Thirty-two years ago, a unique and fascinating fantasy film was released to theaters. Labyrinth was directed by Muppets creator Jim Henson as a way of making something vastly different from what he'd done with Kermit, Fozzie, and the gang.
It's the story of a teenage girl, Sarah (Jennifer Connelly), whose baby brother is taken by Jareth the Goblin King, played by David Bowie. In order to save the infant, she has to enter a massive maze, inside of which are all kinds of bizarre creatures and magical sights.
Labyrinth was not a box office hit when it came out in June of 1986. It faced some tough competition that summer, including The Karate Kid Part II, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Top Gun. In fact, there were so many popular movies all vying for audience attention simultaneously that it only opened in eighth place on its debut weekend, with a not-so-impressive $3.5 million. The studio pulled it from release less than a month later.
Time has been kind to Labyrinth. Over the past three decades, audiences have caught up to it, falling in love with its imagination, wit, stellar puppetry work, and creative visual design. The hypnotic weirdness is a pretty big draw, too. If you think what's onscreen is weird, wait until you hear about all the things that went into the making of Labyrinth.
A work as offbeat as this one probably benefits from having some madness behind-the-scenes. We know you won't be disappointed by these stories.
Here are 20 Wild Facts About the Making of Labyrinth.
Labyrinth was not Jennifer Connelly's first movie, but it was definitely her first big, high-profile role. The actress, who had previously appeared in the teen comedy Seven Minutes in Heaven and the critically-acclaimed drama Once Upon a Time in America, snagged the lead role of Sarah, beating out some tough competition in the process.
The list of actresses who also auditioned to play Sarah now reads like a Who's Who of eventual stars. Among those trying out for the part were Helena Bonham Carter, Laura Dern, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jane Krakowski, and Marisa Tomei. Another actress who came really close to being cast was The Breakfast Club star Ally Sheedy.
Connelly charmed Henson the most, though, resulting in the film that would help make her name in Hollywood.
One thing Jim Henson was adamant about was wanting to cast a big-time rock star in the role of Jareth the Goblin King. He needed someone with a commanding presence, a little mystery, and a great big sense of showmanship. In the '80s, there were a few rockers who could fill that bill, and Henson considered most of them.
One of the top contenders was Sting, the lead singer of the Police. He had a bit of acting experience, and therefore seemed like a natural choice. Rod Stewart, Freddy Mercury of Queen, and even Prince were also on Henson's mind.
A bigger contender was the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, who, by all accounts, dreamed of movie stardom.
That said, the winner was David Bowie. The glam rocker had the qualities Henson decided he wanted, in just the right measure.
In an interesting bit of trivia, Sarah's baby brother Toby was portrayed by Toby Froud. He is the son of Brian Froud, the man who designed both the worlds and the creatures of Labyrinth. As an adult, Toby didn't stick with acting. Instead, he became a puppeteer for Laika, working on their films ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.
Baby Toby was a little scared of David Bowie in his costume.
That made filming a scene in which Jareth holds the infant in his lap challenging. The filmmakers played with a squeaky toy off-camera in order to distract Toby so that they could get the shot they needed.
The plan didn't work completely, though. Years later, Froud told Portland Monthly that he peed on Bowie during their big scene together.
One of the most popular figures in Labyrinth is Hoggle, the dwarf who works for Jareth, yet befriends Sarah. Brian Henson, son of Jim, provided the voice of the character, as well as doing all the mouth puppetry. It took more than one performer to bring Hoggle to life, though. While Henson may have done the most prominent work, he wasn't alone.
That's because there were five other puppeteers working in conjunction with him. Little person Shari Weiser was physically inside the Hoggle costume, allowing him to walk and move. Henson handled the mouth and speaking. Four additional people off-screen used remote controls to move the animatronic face.
No matter how you look at it, a group effort was required to make this character seem authentic.
One of the coolest things about Jareth is that, throughout the movie, he juggles crystal balls, making them roll and twist in almost impossible ways. It's a trait that gives him a sense of mystery, and maybe even a slight hint of menace.
Bowie was not a master of juggling, so a little bit of good old-fashioned movie magic was used to literally give him a hand. A professional juggler named Michael Moschen stood behind Bowie, out of range of the cameras.
His right arm was tucked into Bowie's costume, doubling for Jareth's right arm.
Juggling is tricky under the best of circumstances. For a scene in which Jareth tosses a crystal ball to Hoggle, Moschen required several takes because he kept dropping it, due to his awkward position and lack of visibility.
Jim Henson hired a rock star to play the goblin king Jareth. That wasn't just a flight of fancy on his part. The character was fundamentally designed to be a rock star, not that it's ever expressly stated in the film itself.
