Independent American cinema is defined by the exigencies of its fundraising. In the shadow of the world’s largest entertainment industry – whose success is dependent on broad commercial appeal and consolidative growth – independent directors and producers have often quietly tended to outré styles and innovative forms that have gone on to define and revitalise the medium. Without the help of public funding, and often directly competing for distribution and viewership against the Hollywood juggernaut, the impact that such filmmakers can have is based directly on their ability to share resources, creatively collaborate, and design their productions with intuitive vigour.

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney embody all the above aspects of vanguard independent film. Though each has gained recognition for his own discrete projects (Audley is a well-known actor within New York’s indie milieu, as well as the founding director of the small-scale streaming platform NoBudge, while Birney, who is based in Baltimore, has maintained several celebrated long-form artistic projects on social media), they have come together twice as co-directors to make commercially-minded feature films that satirise commercialism. In Sylvio (2017) and the newly released Strawberry Mansion (2021), nonconformist characters struggle with identity and integrity in hostile environments. Both films bolster their sensitive polemics with conspicuous, often ingenuously deployed practical effects, evoking fantastic worlds with production values far exceeding their budgets. And both films make the case that the only hope for freedom lies in the creative, individualising act.

In Strawberry Mansion, Audley plays James Prebble, a government agent in an uncannily familiar future where dreams, like other forms of entertainment, are able to be recorded, taxed, and tampered with by product-pushing corporate sponsors. While conducting an audit of the elderly Arabella (Penny Fuller), Prebble discovers she has kept her dreams stored offline, and falls into the fantastic world of her unsurveilled subconscious. I spoke with Audley and Birney over Zoom, shortly after Strawberry Mansion’s American theatrical release.

NK: You shot both of your co-directed feature films, Sylvio (2017) and Strawberry Mansion (2021), in Baltimore, Maryland. What was it about that city that helped furnished these films?

AB: I grew up in Baltimore, and then I left for many years and wandered around, eventually finding my way to Brooklyn where Kentucker and I first started collaborating together and developing the Sylvio script. Sylvio was very, very small. The budget was basically what we got on Kickstarter 1, so when we began thinking about how to make it, it just didn’t seem totally possible to do it in a city like New York. We were going to need a lot of free locations and favours from friends, and for that reason Baltimore made more sense. It’s just a smaller city where you can live and work pretty cheaply. I feel like, in New York, there’s always a lot of people running around and filming something, and no one really thinks much of it. In Baltimore, when you bring a camera around, people are excited and they want to help you. That project brought me back here and I haven’t left since. We’ve made two films here now, and I feel like it’s the best of both worlds because we’re close enough to New York that Kentucker can come down for a month or two and we can get cast and crew from New York and cast and crew from Baltimore, and put it all together. Also, it’s just a funky city – there’s a lot of wonderful artists, filmmakers, musicians – and everybody seems to know everybody. There’s a lot of sharing of camera departments and crew, wardrobe, so that you’re always helping out on somebody’s project. I really love the collaborative spirit that exists here, it still feels kind of like a bohemian city.

NK: It’s not uncommon to see a film co-directed, but it seems to me that the dynamic is always really unique. What does the division of labour look like for you?

KA: If we want to break it down into simplistic terms, Albert spearheads more of the visual landscape and I’m more of the character, theme, overarching tone guy. I try to make sure that all the visuals are in service of something. We use dream logic a lot, so there’s a limit to how much we want everything to be completely spelled out in terms of making total sense, but I think I have an eye for editing and trimming and refining while Albert just stays free to build these entire worlds. I love working with Albert because he has such an unrestrained imagination, and he definitely gets me out of my shell in terms of creating the fantastical and surreal images which I feel like I’ve been chasing for a while, but wasn’t quite able to insert into my projects until I met him.

AB: Yeah, definitely. I think we both saw in each other someone who could help us elevate our own style, to make what we’re doing individually even better together. I love this collaboration because it feels like there’s this third person that’s created when we smash our brains together. It’s like it makes both our brains shinier, or something.

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NK: I love your films because they really do contain this open-minded visual element. There’s an element of fantasy here that harkens back to stuff like the work of Terry Gilliam and Jim Henson in the ‘80s, and it’s not the kind of thing you see very often anymore. Most fantasy effects are now done with computers. Is there an ethos behind the almost homespun way you use practical effects?

KA: Albert can tackle that, but first I just want to say that nostalgia is really important to filmmaking. The films we fell in love with first were the ones we saw as kids. These days, there’s always going to be movies that feel very nostalgic and like they are harkening back. But a lot of times those films and TV shows go for the tone without getting into the funk of it. They ignore the way those movies achieved their looks back in the day, with physical effects and physical costumes, masks and the elaborate sets. I think there’s a breakdown there. It doesn’t feel truly like a throwback if you’re using modern techniques. And I feel like that was kind of our credo from the beginning, to use some of the techniques that were commonplace in the ‘80s, when we were growing up and first starting to love movies. Not to talk shit about Stranger Things, but when a show like goes for the nostalgia factor, while also feeling very modern, it doesn’t seem to work within the physical manifestation.

