A Conversation with Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley (STRAWBERRY MANSION)
There were few films in the Sundance program this year that deserved a deep dive like Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s Strawberry Mansion, a film I reviewed as “the sort of quirky independent genre-hopping creative film that we go to film festivals for.” When the opportunity to score an interview with the writer/directors or the led actress Penny Fuller (All the President’s Men) I said ‘yes please.’ If your mind is still reeling from the insanity that is this simple SciFi of happy dystopia, I promise you, none of the answers may be found below. Twice.
Hammer to Nail: I love the setup of collecting taxes on dreams. So let’s talk about what the first image was when you came up with this idea. I guess I heard it was like eight years ago.
Albert Birney: Yeah. Yeah. It was a long time ago. I think the very first image was just an old country farmhouse just filled with VHS tapes. I think that just appeared in my brain one day and kind of like I guess what my dream would be is like to walk into this abandoned house and find all these tapes that were unlabeled and just feel this treasure trove of whatever they were. So that kind of was the image. And then it was like how to build a story around that. And pretty soon after that became like, “Well, these all belong to one old lady who lives here all alone and someone’s coming.” Why is this person coming? Originally, they were going to just be like just a normal kind of like tax person. And then it was like, “How do we combine what they are here for with these tapes?” And it was, I think, just trying to figure out how to build a story around that.
Hammer to Nail: And how did you know that Kentucker was the tax auditor? What about his mild manner made him the perfect receptacle for that?
AB: So I first emailed him an early draft in 2012 after never really having met and just…I think that a few things I’d seen him in, I just thought he would…
Kentucker Audley: What had you seen me in? Bad Fever?
AB: I guess just maybe Bad Fever at that point. I don’t know. I guess I just… Did I see anything else? Maybe Open Five too.
Hammer to Nail: Just talking to you. He was in front of your house with a video camera.
AB: Yeah. I didn’t want to tell you this, but I was outside your house for a few weeks.
AB: Or I loved Brazil when I was like 15 and I kind of like the Sam Lowery character who’s just like an everyman who kind of gets caught up in this grand adventure. So it was like someone like Kentucker felt like he could come to the house in a coat and tie and a briefcase and halfway through the movie just kind of get totally lost in this fantasy and have some fun with it.
KA: I was just boring enough that I could be an office worker who had no soul.
Hammer to Nail: Well, but I love that you come into it…You are a believer. I think that’s what makes it interesting. You don’t have any questions and you find love, and it’s sort of this unachievable love, because it’s a love with like a past person. So there’s all sorts of things playing in there to deal with.
KA: Yeah. I like that designation of a believer because that’s not necessarily on the surface what you would think, but I feel like that is who the character is… And I think he’s known all of this stuff that gets revealed to him for longer than we suggest in the movie. I think it just needs to be uncovered more than it is. I think when she tells him the sort of the unlocking things about his life and the connection between the government and the corporations, that it’s not something it actually is revealing to him as much as he’s just accepting it and he’s known it for longer than he’s allowing. And somebody comes into your life and allows you to break free from those ways of thinking. It’s just sort of like…That’s how I see it as a broader sort of symbol than just like ‘government is bad’ or ‘corporations are bad.’
Hammer to Nail: Yeah. If you’ll allow me, to me, it had a… For me, like a personal connection of that kind of jump that happens someone who’s queer, “Oh, I see. That’s why all this other stuff doesn’t make sense. Now understanding this one basic thing, now everything else falls into place.”
Hammer to Nail: And then you’re no longer able to see the world in the same way.
KA: Definitely. Love that.
Hammer to Nail: What was it like to play across from Penny? Because she’s so amazing. And I’m so… It feels weird to say that you’ve rediscovered a talent, but that was the promotional email I got like, “Reintroducing,” and I was like, “That’s really cool because she’s so talented.” And it was so neat to see her work. And I would assume as an actor, it would be so fun to play against.
KA: Yeah, it was a delight. I mean, she’s so fun to play off of and she’s a perfect actress for me to… And I’m sort of inherently low energy and deadpan and she brings out a lot of spark and a lot of like… it’s a fun combination of her sort of just this wild gesticulating presence and me just sort of sitting there looking around and I think it’s a nice match. And she just has this incredible youthful spirit. It’s a really surreal quality that she has. She feels like 40 years younger than she is and she’s just so… And she really feels like the character because it does feel like you’re interacting with a younger version of her as in real life, as you talk to her, it’s like there are two versions of her that are in the room. It’s a beautiful thing. I mean, we were so thrilled to find her.
AB: Yeah. And it’s a strange role because there’s, like when you read it, you’re not even totally sure exactly maybe how things are connecting or what’s going on. And she just kind of… She said it straight up like, “I’m not sure what is happening here or what this is,” but she still was like… We just said, “Well, maybe we don’t either, but just like your character knows more than anyone else. They’re the one.” And so she would just like turn that on. And it was totally believable that she knew exactly what’s happening, even though she and us probably were still trying to figure out exactly what was happening.
