The adult comedy The Happytime Murders is set in the underbelly of Los Angeles, where puppets and humans co-exist. From director Brian Henson, the film follows two clashing detectives – a human named Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) and a puppet named Phil Philips (played by puppeteer Bill Barretta) – who are forced to work together to solve the mystery of who is brutally murdering the former cast of The Happytime Gang puppet show.
On October 12, 2017, Collider (along with a handful of other online outlets) was invited to the Santa Clarita, Calif. set, where we got to talk with director Brian Henson, who first read the script for The Happytime Murders about 15 years ago and has been developing it for about the last 10 years. During the interview, he spoke about the genesis of the project, what ultimately made him want to do an R-rated puppet movie, what Melissa McCarthy brought to the role, creating close to 40 new puppets, which scene already didn’t make the cut, how technical the puppetry gets, why the essence of what puppetry is doesn’t change, performing a puppet himself while directing, puppet sex scenes, and how they’ve already come up with ideas of intersecting storylines that could take place in a larger puppet cinematic universe.
Question: Brian, what was the genesis of this project and what got you excited about it?
BRIAN HENSON: Actually, it was Todd Berger, who wrote the very first draft of the script, [about 15] years ago, or something like that, and he had sent it over to us. I had read it back then, but it’s quite different now ‘cause this is a long, long time later. I said, “It’s too R-rated. It’s just not what we do. But, good luck.” And then, I started the show Puppet Up! We started doing improv comedy with puppets, and we do a live show that’s very R-rated and that’s improv comedy. I thought, “This is really good. We found a new voice for puppets. It’s really funny, it’s viciously funny, and it’s a contemporary funny. This is a good next place to take Henson-style hand puppetry.” So, I thought, “We should do something scripted, in long form, that’s in this tone. And then, we remembered this script that we had passed on. It came back around and I met with Todd and said, “Let’s develop it, but it needs a lot of work.” That was really the genesis. From Puppet Up!, I decided that I wanted to do something that’s R-rated and that lets the puppeteers rip. I’ve had the script with Todd for close to 10 years now, and we’ve done many, many drafts. I couldn’t be happier with where it ended up. You think you’re seeing a shock comedy with puppets, where puppets are doing what you never thought you would see, but then it actually is a really compelling story. The characters are really deep and well-developed, so it’s a one-two punch. 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.
Why did you ultimately want to make a hard R-rated puppet movie?
HENSON: I feel like we’ve always been a little bit naughty. The Henson Company is considered a very family friendly brand. At the same time, people go, “Yeah, but they’re cool and a little bit naughty.” We’re not Disney. We’re not wholesome, in that sense. Hopefully, we are socially responsible. We’re the cool and weird ones, so this is us doing that. I am deliberately rating it R because I actually wanted to make it clear that this is for adults. If you do it PG-13 and just skate the edge, I’d still have an audience full of five year olds, and that would be a problem. So, by making it an R rating, I’m making it clear that it’s for adults. All of our humor comes out of a very blue, very naughty, dirty humor place. Even the well-known Muppets were developed out of that instinct. It wasn’t on camera, but you would know that Kermit has some dirty thoughts, and Piggy certainly does. My favorite part of watching my dad working was that naughtiness that was just so deliciously funny. Everybody on the crew would be laughing so hard. So, I wanted to take that and make it part of the entertainment, The Puppet Up! live theater show that we’ve been doing is that, and it works really well with audiences.
With the R rating and the subject matter, has there been anything that you thought went too far? Was there anything that didn’t make the cut, or did everything manage to make it in there?
HENSON: I may have shot stuff that goes over the line. I’m not sure. We’ve not been censoring ourselves. 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. That one won’t make it in the movie. We probably have stepped over, in a couple of places, that I’ll learn as I get it all cut together, and then maybe will pull it back a little bit, but the idea is that it really is uncensored. It really is quite dirty, but it’s mostly language and implied sexuality. It’s not graphically sexual. Puppets come silly string, but you don’t see their penises. There are some pretty graphic, ridiculous ideas that are in there, but there’s also a little bit of an innocence to the characters and the story, in this gritty, tough world.