Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Interview with Filmmaker Adam Barnick

If you’re not familiar with the name Adam Barnick, you soon will be! Adam is the director and writer behind the short film Mainstream, which was released via Fangoria’s Blood Drive II: America’s Best Short Horror Films DVD as well as producing, directing and editing the behind-the-scenes documentaries and featurettes for the films Frozen and Grace.

Adam is a long-time fan of the horror genre, and has contributed to many horror websites, including Icons of Fright and Dread Central. He is currently working on the exciting experimental horror documentary entitled What is Scary?

Sarah Jahier: Hi Adam and thanks for joining us today! Tell us a little about your background and how you first fell in love with the horror genre. 

Adam Barnick: I grew up in a wooded, spooky area in central New Jersey that gave me a deep appreciation for mood and atmosphere, both in its isolation and in the textures of Fall and Wintertime. Being forced through years of Catholic School as a kid definitely brought room to daydream and become familiar with talks of damnation and fear. And Halloween was always a big deal in our house. But I was introduced to the fantastic through a book on classic science fiction films that my Aunt gave me when I was 5 or 6. And my diet was primarily sci-fi for the next few years, whether through books or films. But I always enjoyed scary movies, I think we’re either wired to love this stuff or we’re not. My mother is a big horror fan so while I wasn’t, say, watching The Exorcist at 7, I was definitely seeing what I could on TV growing up and nobody minded within reason.

I think I was 12 or 13 when I got to see A Nightmare on Elm Street on cable one night, which scarred me good…but then I found out there was a part 3 coming out and managed to coerce my folks into taking me to see it. That’s really when the full-on obsession kicked in. Soon after that I had the Fangoria subscription and was diving in head first to catch up on any and all forms of horror.  That’s the best time in life as a horror fan, when you first jump in and discover classic after classic.

Sarah Jahier: After falling in love with the genre, what made you want to actually get involved in the horror industry and how did you go about accomplishing this goal? 

Adam Barnick: Well what Dream Warriors did was kick off an obsessive love for horror but also for practical makeup effects. Both the execution/artistry of them as well as the surrealistic ideas they depicted. That really got my brain cooking with all sorts of bizarre distortions of reality, human and inhuman form, etc. Originally I was thinking that as a career path. I absorbed everything I could that had to do with special makeup effects; started mold making and learning…And of course I began “attempting” films with neighborhood friends. But the preparing for filmmaking, brainstorming story ideas and capturing ideas on film/video really took over. It felt right and correct, and by the time I was 16 I knew it was filmmaking, not FX, that had really become my passion. But I’m obsessed with all genres of film…horror just happens to be the favorite.

I was always a fan, went to film school and worked on sets…and began doing genre interviews on my own website and for a site named Entertainment Insiders in an effort to meet more people in that area and learn from them. But it was my short film Mainstream getting picked up for worldwide DVD distribution that creaked open the doors a bit.

Sarah Jahier: How did you come up with the idea for your short film, Mainstream

Adam Barnick: The idea for Mainstream (the short) came about at a time when I was working in a video store, at the start of college; because that’s a requirement if you’re going to be a filmmaker, right?  While the film did deal with a lot of the themes that obsess me as a person that has shown up in other work (conformity, individual vs. a group, artists vs. non-artists), it was the clientele from the job that inspired it. I think maybe two percent of the people who I dealt with in the store were the types who were open to anything different or out of the mainstream, or who had a good attitude towards themselves and their lives. Two percent who didn’t have an angry/powerless/victim mentality. 98% seemed like whatever had made them unique at some point had been literally drained or burned out of them, that they’d given up. Anything creative or different, they’d snap at.

One day while at home I was contemplating this and the entire short film hit me all at once. Every image, sequence, beginning to end. I think only 2-3 times in life have I had “visions” like that for a project I wanted to do where it showed up fully formed. And I became obsessed with that surgical sequence that could be interpreted as symbol, or literal. As time went by I was able to articulate/understand every image in it as it pertained to the things I was haunted by as a creative person. And it still took like seven years from when I had the idea before we actually got to shoot it.

Sarah Jahier: As Mainstream was your first short film, how did you go about getting it from page to screen? What challenges did you face? 

Adam Barnick:  It wasn’t my first short, but it was the first to get out there and do well or be distributed. I’d prefer my older student films never get out there.

We never got the budget or resources to do it anywhere near the level I’d imagined, but for next to no money we were able to shoot something on film that affected people and got them thinking. While it’s “small” for a short film, it was the most ambitious project I’d done at the time; I was barely in the film business then, didn’t really know anybody well. Going about producing something like that without the resources/aid of a school, and trying to get talented people involved for next to nothing was the big challenge. Instead of waiting several more years, can we possibly do this on what we have now? As cheap as that short is, it took years to get to where we could afford to do it. Biggest challenge was just raising the meager funds. Getting people who don’t know you excited about what you’re doing was certainly a new and vital area a director needs to cultivate.