AB: Yeah, whereas with something like E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982) – I feel so much emotion when I look at E.T. because I know that E.T.’s real, he’s in a room with these child actors and there’s real light hitting him. And when I see a CG character, I am just always taken out of that moment. Like, I watched the new It (Andy Muschietti, 2017), and there’s this CG character who appears at one point, and it felt like all the suspense and the fear that was building just left my body. I felt like: That’s not a real; that was made by a computer. And so for me – look, we did use some CG in Strawberry Mansion, but our goal was to hide it so that you don’t even know. Like the buffalo – we built a real buffalo and then used some CG to enhance what was already there, in a way that hopefully hides the computer element. For me personally, my brain can understand how a pipe cleaner can be animated into a caterpillar, it can just see that. And it’s hard for me, maybe just because I’m not a CG animator, to envision that any other way. I’m always trying to figure out how to do this thing with human beings touching it, because, for these movies, we’re trying to make them feel handcrafted. It’s like when you’re a kid, and you’re playing with toys in the sandbox, and you’re smashing trucks together. It’s all right there in front of you and it feels very real and full of spirit. We don’t want to stray too far from that, that’s just now how we make movies. It’s very fun, the way we do it, and so that’s why we lean so much more toward technical effects that are handmade, versus computer-made. And not to say we won’t slide a bit more towards computer next time, but I think it’s always about trying to find that balance, asking yourself: What’s the best way to do this effect? Maybe this one we do need to use a computer for, but we can still have some aspect of it that feels handmade.

NK: I think you’re right that you can spot this stuff most easily in horror film, maybe even specifically in moments of terror. I think about a movie like John Carpenter’s The Thing, where the terror is so based on our knowledge that the creature is in the room.

AB: Oh my gosh, yeah. I feel like that’s probably the high water mark for real effects that are done in camera. that are made on set out of puppets and animatronics. And it’s so scary, so freaking unreal. The first Nightmare on Elm Street is another one – I always think about the tongue coming out of the phone. Someone made that animatronic tongue, just so it could do a couple of licks. And, you know, it’s quick, but it’s scary because you’re like: Holy shit, that was in that person’s hand. They were holding this thing.

Strawberry Mansion

NK: The demon in Strawberry Mansion has a similarly visceral level of fear. In that scene in the dining room, it’s all about that sense of feeling trapped in the same small space.

AB: I would love to make a 100% true horror movie someday. I feel like we could pull something off there. Because, yeah, the blue demon was some of my favourite stuff to shoot, to think about and to edit. There’s just the terror of this demon that’s only five feet away from you. 

KA: Yeah, we’re trying to go more in that direction. I know we get pinned as kind of whimsical and quirky, and those are things that we love, but we’re trying at the same time to balance it out with some of the darker elements, some of the horror influences that we also love, to try and make it feel scary, dark and ominous, while keeping some of that lightness as well.

NK: Kentucker, you also work as the programmer and director of the indie streaming platform NoBudge. You’ve spoken about this idea that “No Budget” is more of an attitude or an ethos than a certain limitation in funding. How would you describe that ethos for young filmmakers today, especially as your own projects in terms of budget?

KA: Well, that’s one of our challenges going forward. You know, you need a lot of money to make a film, and you need a lot more money to make a film that can reach audiences on a wider scale. I think it’s really important to both of us, as we become able to make larger projects, that it doesn’t lose that playfulness or that sense that it’s being made by people outside the system, it’s being made by people who have a sort of incorruptible spirit about what it is that they’re working towards. And, of course, that’s difficult when you’re working on a bigger scale and there’s more crew involved and more money involved. But we’ve made it this far, and we’re not exactly young, so I feel like the big time is not something we’re really chasing. Purity and a consistency of vision will always be more important to us than reaching millions of viewers. So I think it’ll come naturally to us to stay on a manageable level, but at the same time I do believe you have to challenge yourself, you’ve got to put yourself in the fire and see how you react. I want us to grow, but I think we’re so embedded in do-it-yourself movies that it’s going to be hard to lose that spirit. Smash cut: We lost it. We sold out.

AB: [Laughs] Yeah, two years later and we’ve made the worst movie of all time.

NK: I feel like, both as a critic and a movie-lover, I’ve grown more concerned about the level of consolidation in the industry over the past few years, simply in response to the all-out streaming wars. Can a spirit of grassroots collaboration combat that culture?

KA: To me, it’s highly important to create something that’s outside of the homogenisation of culture, especially in this moment that we’re in. I think about Marvel movies – and I’m not up with them, I don’t understand them so I’m not a good critic, but it feels like, every time I see even part of one it’s just the same thing over and over. Even down to the sound design, the special effects – it kind of just washes over you in this innocuous, impersonal way. For us, it seems important to have an alternative vision that doesn’t shy away from fantasy elements. Indie films and fantasy aren’t quite synonymous today. I think that’s one of the reasons why Strawberry Mansion feels different, because it uses some of the same tools as big budget fantasy movies but it’s made on an indie scale and it has an indie spirit behind it. Again, it’s about trying to find this balance in making movies that feel different but also don’t necessarily come down as ignorant of what the mainstream culture is, because that has its place as well.

