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Welcome to the Dollhouse: Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney on Strawberry Mansion

Kentucker Audley and Grace Glowicki in Strawberry MansionKentucker Audley and Grace Glowicki in Strawberry Mansion (courtesy of Music Box Films)

In the year 2035, dream-auditing is a prolific but thankless business, especially for James Preble (Kentucker Audley). Scrummaging through an individual’s archived dreams via an endless collection of VHS tapes, Preble finds himself constantly stuck between mundane reality and the elusive world of someone’s REM cycle. The primary goal of slumming through this government job? Dream taxation. One afternoon, as he visits the home of Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller and, in the dream world, Grace Glowicki), a welcoming but mysterious dream tax evader, the lines between consciousness and unconsciousness grow blurred.  

A love story, a comedy, a 1980s children’s fantasy and a critique of the endless influence of the government on our personal lives, Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s Strawberry Mansion is a film where each scene builds on the last—although not always linearly. As Preble navigates Bella’s dream world amid the interruptions of some external forces (including those of her son, played by the director’s uncle, Tony Award-winner Reed Birney, whom you’ve definitely never seen like this before), he’s unsuspectingly thrust into a love, life and death scenario.  

A few days before the film opened in theaters via Music Box Films, I spoke with Birney and Audley about what finally got the long-gestating project off the ground, the use of stop-motion animation and green-screen effects, the anachronistic nature of their designs, transferring digital footage to 16mm film with cinematographer Tyler Davis and more. Strawberry Mansion will next be available on VOD platforms beginning this Friday, February 25th.

Filmmaker: As this is the first feature you’ve co-directed together after your 2017 feature, Sylvio, what ultimately prompted you to write and co-direct another film? Was the idea of “dream-auditing” percolating in your minds even further back than Sylvio?

Birney: The idea for Strawberry Mansion had come years before Kentucker and I worked together on Sylvio, years before we even met. It was an idea I had written a short script for years ago. I then met Kentucker at a film festival in 2011 and, in 2012, I sent him the script asking, “Would you want to act in this?” I was not in any position to make the film though. I was like, “I just have to make this movie,” but I had no money or anything. 

Kentucker and I were emailing back and forth, but it wasn’t until we both found ourselves working in Philadelphia on Alison Bagnall’s film Funny Bunny [Birney was the boom mic operator and Audley an actor] that we realized we shared similar filmmaking sensibilities but different strengths. We eventually made Sylvio (which premiered in 2017), had a great time and were interested in working together again. 

After Sylvio, I asked Kentucker, “What do you think about dusting off that old script?” and we worked on Strawberry Mansion some more. We struggled with figuring out how to finish it, how to make sense of the story, and tried to place it in the present day, in 2018 and 2019, and feel connected to it. It’s nice when you find a collaborator you can trust and, above all else, have fun hanging out with and working on stuff. That’s essentially how this movie came together.

Filmmaker: Kentucker, by this point were you on board to co-direct Strawberry Mansion or just planning on being in front of the camera as the co-lead? Were you cool with taking on both of those roles simultaneously again?

Audley: On both Sylvio and Strawberry Mansion, Albert and I began by saying, “Let’s develop this together, write it together, and see what happens.” That ultimately led both times to us realizing, “We’ve spent so much time thinking and writing this story together that we guess it makes sense to direct it together, too.” 

Albert had initially reached out to me with Strawberry Mansion asking if I wanted to act in the film only. I didn’t fully understand the script, and looking back, I think I was at the end of my rope as far as acting goes. Back then, I wasn’t really inspired to do much acting anymore, so I brushed it off. But when Albert and I worked on Funny Bunny, we hit it off and thought, “I like this guy and would love to work with him again.”

We then worked on Sylvio for some time and I wound up being in that too. Albert had previously created the character [an anthropomorphic, upright walking primate] by uploading videos to Vine, a short-form video app that was a precursor to TikTok, and they were blowing up while we were making Funny Bunny. I couldn’t believe it but there would be 500,000 people watching these short viral videos of Sylvio, and that suggested, at least to me, that maybe we could make a feature-length movie about the character. After all, there was now a built-in audience for the character on Vine. [After finishing production on the feature, Audley and Birney’s plans to market the film through Vine fell through when the app was permanently shut down a month before their SXSW world premiere]. 

Strawberry Mansion originated years before we met, so revisiting it after Sylvio allowed us to refine the story a bit. After all, we were now ten years older. We have complementary skill sets, a similar background, are roughly the same age and grew up watching the same movies.