I don’t think we had many production-related snags once we got going though, once I’d accepted it had to be done at this scale or not at all. A few props malfunctioning, a few shots that had to be cut or combined, some minor personality conflicts on crew…but other than that, there weren’t many troubles we didn’t push through. I’m happy we accomplished it after so long, but I’d make it totally differently now, even if we were stuck with the same budget again. You almost make a film to figure out the way to properly make it!

Sarah Jahier: You’ve worked on the horror journalism side of the industry with several online publications. Do you have a favorite article or interview you’ve done? 

Adam Barnick: Interviewing Guillermo Del Toro for Pan’s Labyrinth was a highlight.  That was a brief but a seriously joyous moment. I saw him the following year again at the premiere of The Orphanage; we ended up nerding out over DVDs with some friends near the coat-check room when he should have been on the main floor doing press photos! He’s the world’s greatest geek.

I’m particularly happy I was able to interview Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni (Opera, The Third Mother), who’s since become a good friend. You learn a lot working on sets, but I’ve learned a lot as well with every interview I’ve done. Particularly from the interviews I did on the sets of Frozen and Grace…that’s one thing I think really helps those behind-the-scenes featurettes stand out. We didn’t settle for less when really getting into detailed questions on craft. And by then I’d worked enough in film to be able to interview actors/crew on their level instead of just asking for random anecdotes. And that was really the impetus behind getting into doing interviews in general…to get to know people and pick their brains while helping promote them.

Sarah Jahier: As mentioned, you’ve worked on the amazing special features for Grace and Frozen. How did you become involved with filming the special features for these films?

Adam Barnick: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed them. That started when I met Paul Solet. Fangoria and Koch Vision both picked our short films to go on their Blood Drive II: America’s Best Short Horror Films DVD. That was a big break for us both, and he and I really went to town promoting that. I read and did coverage on a bunch of his scripts, so I knew about Grace. And he was gearing up to do the short-film version of it to pitch the feature. He’d asked if I wanted to work on it and suggested doing a behind the scenes doc for the disc. I hadn’t done one before, but figured between my thorough interviews and having been a DVD geek I could stumble my way through it.

It’s really rough compared to ones I’ve done recently, but it did what they’d hoped it would do. While the short-form Grace showed Paul could direct a high profile project, the BTS showed who he was, what he was about and how he could pull it off. I know it helped in Adam Green wanting to meet him in the first place about producing this. Obviously he wanted to because the script was great but at least he knew Paul was a good, smart guy from seeing him work. That BTS also helped Paul get his world premiere of the short at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in LA, since I’d already given it to the heads of Fango and they were excited to see what was coming…but we’d hoped if the feature got going that I’d come on board to do more of the same.

It was a bit of a fight to get me on board for the feature because of the Canadian tax credit issues, limiting the amount of Americans you can hire…and we had almost no resources at all to make those special features. I didn’t care. I’d been involved since the start of that project on some level, and needed to make sure I was involved at its end. They weren’t as technically proficient as I’d desired but they had the smarts/visual finesse I was hoping to have. Green gave me a great compliment after seeing them, that you could tell a film director did them and not just an EPK guy brought on the job as a random hire, and that he was dying to see what shorts/features I would do in the feature. He and ArieScope brought me on board for Frozen soon after that, and I tried to kick it up a notch even higher than Grace. The response to the Frozen DVD/Blu-Ray has been overwhelming!

Sarah Jahier: Do you have any funny stories from behind-the-scenes of Grace and Frozen that you can share? 

Adam Barnick: We had fun on set even while busting our asses, but the strangest thing I can think of from working on Grace was the one night we went out, when I was there.  (Adam Green tells part of this story on the Grace DVD commentary). On our night off, several of the crew, Paul, Green and I went to a tavern in the middle of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. We walked into this place, and quickly realized we were right in the middle of Cerebral Palsy Karaoke Night. None of that statement is a joke. But it made for a unique backdrop for the rest of the night’s quirks.

The rest of the night’s events remained offbeat to say the least. This older, Wilfred Brimley-esque guy came over to Green and asked if he was interested in fighting. Keep in mind he says it in the most kindly way…I was sitting next to him when this happened and I thought he meant it like “do you like boxing?” But no, he clarified that he wanted to know if Green was interested in going outside to fight, just for the hell of it. Green politely turned him down. Then he asked if anyone else at the table was interested in fighting…We respectfully declined. But then at the next table, he found another older man who was like, “sure, I’ll come outside and fight!” And they went outside and fought.

