Benny Loves You: We talk to writer, actor and director Karl Holt

Benny Loves You is showing at FrightFest Saturday 24th October

We all had that one cuddly toy as a child that had pride of place at our side. And if you didn’t, then, to be frank, you are simply abnormal and probably a psychopath. For me, as a child, that special furry friend was ‘Charlie’ the monkey. His extra-long arms and legs and big soft belly acting as my ‘go-to’ comfort every time I climbed into bed. And once there, all snuggled up; Charlie would serve as my protector, friend and safety net from the big world around me. In many ways, this may now explain my love of hairy men…But I digress.

Unfortunately, despite his years of selfless service offered to me in childhood, there came the point where Charlie vanished; no longer needed by his once best friend. His soft-stuffed soul confined to a cupboard. In fact, just the thought of this has me weeping; the tears splashing off my keyboard. But, even worse than this. Yes Worse!. I am ashamed to admit that I don’t even remember the moment Charlie was tossed into the family wheelie bin. The event, having passed without ceremony or thought; a careless, uncaring act of pure evil on my part.

However, just imagine if that cute and cuddly childhood friend had no intention of giving up on you; even as an adult. And even more worrying, just imagine if their soft polyester brain had a killer instinct. Their one mission to keep you safe from harm, your life becoming a nightmare as they joyously pluck the stuffing out of anyone in their way. Can you imagine that? Your cuddly playmate protecting you through a haze of blood and destruction?

If you can, then you are going to adore the irreverent comedy, blood and chaos of Benny Loves You. A film that literally had me in stitches as it laced the toy shaped horror of The Puppet Master and Childs Play with the humour of Inside Number 9 and Robot Chicken. Now, at this point, I must confess my love of the horror-comedy genre. But, as a genre, it can be hit and miss. Therefore, you can imagine my joy when FrightFest not only delivered us the exceptional Two Heads Creek in August but followed it with Benny Loves You this month. Both movies, entering our Cinerama hall of fame as two of the finest horror-comedy films of recent years. But why I hear you say, is Benny Loves You such a tour-de-force? Well, let me explain.

Not only does Benny Loves You surround the audience with perfectly timed and delivered comedy, but it also ensures the laughs are matched with just the right amount of blood-soaked horror. In a film that understands one, simple fact. Men however old they may be, never really grow up. We all know this to be true!. Even as I type this article, I am surrounded by toys I have collected over the years, from Star Wars figures to a replica Gonzo and movie memorabilia. Men instinctively try to hold on to the very things that surrounded them as boys. And whether you call this Peter Pan syndrome or just escapism, Benny Loves You understands the need to cling onto our childhood wonders.

But writer/director Karl Holt also understands the genre Benny inhabits, lacing the narrative with a mash-up of scene’s that pay homage to the genre’s past. From the puppet inspired anarchy of Gremlins to the tech-inspired A.I of Child’s Play 2018. With the resulting movie also managing to create a brand new horror icon in ‘Benny’. The soft, Elmo inspired innocence of the toy subverted into one of the best cuddly killers we have seen in a movie for quite some time.

I recently caught up with actor, writer and director Karl Holt to talk all things comedy-horror, and the inspiration sitting behind Benny Loves You.

Hi Karl, and thanks for joining me to discuss Benny Loves You. I adored the movie from start to finish. Benny Loves You started its life as the brilliant short film Eddie Loves You way back in 2006. Was it always your intention to expand your short into a feature-length production?

There’s something special about seeing a comedy horror with a crowd. Over the last ten years, I’ve made a handful of horror shorts, but with ‘Eddie’ we really got a reaction that I hadn’t with any other short. You can see and hear if what you’ve done is working because the audience is either cheering, clapping, or dead silent. With ‘Eddie’ you could genuinely tell the room was having a good time, but if you made a great drama, you’d have no idea unless you asked everyone afterwards. So it was always in the back of my head that this might be my first feature, I wanted to make something a crowd would enjoy. The irony being with covid, we’ve missed out on most of those opportunities. That will teach me.

Am I right that this was a self-funded movie? And if so, can you tell us a bit about the pressures and freedom of self-financing?

Yes, it was made with savings from all the years I’ve been a freelancer. Most people would get a mortgage, but I decided to make a film. In some ways it’s great that no-one is telling you what to do, I can make exactly what I want within the budget. So I just made something I would like and hoped others would too.

On the flip side, it was difficult to make as we had mostly a crew of three people in the week with a few more helping at weekends. That main crew was myself, John on camera and sound, and my mum doing boom, catering, setting up lights at 2am… whatever it took. With a small crew everyone is doing everything. I’d be in my PJ’s carrying a light and cable into a field, running back to put batteries on charge, checking continuity sheets, and a minute later acting with no rehearsal.

