Interview with Toby Philpott
(Original posting: July 29, 2003)

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Toby Philpott was one of the puppeteers who worked inside of Jabba the Hutt back in 1982 for a few weeks. His job was to control some of Jabba’s head, left arm, and tongue. Mike Edmonds, David Barclay, and John Coppinger (who was outside the costume, remotely controlling the eyes) rounded out the gang whose job was to make the audience believe that this slug of a puppet was real. The eclectic group pulled off the task with great success. Toby started out in the 1970’s as a street performer, fringe theater performer, and circus performer doing everything from acrobatics to fire eating to juggling to magic to unicycling and more. He moved on to film work through his contacts in the entertainment industry and worked on such great films as The Dark Crystal, The Company of Wolves, Labyrinth, Little Shop of Horrors, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and of course Return of the Jedi. He currently lives a peaceful life in England, working for his local library in the IT department and attends the occasional Sci-Fi convention as a guest when time permits, signing autographs and meeting numerous fans of the films he’s worked on. (Original posting: July 29, 2003)

 

It’s my understanding that you got the job on Return of the Jedi through your work on The Dark Crystal. Tell me a little bit about that transition.
I got the Dark Crystal job after studying an intensive mime course, which I enjoyed a lot. At one point some film producers came scouting for the movie Quest for Fire and picked me and Bim Mason out of the students, to be possible Neanderthals (was that a compliment?) But (and this is how films work) the project changed producers and some French guys eventually got the job, I believe. Still, it had opened my eyes to the possibilities of breaking away from my lowlife street performer background. So when my mime coach, Desmond Jones, recommended I go to the audition for Dark Crystal, I took his word for it. It was a fairly grueling selection process, but once I got the job and started training, I learned a lot, getting puppet classes from the creators of Kermit and Miss Piggy! The whole experience on Dark Crystal made me feel relaxed and confident in the film environment. Return of the Jedi was being developed in the same studio. It was the builders and sculptors and designers who first were employed (of course), and they probably leaked the rumours of possible work to the performers. Dark Crystal was my first film, so I wasn’t ambitious enough to go looking for the follow-up job. I got lucky, however, and I eventually got called in to partner with Dave Barclay inside Jabba.

Was Jabba the Hutt the biggest puppet you’d ever had to work with?
I guess you could say that. Both the Garthim and the Mystics were one-person puppets. Jabba contained three main performers, and a couple of others outside with radio controls. The biggest puppet I ever saw (and contributed to) was probably Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors–especially the final evolution of the plant, the big one (cut from the final movie) on which I just operated one tentacle, I think.

How does one share a puppet with other people?
We all had the “Henson training” so we all had experience of cooperating to create a single creature. Dave Barclay was chief puppeteer (and the original live voice). He and I had to work very closely together. In training, I even got him juggling using my left hand and his right hand, just for practice. We would also get someone we trusted as an outside eye. John Coppinger, who built Jabba, was outside operating the eyes by radio control, so he would give us feedback about what was effective and expressive. We’d then switch off our mikes and discuss it inside. Mike Edmonds had to improvise tail moves to go with the mood of the shot. I love working with Mike. Filming can be very tiring, and people who keep your spirits up are gold dust. We got on great. He’s a real professional, too. At the end of a long day, we would sometimes go to the bar in the studio. During Ewok shooting, Mike would be there with about 40 other little people. I’d be the tallest in the bar, and the odd one out. It was a pretty crazy bar! I guess it was something like it must have been on The Wizard of Oz with all the Munchkins (hard partying dwarfs!)

Did you do anything besides operate Jabba on the film?
No. This was a full time job. We were the central character on the set and didn’t need any distractions. Occasionally, of course, we would wander about and play with some of the other puppeteers and mimes because we had all worked together on Dark Crystal, so we may have contributed a little to rehearsal feedback (watching Tim Rose working on Max Rebo’s Band for instance).

Have you seen the Jabba in Episode I? It’s quite different from the Special Edition Jabba, but much closer to the Jedi version.
I didn’t enjoy the Jabba from the Special Edition. I thought the rendering and the sculpt just didn’t match up to the magnificent monster I had worked with, but I have to say that they got pretty close with Episode I. I don’t want to take away from the work of the CGI guys there. It was very convincing, but I still have to place that within the “hyper-reality” look of the new episodes. Jabba’s new style matches that very closely, but to eyes like mine that grew up with earlier films, the highly finished surface of the new films still looks like computer simulation. You have to understand that I am older and have never really played computer games much, so that “slick look” appears rather cartoon-like to me. Having said that, I am not sure that the rubber Jabba didn’t look corny to modern eyes, in that context. We move on, and we can celebrate the old achievements (just as we do in sports, arts, and science) and still be happy to be moving on to new possibilities.

