Tony Gardner is one of the premiere FX artists in horror. His career stretches from operating the cat Binx in the seasonal favorite Hocus Pocus, to building the equally iconic half-corpse in Return of the Living Dead, to Lost Boys, to Aliens and more. Since Seed of Chucky, he’s been at the center of the Child’s Play franchise, creating the dolls for that film as well as Curse of Chucky and now Cult of Chucky. Gardner has even stepped in as a producer for the new sequel.
We talked with Gardner recently about the process of creating the great—and varied—new looks for Chucky in the film, as well as what fans can expect and so much more.
Cult of Chucky is now available. Be warned. The interview will go into some mild spoilers.
Wicked Horror: One of my favorite things about this franchise is that each movie feels completely different from the one before it. Cult definitely continues this trend. When did Don Mancini first approach you with the idea and what was your initial reaction?
Tony Gardner: He actually had a couple of idea right while we were finishing Curse. And this was one of them. They were all equally cool, they were all standalone films that were almost completely different genre homages, in a way. They were all so exciting, but the idea of an insane asylum just opened so many doors to what’s really happening and what’s going on in people’s minds. So I was very excited and hoping he would go down that road and obviously I’m glad that he did.
WH: What was the experience like stepping into a producer role for this one?
Gardner: You know, I kind of feel like I’ve been part of financial management on the last two films. Just making sure things happen on time & on budget, and making sure all the time on set is maximized. It’s just a larger extension of what we do with the animatronic character himself. It was just sort of an expansion of a job that already existed for me. It’s nice being there from the beginning when things are being scripted. Just planning out what’s possible and what’s not, what’s not too time consuming, what’s financially possible and if there are ways to go around some of the financial restrictions.
Offering up alternate options, whether it be digital or otherwise, to pull of a sequence that we had in mind, like the finale with the three characters. It’s really just being part of the organization of everything from the beginning.
Gardner: A fair bit. I think that’s why I got pulled in right off the bat, because we had to figure out how to make it work with a limited number of shoot days. This was a very complicated story that Don wanted to tell with a lot of different characters and what could essentially have been its own 2nd unit. How do you integrate that into 1st unit as much as possible so that it’s cohesive? I think any time someone comes in with that much of a large-scope idea and that much drive and enthusiasm, you have to support that.
WH: And Chucky himself in this one, well…
WH: Yeah, I was gonna say. He looks very similar to the first few movies in terms of that overall look, going back to the early days of the franchise. How hard did you work on that?
Gardner: That was sort of my obsession, to be honest with you. You go back to the beginning and have the chance to start over, literally. The focus was really Child’s Play 2 more than the first one, because of some of the design and aesthetic changes. He’s gone through such a transformation starting with Bride in particular. When we got into Curse, I was really taking Don’s concept of “Chucky has a Good Guy face stretched over his own.” I took that literally and I think trying to do that weird plastic surgery look didn’t really thrill people. Lesson learned on my end, obviously. So I really, really wanted to make sure that the Good Guy doll was back to its original proportions of the first few films. Size of the hands, everything.
There were some concessions made due to the aesthetics of the set, with everything being so white and washed out. Don really wanted the hair to pop more on camera in a more contrasted way. So it’s a little more orange as opposed to orange-brown than it was in the first film. There was no luxury of him going from a Good Guy doll to a more human doll, where he’s becoming more of a human being and his eyebrows are getting hairy. This one had to go back and forth from a Good Guy doll to a fully animated one, but one who is capable of conveying extremely evil expressions. There’s a bit of a bag under the eye to give him a look that’s a little more like Brad Dourif. It gives a little more of that evil character and at the same time helps us mechanically as well.
WH: It really does look great in the film.
Gardner: Oh, thank you.
WH: In general, with this being such a rapidly changing industry, how would you say the effects have evolved over time in this franchise?
Gardner: I think the best advancement has been everyone willing to be open to digital enhancement. We can do rod puppeting on certain scenes and eliminate a rod or a puppeteer out of the frame, as opposed to limiting how he’s framed, so that you can cut somebody out of the shot. We’re able to do that now and it really opens up the door for more articulation and faster shooting time. It takes so much less time to set up a shot. People’s willingness to embrace that technology is a help for us and it has really made a difference in the last two films.
