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'Living with Chucky' director Kyra Elise Gardner on growing up in the middle of the hit horror franchise
The director explains how her short film about her dad and Chucky turned into a full-length documentary.
Here's something to blow your mind: this year marks the 35th anniversary of the Chucky horror franchise created by Don Mancini and produced by David Kirschner. That's an incredible run for any franchise, but in particular Chucky has grown and evolved far beyond it's terrifying horror premise in Child's Play (1988). It's spawned six sequels, a reboot (not involving the creators) and a critically-acclaimed Chucky TV series airing on SYFY and USA. And now it has its own feature-length documentary, Living with Chucky, which drops on digital platforms April 4.
Written and directed by Kyra Elise Gardner, the doc charts the entire life span of Mancini and Kirschner's Chucky productions. But what makes the film extra special is Gardner's personal perspective. As the daughter of the franchise's special effects artist and puppeteer, Tony Gardner, she and her siblings have literally grown up in the shadow of the franchise and that gives her insight and access beyond the norms. In fact, she first tackled this topic as a Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts student with her short film project called, The Dollhouse. For it, she interviewed Mancini, Kirschner, voice of Chucky actor Brad Dourif and many more about the more personal side of seeing the franchise as a kid, and the impact of her dad going off to make the sequels throughout her adolescence. It was so impactful, Universal made it an official bonus feature on the Cult of Chucky home video releases.
The short's success led to the much expanded Living with Chucky, so SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom with Elise Gardner to find out why she kept going with the story, if there's more to come with the success of the Chucky TV series, and what she's learned from this six-year odyssey of making the short and now the film.
Your doc has such an unique angle with your dad's career making all things Chucky. When did you first get a taste of what his job was and maybe get the idea that you would follow him into a film career?
For L.A. reshoots, I went on set and I helped puppeteer Chucky for the reshoots for Curse of Chucky. I was shoving intestines through a fake stomach with Chucky's hands, as you do when you're like, 14. [Laughs.] And that was my first real experience in that world. It was a really big, fake set and there were all the puppeteers and the facial animatronics all going on at the same time. And then Don was there to direct. I didn't really get to speak to him much, but I was receiving his direction. And that was the first moment where I got to see what [my dad's] life was like, for like five months at a time while he was in Romania and Canada. And I kind of fell in love with puppets.
There's a poignant section of your film that shows the toll your dad being away from the family had on you and him. When did it hit you as an adult that you would be making those same sacrifices for your art?
I knew that this was going to be the life for myself, but it actually didn't hit me until I was in my first serious relationship this past year. It was with an actor who also is living this lifestyle, so that was when it really hit me like, "Oh my God, how did my dad even have kids in this environment? It's crazy with the always traveling. There's not enough time. Then, you're doing your work and they're doing their work on completely different schedules.
Having made the short film, what was the actual spark that made you go - if anybody's going to tell this story on film, I'd like to tell it because I have a really unique way of telling it?
That sentence was what went through my mind at one point. It wasn't until after the short film that I did for this in college and seeing the public's reception of it. I'm too close to it to really see it objectively. Like when my teacher suggested focusing on a subset of my dad's career, which was Chucky as a documentary, I was like, "I don't know if people are gonna find that interesting?" I was so close to it and it's so normal to me, I forget that other people had regular childhoods. After that, and seeing also Don Mancini and David Kirchner's response to the short film I was like, "Oh my gosh, this totally deserves a feature-length thing. I can't believe anybody hasn't made a one-stop place for Chucky in a documentary. This needs to happen." And exactly like you said, I was like, "I think I should be the person to take this on because there's so much more I want to tell them than your regular horror retrospective."
Did you have to do a lot more interviews outside of what you got for the short, or was that enough to make the full-length film?
It was taking the interviews I already had and expanding on it. But it was a lot easier to sell people on the idea of it because the short film already existed rather than trying to figure out what the hell I was talking about. [Laughs.] The first person I interviewed post the short film was Alex Vincent. He lives in Florida and I was going to school in Florida at the time, so could go drive and get an interview with him.