Filmmaker: And while Strawberry Mansion has a different tone than Sylvio, some elements may be recognizable to viewers familiar with your work. There’s a clear love for costume and creature designs throughout, and Albert, that’s certainly been an apparent trait as far back as The Beast Pageant (2010), where the grass-covered entities resemble a design similar to one shown in Strawberry Mansion. I know Jim Henson’s films The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth were tonal inspirations, but I was curious about your interest in physical designs and how you customize them for your films.  

Birney: As it probably was for a lot of people, my favorite movie growing up was The Wizard of Oz, mostly due to the fantastic creature characters [on display], including the Tin Man, the Lion, the Scarecrow and the Wicked Witch. It’s funny you mention The Beast Pageant, since the initial concept for Strawberry Mansion came directly after I made that. In many ways, Strawberry Mansion is a bit of a follow-up or continuation of some ideas found in The Beast Pageant, even if that was more experimental and abstract in its storytelling. Even so, we have The Beast King from that film show up in Strawberry Mansion, as a stowaway on the ship Kentucker’s character, Preble, is aboard.  

For myself, all of these movies exist within the same universe. They have to, because they’re all coming from our own heads. By that very nature, you’re going to keep populating your stories with similar characters and it’s exciting for me to imagine them all existing in the same universe. That’s how life works: it’s all one reality, and you can put your spin on it.

There’s also something to putting masks on characters, to having people transform into creatures and into grass people and tree people. I’m always wondering, “What exactly does a tree think about? What does grass think like?” We’ll never know since we can’t be on their level, right? But in a film you can explore that and it’s fun, as a thought exercise, to let your mind go there and see what it could feel like.

Filmmaker: I believe the Czech filmmaker, Jan Švankmajer, is also an inspiration in your work. His films are primarily about the very real, physical texture found in his designs.

Birney: Švankmajer is very inspirational to me, not just in his movies but in his philosophies as well. He talks about how stop-motion animation is less about bringing life to an object than about showing a life that’s already there. For him, if he animates a chair, he wants to find an old chair that’s dented and has lots of marks and is maybe covered in splats of paint. The chair has lived a life and it’s sporting memories of the life it’s lived. Švankmajer just wants to unlock and show that life. I’ve always loved that about his work, as well as the way he really makes you feel the hand of the animator. You can see the thumbprints left in the clay, you feel the presence of the people right behind the camera who are moving the objects around. It’s exciting to me because that’s who we are. We are the filmmaker behind the camera and it’s exciting to be able to put ourselves into the film, whether that’s via the animation, the props, the costumes, etc. I was eighteen or nineteen when I first saw one of his films and I was never the same after. His films put me on a course that I feel I’m still on.

Filmmaker: When did you both know that, after ten years of developing the script for Strawberry Mansion, you were ready to go into production? When did it start to become a reality? Much of the film is set right outside of Baltimore [where Birney is based], so were you doing location scouting over the years on your own time? When did you finally say, “OK, we’re going to rev up and actually do this for real?”

Audley: It’s an interesting transition, going from something you’ve spent years dreaming up to actually making it come to life. Albert and I had spent a few summers trying to write in-person together, as I live in New York and he lives in Baltimore. We took these week-long trips where we’d visit various locations and attempt to refine the script to a point where we both understood it. 

Unfortunately, those trips were somewhat unsuccessful. I was very down on the whole process and thought [development] on the film wouldn’t continue, that maybe I didn’t have it in me to make another movie. Albert went off on his own and, at some point, called me to say that he had received a grant to develop the project more intensely. It was a pretty significant grant from a Baltimore-based organization and I thought, “That’s a lot of money, even enough to make the movie.” We were able to get a lot more money for the film than that but, coming from our backgrounds of making no-budget films, that grant is when it became real.

Birney: At that point, we had spent a few summers hoping to make the film and Kentucker eventually told me “This might be your story. You should go off and make it.” But when I received the grant, I told him, “Look, I need you. Come on back and we’ll make it together.” The grant money forced us to do the hard work of spending hours and hours taking the script apart and reworking the entire story, essentially going back to its beginning. There were some story elements we carried over, but we concentrated on starting fresh and wouldn’t have done that if the grant money hadn’t come through. When it did, in March of 2019, things got real.

Filmmaker: How did you find the film’s central location, the home of Penny Fuller’s character, Bella? I know the exterior shots of the house are actually a miniature dollhouse that, when shown from a distance, appears life-size, but how did you find a home for the interior scenes? Was that built or did you set up inside a pre-existing space?  