KA: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting thing that I think the movie works on those levels in general of like just don’t get too bogged down in the logic of it and in the sense of everything, it’s just sort of like you know something, you know something deeper than you can possibly communicate and just embody that. And I feel like that’s where the deep things come in. I feel like those… like the things that are beyond comprehension and just sort of imbued with this mystery. And if you don’t get too fixated on understanding everything, I feel like that’s where it gets really deep.
Hammer to Nail: Well, and I think it helps that her character is an artist and not just an artist, but an artist who works in several different media and she’s very confident about her art. I love her introduction because she’s like, “I do this, this and this and this.” And you can tell she’s approaching an understanding of the world from as many different angles as possible. And I think when you do that, even if looking at it from any one particular way doesn’t make sense, there’s an instinctual knowledge of what is gone and what is missing that she’s solved, I think.
KA: Definitely. I love that. I love that take.
Hammer to Nail: Albert, is that your dad in the film? [Bears Rebecca really does no research]
AB: Oh, that’s my uncle, actually.
Hammer to Nail: Your uncle. Okay. Yeah. He’s great. I got to tell you, I also just watched Mass (which I also reviewed)
AB: I did too. Yeah.
Hammer to Nail: Oh my God. That movie blew me the fuck away. I mean, to me, it’s like it was just a punch in the gut. It was so, so hard…
AB: It messed me up. I mean, in a good way. I mean, it’s the aftermath of a horrible thing and it’s not the kind of movie you’re like, “Yeah, I really want to watch this.” But it was… The end, it was all about like healing and forgiveness. And it was really a strong message. And I felt… I talked to that director. I met him last night in a virtual Sundance meeting room, Fran [Kranz]. And yeah, it’s a really beautiful movie and the four acting actors in it are so incredible. As someone who grew up watching Martha Plimpton and Goonies and Parenthood, as two of my favorite movies as a seven or eight-year -old, it was so cool just to see her again and just be floored by her.
Hammer to Nail: What’s it like to direct your uncle?
AB: Oh, it was fun. My whole life I’ve seen him in movies. My sister and I had a dubbed copy of Crimewave, which was Sam Raimi’s movie he directed in-between Evil Dead I and II, and it was written by the Coen Brothers. And as a kid, I had no idea who Sam Raimi or the Coen Brothers was, but my sister and I loved that movie. Reed [Birney, his uncle] plays like the lead role in it. And I think growing up watching your uncle in a movie probably put some kind of seed in my brain of like, “Oh, movies, you can make movies with people that you know.” So my whole life, I think I wanted to have him be in a movie and it was… Yeah. He said he was a little nervous of how it would go, if I would be able to do it. And honestly, I think he was the easiest one for me to, of all the different actors besides Kentucker, to just tell exactly what I wanted. I wasn’t afraid to just be like, “Reed, do it this way or try it a little different.” So yeah, it was fun. And then Reed’s wife and son, my aunt and cousin, are also in it, Connie and Ephraim. And I just, to me it’s… I’d want to put them in all our future movies.
Hammer to Nail: Yeah. It’s fun. So this is my last question because Emma [the press agent] is been really nice and letting me know we got to go. I was watching the movie with my wife, which is one of the best things about Sundance this year is that you get to share things, and I was talking with her about Sylvio and… because she hadn’t gotten to see that. There’s such a sensitivity in your films that I think is really rare for male writer/directors, the way that you approach love and the way that things can be simple and quiet and sad, yet hopeful. It’s nice to see it in SciFi. SciFi can be so dystopian. I guess, I’m just curious, when you sit down to write a script, how you approach love?
AB: I had an interesting thought about it. I don’t think this was the starting point, but I feel like this was… I think what we did then in this movie to a certain degree is let the audience inject their own love into it and just give you the space to sort of insert… So it’s like we lead you to the door and say like, “Okay, insert your love here. If you want to feel something, this is where you put it.”
Hammer to Nail: I love that. You’re leaving room for us.
AB: Yeah. Yeah. So, and if you feel that in your own life, it’s sort of like it’s kind of up to you how you respond to the movie. If you feel like you want to feel love in this moment, based on like the way that you go through your life and the love for the people you feel in your life, here’s where you can feel it. And I actually love the idea of inviting people to feel their own love in those moments, rather than like the sort of worried about putting it onto the characters as much. But so I don’t know exactly where it starts, but I feel like it starts with just allowing ourselves to just try to make sure that it’s filled with humanity and warmth and making sure that despite how hard life is and how skeptical we might be about some of these things that it’s not overwhelming in those regards. It’s like the overwhelming feeling is just sort of like grace and acceptance and allowing of life’s mysteries to kind of fill the air without being consumed by darkness.
Hammer to Nail: Yeah. That’s great. It reminds me of… It makes me think about in Sylvio with the puppet shows that he’s putting together, like because they have no words, it leaves so much room for the audience to bring in their own notions and, and see it through the lens of their own mood.
AB: Yeah, definitely.
– Bears Rebecca Fonté (@BearsFonte)