In the making-of features on the Blu-ray, conceptual designer Brian Froud goes into detail, saying, "I gave him a swagger stick. It has a crystal ball. If you look at it, it's a microphone. There are a lot of subtleties going on in that. He is supposed to be a young girl's dream of a pop star."
That's not the only low-key rocker reference the filmmakers snuck in. Froud goes on to acknowledge that the production "got in a lot of trouble about maybe how tight his pants were. That was deliberate."
What do Star Trek and Labyrinth have in common? The answer is Gates McFadden. The actress is well known to Trekkies for playing Dr. Beverly Crusher on the very popular TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Prior to taking on that role, she actually worked for Jim Henson as "Director of Choreography and Puppet Movement" on The Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan. Her background studying physical theater in Paris made her well qualified to perform such responsibilities. She handled the choreography duties on Labyrinth as well, getting David Bowie, Jennifer Connelly, and all the other actors and extras comfortable with the dance moves.
In order to distinguish her dual careers, McFadden used her real first name, Cheryl, when working in choreography, and her middle name, Gates, when acting.
The musical numbers of Labyrinth are perhaps the one part of the movie that doesn't hold up. They're fun to watch, yet also seem a little outdated, thanks to some specifically '80s-era dance moves and instrumentation. Despite the performance from Bowie, none of those tunes went on to become hit singles.
If one of them stands out, it's "Magic Dance," which Bowie sings to a room full of creatures, as well as baby Toby, who coos and gurgles during the tune. Except that it's not actually a real baby making those noises.
While recording the song in the studio, the baby chosen to provide infant accompaniment wouldn't perform as needed.
Professional that he was, Bowie took matters into his own hands and made the baby voices himself.
Of all the visually spectacular moments in Labyrinth, the "Helping Hands" scene is arguably the most indelible of all. Getting that sequence on film was a logistical challenge, as well as a potentially perilous task for star Jennifer Connelly.
According to the Blu-ray bonus features, to capture the scene, the actresses was put into a harness and lifted about forty feet into the air. She was then lowered down a specially-built rig, behind which were more than 100 people wearing latex gloves, all of whom grabbed at her as she descended.
Connelly had to be very careful what she did with her own hands during the ride. If they somehow worked their way behind the harness's shaft, she risked getting her fingers lopped off.
In the end, everything was done safely, leading to an unforgettable sequence.
Production on Labyrinth began in April of 1985 at England's famed Elstree Studios. If it were made today, it probably would look a lot different. Back then, CGI was in its infancy, so everything had to be achieved practically. Sets needed to be built from physical materials, and the otherworldly creatures were puppets.
Even so, the movie did contain what is widely regarded to be the first attempt at creating a realistic CGI animal in a motion picture.
The credits for Labyrinth feature titles against a black background, with a computer-generated owl continually swooping around them.
At the end, the fake owl morphs into a real one as the film cuts to actual footage.
By today's standards, it doesn't look quite as impressive. Back then, though, it was an amazing step forward.
Jim Henson had a stable of Muppeteers who worked with him on any project he undertook. These were trusted colleagues and masters of puppetry who understood the aesthetic their boss was going for. Many of them worked for him for decades, bringing the most beloved of Muppet characters to life.
For Labyrinth, however, Henson didn't want the audience to make any connections to other Muppets. The creatures in the film looked different, so he wanted them to sound different, too.
That led him to insist that his trusted coworkers not provide voices.
Longtime associate Dave Goelz, who plays Didymus, told Empire magazine, "Jim did want to stylistically break from the Muppets, and he just didn’t want any of our voices to be recognizable. There are only so many different sounds one person can make."
Maurice Sendak is a famous author, best known for the timeless children's book Where the Wild Things Are. When he found out about the plot of Labyrinth, he thought it bore a suspicious resemblance to another book he penned, Outside Over There, which is about a young girl trying to rescue her baby sister before she can be made a goblin bride. Sendak got his lawyers involved, and they unsuccessfully tried to convince Henson to halt production on the movie.
Asked about the controversy many years later, conceptual designer Brian Froud chalked it up to coincidence. He told Empire magazine, “We based Labyrinth on European folklore. We can only assume Sendak was using the same sources. The link between his work and ours was only noticed well into production.”
Labyrinth's end credits, however, acknowledge the influence Sendak's work had on Jim Henson.
Jareth the goblin king is a fascinating character. He's charismatic, with an edge of danger. So how did Jim Henson and his creative team conceive of him? For inspiration, they turned to classic literature and one revered motion picture.
Conceptual designer Brian Froud wrote a book called The Goblins of Labyrinth, which chronicles, in great detail, how the movie's creatures and characters were initially envisioned. He states that "the romantic figures of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights and a brooding Rochester from Jane Eyre" were both used as references for Jareth's overall vibe.
