Filmmaker Kyra Elise Gardner on growing up with a killer doll
Living With Chucky out this week
Filmmaker Kyra Elise Gardner is the daughter of special effects wizard Tony Gardner, the man behind both Child’s Play films since 2004’s Seed of Chucky and the Daft Punk helmets. It’s made for a fascinating life because she grew up behind the scenes of the iconic killer doll franchise, and her new documentary, Living with Chucky, “takes an in-depth look at the groundbreaking Child’s Play franchise from the perspective of a filmmaker who grew up within it.”
The doc features interviews with cast and crew, such as Brad Dourif (the voice of Chucky), as well as his daughter Fiona Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, Alex Vincent, creator Don Mancini, and many more. As the press blurbs say, “This personal film recounts the dedication, creativity, and sacrifice that went into making the franchise and its long-lasting impact on the horror community.”
Ahead of Living with Chucky‘s release via horror streaming service Screambox and all major digital platforms April 4 in the US and Canada, we hopped on Zoom with Kyra Elise Gardner to talk about the path to this film and growing up with horror.
The Pitch: One of our favorite things to ask folks about is their gateway entry into the horror. You’re the first person who was literally born into it.
Kyra Elise Gardner: [laughs] Yeah. The gateway was just the front door to my house.
Living With Chucky covers so much history, both personal and cinematic. When did you start work on this?
Whew. I started work on it in film school, actually. It originated as a seven-minute short called The Dollhouse that I did at FSU, and that was just with Brad and Fiona, David Kirschner, Don Mancini, my dad, and myself. Their runtime limit was seven minutes, and I had like seven hours of footage because I had seven interviewees.
So, I had to really hone it into what the essence of it was, which was the family aspect. That became the through line that I wanted to create the feature to get to. When I started working on it was after I had received so much positive attention from the short film and realized Chucky fans actually would wanna see something like this. I should put it into a feature. This franchise deserves something like that—a one-stop shop that’s a retrospective but also getting to learn more in-depth about what it took to make these movies.
It started in film school, and then I collected more interviews as I was finishing school, but obviously I couldn’t make it the feature while I was also doing school at the same time. I graduated and started doing interviews of people here in L.A., like Billy Boyd and Christine Elise, and started the editing process then COVID came, and we took a detour, and then we came back.
The film is full of surprising and fun stories and people in it. Finding out that Abigail Breslin is a devoted Child’s Play fan and that her commentary is very insightful was a lovely surprise, for instance. What was the surprise for you that stands out from when you were doing all of these interviews?
Fun fact: Abigail also collects baby doll heads, so it was like kismet. I really hope I can just give her, like, a baby Chucky headlamp or something one day. Honestly, my interview with Marlon Wayans was so short, but it came together so quickly, so I didn’t do as much research.
I obviously grew up watching Marlon’s stuff. Scary Movie 3 is my, like, favorite scary movie spoof and things like that. In interviewing him, it was like, “Of course, you have to be so knowledgeable of this genre and appreciate it and love it in order to spoof it so well.” That’s a given, but in our conversation with each other, I was so taken aback by his knowledge of it, so that was something surprising to me when it shouldn’t have been.
Who came up with the chapter starts, where someone is pulling out a VHS or DVD and putting them into the player? That works so well, and it’s a really nice dividing line, but it also looks really cool.
I did. Yeah. That’s so cool. That’s so funny. It’s so interesting to hear a positive response to that specifically because I didn’t think that it would be as notable. I was just like, “Okay, this is a visual transition.” As soon as I was in the editing process, I realized I wanted to go chronologically through the movies first ’cause you can’t talk about the effect the movies had on everybody without talking about the movies first.
The editing process was so long and what was at the end was at the front and vice versa, so when I decided we had to go through movie by movie, I was like, “Okay, we have to break this up visually somehow, that’s not another talking head.” That just seemed the best way to visually show how long the franchise has gone on—from VHS tapes to DVDs to Blu-rays. It just made sense.
I’m like, “Okay, what can I do to spice up this shot that I’m doing in my parents’ basement at 10 p.m. and over COVID?” So then I decided to make all my nails for each match the color palette of whatever movie it was. At least that’s fun.
You were literally shooting these section intros in your parents’ basement?
Yeah, that was over COVID ’cause that’s when I had that idea. I actually had a Blackmagic camera at the time because I was shooting making a documentary on the Foo Fighters movie, Studio 666. At that time that got shut down by COVID, so I happened to have my camera gear still, so I was like, “What can I shoot while I have this nice camera for free?”
There’s the shot where it’s me picking up the Seed of Chucky DVD and the camera tilts. It’s one hand, lowkey shaky because I’m moving the camera while grabbing the DVD and I’m literally just chucking it on the floor so I could grab another one because—bless my dad’s heart—he cannot focus a camera or operate it for the life of him. Despite having a filmmaker in the family at home with me, it was just me in the basement being like, “This would work.”
Most of your work has been behind the camera, but you have done a little on-camera work. As a weird music person, in addition to being a weird movie person—what is it like being in a Daft Punk music video?
It’s interesting, because I was seven at the time. The music video came out, and then Daft Punk’s Alive tour was happening. Actually, the first concert I ever saw was that concert with Daft Punk. None of my friends knew who Daft Punk was growing up, and so, I just thought it was this weird band that I happened to know, not knowing the cultural fricking icons that they are until college, to be honest.
My dad directed that video, so to me, it was just a weird thing where I got to eat my favorite donuts on set and then play around on a green screen. I still have that bathing suit that I wore because I thought it was the coolest bathing suit ever, so I wore the shit out of it at that age. I still have it.
I actually walked into one of my classes during my freshman year of film school, and somebody had found that out, and I walked into five people playing that music video when I walked into class, and I was like, “Oh my God, don’t look at me.”
It seems like every filmmaker, by the time their newest thing is out, has three other things in the can. What are you working on?
Well, if you’re not burnt out by the time you finish making a documentary [laughs]—I did shoot the making of that Foo Fighters movie. I shot literally from the first table read to the premiere over two years. I would love for that to be made into a documentary, but it is owned by a studio now, so we’ll see what happens to that footage.
I am currently writing my first feature and segueing back into short films this year in the interim. I’ve also been doing a lot of music videos as of late, so a lot of music videos in my life which is good to help me kind of get back into narrative filmmaking.
Living With Chucky is out now via horror streaming service Screambox and all major digital platforms in the U.S. and Canada