After Alex, it was just getting everybody I hadn't interviewed already. I graduated film school in 2019. I had like a year of moving back to California and getting settled in L.A. Then I was doing the L.A. interviews with Christina Elise and Billy Boyd. And then COVID hit. I made the decision over COVID to not go back and get interviews that I had done before. Kirschner and especially Brad are in the age group where it would not be kind of me to put them at risk for COVID, whatsoever. I wasn't going to risk that. And also, it was the decision as a filmmaker that I didn't think I was going to get those interviews twice. Especially because I was a film student, I had the luxury of them letting their guard down and getting very candid. There's no way I was gonna get that response again.
You created some really clever visual bridges between sections of the film, like a hand with era-appropriate nail polish popping in old VHS tapes for each title. Or, capturing artisans pouring the molds for the Chucky doll or making his costume. And the beautiful animated titles. Talk about those choices which are so individual to the film.
I was obsessed with The Ted Bundy Tapes at the time that I was editing this because their editing is very good. And their title sequence is amazing. That inspired the VHS tapes because it was also a visual of just how long the franchise has gone on. When we separate the chapters between movies was really when I decided to do that. And that was over COVID in my parents basement by myself. They were all like $8 press on nails that I was gluing on and then ripping off.
And then the doll build, it was also important to me to highlight everybody who does the behind the scenes work, not just the puppeteers. There's so much that goes into just making Chucky's outfit, as we see. Obviously, it's a talking head documentary, so I needed something pretty and visual. I had access to all the people who make Chucky, so it was really focusing on their work as well to show how much goes into that.
And then the title sequence was an idea I wanted to do for my short film, but who has the title sequence in a short film? Jennifer Tilly had shared this image an artist, Lucas David in Mexico, had done of her. I I could draw, I would do that style. It's so cool. So I talked to him and we collaborated. It's a homage to Child's Play 2 with the pink hallway.
As you were making this film, Chucky started a whole new chapter with the SYFY and USA series. Was that something you had to address on the fly?
That was kind of an "Oh, sh**!" moment. [Laughs.] I was doing good and then I had to like talk about this [series] at the end! I couldn't go and film anything because the first season was post lockdown. And the second season was when I was finishing this. I couldn't get new footage while being so close to being done with my edit. I would have gone insane. As it is, my dad and I had to re-film the ending of the doc twice because of things changing. And you can tell it's peak COVID because my dad at the end had not had a haircut in like six months. By the time we were done editing, he asked, "Can we go back and re-film that?" And I'm like, "No, I'm done!" [Laughs.]
Could there be a new doc or an expansion to this doc covering the series?
For Season 3, my dad leaves in like 15 days. And I do plan on going to interview the puppeteers on set so that they can get some recognition for what they do because I think they've been a little gypped out of some behind the scenes snippets for the TV show. If Universal doesn't do it, I'll do it. But it does beg the question of getting to meet the cousins, which are all the young generation [actors] and Devon Sawa. I would be curious, but I would need some internal support from Universal on that end, because it's too much of a beast to do it completely independently like this one. It was a monster.
What's next for you? More docs or something scripted?
I never even intended to go into documentary filmmaking. And then I got hired to film and direct the making of the Foo Fighters movie, Studio 666, that came out this time last year, so that was great. But for now, I'm going to close the book on documentary land, even if it's just for six months or a year. I'm really diving back into narrative horror and fantasy. And now that I know what goes on into selling an indie film and that festival circuit process, it has definitely at least prepared me a lot. I think this was a really good learning process as a filmmaker. And what better than something close to home to learn from?
Living With Chucky is available on the streaming service SCREAMBOX and on all major digital platforms April 4 in the US and Canada. For more Chucky, watch Seasons 1 and 2 on SYFY.