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Interview: Steve Barron

Steve Barron started his career directed music videos–many of which have became classics since then. His second film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, quickly became the first independent feature to break the 100-million dollar theatrical barrier in the U.S.

[Editor's Note: We originally published this as part of our coverage of the  2006 Tribeca Film Festival.]

Steve Barron started his career directed music videos–many of which have became classics since then. His second film, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, quickly became the first independent feature to break the 100-million dollar theatrical barrier in the U.S. He followed up on many high-budget films and miniseries, including Merlin, a $30 million series produced by Hallmark. His latest film, Choking Man premiered at the 5th Tribeca Film Festival on April 26, 2006.

Being in my mid-twenties, one of the first film I remember seeing in a theater after my BAMBI and “THE BEAR” phase was Ninja Turtle in 1990, back when I was in elementary school. Ever since, Barron's cult films have ever since accompanied me as I grew up … Coneheads in 1993, The Adventures of Pinocchio in 1996. So, it was a somewhat special feeling for me to meet the mind behind those films, some 16 years after I first saw THE NINJA TURTLES. I meet up with Steve Barron at the Tribeca Grand Hotel.

Steve Barron

Pierre-Alexandre Despatis: At first glance, this film appears to be a rather drastic break from your previous films. So, I'm curious as how this project got started?
Steve Barron: Well, it got started differently than my previous project since it's the first I have also written. The other projects had all been pre-scripted when I came on to the project, or they were based on fantasy or mythological fantasy. This is very different. I've always wanted to write a script for a film but I never actually sat down to do it. I've actually worked on many ideas for films and ideas for scenes, but never a whole project from scratch. I wanted to write a script that would actually get made and that wouldn't sit somewhere on a shelf somewhere and never got made. So, I've decided to make it a low budget film. I am also really fond of a few New York independent films like The Station Agent and Raising Victor Vargas. I loved those films and I've always wanted to do something like that for one of my film; they're very simple and have only one central location.

Specifically, the idea of CHOCKING MAN got started when I was at a diner. I was sitting with my son at a diner one day and we were talking about how films can come from wide a range of ideas and can have many diverse origins. We were also noting–as English people–how most New Yorker seem to ignore or be immune to that choking man poster in all the restaurants. We were talking about how that thing had become anonymous to New Yorker … they don't pay attention to it anymore. That was the end of the chat and a few months later I started to write the script. The anonymity of the poster was further enhanced by the world of shyness that the main character lives in; the combination between the 2 is interesting I find.

P-AD: Yeah, of course the choking man poster is very typical of New York. In addition to that, the film is set in a very Queens-ish setting. For instance, in Queens there are a lot of diners like the one in the film. All of those dinners have their own choking man poster and, many neighborhood of NY and Queens have their own crazy people who yell at the sky …
SB: The crazy woman was really there …

P-AD:Really? You got her permission to film her?
SB : Oh yes … she signed an “X” [laugh]. We shot at first without her knowing hoping we'd get her permission. Then we shot some more after she knew.

P-AD: Why is the film set in New York specifically … it could have been set in Anytown, USA.?
SB: It could have been set anywhere. First of all, as I said, I always wanted to do a New York film with New York characters. Secondly, I wanted to touch immigration and the anonymous. That's what I noticed about these people … most of them are very anonymous. Thirdly, the largest diversity of diverse immigrants in the world is in Jamaica Queens. This was the perfect melting pot for the film.

But the film is set in New York mainly to touch upon immigration; I wanted to do an immigration story. I guess you're right … it could have been set in any states with a lot of immigration … any states where there are choking man posters.

P-AD: The shooting style of the film and even its structure are totally different that those of your previous films and the so-called commercial cinema norms. Why this sudden departure?
SB: It was really my taste of change over the year. I'm more appealed by simpler film and I love documentaries. I really enjoy seeing films about people and I really enjoy films with subtexts where you're not told everything. I went with that for CHOKING MAN. So, the shooting style is really just the first time since my last music video in the early 90s where I had small crew. The film was shot in super-16, which allowed us to shoot with a very small crew. I love the look of super-16 and it's cheaper too, but it is also a different feel. A different feel for the actors too. Because the camera and the crew don't take up the whole space; they don't feel dominated and you get different results. I used to get the same results when I shot music videos. We used to make 20-23 set ups a day and that dictated the style. You say “let's do this shot handheld because it's cheaper, let's go here and do that angle with no extra lights, …”. Basically that dictated the style of CHOKING MAN. Obviously a lot of planning was done before the shooting because we had to do so much shots everyday to get it done for the budget. But the fact we shot the film quickly in super-16 it gave the film a much rougher style. Shooting in a raw style allowed me to get closer to a documentary aesthetic. I wanted to transpose the feel and edges of documentary and edges of magical realism to see how they would both come together.

