With the insurgence of uncreative remakes currently plaguing the shores of Hollywood, the breeding ground for inspired cinema has increasingly migrated to the indie circuit where directors such as Jake Barsha have taken up the charge bringing a new perspective to the horror genre (among others).Welcome to Strange Kids Club, Jake. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
That's why, when I heard of Barsha's latest project entitled Funny Man, I knew we just had to invite him over for some brain-pilfering fun. Barsha was kind enough to humor me with tales of his days as a Production Assistant, his do-it-yourself style of filmmaking, and his ancestral heritage of Hollywood royalty.
Thanks, I’m excited to be here. I started working in the film industry almost ten years ago. My first “production job” was at Raleigh Studios working on a FOX TV promo. The Producer on that job told these outlandish Hollywood production-horror stories, it was very surreal. The atmosphere was like a traveling carnival, but I felt a strange sense of belonging. I became an eager PA willing to drive a three ton production truck, pass out radios, wrangle extras, throw down lay-out board, pick up film, fetch coffee and diet cokes all on 3 hours of sleep a night. Somehow I was lucky enough to meet up with some very welcoming people who did tons of TV commercials and it turned out to be a big break because I learned a lot on those jobs and eventually joined the I.A.T.S.E. local 600 camera union as a film-loader/ 2nd AC.
I started writing scripts and shooting my own projects about five years ago. I’m a product of the “hands-on film-school of hard-knocks”, do-it-yourself, never give up, learn from your mistakes, and move on to the next project. I went to college at New Mexico State University and The University of Texas for English and Mass Communication. Before college I attended the Educational Center for the Arts for creative writing in New Haven, CT.
Do you remember when your interest in the film-making genre first began?
I can’t say exactly. When I was a little kid I remember getting so excited about movies that I’d have to re-enact them scene for scene. My early favorites were Mad Max (the original), Omega Man, To Hell and Back and Wizards. I loved action movies and saw them repeatedly.
I also remember hearing stories about my grandfather, Leon Barsha. He was an editor on many of the original episodes of Twilight Zone in the 50’s. Later I found out that before Twilight Zone, Leon was part of the studio “factory” system in the 30’s and 40’s and worked for a weekly salary as a director or producer cranking out about 50 westerns for Columbia Pictures. He even helped get The Society of Motion Picture Film Editors started (The Editors Guild) with Philip Cahn and Ben Lewis. One of his biggest accomplishments was editing the movie Lonely Are the Brave with Kirk Douglas. I’ve always felt really proud to be related to the guy, but he died long before I was even born.
Your first independent film, Eugene, premiered at the The Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2009. What lesson(s) did you learn during the making of that film that you hope to carry forward with you?
Eugene was a great learning experience. Eighteen days with a crew of artists, visionaries, illusionists and other misfits. There was a crew member named “Dude” who shared his fascinating stories and philosophies regarding the keys to Hollywood success; “pimps, hookers and blow”… Then of course, the charming and eccentric production team, practicing disco moves between takes. We had a lead actor who embodied the main character with a sense of heart and realism that made people around him fearful, his character might molest you and then commit suicide at any given moment. There was an AD who’s background was in wrangling crazed circus performers, he served the production quite well. There was sleep deprivation, fear and repugnance. For a first movie I couldn’t ask for more... I’m very proud of the outcome.
When Eugene played Palm Springs I was really excited and honored. However, after watching the movie amidst a crowded festival audience I realized instantly that there were a lot of things that I’d do differently on the next one. On one hand the movie reflects a lot of my sensibility as a film maker in terms of shots, scenes and production value– it certainly captures a somewhat unsettling feeling, but my future projects are going to reflect more creative depth and excitement- and tension within the stories.
I learned the importance of really understanding actors (and even crew members). It’s not very realistic to place expectations on people without really understanding what those people are about, how they work and where they are coming from. Especially if the goal is to help give them more of an advantage when portraying the characters they are playing. In the future I’ll also avoid wasting time trying to extract specific emotional performances, if something is not working I’ll move on, but when things do work it’s great! I’ll keep things moving to increase the chances of capturing more of those wonderful moments else ware rather than try to force it- or ask someone to fake it. Keep it real and keep it moving.
You also experimented with a web series earlier this year called Leidy's New Boyfriend with a cast of two and 'a budget of potato chips and water.' How did that work out?
Leidy’s New Boyfriend was a fantastic experiment. The story is a metaphor about the nature of relationships and how easily people can find them selves tethered to the other end of a psychopath. Ryan Reyes and Susan Spano are great. I had a small crew of three people and we all had a great time. The outcome was kind of cool and kind of weird.
After we put it on the internet a very strange thing happened... it got a good review in Italy, and a bad review here. Then, immediately after those reviews surfaced, it was picked up for distribution by Koldcast TV. It seems that there are a lot of people out there who are very serious about their web-content.
So far it’s had about 150,000 views collectively on various channels at dailymotion, youtube, and Koldcast TV. I know it’s not much compared to cute fury animals, finger biting babies, or exploding Mentos but I’m happy that there are a lot of people who like it and want more episodes.
