Writer and director Nicole Brending’s new film Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture is a provocative, thought-provoking film with a punk rock attitude that pulls no punches and delivers satirical brilliance using dolls, a lot of imagination, and creative filmmaking.
Dollhouse is a film that centers around Junie Spoons, a young woman who rockets to superstardom on the back of her entertainment talent. Junie’s rise and fall and everything in between comes to life via dolls, doll-sized sets, and spot-on voice acting. Junie is a stand-in for superstars like Britney Spears or Whitney Houston, who, at one point or another, succumbed to the enormous pressures of fame. Dollhouse is a throwback to the 80s and 90s era of indie filmmaking that eschewed the status quo to tell a familiar tale in a wickedly impactful way.
Nicole Brending is a working-class woman who loved telling stories in every way possible, but it didn’t start with filmmaking. “It developed into filmmaking. I was always drawing pictures to tell stories. I think I was a visual artist first. That slowly grew into a lot of performance as a kid. I did professional theatre when I was a child from about the age of nine to sixteen. I went to an arts high school for creative writing.”
“After college,” Nicole says, “I was producing plays and performances. I wanted to do some video and incorporate that into one of the performances.”
Nicole first contacted a small production team, but they wanted too much money. “I took a production class and figured it out on my own. As soon as I learned video and editing, I never went back to performance. I fell in love. It was a culmination of all the things that I love and want to bring together.”
Nicole loved many facets of creating art, and filmmaking was a natural place for her to land. “Filmmaking is always evolving towards incorporating all of the arts.”
Modern audiences are not ready for Dollhouse, but they need to watch it. The film is deceptively powerful in covering the rise and fall of a pop superstar and the lecherous world that rises around such fame. But it wasn’t always this way. “I had another idea around the time Black Swan came out. I had this idea for a psycho-drama, set in the pop world with a Britney Spears-type character and the psycho-drama of being her.”
Nicole explains, “How freaky fame is and the paranoia it must create. The way people are never sincere and you never know what’s going on. It’s a battle to figure out what’s real and what’s not.”
Putting that battle on display is Dollhouse. However, the road to becoming a working filmmaker is twisted, uphill, and full of jagged rocks. “I was trying to get work as a director, but it was impossible. There’s a lot against a first-time filmmaker, especially a woman trying to make dark content.”
The idea for Dollhouse was percolating, and the struggle to make films was real. “I’d worked with puppets in the past, and I had brainstorm one day ‘Why don’t I make a puppet movie?’”
After connecting the idea for Dollhouse with its visual representation, the work flowed. “The story just started to meld with the puppets and grew up out of that. It wasn’t initially as satirical as it ended up being.”
Nicole’s Dollhouse is getting plenty of attention from audiences. “I think one of the things that people recognize in the film is that it’s familiar; it’s how we treat women regularly.”
Working with puppets comes with its own set of challenges. “It took about nine months to shoot, but that also includes the building of things. I would do a build for 10 minutes of the script, shoot that, take it down, then do another 10 minutes. The builds took a couple of weeks and the puppets a couple of days to a week, depending on how sophisticated they are.”
“I did a lot of stuff on my own,” Nicole says. It doesn’t get more indie than Dollhouse, and while a part of that is “… budget reasons, but also because I come from a performance background, so I can get very specific about what the voices sound like.”
Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and each part of Dollhouse sums up to a fantastic whole. The score is a wonderful collaboration between Nicole and a long-time friend. “I worked with Jean-Olivier Bégin for 12 or 13 years now. He did the first score I ever had on a movie, and I was his first score. So we lost our scoring virginity together. It was on a doll movie.”
Nicole elaborates, “I was going to Columbia, and there was a school just up the street called the Manhattan School of Music. The Manhattan school asked Columbia film school if they could get some films for their scoring class. So I submitted this doll movie that I just made. It’s a really sweet lesbian love story, forbidden love kind of thing. J-O [Jean-Olivier] fought for it. He said, ‘Nobody else gets this movie.’”
The first of many collaborations was a success for Nicole and Jean. “The movie did well. J-O won a student Emmy for the score, and it went to a bunch of festivals and won a bunch of best short film prizes. We had a great start to our collaboration.”
A decade, plus a few years later, Nicole adds, “J-O’s done all my films, and so, we have this system. He does the scoring, but he and I also write songs together. Usually, the way it goes is that I write the lyrics and sing them very poorly. I email them to him, and he does some magic, gets professionals to sing it, then sends it back to me sounding awesome.”
Nicole gets “… writing credit for that, but he’s a brilliant composer. I can say to him, ‘I want this to sound like Ramstein or Top 40 whatever.’ We went through the early 00s to now to look at the progression of Britney’s music, for example, and tried to make a progression for Junie as well.”
Dollhouse is raunchy, provocative, and thought-provoking. Could Nicole have made the same movie with actors instead of puppets? “No. Hell no. There’s no way. That was one thing about the puppets. Once I decided to use puppets, it gave me a lot of liberties. I could engage with the truth of things and be honest, but also palatable.”
Nicole explains the effect the dolls have on viewers. “It’s a lot easier to see the dolls because you can laugh. There’s no better way to take the edge off of the brutal reality.”
Dollhouse is funny but also a punch to the gut. It’s a story that doesn’t hold back on what it wants to say while still being hilariously poignant. Nicole thinks there’s a movement that believes comedy should be “… a way for people to avoid reality or avoid the truth. I disagree with that. I think comedy is the best way to engage people in the truth of things.”
Two of Nicole’s influences include John Waters and Todd Haynes, both avant-garde filmmakers with something to say and a bold way of saying it. Who are some others? “I would be remiss not to mention Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I think Jonathan Swift is somehow speaking through me. I like to think so. Also, Aaron McGruder, who created The Boondocks, I admire that, folks like that. Dorothy Parker and so many women who also speak to me.”
What stories would Nicole love to get a chance at putting on film? “I’ve always wanted to do a “Confederacy of Dunces,” which has never been made into a movie. I’d love to do Fatal Attraction but from the female point of view.”
Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture is available on Amazon, Vudu, Fandango, Vimeo on Demand, and Indemand. So, what’s coming next from writer, director, actor, singer Nicole Brending? “I’ve always got more projects. I’ve got a couple of features that I’m going to try and bring out this fall. I’ve got some TV projects that I’m working on. I have one thing I’m pitching, with puppets, about the end of the world.”
Is Dollhouse on your watch-list?
Thanks to Nicole Brending and Rock Salt Releasing
for making this interview possible.
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