STUFFED is a musical about a taxidermist who wants to ‘stuff’ a human and the human she finds online who wants to be ‘stuffed’. It’s like one of those grim rumours you might have been freaked out by as a kid, or heard about happening on the dark web. Something you can’t unhear. Maybe un-surprisingly — it is a musical after all — they start to fall in love and have to decide between their grizzly ambitions and the blossoming romance. STUFFED is about the fear of growing old and leaving nothing behind, it’s about loneliness, obsession, fantasy, and of course it’s about love. Don’t like musicals? Fuck off. NO WAIT – give it a try. It’s a type of musical that you probably haven’t seen before, clever and sinister, set in a bleak British landscape (and no dancing). I think you’ll be surprised. Having its North American Premiere in the Midnight Shorts section, we speak with director Theo Rhys and Joss Holden-Rea on STUFFED.
Welcome to SxSW and congratulations! Is this your first SxSW experience?
Theo: Thanks so much! Yes, this is my first experience at SXSW and actually my first experience in any festival outside the UK! Obviously it’s gutting we’re not traveling out to Austin in a couple of weeks, but to be part of such an amazing festival with incredible alumni is just fantastic.
Joss: Yes, it’s our first time at SXSW. I’m sure most of the other filmmakers are quite cool and nonchalant about the whole thing but we’re absolutely bouncing off the walls with excitement.
How did you first hear about SxSW and wishing to send your project into the festival?
Theo: When I was younger I knew of SXSW as primarily a music festival, but since I’ve been working in film I’ve known it to be a hub of experimentation and creativity. SXSW seemed like a good fit for STUFFED because of its reputation as a very open and experimental festival. We know that musical films aren’t for everyone – especially ones about human taxidermy.
Joss: I’m a musician and I grew up playing in bands so I’ve been dreaming of playing at SXSW for as long as I can remember. I think STUFFED – being both a full-on musical and a gory horror – is quite a strange film and needs to find a weird audience. SXSW seems like the perfect place to find those like-minded weirdos.
Tell me about the idea behind your project and getting it made!
Theo: We had the idea back when Joss and I were at uni together but it was a very different version of the story than what we have now. It’s inspired by the true tale of Armin Meiwes, a cannibal from Germany who found someone who wanted to be eaten online. It’s fascinating how these two people, with really strange desires, found each other and fulfilled each other’s needs. In a way, it’s kind of a love story – albeit a pretty disturbing one.
We came back to the story again in 2019 and decided we’d make a really quick self-funded film – just to have a bit of a play. But the more we developed it, the more excited about it we became. In writing STUFFED, we could explore complex and confusing desires through a human perspective, looking at the loneliness of oddity with some empathy instead of total abhorrence. It’s just a really interesting love story that’s so fun to imagine.
Joss: Making it was a huge and complex labour of love because we didn’t have much budget. I was begging locals where we were shooting to loan us their taxidermy because it was too expensive for us to hire! We got incredibly lucky in finding the location – a house that no one had been in for 10 years with which we could do anything we wanted to. In the end it was one of those lovely short-film-family experiences, where everyone involved worked really hard and believed in the project.
I think we both found the story weirdly romantic, and it was really fun to imagine what they might have talked about, like whether they got to know each other over dinner leading up to the big intimate/horrifying act of cannibalism. Our romantic reading of that story was the jumping off point for STUFFED.
The initial plan was to make it as a very quick experiment, 1 week writing, 1 or 2 days shooting on a DSLR in one of our houses, 1 week finishing it off. Easy peasy. Well it completely snowballed into over a year’s worth of work, a 71-page full orchestral score, transforming an abandoned house into 5 sets filled to the brim with taxidermy and a cast, crew and creative team beyond our wildest dreams.
Who are some of your creative inspirations? Any particular filmmaking talent or movie that inspired you for this project?
