“I Was Always a Cartoonist In My Mind. But Then Something Happened.” An Interview With Director Ben Barnes

When I was in LA, I went to a screening of God Damn King Kong, a short film directed by LA-based director Ben Barnes. It starred my brother Brendan O’Malley, who also wrote the script. It’s a beautiful and absurd piece of work, funny and haunting. It stayed with me. With the voiceover, and the images of a lonely man walking the streets of Los Angeles, it called to mind James Ellroy, and the noir world his characters inhabit, the alienation mixed with the surrounding beauty of the waving palm trees and the deep neon lights on the strip. It’s tough work getting over a dame.

Ben Barnes was kind enough to submit to some questions from me about his process as a director.

SOM: Can you tell me a little bit about your background? How did you get started as a filmmaker?

BB: I was a cartoonist from an early age. I did some political cartooning in high school and switched over to strip cartooning my senior year. I went to college and had a daily strip for two years called Despot Theatre. I even self-published a book of them, with a run of something like 500. They sold at the campus bookstore. I think it sold out in about two weeks. But around that same time I was getting tired of being limited by what I could draw. I always wanted to create more than my capabilities as an illustrator.

But right up until the end of my sophomore year I’d never even thought of being a filmmaker. I never saw myself as that. I was always a cartoonist in my mind. But then something happened and I took time off from college and enrolled in some classes at Pittsburgh Filmmakers. I made a few 8mm films and thought there was something there, so I finished my degree back at Kent State and shoveled out a small fortune for a masters in film production at the University of Miami. Then I drove out to LA.

SOM: Your Fish Out of Water series is so funny, so well-done. [Clips: Joyride, The Nightmare, Movie Night.] You take a serious realistic tone to what is an absurd situation: a young man whose best bud is basically a PUPPET of a fish. Can you talk about that project and its successes?

BB: Don’t let Joyride fool you. The guy in the backseat is also a lead, and the story is of both of them and fish as friends and roommates.

There have been a lot of near successes with Fish; a lot of attention from the cartoon network and Adult Swim, plenty of near-deals, etc. But for the most part, it’s just what Joel Huggins and I have done on our own with the series, that’s what you see. There was also an online journal years ago, with pictures and lots of writing. It’s been around for years.

SOM: Your video for “Why” is amazing. Who is the man with the arrows? Was he involved in the car wreck? He is obviously in a distraught state already as he approaches the accident. I loved how mysterious it was, violent, tragic.

BB: It was just an image that popped in my head; and the nice things about music videos is that they don’t have to be elaborated upon too much. The budget probably wouldn’t have allowed for much more elaboration anyway. I just loved the actor, John Walcutt, and thought it would be something I wanted to do with him. As far as the meaning or concept, it really just had to do with what I was going through emotionally at the time in my life.

SOM: How did you get that effect with the arrows? His performance is terrific.

BB: The arrow effect is by Garett Zunt, my production designer on the last two WHY? videos. He made an apparatus that fit under the man’s jacket.

SOM: What is the process for shooting music videos? Do you have a relationship with certain bands, where they come to you for new projects?

BB: I shot some performances for WHY? back in early ’08 for dublab, then Yoni got in touch with me about doing a video after seeing my other work. That led to the Shoeing Horses video and that went well, so they asked to work with me again when their next album came out. They are one of my favorite bands ever, so it was exciting to be able to work with them. I don’t think a lot of people get to make videos for their favorite bands, so for all the other creative things that have been a struggle, I try to keep small, awesome things like that in mind.

SOM: How did God Damn King Kong develop?

BB: Brendan and I met at Jeffrey Tambor’s workshop back in 2008. He really liked the first piece I went up with, about the first porn magazine I ever stole, and introduced himself then. Some time later he went up with a bizarre Tennessee Williams-like piece that at the time people either dug or were roundly confused by, which is often a sign of quality. Brendan had asked me to make a music video with him, which I didn’t want to do at all, so I countered by asking if he’d want to make a film based on that piece. I think we originally called it “Squirrels”. That was a year ago. We set out to rewrite it and work it into something to film. The original piece was written in direct address to a woman presumably in the room, but we eventually changed it to be a letter to an ex, dictated to camera. We tried not to look at the lines head-on, if that makes any sense, but we’d add or subtract lines based on some sort of off-angle gut reaction. We did little to no improv, from what I remember. What was on the page is on the screen.

SOM: The look of the film reminded me a lot of the noir-ish nighttime quality of Barbet Schroeder’s Barfly, something about the light. There’s a loneliness there, and I wondered how you thought about that, going into the project. Could you talk a little bit about how you achieved that look?

BB: My longtime DP Mathew Rudenberg split duties. He shot the more complicated scenes like the bar and I shot most of the simpler scenes, like the kitchen. We shot and re-shot this thing so piecemeal, it was often just me and Brendan. I kind of feel like there’s a dog’s breakfast of film looks in this piece, so it’s a relief that you aren’t horrified. The filming was protracted over a 9-month period and shot with two different cameras, two different DPs, which I think augments the disjointed nature of the writing. but it was more by circumstance than intention. We had no money, so we had to shoot with what was available when we could. I think the loneliness is what holds each scene together, more than consistent cinematography.

SOM: What camera did you use? Was there any artificial lighting?

BB: We shot on the Canon 5D Mark II and the RED; and we did use lights for any interiors and the occasional exterior.

SOM: What was your process as a director for filming the picture? Did you rehearse? Did things develop as you went along, in terms of what you wanted to shoot, or did you have a gameplan from the get-go?