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AB: In regards to streaming, and all the new ways we have to watch movies, the projects that I’ve just seen recently that have excited me the most have still been indie movies made by passionate, small crews – Inspector Ike (2020) by Graham Mason and The Civil Dead (2022) by Clay Tatum are two recent ones that feel like they live outside of whatever the streaming wars are, and they’re full of more life than anything I’ve seen on the bigger platforms. And, you know, it’s hard talking to both those filmmakers about what they had to do to make those movies for so little, but at the same time that low budget kind of thinking just breeds creativity. You can tell they were having fun making those movies, and they were making them with their friends, and that, to me, comes through in the final product. Maybe you can have that on a bigger scale, on a bigger streaming platform where you have millions of dollars, but I think it’s hard to keep that integrity that you get when you’re just telling a story for your soul.

NK: Both of your co-directed films are set in slightly dystopic, airless societies. One of my favourite themes running through both is this element of a sort built-in release valve – a way for your characters to vent when they feel frustrated and misunderstood, but one that doesn’t actually threaten the world that contains them.

KA: We like to start from a premise of characters who are at odds with a modern way of life, and follow them through how they deal with that. Sylvio was a bit more straightforward, in his need to express himself through the puppet show. In Strawberry Mansion, it’s a little more abstract – Preble doesn’t even really know what he needs to escape from, but he recognises it when he sees it through Bella. I think this is always a fun starting point for us – of course, that’s kind of how I see the world and how I move through it. I feel like I’m at odds with a lot of things, like the systems we live in and the ways people navigate them so often feel unnatural, impure, and just kind of backwards. But it’s also a very cinematic way to start – these characters are trying to fight their way through these systems that don’t seem to be set up for an honestly lived life. 

AB: You see that in both the protagonists’ jobs: a debt collector and a tax auditor. They’re both jobs where I don’t really understand what that entails, but it’s like I know that they’re a part of our society, and so it’s always fun for our characters to start there and then grow their wings and fly from that point.

NK: I remember hearing that Strawberry Mansion was the script you sent Kentucker when you first contacted him.

AB: Yeah. About ten years ago, that half-written script arrived in his inbox with big dreams attached. I was like: Let’s make this movie, do you want to? And he said he was interested, but I had no money and no way to make the movie so nothing happened for a while. But I don’t know, maybe that cracked the ice and put us on this path to where we would start making things together.

NK: Re-watching Sylvio with that in mind, it really does play as a meeting of minds. Sylvio was already a character you had developed on Vine2, while Al Reynolds seems to reference some of Kentucker’s programming. It’s very cool to watch this collaboration evolve, seeing Strawberry Mansion as the fully realised project which it is at this point.

AB: Yeah, and it speaks to how we’ve also grown older and changed. I don’t think I would cold-email a script to someone who I wanted to be in it anymore, saying like, ‘Hey, want to act in this? I think you’re cool, I like your style.’ But there’s something about being a certain age and thinking you can do anything and just going for it. In that way it feels like, looking back, it’s like some kind of fate or dream or something. The foundation for it was laid long ago, and it’s only now that we’re showing it in theatres, 15 years later. It’s definitely a wild journey.


NK: Having come full circle with this film, do you still plan to work together in the future?

KA: Yeah, we’re working on a third project together now, and we kind of think of it as the culmination of a trilogy. They all involve, like you described, this similar starting point, which is that there’s something societally amiss. But this time it’s really based more on two characters, rather than just like one – it’s a couple, and there’s something wrong with this couple and the way they deal with the modern world. Basically, they get stuck in a grocery store, and get forced to participate in an elaborate game show. That’s like the one-liner. I don’t think we’ve gone public with that yet, has that been published anywhere?

AB: I think we’ve maybe hinted at it here and there. But, yeah, that’s it. You can tell we’re getting better, because there are two main characters this time instead of just the one. [laughs] So that’s a big step up.

KA: It tackles similar themes, of course, like the hyper-commercialisation of our culture, and feeling like you’re being bombarded with ads and requests on your time and your psyche, and trying to repel these forces while also realising you have to buy into them to function in the world. It is about marketing yourself and your identity and things of that nature.


  1. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding website which solicits small donations from fans or community supporters towards the completion of a project. In the absence of industry finance or public arts funding, a growing portion of American filmmakers have turned to Kickstarter to help create or bolster their production budgets.
  2. Vine was a short-lived social media and content-creation platform, limited to videos which were six seconds long or less. From its initial launch in 2013 to its deactivation by Twitter in 2017, Vine was defined by its absurd, unexpected humour and flagrantly destructive revelry. Birney first developed his Sylvio character through these tightly-edited film clips, some of which are now available here.