Exclusive: Tony Gardner on The Dollhouse, the Horror Family, and Happy Death Day

Tony Gardner is the man behind the doll – sometimes literally, as he puppeteers Chucky! Of course, he has a great team of folks to do most of the heavy lifting (and heavy stabbing), but Gardner is the mastermind and certainly one of the most talented effects guys in the biz. You can see his handiwork in the brand-new horror flick Cult of Chucky (review) – we caught up with him in his studio to talk to him about working on that movie specifically, but there’s a lot more to the tale so we delved in a bit deeper, looking into the past (Michael Jackson’s Thriller) and the future (Kyra Elise Gardner’s “The Dollhouse”). Read on!

Dread Central: How did you get into this awesome world? I mean, you have a dream job, for sure! Where did you get your start?

Tony Gardner: My first professional job was for the music video, “Michael Jackson’s Thriller,” working for Rick Baker. I was eighteen. So my first professional job was essentially a horror film, where I even had the opportunity to build a zombie character on myself and be in the video. John Landis knew that I was interested in filmmaking and during post production he invited me to come into editorial and watch them working on the video, which was incredibly cool. So I was in the shop during all of the zombie and werewolf construction, had a hand in a little bit of everything there, including fabricating a character of my own, then be on set for the full week of filming, act in front of the cameras for a couple of shots – and then watch editorial in progress, with George Folsey, Jr., the editor, explained how they were structuring the behind the scenes footage to help explain things to an audience, visually and through the audio as well. I felt I was able to be involved in the entire process, and it was this life changing experience for me. I was a student at USC at the time, and I dropped out of school. I tried to do both for a while, school and the music video, but I realized, “I can’t do both, I can only do one of these and I know what I want to do – I want to make movies.”

DC: And being in the horror genre every now and again – you do lots of sci-fi and comedy, too – you must be showered with lots of love. The horror community really is just that, a community, wouldn’t you agree?

TG: They’re so open and so friendly. You go to a genre convention and everyone is so nice. I went to Maskfest, and this guy came up to me, a big, scary intimidating guy with his head painted like an evil skull, and he was so polite: “Hi, so nice to meet you, and I really enjoy your films.” Everybody is so nice and so genuine. It’s really a great genre to be in, everybody we meet on the periphery of it and within the studio system, is great, and sometimes it’s funny because everybody’s so normal.

We’re all eccentric in our own different ways, but everybody within this horror world seems to be a really genuine human being. Everybody’s always been super nice. I think a lot of it comes from the people on top and their attitude trickles down on set. It’s camaraderie and support for one another. Everybody’s in the trenches together. Everybody actually has a lot of passion for the subject matter and I think that makes a difference. It definitely impacts the attitude on set which just makes it easier to work.

DC: You’ve got your genre family, and your actual family. I’m kind of curious about whether you let your own kids watch horror movies when they were young, because, as you said, guys painted like skulls come up to you at conventions, and I’ve seen lots of families at those cons too.

TG: We tried to wait until they were a bit older – around ten seemed a good age, but even the ‘age appropriate’ stuff had things in it that were scary. They didn’t watch horror films at a young age, but they all have liked scary stories ever since they were little. And there’s things that we showed our kids that we didn’t think were scary, that impacted them completely differently than expected.

We were cautious, we had some friends whose kids were watching stuff at far to early an age to comprehend a lot of what they were watching, and we really paid attention to that. My wife Cindy was really aware of how this industry skews your perspective on things and how you really need to look at it through the child’s eye and make the right decisions. Now she’s the President of the School Board in our community, and is really into child development and education, so I’d say she’s the one with the healthiest perspective all around.

But all of our kids really love horror and when their friends come over to our house it seems they all enjoy watching something scary. It doesn’t matter if it’s a good horror film or a bad film – there’s fun in both of those – but it seems like horror is quite often the ‘go to’ in our house. And we didn’t push it.

A lot of the films that we were doing when they were little were more comedy based actually. So it wasn’t like we were bringing home work that was horror related. Once we moved into our house and were starting a family, we made a conscious decision to keep the work stuff at work. If I ever had to bring stuff home to work on or finish off, like a severed head or whatever, it stayed in the car until everybody was in bed, and then I’d work on it late at night.

