A Discussion With Caseen Gaines, Author of ‘The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History’

Mitchell Stein – Just two short weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Caseen Gaines, who is the author of the gorgeous new book, The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History, which is a brilliant tribute to the classic Jim Henson film. I’ve been a big fan of Caseen’s work since reading his phenomenal book, We Don’t Need Roads-The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, so it was a delight for me to sit down with him and discuss some of the amazing works that Caseen has worked on, and especially the legacy that Jim’s masterful film has left behind. Without further ado, I’m proud to present The Muppet Mindset’s interview with author Caseen Gaines.

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Interview with Caseen Gaines, Author of The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History
Conducted by Mitchell Stein

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Author Caseen Gaines at events for ‘The Dark Crystal’ last weekend in Boston and New York.

How did you come to work on this project, and what did it feel like getting to work on a book dedicated to such a legendary cinematic classic?

Caseen: Well, the folks over at The Jim Henson Company were looking to put together a special book celebrating The Dark Crystal, and thankfully, Insight Editions, the publisher that was putting the book together, was familiar with some of my previous books, such as We Don’t Need Roads-The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, and ultimately that led to me working on this title. It’s been an absolute honor and thrill to be able to contribute this to the amazing legacy of Jim Henson.

What are some of your earliest experiences with The Dark Crystal, or even Jim Henson in general?

Caseen: Well, my first familiarity with The Dark Crystal was from an old special done on Jim Henson that was recorded for me from when I was a kid which spent a bit of time focusing on The Dark Crystal. I had no idea that there was this other Henson film, especially one that was quite strange and scary for me as a kid. The first time I watched the entirety of the film was when I was already an adult. My first experience with Jim Henson was Sesame Street of course, not to mention that Follow That Bird was one of my favorite films that I still enjoy today. Aside from Sesame Street, I’ve always loved The Great Muppet Caper, that was always my favorite from all the Muppet films. As I got older, Jim Henson was always a part of my life. I watched Labyrinth, Dinosaurs, and everything else, yet somehow, The Dark Crystal escaped me, being the sole project that I hadn’t watched until much later in my life.

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Did working on this book change your perspective of The Dark Crystal in any way? Is there anything new that you learned that made you appreciate the film even more than you already had?

Caseen: Working on this book changed my perspective of Jim Henson. I’ve always loved his work, and Jim Henson has always referred to The Dark Crystal as the film he is ‘most proud of’. I think it was the project that was certainly the most personal to him. Speaking to his children, the thing that they always relayed to me was that there were always different sides to Jim Henson of course, he could either be very funny and goofy, but he also had a more serious side, and I think The Dark Crystal shined a light more on that side of him. I really appreciate the film for that, and I also appreciate the way that The Dark Crystal was looking to tell innovative stories through spectacular puppetry. He was such an amazing artist, writer, and director and I think you see that all come across really strongly in The Dark Crystal.

What were some of the ways that you gathered information for this book?

Caseen: The archives were incredibly helpful. They sent over so much material, that I don’t even know if I made it through all of it. There were different treatments, whole screenplays, and annotated pages, of course, Jim’s Red Book. The thing that was most helpful to me was that I was able to speak to about thirty people who worked on The Dark Crystal, so it was great to go back to Brian and Wendy Froud, who designed the film, David O’Dell who wrote the screenplay, Gary Kurtz, who produced the film, so many of the costume and puppet builders, foam technicians and things like that. The Jim Henson Company was so generous in helping me get in touch with so many amazing people when putting this book together.

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What are some of the things you are hoping to achieve with the release of the book in order to pay tribute to the legacy Jim Henson left behind?

Caseen: The Dark Crystal is such an amazing film that has such a large global impact that approaching it was certainly a different sort of task. There’s so much in the book that I think people haven’t seen yet that I hope people will enjoy and become inspired by. Besides the visuals and concept art that we showcase in the book, I think the story of the making of this film is really interesting as well, it’s something I hope people will appreciate and enjoy. There was so much work that went into it, Jim first had the idea for this in 1976, so between 1976 and 1982, it wasn’t always the film that was at the forefront of his projects, but he was regularly working on this movie. It was a really important film to Jim and continues to be a very important one to The Jim Henson Company, and I hope this book reflects that significance.

Mitchell: Certainly, the creation of The Dark Crystal is an incredible story in of itself. What many don’t know is that much of what the film is today was conceived in an airport, thanks to Jim being stranded in an airport.

