Moon Garden takes place almost entirely inside the labyrinth of a little girl's nightmare. Shot on expired 35mm film, the story follows tiny comatose cherub Emma (Haven Lee Harris) as she journeys through a dreamland in search of home. Naturally, as with any odyssey, there are monsters afoot, and this movie is no exception. A wicked entity is hot on Emma's trail and picking up speed. Teeth, a particularly vicious ghoul, has waited many moons for the nourishment that Emma's childhood sorrow provides, scrounging for her delicious tears and dead set on devouring her whole. Played by Morgana Ignis, this creature is the real star of the show, and it's easy to see why. FANGORIA was lucky enough to catch up with character actor Ignis to discuss bringing Teeth to life in Moon Garden, puppeteering for the Jim Henson Company, working in stop motion animation on shows like Robot Chicken, and how wearing prosthetics and heavy monster makeup helped this incendiary actress come out in a challenging film industry as a transgender woman.
How did you break into the scene?
For me, it started in animation. I didn't realize I wanted to get into acting at first, but it was something that I'd always been interested in. I started working in stop-motion animation and tried that career first. I studied movement, different types of characters, and just a wide range of life across the board. I tried that for a few years, and I really enjoyed it, but it didn't feel like what I wanted to spend my life doing. Once I got more involved in the acting world, I realized that all that physicality that I had studied in animation carried over to acting in this way that was super niche.
All of the characters I played on stage were always very physical characters, and that started my path toward wanting to become a character actress. At the same time, I worked with a few studios, like studioADI, as an effects artist. I was in the lab doing fabrication and knew how to do prosthetics. Once they realized that I was performing and studying theater, they pulled me aside and said, "You're way more valuable to us acting underneath the suits than building them." It’s such an intimate industry that when I did a good job on my first project, it was enough for those who worked on it o recommend me to their friends. And then it just snowballed from there to the point where a lot of the characters I was playing had this inhuman quality to them, and it ended up becoming somewhat of a specialty.
How did you meet Moon Garden writer/director Ryan Stevens Harris?
We worked on a previous film together called Discarnate. He was one of the pickup directors that came in, him and John Elfers. When he came in, it was all for creature work. Working with him as an actress playing this character was something where he was able to think of me in context to this film he was writing. He brought me in very, very early to Moon Garden. I was actually one of the first people to jump on the film with him because I knew after working with him that he had that appreciation for the genre that I really respect in a director. He showed me one of his shorts that ended up being a part of the film, “Every Dream Is a Child With Teeth”, I believe it was called, and that also starred Hayven Lee Harris.
It had a little bit of his stylistic mood to it, this very early '90s, Tool-esque music video quality that really stuck with me, and that was enough for me. There is this extra style and artistic integrity to this that feels very art house. This doesn't feel like a D-list popcorn horror film. This feels like something really different, unique, and special, and to be honest, I was getting a little bored with many of the scripts that I had come to my table regarding this work. There wasn't a lot of exploration as far as what I was doing. The character might look really cool, but that's for another artist to pour their creativity into. Once it came to me, I realized the script didn't have much to offer me regarding something new and exciting to explore with a creature. Ryan approaching me with Moon Garden really presented something to me that I had never seen before.
How long did you work on this movie? This was a project that took years to complete, correct?
It was! This was predominantly self-funded, and when you look at the credits, it really shows. This was a very small crew of people who put this project together. These were puzzles that we had to figure out each time. Many of these scenes were shot in the same location, the same room, everything stripped away, and then a new thing built inside of it. It took time. It would be months between us shooting certain shots, and I sometimes wondered if the film would ever come out.
Thankfully, it did, but I would shoot something, and maybe five, six months later, I'd come in and just be blown away that what was previously a room full of rust and pipes had now become Teeth's lair with the tear harvesting machine, or I'd come back there, and there'd be a whole well set up that leads into an area with a pool in the back. It was a different game each time. I think everything was filmed in one location except for the exterior shots we filmed at Bombay Beach, out near the Salton Sea. But we shot this film for a long time, to the point where we were running out of time due to how quickly Haven was growing up. I think there was that stress hanging on us – okay, we need to get this thing done – not just because we want to get this film out there, but it's going to become very obvious when we shoot each scene depending on how quickly Haven is springing up.
