We’re really trying to leave the whimsy, quirky game and go more towards the grotesque and horrific.
Forward-thinkers have on occasion theorized about dystopian worlds to come—at times spectral, a stretch of the imagination: the monetization of dreams by invasive surveillance states. This idea receives a bonkers treatment in Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s homespun derring-do Strawberry Mansion, which aptly premiered in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival’s NEXT strand.
Set in a scrapbooked 2035—it’s everything but the kitchen sink: puppetry, 8-bit graphics, and mixed media stop-motion—Strawberry Mansion follows James (Audley), a “dream auditor” who accounts for taxes to be paid on private citizens’ nighttime revelries. Seemingly any meaningful content—hot air balloons and dandelions, for example—are considered fair game “expenditures.” When he’s dispatched to the titular home of Arabella (Penny Fuller), an elderly artist who has somehow evaded paying what she owes for decades of her life, James is shocked to learn that she hasn’t kept up with technology very well either, having instead stowed away her dreams on a trove of now-obsolete VHS tapes. Transmitting his hologram into her archives via anachronistic tech, James begins the massive task of pouring over countless hours of footage, which will no doubt take him much longer to audit than usual. In the process, he begins to fall in love with Arabella’s younger dream self (Grace Glowicki), finding the happiness that for so long has eluded him.
After cementing their creative partnership with 2017’s Sylvio, concerning a small-town talkshow host gorilla, Strawberry Mansion is the sophomore effort between the writing-directing-acting duo.
Strawberry Mansion hits select theaters on February 18th and VOD on February 25th.
From what I understand, you started shaping Strawberry Mansion over a decade ago, so that was way before Sylvio even got off the ground. It was a long journey to the finish line.
Albert Birney: It’s true. The initial concept for the movie was kicking around in my brain as early as 2007/2008. I think the first draft of the script came in 2010 so it was a couple of years of thinking about it and writing down notes. The first draft was 45 pages or something. Then Sylvio happened and that took a couple of years. We dusted this off in 2017 and there was a couple of years of kicking around a script and trying to understand it. And we needed to bring it up to date because when you’re working with ideas or writing a script a decade earlier and then revisit it, you’re a different person. You have to change it to fit who you are now so there was a lot of that.
What’s the kernel you started with?
Albert: They were just images. If we go back to the very beginning, it was an image of a person with a hat, a suit, and a briefcase walking towards a house. That was the question: “What’s in the house? Who is this person?” You’re filling in the blanks a little bit and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Maybe it’s what I want to be walking towards. I’d love to find an old house filled with VHS tapes. It’d be a dream to come upon that.” So I think you start from what you would want to encounter and try to work backwards. Then you make it so that all the different images mean something.
Kentucker Audley: In our waking life, we often don’t have the opportunity to experience surreal visions. Everyday life doesn’t always offer very novel images to our eyes. We’re sort of stuck in, for the most part, bland routines where you see the same things every day. You see the same people every day. But when you go into your dreamscape, anything can happen. It’s a tragedy that the one place where there’s something actually very fantastical and imaginative happening—so loose and flimsy that you can’t pin it down and you don’t really know what it means—is also the place we can’t revisit necessarily. I think movies are the one time that you do have some control over the visions that you see and what you want to see, where you try to approximate that feeling of being in a dream. That was the exciting part of collaborating with Albert, ‘cause he has such a fantastical vision to start with. I had made films previously that were not as visual and I was really excited to be introduced to his world, to climb my way into collaborating with him.
How did you guys meet?
Kentucker: We met at a film festival in Baltimore. In 2012, I think? We had really different films at the festival, but I think we both saw something in each other that was a little complimentary and a little similar. And we just liked each other as people. We really had a fun time being around each other and got along really well. So it started with a friendship—a fast friendship. When we started getting to know each other, we thought it might be fun to work on something together.
You make a great duo. It’s credit to you guys that there’s a lot going on in the movie, yet it doesn’t feel like misshapen hodgepodge. Because you can approximate the dangers of that happening in less capable hands. Working with dream logic, did you set rules for this world?
Albert: I don’t think we really set concrete rules for what the dreams would feel like. It’s more that we had so much more we had to edit out because it wasn’t fitting in terms of the flow of the story that was on the screen. So at some point it was like, “We actually need to take this out. Less is more.” Kentucker had a great idea, for example, to condense a whole section into three shots. We had this 15-minute sequence that we couldn’t figure out how to make work and he was like, “I think we can cut all of this out and turn it into this other thing.” Because it’s dreams and dream logic, it was very freeing in the edit. Maybe in a normal, conventional movie, we’d stay stuck or have to reshoot to figure out how to get out of there, but in this one, it was more like, “Anything can happen. Let’s turn the character into a caterpillar and have them swim across the ocean in that one shot. And then the desert. And then a blizzard. And boom, we’re home. We’re good.”
