Between 1999 and 2009 Lightsabre.co.uk brought news, fanfic, podcasts and much, much more to the masses. Our twenty-second guest was the left arm and tongue of Jabba the Hutt, Dark Crystal and Labyrinth puppeteer – Toby Philpott.
Lightsabre – Toby, welcome to Lightsabre.
TP – Hi, and thanks for inviting me to talk about some of the film work I did back in the 1980s.
Lightsabre – You’ve worked on a large number of films, from Little Shop of Horrors to Company of Wolves, Labyrinth to Dark Crystal, yet you are probably most fondly remembered for your work inside Jabba the Hutt on Return of the Jedi. How do you feel about that?
TP – I feel fine about it. I can’t tell you how proud I am, and how lucky I feel, to have been involved in something which has literally become part of modern culture.
Lightsabre – Being inside the Jabba puppet, the worlds largest animatronic at the time, must have been quite an experience. What was the average working day like?
TP – After the period of fittings, and a brief practice, we found ourselves arriving onto a very busy set, and climbing inside Jabba through a hole underneath. From then on, Dave and I were alone (well, we had Mike Edmonds in there too, whenever the tail was in the shot!) and almost cut off from the mayhem on the set. We had headsets, so we could talk to the rest of the team (operating the eyes by radio control, and so on). We could also hear Richard Marquand’s instructions, requests, and advice. Dave Barclay did the right arm and operated the mouth, and spoke for Jabba, delivering the lines in English for the actors. We always worked Jabba as a unified being, an actor, which meant we were continuously practicing our co-ordination and expressiveness. Apart from tea-breaks and lunch, we stayed inside all day (8:30 – 6.00). While we were shooting we were the main character in the scenes, so it was quite intense pressure to get it right.
Lightsabre – Tell us something of your career. How did you begin in entertainment and what led you to where you are today?
TP – After I dropped out of school – I went on the road for a while. I did a lot of physical jobs, on fairgrounds, archaeology sites, as well as the usual lowlife jobs washing dishes, etc in music clubs and restaurants. When hitching around Mexico I started to perform in the markets and squares, both to make money and friends. I juggled, walked on my hands, did magic and fire-eating, made a sock puppet, and so on.
When I got back to the UK I found that the Fringe Theatre of the 70s had a niche for physical skills – all actors were learning that new set of tools as theatre broke out from the old-fashioned proscenium arch theatre, into the streets. Even straight theatre had gone for participation, working in the round, etc, so it felt like a very creative and exciting time. I found work both teaching what I knew, studying new stuff, and performing. Demystifying circus skills was my main focus.
Lightsabre – The team that created Jabba, right down from the original sketches to the construction crew and your fellow puppeteers inside Jabba, must have worked hard and cohesively to make the whole thing work. How much of a challenge was that?
TP – The guys who built him would probably have loved to have worked him, too, but were needed on the set to repair and maintain Jabba, operate the finer details of the expressions (eyes, grimaces, breathing etc) and give us feedback on the performance and capabilities of the creature. Dave, Mike and I had all worked on Dark Crystal so we had the full Henson training in bringing creatures to life with teams of operators. So, sure it was a challenge, but quite familiar work to us by then. And, as you can imagine, extremely satisfying – especially to be doing the star of the scenes shot on our set…and he must have looked good because he got, oh I dunno, ten minutes of screen time, maybe. That’s a lot in a Lucas film.
Lightsabre – What is it like to be part of the Star Wars phenomenon?
TP – I had no idea quite how big it was, until I accepted invites to fan conventions. Of course, I knew the films were well-received, and profitable, but I really didn’t get the scale of it until I got on the Web in about 1999. I started with a webpage, did a bit of Googling around, and realised just what was going on. Some of the actors probably spend more time touring, talking, and signing than acting these days. Of course, puppeteers seem more like Special Effects guys than actors, and Jabba could use from 3-6 operators, but it is a compliment to our work that people don’t even think about that. I meet people (now that cgi is used so much) who can’t believe he was a real live ‘actor’ on the set….