We used it very sparingly in Curse of Chucky, just things like when his head pops off and his body stands up. A couple of things where you’re seeing him full-frame in the shot. We were on a practical floor, so we couldn’t be underneath it or do anything other than rods or marrionetting. Doing that to a minor degree on that film really opened up everybody’s eyes to how it could be used on this one. And when we get to the scene at the end where we have three characters going and we have green suits or green rods, it’s really been a huge asset for us.
WH: You kind of touched on this a little bit in terms of being a producer, but with there being so much FX work in Cult of Chucky, was there ever anything you didn’t think that you’d be able to pull off?
Gardner: I think what made it nice for me on Cult is that we had Adrien Morot on makeup effects and then we had Doug Morrow doing the applications in the FX shop, so we had people that we knew were solid and easy to work with handling most of the blood and guts. Sometimes there’s a real overlap. We knew we’d have our hands full with all the multiple versions of him, shooting out of continuity, and then that whole finale sequence in the office. We had a lot on our plate with just the dolls alone, so having those people on the makeup effects was a huge peace of mind for me.
WH: Going back a little bit, how familiar were you with the franchise before you came on board with Seed?
Gardner: Oh, I was super familiar with it. When the first one had come out, I remember thinking “A killer doll, I don’t know…” But I remembered the Karen Black movie called Trilogy of Terror, with the little doll with the knife, and that was a really great idea. I was excited to see how suspenseful it was and how much of a story there was in the first one. I’ve watched all of them since. And then when David Kirshner was going to Universal to pitch Bride of Chucky, we had just worked with him on Hocus Pocus. He asked if we could do a display that he could take in to pitch them the idea for the movie. He brought in all these sketches he had done of Tiffany and asked us to build a Chucky doll holding Tiffany, sort of standing on a threshold for a wedding, a display to put in the room while he pitched the film to the producers.
So that was my first experience with who these characters were and what they were about. I really enjoyed that short experience, so when Seed came about and they asked me if I would be interested in manufacturing the dolls—even though they came to me three months before it had to ship—I was excited. I don’t know what I was thinking, but yeah. I really loved the franchise and admired what David and Don and Kevin Yagher had been able to achieve. I think going in blind was really good too, because I didn’t have any idea how complicated it would be to have three characters talking, having conversations and arguments and throwing things at each other.
WH: Yeah, I mean, that’s the one movie in the franchise where they’re in it more than the human characters.
Gardner: Yeah, and having conversations! Having to figure out the eye lines of a puppet, and we did that all through the floor. All of it. All the controllers, the sets were all six feet off the ground, and we were all underneath it looking at monitors. It was a very new experience and very stressful, but very enjoyable.
WH: In general, you’ve had an insane, insane career. From Aliens to Return of the Living Dead and Lost Boys and so many more. Do you think you’d even be able to single out an effect you would say you’re most proud of?
Gardner: Boy. A lot of times, in those films from the eighties and nineties, they were the first times for me doing those things. Darkman was the first time I did an overlying prosthetic appliance makeup. It was exciting because it was new and it was challenging. I think that holds true for all of them in general, especially in regards to the ones I like the most. I think I would probably go back to Return of the Living Dead and the half-corpse. That’s something that I’m super proud of. I’d been hired fresh out of college to work on Michael Jackson’s Thriller for Rick Baker.
Through happenstance, within a few months of that, I was asked to build this animatronic half-body. And I’d never done anything animatronic before in my life, ever. I had Bill Sturgeon over at Rick’s, who was an amazing mechanical designer, help with the hands. I did the head myself and I took it on set and was able to operate and puppeteer it on set. It’s a really exciting experience to be able to follow something all the way through and have it succeed as well as it did.
WH: That effect is still incredible. It still looks so lively. And Cult of Chucky is incredible work too. You really knocked it out of the park with this one.
Gardner: Thank you, I stressed about it. I really wanted to be true to the whole canon and the fans. I really reached out to the fan base for feedback and tried to incorporate them in what we were doing. We had Garrett Zima as our historian for what we were doing. He had an original doll from the second or third installment, access to great reference material for us. He was also helpful for feedback.
We put it out to different Facebook pages and groups and people would be in contact with us a lot, asking questions or whatever. So we started asking them questions about things and getting that feedback and a sense of right and wrong within this world. And I hope we did it justice for the fan base because that’s what this one is really all about.