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LIVING WITH CHUCKY: Director Kyra Elise Gardner On Breathing Life Into Her Debut Documentary!

When it comes to director Kyra Elise Gardner, her passion for filmmaking is truly in the blood. As the daughter of special effects makeup artist Tony Gardner, how could she not?! Over the past few years, she has dedicated countless waking hours to carving her own unique path in the film industry. Her directorial debut, ‘Living with Chucky,’ takes a deep dive into the groundbreaking ‘Child’s Play’ franchise with the insights of those who were there from the beginning. Featuring interviews with cast and crew such as Brad Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, Alex Vincent, creator Don Mancini, and much more, this personal film recounts the dedication, creativity, and sacrifice that went into making the franchise and its long-lasting impact on the horror community. Additionally, the film explores Gardner’s own relationship with the series and the impact it had on her family.

Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Kyra Elise Gardner to discuss her journey as a filmmaker, bringing her vision for ‘Living With Chucky’ to life and the challenges she faced along the way!

You were born into a very creative family. Tell us a little about how you caught the big to pursue filmmaking and what drew you to the craft of storytelling.

That’s an excellent question! It’s interesting because when you’re growing up, you often find yourself saying, “I don’t want to be like my parents!” I initially didn’t think of filmmaking as a potential career for myself. However, I have always been drawn to the creative side of things, which led to me taking a lot of art classes and things like that in high school. However, my exposure to film was limited to the makeup world. Anytime I would visit my Dad or go to work with him, it was all centered around the makeup trailer and the world of the makeup itself. Although I have a big love of makeup and SFX makeup, I see the way my Dad is passionate about it and physically doing it, and I don’t feel the same way. I couldn’t do that for my entire life and be happy in the same way he is. So, my parents encouraged me to take a filmmaking class in my junior year of high school. I was very privileged that have parents that not only pushed me but could afford to send me to USC for a Summer to take a directing class. My Dad was like, “Don’t knock film entirely until you actually try it and learn that there is more to that world than makeup.” When I took my first directing class at USC, I fell in love with it. I thought, “Oh my God! You can get paid to do this for a living? That’s crazy!” [laughs] After that, I returned to high school, took A.V. classes, and then switched my major from nursing to filmmaking when applying to college, from nursing to filmmaking! I was fortunate that our film school had you learn everything so that kids unsure where they wanted to go could learn it all and decide from there. Many people decided on directing in their first semester but ended up switching to cinematography, audio, or editing. I kept on with directing because I loved it so much. I love that you get to have your hands in everything and get to be in charge! [laughs]

The origin of ‘Living With Chucky’ starts with a short film you made in college before you took it to the next level. Tell us a little about the evolution of the project.

In film school, the short had a limited running time of seven minutes because my film school obviously couldn’t let everyone do features for a semester! [laughs] So, the short film had to hone in on the personal aspect and family relationship due to the limited run time. In making the feature, it was nice that I could also make it a retrospective of the ‘Child’s Play’ franchise as well. I definitely didn’t intend to go film by film when I first started the endeavor. It just made sense to approach it chronologically through time and to be able to open the films up to people who maybe haven’t even seen a Chucky movie. That way, they get the history regardless and can follow along. You might learn something new even if you’ve only seen one Chucky movie and not all seven. I know many of the Chucky fans already know a lot of that stuff. Still, hopefully, it provides some deeper insight or stories they hadn’t heard before. That was the big difference and something I was really excited to be able to expand upon. So many people in the film had funny anecdotes from their experiences with the franchise. John Waters, for example, tells a story about how the puppeteers told him to “fuck off!” With the puppet! It was really funny and something you don’t see in behind-the-scenes interviews!

Shooting the interviews for this film allowed you to work with so many unique personalities from this amazing franchise and the world surrounding it. Who had the biggest impact on the story you were attempting to tell?

Oh my God! Without a doubt, Tony Timpone from Fangoria! I’ve told him this already, but he was the finishing glue on the entire movie. I say that because I did his interview late in the process when I had a rough cut. I knew what I needed, which was that historical perspective of somebody who has been there covering the movies as they have gone on. Tony had so much knowledge of all the films, allowing him to be an objective third-party source. That really helped everything come together and take shape. There was also a great interview with James Janisse of Dead Meat, a horror-themed YouTube Channel. He brought a lot of insight from other films that allowed me to have soundbites that would segue me into other conversations that ended up being so perfect!

Director Kyra Elise Gardner
‘Living With Chucky’ Director Kyra Elise Gardner

Bringing ‘Living With Chucky’ to life has encompassed several years of your life. Looking back at the process, what are the biggest obstacles you faced?

