Producing the world of The Dark Crystal: A new direction for the man behind ‘Star Wars" and "Empire" Gary Kurtz

Gary Kurtz is one of the most successful film producers in history. His last two projects were Star Wars (winner of seven Academy Awards) and The Empire Strikes Back (two more Academy Awards). With four years of his life spent producing Star Wars and three more on Empire, it would appear that Kurtz finds the make-believe worlds of fantasy and science fiction particularly appealing.

"I've always had a great love for fantasy and science fiction," admits Kurtz. "I enjoyed it, both in film and in literature, when I was growing up. Also, my generation is part of the first space generation-beginning with George Pal's Destination Moon in 1949 right up to seeing man land on the moon.

"As far as fantasy goes, I think the cinema is an ideal medium for presentation of fantasy material-it's a way of visualizing something that's really impossible to see in real life."

Gary Kurtz is co-producing The Dark Crystal with Jim Henson, who is also co-directing with his long-time associate Frank Oz. Together, they have created a unique film of pure fantasy-a special world where no human dwells.

"The project was Jim's from the very beginning," explains Kurtz. "He's dreamed about this for a long time-since before the first Muppet movie. He had been working on ideas for creatures for some time before he asked Brian Froud to join the project. Jim wrote the story. We all worked with the screenwriter, David Odell, but, basically, it was Jim's project.

"Once the preparation phase was more-or-less completed and we got into the actual shooting, I felt it was my job to take all the producer-type problems away from Jim so that he and Frank could concentrate on directing. I insulated them both from dealings with laboratories, any crew problems, and things from outside the studio. That's generally what a good producer is supposed to do, freeing the director to concentrate on the day-to-day work which really needs to get done during the actual photography.

"Jim originally invited me to join the project when I first went to him to discuss Yoda for The Empire Strikes Back. The challenge of making The Dark Crystal was intriguing. I was excited at the prospect of a film in which there are no human beings, in which fantasy creatures have to come alive for the audience. It's one thing to have a Yoda or E.T. inter-acting with a lot of human actors, where you can hide the problems; you can always cut away, you don't have to show very much, you can keep the creature in the dark. There are many ways to avoid those technical problems, and we use them all the time normally. But when you're got 90 minutes with just creatures-no people-they must be believable on the screen or you won't enjoy the story. I thought it was a unique problem."

But how can film makers know when they have reached that level of believability?"It's difficult to say," Kurtz admits. "Some people will probably like the finished film and some people won't-just as they would with any film. In making a movie, you use your own judgment really-you satisfy yourself, what works for you. Some people in the audience will disagree. I go to see films all the time and say, "Why did they do that? Here's a really great scene, but this other bit here undercuts it for me." That's just my personal reaction. Obviously, the film maker felt it was fine for what he wanted.

"An interview of any audience will result in many different opinions. There are things in Star Wars which are just marginally acceptable, and yet, no one seemed to notice them. Audience members complained about other things that we thought were terrific. You can't be too worried about it; it's just personal opinion,although obviously audience reaction is important since you must recoup your investment. So, you give the audience peripheral consideration, but everything is filtered through your own value judgments. That's what you rely on first. Sometimes, it's good, sometimes, it isn't. Sometimes, you can do a film that you really like and feel good about, but the audience just isn't there in sufficient numbers. There have been some very good films which have never been popular as well as some terrible films that have been very popular. You never now. It's like rolling dice. The gods up there who deal with the distribution of movies either smile on you or they don't."

When a producer is working in new territory, preview screenings are frequently held to obtain some measure of an audience's reaction. Such screenings often result in critical changes. For example, after a pre-release test of Close Encounters of the Third Kind in Texas, Steven Spielberg deleted a closing vocal of When You Wish Upon a Star, deciding that the tune left audiences with the wrong feeling about the film and its climax. The Dark Crystal was tested in Washington, which resulted in a major change in dialogue.

"One problem in fantasy film is that everybody speaks English, or if the movie is set in a foreign country, everybody speaks English with an accent. It's a convention of the medium. The only film to break away from this tradition in any significant way was Quest for Fire- and on a larger scale,

Caveman. The Dark Crystal's script specified languages other than English for some characters.

"We did spend a great deal of time creating several non-English languages. Also Garner worked up some quite helpful suggestions for us based on some ancient languages. A version of ancient Egyptian was selected for the evil Skeksis, but when w previewed the picture, we discovered that the audience was unhappy with it.

"There wasn't anything in the scenes that you missed by not understanding the dialogue. Everything that you perceived visually-the attitudes of the characters and the intonations-conveyed the scenes' meaning. it was very much like watching a foreign film, except that you instantly knew what was happening even without understanding the dialogue. That's the way the scenes were structured in The Dark Crystal.

"But the audience felt that they were missing something, that maybe there was something else in the dialogue that they weren't seeing visually. It bothered them. So we re-looped the dialogue and changed it into English.

The Pod People still speak a foreign language-a version of Serbo-Croation. It's not an exact language that they speak, but people who are fluent in Polish, Russian and other Eastern European languages, all say that they can recognize words, but not understand sentences.

