I spoke with the directors of the delightfully weird film Strawberry Mansion, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night. I believe they personify the Hassle mission to support original storytelling, and I was happy to chat with them about their process.
BOSTON HASSLE: I want to start off talking about the movie’s unique look. How did you end up filming it?
ALBERT BIRNEY: We filmed it digitally on an AMIRA camera. We used older lenses to give it some texture right out of the gate. Because we were doing so many special effects that were different formats– stop-motion animation, miniatures– and combining all these looks, we knew we needed to do it digitally. Once we were finished editing, we transferred it onto 16mm film to give it that final texture. It made all the effects feel more cohesive.
Growing up watching all these films from the ‘80s like NeverEnding Story and Labyrinth, they would have that film texture. As a kid or when I got a bit older, I started to recognize which shots had more special effects in them because they would get grainier since they had to be optically printed. That was always exciting, you could tell a special effect shot was coming because the grain got more intense.
BH: That always happens in animation too, you can see the one bush that’s a different color and something will interact with it.
AB: A frog is gonna jump out of that bush.
BH: There was such a focus on tactile objects in the film, even though it’s set in the future. Can you tell me more about the choice to have the characters use VHS?
KENTUCKER AUDLEY: We wanted to mix and match time periods, a mix of future and past. Being excited about the way things used to look and to imagine what things could look like in the future. That combination was what we were after.
AB: It was a very specific decision to put on VHS, even though in this future everything would be on a thumb drive or digital. I was thinking about a house: if I saw a shelf of little USB sticks, it doesn’t excite me, but if I saw a shelf packed with VHS tapes, that’s exciting. That’s from growing up with what a video store represented – this holy place you’d walk into with your mom or your friends on a Friday night and there were so many different possibilities or dreams or worlds you could grab hold of. We wanted to pay our respects to that feeling. The character of Bella is old-fashioned, she hasn’t updated to the USB airstick everyone else is using. She’s still old school.
KA: The movie is filled with nostalgia and an excitement for our own analog foundation, while being skeptical of the encroaching digital landscape filled with algorithms and surveillance. Things that seemed futuristic and unsettling. We’d retreat into the safer past. We’re using dreams as the last true vestige of purity and self – so when your dreams are taken away, when they’re infiltrated, that’s the end of the line. So we try to get back to that tactile, old, textured feeling we were based in as kids.
BH: How did you incorporate stop motion into the film? Did you have any particular inspirations?
AB: We both love Beetlejuice, and they use stop-motion animation really effectively in that. They mix it with live action in a way where you totally believe it. It’s just fun. We always knew we wanted to have some stop-motion – the skeleton coming out of the grave is a Ray Harryhausen type, we have the caterpillar, there’s an exploding and melting head inspired by horror movies. It was all done by this one animator, Lawrence Becker, a friend I met years ago on Vine. He was a Vine creator when I was making videos too. We made a couple Vines together, and I always thought, “He’s so talented, it would be so cool to have him do animation in a feature film.” We tried to get him on Sylvio, our previous film, but the schedules didn’t line up and we didn’t end up using animation as it evolved in the edit. For Strawberry Mansion, we knew we had to get Lawrence. It was so cool to finally get him.
He lives on the west coast. He would animate in front of little green screens, and we would be able to lay them into our footage. 16mm married these forms together. Hopefully you watch it and you’re not even quite sure how it happens.
BH: Do you have practical advice about things you learned on this movie that you could pass onto low-budget and no-budget filmmakers?
AB: When you’re making a movie the way we make them, you try to dream really big and imagine can do anything, then figure out how to actually do it. There’s usually a way, especially with practical effects– a lot of hot glue, a lot of papier-mâché. Just figuring it out. I love movies where you can tell that they had a problem that they solved practically or for pretty cheap. Nowadays you can film and digitally replace everything– and that’s fine, that’s one way to make a movie– but it’s not quite as fun for me. I want to be right there with the costumes, the masks, the characters all together in a weird location. You can use green screen, and we did use green screen, but sparingly. We had to ask: what scenes can we pull off in real locations, what scenes do we need to do with green screen, what scenes involve stop motion, a little bit of digital cleanup. You just have to put it all together. There’s so many tools at your disposal these days to marry these aspects, it’s just fun.
KA: I would add that a fun part of the process is just involving other people. I don’t personally know how to do a lot of the stuff we did, but delegating it to people who do, and people whose work you love – you can say “I love the way you did this, could you do this again” and filter it into your vision. Collaboration is key for small movies. Collaboration, delegation, trusting other people and being excited about their work. Don’t be scared to try things you don’t know how to do. Try to figure it out the best way you can, even if it doesn’t look perfect. I always like scrappy vision, they’re figuring it out as they go but it feels like there was real effort. I always admire the attempt. I didn’t know how to do most of this stuff, but as Albert said we figure it out and other people can help us. It’ll filter all together.
BH: That’s the way to do it. I know when I’ve worked on projects, I always think “I don’t know how this is going to look, but I’m going to keep not knowing until I try.”
KA: That’s the fun part. I had no idea how it was going to look. That’s why you make it.
BH: I just wanted to mention I had no idea the mansion itself was a miniature. It blew my mind.
AB: For years I had no idea how we were going to do this, but about six months before we were filming, one of the producers and I were driving around Baltimore looking for houses. We just couldn’t find the perfect house and I said “Well. I have this dollhouse that I bought years ago that’s just rotting away.” So we put a new coat of paint on it and added some additions, and it’s in line with our use of practical effects. I’ve always liked those making-of shots where they’d have the camera set up with the actors on one side and the miniature on the other. They’d film it on the same day to have the same light, and that’s what we did. We’d line the house up with the horizon line. We’d tweak it in post, but that really helped.
BH: I always think about films with matte paintings, like Labyrinth.
AB: Totally. Even The Wizard of Oz, what they were doing with those paintings… it just holds up.
BH: It’s so valuable to know those things exist. I went to the Henson exhibit at MoMI in Brooklyn last year and they had actual Skeksis. It was the first time I saw Kermit in person. Huge for me.
KA: I saw that too.
AB: That’s emotional.
Dir. Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley
Watch this space to catch up and follow along with Kyle’s continuing coverage of Sundance 2021!