Kyra Gardner fondly remembers scaring the living daylights out of her childhood friends. Rather than princess-themed birthday parties, this October baby opted for Halloween-inspired gatherings that always featured her red-haired, overall-clad “little older brother.” As the daughter of puppeteer and special effects master Tony Gardner, who joined Don Mancini’s Child’s Play franchise in 2004 for Seed of Chucky, Kyra wasn’t phased by the possessed Good Guy… or the fake body parts often strewn about the Gardner household. In fact, her upbringing was so unique that she decided to create the documentary, Living with Chucky.
This project is a feature-length version of 2017’s seven-minute short, The Dollhouse, which Kyra made for a college film class. While The Dollhouse includes a handful of interviews with Mancini, Brad and Fiona Dourif, and producer David Kirschner, Living with Chucky features added conversations with Jennifer Tilly, Alex Vincent (our interview) and more, all detailing what it’s like to be part of the franchise family. There have been many roadblocks—including a certain global health emergency—in getting the film finished. But the documentary is finally slated to premiere on August 13, 2022, at Popcorn Frights Film Festival in South Florida, followed by London FrightFest on August 29th.
During our recent interview, Kyra couldn’t contain her excitement. She could only compare it to that fire drill scene in The Office, where Michael Scott (Steve Carell) exclaims, “Oh my God! Okay, it’s happening. Everybody stay calm!” Read on for more about Kyra creating her inaugural documentary from her bedroom, the overwhelming support from the Child’s Play fandom and, of course, how it felt to see her dad decapitated by Chucky and Tiff.
PopHorror: Living with Chucky is finally premiering next month! How are you feeling about everything?
Kyra Gardner: (squeals) It’s nice to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you thought the tunnel no longer existed. It’s just been such a long process and such a big learning process, as well. I didn’t have a whole team behind this. I was just the person who had eight hours of footage and was like, “Let me expand on making the short film I did into a feature.” I was like, “I can do it on my own,” and that was a terrible idea. I produced it, directed it, and then I couldn’t afford an editor, so now I’m a feature film editor! My imposter syndrome is kicking in already, but that’s okay.
PopHorror: There’s a ton of buzz among the fans!
Kyra Gardner: It’s so nice to see that they’re excited. I’m excited for them, that everything is in one place. Eli Roth’s History of Horror did an episode on haunted dolls and people have sat down for it. But there’s never been something that’s solely just Chucky for two hours. I hope that they’re excited that it’s all in one place and their one-stop-shop for Chucky.
I also tried to be really inclusive of people who saw it on a streaming service like Shutter or Netflix but might not know as much about Chucky, but wanted to learn more. I’m sure some Chucky fans will go into it thinking, “I knew some of this already.” But I wanted to include the people who might be giving it a try for the first time.
PopHorror: And I feel like the timing is really cool. Season 2 of Chucky comes out less than two months after the documentary.
Kyra Gardner: It’s a quick turnaround time, too. They film until late August, and then the first episode comes out October 5th, which is insane. But it’s good timing. I feel very lucky, because when I did the short version of this in film school, it was coming out the same year that Cult of Chucky released. So it got to open at the premieres in London and Canada, and now it’s just kept going as I’ve kept going. It’s so nice that I feel included.
PopHorror: Tell me more about The Dollhouse and the decision to expand it to a feature-length documentary.
Kyra Gardner: I went to Florida State University for film, and it seems like they’re one of the few film programs that actually teach Documentary. It’s so funny because I was like, “Oh my God, do we really have to do a semester on documentaries? I hate them so much!” Now I’m only in the documentary world.
I originally intended to do it on my dad because of the odd things I had growing up that nobody else seems to have. Nobody else came home to dead body parts in their living room, apparently. A teacher of mine was like, “You refer to Chucky as your ‘little older brother.’ That seems really interesting. I’d pay to watch that.” It seemed like a more specific facet of my dad’s career. Don Mancini, Fiona and Brad, and David Kirschner were really the only people involved. It was such a nice experience, because I had never met Don Mancini, but his name has been part of conversation since before I existed. It was this weird, nice moment of finally getting to meet extended family. It was almost like meeting your cousins that you never got to meet.
