Fantastic Fest 2022: A Chat with Kyra Elise Gardner, Director of LIVING WITH CHUCKY

Like most during the pandemic I spent an inordinate amount of time scrolling through TikTok, and one account that was served up being a horror fan by the almighty algorithm, was a young woman’s feed by the name of Kyra Elise Gardner. It was clear right off the bat she was not your typical horror stan account, when I saw her videos that were filmed in what appeared to be a practical effects warehouse surrounded by Chucky dolls. As I fell down the rabbit hole of her feed, I discovered she was the daughter of Tony Gardner, who was the chief puppeteer for most of the Child’s Play franchise. Kyra was using the app to get the word out about a doc she was working on about not only the Child’s Play franchise as whole, but her dad’s work and the strange dynamic of having grown up with one the most notorious cinematic slashers.

It was a bit surreal having experienced Kyra’s journey through her TikTok’s and here I was a few years later interviewing her for her doc’s premiere at Fantastic Fest. Because at one point there was the possibility she wouldn’t be able to afford to license the footage from the series. You can check out my review here, but the short is it was every bit as charming and heartfelt as you’d expect, while still being a comprehensive look at the Child’s Play franchise through Kyra’s eyes.

First off congrats on the film, I am glad you got to finish it the way you wanted. I think I first heard about it when I found your account on TikTok during the pandemic, what sort of brought you to that as a forum to promote your film and what was that like using that platform as a creator?

Oh, wow. I actually started TikTok over COVID, when I was still finishing the documentary. One of the last things at the time that I was filming was getting B-roll of horror fans at conventions. Then Covid hit and all the conventions were closed and I was like, well, there it goes my opportunity. I kind of just started it as, I had seen other people’s videos do well and I really wanted to incorporate the fans into the documentary and I thought maybe I’ll make a TikTok asking if people can submit their photos to an email, so that I can still have things that I can use as B roll and include people in it. It kind of just took off and then people were interested in the documentary itself.

So as the ego of a documentarian would dictate, I was like maybe I’ll just kind of document the process of making this thing because I’m a newer filmmaker and this is all new to me in terms of setting out to do a feature and especially selling it. Even this right now is so new to me. So I kind of just documented the process over the course of it and it’s become this wonderful tool, to help market it and, and get the word out to people that it exists.

I am curious. What was your first experience or memory of Chucky growing up and how did that sort of shape your relationship to horror cinema?

The ones that I don’t remember, I blocked out in my mind. (laughs)

My first actual experience was when I was four, but I do not recall this. My dad was doing research coming on to Seed of Chucky, of what Tiffany and Chucky’s baby was going to look like. So he was designing Glen and had brought scarred Chucky and Tiffany home and apparently I saw them, and I freaked out and locked myself in my room and was late to preschool that morning.

But my first actual solid memory of it was actually seeing Seed of Chucky as my first introduction to it, and I was eight at the time. I didn’t know that my dad makes an appearance in the movie, but also dies in the movie (laughs). So I was absolutely traumatized that day. I thought my dad had died in real life, so that was my introduction to it, but I always gravitated towards the horror genre. For some reason, I just really liked being scared and maybe it’s because I was so desensitized to it growing up the way I did, so it was always a fascination. I was always watching horror movies in middle school and high school. If you were coming over to my house to hang out, we were watching horror movies and there was no ifs, ands or buts about it.

While I’ve seen quite a bit of fandom-esque docs I think your personal perspective brings an element to it that gives the film something truly and uniquely personal, what made you want to share that with the world?

It started as a short film when I was at Florida State University, they had a documentary semester and actually it was two documentaries that we had watched that year, Searching for Sugarman, but specifically this documentary Stories We Tell and it’s about this woman’s journey and about her own family. They did this beautiful job of making recreational footage, so it felt like you were following this story and I didn’t know, documentaries could be that way, and so personal and touching. So I set out to do something of the same sort. I originally intended on doing a documentary about my dad in general, but then this was, you know, a more focused subset of something that has been with me my entire life.