Although, in referencing a severed head, I remember when we were working on ‘Seed of Chucky,’ I had taken the head of myself home to work on. I have to admit, there was a moment where I did wonder, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I pretended to trip upstairs and roll this head down the stairs?” Followed immediately by, “I don’t think I’ll have enough money for that kind of therapy for the rest of these kids’ lives.” The practical joker side of you thinks, this would be a funny joke and then the parent side cancels it out immediately – not a good idea! But I did tell them about it when they were older and the response was basically, “Yeah, that probably would have ruined me but it would have been funny.”

DG: At least one of your kids, Kyra, is following in your footsteps in that she’s making horror movies too. Her short documentary “The Dollhouse” is a special feature on the Cult of Chucky Blu-ray. How awesome is that? Can you give us a little backstory on that?

TG: Sure. So my daughter Kyra is a film student in Florida State. And part of the curriculum for the first year of film school is a short form documentary. The film has to be seven minutes long and you have to pitch your ideas to the faculty. So my daughter went into her meeting with a lot of different ideas to discuss: we had just done makeup effects for Ana Lily Amirpour on ‘The Bad Batch,’ which Kyra had been involved with, taking photos for Lily, and one of her ideas was to interview Lily on the gender bias in this industry among other things.

During Kyra’s pitch meeting, one of the professors heard that her dad works on Chucky and said – in trying to help each student find their own unique voice: “If you do seven minutes on Chucky, I’d watch that.” I think it was an offhand comment but at the same time they keep telling the students: Look what’s in your own backyard. Talk about what you know. What sort of resources do you have? So she took a few steps back and realized that she’s had this family, this sort of extension of our own family through work that’s been connected to us for over fifteen years.

She’s nineteen so she’s heard David Kirschner and Don Mancini’s names for most of her life, heard all about them, and had only ever really known these people from a distance. To make a film about this group was a chance to kind of get to know everyone face to face – to sit them down and interview them. So she decided to make her documentary just as much about the process of meeting them as well as the shared experience that we all have, this community, this extended family. And she really wanted to talk to Fiona because Fiona’s dad is the killer doll and I’m the guy who builds the doll. And then Fiona’s dad kills her own dad – and there’s all these layers to it that made it kind of funny. She ended up with a ton of material actually.

She asked Brad and Fiona to sit down together, talk father/daughter, and then she and I sat down the same way, and then she also sat down separately with David Kirschner and Don Mancini – interviewing everyone in their own homes – it was very casual, none of us were really ‘at work.’ There was a bit of a debate at Florida State Film School about the structure of a documentary and should the documentarian be in the film themselves in the context of a student film, but she finally put together something she liked that was true to her original idea after debating the different options, and was really happy.

She sent a link to the finished film to all of us who had been interviewed, an e-mail that thanked everyone for being in it, basically saying ‘here’s a link, I hope you like it.’ Well, David Kirschner watched it and got on the phone with Universal and told them that he felt that this documentary should be on the ‘Cult of Chucky’ DVD, and that he thought the fans would really like it. And Don Mancini had the same opinion and did the same. So there ended up being around six or seven weeks of paperwork and legal hell for Kyra because her film wasn’t put together with the intent of being anything other than a student film. She had already gone through a lot of paperwork to get the rights to some of the music and clips from the Chucky films to use on a student film level, and now all of a sudden Universal wanted to use her film as part of their own product. So it turned into another whole series of contracts and negotiations that went on literally down to the wire. I think she learned a lot about film-making and learned a lot about working with a major film studio above and beyond what she expected. She had to deal with the merchandising department and the legal department and the home video department – it was so great that Florida State’s Film School is so supportive of their students, I don’t know how it would have happened without them. So this one little experience gave her such a great opportunity to learn and to grow.

As all of the Universal paperwork was wrapping up, FSU had also started sending her documentary out to different film festivals. Meanwhile Fright Fest contacted Don Mancini and asked if he would like to premiere ‘Cult’ in London like he had done with ‘Curse’ five years ago, which thrilled Don and all of us to no end. Not long after that Don received another e-mail from Fright Fest stating basically ‘hey, we received this fab documentary about your films through our regular channels and we think you’ll really like it. You’re in it and it’s called ‘The Dollhouse,’ by Kyra Gardner. We’re thinking it would be really cool to screen it before the world premiere Cult of Chucky because it would give the audience a taste for who you are before they watch the film.’ Don responded back, ‘of course,’ and then I got to tell Kyra.

