Tons of films have dreams in them, but few capture what a dream actually feels like better than “Strawberry Mansion,” the surrealist indie dramedy that premiered at Sundance Film Festival last year and opens in theaters Friday and on digital next week.

Directed by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, the film tells the story of James Preble (Audley), an auditor who taxes people’s dreams for the U.S. government. On assignment to review the VHS-recorded dreams of aging artist Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), he winds up falling for the version of her younger self (Grace Glowicki) he meets in her mind, taking him on a strange journey where he fights witches, crashes on a deserted island and commands a crew of mice sailors. But even with all the creatures Preble encounters, it’s the hazy lighting, off-kilter tone and sense of wistfulness that makes the whole movie feel like a dream, even when the characters are awake.

“Strawberry Mansion” is the second feature Audley and Birney wrote and directed together, following the 2017’s “Silvio,” a film about a gorilla who becomes a local TV star. Variety spoke to Audley and Birney about directing “Strawberry Mansion” and how they wrote a story that follows the slippery logic of dreams.

What was the initial inspiration for “Strawberry Mansion?”

Birney: So initially, it was just an image of a house in a field filled with VHS tapes. And then it was just filling that out. Like, what are on the tapes? Oh they’re dreams. Okay, who’s in this house? Oh, it’s an old lady and a person that’s come to audit the dreams. So yeah, it was just an image of that house. A lot of house and home images pop up in our stuff for some reason, I guess that’s the home base. That’s the starting point.

Audley: You start off with ‘where are they living and how are they trying to get back there?’ I think Albert and I realized that it’s hard for us to make a movie together that’s not about trying to get home. You start piecing together these images of inspiration, a lot of disparate elements, and just trying to somehow miraculously put them all together. And I think that’s the fun, is just trying to put everything together that you dream up.

Was the film always titled “Strawberry Mansion,” or did you come up with that title when you found the red house the film is set in?

Birney: I think I was hanging out talking with some friends about this idea, and started talking about the names of things. And “Raspberry Cottage” could have been said, and then “Strawberry Mansion” came after that. It was one of those things where it always was called that, and every time we tried to change the title it didn’t feel right. After a while, it just became that title.

How do you two work together as directors, especially when Kentucker is starring in the film?

Audley: It is two different brains that you’re utilizing, as a director and as an actor. It is kind of hard to compartmentalize those at times. With the scenes that were more acting intensive, I would take a real backseat as a director and let Albert kind of run the show. As an actor, I like to keep things very simple. I’m not too high minded about the acting process, it’s just sort of trying to make something feel real. So it’s really a process of just trying to relax into something that feels natural, and a lot of that is just reacting to other actors. We were really fortunate to have a great cast that I was playing opposite. And much of my acting strategy is just to ping off the other actors and try to create a contrasting force to what they’re bringing to the table. In terms of the collaboration between Al and I, a lot of times, Albert will be more fixated on the visual components, and I will be more fixated on the character and the thematic concerns and the flow of the film and making sure that a lot of the story elements aren’t getting lost with the visuals.

How do you think you’ve grown as a directing and writing team since your first feature?

Birney: Wow, that’s presuming we have grown. I guess you make one and you’re not sure how you’re going to work together, is it going to be an okay collaboration or are you going to fight every day? And we made the first one and I realized, oh, this is actually kind of easy, and not only easy but enjoyable and I’d like to do this again. I think with the second one, you’re maybe a bit more confident if you’ve done it once and know you can do it again. It’s such a different type of movie, the amount of questions we had to answer just quadrupled with this one. Most of directing is just answering people’s questions, and you have to be there ready to say yes or no most of the time. So it’s nice when there’s two of us, so we’re each doing half the answers a normal director would have to answer.

Audley: I think it’s just a matter of trying to get more ambitious and complex with your storytelling. With “Silvio,” we both set out to make a very straightforward, simple narrative about a gorilla trying to connect with his art, which is his puppet, and being forced by the cruel world to give it up. With “Strawberry Mansion,” I think we’re trying to go deeper with more complicated storytelling choices. So I think we’ve grown in terms of process and ambition and I hope we can continue to up that ante, for the next film.

The film really captures the logic of dreams in a way not many movies are able to. How did you script it to make it feel like a dream and a coherent narrative at the same time?

Audley: That’s the one central challenge of this movie. It’s not easy when you’re trying to keep the story together, trying to tell a movie that’s entertaining. It requires a level of commitment to not explaining everything, which is hard to do. For audiences, it can be alienating to not kind of know where you’re at with the story and why certain scenes are playing out the way they are. But I think that’s crucial to capturing the dream logic, to not walk the audience through every beat. You really have to allow the audience to be lost, and then that mirrors what it feels like to be in a dream and not understand how all the pieces connect.

