Otto Baxter's musical horror-comedy short The Puppet Asylum debuted at FrightFest in August to much critical acclaim, but it's the filmmaker's six-year journey to bring his movie to the screen that proves even more inspiring.
The filmmaker has spent much of his life in front of a camera. As an advocate for the Down syndrome community, he has appeared in many news reports and documentaries helping to raise awareness about the condition, but now he is ready to tell his own story, on his own terms.
Baxter does this in two ways: through his semi-autobiographical horror film The Puppet Asylum, which he wrote and directed, and the making-of documentary Otto Baxter: Not A F****ing Horror Story that he filmed with Peter Beard and Bruce Fletcher (both come to Sky Documentaries and NOW from 23 September).
Read more: Everything new on Sky and NOW in September
The trio are close friends, so much so that Beard and Fletcher are Baxter’s legal deputies. They first met while making a documentary together 14 years ago, and Beard tells Yahoo UK that they hit it off immediately after Baxter jokingly "came up behind [him] and stuck his tongue as far inside [his] ear as he possibly could".
"[After that] I thought this is going to be a special relationship," Beard reflected.
"But, more seriously, we spent a year together making that first film, and for me it was a big thing in my career because I'd always wanted to make long-form observational films... it was big for us, but then we became really good friends because we like the same things."
Telling his story
One of the things they bonded over was their love of horror films, Baxter is an avid fan of the genre and has a huge collection of horror memorabilia at his home, so it was a no-brainer to tap into his passion when creating his first film.
Watch a trailer for Otto Baxter: Not A F****ing Horror Story
The short film and documentary go hand-in-hand, and will both be released on Sky, with the latter informing viewers of Baxter's life story and how it influenced his film, as well as the arduous six-year journey it took to make it.
The Puppet Asylum delves into Baxter’s backstory through a fictional lens, representing his feelings about being put up for adoption by his birth parents, his gratitude for his adoptive mother Lucy and how she raised him.
It also reimagines the struggles and discrimination he has faced in his life through the evil entity known as The Master, who torments his character from day one.
Directing a movie was always a dream for Baxter, and being able to finally achieve it felt like a momentous occasion for him.
"I just loved being a director," Baxter says. "I loved working with these two here [Beard and Fletcher]”
“These two remind me of Ant & Dec or Dick and Dom,” he jokes.
Fletcher adds, "One of Otto's great strengths as a director is working with actors. You were great with actors, weren't you? You were always saying ‘push it further.’"
Baxter, Fletcher says, also had a “very clear” idea of what he wanted to do with his film, because he “can see the film in [his] head” in “very definite” ways. This is made clear in the documentary, where Baxter speaks with authority both on and off set of what he wants a scene to look like, or how the actors should execute their performance.
The film begins, ironically, with a birth, Otto's birth to be exact. The moment is reimagined as a gory scene reminiscent of classic horror like Rosemary’s Baby and Sweeney Todd, where his mother (played by MyAnna Buring) shuns and abandons her horned child at the urging of The Master (Paul Kaye). She sees him as a monster, a demon not worth keeping.
The birth scene is undoubtedly shocking, and it will stick in viewers' minds particularly for the way in which Baxter chooses to depict himself.
While some people might want to be seen as the hero of the piece Baxter prefers to be seen as a villain.
The heroes are boring, and the villains are more me.Otto Baxter
Baxter's monstrous form onscreen is initially representative of how society might see him as a person with Down Syndrome, but he turns the notion on its head and instead makes it a story of empowerment and of taking back control.
A bump in the road
But even with the ball moving on the project there came an issue when funding for Baxter’s short film ran out, the creative team struggled to find someone to replace their former investors and it took years before things could begin again.
"It took us a long time to sort of get going [again]," Beard explains.
I think that [Otto] always just felt like it was gonna happen. Otto's a very positive person, I think [he] just felt like it was always gonna happen, and maybe if you have that attitude then good things will happen.Peter Beard
Being positive did indeed pay off because, a few years later, Sky stepped in to support the film after a public call for more stories of disabled people told by those within the disabled community.
"Even in the last six years I think things have changed a lot," Beard says, reflecting on the increased support of the disabled community in the arts.
"When we went and had those initial conversations it was outsider arts [that] it was discussed as, rather than being people with different perspectives being given the same opportunity as everyone else.
"We pitched it to everyone we could possibly pitch it to after it looked like the BFI weren't going to continue funding us, for a whole myriad of reasons, and everyone looked at this tape we made and they really loved it, but they were just like, 'oh, I don't think we'll get an audience.'
"[Not] until Sky popped up really and started doing documentaries again, they saw something in it. Even then there were questions about whether they would be able to sell it upstairs.
"But in the next year things changed in a very definite way, especially with [writer] Jack Thorne standing up and shaming everyone into it [by saying TV has 'utterly failed' disabled people]."
I do still think that there's a hierarchy within that, and learning disability is often ignored.Peter Beard
Returning to set
With new funding in place, Baxter was able to return to the director's chair and finish his film.
The movie culminates with the director taking over the main role, starring in a scene where he frees himself from the clutches of The Master and finally wrestles back control of his own narrative — much like he has been able to do in real life.
“We have this glass window, but not real glass it was sugar glass, and it was quite easy to smash. So you’re seeing me smash out of the cabinet,” Baxter says of the key scene.
Fletcher adds: “Otto was quite pumped up after that [scene], probably it felt like quite a significant moment, both in the making of the film but also felt quite cathartic, I think, and in lots of ways really.”
“It was a really good day on the set,” Baxter adds.
Looking to the future
With his first film finally in the can, Baxter is looking forward to doing more and is already preparing to make his next film, which will be a festive horror flick named Satan Claus.
He tells Yahoo that the film will feature a crime involving two Santa Claus, “one good and one evil”, and even tells Beard and Fletcher that he has parts in mind for them.
Fletcher jokes: “It's good doing these interviews because we learn a bit more about this film every time people ask him about [it].”
With views continuing to change for the better around disabled people and letting them tell their stories, there’s hope that the director’s next film won’t have as difficult a journey to screen as his first. But even with representation of disabled people increasing, Baxter feels there is still more work to do.
"I think there should be more [opportunities],” he says. “We’re equal.”
Otto Baxter: Not a F****ing Horror Story and Puppet Asylum are airing on Sky Documentary as a double-bill on Friday, 23 September.