Jean-Claude Van Damme’s current movie, Pound of Flesh, sees the Muscles from Brussels on a mission across Manilla to find his missing kidney. With a lot more to the story that just that attention-grabbing premise, we were lucky enough to grab an hour with director Ernie Barbarash. Having worked with Van Damme three times now, we shot the breeze with Ernie on Pound of Flesh, on working with the legendary JCVD, on juggling the expectations that come with a Van Damme film, on allowing filmmakers and actors to take risks, on working on low-budget movies, and a whole, whole, whole lot more of fascinating topics.
STARBURST: Firstly, that plot. The premise of Jean-Claude Van Damme hazily waking up in bathtub, missing a kidney, and then on a mission to get the organ back – that’s pretty out there. When you first hear that, you find yourself thinking “Really?”
That’s funny, that’s what I thought too. The script was actually sent to me as a writing sample for Josh James and it was quite different originally; it was a group of guys doing it – a little more of an Expendables feel. I didn’t know what to expect to it. I didn’t actually have any preconceptions, but I do find today it is interesting how when I do my own material and when I read other writers that your audience, when they go and see a movie, will have seen a trailer or seen publicity or will know what it’s about through social media. So it’s a very different thing because you kind of need to tell yourself as a filmmaker to be very careful. People are coming to your movie knowing what the concept will be. So if you take too long to set it up then you’re going to be behind them somehow. But yeah, I think that’s one of the things that appealed to me about the project. Yes, there was the first thing that was talked about, but there was more layers of the story, more surprises and twists and turns. For me, it was really about the relationship between the two brothers. I’m an only child myself but my wife has got three siblings – so it’s a very different dynamic. For me that was one of the most enjoyable things of working on the film; working on the relationship of the brothers, working really with philosophical differences over religion and faith and the way the world works. When people talk about liking character-driven genre movies more than a script that’s kind of an excuse for people to just have a bunch of fights, I would like to say that I like very much character-driven genre films but also ones that try and deal with issues other than ‘why are we fighting’.
So when you first heard of the film, was it something that you were always interested in or did you think that the premise sounded maybe a little too outlandish?
Well interestingly enough, it was sort of a slightly different process in that originally I was sent the script as a writing sample of Josh James. I thought it was well written, then some years passed. I’d done a couple of other films with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Some people had sent me another script for Jean-Claude. The particular script I read, I thought it wasn’t very good. It was one of those films that had just fight scenes for no other purpose than just having people fighting. Then something clicked and I said, “You know, I read a script a little while ago that would actually be perfect instead of this.” So I got back in touch with Joshua James, who said that he’d rewritten bits of it and then sent me a new version that was more of a ‘brother story’ than just Van Damme’s character with just a bunch of old army cohorts. It was a better script. I brought that to Jean-Claude and he really liked it. Often when material comes to me, like it does to most filmmakers, it needs help, especially in the low-budget genre film world. There’s a lot of material out there that isn’t more than what’s on the surface, so you celebrate when a script comes and it’s really good and there’s more to it. So I came upon it that way, it wasn’t where somebody said “Hey, I have this script and this concept, would you be interested in reading it?” I remembered it and went about it that way, so it was really kind of a happy coincidence. And it wasn’t originally set in Manilla, it was set in Brazil or somewhere else. Like a lot of films, you sort of figure out where eventually you’re going to actually shoot it based on a lot of other factors than just script.
Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pound of Flesh
And when you came across the script years prior, was it always envisioned by Josh as being a Van Damme vehicle?
No, I don’t believe that Josh wrote it with Van Damme in mind. It’s always helpful, in terms of getting films financed, to have a recognised name. Even people who have nothing to do with film know that. So in certain places, when you work with Jean-Claude or most actors who do this for a living, they would like input into the script. And Jean-Claude was actually pretty happy with this; there wasn’t that many changes we made for him. There was some dialogue tweaks there, and obviously he speaks in a certain way. You wanna kind of marry him and the script in a way that works. Also, in terms of the script, we wanted to create a different kind of fighting style than he had done before in some of the scenes. He had a lot of input into that. Certainly we tailored the script for him, and he loved getting involved from the ground up. And I think that’s really the way to go when you’re working with a seasoned professional; you really make them part of the process as opposed to dictating stuff. I come from the theatre and I’ve worked with actors since I was 14 years old. It’s the way to go when you really want to create something that works.
We guess getting a name like Van Damme involved, from a production point of view it automatically gives a boost to a low-budget film. There’s that name value and the fact that certain fans will buy every single film that this guy does, regardless of plot.