In terms of costumes, a Brothers Grimm image of a knight with worms eating through his armor was used as inspiration, as was the leather jacket famously worn by Marlon Brando in the 1953 drama The Wild One, a film that helped turn him into an icon.
If you remember the "Magic Dance" musical number, you know that it opens with a dialogue exchange between Jareth and the goblins. He starts off saying "You remind me of the babe," and is asked, "What babe?" "The babe with the power," he replies, before specifying, "the power of voodoo."
For most viewers, that conversation passes by without much thought. Hardcore cinephiles, on the other hand, know it's a direct reference to another film from several decades prior.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is a 1947 screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Shirley Temple. In one scene, the two have a snappy back-and-forth in which Grant tells her, "You remind me of the man." She asks, "What man?" He replies, "the man with the power" and adds "the power of hoodoo."
There's an old Hollywood saying: "Never work with children or animals." That's because they can be unpredictable, and can't always obey instructions. In the case of Labyrinth, the saying could have been altered to be "Never work with animals and puppets."
A scene in which Didymus has to ride a dog across the Bog of Eternal Stench was difficult to film.
Puppeteer Dave Goelz told SyFyWire that the animal, carrying an expensive radio-controlled puppet on his back, had a harness attached to him so that he wouldn't drown if he fell - which he did. Repeatedly.
"The dog slipped off the stones I think just about every time," Goelz said, "so we had to do it a bunch of times and the dog was always rescued by the cable."
Here is a truly bizarre -- and honestly kind of amazing -- story about Labyrinth. When movies are done filming, their props are generally shipped to a studio or some kind of safe location for storage. That way, they can be hauled out for potential sequels, future museum exhibitions, public displays, and so on.
After production wrapped, the Labyrinth crew packed up the Hoggle puppet and shipped it off. For whatever reason, it got lost during the flight, and subsequently ended up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama, which is a repository for abandoned items.
The center's staff knew they had found something special, so they made Hoggle a permanent part of their museum.
He now sits alongside everything from wedding dresses to iPads to samurai swords in their collection.
When you attend a movie premiere, the odds are pretty good that you might get to meet some of the stars. If you're a celebrity or well-known public figure yourself, it's practically a guarantee that you will. What happens when some of the stars of the film aren't exactly real? In the case of Labyrinth, you meet them anyway.
Or at least Princess Diana did. At the Royal Premiere in December 1986, she and Prince Charles got to talk with Jim Henson and one of his guests, Ludo, the gentle beast.
We can only speculate as to what they might have talked about. Regardless, it made for one heck of a fun photo op.
The press really enjoyed covering the meet-up, since it provided the amusing sight of the elegant princess standing next to a humongous hairy creature.
Jim Henson achieved astonishing success with the kid-friendly Muppets. From their hit TV show to their popular feature film outings, audiences clearly couldn't get enough of them. However, the creator wanted to expand what he could do beyond those cute-and-cuddly projects. He wanted to do things a little darker and edgier.
The Dark Crystal, released in 1982, was the first of these ventures. It did respectably at the box office, but critical reviews were mixed at best. Labyrinth, on the other hand, outright bombed, earning just $12.7 million at the box office.
Henson's son Brian told SF Gate that his dad took the film's public rejection pretty hard. "Obviously, he was a very proud artist. He was used to being loved [and] I think it knocked him a little, because he knew he had done something extraordinary."
The screenplay for Labyrinth is credited to just one person -- Terry Jones, the former Monty Python member who co-wrote comedy classics like Life of Brian and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He was not the only scribe to toil on the script, though.
There were twenty-five different treatments and drafts before the final version.
Director Jim Henson and children's author Dennis Lee came up with the initial story. They handed the idea over to Jones to flesh out. When things weren't quite working as they'd hoped, some big names were brought in to offer suggestions and make revisions. One of those people was Star Wars creator George Lucas. Another was legendary comedy writer/performer Elaine May, who previously scored an Oscar nomination for co-writing Heaven Can Wait.
Together, everyone came up with something Henson liked.
For as big a rock star as he was, David Bowie had a reputation for being a very down-to-earth guy. Apparently, he was also an extremely charitable man, as evidenced by a story related by author Paul Magrs.
He wrote about a friend with autism who was invited to attend a screening of Labyrinth back in 1986. The screening was designed to allow children to meet Bowie. The rocker apparently realized this boy's special needs made him socially uncomfortable and gave him an "invisible mask."
Bowie told the child, "I always feel afraid, just the same as you. But I wear this mask every single day. And it doesn’t take the fear away, but it makes it feel a bit better. I feel brave enough then to face the whole world and all the people. And now you will, too."
What's your favorite part of Labyrinth? Give us your opinions in the comments.