Were there any scenes in particular that you remember filming but never ended up in the movie?
I am very pleased to say that most of what we shot is in the movie. This is quite something, because George Lucas shoots a lot, and then savagely cuts it tight. I know the actors find that hard sometimes. I have never measured our screen time, but it is a substantial contribution to the first half of the movie. That said, there were outtakes, of course! Getting that slippery rubber frog into the mouth was fairly hilarious. It started with a live frog (with his keeper) in the tank, and the frog didn’t like it so it would leap OUT of the glass bowl and create havoc hopping around the set ( and it was BIG.) Once we had gotten that in the can, we moved on to the rubber frog.

I hate to disillusion anyone, but at least no animals were injured in the making of this movie. I had to grab it with my left hand in the three-finger grip (imagine the Vulcan “live long and prosper” finger shape) through fat rubber gloves, and then stuff it into the mouth, which I could only just reach. As I was bringing it to the mouth, I was tilting the head with my right hand, then, as Dave chewed it, I had to quickly switch to sliding my right hand into the tongue to lick the lips. Dave had to open the mouth at the right time and I had to get the frog right inside. So far, so good. Now, they added some slime around the mouth and by the third take, the frog is really slippery. When they hand it to me and it squirts out of my grasp and leaps across the set, all the panic starts again (and this isn’t even the live frog!) In one unused take the legs were left sticking out and Dave started chewing.  I carried on poking the wriggling legs in and we heard a groan and the shout of “Cut!” as it was considered too gross. How can Jabba be too gross? At least our stuff was mostly done via close-up, so when they shouted “Cut!” we usually hadn’t upset too many other performers.

I generally had a lot of fun with the tongue jobs (sorry about that!) After Han was released from the carbonite and Leia was brought over to us in the alcove, Jabba was supposed to leer. We tried different tongue moves but we hadn’t found the one that worked. We started setting up for a take and Richard Marquand spoke to me quietly on the headphones, asking if I could reach the tongue right over to lick Leia’s face. I was horrified, being asked to do an unrehearsed move in a live take, but director’s rule, right? I guess he was trying to get a really squeamish reaction from Carrie Fisher and the gunk on that tongue was pretty horrible. Well, I thought she would duck back, but she wasn’t warned, of course. We go for the take and I can’t really see what I am doing on our little monitor (there was no depth of field) so I stretch the tongue out as far as I can and try to “lick” upwards. There are muffled gasps, and laughter, and “Cut!” I didn’t quite know what happened. Richard sounded delighted on the headphones but said we would go again, and could I ease back on the tongue. Only afterwards did I hear that I had apparently stuck that disgusting gloopy tongue right in Carrie Fisher’s ear! Yuk, and I am still apologizing, if she ever hears about this.

Did Jabba ever break or not work right?
They did a fabulous job on the build. I don’t remember any serious problems that we hadn’t “debugged” during rehearsals. There may have been occasional problems with the radio controls for the eyes and grimaces. I remember on Dark Crystal that sometimes the radio controls would go crazy when minicabs went past using their radios! Suddenly, a character’s eyes would spin crazily and we would have to change channels!

Tell me a little something about that choking death scene?
Well, of course the outdoor shots for the barge were shot in another country and they didn’t need us there. We shot our scenes on the set at Elstree which was quite small. When other actors were doing their scenes no one was encouraged to stand and watch. The whole set was pretty secretive. Most things were on a kind of “need to know” basis. The strangling is pretty effective and once Carrie knew she couldn’t hurt us in there, she really went for it. Inside, we thrashed around and went crazy with hand, tongue, jaw, eyes, and everything. It was the last thing we shot, so if Jabba got trashed it wouldn’t matter too much. Here you can see why I prefer live action to CGI. I don’t think you could have gotten that passionate conviction from Carrie Fisher with blue screen. I don’t think I am alone in that. People really cheered when Leia won and Jabba died when I saw it in the cinema. I am sad to say that Jabba ended up in a shed and then got dumped. If I’d have known, I would have asked for his left arm. I’d give my right arm to still have Jabba’s left arm.

How did you feel about Richard Marquand as a director and leader?
We mostly spoke to him via headphones and mikes, so we were insulated from any tensions that may have been occurring on the set. Our insulation meant we didn’t pick up the ripple on the set that happens when important people arrive. Richard played a game with us: talking to Jabba, and not to us as individuals so we could practice improvising. He gave us good feedback, and extracted a convincing performance from us. What more could you ask of a director? It couldn’t have been easy for Richard Marquand to be taking over the reins from George Lucas, who was certainly there quite often, and yet still having him around to make suggestions. I don’t know much about how easy their relationship was.

