Baltimore Strawberry Mansion
Strawberry Mansion, directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley.

Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley are the co-writers and co-directors of Strawberry Mansion, which premiered in the Sundance NEXT category. Strawberry Mansion, their follow up to 2017’s Sylvio, continues the duo’s love of tactile masks and a palpable sense of adventure. MovieMaker caught up with Birney and Audley to chat about the ’80s influences of Strawberry Mansion.

Albert Birney: There’s a lot of VHS in the movie. We are very much inspired and influenced by all the VHS tapes that were around us as children going into a video rental store. Even before Blockbuster was really too big, there were the little smaller ones in the town I lived. You’d go in there and every aisle had its own magic. There were the comedies that you loved. And then as you get a little bit older, you veer off into the sci-fi and the horror, and those ones were especially inspirational in terms of world building and creating these far off planets and realms for Strawberry Mansion.

That feeling of being young and knowing that behind every tape is a whole other world that you could possibly enter into if you rent it and bring it home, we were trying to channel that feeling and put it into a movie.

Kentucker Audley: I worry that without that physical experience of moving through the video store, picking something up, with that tactile physical element — whether movies are still as special without that. With a rental store you only get one, maybe two at the most, and you can’t just stop the movie and start something else like you can if you’re browsing on a screen. You have to go all the way back to the video store, which is not going to happen with mom and dad.

Movies are so special to us in that way, but the process of renting a movie was just as special as the movie, and it gave more gravity to the experience.

Strawberry Mansion Albert Birney Kentucker Audley

Strawberry Mansion directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley next to a mound of VHS tape

The Influences

Birney: These are the three that I watched over and over again, as a kid, so they just wedged themselves in there. The Neverending Story, Labyrinth, and then The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

Albert Birney: The first time I saw it, my friend just kind of put it on. I didn’t know what it was. This was before you knew who directors were. You were just a kid watching movies, you didn’t know that there was a person behind it necessarily. So I had no idea who Terry Gilliam was, or that he was part of Monty Python, or any of that. It was just this strange movie where it felt so unusual and unlike any other movie.

I think a lot of the ship elements from Strawberry Mansion probably come from that. Baron has a huge airship. There are these great images of this ship against the sunset. The way that that movie takes you to so many different locations, and there’s so many different characters that pop up, and you get them for a few scenes, and then they go away and then come back later — that definitely feels like a influence on Strawberry Mansion.

When I think about Baron Munchausen, I also think about all of the painted backgrounds and the matte paintings. We haven’t really explored that too much in our own filmmaking, but would love to try to do that for the next film — create these endless hills and sunsets that are all painted and look really beautiful and realistic, but there is that element where you know it’s not quite real. But it helps create that fairy tale or fantasy landscape.

I have a friend who says, as a whole Baron Munchausen is a lot to take in. But if you put on any 10 minute stretch of the movie, it’s the best movie of all time. If you just watch 10 minutes out of nowhere, no context and turn it off, it’s like “Wow, this is incredible.”

Audley: When I watched it as a kid, it felt completely incoherent and I had no idea what I was watching. But it was a valuable experienc. eI think that’s a valuable thing to be lost in a movie and try to be peeling back the layers and to figure out where you’re at and what’s going on. So many movies now are so transparent about what they are, and there’s no mystery or no searching for what’s going on.

The NeverEnding Story (1984) and Labyrinth (1986)

Neverending Story Strawberry Mansion Kentucker Audley Albert Birney

Birney: The Neverending Story — that was the one that I could just watch over and over again. That and Labyrinth. They both have a lead character who is a child or a young teenager who gets sucked into this other world, this journey, that they’re not entirely sure they should be on.

James Preble, Our main character in Strawberry Mansion, is just an ordinary government worker who gets sucked into this other world and kind of embraces it, but he’s always trying to get back to the way things were. But all three of these movies are just so visually stimulating and there’s so many characters that feel like they’re real. The NeverEnding Story has Falkor that huge flying dog creature, and even though it’s this fantastic puppet, there’s so much heart there.

With all three of these movies there’s definitely moments of danger or it veers into this other territory where the hero’s horse dies. And as a kid, you’re like, “Whoah, the main hero’s horse died. This is a serious journey we’re on here. This isn’t like a kid’s movie.” And as a kid, it feels really cool to be like, “Oh my gosh, this is life and death.” These movies feel like if these people don’t get back, that’s it, that’s the end.

Strawberry Mansion Kentucker Audley Albert Birney

Strawberry Mansion poster, directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley.

When you get a little bit older, and you start to read and you’re like, “Wow, Labyrinth was Jim Henson and Frank Oz and was written by Terry Jones from Monty Python, and it’s got Bowie. No wonder this movie was such a magical experience!” You put all these brilliant people together, and this is what comes out of it.

Sometimes you’re nervous to go back and watch these movies that you love as a kid, but those three, for me at least, hold up because their production design is so beautiful. All these movies are fun, they’re having an adventure, but they take themselves seriously. You can tell the filmmakers really believe in the journeys of these films and the adventure. So I think that’s something we tried to embrace: let’s just go on this adventure as we’re making it, let’s go to these places, let’s try to do as much as we can in camera and practically, and get our hands dirty, and just get lost in this world.

Kentucker Audley: The NeverEnding Story was huge for me as well. Movies introduce you to emotions. In a lot of instances for me, the first times I felt emotions as a kid was seeing movies. The NeverEnding Story terrified me, and I felt jubilant at the end. I was so invested in these relationships.

I’ll echo what Albert said about these films taking it seriously. Even though our film has adult themes at points, we were trying to tap into that sincerity of “this feels so real and so dangerous.”

The question came up for Strawberry Mansion and our new project: should this character be a kid?

But I feel like it’s interesting to transplant adults into these nostalgic realms and see what happens. For our upcoming film, it could be a kid in the in the hero’s journey. But part of us thinks it’s a little less interesting at this moment, because we don’t want to just remake the movies that we already saw in our childhood. It’s the Miyazaki thing, which is “Are these for kids or adults?” And I think they function for both. So we were trying to tap into the sincerity but also the darkness and the unsettling elements.

Strawberry Mansion, directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, premiered in Sundance’s NEXT section. Sundance Film Festival runs through February 3. 

— As told to Caleb Hammond