So we decided to try out a different bar after that, and this one was supposed to be the one where the younger folks hung out. We get to that one, there’s a dozen flat-out hammered people falling down in the parking lot, and one girl trying to open a pocketknife to attack some other guy’s girlfriend. We sidestep this and go inside and it was just a whirlwind of strange Canadian drunkenness. And a lot of people beating each other up. Set to a drum and bass beat. People are really nice up there, but they let their hair down in a very unique way on the weekends it seems.

We told this story to other crew members on Monday and one of them explained the ‘Moose Jaw handshake’ to me. You break a bottle on your bar table, stick out the jagged end and go ‘pleased to meet you.’

Sarah Jahier: That sounds like quite the experience! You are currently working on What is Scary?, an experimental documentary. Can you tell our readers about this project and where you got the idea for it? 

Adam Barnick: After Mainstream I was trying to get several other projects going while working on other people’s films and developing my own work. As you probably know, everything’s built on sand and projects often take forever to come together…What is Scary? came about from being frustrated at a lack of resources to pull off bigger ideas I was developing. And after a few lean years where even getting a camera and lights was out of the question for any no-budget ideas I was trying to think of something that didn’t need anyone else but myself, really.

I’d participated in a similar project in which I was asked to call a voicemail and answer the question “What is sexy?” which right there can generate a ton of varied, thoughtful answers. I thought about taking a similar approach and asking people to answer ‘What is scary?’ however they saw fit, and it was an idea I could begin with just an answering machine. The answers are being edited into a visual tapestry of stills and possibly animations, akin to a Ken Burns documentary but with its own offbeat approach.  I invited people in and out of the horror world to call in with the answers to their questions.

So it became a project I could do on my own but I do have photographers including Paula Burr (Killer Eye Photography, Dread) involved; she’s been featured on your site a few times. It’s still a done-for-nothing passion project but it will be a bit more polished and involved than what’s been seen. I imagine it on the wall in a multimedia art gallery with a pair of headphones where you can drop in on this little world. There’s been a terrific response, both in the answers I got and in the film community/fans who’ve seen the teaser. I think it’s unique enough to grab people in and out of horror fandom who are open to something different. It’s become a smart dialogue between myself and the callers, though I only ask one question. I was concerned at the start that it might get too repetitive, but it’s the distinctive takes on what “scary” means to people that has made it fascinating to me.

Sarah Jahier:  I know the horror community, myself included, is extremely eager to check out this project! When can we expect to see What is Scary?
Adam Barnick: I only recently started postproduction and I’ll know what it’s truly going to take to wrap it up by this Spring/Summer…I’m kind of letting it tell me what it needs and it could keep changing- but I hope to wrap it up by the end of the year. I’ll be making more announcements about it at that time.

Sarah Jahier: The horror landscape is always changing, but right now mainstream Hollywood seems stuck in the remake rut with the only original ideas coming out of the independent scene. What’s your take on the current horror climate? 

Adam Barnick:  I think the past decade or so of horror’s been a complete 50/50.  Which is still better than the completely stale, sterile ‘90s in which I can only think of maybe four worthwhile horror films.

I can’t shit on remakes just because they’re remakes though…we all know some that surpass the originals and will remain classics. I recently read a script for an upcoming remake that was one of the best scripts I’d read in years. Scripts in general, not just remake scripts. You can’t really scream at Hollywood for playing safer bets, it’s completely rational from a business standpoint. But the fact is, if you look at what’s making money, they’re not seeing the support financially for a lot of original genre films.

A film on 50 screens isn’t going to make a huge dent, but it can make an impact and a decent per-screen average, which counts. And there’s ways to support original films, financially or promotionally even if you’re not fortunate to live close enough to see one you’re interested in. Sure, the Elm Street redo is going to have 30 million in marketing behind it; and a smaller film can’t compete…but it’s not hard to find what’s out there these days if you’re a serious horror fan. But every horror fan/filmmaker I know went to see Elm Street opening night last year, knowing they wouldn’t like it but they went because “they had to see it.” And then they went online to complain they didn’t like it.  Why bother if you’re certain it’s terrible?  And many of them just sit and wait for DVD when something unique comes out. So Elm Street made a ton of dough and people continue to be angry because they can’t get their scripts made and they don’t see enough variety at the theater. Every once in a while we get a gem, and overseas filmmaking continues to take chances, but I still believe people can vote with their wallets. Good horror may wax and wane but it doesn’t die.

Sarah Jahier: Who are your favorite horror filmmakers that really excite you today?

Adam Barnick: Not counting friends/people I’ve been fortunate to work with that I’m fans of…well obviously Del Toro is at the top. I wouldn’t call Neil Marshall strictly a horror filmmaker, but I’m up for whatever he’s interested in. Christopher Smith is another one who’s impressed me from the start who I’ll continue to watch. I will follow Tom Shankland around for life after he kicked me in the face with his film The Children. And I’m still down to see anything that the old-school masters of horror come up with.

