Thursday, May 14, 2015

Tell Me A Question: Ernie Barbarash and Pound of Flesh

The day after speaking with Pound of Flesh producer Kirk Shaw, I had the chance to chat with director Ernie Barbarash. I had known Barbarash from his previous collaborations with Jean-Claude Van Damme; Assassination Games and 6 Bullets along with genre flicks They Wait and Hardwired with Jamie King, Michael Biehn, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Val Kilmer. Mr. Barbarash was great to talk to; easygoing, educated and experienced. Easing into the conversation, I asked about where he grew up:"I was born in Odessa, Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union and lived there for the first 9 years of my life, then right before my 9th birthday, we moved to Montreal, Canada, where I lived until I was 18 and left for college in the US..." I asked how he got into film and was surprised to find out he never intended to work in movies but was focusing on theatre instead. While living in New York, Barbarash got a job on a play that was then delayed and he ended up working for a random Canadian film company that needed some help, Lionsgate. Spending several years reading scripts and producing in house, Ernie was put into a trial by fire to write and direct 2004's Cube Zero.

Having directed his first play at 14, Barbarash feels it's easy to learn technology but working with people is much more instinctual. When asked further about the transition from theatre to film, Ernie responded: "As a theatre director, I came to film not only with the experience of working with actors, but also an education in storytelling for an audience through an immediate experience. The theatre teaches us how to take the audience on a journey. It teaches us that we’re not making art for ourselves – that it’s really all about how it affects the audience. One of the reasons I love talking to fans of the genre in which I’m working, be it action, thrillers, sci fi, horror, etc. is because I really miss that immediate response from the audience in the theatre. It’s also why I love going to see movies on the first night they open as often as I can…"

After speaking with Shaw and hearing about some of the bottom line economics and logistical challenges of working in the modest budget action world; Barbarash made it even clearer as he discussed not being able to stop in a sense as one movie wouldn't pay the bills for a year. He's got kids, a wife and a life to take care of so it was interesting to hear about the people who work for a living when thoughts of Hollywood are always dreamed about with glamor and riches. While Barbarash has worked mainly in the science fiction and action genres, he's also wrote Hallmark TV movies, dramas and been able to delve into different worlds. As a kid he loved action movies so his collaborations with Jean-Claude Van Damme is a bit of coming full circle. Producer Brad Krevoy asked if Barabarash would be interested in directing a Van Damme movie resulting in the Lionheart and Timecop fan's immediate agreement. Their first project, Weapon, eventually became Assassination Games, co-starring the high kicking Scott Adkins about a pair of trained assassin/mercenary types who team up to take down a common foe with crossbows, guns, kicks and a beheading by samurai sword. 

When it comes to directing a feature in the face of limited time and resources yet managing to keep a positive attitude, Barbarash answered: "people hire me because I put the work in, not because I'm pretty" and that making a movie is in a sense like going to war as you're on the clock, the director is the leader and his actions will reflect on the whole crew. So to keep people pushing for those 17 hour days, it's better to show off a positive attitude and keep things going rather than fall apart in negativity. For Pound of Flesh, his third go-round with JCVD, Barbarash believes it's their best project yet. Now that the level of trust is there, it's easier to give up on certain ideas while fighting for others to tap into what matters and what will bring the best ideas to life. Like Shaw, Barbarash thought that Joshua James' script was excellent with a great story and action that was tweaked for JCVD and the location. While the shoot came in at 36 days, Barbarash explained that it wasn't really 36 days as things moved slowly due to the language barrier and not being familiar with the area. But the crews put in hard work, going 17 hours a day 7 days a week. Barbarash enjoyed the challenges of shooting in China and is eager to return. He'd also love to shoot in Thailand as it's a beautiful place filled with nice people. That's one of the joys of his job, traveling and exploring, even if he can't always celebrate as there's shot lists and homework to do. 

On working with Jean-Claude Van Damme again, Ernie is proud that JCVD gets to display a wide range of acting in Pound of Flesh. It was emotional work and they went to tough places with the character versus simply brooding. The story is character driven with a hint of Van Damme's personal philosophy thrown in. Barbarash was determined to balance the drama with the action as if people only wanted action, they should watch a video on YouTube, not a movie. Van Damme wanted to do something new fighting wise, so choreographer and real life combat expert John Salvitti worked to build on the audience expectations of karate and high kicks and go further. Barbarash had mentioned staying ahead of the audience as they get more and more savvy everyday as he shared his own personal philosophy: "I keep striving to learn more every day. I think when you stop learning you stop growing and that you should keep learning no matter how old you are or how much experience you have… One of the things I love about what I do is that I learn something new with every project I do." 

It was a great talk and I enjoyed our conversation as Mr. Barbarash was honest about the business, quick thinking yet thoughtful and insightful. We ended the call with a mutual film fan moment when I asked how Michael Biehn ended up in They Wait in a supporting role. Barbarash, like Dammaged Goods, is a huge Biehn fan going back to The Terminator. Once they had Jaimie King in the lead, the producers were looking for another name to bolster the credits and Biehn was suggested and accepted the role. While Biehn only worked a few days on the film, Barbarash described him as a fun guy and good actor. Here's hoping Ernie Barbarash's future includes a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie co-starring Michael Biehn. Until then, thanks to Mr. Barbarash for taking the time and to Popular Press Media Group for making the introduction.

Pound of Flesh opens in select theaters and VOD on Friday, May 15th.

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