"The idea of creating a language is tricky. Certainly, it's much easier to make up nonsense sounds, but you can sense if it doesn't have any basis in reality. In a real language, there are certain repeatable phrases and a structure which makes the sounds mean something. You can sense this even if you can't understand it. It adds to the reality."

Working in fantasy demands a great deal of homework from the film makers. In order for a fantasy world to seem real, it must operate in its own logical fashion. if the world seems arbitrary or self-contradictory, it becomes totally unbelievable. Mountains can move, and trees and shrubs can talk to one another, but there must be rules in order for the film makers to build a believable story.

The production notes for The Dark Crystal describe a setting of pure fantasy:"...A world where no human intrudes. Each plant, tree and bush has intelligence. Mountains movie and rivers whisper songs of long ago." Although little of this background reality is specifically dramatized in the story, the film makers still had to go through the process of determining how things work in this fantasy world in order to make it a real universe for the audience.

"We knew from the beginning that this wold had to feel right within the story's contest," says Kurtz."There had to be some sort of logic to the environment, but every detail isn't dramatized. The basic premise-the whole world is organic, everything is alive, the mountains move and talk-isn't dramatized in the finished film, because there's no time to deal with that within the story.

"In any film that I do, I always like to let the audience feel that there is life going on outside the frame-that we aren't showing everything. In real life, you may walk down the street and see a traffic accident. You focus on this little story, but you're aware that life goes on around that scene. The same thing happens here. Brian Froud created a religion. We never talk about it or deal with it all. Occasionally, you see its symbols-the sand-painting of the Mystics, for example-it just adds a little more density and depth to the environment. That type of detail can be crucial, especially in this kind of story."

Fantasy stories are making something of a comeback, as producers realize that "fantasy" doesn't necessarily mean "kiddie show time."

"E.T. Is a case in point," smiles Kurtz. "Several people read it and turned it down, because they thought it was only for little kids. They saw a script in which the principal characters were not only an alien, but three children. The immediate reaction from most studio executives would be:'Well, there's no adult main character, therefore, there's no one for an adult, sophisticated audience to identify with, and therefore they won't like it.' The same thing happened with Star Wars."

"Many people who say they don't like science fiction, went to see Star Wars because their children took them, and then, found out that they enjoyed it. Fantasy and science fiction must overcome a lot of negative prejudice.

"But Star Wars worked negatively, in a way, on the industry. Suddenly, everyone wanted to make a picture just like it. So what we saw were a lot of movies with spaceships and robots. Most of them weren't very good. The producers had a very narrow view: science fiction is spaceships and robots.

"I know when Warner Brothers was going to do Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, they had several scripts. Harlan Ellison did one which was quite good. I read it. It combined several of the short stories into one master story. But Warners kept saying they wanted laser gun fights; I, Robot is not that kind of science-fiction story. They had narrowed their focus on just what science fiction should be.

"That happens a lot with fantasy, too. people say that Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are fantasy stories-and they are, they are fairy tales-and that fantasy stories are only for little kids. Actually, there's quite a large adult audience for the early Disney animated work, because they are superbly produced and adults enjoy the stories as much as children do.

"But the field of fantasy is very broad. Fantasy uses rich characters. The genre has great story potential and power. You can deal with characters in situations which could not possibly occur in real life, though they concern real-life problems."

The same narrow-mindedness which has dogged science fiction and fantasy films seems to be tagged to different artistic mediums as well; live-action films are for adults; animated films, for children; puppets, for infants. Producers forget that audiences are moved by a story's dramatic power, not necessary by the medium chosen for its presentation. Each medium has its own potential for magic, and all movies are magic. Animated films are not an inferior storytelling medium just because the network's grind out endless Saturday morning schlock for the kiddies. The Disney empire exists today because of the great power of the animated film. Puppets face the same prejudice. "You say ‘puppets' and people think of the fellow who comes to a children's birthday party and puts on a show," Kurtz explains. "The art of puppetry has a great history. In Japan, for instance, they do really marvelous things with puppets in the theater. Puppetry techniques were well received in both E.T. and Empire Strikes Back."

Kurtz seems confident that the story of The Dark Crystal is powerful enough to break through this prejudice blockade in the same way that Star Wars broke down similar barriers. Audiences have learned that different media offer their own magic potential and one is not necessarily "better" than any other. Once such prejudices are swept away, an audience's willing suspension of disbelieve can transport them into realms unknown.

It's easy with live-action films. everyone knows that those people up there on the screen are only actors getting paid for saying lines on a cardboard set. Animated films don't show us real people, but pain on celluloid. And, of course, Gary Kurtz hasn't gone to Central Casting to hire a pair of out-of-work Gelflings. Those concerns are relevant; what's important is that this particular medium has been selected because it provides the most exciting, captivating, and fascinating means of telling a timeless tale. The Dark Crystal represents a landmark achievement for a type of film and storytelling medium whose enormous potential has been largely ignored in years past. Today, it will open people's eyes to what movie magic is all about."

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