I had eight hours of footage, because everybody gave such in-depth answers. My film school had a time limit of seven minutes, so I was like, “This is insane.” I did my best to try and condense it so it focused more on the familial aspect and the franchise itself. NBC Universal ended up wanting it, and they bought it—I didn’t make any money—and distributed it on the Cult of Chucky DVD and box set bonus features, which was really exciting. I was 19 at the time.
I still had the rest of college to go, but it was honestly the fans that made me want to turn it into a feature. Everybody had such wonderful notes or critiques, and the main critique was, “Why is this only seven minutes?” And I agreed. It was way too short to cover 30 years of family-ness. Alex Vincent lives in Florida where my school was, so I drove down to him on a weekend. And then Jennifer Tilly was doing a red carpet, and she was all made up, so I interviewed her. Then I finished film school and interviewed the people who are out here in LA like Billy Boyd and Christine Elise (our interview). And then COVID hit, so yay, that kind of put a hold on things.
PopHorror: From the original seven minutes, what’s the run-time now?
Kyra Gardner: An hour and 41-42 minutes, which was very daunting for somebody who has ADHD and dyslexia to edit a whole feature film. Some people were like, “When’s this gonna be out?” And I was like, “I don’t think you know how long it takes.” I had a ghost editor come on and polish it up at the end, which was really lovely. But I edited a movie in my bedroom. It was such a big learning process. And I think documentaries are so different than narrative. There’s different hoops to jump through that I was less familiar with.
PopHorror: What’s been your dad’s reaction to Living with Chucky?
Kyra Gardner: He’s in Toronto [filming Chucky season 2] right now, but I texted him when I got into Fright Fest, and he texted me back, “I’m crying right now, I’m so happy.” My dad is my best friend. I will kill somebody for him. He’s been my number 1 supporter since day one, helping and offering advice. I’m so lucky and privileged to have somebody in the industry who can answer questions. But he’s in makeup, so it’s not like he knows how to get a movie sold or what the post-production process is. I think it’s been really cool for him to see me just figuring it out and sticking with it until the bitter end, because he’s watched my mental health just decline while trying to sort it all out. He’s gonna come down from Toronto for the weekend for Popcorn Frights. It’s so exciting that he’s gonna be there with me for the first premiere six years after the short film version of this existed.
PopHorror: When exactly did your dad join the Child’s Play franchise?
Kyra Gardner: He came on for Seed. It came out in 2004, which I would’ve been potentially part 6. It’s just been my life since then. My dad has obviously worked on other franchises, but this is the biggest. I’m also an October baby, so all my birthday parties growing up were Halloween-themed, and Chucky would be at every one and scare the shit out of my friends. It’s all I’ve really known. We would make these crazy mazes for Halloween at my cousin’s house every year. I would try and do that at my birthday parties. I would have these tunnels in my living room, and Chucky would be at the end of it. Some people cried and that’s okay. I don’t take responsibility for that, though.
PopHorror: That’s definitely not your problem!
Kyra Gardner: If you can’t handle it when you’re 7, get out, you know?
PopHorror: I didn’t realize that it’s your dad who gets decapitated in Seed! Were you allowed to watch that?
Kyra Gardner: No! I wasn’t allowed to watch any of the Chucky movies. But I was a very spiteful child, so I saw a Seed of Chucky DVD when I was like 8. I snuck it to my friend’s birthday party. My dad never explained to me that he was in it. We stick it in the DVD player, and all of the sudden, my dad is on screen and everybody’s head turns to me. I’m only 8, so I’m like, “How did he get there?” Before I could even process that my dad’s in a movie, next thing I know, his head is getting decapitated, and I’ve lost my shit, immediately crying and hyperventilating. I didn’t have a cell phone, so I was in tears begging my friend’s mom if I could use the landline to call my parents. Safe to say, my dad had to come pick me up from the sleepover. I didn’t get in trouble, though. I think I was too traumatized to get in trouble for sneaking it. It took me a while to be fine after that, but I was absolutely just beside myself.
PopHorror: As someone who grew up surrounded by Chucky, how does it feel to see the franchise continue to grow and evolve?
Kyra Gardner: It’s cool to see that it’s a bit different from Freddy and Jason. I want to watch the new Halloween, but I’m so confused on where we’re at in the timeline. With Chucky, it’s one continuous timeline, really. We pick up where we left off, which is nice. And I love that the TV show is able to bring it to Gen Z, who didn’t grow up sneaking DVDs to friends’ houses, while still keeping older fans satisfied by having Jennifer Tilly, Andy, and Kyle come back. This has been Don Mancini’s baby forever. He wrote the first script at my age. He has the opportunity to just play for hour-long episodes, to really take it to different pathways that he wouldn’t have if they just kept it in the movie format.