Now, you're in pre-production for another feature length film called Funny Man. Where did the idea for this story come about?
True crime... countless horror stories, and an over active imagination. The character in Funny Man is loosely based on two real-life killers, but his personality is different. The details of Funny Man and what he does are bazaar and disturbing- and very unusual. I don’t want to give too much of the story away yet, but he is very creepy. I started shooting some simple camera tests and found that the scariest moments involved the anticipation of something dreadful. If you have ever been in a serious car accident, you might recall the terrifying moments just before impact. Those moments can be more terrifying than the accident itself or, even worse, regaining consciousness in a hospital and not knowing how badly you are hurt. A lot of horror films focus on the incident rather than the tension leading up to the incident. Sometimes what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see. I like the moments, when you know something is coming, but you’re powerless to do anything about it. Funny Man will possess that kind of tension, and use it like a meat grinder on your nerves.
What's your process for scriptwriting?
The first thing I do is brew a pot of peppermint tea, then I throw on my favorite silk underwear, oh, and I put on a Clash record... just kidding! It all starts with an idea, some ideas come and go and others seem to stick around and take up residency in the back of my mind. When I commit to an idea, I tend to write an outline that maps out the story from beginning to end. Once in a while, if I’m really inspired, I just write from the gut and follow my intuition without an outline and then see where it goes. I wrote a script that way called Pantyman, about a guy obsessed with ladies underwear - it was fun – and turned out okay. I don’t use formulas that outline what should happen on whatever page.
The first part of the process for me is kind of like archeology, the story just has to be excavated. I keep my expectations low until after I get a first draft, and then I go over it with a fresh perspective. Then I revise it and try to make it better, that’s just my process, I’m not like an authority or anything. When I start a new script I just pick the next idea that stands out the most. Funny Man stood out like a festering infected finger-nail about to fall off of a soar thumb.
How do you go about raising funds for a project like this? Does social media play a large role in your strategy?
You start by praying. The cool thing about Funny Man is the fact that it can be made for a modest amount of dough. It’s not easy to make something out of nothing, and sure, it would be great to be able to afford more, but these days we can achieve a lot with very little. Right now we are passing the hat, and slowly but surely things are coming together. Social networking will play a huge roll in marketing and getting the word out. Funny Man will have his own friend network on Facebook, and other social networking sites. We have even considered creating a Funny Man project page on the Kickstarter site that offers perks, like signed DVD’s, T-shirts, posters etc. to people willing to make contributions to help bridge the financing. Luckily, we have a few potential investors who are interested in getting behind the project, but nothing is set in stone, so... we’ll see what happens.
Do you take inspiration for any directors in particular?
I try to. A lot of the old time Directors are great, like Elia Kazan, Clint Eastwood, John Huston, Howard Hawks, Fredrico Fellini, Goddard, John Woo, Kubrick, Scorsese and more recent guys like Chan-wook Park and Ki-duk Kim… They have all made movies that struck a nerve with me. Overall, I’ve been very inspired by movies with sympathetic bad guys. One of my favorite all time movies is The Night of the Hunter directed by Charles Laughton (old Captain Bligh in the original Mutiny On The Bounty). I also love those old crime movies like The Killers, and The Naked City. I really like They Live by Night by Nicholas Ray.
If given a big Hollywood budget, what kind of movie would you make and who would you want to star in it?
I’d shoot The Devil Gets His Dues. It’s a pretty intense psychological thriller script in the purest sense, about a man’s complete decent into jealous rage. It would be crucial to find the actors who understand and connect with the story. Maybe Lukas Haas and Leonardo Dicaprio (Dicaprio is the bad guy). There are several other actors that would probably do well with a psychological thriller like The Devil Gets His Dues; Johny Depp, Matt Dillon, Ethan Hawke. There is also a very complex, and sexy, female character that would really require an exceptionally beautiful and talented actress. If not The Devil Gets His Dues, I’d look for stories involving characters who wind up in over their head, involve bad people who redeem themselves, or good guys who turn bad, and dramatic/psychological thrillers with twisted endings.
You're stuck in a mall movie rental store full of the undead à la Dawn of the Dead with roughly 6 hours of oxygen left. What 5 horror films would you want to watch before you die?
I’d look for... Frontiers, Sheitan, Reflections of Murder, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Exorcist, The Ordeal, Eyes Without a Face, The Shining, and Fist in the Pocket. (I added a few extra in case some of them were checked out already).
What's the strangest thing you remember doing as a kid?
When I was in the third grade, we all had to dissect a vital organ from an animal like a pig or a cow. I got the lungs... I couldn’t really make sense of it. It just looked like a huge slab of meat and lard. It was toward the end of the school year and on the last day of school the let us take our dissected-animal organs home. I don’t know what they expected us to do with something like that, but I took that slab of cow lung and tossed it on the roof of the school on my way home. Looking back, I think it was a very symbolic gesture.