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Untold Tales of Hollywood #115

Film #24: The Natural History Project (1985)
Directed by Jim Henson
Screenplay by William Stout
Production Designed by William Stout

This begins an interesting and ultimately ironic story.

Lisa Henson, the daughter of Muppet Master Jim Henson, wanted to make a film or mini-series on the great war between two of the earliest and greatest paleontologists, Edward Dinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh. At the same time, Jim was looking for what he called his third “serious Muppet movie” (his first two were Dark Crystal and Labyrinth). Jim thought that maybe a dinosaur film would work both as his next film project and as a visual test for aspects of Lisa’s project, perhaps making Lisa’s film or series more likely to happen.

They took a vacation in the Bahamas to research and discuss ideas for both film projects. They were having lunch on the beach while perusing a stack of dinosaur books they had brought with them. Their cook saw what they were doing.

“You think those are dinosaur books?” she harrumphed. “I’ll show you a dinosaur book.”

She went back to the house and retrieved a copy of my book, THE DINOSAURS – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era.

Jim and Lisa examined my book, getting more excited with the turning of each page. Then, they got to my bio in the back of the book and discovered that, lo and behold, I had also worked in the film business.

Lisa promised to contact me as soon as she got back to L.A., which she did. She set up a meeting at Warner Brothers between the three of us.

The first meeting consisted of Jim, Lisa and me agreeing that it would be great to make a serious Muppets dinosaur movie.

Our second meeting consisted of Jim, Lisa and me agreeing that it would be great to make a serious Muppets dinosaur movie.

“Uh oh,” I thought “— this isn’t going anywhere.”

The next day I wrote a treatment for our dinosaur film. I surprised Jim and Lisa at our third meeting by giving them copies of my treatment. They read my treatment and loved it. I turned my twenty page treatment into a screenplay. I wrote two, actually. I did not want the dinosaurs to speak, so I gave them a choice of having a film with narration or a film with no voice-overs whatsoever, a completely visual telling of our story (My preference, as we’d end up with a film that could be shown in any country without dialogue or subtitles).

Warner Brothers heavyweight Lucy Fisher loved it, too, and committed to a healthy $20 million budget for the film with an extra $5 million for R & D on Muppet dinosaurs. So that no one else would jump on this idea and make a similar film, we gave our film a secret, vague, generic title: The Natural History Project.

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