, that has different racial groups, different divisions between different species and stuff like that.
In a lot of ways, the first episode is sort of a guided tour through the world of Thra. So that you’re really beginning to see — kind of the same way that something like Lord Of the Rings or Game of Thrones. They take you to Winterfell, they take you here, they take you there, they take you to King’s Landing. We took a very similar approach. We’re bringing you into this world and gently ushering you in and showing you everything that’s going on. So it’s familiar from the film, but you’re seeing an entirely different perspective on it.
Gizmodo: What can you tell us about the different clans that we’re going to see, and are there any other civilizations or groups that we can expect to meet that weren’t in the original?
Addiss: You’re actually gonna see the seven clans and each one has their part of Thra. Their culture is built around where they live — whether it’s a swamp with the Drenchen, the Vapra are the highest clan who live in the mountains, literally, you’ve got the Dousan who live out in the desert. And so where they live has affected a lot of their culture, and also their relationships to each other. They don’t always get along. When we meet them in the beginning, the clans are not fighting but may be fractured. Maybe there’s a tension between them.
Grillo-Marxuach: The Gelfling have this matriarchal culture, so they have their own system of government. It’s something that we talk about endlessly and we find endlessly fascinating. But also, the Skeksis are the lords of the crystal, the crystal is the heart of Thra. Something that you’re seeing is how the Gelfling operate being ruled by the Skeksis, whom they perceive as benign, and then how that affects their own internal politics.
There’s a lot of very sort of complicated — not complicated like the Trade Federation [in Star Wars], you know — but there’s a lot of very dramatically intense and very interesting kind of conflicts between the Gelfling, vis-à-vie how they relate to the Skeksis and how that world works. Which is part of how the Skeksis keep control of the planet, as they keep the Gelfling not entirely trusting each other.
Matthews: The biggest way we thought about how things had changed was through character. One of the things that’s so noticeable about the Skeksis in the movie is they are not doing great. They look bad. They move slowly. They don’t seem like they’re in their prime. And so we thought, “That’s how that character is in the movie? How does that affect that character when they are in their prime? When they move a little bit better? When they look fantastic? When they’re on top of the world—”
Addiss: —For them.
Matthews: I mean, yes [laughs].
Addiss: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Hard, twisted bodies, but they look great!
Gizmodo: Was there a personal favourite creature that you either got to create or influence? And then, what was it like when you got to see it come to life?
Addiss: I’ll raise my hand right now because it came out as one of the Weta [Workshop] statues, and so I can talk about this one, is Fizzgig with an eyepatch. It was just a thing that I wanted.
Matthews: He wanted it so bad.
Addiss: And when that statue came out, I was like, “Yes!”
Grillo-Marxuach: When Kira and Jen were walking on the countryside [in The Dark Crystal], you saw all sorts of little creatures here and there. One of the things that Jim Henson did that was so amazing is that every frame of the original film is filled with life. With the advances in puppetry, the scope of time we have, we can actually zero in on a lot of that. So, you’re seeing so many new creatures, and you’re also seeing how little creatures do jobs. There’s also all sorts of different creatures that do different things for the planet. We were able to take a planet that appear to be teeming with life by suggestion, and actually create that life in a really interesting way.
Addiss: Like a lot of times the answer to a question, when we were having a story problem, was “There’s a creature for that.” It’s sort of like Star Wars had the Jedi or the Force or this or that. Our answer was usually, “Well, what’s the creature that does that job?” And so there’s a lot of new creatures in there, and part of the fun is seeing the Frouds working together. Toby and Wendy and Brian creating all these new creatures.
I remember one day that Wendy was just like. “I feel like we needed some more, so I just made these.” And you’re like, “These are gorgeous!” And she just sort of put those together, and you’re seeing a family of them working together and seeing Louie shooting it so beautifully.
Gizmodo: It’s interesting that you brought up the original intent of Jim Henson. One of the strengths, and some would say weaknesses, of the original, is that it introduced this big beautiful world with these amazing creatures…and they just exist. They don’t really get explained. But nowadays in 2019, with our fantasy lore, we love to have everything detailed to us. How do you balance honouring that original intent of not over-explaining your world, but also giving fans what they’re gonna want?
Grillo-Marxuach: We live in an era where most of the big franchise properties have been strip-mined. Like, I know Grand Moff Tarkin’s first name, OK, why would I know that? There is a balance to be struck between where literally, you know, in Star Wars like everyone’s name has been cataloged and all that, and something that isn’t explained. And I call that the wide-open space.
What great franchises have are spaces where your imagination can engage. I think for us it’s a balance between telling the story we’re gonna tell — being true to these characters, telling an emotional reality with real stakes with life or death involved, humanising these weird little creatures in this world — and then creating a world around them that every time you look someplace, you’re gonna see something you’re going to want to know more about.
When I first saw The Empire Strikes Back and there’s that guy running around with a giant Cuisinart, you know, like I was very curious about what that was and why he was running on the giant Cuisinart. Now I know his name is Willrow Hood, and now that I know that I actually feel less than I did when I was just trying to imagine it, you know? So, in a way, it’s better sometimes when things are not as explained because that’s where your mind fills it in.
