Jim Henson's Turkey Hollow, airing this Saturday on Lifetime, has its origins in the Muppet creator's restless need to expand what his characters could do and where he could take them. As Henson Company Chief Executive Officer Lisa Henson told Bleeding Cool recently, the project was first proposed in 1968.
At the time, Henson's Muppets were appearing on television regularly and with a couple of specials like Cinderella and The Frog Prince already produced, he saw what was then called "The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow" as an opportunity to take his puppets outside of the studio and into the real world. He wrote an outline in collaboration with longtime Muppet writer Jerry Juhl. While it is unclear why the project — envisioned as an hour long special — never progressed beyond the initial treatment, Lisa Henson noted the timing. "Sesame Street launched in 1969," she said. "All of the year was taken up in preparing that show."
Flash forward nearly forty years. Henson Company archivists Karen Falk and comic book publisher Archia were reviewing the company archives for unrealized concepts that could become comic books. The Turkey Hollow treatment was found and Henson immediately saw the potential. "I fell in love with it and thought we should just make this show," she said. The film follows a recently divorced father and his two children as they visit his Aunt Cly over Thanksgiving weekend. Older sister Annie just wants an internet connection while younger brother Tim discovers a foursome of unusual creature who express themselves with very specific musical tones.
"It just had everything: very charming puppet characters, wonderful children, a compelling adult lead in Aunt Cly and it was unique." Believing there are not enough Thanksgiving-themed specials, she resolved to produce the project as either a special or movie. Archia ultimately produced a graphic novel based on the original treatment while director Kirk Thatcher, long associated with The Henson Company back all the way back to ABC's Dinosaurs, worked on updating the concept and converting it from a forty-eight minute special to an eighty-eight minute telefilm.
"It was very sweet, fun, but shorter story," he said of the original. "It was more like the tone of Cinderella." His first updated outline framed the story as "lost" special from 1968. He introduced a father character and the narrator, eventually played by Ludacris, who breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience. He also introduced the myth of Turkey Hollow's local legend, the Hoodoo. "I also added some material to round out the family," he continued.
One deletion from the original outline: the creatures are no longer from space. "In the original, it was intimated that they came from a meteor," Thatcher said.
The initial "lost 1968 special" framing device gave way to a more contemporary story with allusions to factory farming, divorce and going off the grid — much to Annie's displeasure. "We wanted to keep the idea of going to an innocent country place," Henson said. "And nowadays, kids don't necessarily want to go to an innocent country place." That tension became a major element in the film.
Between 1968 and now, the Jim Henson Creature shop advanced the art of puppetry in amazing ways, something Thatcher took note of while working on Turkey Hollow. While developing the idea back in 1968, Henson built the puppets and photographed them at his family home in Connecticut. Though the special as originally conceived was never produced, the company held onto Henson's original Musical Monster puppets. "They were simple hand puppets," Thatcher said. "Just some taxidermy fur and synthetic eyes."
Henson's interest in shooting the characters in real world environments led to the creation of the Creature Shop and many of the advancements the company would develop in films like The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal. "It was first attempt to use realistic fur colors and realistic looking eyes," he said. That first experiment would eventually lead to the complex radio controlled animatronic characters The Henson Company would devise for its own projects and films like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The final version of the creatures in Turkey Hollow utilize all the tricks the Creature Shop developed over the decades.
"We thought it was fun to do a movie with puppets," Henson added. "Nowadays, so many creature effects are done with computer graphics and the art of animatronic puppetry hasn't advanced all that much since the 1990s because CGI more less has taken over. That gave the movie a nostalgic, throwback quality."
Thatcher said having the creatures on set also gave the child actors something to play against. "Our youngest actor was thirteen playing a ten year old and they had so many scenes with these creatures that if they were acting with a ping pong ball … it's just so much easier to get a performance." Even actress Mary Steenburgen, who plays Aunt Cly, got teary-eyed from laughing while working with the puppets. "She was having so much fun," the director recalled.
"The puppeteers rarely broke character, so they'd react to the actors reactions," Thatcher continued. Since the puppeteers would stay in character even when cameras were not rolling, he found himself directing the creatures by addressing the puppet face-to-face and not the puppeteer teams.
"We used the right tool for the job," he said. Admitting CGI has its place, he added, "this was a project that was really suited for the puppets."
While taking puppets into the real world presents plenty of filmmaking challenges, including burying the puppeteers for a scene in which the creatures have to dig under a shed, Thatcher said the most trouble he had was with live turkeys. "Turkeys are delightful and also dumb as rocks," he said. One scene called for a group of them to run away during from a pen during the middle of the night, but the production discovered the turkeys would not run after dark for fear of bumping into one another. "That scene was almost impossible to shoot. Even the farmers we leased the turkeys from weren't sure if they would do it," Thatcher recalled. Eventually, the scene was shot at dusk a month later at the turkey's home farm. "We learned a lot about turkeys," he said.
Both said experiences with the turkeys, the actors and puppeteers would have thrilled Jim Henson had he worked on the project. He would have also loved to solve problems on set. Thatcher gave an example: to show the creatures running through the forest, the special effects team attached tails to radio control cars and drove them past camera. On screen, it works. "It's such an easy trick," Thatcher said. "But Jim would've loved that."
Jim Henson's Turkey Hollow airs on Lifetime on Saturday, November 21st.