Peter the Penguin
A review and interview with filmmaker Andrew Rutter
Mark Anthony Ayling reviews Peter the Penguin, a body horror/comedy short film from filmmaker Andrew Rutter...
Andrew Rutter’s latest short, Peter the Penguin (UK, 2020), follows in the footsteps of previous comedy horror shorts The Front Door and Knock Door Run, released in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
. The film, which screened at the Fantasia Film Festival in August 2020 and Grimmfest in Manchester in October 2020 – where it won an award for Best Short Film – starts off as a kind of mild to moderately discomforting melodrama, in which neurotic boyfriend Nigel is on his way to meet latest love interest Rachel’s daughter Emily for the first time. Seeking to make a good impression, he’s purchased a diminutive stuffed lion for Rachel’s daughter in a bid to prove himself worthy of her affections.
The first inkling that something isn’t right hits when the couple arrive at Rachel’s home to discover that her daughter is distraught about an injured stuffed penguin called Peter. Concerned mum Rachel turns on Nigel for trying to appease her daughter with his miniature cuddly lion. ‘It’s not big enough!’ she snarls like a hissing demon, before turning to tend to the grievously wounded Peter.
Things get even weirder when an ambulance crew arrives to tend to the incapacitated seabird. After the paramedics turn up and Nigel seeks validation for his practical approach to the teddy’s trauma, it turns out they’re just as concerned for Peter’s plight as Rachel and Emily are. Naturally, this magnifies Nigel’s anxieties and confusion further, triggering a fight-or-flight response just as Rachel turns to him for solace and support.
Touching on themes of masculine insecurity, bereavement and the uncertainty inherent in emergent relationships, Peter the Penguin achieves a lot in its limited runtime. The short, whether intentionally or not, calls to mind the BBC’s horror-infused, jarringly humorous League of Gentleman sketches (UK, BBC, 1999-2002), via its bleakly amusing central conceit and extreme approach to commonplace neurosis.
It also conjures memories of Clerks director Kevin Smith’s divisive, idiosyncratic body horror comedy Tusk (USA, Kevin Smith, 2014), in which an unwitting, though entirely obnoxious podcaster falls prey to a disturbed recluse, who is seeking a life companion to fill the void created by the demise of his pet walrus.
However, whereas Tusk’s central character was a manipulative opportunist and utterly unlikeable, Nigel is merely a bit of a drip. He’s the sort of indecisive, insecure grey man whom many audience members will be able to sympathise with, especially given the inexplicable nature of the circumstances he finds himself in.
Credit is due to writer-director Rutter for successfully and deftly navigating some tricky narrative terrain, not to mention a series of increasingly jarring and entirely humorous tonal changes over a very short distance. Credit is also due to the film’s principal players, whose conviction in their respective roles helps render the nightmare surrealism of the piece strangely believable, even as events take a turn for the fantastic.
Whilst it’s safe to say some viewers might struggle to remain on board with the film’s increasingly ludicrous premise, perseverance has its rewards in this instance. Peter the Penguin is a surprising, perverse, funny, surreal and occasionally disturbing body horror comedy that makes the most of limited resources to deliver an alternative and entirely fresh take on everyday anxieties.
After watching Peter the Penguin, we took the opportunity to ask Andrew Rutter some questions about the film.
Mark: Why choose a penguin?
Andrew: I feel that penguins are universally loved, they’re a little clumsy and non-threatening, they walk sometimes across obstacles as if restricted and they’re ridiculously cute. It’s these qualities that meant it was a natural fit for my story of turning something seemingly innocent into something much more sinister. Strangely it was never a choice of which animal, it came practically fully formed in my head so I trusted the direction my mind seemed to be leading me down. The whole film was just an excuse to look at penguin videos on Youtube.
M: The film shares a number of similarities with Kevin Smith’s much maligned midnight movie Tusk from 2014. Was Tusk an influence on Peter the Penguin and, if not, where did your inspiration for the piece come from?
A: I’ve been getting this a lot on its festival run and I completely understand it, but I can only say that I’ve had the idea since 2009 when I was at university. At the time when the idea came to me, I wasn’t confident enough I could pull it off in a way that would do it justice, so I let it live at the back of my mind for a few years whilst I developed my skills and built a team. During that time I’d often think about it and it would always make me laugh, which is usually a good sign if you’re still feeling positive about an idea a few years on. The thing about the film industry is that there aren’t many original ideas left, I mean truly original, and usually if you’ve thought of something then someone else has probably already done it in some capacity. It happens all the time. It’s a paralyzing thought for a creative, so I don’t tend to worry about it as long as I know I’m offering something that gives people a different perspective and is totally my voice. My true inspirations for Peter the Penguin were more from Chris Morris’s Jam (BBC, Chris Morris, 2000) which blew my mind when I first saw it, and a long list of horror films like American Werewolf in London (UK/US, John Landis, 1981) that combine amazing humour with really stark terror.