BB: I usually had specific shots or images for each scene, which then changed depending on the location. The idea was to have one shot for each scene/location, which we started to futz around with the more we started shooting. Since the shoot took place over such a long time period, things like the car wash and the last shot with the cereal would pop in my head as the film took shape. With this film, it was a lot harder to know when the right take happened. There was the oblique angle approach as I mentioned, and we shot almost every take eight or nine times. The one time we got it in the first take, when Brendan is crying, the camera was out of focus! So we had to reshoot that later on. Brendan and I are big fans, if we aren’t always the biggest practitioners, of “cutting deep” a concept from the workshop: the deeper the cut, the more risked, the better a performance will be.

SOM: Could you explain what “cutting deep” is?

BB: “Cutting deep” in acting, or even just creating, tends to mean making a choice that has more riding on it, puts you out of your comfort zone, a deeper investment and connection. Sometimes Jeffrey [Tambor] will even liken it to the the childhood add-on “…and I mean it!” It also has elements of cutting through what’s holding you up, making you hesitate.

Brendan and I were working on that scene with the lines like “We were going to set fire to the bottom of the ocean and all that” and were having trouble getting it right; the first way we’d shot it he’s reserved, or it was in voice over or something. And we were figuring out what was wrong. Brendan asked what acting style I hated, and I replied, “Showy, overly emotional” or something to that effect and we immediately were like, “That’s it!” And later we added an insert shot with that drawing to motivate the piece of paper. It was a real mish-mash.

SOM: How’d you come up with the title?

BB: The title is the last two words in the stage piece that Brendan performed. “God Damn” really loud, then softly to himself, “King Kong.” That and that alone sold the entire performance for me. We got rid of it once it became a letter, but then when we were brainstorming what the piece of paper says in that scene, Melody Garren, who plays Annette, proposed “God Damn King Kong”. And then it just took off from there.

SOM: The inclusion of the woman in the film, the one being addressed, is interesting, and adds a dream-like quality to the whole thing. I liked how haunted he was by her, and how that was made manifest by her presence. Did you go into it knowing you wanted her there, or did it originally start out as just the man talking, to himself and to us, all the way through?

BB: It was only after we’d shot a lot of the direct-address stuff that I started really wanting to see a lot more of what Brendan was describing, so we threw in a couple shots, first a memory with the inflatable mattress and then later examples of her continued haunting of his life. Of course, through that process we ended up with the emotional climax of the film and one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done in that fire helmet roof shot.

SOM: How much footage did you end up having? How do you decide what to keep, what to lose? Did you edit as you went?

BB: We shot a few more things than are in there, and we shot some scenes that we ended up reshooting, but for the most part we kept every scene in that we shot. I basically picked each take I liked the most, and if I like parts of one and parts of another, I found coverage to splice the two together. We had a scene of him at a storage locker looking at old photos that just had things wrong with them, like very subjective memories which we ended up not filming. Here’s the only one I got done before I scrapped that idea.

idea01%20v2.jpg

SOM: The one shot of the man on the roof, at night, with the green lights blurry in the background, is gorgeous. Where did you film that?

BB: I filmed it on my garage roof with just a light panel to front-light it. Behind Brendan is sunset blvd right by the stadium entrance. The fire is rubber cement in terra cotta pots.

SOM: Who would you count as your main influences?

BB: One of my favorite films from my obsessive film phase was Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, which was his 8 1/2. I love that film, and it’s kind of fun to have an unpopular film or one that’s overlooked as one of your favorites. There’s no posters of that film in any dorms to make you feel less special. Anyway, as far as God Damn King Kong is concerned, I think there’s a pretty solid connection in retrospect.

In general, I would say Bloom County has a huge influence on me. Films like Eraserhead, Jesus’ Son… Don Herzfeldt’s recent work has been overwhelming. It’s hard to say what you love and what influences you. I obscenely love almost everything the Coen Brothers have ever done but I don’t see it popping up in my work.

Ben Barnes’s short film God Damn King Kong:

God Damn King Kong from Ben Barnes on Vimeo.

Ben Barnes started out as an award-winning cartoonist, before moving on to directing. His shorts have screened at the South by Southwest film festival in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and also at the Montreal Just for Laughs festival in 2009. He’s a well-known director of music videos, working with Peter Bjorn & John, Busdriver and Coheed & Cambria. His latest video, for WHY?, was recently written up in the LA Weekly. The LA screening series A Dublab Labrat Matinee often features his work, as does Pitchfork, Stereogum, Les InRocks, the RES Screening Series, Derek Waters’ LOL at the UCB Theater, and MTV. Ben belongs to the production collective The Masses. You can read more about Ben, and see more clips of his work, at his website.

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2 Responses to “I Was Always a Cartoonist In My Mind. But Then Something Happened.” An Interview With Director Ben Barnes

  1. David says:

    Holy crap I loved that! Brendan was frigging AMAZING!!
    “I was going to say labia but that’s not right.” hahahahahahahaha

    That’s a hell of a showcase for him. Very well done. Must go back and read the interview.

  2. red says:

    David – I know, right? The writing is so startling and weird that I had to watch it a couple of times to absorb it. Like, when he’s crying? The first time I saw it, I was so affected by the crying that I didn’t even hear the language – and then when I saw it at the screening I realized that what he is saying during that crying section is hysterical – and bizarre.

    Yes, great showcase.

    Go check out Ben’s Fish Out of Water series, David – I linked to them. I think you’ll find them as funny as I do. Joyride, especially.

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