Interview: Tony Gardner (Cult of Chucky, Hocus Pocus)

Tony Gardner is the animatronic effects supervisor who brought Chucky to life in the new Cult of Chucky, as well as in previous entries Seed of Chucky and Curse of Chucky. We discuss his history with the killer doll and the latest installment in the franchise. He also reminisces about some of his past projects, including Hocus Pocus and The Return of the Living Dead.

Can you begin with a brief history of how you got involved in the Child’s Play franchise?

I came on board in a roundabout way in the beginning. [Producer] David Kirschner was pitching Bride of Chucky to Universal and wanted to do a display to have on the conference table when he did the presentation. It was classic Chucky holding Tiffany in his arms, like a groom carrying a bride through the threshold at a wedding. That’s how I met Chucky for the first time. We built that display, and then they went off and got the movie going, and I thought that was the end of it.

Then about three months before they were going to head off to Romania to shoot Seed of Chucky, I got a few cryptic phone calls asking about animatronic babies. That eventually segued into conversations, “Would you be interested in working on the next Child’s Play?” I said yes, even though they told me there are three animatronic characters that had to be finished in three months time and we’d be filming in another country. I thought it sounded like a blast, so I signed up – and here I am!

From your perspective, how does Cult of Chucky different from the previous entries?

I think all of the films are different in their own way. I think they’re almost all successful as standalone films. I feel like Don [Mancini, writer] introduces new characters each time to the Charles Lee Ray storyline, but you don’t necessarily have to know the entire history in order to follow the story. This one is different aesthetically. Storywise, I think it actually succeeds in combining the scary stuff along with the more serious things and the comedic side. That goes for the actors too. There’s a more comedic side to Jennifer Tilly’s character, and Fiona Dourif’s character is very serious, so the fact that Don was able to put of them in the same room to have a conversation with serious impact and gravity to it but still have Jennifer able to play the humorous sex kitten part at the same time, the mashup of all that is what makes this one really different. And he’s done it successfully, which makes it that much more enjoyable.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. I really enjoyed how it brought together all of the storylines and characters from throughout the franchise while expanding the mythology.

Don doesn’t discount anything in any of the stories. He goes out of his way to reference all of them, sometimes in little ways. I think that’s really cool. He’s really the glue that holds the entire series together and makes it work, because he understands the characters so well. They live in his head; he knows how they talk and why they say what they say. If anyone is going to mix those worlds up and make it work, it’s going to be Don. Hats of to him for having the guts to dive in and give it a shot in the first place!

How has the advancement of technology changed how Chucky is brought to life?

It’s helped us a lot, because we’ve been able to use digital technology to erase the puppeteers from shots, especially in this last one, so that we can get closer to the puppet and do a better a performance with his physical moment. When we did Seed, all the characters are 100% animatronic and we operated through the floor. Almost all the puppeteers were underneath the set watching monitors in order to make it happen. We were pushing for some rod puppet work for some of the scenes, and we did one or two in that film, but people were still of the mind that you had to frame things certain ways. It felt very limiting.

Then when we did Curse of Chucky, we had some scenes on practical floors where we couldn’t get under the floor. We could be right on top of the character in order to put more life into them and then be digitally removed. And then with Cult, we had three of them operating at the same time. We have limited resources as far as animatronic puppeteers, so to be able to shoot each one separately and then combine things made life so much easier. It’s still complicated and hard, but to not have to frame based on where somebody is operating a puppet makes a huge difference in how you can film it. It impacts the performance as well. The advent of digital technology has really been our friend, because it’s an awesome tool for us to be able to take advantage of.

Don Mancini is primarily known for being a writer, but you’ve worked on all three films that he’s directed. How would you describe him on set?

He never loses his cool. I don’t get it! [laughs] He’s amazing on set. He’s very calm and very focused. He’s able to roll with the punches. He’s able to actually articulate what he wants, how he wants to do it, and, if anybody asks, he can explain why. He’s a really solid leader, and he has a really solid grasp of his subject matter. He’s super articulate in being able to tell all of us what he wants. Most importantly, he’s really calm and he stays very focused. He’s a really smart guy.