M: Mia Hemerling gives an entirely convincing and quite unsettling performance as Emily in the film. How difficult was it to work with a younger actor in this film, especially given the disturbing nature of the central narrative?
A: I think with most short films that have zero budget you usually don’t get to have much if any rehearsal time and I hadn’t met (in person) or worked with Mia until the first day of shooting. It’s hard for anyone to just jump into something like this, let alone a child, so we all made sure to create an environment on set that was warm and welcoming. I wanted her to feel included in the process and do my best to shield her away from the intensity of it all as there were many curveballs thrown, but Mia delivered. I want to mention Mia’s mum Karinna too as she was wonderfully supportive to everyone which made everything that much easier on set. I think Mia had a lot of fun on the film and naturally when you’re on set the whole thing is demystified so it wasn’t particularly scary for her.
M: The fusion of horror with comedy is not an easy thing to pull off. How difficult was it for you to strike that balance in Peter the Penguin given the limited resources at your disposal and the short runtime of the piece?
A: I’ve been making films independently for quite some time now and they’ve mostly had no budgets behind them, so very early on I’ve had to adapt and be creative with my available resources. I feel my natural development has led me towards comedy and horror so it felt very organic to me when making this film. It never felt like I was trying to mash two different genres together as I firmly believe comedy is a close neighbour to horror. There’s so much absurdity in real life, things can be so funny that quickly turn quite scary and it’s that feeling I love to try and capture, taking the audience on a bit of a ride. For this film in particular I just tried to keep it fairly simple in terms of the narrative set up and then let it all unravel as we move forward. When you’ve got limited resources you just have to get economical as a director and be quite brutal with the material if the shit hits the fan. It’s also extremely wise to surround yourself with mega talented people.
M: The film makes use of some quite disturbing practical effects in its final scenes to showcase a new and improved Peter the Penguin. How did you and your effects team come up with the design?
A: I am fortunate enough to be friends with Tom Ellis who created the final design so the process was super smooth. He shares a lot of the same influences as me so it was as simple as getting together over a drink and just chatting about it. I explained the basics of what I saw and the functionality of it but mostly I left it with Tom to have fun and come up with something disturbing. It’s important to trust the people you work with and let them do their thing. Tom showed me a miniature bust he’d made as a prototype and then went full steam ahead with the real thing. Poor Chris Butler who plays Nigel then had to become closely acquainted with the slimy beast for a few hours.
M: On occasion, the film hints at some kind of world-gone-wrong scenario in which average, everyday citizens have fallen victim to a shared delusion. Was the intention here to set up a larger narrative with a view to expanding on the picture, or was Peter the Penguin conceived as a self-contained, standalone piece?
A: I’m glad you mention that as I’ve had so much fun with people’s interpretations whilst it’s been on the festival circuit. It’s definitely a self-contained piece so there’s no plan to expand it. I feel I said everything I needed to say with this one and got it out of my system. I just wanted people to walk away thinking about it and what the ending meant to them, this way I feel it gives the film life after the credits roll. I think that can be the biggest challenge when writing an ending, how much do you give to the audience and how much do you leave to the imagination, whilst being true to the overall piece. It’s a delicate line as too much either way can sometimes ruin a film completely. I felt I gave enough for the audience to come to a conclusion that probably wouldn’t be too far removed from what I know to be the ending, but I’ll never tell!
M: Following the positive reception for the film on the festival circuit, what now for Peter the Penguin and what can we expect in the immediate future from its writer/director Andrew Rutter?
A: Peter the Penguin has still got quite a few festival appearances left this year, some of them I can’t yet mention but I believe one of the next outings will be at FilmQuest in Utah and also the Bafta recognised LOCO Comedy Film Festival in London.
The reception to the film blew my freakin’ mind. It was made for so little with barely any crew so to see it playing alongside films with decent budgets and huge teams was hugely satisfying. It was never really a ‘calling card’ film, at the time of making it I kind of played it down as I knew we couldn’t probably compete in the bigger leagues, it wasn’t really down to lack of self-confidence but I think I was maybe trying not to get my hopes up too much and just enjoy a weird little creative endeavour that would help me develop my skills, so when it got into Slamdance I laughed my ass off, it was just so absurd. I’m so thankful to all the festivals that embraced it and gave it such a great platform. Going forward I’ve got a few plates spinning, one is a full blown horror short I want to do that will leave the comedy behind, I have a couple of others similar in nature to Peter the Penguin and I’ve got my eye on a feature film but it’s very early days. With how things went last year I’m trying to go with the flow and see which project comes up organically. Now more than ever I want to get back on a set and have fun!
Many thanks to Andrew Rutter for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find him on Twitter here.