Birney: The house was going to be such a big part of the movie, so we checked out many different homes, both for their interiors and exteriors. However, the house we ultimately settled on turned out to be the one I grew up in. After searching for a while and not finding an appropriate place, one day I asked my mom and my stepfather if we could film in theirs. They were used to me filming in their home throughout the years but, of course, never for a project of this size. But they’re very loving and gracious parents and let twenty of us take over their home for a month. We brought in props, brought in furniture, put things in storage lockers, etc. My mom is also a big collector (you can tell by looking through the house), so we didn’t have to change too much. In a way, she’s kind of like a “Bella” herself, collecting things and possessing an eccentric taste for art. With a production of this size, it would’ve been much harder if we had taken over someone else’s home for an extended period of time or found a place we had to commute a long distance to. It made everything easier having my mom’s house as our homebase, to build around what was already there.

Filmmaker: Was the dollhouse you used for the long-distance exterior shots a replica of their home or are there simply no similarities between the dollhouse and your mother’s actual home? 

Birney: The original dollhouse didn’t look quite the same, no, but we added a front part to it that mimicked the porch of my mom’s actual house. That’s how we got away with it [laughs]. If you saw the exterior of my mom’s house, you’d think it looks nothing like the dollhouse in the film, but if you were to just zoom in on the porch area, you wouldn’t be so sure. We knew that we had the interiors all set but that we’d need the exterior porch [of the dollhouse] to match the real thing. 

After that, we repainted the dollhouse, added a new roof and did a few other things to further connect it, visually, to the real house. We had wanted to find a real, pre-existing exterior for those shots in the grass [when Preble walks toward the house] but just couldn’t. However, using a dollhouse ended up being a blessing in disguise, because we were free to set it on fire and do all of these different things to it (and only show it from a distance) so that it possesses a kind of fairytale feel for a place that you can’t ever get to. The characters are always walking toward it in the wide shots but never fully arrive. It’s the idea of walking toward something always out of reach.

Filmmaker: What are some other examples of using pre-existing locations to your advantage? Not to present a leading question, but I believe Baltimore’s Inner Harbor came in handy in providing a ship to film on for a key sequence late in the film. Did you have to capture-and-run certain locations?

Audley: The Inner Harbor provided us with a very fortunate situation. Even though when we received access to the giant ship, it was restrictive in how we could angle the camera without showing the Harbor behind us or hearing the loud music blaring from the tourist shops next door. There definitely were tourists wandering around and on nearby boats in the Harbor, occasionally looking over and seeing our two giant rat-people dressed in sailor costumes, not exactly knowing what they’d just stumbled onto. But shooting there added a lot to the finished result. We obviously didn’t go out into the open ocean, but we were able to present the illusion of this being a fully-operating boat. We had a lot of shots accompanied by greenscreens too, but having access to a real deck of a ship was instrumental in getting the scene right.

Filmmaker: As to the greenscreen elements, was that something you were mapping out in pre-production? Did you settle on the number of VFX shots you were going to have prior to shooting, or was it an ever-changing, fluid process?

Birney: A fluid process. We had an idea of, “We know we need so-and-so to happen in this scene, so we’ll film what we can [in-camera] now.” For example, the shot of the skeleton coming out of the grave: We decided to get shots of an empty cemetery, then figure out how to include the skeleton rising out of the grave later. In the case of the skeleton’s movements, it made sense to use stop-motion animation there.

Other scenes were more involved, like the scene with the buffalo. We were planning on having the buffalo look like a fake, paper mache-looking Muppet, but then Studio X [the School of Animation & Visual Effects’ faculty-mentored animation production studio at the Academy of Art University] did some work for us and had the idea of “Well, we can digitally enhance what you’ve already done to the buffalo. We can make the eyes blink and make the buffalo breathe.” The process was very half-and-half, half what we knew we could accomplish with certain VFX ourselves and half “What do we still have the budget for? What can we do ourselves versus what do we need to pay others to do?”

The greenscreen stuff consisted of us knowing that if we just filmed a bunch of footage in front of a greenscreen, we could decide what to do with it later. Honestly, in the scene where Bella is using a pump (which inflates Preble into a blimp) on the desert island, that footage comes from [two different sequences]. We intended to have Bella using this pump for another dream sequence she was going to be in alone, but once we started cutting down which dreams would make it into the finished film, we reworked the footage. Incorporating additional footage of Preble just standing in front of a greenscreen, we decided to combine that with what you see in the final cut, making Preble be pumped up into a blimp and floating away from Bella. We realized, “We’ve got a little money left, so let’s give it to our VFX artist, Matt Lathrom,” and a couple weeks later—boom, he gives us this beautiful blimp sequence put together out of our pre-existing footage. The greenscreen footage was great for knowing that we had the raw material of these characters that we could always dip back into and shape as needed.

Filmmaker: Were you able to shoot as chronologically as possible? Or, since there are so many different points of entry for a film like this, did you plan ahead like, “We’ll schedule the heavier, VFX-driven dream sequences last?”

