There are high profile well known directors and then there are filmmakers like Ernie Barbarash, an action lover who is more comfortable working with martial artists like Jean Claude Van Damme and Michael Jai White. Pound of Flesh was his fourth film with Van Damme, and the two have developed an onset chemistry that is unique in this world of make believe. I had the chance to speak with Ernie over the phone recently after Van Dammage at an older age and the loss of Darren Shahlevi.
Dan Buffa-After four films with Van Damme, do you guys have a speechless rhythm going on the set?
Ernie Barbarash-I think we do. When you first start working together, you don’t have the trust but after a while you develop this vocabulary with each other. Using certain words and phrases from previous films. He trusts me to make the best possible movie. He is a guy who really respects the process and he is always up for something new. There’s a reason people like to work together over and over again. There’s a trust and a way to meld something together. When people have different ideas, it’s best to not be defensive about it.
DB-He’s an ageless wonder, turning 55 this year. It must be a thrill to work with this guy who has stuck to the action genre.
EB-Very much so. He’s in top notch shape. He does loves what he does and not only the physical work but the acting that goes with it. Inhabiting different people. When the project was brought to him, it presented itself as a character piece. He doesn’t get to do this kind of film that often. Double Impact is one of his favorite films because he got to play more than one person.
DB-I grew up on him so to see him keep it going, it’s like watching an old lion that won’t die and it’s good for him and the audience. There’s no sell out in JCVD.
EB-People expect him to do things he did was he was 25 and he goes and does it. With other actors and great martial artists, you have to tell them, “You can do this outrageous stunt, but it’s maximum risk so let’s let someone else do it.” He really enjoys doing his own stunts and is very particular about it. I’ve worked with Michael Jai White as well. True martial artists are very particular about it because they want the fans to see how it works.
DB-The film has a tragic cloud over it with the passing of co-star Darren Shahlevi this past January.
EB-It’s just horrible. We had by the time Darren passed away, the movie was finished. I feel confident that we put his best work on the screen and ended up dedicated the film to him. It was a tragedy. Last time I saw Darren was in late December doing some voice work, and I told him I’d see him after the new year and we’ll work on the next one. He was a real professional, a really great guy and a great martial artist. Darren was a joy to work with. He came to set even when he didn’t have scenes to shoot. It’s a real tragedy that he had a heart attack and that we won’t be able to work with him again. The people that work on these films with Jean-Claude and I are real fans of his. They fly from all over the world to work with him. Someone told me that one of Darren’s childhood dreams was to work with Jean-Claude Van Damme. He had posters in his room growing up and always wanted to work with him. So Darren had a chance to work with him. Other than us dedicating the film to him, the film wasn’t changed after his passing but it did became something special for us.”
DB-Pound of Flesh is a real time thriller and he has this condition, kind of like Crank. It never lets up and that is one of the things the film has going for it. Was that what attracted you to the script?
EB-I have to admit I’ve never seen Crank. It’s one of these movies. I’m a big Statham fan. It is similar to that but when you see Pound of Flesh, it’s different. It asks philosophical questions and other things. I do want to see Crank and have had others tells me this but this is quite a different film. I hope people enjoy it.
D.B.-I wanted to ask you about the tempo of low budget action films. Are they quick shoots and how, if you can answer, do they compare to larger films and shoots?
E.R.-Low budget films are definitely quicker shoots than big studio movies. I think that having a tight schedule and budget forces you to be MORE creative, because you have to really think through your priorities, decide on a shooting structure, make choices about what really matters, what you’re going to take time shooting, what you’ll spend less time on…After all, you don’t have time to shoot a lot of different options and then just decide stuff in the edit room. A lot of new directors don’t realize just how crucial work on the shooting schedule is during pre-production. As someone a lot smarter than I once wrote: “If you’re not directing the schedule, the schedule is directing you.”
D.B.-Do you prefer this experience? Like other directors, do you wish one day to direct that big high budget film or are you happy cranking these low budget films?
E.R.-Look, I have the best job in the world, so I hate to complain. Would I like bigger budgets and longer schedules? Of course. But for me, it’s not really about money to have more gadgets, camera toys, etc. It’s more about having the proper amount of time to shoot a film. When figuring out the shooting location (i.e. country or state) with the producers and financiers I always push to go wherever I will get the most amount of shooting days. After all, the more time you have to shoot a movie, the better it will be because you’ll have time for more interesting camera work, time to properly rehearse with actors, the crucial work. You know, once in a while I go to interview for a big studio movie and often the response is “Well, we love you, but we’re going to go with the guy who’s already made a few $50 million movies”. And my thought is – it’s a lot easier to make a movie if you have money to throw at every problem. I’d love to see those $50 mill guys try to make a movie for one of the budgets I’m normally given 🙂
Barbarash has directed several of these low budget action thrill rides and has shown a comfortable approach in each one. Does he aspire for bigger things? Sure, but he likes having the chance to work with legends like Van Damme and White while delivering the goods people look forward to. Independent directors in the action genre don’t get a lot of credit but Barbarash is having a fun time watching action unfold before his eyes.
Pound of Flesh is in select theaters and available on Itunes on May 15th, 2015.