"No Strings Attached"The Bothan Spy's interview with Toby Philpott, published December 20, 2007
Recently, we interviewed Toby Philpott, who was a key puppeteer in bringing Jabba the Hutt to life onscreen. He speaks with us candidly about his experiences in Return of the Jedi and other films, including working alongside Jim Henson. It is my great pleasure to welcome Toby Philpott to The Bothan Spy! Without further ado, on with the interview!
You recently registered on The Bothan Spy, and have been posting in an autograph thread related to you, answering questions and interacting with your fans. This is a real honor for everyone here at The Spy. How did you first come across our humble little website?
Well, since I got on the web in about 2000, I discovered that fans still wanted to meet some of us that did that work back in the 80s. My own world has moved on, working on a few other films, then working on both teaching circus skills, and performing with a small (non-animal) circus that some students of mine had set up. Finally, I moved to their city, joined the circus Board of Trustees, got my first ever 'day-job' with the local library and ended up working with computers. While testing both staff and public internet PCs I often do research, with google and a bit of cunning, and I think I first visited you because of that.
Your film career has encompassed a number of major movies that are today considered classics and loved by fans worldwide. Your skills in puppetry and performing led you to parts large and small in each of them. Let's start at the beginning.
How did you first become interested in live performing?
Well, the live performing thing emerged as a way of surviving when hitch-hiking around Mexico with no money! Although both my parents worked in show-biz (in different areas) they had not encouraged me into that business. I had taken up juggling as a pastime (small, portable, endlessly amusing to me and it often got me lifts when hitching, too!) A few people would come to watch me practice, then started giving me somewhere to stay, or buy me a meal, or give me small amounts of money. After six months, I had developed a small, rough act. When I came back to the UK, I had to strip it right down again, do some training, and then brave the hostility of the streets and markets of London. Some countries have a tradition of performing artists, but not the UK. My dad wrote a diary about busking with puppets in the depression of the 1930s, which influenced me a bit, I guess. I hadn't really performed puppets much, but they felt somehow familiar. I later did some mime training and that led to my applying for the full-body animatronic puppets in The Dark Crystal, which directly lead to Jabba.
You spent some time traveling the world by yourself ... street performing in the United States, Mexico and other locations. What prompted you to undertake this journey, so far away from England?
In the 1960s, a lot of us felt disaffected by our cultures. Americans were running away from the draft (compulsory conscription to go to Vietnam), England was changing with the end of empire, etc. My generation (The Sixties) re-energized everything by helping force through changes in censorship, attitudes to sex and drugs, we raised awareness of issues like ecology, etc. We get easily dismissed as 'hippies' but that's just propaganda. We were much more varied than that! Many people were going off to the East, partly in search of 'enlightenment', partly to go somewhere they could live cheaply. It became known as 'The Hippie Trail'. It didn't appeal to me. My French girlfriend and I decided to go the other way ... hopefully getting across the USA and then earning enough to go onto Japan/Australia, etc. Living off crumbs from the rich man's table in California appealed to me more than 'acting rich' in India or Thailand. I think she might have managed the whole trip around the world without me, but I wanted to experience the countries I was passing through and we ended up in the USA for 18 months, then on down to Mexico ... just for lack of air fare.
Can you tell us some more about your travels and experiences as a street performer?
I worked intensively for 7 years on street performing, mostly as a solo comedy juggler, but occasionally with a partner or small troupes. 'Street' doesn't really cover it, as it included schools, parks, festivals, hospitals, people's homes, etc. I preferred working away from the UK, but never had the courage or resources to stay away for long – but I was amazed how much more respect performers got in France and Spain (as 'artistes') and how much better paid we were in Germany or (say) Sweden. However, I had a London base (a shed at the bottom of some Aussies' garden!) and I worked from there.
Your first venture into film was The Dark Crystal. How did you get cast in this amazing film?
When my dad died in 1978, I lost my desire to go out and amuse people (solo performing is pretty lonely) and decided I needed to study something to express 'the poet' in me. Desmond Jones (my mime teacher) went for the movement coach job on The Dark Crystal (he had trained the ape-actors for Greystoke) and recommended I audition too. I got the job, but he didn't!
Could you share some of your experiences from the set with us?
Well, you have to understand what an unusual film it was. We were on the set from day one to the final wrap. Actors (even stars) rarely work on almost every frame of a film. In addition to playing a mystic (very hot and uncomfortable) and a Garthim (very heavy and uncomfortable), I did a lot of background characters.
We had fun days when we just animated a butterfly in the woods, or a second unit shot like the 'propeller' plants you see taking off when disturbed. We filmed that in reverse, so in fact all of us were up in the roof playing gigantic darts all day ... spinning and dropping and trying to get them all to stick in at the same time. Then hauling them back up in a bucket on a rope! Boy, it was hot up near those lights.
