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Using Puppets, ‘Dollhouse’ Lays Bare the Pop World’s Sleazy Misogyny

Nicole Brending discusses her savage animated satire, ‘Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture,’ which hits digital platforms August 11.

Arriving on digital platforms August 11, Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture, is Nicole Brending’s savage puppet animation satire set in the bubble gum pop world of Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, as told by entertainment reporters. The film has drawn considerable attention on the festival circuit; among other awards, it took home the Best Narrative Feature Grand Jury prize and the Spirit of Slamdance Award at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival.

In the film, Junie Spoon’s pop star story runs the gamut: from losing her virginity in a sex tape, to 24-hour marriages, to a Patty-Hearst style kidnapping and bank heist, to the murder of her mother. The stylized puppets reveal the hypocrisies of an opportunistic society that preys on the talents and contributions of women.

Dollhouse takes a scathing look at what it means to be female in a modern world; assaulted by men and women and harassed by the media, representing a new era obsessed with identity and entitlement. Junie's fall from grace is a cautionary tale about the consequences of denying women their own voice and a reflexive expose forcing us to acknowledge the less than savory pop industrial complex we all can’t help but buy into.

Brending previously worked with puppets on the short film, Operated by Invisible Hands, where she learned that dolls have a certain way with audiences. “They are disarming, I think more than other forms of animation, because puppets are real objects,” she says. “They perhaps make people think of toys they used to play with, or of being children, and so somehow they are both very funny and very moving.”

“When I started writing this story about a pop starlet's rise and fall, it occurred to me very quickly that this would be another film with dolls,” the director reveals. “Certainly, there’s a symbolic aspect to using dolls. They really lend themselves to satire and the sleaziness of the pop world - women being treated like dolls. But I wanted the film to be honest without being alienating. With dolls, I could take more risks than I could with humans. In fact, the film would be utterly unpalatable if it was live-action, and I don't think audiences would engage as much. Works about women's issues are always tricky to get people to watch so it needed to have humor, it needed to be insane the way gender politics are insane - and a puppet animation felt like exactly the way to do it.”

Amazingly enough, she produced the film almost entirely on her own. “It was basically a team of one,” she notes about the size of her production “team.” “I made everything and shot it and did nearly all the puppeteering except during the heist and the Bronco chase. In post, I worked with my good friend, Jean-Olivier Begin on the music and other friends helped with audio, animation, sound design, so it was a pretty lean crew.”

Though she claims there wasn’t anything particularly interesting about production, which took nine months to shoot and another year to complete, she refers to it as the Michael's Craft Project from Hell. “My apartment was completely covered in glitter and bits of feather boa and I had glue under my nails for what seemed like years,” she laughs.

As a huge fan of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Brending recalls their sage advice regarding working with puppets. “I remember one of them saying, regarding Team America, that puppets are very difficult, they never do what you tell them, and that they were never working with them again! Puppets are tricky. They require a lot of rigging, especially if you're working alone, so that was always an interesting challenge. But between monofilament, some carefully rigged C-stands, a lot of super strong magnets, gaff tape, and creative editing, I did manage to do some really fun stuff.”

With her debut feature film set for wide digital release in less than a week, Brending is more than satisfied with her efforts. “I was being told 'No' a lot as a director, and I decided I wasn't going to let that stop me from making my first feature,” she shares. “Being able to work with puppets was not only a fun way into the material, but it also gave me autonomy over my career. I'm very proud of this film, not only for the success that it's having, but also because I gave it the greenlight.”

From Rock Salt Releasing, Dollhouse: The Eradication of Female Subjectivity from American Popular Culture will be released on digital platforms August 11. The film is written, produced and directed by, with original music by Jean-Olivier Bégin. The film stars Brending as Junie Spoons, Aneikit Bonnel (Grosse Pointe Blank, The Bounty Hunter, Hitch), Erik Hoover (The Stranger, A Method, God’s Cookery), Peter Ooley (The Life of Riley, Group Home), Adam Sly, and Sydney Bonar.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.