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Cheryl Henson, THE DARK CRYSTAL, and fathers' legacies: Part 1.

“Hey man, are you sure you’re gonna be up for this?”

It is early October, 2017. Erik Sharkey poses the question to me over the phone the weekend before our first meeting with Cheryl Henson. Ms. Henson is, of course, the daughter of the late, great Jim Henson, and the President of the Jim Henson Foundation.

The meeting was months in the works – coordinating Ms. Henson’s busy schedule in New York with my flying out from California was a bit daunting – and I was eagerly looking forward to it. Erik was, too; he was quick to volunteer his time and help in support of the Amsel project and, to my eternal gratitude, in support of me.

God knows I needed it. If a film crew of two sounds like a modest endeavor, just imagine how difficult it is to be a film crew of one. Most of the forty-something interviews I’ve conducted over the last three years were on my own. It can be pretty damn scary. It’s certainly lonely. You’re plagued with self-doubt, and the solemn knowledge that any mistakes or mishaps that befall your footage will be entirely your own damn fault. I would have fired my DP several times over if he wasn’t also directing the movie.

Hell, even Ed Wood had a crew.

The Henson interview had been on the books for several weeks. I knew what a privilege and honor it was going to be. The creative legacy of Jim Henson ranks on high with the likes of Disney, of Lucas, of Spielberg – but its genius also stands positioned in a way very much its own. However big, however successful that legacy has snowballed across the decades, it remains something heartfelt, tender, and personal. To revisit the characters of Sesame Street, or the vaudeville antics of The Muppet Show (and subsequent movies) is to be reunited with old friends. Rarely has that personal touch wavered. Kermit the Frog, all felt and fabric and not one whiff of CGI, still has more humanity, kindness, and expression in his unblinking eyes than most “real” people I know.

Richard Amsel's unused poster for THE MUPPET MOVIE (1979).

My father died the week before the interview. While he’d been in ailing health for some time, I still thought (okay, hoped) we’d spend at least one more Christmas together. There were things we’d been planning for my scheduled October trip – discussions about his estate, his final wishes, how to deal with certain relatives – but such things were not to be. In their place were days spent sorting through dad's voluminous paperwork, investigating bank and utility accounts, making funeral arrangements, calling relatives, packing boxes, filing forms, and trying not to have a heart attack.

“Hey man, are you sure you’re gonna be up for this?”

Dad’s funeral was set for the following Sunday. A cousin of mine was getting married that Saturday. What was I to do – lie in my parents’ now empty house, crying all day? It’s what I would have done, to be sure. But then again, the interview was on the books. I’d have been an idiot to back out.

Erik and I meet in a tiny, crammed restaurant a few blocks away from the Henson building. I had driven up from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and was already exhausted from trying to find parking (30 minutes of circling city blocks, getting lost, mistakenly parking in a nearby police lot) and carrying my camera and lighting equipment (use of non-wheeled luggage is a testament to my stupidity). It was a warm day, especially for early October, and I was sweating. Erik greets me with a broad smile and warm hug while I secretly curse myself for having stuffed my face with a lunch of curry-saturated, roast chicken.

Amsel's poster for THE DARK CRYSTAL.

Twenty minutes later, Erik and I would have the first of two meetings with Ms. Cheryl Henson. What I thought would be a rather straightforward chat about Richard Amsel’s poster for THE DARK CRYSTAL turned into an inspiring, and surprising, conversation about creative vision, risk-taking, and fathers’ legacies…

More to come.

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