What was it like working with Jim Henson?
Each muppeteer had a support team, as these complex characters could take up to four people to operate! I got chosen to work on Jim Henson's characters (Jen, Ritual Master, etc) as part of his team. Usually operating the right hand, sometimes the eyes, etc. Because Jim was also directing the film, we had rather less rehearsal than the other teams, but he was always calm and patient. I asked him one day how he managed it and he said that, as figurehead of the company, his apparent state of mind rippled right through the building, so if he started to worry then it would pervade throughout. He had a wonderful temperament and presence.
They have recently announced that a sequel to The Dark Crystal is in the works and will feature live puppets with CGI backgrounds and effects elements. What are your thoughts on this? Have you been asked to be involved with it?
Well, no, I haven't been invited to join in. At the age of 61, I have few qualifications for the heavy work involved and I certainly don't have any unique puppeteering skills that would make me essential (like really good lip-synch, say). I don't have anything against an elegant mix of puppets and cgi, but I do worry about it a little, since I don't think cgi Jabba comes close to 'real' Jabba, and Dark Crystal 1 (ugh) has so much strength because it isn't just a cartoon. Everything you see was really there on set.
Following The Dark Crystal, you rather quickly found yourself on the set of Return of the Jedi. How did you land the part as puppeteer operating Jabba the Hutt?
The Dark Crystal was my first film (and, I assumed, my last) but I got asked into the offices to see if I wanted to work on the next film at Elstree Studios ... something which was then called Blue Harvest. Several builders, sculptors, animatronic operators and mimes moved straight over from The Dark Crystal to Revenge of the Jedi as they finally told us it would be called. I don't think I got talent-spotted! Dave Barclay got the job and asked for me as co-pilot.
Could you explain what your responsibilities were as Jabba's "Left Hand Man"? How did you interact with the other puppeteers and crew operating Jabba?
We each had a headset so that we could talk to each other and to the people working the remote control eyes and hear the director's instructions. Dave and I also had small b&w monitors which showed us a static shot of Jabba – and Mike had a full size monitor which showed the shot we were working on.
You had a lot to do, controlling Jabba’s arm, tongue, and head. One scene that comes to mind is Jabba eating the frog. Was it hard to multitask all these different movements?
Yes, but that was the fun, I guess! We had to work out the kind of effect we wanted to achieve and then figure out a sequence that would allow us to do all the different moves. Then we had to rehearse them together and finally show what we had to the director and make last minute adjustments to suit what he wanted. For instance, reaching down for the frog is one simple sequence. The lift-out was done as a pick-up shot elsewhere (this got inserted later). But the most complicated one we had to do in one shot involved me leaning the head forward and then bringing the (rubber) frog into shot with my left hand while Dave opened the mouth. I pushed the frog right into the mouth (so it was out of sight) and then Dave started chewing…at this point I have let go of the head control, and slid my right hand inside the tongue to come out and lick the lips. It looks great though! I love that sequence!
You also had the task of bashing C-3PO when Jabba becomes upset. Could you tell us about that?
Well, as Mr. Daniels didn't have a body double who could fit into that suit, he intended to do the stunt himself. So, I had to actually come out and talk to him and the stunt co-ordinator about it all. Of course, we could shoot at an angle where I didn't get too close to him with my flailing arm, but I had to explain just how little I could see in there. Then I found out how little Anthony Daniels could see! Eventually we settled for him taking the leggings off (which made it very hard for him to safely stagger back), and a couple of guys lurking behind him to catch him. We then very carefully rehearsed in slow motion before going for a take. Again, I am very proud of how good it looks.
Recently at Celebration 4 in Los Angeles, Carrie Fisher related a story to the audience about Leia having a close encounter with Jabba’s tongue. Perhaps you could elaborate on this and tell us Jabba's side of the story.
Haha! I don't know her version of the story because I experienced it quite a different way! Basically, when threatening Leia in the alcove (after Han is released from carbonite) Jabba wiggles his disgusting tongue at her, in lechery. On my headset I heard Richard Marquand whisper (after the first take) that he wanted me to stretch the tongue out as far as possible. I asked if he had told Carrie, but he said he just wanted a natural reaction from her. So we did that take his way and I think I either licked her face or her ear, but whatever actually happened it was far too gross and we had to do it again! The shot you see in the movie is a lot less disgusting. I have never seen the outtake.
What was the atmosphere like on the set of Return of the Jedi? Did you get to socialize with any of the other actors or crew?
Well, the Jabba crew felt quite isolated as we spent the whole day inside, apart from tea breaks. The atmosphere was pretty good, as most of the puppeteers and mime artists knew each other. We had either worked together on films, or in fringe theatre, etc ... and of course we were all getting well paid and working on a classic movie. So, people put up with the alternating boredom and tension of a film set pretty well.