I remember one evening it went on till 4am, and I knew the actors were turning up for a big scene at 7am. I became so spaced out as the shoot went on, so at a certain point when it all got too much, I re-arranged the schedule to give us a day off in between each filming day. That made the shoot longer, but it was worth it, and only achievable as we took the scenes where I was alone and shoved them back a few weeks. It didn’t affect any of the actor’s schedules. That’s the only benefit of being in your own movie.

A sense of fun permeates the action on screen, how long did it take you to film Benny Loves You? And how did you go about casting the movie?

It was shot in stages so we could manage it on a really small crew. Pre-production started in Jan 2014 with just myself and John. I put casting calls out and then watched 300 showreels. Once narrowed down, I asked a handful of people to read a few scenes. Most actors were cast on their showreel or audition video.

First, we turned John’s dad’s living room into the girl’s bedroom for the opening scene shoot. John’s really good at DIY, and he made a few fake walls to achieve that. So the opening scene was shot by May. Next was the main house, which we spent a month prepping with vinyl flooring, props, furniture etc. Colin let us film whilst he was still living there, which posed a few challenges. Once we were ready to shoot, my mum came down for a month, and Pete and Mark would also help at weekends. There were other days we had make-up artists on set too, but these were chosen carefully. We spent the summer at that house off and on.

It took me a long time to find a suitable office we could hire. In April 2015, we found one with all the rooms we needed and a canteen. We still had to decorate all the rooms ourselves with partitions, lights, artwork etc. I think we shot for two weeks off and on. Finally in August another friend, John, let us film in his garage which acted as the basement to the house. Then the real hard work started… four years of post-production!. All in all, it’s been five years of my life.

It’s obvious from watching the movie that you share a love of the horror-comedy genre. Are there specific films or TV shows that have, and continue to inspire you as a filmmaker?

Comedy often comes from tragedy. I think it’s a marvellous defence mechanism to be able to laugh in dark times. You only have to glance at social media to see how humour has helped people cope in the present pandemic; with thousands of memes. So comedy and horror I feel are quite natural bedfellows. However, I do love straight horror too. I grew up on John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, David Cronenberg, but now I enjoy all kinds of cinema. I think I’ll always want to work within the horror genre, though, as it allows you to be more cinematic.

Benny Loves You demonstrates the importance of independent filmmaking in delivering new ideas, fresh visions and creativity. Do you have any advice to aspiring new writers and filmmakers out there?

Look at what’s available to you and write something based around it. The tools are there for anyone to make a film fairly cheaply. So don’t wait for someone else to fund your five million pound idea because you’ll be in a long queue with a million other writers. Also, find your own take on whatever it is you do. With Benny, I knew there were hundreds of killer toy films out there, so you have to mark out why yours will be different. And understand why your approach is unique, and seriously ask yourself if it will stand out.

Now, I am conscious Karl that if we don’t talk about ‘Benny’ (the star of the film) blood may be spilt over the custard creams. So how did you come to cast Benny in the lead role? And how has he coped with the resulting fame?

You think I had a choice? Tell you what, I’ll let you be the one to inform him that he didn’t get the role. Right now he’s refreshing Twitter and Facebook every two minutes while screaming MORE!. So I think he’s coping with it as well as any actor would.

Did Benny do all his own stunts in the movie?

He did everything apart from get in bed with me, for that he wanted a stunt double. Rude!

I have heard that Benny was paid in tinned spaghetti? Can you confirm whether this is true? And if so, which brand?

It was a non-copyrighted brand like Pines Spaghetti. He’s really messy though, it’s all over his waistcoat and you wonder whether any of it actually went down his throat.

Right, back to you Karl. Did you have a favourite cuddly toy as a kid? Can you tell us about them?

I had a Scooby-Doo that got seriously thrown around and abused. I know, that wasn’t nice, but I was seven, and I think he kind of enjoyed it anyway. He got stitched up multiple times over the years, so as I got older, I got more sentimental about him, and he’s the only teddy that has survived my childhood. He’s sat on top of my bedroom wardrobe right now. And no, I’ll never throw him out.

And finally, what’s next for you?

I’d like to make a more character-based creepy horror next. But to be honest, I still have to follow my own rules. What’s going to be available to me? Can I afford to do it? I think those two questions will be up in the air for a while. Let’s see how this one does.

Thank you so much for talking with me Karl, and please do come back and see us again soon. Benny Loves You premieres at FrightFest on Saturday 24th October, with ticket information HERE.

Director: Karl Holt

Cast:  Karl HoltClaire CartwrightGeorge Collie, James Parsons