I don’t think I’ve ever seen a short film quite like this one. Probably the strangest of the short form work screening at SXSW Online 2021 this week is Theo Rhys’ horror comedy opera Stuffed – the story of a taxidermist who desires to stuff a human, and the human whose fear of ageing leads him to cross her path. It’s a brilliantly bonkers film with a dark sense of humour and it’s incredibly realised. The irony of the whole film is that despite its ambition and all of the crazy elements at play it doesn’t feel the slightest bit over-stuffed (pardon the pun). A great example of bold short form filmmaking, DN caught up with Rhys to talk drawing inspiration from an infamous German cannibal, creating a musical about the darker side of life, and actualising their lofty ambitions on a budget.
What made you want to blend horror, comedy and opera in a short film?
It’s been a dream of mine to make a musical for years – ever since my mum got me doing am-dram as a kid! There’s an emotional escape you get from a musical that’s really unique and fulfilling. It’s a massively under-explored medium, especially in film. The goal from the off was to make a musical that sat in a darker, grittier and more uncomfortable world to what you might expect; finding a balance between the glossy OTT nature of people singing their emotions (don’t get me wrong, I love that…) and a more realistic cinematic world.
Joss Holden-Rea my co-writer and composer, and best mate, and I wanted to find a tone that neither of us have seen in a musical film before, playfully macabre whilst feeling grimly real. The story of these two people falling in love over such a perplexing desire felt like a perfect world to explore this through. We definitely meant it to have a darkly comic tone, but actually we never really thought of it as a horror film until people started to call it one! Though in hindsight, obviously.
The goal from the off was to make a musical that sat in a darker, grittier and more uncomfortable world.
Did you draw from any particular sources of inspiration when conceiving the idea? Any films or stories, or directors?
The idea originally came from the German cannibal Armin Meiwes who found someone online who wanted to be eaten. There’s an amazing, and disturbing, farcical story of when they finally met up and did it, accidentally burning a part of his body so that they had to feed it to a dog… I heard this when I was 13 and it stuck with me because there’s just so much to unpack, so many complicated and conflicting desires and emotions. But it struck me that there’s a romance to the story; they each found, possibly, the only other person in the world that understood their desire completely. They fulfilled each other’s very bizarre needs.
From there we developed it to work for taxidermy, which has a whole different set of slightly more relatable emotions and desires attached to it. It’s a slightly less shocking and taboo subject somehow, which helped us pull out the light in the characters a little more. Although in the casting process there were a couple of actors that actually wrote back to me in disgust at what we we’re doing. So it clearly still hits a nerve! Inspiration wise, Little Shop of Horrors is my all-time number one film and I think that was definitely a bit of inspiration from the off. However Stuffed is definitely darker and less comedic.
Where did the concept of a lonely taxidermist attempting to find purpose come from?
When you start digging into the taxidermy world, you find there are people that really love to push the taboos of manipulating animals and finding the most exotic species possible. Then there are the purist taxidermists who like to preserve animals to make them look as natural as possible and the rogue taxidermists who go wild and position moles playing poker. It’s interesting to liken something of a God complex to the nature of making taxidermy and generally it’s a fascinating world of very passionate people. So for the taxidermist in Stuffed, the combination of loneliness and her obsession with preserving things felt like a really fun, murderous character to write.
How challenging was it to pull off the musical elements?
Joss and I have been working together for years and we started Stuffed with the goal of writing a musical, so the songs came first and the script was built around them. This worked great for this project, however in the future I think we might do it in the reverse to allow for a little more development of the story. Once we had the songs in place it was all really fluid. Especially as with so much singing I was able to fully storyboard and plot each of the scenes and cut a working board-o-matic.
The songs came first and the script was built around them.
Most of our challenges were because of our budget! We had very little time to rehearse what are actually quite complicated songs for the actors to sing. This impacts the process massively, because you’re setting lots the final performance before anyone’s got on set. Luckily Alison Fitzjohn, the Taxidermist, and Anthony Young, Bernie, were great and got the feel of the characters really quickly. We didn’t have the money to record them in a good studio, so we used a really cheap hourly studio normally used to record bands or produce. Everyone else there was making grime or drum and bass and I had to knock on a few doors and ask them to turn down the music so we could record our musical.
How did you find that process of creating the music? What did you want the songs to evoke?
Joss and I started by song-spotting the story; what moments felt like they deserved to be sung, and just what would be fun. As well as some solid glossy musical theatre moments we wanted it to sound like a contemporary film score and brought references like Johnny Greenwood and Mica Levi, as well as some more dissonant moments of Stravinsky. Also we looked at old Bernard Herrman scores, which are just so beautiful and tragic. Musical references, there’s definitely a bit of Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors in there I think.
We wanted there to be a real sense of dread but to have a playfully sinister life to it. It was about finding a tone that suited the sadness of the story without totally ignoring the naturally thrilling sounds of a good musical number. There were some really fun songs to imagine – like where they start to plan how they’re going to stuff him. It starts really dark and chugging, but turns into this really empowering musical moment where they both get excited over the grizzly plan. The music takes us on the journey of the two of them falling in love in a really fun way.
Joss is amazing and was just a total joy to work with. I can’t tell you how exciting it was to get the tracks back at each stage, gradually filling with instruments and life. It’s amazing that he managed to pull off such a big ambitious score using real players and instruments on such a tight budget.
Similarly the set design is incredible, how did you approach it creatively?
The starting point was to set the story in a recognisably grim reality, a bleak picture of suburbia where something awful happened in the unassuming house next door. But through development it felt right to push the production design to be more macabrely stylised and like a strange British fairytale. Dirty, lost and desperate. Possum by Matthew Holness was a great reference, as was A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence by Roy Andersson. The production designer Liz El-Kadhi was just amazing, she gave so much to the film and really worked on building out a colour palette and style.
The guiding factor in the whole process was our crazily tight budget – especially with the need for taxidermy! That pushed us to shoot in Gloucestershire where I grew up, because people love to help if you’re from the area! Most of the taxidermy in the film was borrowed from locals and we struck absolute gold with the location; a house no-one had been in for ten years. This gave us so many beautiful textures to add to and would have been so hard to re-create from scratch.
How long did it all take from start to finish to create? What did you learn over the course of that process?
It’s funny because we started this as a kind of ‘kick-up-the-arse’, make something in a month film that we weren’t gonna worry about too much. The more we worked on it, the more it excited us and the bigger it became. I think in all, it was about a year from when we decided to do it, but we actually came up with the idea whilst Joss and I were at university eight years ago!
I’ve learned that if you’re making a musical, people who don’t like musicals absolutely love to tell you how much they don’t like them.
I think the main thing I’ve learned is to just get on and make stuff because it’s just so easy to persuade yourself not to! I’ve also learned that if you go make something in your hometown, people will bend over backwards to help you. And finally I’ve learned that if you’re making a musical, people who don’t like musicals absolutely love to tell you how much they don’t like them.
What’s next for you?
Joss and I are currently writing Stuffed as a feature. Other than that I have a few other scripts I’d like to start this year, musical and non-musical. I’m also working on a feature length documentary about a white British Dancehall artist and the wider conversations around cultural appropriation and identity.