Whatever happened to the Jabba costume, after filming wrapped up?
John Coppinger (who sculpted Jabba) assures me that Jabba got put in a shed, but then the foam latex started rotting and he got thrown out. John saw him in a skip and rescued the tip of his tail as a souvenir. Other people have told me they have seen Jabba in storage. I believe John's version. But you never can tell with Jabba. Perhaps he faked his own death, went into hiding, and, like Hotblack Desiato (from the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio show), remains dead "for tax purposes".
This is a little off-topic, but I understand Desmond Jones, your mime coach, recommended you try out for The Dark Crystal. Desmond Jones also recommended Tim Dry and Sean Crawford try out for Return of the Jedi. They both ended up playing aliens in Jabba's Palace. I don't suppose you knew either of them prior to working on the film? I believe Tim Dry first took mime classes from Mr. Jones around 1972.
Phew, now you are testing my memory. I don't think I did the same year as Tim, but Sean and I may have been in the same class. It's hard to remember as fringe actors formed quite a small group in London at the time, so I suspect we had all heard of each other. I did the course in 1979 and I thought it was only the second course that Desmond's school ran, although he had been teaching elsewhere before that, of course.
Your next film was Labyrinth, working with Jim Henson again. Were you called back for this movie? What were some of your roles in this film?
They didn't call me for it and I nearly missed it. Living outside London, I had fallen out of touch with the film world. I woke up one day, telling myself that if I didn't ask then, they wouldn't come looking for me. I rang the creature shop and they said, "funnily enough, we need some puppeteers, can you start on Monday morning!" They had auditioned and built their team, but when they dressed the set, they realized it looked a bit empty ... so needed to rapidly find more people. I am a dog-like creature by Bowie's feet. I went on to do a three-man firey with Kevin Clash doing head, Dave Barclay doing hands, and me doing body and feet. Throughout this film, I was limping around in agony (I had put my sacroiliac out playing football), so I don’t have such happy memories of the time and didn't have a chance to get it fixed until filming ended. I also did eye-movement on the junk woman, a hand for the wizard, background goblins for the fight scenes, etc.
You also worked with Frank Oz on these films. Could you share some of your memories of working with Yoda himself?
I really liked Frank, but (as I said) I worked on Jim's team. Frank entertained people and drew excellent work out of everyone (the Muppets work on having a good working atmosphere) ... but I suspect he is a serious and dedicated worker. The quality of his work doesn't just happen by chance.
After Labyrinth, you worked on Little Shop of Horrors performing various parts of Audrey, the giant man-eating plant. Tell us a little about that experience.
Well, it was a bit bizarre. As the plant grew, the number of puppeteers grew, and I came in when there was a team of about six. The mobile mouth needed a couple of people. I operated one of the leaves and others did tentacles. As it got bigger, we ended up with someone actually riding inside the plant to operate the jaw and a whole crew of people for lips, tentacles, etc. The very biggest version was shot, but left out of the final edit ... when they junked the black comedy and settled on a Hollywood happy ending (sigh). I hope one day we get to see a director's cut of the original version ... when the plant eats everybody and takes over the world!
You also worked on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? ... what were some of your responsibilities on this movie?
The team of puppeteers basically did the improvised work on set that the SFX crew didn't take responsibility for or hadn't prepared for (any idea that came up during shooting) using invisible thread from above or rods or wires from below, etc. No-one had ever done something quite that complicated and it felt more like being a magician's assistant than a puppeteer – effectively shooting 'The Invisible Puppet' – to which the animated creatures got added later.
Any other movies or projects you tried out for but didn't get?
One or two, but I never tried very hard to get into, or stay in, the film business. The films I made, I feel proud of, and in a way I'm glad I didn't get to work on anything I might have felt less proud of ... like Howard the Duck, or Return to Oz. I also did various television pilots, etc – but I'm not really a natural puppeteer. Many films are planned, few get made, so you do get drawn into pre-pre-production promises...
With the advent of CGI, the need for puppetry skills declined and your career in movies came to a close. What are your thoughts on the future of puppetry?
Well, puppetry, as a live performance art, is still thriving. Puppets remain popular on television. However, the animatronic method of animating creatures for films does seem in decline ... although most films still use a combination of cgi and prop limbs, etc. With films you just have to get the shot in the can and you use whatever works best ... within your budget.
What is your opinion of the computer generated Jabba seen in the special editions and The Phantom Menace?
I don't like really cgi ... and not just because it puts people like me out of work! I don't like anything that reminds me that movies are fake. So if you use cgi in a way I don't notice (for stunts, say), then I have no problem with it. But, if I have to sit and look at it too long, it begins to feel like I'm watching a cartoon. I don't play computer games and people's eye may have got used to that sort of 'hyper-reality' look. My biggest fear would be that Mr Lucas would go back and cgi over our original Jabba performance to make them all look consistent. That really would be a shame.