TP – Well, they may sound funny now, but when you’re filming they are just a panic. All we could see was a grainy ‘security camera’ shot of Jabba on tiny monitors hanging on our chests…which made stuff hard. Dave told me he had to put his hand (Jabba’s Right Hand) on Leia’s shoulder, but heard her say (quite calmly) “That’s not my shoulder…”
I did the left hand, so I got to hold the hookah, hit C-3PO, and eat the frog. The frog you see swimming in the bowl was a real and rare creature, but the one I had to handle was, of course, a rubber one. You have to understand that the crew had made up a bucket of gunk to put in Jabba’s mouth (for the drool, and such) – in fact the last of their team to arrive in the morning (according to John Coppinger) got that gloop job for the day… Horrible, slippery stuff. After the first rehearsal, with a dry frog, I had to try to hold onto this slippery thing with my oversize three-fingered glove, and put it in the mouth. Dave would then chew it, while I switched my right hand from tilting the head forward, to going inside the tongue, to lick the lips. On one take I didn’t get the frog right into the mouth, but left a dangling leg, so when Dave chewed it flailed around in distress…I tried to tuck it further into the mouth, but couldn’t….I heard “CUT!” Apparently the frog squirming around like that looked too distressing and disgusting. I have to ask, how can anything Jabba does be TOO disgusting?
When we had Leia in the alcove near the Han in the carbon(ite), I had to menace her with the tongue (my right hand is inside the tongue). We did a couple of takes. Then I heard Mr Marquand in my headset, asking me to try to reach the tongue further out, and really try to lick her. On the next take I did just that, but heard a stifled gasp, and some laughter, and “CUT!” We did it again, but with a little less stretching. Only much later I was told I had stuck that horrible, gloop-covered tongue right in Carrie Fisher’s ear. I have never confirmed that, or seen the out-take. I always hope it wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but you can never tell on film sets. People wind you up all the time. It helps alleviate the boredom and stress (which alternate).
Since I have re-met some of the guys we have refreshed each other’s memories, but I try not to steal their good stories! Mike Edmonds was often inside with me and Dave, operating Jabba’s tail, and he kept us laughing all the time. I am about to meet up with him again at Signatopia in August (haven’t seen him since filming Labyrinth!) so I may get a few new stories for next time. But I already stole one of Dave’s so I should leave it that you have to meet, or talk to, each of us to get all the different viewpoints. At Celebration 3 they got seven of us from that set on a forum, and Warwick Davis MC’d the show and got us to re-enact where we were, what we could see and hear, what we had to do. It was amusing and enlightening, even to us!.
Lightsabre – How did you find the late Richard Marquand to work with? And, of course, George Lucas?
TP – You have had a glimpse of how we related to Richard Marquand on set. He had an incredibly complicated set and crew to manage, and then a giant, belligerent slug as well. We did ask him not to break Jabba up into parts, and talk to us as individuals, but to always address Jabba simply as another actor. Once we knew what the character had to do, of course, we (as a team) would discuss it on another radio channel, or (occasionally) meet face-to-face to figure something out. He knew less about puppets than actors (but I had just finished a film directed by Frank Oz and Jim Henson, where puppets had the main focus, of course). On a set with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher we were still really just a detail, but he treated us with respect, I have to say – and got a pretty good performance out of us, and onto film. Respect to him!
George was definitely around on occasion, and people out on the set knew when he was there, but we were pretty oblivious to his presence, in our own little world, and we didn’t socialise, or get to see the rushes, so I can’t say a lot about Mr Lucas. He is quite a private person, and on the rare occasions we met on the set I just listened. He knows exactly what he wants – and dedicates a lot of energy to getting it that way.
Lightsabre – What would you change about your Star Wars experience if you could go back and do it again?
TP – Oh, let’s see. I’d try to smuggle a camera on set (NOT!) and/or hang onto all my script pages and call sheets. I would have got involved a little earlier in the convention area, as I think that (since Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) the peak may have been a while ago. There is still an enormous interest, of course, but the two groups of three films belong to different generations – I am proud to have worked on one of the classic three. Oh, and there remain one or two shots I’d have liked to have tried to do again…get them just right…
Lightsabre – What are your feelings on the digital Jabba’s of the Special Editions, the DVD and The Phantom Menace? Do you feel they have improved on the original animatronic, or has something been lost in the move from clay and rubber to pixels?