Birney: Yeah, and it’s letting yourself do that because it’s kind of scary to say, ‘Well, is the audience going to understand this, or is this gonna move too fast?’ But in a dream, you have no choice, you just get swept up in it. Some people in the first five minutes are like, ‘Oh, this isn’t for me.’ But you’re hoping that you’re making movies for those people that are aligned with the way that you like telling stories or making movies. That they’re gonna come along in this dreamy journey and get lost with you.

Audley: To me, I see the whole thing as a dream. When he goes into her dreams, I think that’s just another layer of the dreams. It’s like set up to be dream logic, the entire film because it’s like, how does this work? How did the dream taxes work? What is being taxed? How’s it operational? Why are these old machines supposed to be the future? Why is he driving a car from the 50s? Why does his suit look like he’s from the 40s? It’s just throwing all these disparate images together. And that’s what dreams do. You just put them all together and it doesn’t all make sense all the time.

The film has a lot of fun with the stop motion special effects it uses to bring a lot of the dream images to life. Can you tell me about designing some of the stop motion moments in the film, and why you wanted to use stop motion?

Birney: All the stop motion was done by Lawrence Becker, who’s a brilliant animator who we met years ago, because he was on Vine the same time we were on Vine. So a lot of those sequences were just us working with him and telling him, ‘okay, we want this person’s head to explode or their face to melt or a skeleton to come out of the grave.’ We would shoot the plates for him, so we would give him the empty cemetery, and then he would go off for a couple months and send it back and it would be pretty much there and then we overlay it and put it together. It was a very conscious decision to use stop motion for some of the effects, everything nowadays, you could do on the computer, but a lot of the movies that we grew up really loving, like “Beetlejuice” for example, would use stop motion or Claymation. And there’s just something about seeing a real object moving, even though computers can get really close to replicating it, there’s still something deep within us that can tell if something was physically there, moving in a space by hand. Not to say we didn’t have any computer imagery or graphics in the movie, but it’s about kind of combining them all together in a way where you’re not really sure if what you’re looking at is a computer, real or it’s a little bit of both. So I think if you can combine different special effects and animation styles together and create this kind of new style, that’s similar to what it feels like to be lost in a dreamscape, at least to me.

While I was watching the movie, I kept thinking of it as almost a folk tale, or a fairytale. Was that a mode of storytelling you had in mind while you were writing the script?

Birney: Yeah definitely. Especially with the werewolf and the witch, and the son who was an ogre in the script, but we kind of abandoned that. Folktales and fairy tales are so deep in all of us, we grew up listening to them and watching films about them and they’ve been passed down generation after generation. Every generation gets a new retelling of the same kind of stories. There’s an element of this movie that we wanted to make it feel like a childhood fantasy film. So I think it felt right to make it a little bit of a fairy tale feeling and have some elements of the classic fairy tales in there.

When you say childhood fantasy movies, were there any specific ones you took inspiration from?

Audley: The one we always come back to is “The Neverending Story,” and also “Labyrinth,” these ’80s films that we grew up on when we were kids. When I think of “The Neverending Story,” I think of that dog flying through the air and hearing that music and feeling that triumph and that terror. Those things you see when you’re 7 years old, and it never goes away. We’re just taking our position in the line of filmmakers who are tapping into the same resource well.

What was it about dreams you wanted to explore in the first place?

Birney: Dreams are that great mystery. We all spend a great portion of our life in dreams and I always felt like we never really gave them the respect that they deserve. It’s really hard to share your dreams with the people that you know, to get the feeling of them. There’s endless inspiration and images and ideas and things we dream about our whole lives. For me personally when I was first coming up with this idea I was keeping a dream journal, and that dream journal was just page after page of these wild circumstances. Even if it takes place in a supermarket, it’s still an interesting dream when you write it down. And dreams are very similar to movies, movies are very similar to dreams, they kind of are the closest thing you can get to being able to share a dream. I mean, all art can approximate the feeling of a dream, but movies, because they’re visual and because they combine all the other art forms, may be the closest to a dream.

Do you two have any new projects you’re cooking up right now?

Audley: We’re working on a new project that we kind of look at as the end of a trilogy that started with “Sylvio” and “Strawberry Mansion.” It continues in the same thematic sandbox and visual palette. We’re trying to build off this mix of commentary and playfulness and dark elements and whimsy and juxtapositions we like to play with. We’re working on the script, it’s called “Super Delights.”

Birney: We have it all in our heads. It’s gonna take everything to the next level in terms of more characters, more setpieces and action and humor and darkness. Everything in “Strawberry Mansion,” just more of it.

Portions of this conversation have been edited for length and clarity.