Kentucker: We were editing more to a rhythm, to a flow, than plot. I’m glad to hear you say that it’s cohesive because it’s like two things that don’t really work together: very dreamy logic and a stretched three act narrative structure form. Those things are usually not compatible so you have to kind of choose when you’re gonna lean into one and when you’re gonna allow it to drift off into dream logic. This movie has a really long setup. It’s a kind of traditional structure in that respect, but then it doesn’t give you a conventional payoff. The payoff is more about getting lost in the dream logic. As the audience, you really have to accept that this isn’t a conventional movie. I think for viewers that are able to dive into the dream logic, it’s satisfying and fun. But for viewers who are looking for that traditional narrative payoff, it’s a little harder to see.
About that caterpillar: I understand it’s a motif that was very much found during filming. It really speaks to a fluidity and openness in your creative process. Was that an exception?
Albert: That’s a good question. I think that’s always the dream or the goal: to plan it all out and have all of these scenes set up, but then still be open and free to discover things as they appear, whether that’s a caterpillar at your feet, a new way of blocking a scene, or a new line you didn’t foresee. As is usually the case with a movie like this, we shot it pretty fast and with a limited budget behind us so you don’t really have as much time or room to discover those things. So whenever things present themselves, like the caterpillar, you’re definitely happy to lean into it.
Kentucker: The caterpillar is a great example because it’s probably indicative of making movies like we’re used to, which is just finding it as we go, using what we see in our surroundings—things that catch our eye on set or in nature that are not part of the movie. We both come from backgrounds making movies with tiny crews: one or two people on camera and maybe one sound person. It’s very fluid. You’re able to just kind of run-and-gun, capturing things on the fly. With a little bigger crew and a little more money, it can become quite restrictive. Not necessarily in a bad way, but you really have to stay on schedule and there’s a regimented order of communication with everybody involved. It’s difficult to find those spontaneous moments, and to integrate them.
Albert: That find was so quick. It literally happened within five minutes. Kentucker was changing costumes at the bottom of the hill. Grace [Glowicki], our DP Tyler [Davis], and I just looked down and there was a caterpillar. I said, “Grace, would you be comfortable holding that?” and she was like, “Sure.” That becomes her intro in the movie. That becomes this recurring motif that we see later. I always think, “What if that caterpillar wasn’t on that leaf? What if it was five feet to the right of me and I hadn’t seen it? What would we have done in the movie instead?” Maybe we would’ve thought of something else. Maybe there would’ve been another bug or something, but—
And it’s not entirely random because that caterpillar makes sense in this world. I know “whimsical” gets thrown a lot, but there’s a specificity to your “whimsy,” between light and dark. I also love the talking fly in the spiderweb, for example. I think it’s adorable. But I can see how it could skew more grotesque for somebody else. It’s the whimsy spectrum.
Kentucker: We’re really trying to leave the whimsy, quirky game and go more towards the grotesque and horrific. But it’s a long journey. [laughs] PG to rated R is where we’re headed.
Albert: Yeah, I think we always set out to make an R movie like, “This is going to be so dark. This is going to be R-rated.” But it always somehow ends up with our true selves coming through, I guess, where we make it cuter. We like to think that maybe Sylvio was PG and this one is PG-13. Maybe we’re making small, tiny steps and the next one will be true R. That’s our goal at least.
Kentucker: We have a complicated relationship with words like whimsical and quirky. There’s a soft spot in my heart, and I know Albert’s, for that kind of aesthetic. But it really is teetering right on the edge. You don’t wanna go too far in that direction. I know some people think we do go too far in that realm. But, you know, it’s fun to keep things light and lighthearted—to keep things fun. I’m glad you mentioned the fly because we haven’t talked too much about that. So there’s a talking fly, right? Instantly, people who are closed off to this sort of childhood imagination are gonna be repelled by that. But I think it’s fun to dip into both worlds and combine aesthetics, where you have some of the scarier or horror-based imagery like exploding heads and witches yelling horrible things at you, and a frog playing the saxophone and a cute little turtle.
Albert: To anyone that says we’re too whimsy or quirky, I’d say stuck with us. Next one’s hard R.
Kentucker: Sylvio came about in an era that I thought was going way over the top in terms of cynicism and just snark and negativity, and that extended to indie films: these edgy, dark portraits of the soul. And it’s like, “Why does every indie movie have to be this dark? Why can’t we have an indie movie that’s really gentle and sweet? No edge. What’s wrong with that? Maybe we need to take a deep breath and not try to be so cool with every movie, not try to prove how smart we are, and tell a nice little gentle story.” So that’s how Sylvio started. And once we did that, it’s like, “Maybe we can start going toward a little bit more adult themes or more complex storytelling.”
It makes sense to me that you would find inspirations in films like The NeverEnding Story and Labyrinth. Albert, I learned that you’re a big fan of Miyazaki as well. With respect to Strawberry Mansion, I think you’re playing in the same sandbox, so to speak.
