Living With Chucky Director Welcomes Fans Into Chucky’s Bloody Family
Living with Chucky director Kyra Elise Gardner discusses what it's like to grow up alongside a horror icon.
Many horror fans say they grew up with Chucky, but none can claim a connection to the slashing doll quite like filmmaker Kyra Elise Gardner. As the daughter of special effects legend Tony Gardner – who helped bring Chucky to life countless times – she experienced Chucky’s evolution at home. Not every four-year-old can say Chucky was waiting for them after kindergarten class!
Since Seed of Chucky, Tony Gardner has been the head puppeteer of our favorite pint-sized murderer, giving Kyra Elise Gardner some killer memories of her father’s meticulous design work and puppeteering. Now, Gardner describes Chucky as “a little brother,” who travels with her to film festivals or watches her from the corner of the room during interviews like the creepiest (and best) “stuffed animal.” But her bond to the doll and its connection to her family has shifted over time, inspiring her to craft a documentary about the experience, Living with Chucky.
“When I was younger, these were always just things that took my dad away from home for a very long time,” Gardner says during an interview with Den of Geek at Fantastic Fest. “It and I felt very separate.”
Those who work on films know this tune quite well: It’s difficult to balance 18-hour days on set with spending time with family. Budgets are king – constricting time off, availability, and resources. Home can feel incredibly far away. At the same time, the people you work with on-set do become a kind of family. For years, Gardner has dedicated her directorial vision to exploring Chucky’s cultural impact and her connection to him. When chatting with Gardner, we discussed how it felt to interview her father’s Chucky set family and the process of gifting the Good Guy doll with his first (and well-deserved) documentary film.
What started as a short film assignment for college – then titled The Dollhouse – soon evolved into a 100-minute runtime, taking the viewer on a behind-the-scenes journey of each film entry in the horror franchise. Fittingly for a film focused on Chucky’s design, the documentary has a tactile feel to it. A hand even comes on-screen and inserts each VHS tape (or DVD when we get there) to signal the start of a new film discussion.
When asked about this structural choice, Gardner replies, “It was found during editing. I didn’t intend to go film by film… I was obsessed with the Ted Bundy Tapes that came out on Netflix. They have an amazing intro with the tape recorder, so it inspired me. I was like, ‘Oh, well, maybe these VHS to DVD tapes can serve as a visual break as we go through the films and also demonstrate how long it’s been.’”
Her approach led to the documentary’s stunning animation sequence. “The animator is this amazing illustrator that Jennifer Tilly really loves Lucas David,” she says. “It was an homage to Child’s Play 2 because the walls are pink… Once that came together, it was like, ‘We’ll talk about the history of [each] film, how people felt about it and working together, this family that forged, and then introduce the family it was taking away from, but then how it all comes back together at the end to a bigger family made in the process.”
Mostly, Gardner stays behind the camera in the documentary. But there are moments when she speaks or stands in front of it.
“It was definitely hard,” the director says of finding the right balance for her appearances. “In one of our first cuts, we knew that I was the filmmaker setting off to make this thing from the get-go. But then it proved difficult because my dad came in during Seed of Chucky. So then we got this chunk where I disappeared and my dad still wasn’t involved in the franchise yet. So that made that structure a little bit difficult to pepper me in more throughout. So then it was like, ‘Okay, how do we make this work?’”
Gardner continues, “If there were questions where maybe somebody didn’t repeat the question in their answer or was a little vague, I definitely wanted to include me asking them that question. Or when Billy Boyd forgets who Glen killed in Seed of Chucky and couldn’t name John Waters, so he just made some mustache [gesture], you have to cut out for some context.”
One of the most surprising facts that pop up in the documentary is the vast difference in budgeting for Chucky’s design. Kevin Yagher’s budget for building Chucky in Child’s Play was the entire budget for Curse of Chucky. Logistically, that shifted a lot about how the doll would look.