TP – I think something has been lost, but all tools have their uses. The hyperreal look of cg appeals to the younger generation, used to computer game imagery, but it looks just slightly wrong to my eye. But some of the kids don’t like the rubbery puppet look. I still think that a careful mix of all available resources is the best route, but if I was an actor I would certainly prefer a real ‘actor’ to play off, rather than improvise in front of a green screen. Of course, George keeps tweaking the films, so our performance may one day get replaced, or at least enhanced, with cg, but I accept that. I didn’t like the Jabba chatting to Han Solo in the Special Edition, but in Phantom Menace the look isn’t too bad, and they improve all the time. You’ll notice that Jabba isn’t interacting with real people, though, so there’s still quite a long way to go.
Lightsabre – Your work on Dark Crystal and Labyrinth are stand-out performances in your puppeteer career. Jim Henson was as much a visionary as Lucas is. What was working for Jim like?
TP – I could go on for hours. He was a mild-mannered millionaire, who seemed a little surprised to have ended up that way. He ploughed money back into his creative projects, and possibly funded most of the puppeteers of London for a while. I was lucky enough to be chosen to be on his personal crew (each main Muppet performer had two or three support people to operate eyes, the other hand, or whatever. I got to work on Jen and The Ritual Master alongside Jim (often jammed in his armpit). I never saw him lose patience or raise his voice (it helps to have a good Assistant Director with a megaphone). He got extreme loyalty and respect from the crew, and if we hit 6 o’clock and hadn’t quite got a shot, but didn’t want to go into another hour (cost and unions) he could get us all to do a few extra minutes just to get the shot, and get it right. Everyone loved him, and working for him.
Lightsabre – What does the future hold for you?
TP – That’s hard to say, as I stopped performing (more or less). I work in my local library (first steady job I ever had) and have got the job of supporting both the staff machines and public internet access PCs. That’s about 60 staff Pcs in 20 buildings around the city, and 220 public PCs. I have learned a 21st century skill (not bad for a man approaching 60) which has got me into web publishing, convention appearances, online teaching and learning, etc. So computers have been good to me, but I don’t have the talent or training to get work in films using them. With no pension scheme or savings to speak of I will have to work until I drop (like both my parents) so what happens when the library retire me I don’t really know. I’d like to write more. I could help run the circus office I guess. I have done a little work towards a mentalist act (magic with that psychic twist) which I thought might not prove too strenuous, and could take advantage of my age, as an image. Of course, if all else fails, you may see the World’s Oldest Juggler, busking on a street near you! I really don’t know. It is not as if I planned these last 40 years! The universe has been quite kind to me so far…there may be a few surprises yet….
Lightsabre – A quick question about Lightsabre. Any comments?
TP – I was very impressed when I found your site. As a freelance creative I always have respect for people’s ability to create channels for their own work. The film business was a lucky break for me, among many years of enjoyable show-biz slog – but I always felt at the mercy of the whims of the industry. The web is a whole new realm, and I love being here, and coming across such a professional attitude as yours (I always have time for dedicated people).
Lightsabre – It’s been a great interview, and thanks for being our guest. Just one final question. After a drunken night Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors and Jabba the Hutt are playing spin the bottle. It lands on Jabba, and he chooses to kiss Audrey. Who would survive the encounter?
TP – Well it might depend just how big Audrey had got. The whole final sequence we shot never made it into the released film (they decided they needed a happy ending!) but that big Audrey could have eaten Jabba for breakfast. Having said that, a plant has only so many resources. Neither Audrey nor Jabba seem capable of moving far on their own, but Jabba has a crew, and also some hi-tech toys, so I suspect he would come out on top (but that is a horrible image!) And as a job? My tongue in Jabba, versus Audrey’s tongue? It doesn’t bear thinking about…
This interview was originally posted on lightsabre.co.uk on 7th August 2005.