Tell me about some of the other puppeteers on the set like Tim Rose and John Coppinger.
I knew those two (and many others) from Dark Crystal. Tim was a puppeteer and John a builder, but on Dark Crystal everyone chipped in to work on everything. Tim was a great help when I was working on handheld puppets (to do crowd scenes), and was later Salacious Crumb. We improvised with him quite a lot and asked him for feedback on the performances. I don’t think I interacted with John a lot on Dark Crystal (we worked on different teams) but I liked him and empathized with his quiet temperament. I was very pleased to find him on the Jabba team.

While on the set, were you aware of just how big the Star Wars phenomenon was?
Well, I had some idea at the time, of course, because the first two movies had been huge. Because of being in the studio environment, however, it didn’t seem quite so big. You get blasé when you are working inside the business, although my friends were very impressed. You can’t get too overawed or you get nervous, so you just go in and do it as a job.

Do you remember knocking Anthony Daniels over?
I remember the day I had to knock Anthony Daniels over with Jabba’s left arm, which was a potentialy dangerous move for him! If I remember rightly, for the shot (after some rehearsal) he just wore the top part of the suit so that he had his legs free to stumble back safely. I assume people caught him out of shot. Oh, for a diary of the period…

Do you feel that the puppet world is going to fade away due to computer animation?
I don’t think live performance will ever be entirely replaced. You can listen to your favorite band on CD as often as you like, but a lot of people still want to go see them do it for real. Similarly, low-budget filmmakers may still go on using that approach unless, and until, the CGI software becomes really cheap and universal. With my background in puppetry, live performance, theatre,  and circus, I know the different impact of the live feel. On TV, we have seen Olympic gymnasts doing impossible things, but that isn’t the same as watching an old clown doing a pratfall off a trampette right in front of you. I was doing that only five years ago. People still go “OOF!” in a live show when you appear to hurt yourself, and then laugh when you merely look puzzled about what just happened.

What was the biggest mistake you saw happen on a film set?
Well it depends if you are talking about bloopers or just serious mistakes. On Dark Crystal, when we were shooting outside there was a giant crane for the safety wires on the stilt guys in the Landstriders. One tea break someone decided to move a large vehicle with it, not realizing that it had a long extension on the arm and was only set to carry the weight of a person. Yup, they broke the arm of the crane. No one was hurt but the crane driver was sent home in shock. He’d seen the cable whipping back towards him, alone in his cab 150 feet in the air, and everyone went awful quiet for a bit, thinking about what might have happened.

Have you ever regretted turning down an offer to work on a film or show?
Not really; rather the opposite. I am very proud of all my films. I am really glad that I didn’t compete with Tim Rose to go do Howard the Duck, although I was envious at the time. Now I am glad I didn’t win the “Golden Turkey.” I auditioned for Return to Oz for Brian Henson and thought I was on the short list. I was even told to come to Elstree Studios “Monday morning” and walked along the familiar route humming to myself and mentally signing on the dotted line and spending the money. When I walked towards the office, Waldo Roeg came out and walked down the corridor towards me looking dismayed with his hands out helpless saying, “Sorry, Toby, I don’t know what to say.” I was so upset, but wanted to be cool, so I replied, “I think you just said it,” turned on my heel, and went home to tell my partner while holding back the tears. Showbiz can be rough. I have no idea what had happened over that weekend to change their minds and whose friend got the job, etc. So when it got bad reviews I was, shall we say, secretly pleased.

Which film left you most satisfied?
That’s a difficult one because it was almost all fun for seven years. I guess I have to pick The Dark Crystal, as it was my first. I was involved for nearly a year and worked on all aspects of the film. There was little hanging around on that set, as we were drawn into all sorts of little supporting roles whenever we weren’t shooting our main characters.

Tell me in a few words about Jim Henson.
A few words is tough. He gave me a job when I was having a hard time. He chose me to be on his support team for Dark Crystal, so I was close to him for a while although we didn’t talk much as he was not only performing but also directing the movie and running the Henson Organization at the same time. We had to have an almost telepathic contact and I placed myself entirely in his hands as an apprentice. I loved him and respected him and it was a dreadful shock when I heard he had died so young. My invite to his funeral arrived too late. He was a great man and a humble genius.

Did you ever see George Lucas on the sets of Dark Crystal or Labyrinth?
I remember him turning up on The Dark Crystal. Jim’s original conception was going to be a “difficult” film with creatures talking in strange tongues. It was George’s influence, I suspect, which made it more accessible. Think of that “Many, many years ago…” opening narration.

Did you work closely with Frank “Yoda” Oz?
On Dark Crystal I knew Frank but wasn’t on his team. We never talked about Star Wars. I got to know him a little better on Little Shop of Horrors because he had the wisdom to bring a table-tennis table onto the set for the dull moments of hanging around. So I have played both with him, and against him. He’s a demon at ping-pong.