Caseen: That’s correct, the film wasn’t conceived in an airport, but the beginnings and several portions of the story became fleshed out at that time. This is in part to a fantastic blizzard that took place in 1978, leaving Jim Henson and his daughter Cheryl stranded in an airport. They went to a Howard Johnson nearby, and that night was where many of the elements began to take place.

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I want to talk a bit about your previous books, as you became well known for your work with We Don’t Need Roads- The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic. How did writing these books influence the way you wrote The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual Guide?

Caseen: So if you read We Don’t Need Roads, you sort of get an idea of how I do this. What I learned in writing all those other books is that everyone picking up my book knows at least a little bit about what I’m writing about. Therefore, you have to find interesting ways to retell those stories and interesting stories to pull out. In We Don’t Need Roads, when I start the book and Eric Stoltz is playing Marty McFly, everyone knows that Eric Stoltz will not remain Marty McFly by the end of the book. Hopefully, if I’m doing my job right, I can still craft the story in a way that builds some suspense even though you know what the outcome will be. I follow a similar formula with Dark Crystal, like when the film suffers financial troubles,it shouldn’t surprise you that the film still ends up being finished and released, but instead hopefully find new ways to surprise you about how it got to completion.

How do you think The Dark Crystal has shaped Hollywood? How has it influenced other films that came after it?

Caseen: To be honest with you, part of the conundrum is that I don’t know how much it has affected Hollywood. It is quite cliché to say a film is a ‘one of a kind’ film, but The Dark Crystal truly is one of those films. Even looking at The Muppets, which always had celebrity guest stars, where Dark Crystal has no guest stars, or even humans for that matter, carrying the entire film solely with puppets. Or even many of Henson’s other works, even including the other-worldly Labyrinth and Fraggle Rock projects are all worlds within our own world. The world of Dark Crystal stands on its own, with its own environment, mythology, and characters, which is truly world-building at its finest.

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Jim Henson and Frank Oz at the New York premiere of ‘The Dark Crystal’. Courtesy of The Jim Henson Company and Jim’s Red Book.

In your opinion, do you think Jim Henson would have expected this film to have this kind of legacy, especially when upon its release, it was deemed a box office failure?

Caseen: No, I don’t actually. I think Jim Henson certainly wanted this film to be what it has become, and I’m sure he would have been very proud to see that, but I don’t think he expected it, especially considering how it was received early on. Not to mention he course-corrected many things when creating Labyrinth, he added more music, added more humans and humor, and Labyrinth did even worse at the box office than The Dark Crystal did. I think he was genuinely confused by the reception of it, and unfortunately, he never lived long enough to see what these two films have become in our pop-culture landscape.

What do you think the future has in store for the legacy of The Dark Crystal?

Caseen: I often refer to the film as ‘Jim Henson’s masterpiece’, and I really mean that. He’s best known for The Muppets, and I love the Muppets, however, I think that when you look at what Henson was able to do with puppetry and push the medium to a whole new level of storytelling in this film, it’s an amazing achievement. I think the film will be remembered for that and will maintain its place in cinematic history as an accomplishment of creativity and that with the determination and ambition of anyone like Jim Henson, anything is possible on-screen.

Just because we’re curious: How many times have you re-watched The Dark Crystal since signing on to write this book?

Caseen: So many times. Sometimes I’d watch it more than once in a day. Over the last year I’ve watched the film a whole lot.

Mitchell:  I bet that must have impacted your daily interactions. Likely your actions have become more Skesis-like.

Caseen: It’s a good reminder that deep down everyone has a bit of good in them. Even when I’m annoyed at the world, I remember that if someone can manage to restore the shard back inside the crystal, the evil people in this world can become a little bit nicer.

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Recently, The Jim Henson Company announced they are partnering with Netflix for a brand new miniseries titled The Dark Crystal: The Age of Resistance. Being a big fan, and having gone through many experiences these past few months, what do you hope we’ll see from the series when it finally debuts?

Caseen: Undoubtedly, the thing I’m most excited to see are the puppets. From what I understand, they’re doing many of the effects practically. So I’m very excited to see a return to fantasy storytelling in such a spectacular fashion, that doesn’t rely so heavily on computers.

With that, I thank Caseen Gaines immensely for his amazing work behind this book and for taking the time to sit down with us to bring you this interview. The Dark Crystal: The Ultimate Visual History is now available to order online and in stores everywhere, and be sure to follow Caseen Gaines online and check out his other books at CaseenGaines.com.

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