PopHorror: What was the reaction of Don, Jennifer, and the others to Living with Chucky?
Kyra Gardner: Everybody seemed so happy. That’s also what motivated me to make a feature-length, because everybody was just so excited to see what they said about each other and really have a light shone on how much of a family it is. That’s not what you’re gonna get in a typical behind-the-scenes interview or making-of, six-minute YouTube video that Universal puts out.
Alex and Christine, their email responses from watching the documentary were so lovely. Alex was like, “It brought me to tears. This is something that’s been so near and dear to me my whole life, and you just put it together so well.” I feel like I’m doing them justice, because I’ve just seen my dad’s side of this for the entirety of my life and how much effort and work he put into it. I’m happy that there’s a love letter to everybody’s effort, and how long they’ve kept up with it, and are still so invested in it and care. And the fact that the fans care, too, for so long… it’s just so lovely. Having them enjoy what I’ve put together for them… it makes my heart so full.
PopHorror: Can you share some details about your interview with Brad Dourif?
Kyra Gardner: He and Fiona did their interview together, and he’s a genius. Because COVID made things such a problem and Brad’s so much older and lives in New York, some of the interviews are from a few years ago. But I honestly didn’t want to redo them, because there’s no way I could get some of these answers twice. It was so organic. I had to make that choice as a filmmaker. Do I redo it with a better camera for a few of these? No, because you’re not gonna get Brad being so candid about certain things.
He talks about what it’s like to act as a serial killer, and it’s just so inspiring to see how he feels about it, and also him as a person. He’s a huge video game nerd, loves doing voiceover stuff for video games and computers, and playing with them and building them, which I never would’ve thought of. And he was so kind to fly out for it because Fiona lives in LA. It was so sweet that he cared as much as I was invested in making it.
PopHorror: After the festival circuit, what are your plans for Living with Chucky?
Kyra Gardner: The goal would be to get this on a streaming service for Chucky fans all over to have access to it, because this is who it’s for. Shudder would be such a great home for it, because there’s already so many horror nerds who subscribe to Shudder. I’m definitely new to how the distribution process goes, so it’s taking some time. I’m working on trying to get a distribution deal so that everybody can have a chance to see it.
I’m also writing my first feature narrative horror script, so I’ll be shooting that next. I’m trying to get out of the documentary world. Because of this documentary, I got hired to make a making-of documentary on the Foo Fighters movie that came out in February, Studio 666, so that’s been fun. But I’m like, “Bye, documentaries!”
PopHorror: Do you see yourself continuing to focus on the horror genre moving forward?
Kyra Gardner: Definitely. I was the kid that, if you were coming over to my house in high school, we were watching a horror movie. There was no ifs, ands, or buts. It’s the genre that I’m most passionate about. I’ll watch a drama, and I won’t really have anything to say on it. But when I watch a horror movie, I’m like, “I would’ve changed this. Why did they do that?” As a director, I’m way more interested in that genre.
And I love things that have heavy practical special effects or like a Guillermo del Toro-type of vibe with crazy prosthetics, but you have little VFXs to enhance what’s already there. I love getting to make things that are real these days, because so much seems to be completely CGI. But I also wouldn’t mind diving into stuff that’s set around Halloween. We have no more modern Halloween-time movies. When fall starts, everybody watches Hocus Pocus, The Addams Family, and all the ’90s movies.
PopHorror: Well, I can’t wait to see what you come up with beyond the world of Chucky!
Kyra Gardner: When I made the short documentary, that’s what I was known for at the time. I was like, “I don’t wanna be the Chucky girl. I want to branch out.” I think when you’re handed a certain deck of cards, just being born to what you’re born to, you need to play them. Obviously, I don’t want to be known for just doing stuff related to Chucky, but I used to be so upset about it. I think I am ultimately embracing making things about it, and involving it in my life has been so much fun and rewarding. I’m glad that I didn’t stick to having a negative mindset about it.
Be sure to check out Living with Chucky at Popcorn Frights Film Fest or London FrightFest!