It was really kind of overwhelming because she had been a bit hesitant to talk about this stuff and then the film and even the process opened up all these doors for her, resulting in her student film world premiering in London before the ‘Cult of Chucky’ world premiere. She went for the screening, and the festival organizers invited her to go up and speak before the film. She went up in front of over a thousand people and literally winged it, and did an amazing job, thanking her mom and the crew and everybody that had been in it. And then it premiered.

Fiona, Jennifer and I had gone to England with Don for the premiere. And Adam Hertig – who is in the film – was there from Canada as well. We realized then that our little film family has started to like, stretch out a bit, with Adam being in the last two Chucky films and Jennifer being in the last three.

The Dollhouse has gone on to screen at a lot more film festivals, and will be showing at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival next month before they screen Cult of Chucky. Kyra’s going to go. Florida State’s going to let her disappear for a couple of days. So she’ll get to meet the rest of the Canadian side of the family.

The Chucky connection keeps on going, though. FSU was evacuated due to Hurricane Irma, so Kyra ended up back home with us for a week. The Monday of that week we shot Chucky for an “Entertainment Weekly” spread for their Halloween issue, so we had Kyra onboard as a Chucky puppeteer on that. Friday of that week was the opening of Halloween Horror Nights, and Kyra had helped puppeteer Chucky on the footage that we shot for that a month ago, so she went to the opening and finally met Jennifer Tilly. And Jennifer was willing to come early and sit down with Kyra and do an interview with her. That very next day Don, Fjona, and I were on a ‘Cult of Chucky’ panel at Son of Monsterpalooza [a horror con], and Fiona sat down with Kyra after and spoke with her some more about her own experiences as opposed to her shared experiences with her father. Now Kyra’s wondering if she should interview Adam Hertig when they’re both in Toronto. It’s just really cool to see Jennifer and everybody be so supportive of her. And, it is real is kind of a family. They’re all kind of protective. It’s just really sweet. I didn’t realize until recently, how rare that is in general, but in this industry how extremely rare it is, so it’s nice to have my family get pulled into it.

DC: Are your other kids in the industry, too?

TG: All three of them have been involved in different ways through the years. My oldest daughter Brianna was in the movie “Shallow Hal” when she was seven, and both she and Kyra played the same character at different ages for a Daft Punk music video a long while back. My son Austin gets involved occasionally as well. When we were filming Chucky here at Alterian recently for a lot of the online promo and the footage for the Terror Tram ride at Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights, Austin was one of the puppeteers. He’s a med student in Irvine now, so we can’t involve him as often anymore. Brianna was home for a week from England – she’s at grad school in England – and she helped puppeteered on another promo shoot while she was home. And Brianna also actually worked on the film itself. She painted in our shop for all of pre-production before we shipped off to Canada. So, there’s definitely a whole family dynamic thing – and it keeps extending out. It’s a really solid group of people and it’s really nice. There’s no drama and there’s a lot of support.

DC: Happy Death Day is coming out soon. What did you do on that film?

TG: Well, it’s a Canadian production, so we couldn’t really be on set for any of it, but Chris [director, Christopher Landon] wanted us to design the mask for the killer. He wanted some sort of iconic face. We had created a mask here at Alterian that became the Scream mask, way back when. We did the Ghost-Maker kits and other Halloween masks in the past, then more recently the masks – or helmets – for Daft Punk. Chris said that he liked our sense of design aesthetic, and that it would be interesting to see what our take on his character would be. Production had two different ideas. Two extremely different ideas. We actually ended up just sculpting both designs full size for them. You can talk and sketch ideas to death but you actually have to see it in 3D to think about how you’re going to light it and how it’s going to move. So we just did two sculptures on a head and shoulders bust so he could see the proportions of the head in relationship to the neck length and shoulder height. And as soon as he saw it he was very decisive: “I want that design, and if you could move this tooth over there. Done.” We were taking photos of the sculptures on their busts, wrapping them in black fabric to represent a hood – figuring the classic grim reaper look. In the end, the final look decided on was actually a black hoodie. So the design process was fun. We really wished we could have gone on set but it being a non-local film – that’s part of the understanding going into it – didn’t make that possible. I’m really looking forward to seeing it because it was a really fun script.

Happy Death Day is directed by Christopher Landon, who co-wrote the film with Scott Lobdell. Jessica Rothe headlines the film, which comes out Friday, October 13th.

Synopsis:
A college student (Jessica Rothe, La La Land) relives the day of her murder with both its unexceptional details and terrifying end until she discovers her killer’s identity.

Happy Death Day

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Staci Layne Wilson

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