“You don’t want to make anybody feel bad,” Gardner says. “Obviously, there was a switch in puppeteer work and Kevin did an amazing job and is still close with Don Mancini. But it needed to be addressed. I don’t think people usually talk about the behind-the-scenes stuff in interviews. I was like, ‘Here’s my opportunity to do it and hopefully in a polite way of where it really came down to money.’ They sliced the budget and Kevin had some issues with that. My dad looking back at it is like, ‘I was overly ambitious because that was not enough money to do three puppets.’”
Throughout the decades, Chucky’s look has changed and been built on “consistently lower and lower budgets.” According to Gardner, Universal didn’t imagine a future for the franchise after Seed of Chucky’s poor box office performance. Again, they threw away the molds for Chucky, leaving Gardner’s father to have to make Chucky from scratch once more.
“Some of the Chucky fans really care about Chucky’s look. They’re like, ‘Why is the doll looking different from Bride of Chucky to Seed of Chucky? Hopefully, this will explain that because my dad literally had to pause VHS tapes and take a picture of it and make a whole sculpt just off of that! He had no point of reference at all. I didn’t know this because my dad didn’t mention it in his interview (which I’m annoyed with, so it’s not in the documentary).”
She also gives some insight into why Chucky should look different in Curse of Chucky. “I don’t think people take into account that Chucky in Curse of Chucky is disguising himself because his face is scarred,” she said. “His face does look a little weird in the beginning, but it’s motivated.”
As the documentary continues, gorgeous parallelism emerges between Gardner and Fiona Dourif. Both of their fathers are integral to Chucky’s creation, with Fiona’s father Brad providing the voice of Chucky through seven films.
“Yes, Brad Dourif is Chucky. But to me, my dad is also Chucky because the doll’s performance is half the battle. It takes seven people and one of those people is my dad… I didn’t realize how much I think of my dad as Chucky until these conversations. But really, the thing I realized in my conversation with Brad and Fiona was that Fiona was around my age back when Brad did the first Child’s Play. It was like, ‘Wow, we really did have similar experiences.’ She was six and went into the voiceover booth and saw her dad screaming that he was being burned alive… My first vivid memory is similar. I watched my dad also die on-screen in Seed of Chucky. We had very similar experiences growing up but like 20 years apart.” Due to this, at a young age, Chucky used to give Gardner nightmares.
The most charming part about Living With Chucky is hearing the franchise’s cast and crew open up, joke, and celebrate their connection to Chucky and his homicidal family. Hearing John Waters state that Glen looks like a boy he’d date is delightful.
“When John Waters says his first line and is like, ‘Bride of Chucky added sex to horror. We didn’t see that before.’ I was so trying not to laugh in that interview,” Gardner says. “We had to cut out a giggle of mine because it was just too hilarious… I always laugh when Alex Vincent is like, ‘I don’t think of Chucky as my brother. I think of him as an old dog that you’ve had forever. You love him, but he still shits on your floor.’”
After spending years writing, directing, and editing Living With Chucky, Gardner found what she was searching for with this documentary. What did these two interconnected families have to say to each other? Was she surprised at how it feels now to be done with this project?
“Through these conversations, I realized producer David Kirschner is also a dad with two daughters,” she said. “Skyping didn’t exist in the 80s. He felt very separated from his family too. It was so lovely to feel connected to and finally meet everybody.”
“When I did the short version of this film, it opened for Cult of Chucky. I experienced having my film played before a Chucky film, and then seeing Cult of Chucky in the theater and experiencing it with Don Mancini, Fiona Dourif, and Jennifer Tilly, and it was like, ‘Wow, I feel really involved in this thing now.’ I’m so grateful that these people are who they are and have been a second family to everybody while they’re away from their own. That’s really what I got out of it. It’s like, ‘Ok, this was hard. But my dad had somebody to lean on – and continues to because it’s still going on. But now I get to be involved in it and around it. It’s so special.”
Chucky continues to slash through our hearts with SyFy’s latest hit series, Chucky, which returned to the small screen on October 5. No release date has been set yet for Living With Chucky, but based on its bloody love letter to our four-foot killer, don’t be surprised if this gem is picked up very soon.