Your daughter, Kyra Elise Gardner, made a short documentary focusing on the familial aspects of the Child’s Play movies, which is included on the Cult of Chucky Blu-ray. I really enjoyed it and wanted to know if there’s any plan to turn it into a full-length documentary.

That’s Kyra’s goal, to do a feature documentary. She goes to Florida State University, and she was evacuated for the hurricane recently. We had two events go down with Chucky projects. Jennifer Tilly came to the opening of Halloween Horror Nights, and she agreed to sit down with Kyra for about an hour an hour half. She did a super in-depth interview with her. And then Kyra saw Fiona the following night for a Cult of Chucky panel at Monsterpalooza, and Fiona stuck around for about an hour and talked more about herself and her experiences, as opposed to the family dynamics that’s more the subject of the short documentary. I think Kyra is working on it as we speak. She’s getting stuff that a lot of people have never been able to get. More power to her!

Do you have a favorite effect that you’ve created, or one that stands out as being a particular point of pride?

Honestly, I think the half-corpse from Return of the Living Dead is a favorite, because I was in my early 20s and I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never done animatronics, and I had this really cool opportunity. I built like 80% of it myself; I had some friends help out with mechanics in the hands. It was a learn-as-you-go type of experience. I had an amazing design by William Stout to base it off of, and then I only had like two weeks to build it at night, becuase I had a real job during the day. It holds this warm spot in my heart. There’s nostalgia, but it’s also sort of a stepping-up-and-showing-what-you’re-made-of moment. I love the character too and how successfully we were able to bring her to life. I had never had the experience of going to set and puppeteering an animatronic character before. I really enjoyed it. Oddly enough, it’s Don Mancini’s favorite creature from a movie, so I think it did me well! [laughs]

I’d say so! As someone who worked on the original, how do you feel about the recent news that Disney is planning to reboot Hocus Pocus with a new cast?

It’s been conversations that have been ongoing for seven years, honestly. I feel like there’s a meeting once a year for it. The fact that they’ve finally announced something publicly means that they’re serious. There have been so many scripts over the years, the question is: which direction are they going to go? I know the fans all want to see the three witches, and it’s amazing how many girls want to see Billy Butcherson come back. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m super excited for it. It also makes me a little a nervous, because the whole idea of a sequel living up to an original is always daunting. Don Mancini has pulled it off, but not too many people have. The world is definitely a different place than when the first Hocus Pocus came out [in 1993], so if you’re going to put it in contemporary times, I’m curious as to how much adjusting of the content is going to need to take place and how that’s going to impact the characters. I’m excited, but I’m nervous!

In addition to the ones we’ve discussed, you’ve worked with several other iconic films and characters, like Aliens, Army of Darkness, and The Blob. Are there any other big franchises that you’d like to tackle?

I feel like we got to do a lot of really cool ones already. Darkman is a personal favorite as well. We’ve been able to do some cool animatronic ones and some cool prosthetic ones. On a selfish note, I think it would be really fun to have the opportunity to be involved in a lot of the genre films. We almost worked on a Friday the 13th reboot at one point. It was exciting to take over Chucky and keep him going, so I thought it would be interesting. There’s quite a few other horror icons out there that it would be a blast to bring back to life. But I feel I’ve been really fortunate at this point.

As a kid, I wanted to remake Planet of the Apes, but it’s been done a million times and now it’s a computer. If I had to pick a film to redo just for pure selfishness: The Day the Earth Stood. The robot in that, Gort, was a favorite. That whole film was a favorite, but that robot in particular always fascinated me. You can kind of see a bit of it in one of the Daft Punk promos. It was one of Thomas Bangalter’s favorite films as well, so we felt justified doing a little homage.

You’ve dabbled in directing short content, but have you ever wanted to make your own feature?

To be honest, I don’t know if I have the attention span and the focus to do a feature. I really enjoy doing music videos and short films. If I had nothing else that I needed to focus on, I would love to take on a genre feature. To do something along the lines of the original The Thing – something that offers you opportunity to really stretch your imagination – would be exciting enough to me. If I could drop everything else to do it, I would be happy to.

Original Article