One of the great things about FrightFest is their amazing short film programme, showcasing a brilliant range of bite-sized terrors. We loved writer-director Cat Davies’ zombie blind date short KEEN-Wah when it showed at FrightFest Glasgow earlier this year, and she brought her latest short Connie to this summer’s London event, starring Doctor Who‘s Catrin Stewart.
Funny, creepy, clever and surprisingly affecting, Connie is a wonderful tribute to creepy doll classics while managing to be something all of its own, and we grabbed the chance to speak to Davies about making a killer doll film with a difference, the joys and challenges of short films, and why Chucky is the greatest of them all.
First of all, can you give our readers the quick elevator pitch for Connie?
It’s a playful homage to classic doll and dummy films, but with a female-centred story to it because most of those stories aren’t. It’s about a shy, introverted woman who decides that she wants to conquer her stage fright by purchasing a doll off the internet, her Connie puppet, and she gets more than she bargained for with a very living doll.
Was this an idea that had been in your head for a while?
It was, yeah. I bought the puppet early last year, it was specially made in New York completely to order, everything was hand picked. And she was just so cool, so distinctive, this sounds really odd, but I used to walk around the house playing with the puppet and I used a voice. I gave her a really filthy sense of humour and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be quite funny if I did a really strange comedy horror with this puppet?” I used to do the voice of the prostitute Fran from The Man With Two Brains, it’s that kind of “I don’t mind!”
I did nothing with it for about six months until I was doing a module for another MA and I wanted to look at the uncanny in dolls and dummies in horror films, and how they’d evolved, why they were scary and what are the tropes of those films. It was a very natural fit for me to go “OK, I know all of this stuff about these films and I have this puppet, but I want to tell it from a female angle.” Because most of those stories are the male ventriloquist and his dummy and I think there’s an extra layer of complexity there with female relationships.
So you had the Connie voice in your head very early on?
Yes, when I’m creating characters I spend a lot of time working out their backstories. I intentionally went with an actress who had no ventriloquism skill because I wanted it to be quite distinctive that Connie was real, there’s a person in that puppet. So even the backstory for Connie is worked out to the minute details just as it is with Dolly. And so finding a voice when I’m writing a script, I will sit there and say the lines out loud and make it feel like a very real interaction. It’s a very strange thing to watch if there’s someone in the house with me.
When I met with Catrin, we thought, “She’s absolutely perfect for this but let’s try and talk through what that voice might be,” and her thoughts on it were gruff, lower pitch, kind of Liza Minnelli. So in the final film, the puppet sounds more like Liza Minnelli but I think that makes her far more scary than my high-pitched ditzy voice!
I loved that the relationship between Connie and Dolly is actually quite nurturing and encouraging, at least for a while!
Yes, she’s almost a mother figure that it feels like Dolly never had. Dolly doesn’t speak until about five minutes in, and I noticed in post that the first word Dolly says is “Sorry,” and the first word Connie says is the F word! So they are polar opposites in their approach to life and their backgrounds and how they cope with being on stage, but they really need each other.
And it’s a bit of a tragic love story because as a viewer you know from the outset how these films go. It’s not going to end well for somebody, but you have a really nice kinship between them and it’s very playful and it’s actually very caring. I think the best way to describe it is that Connie is that really tough mother that gives with one hand and takes with the other. She’ll give you 50% but she’s always the one in control and she’s always one step ahead.
How early did you have Catrin Stewart in mind for Dolly/Connie?
From the earliest stages when I was talking with my producer James [Moran] about it, you have to have someone who can very quickly switch between voices and personalities, which is much harder than it sounds. As it evolved, her voice just kept sticking in my head so in a way it was written for her.
So we met with her in March and then we shot in May. She was so up for it because she’d never done anything like that before, she’s known mostly for Doctor Who and Stella, so I think it’s something really different for her and she really wanted to do it because it was a chance to work with a puppet. She’d just made a film called The Library Suicides and she’d played twins, so I thought “If she can switch between two characters physically, she must be able to do it vocally,” and she could, she was completely natural.
We were about to film the first scene with Connie and Dolly together and she was backstage, we couldn’t see her, and we just heard this gruff, salty, frightening voice! It was like Divine was backstage! I thought “Oh my god, that’s Catrin, that’s coming out of this tiny waif like little person!” And she learned some extra rude words that she didn’t know before, so she really got a lot out of it.
She’s really mesmerising. You just say action and it’s completely there. There’s nothing forced, it’s completely natural. I think it’s a rare case of seeing someone do something that they’re actually born to do. I hope that she gets more, bigger things, she’s really, really special.
On a practical level, how did this compare to shooting KEEN-Wah, which was just one location?
It’s always a challenge to get anything made. I’ve been at the BBC for most of the last 10 years and even if you’ve got a bigger budget and a bigger crew, everything always feels like a challenge. KEEN-Wah was shot in a day in my flat with a shooting budget of £300, then fast forward just under a year and Connie’s a £2K budget. Which sounds like a lot for a short but it could have cost 5 or 6 easily, and it’s purely through a deal with the comedy venue that we used, which I managed to get at a rock bottom price because I know them.