What did you do on Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
Dave Barclay called me back from the top of a mountain in Spain with yet another “state-of-the-art” job offer. He was the chief puppeteer and put together a great puppet team of six versatile people whose job it was to improvise solutions on the set. The SFX department had time and budget to work on effects. What we did was to dive in and find simple but effective methods of getting the shot. This is not the same as making a consistent method for live shows: get it in the can, and move on. Sometimes I would be above the set, manipulating live objects on “invisible” strings; sometimes hidden under a box, wobbling it when Roger jumped on; sometimes in the ceiling (revolving a fan) when Roger was playing on it.

At one point Geoff Felix and I spent an afternoon with the second unit under a toilet! Roger came through the window, fell in, came up with a gun, then grabbed the toilet chain to pull himself up, and flushed himself away! Geoff had the gun on a wire. I had to spin and pull the chain with an invisible string. It’s been cut very short in the movie, but we spent hours down there, getting soaked. The crew gave us a round of applause at the end of that day!

Other days the puppeteers would be all together. The octopus barman is on screen for a split second but all his props are real and operated by marionette strings. Not having a reputation to lose (with string puppets) I was the first to try pouring real liquid from a bottle to a glass. Once I proved it could be done, that job went to the real marionette people. I lit the actress’ cigarette with a lighter (the supporting wires ran up to a battery so I could both manipulate it AND light it!) My mixed background as puppeteer, juggler, acrobat, and magician made me the go-for-it member of the team. The others were serious puppeteers with specialized skills.

Is there any particular reason you’ve stepped away from the mainstream entertainment business?
I didn’t give films up: they gave me up. I don’t have just one theory. Foreign film productions were driven away from using the UK by Mrs. Thatcher not giving tax breaks to film, I gather. When Jim Henson died I think the Henson Organization regrouped with the younger staff. Builders carried on working but puppeteers are interchangeable and therefore disposable. Perhaps I didn’t hang around London enough, taking the right people to dinner. I kept rushing off with my juggling friends to other parts of Europe and I had a couple of personal events which were a bit distressing that demoralized me a bit. Stuff happens. I also didn’t want to work on horror movies where a lot of rubber effects kept on going. I am glad I did basically life-enhancing movies.

Do you still talk to anyone from Return of the Jedi?
We all worked together off and on through until 1987 and then there was a big break. When I came online in 1999 I started (slowly) to reconnect. I am working on a Jabba reunion, for instance. I think that would be great. It’s not easy. Dave is busy and lives in Los Angeles. Mike is always working and traveling. I am regularly in contact with John Coppinger who encouraged me to visit Jedicon in December because he knows I am not a shy puppeteer and really enjoy talking to people.

Do you consider yourself a Star Wars fan?
Well, I don’t want to disappoint people, but I rarely lie. I am quite a bit older than a lot of fans. I had my 36th birthday while working on Jedi, so I was a bit old to have been drawn into the Star Wars universe. When the first film came out, I had been living without a television for seven years and I worked most evenings as a juggler. I didn’t see a lot of films. To be honest my taste in Sci-Fi runs towards the comic or the truly weird. I love Dark Star, for instance, and Galaxy Quest. I read Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Kurt Vonnegut and those sort of guys. I wasn’t a Dr. Who fan. I was a fan of The Prisoner. Still, I am well aware of how the Star Wars saga is a great myth. I was always a Joseph Campbell fan and can understand how people get so into it. I just come from the pre-media generation. I used to love film but the 1950s were not a great period for movies. We didn’t see many of the great old movies (both silent movies or the film noir stuff from the 1940s) until television started showing them. I got my first television when I was about 15 and it was mostly live shows, even then. I grew up on live shows both on stage and television. My dad took me to cartoon shows and sometimes we’d get a short film of one of the great clowns, but most of this stuff I saw as an adult. When I was “clowning,” I called it research!

How have your convention experiences been going?
I have only done a couple but I have had a lot of fun. I know for some actors it has become a way of life but to me it is just an opportunity to travel and meet people. I am sure it might be possible to make a bit of money doing it but I am not in showbiz anymore so that isn’t really my main motive. After paying for the photos and hotels, etc. it isn’t that profitable at my level, but it’s a free weekend break and a bit of an adventure. I’ve met some really great people. Let’s face it, we all got bought out of our contracts back in 1982 and haven’t received a penny since, so it’s nice to get a little feedback about how much our work got through to people. That’s very rewarding.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
I was getting stressed out in Spain once and this guy said “¡Tranquilo, hombre!” (Take it Easy, Man! Slow Down!) which I always thought was great advice and it sounds even better in Spanish. But of course, Mr. Bob Dylan sang this to me when I was young and planning to live an outlaw life: “To live outside the law you must be honest…”


This interview has been slightly modified from its original form. (Original posting: July 29, 2003)

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