Matthews: It’s unavoidable. I mean, we can as fans try to answer all of these questions from the movie that we want answered but then the fans of the TV show will do that for them. That’s what fans do. That’s a way to be involved and be enthusiastic and show love for the property. We’ve tried to answer as much as we could, but I’m sure people will find the life in the Henson corners. There’s always a creature. What’s that guy’s doing, what’s his name? And that’s for the next group of storytellers.
Gizmodo: Are there any familiar characters we can expect? I know Aughra is a fan-favourite, so I’m curious if we can expect anything familiar from her or anyone related to her? (Hint: I’m asking about Raunip)
Addiss: To answer your question, I can’t answer your question. But I can tell you that Taron Egerton also shares your question. Because he came to set when he first signed on, and the first question that he asked was like, “What about Raunip?” And so I was like, “Oh my, he knows. He’s not joking around. He is a fan.”
Gizmodo: Taron’s a big fan of the original film, and knows a lot about the lore. What was your reaction when so many different big-name people — like Mark Hamill, Nathalie Emmanuel — were coming in wanting to be a part of this project?
Addiss: It was crazy. I mean, it was crazy. Toby Jones is playing the Librarian. You’re just like, “We got who for that?”
Matthews: I thought they were kidding! I was like, “Isn’t he busy? He’s, like, world-famous.” But everyone loves it the way we love it, and they wanted to be part of it. I mean, there are Academy Award winners who don’t have that big of a part, and they just come in with love.
Grillo-Marxuach: When the show was announced, people started coming out of the woodwork. Like, famous people were calling us and saying, “We want to come in and meet!” And we’re like, “We’re not done writing it. What did you want to meet for?” And they were like, “We don’t care, we’re coming in!” We actually got to have all these meetings that you wouldn’t have in your normal life, because people just wanted to know what we were doing and if they could be involved in any way.
One of the things that the Creature Shop would tell us is: “We can’t wait for the show to be announced.” And we’d say “Why?” And they said, “Because the moment that they announce the show, everybody is going to come to us. We’re going to stop scouting because everybody’s gonna come to us for the jobs.”
Matthews: There were some folks who didn’t quite understand what they were getting into, because dubbing — when you have to come in to do the voice [after the scenes have been shot], and you have to match what a puppeteer does — is really hard. And so I think some people thought they’re coming into it like animation, where you start with the voice and then the animators match you, which is a little bit easier for the performer because they can do what they like.
And so we did have a few people come in and be like, “OK, I’m just going to kind of do what I want.” And then [the director and voice coach] were like, “You have to do exactly this, exactly that time frame and exactly those breaths.” And telling some major actors where to breathe, that can be challenging!
Addiss: But they got into it and they all wound up loving it. It became, like, this puzzle, it became this challenge.
Gizmodo: What was it like first full day on the set? Seeing the scenes be shot, seeing all the puppets in this world that you created brought to life in front of you?
Addiss: It was amazing. There’s sort of three moments, I think. There’s the moment that you see the first sculpture, and you see the character. There’s the moment the puppeteer puts it on for the first time, and you see it come to life. And then there’s the moment that it’s in the set. It’s in Thra.
You could walk into those sets — we had 88 sets, and you could walk through Thra. You could walk through the castle. You could walk into the crystal chamber. You could walk into your childhood. That’s an incredible experience.
Matthews: Every day I worked on this, I thought, “I can’t believe we got away with it again.”
Gizmodo: What themes can we expect to see explored over the course of the season?
Grillo-Marxuach: One of the hallmarks of this age of television is that so much of it is about bad parenting. Lost is about bad parenting. If you’ve seen Lost, you know what I’m talking about. I mean, any show that you watch from the last 20 years tends to be centered on that paradigm.
One of the things we talked about was that I wanted the parents in this show to be good parents, who actually protected and taught their children, and that their children’s behaviour sort of becomes something that comes out of good parenting. So, you see a lot of that in the show and the relationships — even when they’re complicated and difficult. There’s a lot of that kind of decency in the show, and that message of decency carries through for me thematically.
I wrote a card that I tacked up on one of our corkboards that said, “This show is not about winning wars. It’s an apology for the moral high ground.” One of the things about the three of us as creators, and I think about the general Jim Henson ethos, is that we believe that there is good and there is decency in the world. We wanted to write a show where — even if the evil was so overwhelming, and frankly so deliciously entertaining — that we wanted to make good interesting and dramatically relevant. We wanted to show that not everything has to be about these dysfunctional relationships, but that it’s really about decency can win, and decency can prevail and have the day.
Gizmodo: You’re starting with a 10-episode season, and there hasn’t really been word yet about a second one. What can you tell me about where this story is going?
Addiss: Yes, we have a beginning, we have a middle, and we have an ending. We are building to something.
Gizmodo: So, you already have a trajectory of where you would like the series to go, and a plan for how it would all end. In a perfect world, how many seasons would that take?
All three: Ooooooh.
Matthew: I mean, what is time?
Grillo-Marxuach: This is not the only storytelling model for The Dark Crystal. You know there are creation stories that have been written. There are comics that have been written that are thousands of years before the events of the film. Doing The Dark Crystal means that the entire world of Thra and all of this iconography to play with, and we are not restricted by one time period.
We have a story that we want to tell about these characters, but if there’s more Dark Crystal. This is an epic saga about a very interesting fantasy world, and there’s a lot of stories to be told.
The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance debuts on Netflix August 30.