Was there a journey to finding the look of this character? Did Harris clearly envision how he wanted Teeth to look from the get-go?
We tried out a lot of different things with Teeth's look. The first time we did the look for Teeth, we tried it as a build-up makeup, cotton and latex, to try to build that form. Then we attempted a prosthetic makeup. At the end of it, we ended up just using a mask because we needed that portion of Teeth to be static. When we were shooting the film, the main sentient element of the character wasn't a part of it. It was a black void. So, all we needed was this blank form with a black void in the center of the face because all of the movement would be in the body.
Every day, Rachel Wagner, our effects artist, painted my legs and arms to create the limbs. The nails were my own, my nails are usually long, so we just made them look more crusty and terrifying. The makeup was the same as far as Pros-Aide transfers on the limbs. The most notable part of the character of Teeth itself was an element added after the film's completion. I came back in with a set of teeth that I puppeteered on a green screen while watching the film's edit. I recorded the teeth chattering, the effect of the teeth moving, and the sentients for them, almost like going in for ADR. So, while the mask was this static object, once the film was done, I came back in with these puppeteered teeth and added all of that life and character into it with puppetry that was then comped into that void that we shot during principal photography.
Your movements add so much when you're playing the "Teeth" character, it's almost like you've come back from the dead and you're fighting through rigor mortis, but it's also more than that. It's almost as if your whole body is chattering - how did you develop your physicality for this role?
It was definitely a grueling process to do this physicality. I had a very specific idea for the character once it was explained to me. The sentient part of this character's body is the teeth, and I considered everything around the teeth to be this corpse that rises out of this pool that is wearing this outfit – to just be this puppeteered conduit. When I look at the design of a creature, I will try to think of not only how I will move as a character but why they move like that. In this case, I imagine this body's been out there for a while. It's been rotting out there, it's gone through rigor mortis, it's gone through breakdown, but it still has to move.
I developed this sort of muscle spasm and chattering to the movement that, in my mind, is the character's body continuously falling apart and snapping back together. If you imagine the teeth sitting in this void, it is pulling these loose strings in the character's limbs to get it to do what it needs. The cinematography and editing helped because they ramped up and played with the speed of the chattering movement I was doing to elevate how it came across on screen. It ended up adding the quality I wanted, which was to make this character feel like a nightmare.
You previously mentioned your desire to create a backstory for the creatures you portray, even if it's not something the audience will ever see on screen. Were there any details you privately added to the character of Teeth to help it feel more real?
Hunger as the motivation for the character was a huge thing. This is a character that has been starved for who knows how long. They've been lying there and waiting but unable to die. They're this immortal, ageless entity, and when Ryan described them tasting this tear for the first time, this liquid form of emotion, he really couldn't stress enough that this was ambrosia. This was the most delicious thing that this creature could possibly ingest. The obsession and the hunger – this character had to find more of this, to be able to indulge in this. Imagine that you've been starving for hundreds of years, and the thing that presents itself is the most mouth-watering, delicious, perfect sustenance.
Does performing behind a mask allow you a certain sense of freedom as an actor?
It does. I mean, on a personal level, I was closeted as trans in the industry for a long time. I was out at nineteen, but wanting to get into acting, there weren't really roles that interested me that would fit a trans woman, and that was something that I struggled with for a long time. I was out in my personal life, and I had a completely different name than what I was called in the industry and would go back and forth in presentation. I thought, well, I can't transition, I can't do any of that if I'm not making money. So, I had to keep this charade up in the industry and present myself a certain way for a long time to have the personal life that I wanted to have. But with creature acting, I got beyond this sort of dysphoria of appearing on screen in a certain way because I was hiding completely under masks and prosthetics and becoming something transcending gender. I'm transcending species. I'm transcending reality as these characters and was able to build myself as a performer.
