Full of inventive dreamscapes and wildly imaginative low-fi visual effects, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney's playfully surreal romantic fantasy Strawberry Mansion is a uniquely crafted film packed full of invention, charm and ideas where, in the not-too-distant future, an all-seeing surveillance state conducts “dream audits” to collect taxes on the unconscious lives of the populace. We sat down with directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney to discuss dreams, practical effects and all things Strawberry Mansion.
What's the craziest dream you've ever had?
Albert Birney: How long do we have here? Let me see… oh gosh. The craziest dream I ever had, it's also one of the first dreams I ever remember. I was lost in the woods, I was maybe five or six at the time, it's a very early dream memory. I'm lost, I'm coming out of the woods, there's a small little town, and in a distance, I see all my family members and I'm like, ‘oh my gosh, there you all are, I'm free, I'm found, I'm gonna be okay'. And as I got closer, my grandfather stepped out from behind, my grandma. And I noticed he had three legs. And then one by one I looked at all my family and they all had something wrong and it turned into a true body horror nightmare. And I woke up probably sweating and maybe crying. I'll never forget that. That was a wild one.
Kentucker Audley: I'll let him speak for that one.
That sounds like quite a crazy dream! Did any of your dreams impact the writing and the making of this film?
KA: I guess more generally just the feelings and the feeling of a dream. The horror, the tension and terror of this surreal thing that you've never really experienced and you don't know what it means and you're trying to piece together what's happening and why it's happening and just tapping into those very, elemental, basic human emotions that dreams so vividly capture that you rarely feel in real life. So more than any specific dream, I think it was just that feeling that dreams are able to penetrate deeper into that reality of what you normally experience.
There's been a lot of science and research into dreams, so as filmmakers did you tap into any of that science?
KA: There's no science in the film! There's a very broad, basic understanding. We talked a lot about like, how does this work, what does it mean to be taxed in your dreams, how does the system of taxation work? Ultimately it just felt very oppressive and not fun to get into the particulars or any of the science. The fun part was just to throw out the big idea and then kind of meander around that and move past that.
AB: Every once in a while, I'd see an article like some new dream breakthrough or just some scientists are figuring out what dreams are. And I remember I'll click on him and I start reading them but it doesn't really hold my attention. Dreams, they're different for everyone, they do lots of different things for us. I love the concept of science. I love that there's people that really are studying all these things. But yeah, I think for us, it's a lot of intuition and just feelings and kind of stumbling our way through the world.
When you're creating a film that's set in the future, but not such a distant future, what's the biggest challenge that comes with that?
KA: You can look at it as challenge but it's just an opportunity. How do we communicate the world as the future? How are we able to tap into the vision that we have and the visual elements that we want to portray, while also saying it's the future? I think we dealt with that by not really worrying too much about a reality of the future and just kind of allowing ourselves to do what we wanted. If we wanted something to look old, or from a different time period in the past, 50s, 60s, 70s, 30s, we just went with that and then just called it the future. It's this retro futurism concept. It was very instinctual and trying to keep things fun and light and not overthinking what it means to live in the future.
I believe the film was shot digitally and then transferred onto 16 mm film. What prompted this decision and why did you do it like that?
AB: I think it's just that nothing can beat film. All the films we grew up watching were shot on film and we loved them. And even now, 100 years after the invention of film, there's a quality to it that can't be replicated digitally. But then it's expensive to shoot on film and the way we were making this movie, with all the DIY effects and different animation styles, it was just going to be easier to make it digitally. Film is like this thing, this texture, this actual film strip. We can put it on there at any time and get that vibe, that energy, that thing that film has that's magic. It just has something, you know? Again, I'm not scientific so I can't explain exactly what it is but it just is, and it's got a feeling to it, you know?
You mentioned the DIY effects and I really loved all the practical effects in the film. What was your favourite of all the effects that you did?
KA: I think my favourite just because of how it came to be, was the caterpillar swimming across the ocean and then the desert and through the snowstorm and I think that was very satisfying because it was a very late idea that we had in the in the process. It was never written like that. And in fact, we'd been editing for probably five or six months before that was even in the film. And it was a satisfying thing to connect two pieces of the film that were kind of going on a tangent. So it's just this moment of freedom and possibility within the filmmaking process itself. A lot of times you can feel so restricted by the rigmarole and this apparatus of how you make a film come to be, but that was a moment where it's like, oh yeah, you can just be a caterpillar and then it can fix all these problems. And then we get the animator to do that and it's there and it's very simple. We didn't overthink it, and it just happened quickly and that was that was probably my favourite effect.
AB: My favourite I think is the buffalo that appears kind of early in the film. It's just a quick moment in a dream, but we built an actual Buffalo. And so we had the actors working with that. But then later we had some digital artists go in and animate the face and give the buffalo some blood and some breathing effects in the eye. And I think that was really an ‘aha' moment where I was like, wow, digital effects can just do these little tiny things to enhance something that you already made. And hopefully when you're watching, you don't know what you're watching, what's real, what's digital. It just feels how a dream feels where it's kind of in that in-between place. So that that was big for me.
A film like this really thrives on the low-fi effects and the low budget but if you'd had more money, how would that have impacted the film and the effects?
KA: That's a big question but we don't really know until we get it but I think hopefully, we'll have a little bit more money on our next film. We'll probably just spend it on masks and costumes and more special effects and bigger sets and that's probably what we'd have done on Strawberry as well.
AB: [Laughing] Get a couple of hot tubs for ourselves, pay ourselves millions
What's it been like for you guys to see your film at so many prestigious festivals like Sundance and Fantasia?
AB: It's so exciting. My favourite thing about all those is when people watch it and they respond, and they say, ‘hey, you know, it's really inspiring, it inspired me and I I've been thinking about doing something but maybe I want to do it now' because that's like all the films that we grew up watching that inspired us. It's just nice to feel like maybe you're a part of somebody's journey or the film has spoken to someone in a way that the films you love spoke to you. That's a cool feeling. Especially the genre festivals or the festivals where the audience is maybe a little bit more up for the strange and unusual stuff. It's been nice to hear from them.
Whose idea was it called the turtle Sugar Baby? I thought that was great.
AB: My mom and my stepdad named a chicken Sugar Baby when I was a kid, We had a chicken that was one of the best chickens they ever had. Most chickens only last six months or a year before they get pox or they'll get sick or something but Sugar Baby was running around for three or four years so that just stuck in my brain and then years later you're like, ‘okay, we gotta name a character' and Sugar Baby just comes out. You steal from everything around you; from your life, from your memories, from the people you love, people you hate, you steal it all, and you throw it up together. If they had named that chicken Dump Truck, then that turtle might have been named Dump Truck or something.
Read our review of Strawberry Mansion here.
Bulldog Film Distribution presents Strawberry Mansion in select cinemas and on demand 16 September.