Oh God, so many challenges! Obviously, Covid was a big hurdle to overcome. I’m also dyslexic, and I tend to do things backward. So, I set out and started to film these interviews, building on what I had done for the short film in college. However, I had no money! So, I was like, “Okay, I’m just gonna go film this stuff!” You have to have a little bit of money, no matter how small of a project it might be, for your finishing funds and everything like that. I’m talking sound mixing, color grading, and all of the things in retrospect that I should’ve been thinking about before I set out to do it. As the saying goes, “It’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” It was that kind of situation where I thought, “Okay, I’m just going to go out and do this because I can. I have Adobe, and I’ll edit it, and it’ll be great!” I learned so much about editing in the process! [laughs]

To anyone doing documentary filmmaking, I was unfortunately led down the wrong pathways a few times by some people’s advice that was not good. Fair-use attorneys do exist in this field. That sounds obvious when you say it, but when you are a filmmaker, just out of college, you don’t have any of those connections. You don’t even know who you should ask to find that out! Getting an attorney and a lawyer seems daunting because you can’t afford it, but there are so many ways to complete it. For me, the biggest hoop was the I.P. of Chucky and all of the legalities I was dealing with for at least a year and a half of this project. Honestly, it was awful! [laughs]

One of my favorite elements in the film is the focus on the family connection, which ties the whole thing together so beautifully. The connection you have with your father is amazing. What do you feel he has brought out in you in a creative sense?

Oh goodness! That’s a good question. My Dad’s career is so fascinating, and I may make a documentary focused specifically on that. He often talks about when he first started out in the 80s. If nothing else, my Dad had audacity! He went into the yellow pages, found Rick Baker’s address, and then went and literally knocked on his door. That is the type of thing he did back in the day! I’m finding that I also have that “I’m just going to do it and get it done no matter what weird path I may have to take” kind of attitude. That’s exactly what I did with this film. I said, “Okay, I have this footage. I’m going to expand on it. I’m going to edit it myself in my bedroom during Covid.” My Dad’s origin story in the industry is the coolest thing. So, I’m finding more and more of these traits that we share In the way I’ve started out. My story isn’t as cool as breaking onto the lot at Universal with a fake E.T. Doll in a basket on a bike! [laughs]

Wow! That’s awesome! I can’t wait to see that documentary in the future! It sounds like he has plenty of stories to tell!

Yeah, exactly! [laughs]

What is the biggest thing you learned about yourself through bringing this film to life?

As an artist, you’re your own harshest critic. I’ve learned to let go of things that I don’t find perfect. Honestly, I could have spent even longer editing this documentary to make it exactly what I wanted. With that said, you could spend forever on any project and never get it to a point where you are totally happy with it. Once you’ve finished a project, you’ve already learned so much about the film and yourself that you would do it differently when you look back on it. I’ve learned to be kinder to myself and take joy in the mistakes because they often open doors to things you wouldn’t have thought about if you hadn’t made that mistake.

With ‘Living With Chucky’ just days away from hitting VOD and streaming, we can focus on the next chapter of your story. What are you looking for in the material you take on these days?

I’ve been slowly realizing that I love fantasy films, even if it’s fantasy horror or anything like that. I’m not a realist! [laughs] I’m not someone who is going to make realism films or something harsh and gritty. What I’m looking for in a project is a story that tells realistic stories in a fantastic way and allows us to escape our reality for an hour and a half!

I know our time is short, so I have one more question for you. You can serve as an inspiration for a lot of people. So, what is the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?

Oh gosh! An inspiration?! I don’t know if I would call myself that but thank you. I’m just thinking of what I would tell 20-year-old me that was starting out.

That’s a great way to put it!

Yeah, I can frame it better that way. Sorry, my brain works weirdly! [laughs] I think it’s as simple as “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” If you want it bad enough, there is always a workaround to something. Even legally, there is always a loophole to something. You think somebody is out of your reach, and you can’t get in touch with them. I swear to God that you can do it. For example, I posted a thing on my Instagram story about my love for James Wan’s “Dead Silence.” He saw it, and we had a conversation on Instagram about the film. There are so many avenues available today that allow you to do things you couldn’t have done back in the day. Also, it’s okay to ask for help. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to know everything and don’t need to put up that facade. When I started breaking down those walls and asking questions of my producer friends or DMing people to ask, “How did you do this? What is this paperwork? I don’t know what this means.” After that, everything finally came together. Even in the beginning, we all have egos because we have to in order to survive in this industry. At the same time, you have to set it aside at points and say, “Okay, I don’t know what I’m doing.” Just look at everything as a learning opportunity. Look at every obstacle not as “Why is this happening to me?” but as “What can I learn from this?” Everything that happens to you now will help you on all of your projects down the road.

I love your perspective, and I know it will take you very far. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you. In the meantime, I’m out here rooting for you!

Aww, thank you so much! Thank you so much for checking out the documentary. Take care!

Through the magic of technology, you can now follow the continuing adventures of Kyra Elise Gardner via social media! Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram. Check out the trailer for her amazing documentary, ‘Living With Chucky,’ below and mark your calendar for its April 4th, 2023 release date!