Playing characters across genders and ages and everything in the different projects I was in, regardless of whether people knew what I identified as, because it didn't matter. It was about my physicality. In a way, there was a ton of freedom for me having prosthetics, or wearing a mask, because I got to develop my skills as I was sort of letting my light shine within myself and finding the right time to present myself as I am within the industry. Thankfully, things are progressing, and things are changing, but for a long time, playing creatures and having those sorts of roles was my way of dealing with where the industry was at the time and still being able to build a career and safety net for myself.
How did working for The Henson Company as a puppeteer, or more specifically, collaborating with Brian Henson himself, help you come out as transgender?
I did have this life where people in the industry didn't necessarily know that I was trans, but people in my personal life did. I was hiding it less and less on social media, so if you saw me in set one way, you'd be very surprised once you got over to my Instagram and thought, "Oh, her name is Morgana, and this is what she looks like when she's not putting on this facade on sets." A lot of my castmates from Earth To Ned knew this. They went to conventions with me, knew my name, and were on my social media. I was already out to them, but some people at Henson didn't know yet. So, when doing creatures, I didn't really think about presenting how I usually do because going in there, hair slicked back, no makeup, ready to change into a whole different creature suit and attire, it's not worth getting into. But for Earth To Ned, I was inside of a giant rig as this creature, and there was a lot of space inside this thing, like sitting inside the cockpit of a spaceship, controlling this character. So, what I wore didn't matter. I didn't have to wear anything tight or restrictive or anything. I could wear my usual clothes, how I'm usually done up, without having to worry about it.
After getting the role on Earth To Ned, I showed up on my first day after landing it dressed how I usually do. While that was completely expected for some of my castmates, there were other people in the creature shop and on the production who didn't say anything. They were very polite about it. No one said anything rude or anything, they just kind of went along with it, but I also didn't tell them what my name was, which was my compromise. I regret making that for so long, trying to cater to what I felt other people's comfort levels were when I should have just told people what I was comfortable with. Once we got to set, we got into the mode of interviewing people. I couldn't bear the idea that I would get introduced as a name that I don't use. I asked our producer to be introduced to the guests as Morgana instead of the name I used on se. She was confused at first because I wasn't being very clear. She was like, "So you want them to call you Morgana, but you want us to use thae other name?" I stuttered my way through it. I was like, "If you're comfortable with that, it's okay to use both," and she brought that to Brian Henson.
I was nervous as all hell because I do not want to be a problem on set, I just want this to be something that people don't have to think about. Brian calls me over after talking with our producer, and he's confused. I’m thinking, "Well, I'm fucked.” He asks me, "So you want the guests to call you Morgana, but you want the rest of us to keep calling you this?" He asks, "Do you like the other name?" I said, "No", and he responded, "Well then, we're just going to call you Morgana. If you're Morgana, you're Morgana. We'll change it on the call sheet. There's no reason you should be called something that you don't feel comfortable with It will be changed on everything". That was a major moment for me because it never went back on any call sheet after that. At that point, I still needed to get it changed legally on documentation, but that was the last thing holding me back. I had one of the biggest names in the industry, somebody who is not only directing and producing this show but owns the studio and has an immense amount of clout and respect in the industry, telling me that it makes absolutely zero sense to use any other name than the one that I identify with. It's not going to be the same across the board. There will still be a lot of people in the industry who have a lot of growing to do and a lot to learn from all of that, but if I had him backing me, that was enough for me to abandon that name completely. Brian Henson officially killed my dead name.
Do you want to continue performing in creature work and/or puppetry? What kind of work are you looking for in your future endeavors?
My desire is to keep doing creature work as long as the character is interesting enough to me. I don't want to move backward in what I do as an actress with these characters. I'm always looking for something new and exciting, but I would like to find a healthier balance between human and creature characters. I've shown a lot of what I can do as a creature and a lot of what I can do as a monster. I want to be seen as a very physical actress. I want to bring those elements to playing human characters as well – or at least, characters that look human. Whether or not they're actually human is to be decided on the script.
Moon Garden is now playing in select theaters. You can also catch Morgana in Satanic Hispanics this fall.