Sarah Jahier: What are your picks for the 5 scariest horror movies?

Adam Barnick: This changes often since there’s usually a list of 20 from various eras that rotates…so I will pick 5 that are on my mind right now…not necessarily my favorites, but ones that continually freak me out.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – Probably where I got my fear of “a group vs. an individual” in films…you can read so much into this film regardless of the period of history you’re from. A big unconscious influence on Mainstream.  The ‘70s follow-up is equally amazing but my heart remains in the original.

Don’t Look Now (1973) – A waking nightmare. This film made me nervous from the start and didn’t really ever let up. Literally two minutes in, it was unsafe.

The Shining (1980) – No explanation needed.

The Blair Witch Project (1999) – I grew up surrounded by woods and understand the primal scariness of them, all too well. The perfect film to me to utilize your imagination to scare the crap out of you. Plus, my friends and I were obsessed with exploring abandoned houses in high school…that film’s ending is like watching us get what we deserved back then. One of the few films that truly made it tough for me to sleep at night.

The Mothman Prophecies (2002) – I don’t know how much of a following it has, maybe people avoid it because it seems like a giant glossy star-driven horror film? But it’s seriously smart, has a visual approach unlike any other studio picture, has probably the most overt yet absorbing sound design I’ve heard, and it’s conceptually daring and quite subtly subversive for a big-ticket movie. It’s seriously eerie to see this film flirt with its spiritual concepts and ideas of the bigger picture behind the curtain that no human ever sees ‘til they die.  And then it doesn’t resolve much of the questions it poses about them.

Sarah Jahier: What horror movies (besides your own!) are you excited for in 2011 and beyond? 

Adam Barnick: I was beyond over the moon for At the Mountains of Madness and will remain hopeful the stars align someday and that film happens. Aside from projects directors I know or have worked with have brewing, I’m seriously excited for Insidious.  Any kind of supernatural tale always wins over real-life psychos with me. I’ll probably have seen Chris Smith’s Black Death by the time this interview surfaces. I know I’m not alone in thinking he’s consistently underrated. Bereavement is a seriously disturbing film just coming out now, though I saw that last year. Other than that, I’m definitely down for Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark’s redo even though I love the original…and there’s a film in prep called American Mary by the Soska sisters that won’t be out till 2012 but has already got me seriously intrigued from what little I’ve heard about it.

Sarah Jahier: How do you get inspired for ideas for your films? 

Adam Barnick: Music is a big help. And just trying to remain active and interested in people and life around me. Catching bits of conversations and imagining what came before and after. Spending too much time thinking about themes and ideas that obsess me. Traveling. As for developing scripts, and adding to the ideas I start with, I generate inspiration and ideas just through the process of working. And music helps a lot at that time. I used to wait till I was fired up and inspired before doing anything or working on any random ideas, but that resulted in basically losing ten years of being productive. It wasn’t until Summer 2009 that I kind of figured my own creativity out, and how to get the most out of it and demand of myself that I put the time in daily. The more digging I do, the more I find…but I rarely, if ever, find something before I’ve started digging. I’m still not at “full strength” yet, but I’m working out all the time now, if you get what I mean.

Sarah Jahier: What are your favorite things about the horror genre? 

Adam Barnick: It has no limitations. In terms of visuals, atmosphere, sound, subject matter, depth of intelligence. You can go anywhere and there’s an audience that can roll with it.  From the nastiest slasher to gorgeous, poetic films like Eyes Without a Face, there’s so many shades to horror and how you can approach it or what you can say with it.

Sarah Jahier: Besides horror, what makes Adam Barnick tick? 

Adam Barnick: Nature, Twin Peaks, French Onion soup, being around and having smart conversations with artists of any type, kickboxing/fitness, friends, reading, learning, New York City, London, pumpkin carving and dachshunds.

Sarah Jahier: What projects are you working on next? 

Adam Barnick: Besides what I’ve mentioned, I’ve got half a dozen scripts in various stages of development, in different genres. Though the main focus has been the feature-length version of Mainstream. It’s much more story/character based than the short was but still has a layered, smart and experimental vibe. I didn’t have an idea for a feature when I did the short, but came up with a take on it last year that has obsessed me, so I’m shaping that. I’ve got two music videos I’m in various stages of planning right now, and have written two other shorts I’m hoping to get funds for so we can shoot them this year. There are a few other behind-the-scenes docs I’m supposed to begin soon, but the films they’re for still need to get started, so I’m waiting at the starting line for the trigger to go off. And there’s a few other “maybes”, in and out of horror films, that are circling. I’m just trying to make up for lost time and continually improve myself, as a filmmaker and a person.

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