Theo: Musical film-wise there’s definitely some influences from SWEENEY TODD and a bit of LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, however I wanted to keep it relatively bleak, British and rooted in reality to play against the fact it was a musical.
I had just watched POSSUM by Matthew Holness which definitely inspired the visual direction and the bleak view of England. Also the quiet strangeness of Roy Andersson’s A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE.
Joss: There are some obvious examples from the Musical Theatre world (it’s hard to talk about musicals without mentioning Sondheim, and particularly hard to talk about a horror-musical without mentioning Sweeney Todd), but a lot of inspiration for the score comes from Bernard Herrmann. His scores sort of sit on the fence between terrifying and saccharine – like our film I guess – and it’s not a soundworld I’ve really heard explored in a musical.
How did you put this together from a technical viewpoint? What sort of cameras/lenses did you use and/or did you have any creative challenges in making it?
Theo: We shot on an Alexa mini with Kowa anamorphics by the incredible DOP Piers McGrail. There were so many creative production challenges because of our lack of budget, but in the end we managed everything we wanted to do. The main issue we had was lack of rehearsal time to get all the lip-syncing right!
There were also a few bits of roadkill that I collected, and froze in my Mum’s freezer until the shoot, that started to smell horrendously as soon as we began shooting! The animal she picks up at the start of the film was a squirrel I found a few months before. That was pretty grim.
Joss: I think film-musicals can generally feel quite sterile, there’s something very artificial in seeing someone lip-sync to an immaculately performed and produced backing track. A big challenge was to try and make it feel intimate and real. We tried to record softer sung moments VERY close to the microphone to pick up all those lip and mouth sounds, we created the orchestrations by multi-track recording real instruments (instead of sound-libraries) and allowed for string-scratches and breathes and slight inaccuracies to be left in the recordings. Hopefully it makes the fact that they’re singing feel a little more human.
Being all virtual this year, what do you hope to get out of the virtual SxSW experience? And where is your project going next?
Theo: We’re hoping to make the most of the festival by meeting as many people as possible and treating it like we are actually there – taking the days off so we can watch and engage as much as we can. I’m hoping to meet some other directors and writers from around the world and virtually ‘step out’ of London for a bit.
We’re currently in the process of developing STUFFED into a feature. Otherwise hopefully we’ll get to go visit some actual physical festivals later in the year, COVID permitting! We have still not seen the film on a big screen so that would be nice.
Joss: I’m going to pretend it’s not virtual, make myself some kind of lanyard, put a beer in a see-through plastic cup, and try and see as much as I can. The program is so varied and interesting I’m just excited to see loads of films and come out the other side with new perspectives and influences.
What would you suggest to film festivals as a way to show more short films or make them more accessible to audiences across the country?
Joss: I think what SXSW is doing, by having a viewing platform that links with your smart TV, is great. It makes it so much easier to watch shorts at home with a better viewing experience than your computer.
I think it’s just hard for people to know where to start with short films, and if you’re not already super into them you’re not going to pay $250 to see 100 of them at a festival. Maybe if there was a cheap subscription service that made playlists, like “pay $3 a month and SXSW sends you links to 10 selected shorts each month”, that’s accessible. Maybe that already exists?
If you had one piece of advice to offer someone to get their start as a creator or filmmaker in the industry, what would you suggest?
Theo: Just to write something and make it. Not to worry about how good it’s going to be, because it won’t be good to start with! But as soon as you have something to show, you can grow and start working out how to make it better. Failing is vital – everyone makes bad films!
Joss: That what you think is your dumbest or silliest idea is probably your most interesting, and the one you think is really cool and smart is probably the least.
And finally, what is your favourite short film of all time?
Theo: THUNDER ROAD by Jim Cummings. So funny and moving and an amazing performance.
Joss: A short film called HOME by Clay Tatum. A really dumb idea made incredibly well.
This film and many others like it will be showing at the virtual South By Southwest taking place March 16-20th. For more information and to register for the festival, point your browser to www.sxsw.com!