Audley: It was pretty all over the place. We shot all of the scenes set in the interior of the house first, which was a little less involved, visually speaking, and consisted primarily of dialogue scenes between Bella and Preble. We then began to satellite out to a beach scene, then the scene on the ship, etc. From there, I think we took a few weeks off to begin the process of building additional props and sets for the greenscreen scenes. Story-wise, there wasn’t really an order to our shooting schedule. It was done in a more traditional way, where you shoot at one location first due to availability, then move on to the next. The greenscreen sequences were all filmed later on.

Birney: It worked out for the film though, as we shot the more realistic scenes in the house first, then it was all about filming the dreams and dreamscapes. In that sense, it was helpful knowing, “We’ve got the interior scenes of Bella and Preble doing his auditing stuff. Now we can fully commit to filming (and getting a bit looser with) the dream sequences. We can take the camera off the tripod and explore these wilder moments.” The Pink Room scenes with Preble, for example, were shot in about two days, and those too were done over the second half of filming.

I think having the more grounded, [reality-based] scenes already in the can turned out to be an unexpected benefit. It would’ve been harder to film the dreams first, then go back to the heavier, more character-based stuff. We were able to get loose and get lost a bit with those already out of the way.

Filmmaker: What was behind the choice to shoot Strawberry Mansion digitally and then transfer the footage to 16mm film [a process known as “film-out”]? 

Birney: While we always knew we’d have to shoot digitally (primarily due to the different effects and tricks we wanted to try), we always had the idea, from as far back as the idea for this movie goes, to put it on film in post. We wanted our movie to have the classic look we grew up with watching movies that possessed the grain and texture of celluloid. Even before we began production (and then during and after we finished), we did camera tests and transferred the footage onto film just to see how it looked. It was reassuring to know that no matter what kind of effect we’d include in the movie, whether GGI or greenscreen or miniatures or stop-motion, it would essentially all be flattened once placed on a filmstrip, the grain serving as the connective tissue. 

Filmmaker: In achieving that classic, nostalgic look, did that desire trickle down to the prop design of the objects placed in front of the camera? There’s an anachronistic, analogue feel to the production design, especially in how Preble places a clunky, giant box over his head and goes through numerous videotapes to audit Bella’s dreams. It places the film in an unplaceable time period, and it feels like a decision born out of the decision to achieve that soft, grainy, timeless look.

Audley: That’s exactly it. We were going for those anachronistic visual elements you mentioned. It’s fun to make a film that’s “outside of time” but that you can then choose to place a time to. It’s a nod, a little wink to the audience. The film has so many different elements from so many different eras, so we just say, “It’s currently…2035,” wink wink. We just wanted the viewer to know that the time period is not now, not present day. It’s fun to mix eras in these films. I like the way that Preble’s fedora looks and the way his car looks. Then it’s like, “Remember those big old machines that looked a certain way in the 1980s? Let’s throw some of those in there and connect a tube to it that works off of VHS tapes…and then you have to wear this helmet to view them.” We wanted to use things that you no longer see today, then pretend the story is actually set in the future. 

However, we did have a reference point for the film’s dream-viewer. We based it off of a 1920s device called The Isolator, a giant helmet that was created to prevent you from being distracted from other things around you. We just thought, “What is that? Why is it so big?!”

Filmmaker: With this film being, I think, the widest theatrical rollout for you both, I was curious how you’ve taken to getting the word out and engaging with audiences both in-person and remotely. I know you recently mapped out a, well, U.S. map with each of the different states playing the film and also created a music video with your composer Dan Deacon and old-school trading cards for each character in the film. What has the experience been like, on the promotional and marketing side of things, getting the film out to a significantly large theatrical audience before the VOD run begins on February 25th?

Audley: It’s definitely our biggest release, which is exciting. It feels a little like uncharted territory for us. We have all of these theaters in all of these cities playing our movie—now, is anyone going to go see this thing? But it’s exciting to have that exposure and see where it leads. The marketing aspect is fun but tough, so you have to find ways for you to have fun, like Albert designing the thirty playing cards of each character and I making the map of each of the states we’re screening in. You try to keep it fresh and keep trying to bang people over the head with the message of, “We’d really like you to go watch this movie, because then we’ll be able to do it again, and that’s kind of what we said we were going to be doing with our lives.” It can be tough, but you have to push that message hard.

Birney: I think if we had drawn a U.S. theatrical rollout map for Sylvio, it would have consisted of three or four states! For the rollout of Strawberry Mansion, it’s really exciting to have friends spread across the country so that we can be like, “Oh, you’re in Seattle? You’re in Portland? Our movie is going to be playing there soon. Go check it out.” I’ve never had that experience before.

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