After your tenure in the movie business…what did you do?
I returned to out-of-work and desperate! I kept hoping for one more time, but eventually realized that the moment had passed. I filled my time developing a circus training centre in London because it was the one thing we didn't have when I was learning ... which I thought we needed. The Circus Space is still thriving in London, right now.
You’ve mentioned being on a mountain in Spain when you received some movie-related calls. Do you do mountain climbing? What are some of your hobbies and interests?
Aha. No, I wasn’t climbing a mountain, but living near a Roman castle in Spain, which overlooks Gibraltar and Morocco. A very old, and very magical place. I had originally gone there to organize a juggling convention. Up until then we had done them in Northern Europe, and I wanted to do one more like a party or festival, so we picked this wonderful place to meet up. After the get-together I had no work to make me go home, and the villagers liked me (they’d enjoyed the festival) so I carried on living there with my savings dwindling…one day the postman arrived with a telegram telling me to fly back to London to start on Roger Rabbit! Saved by the bell!
Over the past few years you’ve been appearing at the occasional convention. How do you like the convention experience?
Well, I enjoy adventure, so being invited to go abroad for a weekend (say) and being treated as an honoured guest was fun. And meeting fans has always pleased me (I’m proud of the work). As I have a day job now I tend not to go to many, as I have relatively little free time – so it’s a little harder to give up my Sunday just to go for a one-day event in the UK. I may still pop up occasionally.
From a Star Wars-centric viewpoint, you worked with a number of other Star Wars crew members in other movies throughout your career, including John Coppinger, David Barclay, Tim Rose, and Mike Quinn, to name a few. Have you stayed in contact with any of them, or any of your other movie co-workers?
I hadn’t really stayed in touch since the late 80s – because of moving back into my circus world, and moving out of London. I have met up with them all again, now that we bump into each other at conventions and such like, and we exchange email greetings, but I wouldn’t call us close friends.
You just got back from Celebration Europe. What was that like? Any stories you’d like to share?
Well, to be honest it was a bit of a disappointment. I generally like small, friendly events – where you can get to meet people properly. If I go to a big event I want it very well organized, and I am afraid I didn’t experience CE that way. I don’t want to go into details, because I enjoyed meeting the other crew members, and met some excellent folks here and there around the site – but, for instance, when the queue for Mark Hamill got a bit out of control the security people were actually forbidding people to get into the area where the rest of us actors were waiting to talk to them (and maybe sell them a picture or two). That sort of thing is very frustrating.
What does the future hold in store for Toby Philpott?
That’s very hard to say, as I never have planned these adventures. At the age of 51 I got my first ever ‘real’ job, which I still continue with – helping with the computers for my local library service. Now I have turned 61 I have to realistically accept that they will retire me in four years time, and as I don’t really have savings or pension plans, etc – I may well have to think again! I have begun to do some paid work online as a webmaster, which may keep the wolf from the door, but I remain open to suggestions (or offers!) as ever. I chose the freelance life at the age of 18, knowing how insecure that could prove, and I wouldn’t change my decision if I found myself back there again. I may not have got rich and famous, but I’ve had a lot of fun.
Thank you again for participating in this interview. Do you have any final comments, advice, or words of wisdom for your fans?
Words of wisdom? Heh heh. The world has moved on. I really can’t say if the way I did things has much relevance to this next generation. I may not have any money, but I also don’t have any debts (which seems fairly unusual these days). As a general principle, however, I recommend attempting to work at things you love. Not only does it seem less like ‘work’, but you’ll probably do it better. The real advantage to that is getting to enjoy your life whether or not you succeed. If you make money, too, well, that’s a bonus.
I see too many people starting from an ambition for wealth or fame at any price, and if they do something they don’t really enjoy in an attempt to achieve those dreams, but fail, they get left with nothing at all. Or they get the fame and the wealth, but spend their days doing something they don’t like…in which case they might as well just take a boring and safe job…
Whether that is good or wise advice, however…
Lastly, are there any topics we missed that you would like to talk about?
Well, I think I’ve pretty well talked (written) myself out. I have enjoyed doing this (who doesn’t like talking about themselves?) and will continue to talk to anyone who’ll listen if we meet up at a convention somewhere. I have half an idea to write a book, both about my colourful life, and my not-always-popular opinions. If that plan comes about I’ll let you know. At least I have a working title already…
Once again, Toby, thank you very much for taking part in this interview. It has been a real pleasure for myself and everyone else here at The Bothan Spy. I look forward to seeing you around online, and hopefully at an upcoming convention soon!
I would encourage everyone to check out Toby's website, to learn more about his current activities and upcoming appearances. He also has links to several other interviews he has done, including an extensive The Dark Crystal interview, that I highly recommend reading.