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Muppet fur flies over Jim Henson script

When the Black List, Hollywood's annual ranking of the top unproduced scripts, was unveiled Friday, it lent the full weight of its authority to Christopher Weekes.

Weekes' screenplay "The Muppet Man," about the life and loves of Jim Henson, had landed the top spot, ahead of a number of up-and-coming writers and even established names like Aaron Sorkin.

That kind of honor comes with a host of benefits, not the least of which is giving a valuable boost to the project (last year's winner, a quirky character piece called "The Beaver," was catapulted toward production by its Black List win, with Mel Gibson now starring, Jodie Foster directing and Summit Entertainment, the studio behind the "Twilight" franchise, distributing the film).

"The Muppet Man," which takes an almost fairy-tale view of the romance between the late Jim Henson and his longtime wife Jane, faces a far tougher climb.

Weekes was discovered by managers Britton Rizzio and Kelly McCormack after they had seen an indie movie of his at a film festival in 2008. They soon found he had written, entirely on spec, a script about one of the most enigmatic and private of contemporary artists without having ever met or even read much about him (there exists no major published biography about Henson).

Instead, Weeks conjured the story mostly out of his imagination, basing it on a series of photos he'd studied and whatever strands of information he could find on things like Wikipedia. "Even though I was just 10 when he died, Jim Henson had been this Walt Disney-like figure in my life, and I wanted to create a version of him as seen through these kind of rose-colored glasses," Weekes said Friday from Australia.

As whimsical as the script is said to be (it also folded into the narrative invented particulars of the romance between Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, including a depiction of a hungover Kermit heartbroken by Miss Piggy's impending marriage to another beau), it also wanders into a legal and creative thicket. Weekes had written a story about individuals -- Jim and Jane Henson -- to whom he did not hold rights. Equally problematic, Weekes had included a number of Muppet characters to which Disney owns the rights.

That kind of thing is, to say the least, usually frowned upon.

"He basically did what all your representatives tell you not to do," Sarah Hammer, who used to represent Weekes as an agent, says with a laugh.

And sure enough, when the project was sold to the Jim Henson Co. shortly after  -- "the only place it could go," says Rizzio -- it was welcomed but quickly found itself mired in creative differences. The production banner, according to people familiar with the meetings, wanted to turn the story into more of a Muppet romp -- even a musical -- and excise the Jim and Jane Henson relationship. And Weekes had written an intimate, if not dark, character study.  As the novice Weekes found out, it's not easy being green.

Lisa Henson, the daughter of Jim and Jane Henson who helps run the Jim Henson Co., maintains that the problems can be resolved by simply combining two different visions, though even she acknowledges that the story that came to her was not one that the company liked.

"It was a very gutsy move on [Chris's] part to write this script, and we recognized the enthusiasm," she says. "But it would be irresponsible to make a biopic that would be all made up."

After Henson acquired the script, a number of studio executives read it and began calling Weekes' reps. And stars like Jim Carrey, Leonardo DiCaprio and Hugh Jackman expressed interest in playing the legendary creator of Big Bird and Elmo.

But without the blessing of the Henson Co., it may well be doomed. And that's not even broaching the question of Disney, which, to add more problems to the furry pile, is currently developing its own Muppets movie with Jason Segel. It's hard to imagine new studio chief Rich Ross eager to make a biopic about the founder of a company with which Disney is so closely aligned, not to mention approving a script in which Kermit the Frog smokes and drinks.

Weekes is no longer actively working on his script -- he, in fact, has not written a new draft since the original was sold to the Henson Co. Instead he is working on two new movies, including one for Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures called "Waterproof," to which "Enchanted" director Kevin Lima is loosely attached to direct.

Weekes' own professional arc appears to be headed toward a happy ending. The big-screen story of Jim and Jane Henson -- and Kermit and Piggy -- may not fare as well.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo credit: Alan Greth / Associated Press

Comments () | Archives (7)

"It's hard to imagine new studio chief Rich Ross eager to make a biopic about the founder of a company with which Disney is so closely aligned, not to mention approving a script in which Kermit the Frog smokes and drinks."

OMFG! Right now, I bet some no-talent loser is banging out a spec in which Mickey Mouse gets stoned, beats the tar out of Minnie when she tells him that Gelson's is out of his favorite cheese, then does some very un Mickey-like things to poor Pluto! Seriously, isn't anything sacred anymore?!

This wouldn't be the first time the Henson family has censored a biography of Jim. Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, wrote a tome about the well-protected puppeteer and found his work unable to find a publisher - thanks to pressure from the family. Whenever the truth about Henson - his womanizing, his drug use - starts to surface, the family essentially squelches it. One wonders if Walt Disney would have gotten such protection from the media if he'd been less home-spin and more liberal. As is the case in so many arenas these days, it's all about politics.

George Lucas might wanna step in here?

I hate it when journalists are lazy. Jim Henson is dead. NOBODY needs his life rights. Anyone can use his life story.

it could be a lot less invasive and a lot more visually interesting to look into Jim Henson's life through his work.
Jim Henson's brilliance and creativity are legendary. he was fearless when it came to exploring new ground, new techniques, new ways to visualize his ideas.
he was kind and generous and funny and deeply spiritual .
trying to do a "love story" is a dumb waste of the wonderful qualities Henson had as an artist and a creative role model for people around the world.
examining his work carefully provides profound psychological insight into the man and his medium.
why try to write a "fairy tale romance", when the truth of Jim's creativity is far more inspiring...and in these mass marketed and predigested times, really much more necessary?

Toby: every court in the world would rule against you if you just made a movie - it's called intellectual property - courts always rule in favor of the estate.

But seriously - why worry about a bio pic that's entirely fiction? I remember one of those from a few years ago that won a slew of Oscars - "A Beautiful Mind"...which was, despite the claims to the contrary, at least 80% fiction...

Making a documentary on Henson sounds like an interesting idea. Although one produced by the company that he started would most likely end up heavily slanted, and therefore not very entertaining. Perhaps if they found a workaround with the copyrighted muppets(I.E. making alternate versions, not showing them at all), and having this made by another company.


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