The flat that we found, I had a very very specific idea in mind for where I wanted her to live but a very limited production design budget, so I had to shop around for about 8 weeks. But then practical production issues of, “Are there enough places for us to store kit, what’s the access like, is there any parking, are there any neighbours who are going to be angry if we keep filming past 10 o’clock?” It’s the creative balance and the practical balance of “I can’t have poor Catrin Stewart changing in a toilet for a day.” It was also a two camera shoot which means that you’re doing more pre-production time with your DoP, and we wrote a detailed shooting draft and put in every shot that was essential to tell the story the way I wanted to tell it.
As a short filmmaker it can become a bit of a cop out to say the budget’s never big enough. There’s no filmmaker out there going “I had way too much money, I didn’t spend all of it.” People on Marvel films complain about not having enough money, there’s never enough money, and it’s that balance between the budget I’ve got and the time I’ve got and reconciling that with the ambition in your head and going well it’s pretty much what I wanted.
Do you think that’s the biggest challenge of making a short film?
Yeah, and budget-wise it’s always that “I don’t want to ask someone to work for free and I don’t want to make someone take a bus, but I don’t have money to send everyone home in Ubers…” I think there’s a sense of, particularly with my crew, people choose to do those stories because they love those stories, and they’re not people who just take any job. Our sound recordist [Helen Miles] is one of the busiest people I think I’ve ever met, she’s really, really hard to get hold of because she’s that good, but it’s a case of “I love this script and I want to tell this story.”
What do love about the short film format?
I think the beauty of short film particularly is that you can capture a moment, or you can capture that lovely short story, and get it out to festivals and get it out to an audience. And I think it’s a really great training ground for people, short films.
I think with something like Connie there’s a lot going on there, it’s 34 scenes, and it needed to be 34 scenes because otherwise it would have been half a film. But the great thing about it is in 20 minutes you’ve got this lovely little story with lots of ups and downs and it’s, for me, without the arrogance of it, I just love watching it on the big screen, it’s a really full, meaty story.
As a filmmaker it’s great to be able to tell a story and make them quite quickly, because I’m used to being in productions in telly or radio, where someone has the idea a year in advance and you might make it a year later. And there are often questions with TV and radio, it’s the “Why now?” question, and I hate the “Why now?” question! It’s constantly having to justify your idea to a bigger managerial net, whereas with shorts it’s independent, you can have an idea, you can write something, if you know enough people you can set it up in two weeks and get it going. You can shoot a short film on your iphone and edit it on your iphone and upload it to Vimeo and then it’s there.
Both this and Keen-WAH are horror comedies, is that a genre that you’re drawn to?
I don’t know. I’m sitting on a short at the moment that I started working on about 18 months ago and it’s a period drama about two children and a bet that they have about which pet is better, and that’s a straight drama. So the reason I’m sitting on that is that I need about 16 grand to make it, so it’s easier to go out and make the other film that is 400 quid, or 2k or 5k and trying to build up to it. Comedy-horror is kind of a default for me because I grew up watching Woody Allen films but on the other hand I had really really liberal parents who didn’t mind what I watched, so at 4 or 5 I was watching Friday The 13th or A Nightmare On Elm Street.
I did grow up watching lots of comedy and lots of horror and I think in my head that’s a sort of default or go-to. I find writing straight drama much more scary, but I’m developing a feature at the moment as part of my production company with James [Moranic Productions] which is a horror, but then on the other side of it I’m also looking at a very strong female drama.
It depends on the story, I try not to think about genre but I think naturally every writer finds something that they feel comfortable with. But I’d really love to do what the Duplass brothers do and move between roles and move between genres, they can make sci-fi films and then do something like Creep, but then they did Togetherness, which is great, they just move around, so it’s still very distinctively their style but it’s irrespective of genre. You still feel very comfortable that it’s a Duplass film.
And they make about seven things a year…
I know! It’s amazing. Amazing! And did you know Mark Duplass can sing? And play musical instruments. In Safety Not Guaranteed he sings beautifully, I hate these guys, it’s so much talent! Eurgh!
Finally, who is your favourite horror doll or dummy?
I think my favourite doll is Chucky, I have two Chucky dolls at home who talk, which people find very strange. I just think he’s hilarious and Brad Dourif’s voice is still really chilling. I kind of wish he was real, so he’s my favourite doll. As a puppet, I think Hugo from Dead Of Night, he’s so creepy and he’s so mean! I ran a Twitter poll about this and it was a tough race between Dead Of Night and Child’s Play, and I think that’s how I feel about it.
But Slappy in Goosebumps is still really scary! I love the fact that dummies and dolls have been this real staple throughout horror, and they’re just naturally creepy because a lot of them look so human or they look like children. I’m glad that Slappy is bringing the doll and dummy trope to a whole new level for kids, that’s really scary.
To find out more about Connie and Cat Davies’ work, visit www.conniemovie.com.