Chucky has always been at my birthday parties when I was growing up. I’m an October baby, so he was always there.So I created this short film in college and people really seemed to respond to it, because of the familial aspect of it and I realized that it really was something unique that I may have taken for granted to be honest, because when you live in that reality, you can’t see it objectively. So that’s really what inspired me to make the feature was the response to doing the short and seeing how fans appreciated that so much and the people who were in it as well, like Don and Fiona and Brad. Their responses were really wonderful and made me wanna figure out how to do a feature film.

I love how you structured the story and do your due diligence to really dig into the franchise before you pull back the camera if you will, it was both an inspired and moving way to construct the story showing the parallels of fathers and daughters in front and behind the camera, How did you come to that approach and how long did you take to find that?

Really in the editing process is where that came together.

I knew I wanted that familial aspect for sure, because that’s what was so great about the short. But it was really trying to figure out when to put that in, because it was a documentary trying to not only encompass, 35 years at this point of history, but also talking on other subsets, like the fact that it’s all practical and not CGI and then the family that was forged with just the Chucky people, as well as that taking away from their own families.It was hard to figure out when that was gonna happen in the documentary and how. I figured we needed to touch on the films themselves and kind of have a history first, before talking about their impact.

So I tried a version where I came in earlier in the documentary and you knew all along, but you know, my dad didn’t come on until Seed of Chucky. So there was this awkward 40 minutes where we weren’t really there and it was hard to pepper us into it. So that moment, when Fiona says you can ask your Dad, I figured it was a perfect act to break into getting a little bit more personal and set up the stage for that.

One thing I don’t think folks would realize watching that comfort of your subjects in your hands. As a seasoned journalist who gets to interview people I can appreciate that’s not easily earned. Being somewhat familiar with all of these people, what was it like to really explore and get to know your father’s other family if you will?

Yeah, that’s why honestly when I went to go do a feature version of it, I opted to not reshoot a few interviews because because it was just so candid, especially being a student film at first people’s walls really came down. Not only because of who I was and my dad, but also because it was a student short originally. So that was lovely that happened.

When that switch flips in the third act, it’s like almost feels like a whole different film and everybody’s so personable and that really pulls the viewers guard down too, speaking personally it definitely draws you in.

Yeah and it was so great to see and experience in person, like I know we are all filmmakers and we do this thing in the film industry, but we’re really all just human beings who have families and really diving in, especially David Kirshner, when he says, nobody asked him that question of what it was like being away from his daughters. My heart dropped in that interview because I was like, you’ve been doing this longer than I’ve been alive and nobody seemed to care. But I care so greatly because you know, that was the biggest thing in my childhood was missing my dad for so long. So it was so great to have these communal experiences with each other and actually talk about them and how that felt. It was just like a full circle moment of like, wow, when I was younger, I thought I had this isolated experience, but it was all the families involved.

How cool was it that my dad also felt so lonely, which we had never talked about before, and he had the second family that got to take care of him while he was away and vice versa of him with them. So it was so cool to experience that with them as well and talk about those things.

What is something you took from this experience that you didn’t expect, whether it be getting to know someone or appreciating a film in the franchise?

How hard it is to make a documentary! (laughs)

I mean, it’s so many things really. I mean, really that it has been, the same core group of people for over 35 years (Making Child’s Play films) and just the amount of care that goes into it. You know, they all talk about it, but really hearing everybody’s sides of just how much they put into this franchise, they’re so dedicated. It’s crazy. But the ultimate thing honestly, was my dad and I were already close and I consider him my best friend, but having these conversations about what my childhood was like and what it was like for him as a father was honestly the biggest revelation and bonded us together even closer than I didn’t think was possible. Also myself going into filmmaking and this being my first feature film and him being involved in it, it was such a big and special experience to kind of talk even more deeply about our relationship with each other.

You’ve already directed a few shorts and now this, your first feature. What do you have planned next? We can always use more women directors in horror.

Absolutely! More women everywhere. I’m currently writing my first narrative feature, which is horror and a period piece, which should be super fun. So I hope that that’s the next thing I dive into, and I have another friend’s script, that’s like a thriller, horror that I’m hoping to direct as well.

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