Albert: That’s cool to hear. Miyazaki is definitely a blueprint for me in terms of images of whimsy with the fantastical creatures and characters. And all of those films have this underlying darkness. In My Neighbor Totoro, the mom is sick and in the hospital for the whole movie, and these two little girls are kind of on their own. When you’re a kid, The NeverEnding Story is this grand adventure on the surface, but there’s some real darkness happening within that world. The world is being erased and there’s this wolf creature chasing this kid, whose home life is not great. I gravitate towards those stories that are both light and dark in equal parts. Life has these moments of dark and light. From one hour to the next, you can see it all. So it’s fun to put them together.
Did you intend for this film to be self-referential at all? Could art and product placement stand in for dreams and ads—where your anxieties about filmmaking are coming through?
Kentucker: Somewhat. I mean, I think everything we do is sort of self-referential by default because we try to focus on stories that resonate with us. I know you’re talking about Strawberry Mansion, but I think Sylvio is very self-referential. And it’s not even about being filmmakers—it’s about being a person with regards to ads and just being bombarded by them our entire waking lives. We’re imagining that it’s never gonna stop and it will infiltrate our dreams. There’s something inherently fun and colorful about ads and promotions that we can never fully enjoy because it’s so transparently trying to push things we don’t need. But visually, these are fun things to play with. It’s fun to look at a brand. If it wasn’t selling you anything, it’s a really exciting visual. They’re designed to catch your attention and there’s an art in that. In real life, you do everything to avoid the flashy imagery that’s for something you don’t need, but it’s interesting to look at if you were to divorce it from its context. On our next film, we’ll explore that idea further.
Formally, this film is flashy like those ads are, except you’re not trying to sell us anything but a good story. It makes you wanna pull it apart, to deconstruct the creative process. And of course, there’s magic in the not knowing as well—to keep the illusion from shattering.
Albert: I personally love peeling back the layers, hearing how people make movies. Douglas Trumbull, for example, very much a technical wizard who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, who just passed away, would discuss how he made everything in YouTube videos and I loved watching them. If someone’s curious, I have no problem talking about our process.
It tickled me to learn that the first VHS costume you made for Strawberry Mansion had ribbons with old Seinfeld episodes on them. What’s brilliant about that is just the remote possibility of that show existing in this world. It’s like, “Did Arabella record over Seinfeld?”
Albert: [laughs] Yeah, all that technical stuff is where I love to live. That’s why it’s been so great working with Kentucker. He’s thinking a lot about the story arc, the emotional payoff for the characters, and the ways that we can connect the dots. And I love thinking about that stuff with him, but left to my own devices, I have my screwdriver and hot glue out. I just wanna build things and paint things, and it’s a lot about finding and repurposing things that are in our everyday lives.
Another thing you’re afforded with dream logic is the anachronism. There’s a temporal slipperiness to this world. It’s 2035, but it’s your 2035—a “nowhere” place that’s not completely tethered to a reality we can recognize. You toy with analog, but the practicality of that tech demands it belongs somewhere in the future. I’ve had conversations with filmmakers that are super allergic to anything that calls attention to specific time periods, like cellphones. Do you share that kind of allergy or are you more interested in nostalgia?
Kentucker: That’s a good question. Nostalgia was a big factor in a lot of the decision-making process to mix and match eras: “What are the technologies, cars, and clothing styles that we like from different time periods?” I think it was a lot about being free. I mean, you can’t predict the future. You can never know what that’s gonna look like. You don’t know what the technology’s gonna do, you know? The only thing you can really do is go back in terms of creating a different visual landscape in the current day. We’re not futurists or anything. We’re not really trying to build a convincing future landscape. We’re just calling it the future and using that as an opportunity to have fun with the visuals and be free in those visuals. It doesn’t really matter when the movie is set or if the technology is accurate. It’s very arbitrary. We gave ourselves a lot of room to play.
Kentucker, you’re gonna be moderating interviews with emerging filmmakers at Nitehawk Shorts Fest next month. Are you open to giving a small preview of those conversations?
Kentucker: I do this series every couple months. I just like to get to know the filmmakers. It’s very rudimentary questions about how they started and where a project starts: “Does it start with an image? Does it start with a story?” It builds out from there. I like to have more of a low-key conversation than a typical Q&A where there’s a little bit more back and forth. It’s more casual and less academic, especially with young filmmakers. I’m not young, but I do feel like I’m emerging, too, in the sense that you make a movie every couple years. You never really feel like you get good at it because you don’t get the chance to do it very often. So there’s always this discovery that’s happening every time you make a project. In some ways, you have to rebuild the same discoveries on the next project and slightly build on top of that. I just think it’s always fascinating how people come to make movies, and what compels them to start and finish these projects.
Is your next film living in the same kind of universe as Sylvio and Strawberry Mansion?
Albert: It totally is, and it kind of feels like the end of the trilogy that we started with Sylvio. Like Kentucker said, branding and commercials are in it. It’s also about being true to yourself and living in this society that doesn’t want you to be true to yourself. We’re still in the writing stage and kind of mapping it out, but hopefully, we’re gonna finish the script in the next couple of months. It’s kind of taking everything we started with in the previous two and turning it up to 11, just getting bigger with more characters and set pieces. It will be a little bit darker. It’s gonna be a fun one.