P-AD: It's interesting that you mention magical realism because to a certain extent it's also the case with your previous films; pretty much all of your previous films had fantastic elements in them. NINJA TURTLES, CONEHEADS, PINOCHIO, RAT and even your very first film ELECTRIC DREAM were all based on fantasy. Is this something that fascinates you?
SB : Yeah! It is actually. I like a certain type of fantasy … a grounded fantasy. A style of fantasy that has its feet on the ground. I don't like complete “fly all over the place” kind of fantasy. It's very hard to describe, but there is a line and I won't let my fantasy go beyond that. I've always been interested in visual effects too. That dates back from my early music video days. I always loved to explore what you could done with visual effects. I love the world to be just outside reality.

P-AD: Would I be wrong to say that there is some fantasy in CHOKING MAN too? For instance, the flying carpet scene is a very interesting moment in the film. It's an otherwise insignificant detail of their lives, yet that moment is very magical. Obviously the flying carpet isn't really flying, yet it's shown in a very magical way.
SB : Yeah … there is a world. It's a world of somebody who is very closed and dysfunctional and very hard to reach. I supposed the magic in this film shows that that even in what seems to be a pretty grim area of Queens, NY there is some magic to be found. This is the idea behind the flying carpet scene. There is some magic or fantasy everywhere. In the least expected place, down the street of some old grungy corner in a rough neighborhood there is somewhere a little piece of magic and it could surprise you.

P-AD: Yet, the film in totally anchored in real settings. Not only the settings are very realist, but the structure of the film has a very realist construction as well. For instance, the film is full of insignificant details that we wouldn't normally see in commercial films, and it's also full of events that don't have any follow ups. For instance, at one point someone is fired at the restaurant and nothing is mentioned about it throughout the rest of the film. It's very similar with the open-endedness of the ending. We sort of have an idea of where it's going to lead the characters but the film ends rather abruptly. Was it a strategy to make the film as close as possible to real life?
SB : Yes, that was my goal. In real life events that happen to people in a everyday world, people are affected by tiny details – those things affect people in a very small way. But whether or not we need to stay there to see that after once we know that an effect has occurred I don't think we do. In real life changes that process takes a long time. I didn't think it was necessary to go further to go into the new life he gets into at the end of the film. As I said, I don't like movies that explicitly tell everything to the spectators, I'd rather be left thinking about it rather than to totally feeling that the characters completed their journey. It's not like that in real life. Most journeys don't get completed, they just become a small steps on the way to the next asset for carrying on with life.

P-AD: How did the animation sequences come into the picture? Was it clear from the beginning that there would be animation sequences throughout the film?
SB : Not totally. I originally had only one animation sequence for the intro of the film–the opening credits. I always wanted to do that. However when I saw it I just loved that and felt it could be expanded a little bit as a way to enter the main character's world. And, this goes both for and against what I had originally planned. At the beginning I was wondering if it were possible to do a film where somebody doesn't let you in at all. You don't know anything about his past, you don't know anything about where he is coming from … and yet, can he hold you. That was big challenge. The animation let the viewers enter his world, but just a little bit. I made sure that the animation didn't tell everything either.

P-AD: You seemed to have a lot of freedom over this project and the various directions it took. The addition of the animation sequences is a good example. All that freedom is something you probably never have while directing commercial films with a crew of several hundred people. So, would you do commercial films again?
SB : I'd still do commercial film. For my next two projects, one is a low budget film, one is a big budget film. I like to change. I think I've done quite many diverse things over the years. It's quite interesting. I'm not sure it helps career-wise because then nobody really knows what you're doing but I don't care. It's something I really like to stay diverse and be opened to different things.

P-AD: What's next then? What are those two projects?
SB : The small film is a film I want to write. It's going to be a story of an orphan boy in India. India is another place where I had always wanted to do a film. It's sort of inspired by films like KOYLA which I love and the Chinese film KING OF MASKS which is about an old man stuck with a young boy. I just went to India to do some research. I can't talk much about the commercial films since it still hasn't been announced yet. It won't fit in any genre easily. It's going to be very dark, but commercial. It won't have massive special effects, but it will be fantasy.

P-AD: If you're already planning on writing another film it must means you like the process of writing and directing your first film?
SB : Yes. I really enjoyed it and the process of writing I really loved. Directing, I've always had a love-hate relationship with it; it can be very frustrating. It's not fair to say it's frustrating because it can be very rewarding, but when it is frustrating it's very frustrating. And that's when you're not getting exactly what your vision is or when you're getting a paler immigration of what your vision is. It can be very hard. However, I really loved shooting with such a small crew of about 25 people. I hadn't done it since my music video days. To give you an idea, for DreamKeeper – a series I did on native American a few years ago there were 180 people on the main unit, and 150 on the second unit. That's 300 people for 3 months. It's totally a different thing. Of course with a small crew and a small budget, you have to compromise a lot, but you sort of know when you're going to compromise when you're starting the film. And, what you lose to compromise at that budget level you gain on adrenaline and spontaneity, definitely. On a big film you don't feel the clock ticking, everything is so big and so slow. time constraints are very real in a small budget film.

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