He really does bring that. What’s interesting is, yeah, it does enter in to things from a finance perspective. It does help to have a recognisable name. Part of me wishes it didn’t. A lot of good films don’t get made when they don’t have that, but in this case the genre matches the actor who has done a lot of films in the genre. On the other hand, I would love to see more people who finance films get out of their box, get out of the comfort zone. For example, with Jean-Claude it would be great to do a comedy. I think he’s a really funny guy, he’s really good at broad comedy. I saw him in a small comic film a few years ago and he was really good. It would be nice to get an action-comedy going on at some point. But yes, absolutely in terms of getting the film made, it does tell. Then it’s a question of making everything else work. I’ve made low-budget genre films, and some other things too, but some have worked out and some haven’t. I’ve not yet made a huge Hollywood blockbuster movie. There’s a certain amount of art and craft that goes into getting the creative with the commercial and the financing and the production end and getting it all to work. You cannot throw money at the problem, so I think everybody, from Jean-Claude to everybody else, has to make sacrifices, either financial or schedule or any type, to get these films made. At the end of the day, it’s really rewarding to get the fans of the genre or the fans of the actor really enjoying the film. Those are the ones who really matter. That’s your audience. The mistake is to try and compete with the $200 million blockbusters, because the publicity is there behind those movies. So in a way, you’re trying to create something that you know will appeal to the fans because they’re your base audience, the ones who are going to enjoy it the most. Sometimes they’re the ones who go out of their way to see this in the few theatres it plays in or however it comes out. We actually had an LA premiere for the film and it’s been doing well. I’m so glad that with social media these days you can get feedback from fans. I come originally from the theatre so I often do miss the live feedback component involved. In the theatre, when you put something up on stage you’re watching a performance and you’re getting feedback right there from your live audience. With a movie, the work is kind of separate from the audience in terms of time. It’s some months or sometimes a year or more after you’ve finished working on it that you get to see some reaction.
On the flipside of that, if you get a large name involved, in this case Jean-Claude Van Damme, then do you think the film can be hindered in how it then has certain expectations and certain boxes need to be ticked?
You can take those things as a hindrance or you can take them as a challenge. Because it’s a Van Damme movie people expect a certain amount of fighting and action and fight choreography. I think you have to take that and use it. In this case, a funny anecdote about the film, is the whole idea that Van Damme does the splits because he’s not done the splits in a movie in some while. It was funny. I was sitting in a coffee shop with John Salvitti,the fight choreographer, putting the fight sequences together for the film, and as we were sitting there I got an e-mail from the producer, Kirk Shaw, kind of in a joking way saying “One of the international sales people on the film is wondering if Van Damme is going to do any splits in the movie?” That was because that commercial had come out, the one where he did the splits on the trucks and stuff. I looked at it, I showed it to Salvitti, he laughed, and I said, “Poor Van Damme, man. Every movie they want him to do the splits.” I laughed about it and then a couple of weeks later I met with John again. This time he was like, “You know, I have this way where I actually can get the splits in to the movie and it would be organic.” And you really want fight choreography to be organic to the story rather than the fight choreography leading the story. So that was the idea that he had for the sequence that played in all the trailers. I loved it, it was great and it actually made sense. We had a great time with that. That’s an example of how getting a particular person and the signature stuff that’s associated with them. To me, as long as you can make it work as part of the film then that’s great. There could be negative ways in which it can work, like adding things to the movie that don’t belong there. I think the trick is to take those things that could be a hindrance and then look at them as a challenge and to put them in the film in organic ways. I’m no genius – sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t – the key is to just keep going at it, to keep trying. I just always remind myself that you’re in this for the long haul and you do this for a living. You just put it out there and do the best job you can and try and make it work.
Ernie on the Pound of Flesh set with Jean-Claude Van Damme
What makes Pound of Flesh different to many other Van Damme movies, and action movies in general, is that it’s a lot more character-driven than people may be expecting. There’s an initial fight scene which is very much a traditional Van Damme sequence, but then the action takes a backseat and when it does come then it’s a lot more grounded and methodical…
To me, and I’m not sure if I’m the first person to make this comparison, but it’s almost like musical theatre. You have a musical where you have songs, and you always want your musical numbers to not just be there just so that people can dance and sing, you want the songs to be organic to the story. Sometimes I think that if fight sequences are not organic to the story then they actually stop the story, in a way the action sequences actually stop the action. The audience can tell if the story pulls you along, and if there’s enough suspense and mystery and drama going on then you really want to know what happens next. Then your fight sequences come naturally out of that. Your fight sequence also needs to tell a story; it needs to have enough moments where you don’t know if your hero is going to win or not. Even if you know that at the end of the day that Van Damme will win the day and win the fight, you still need to put enough obstacles in place where you go “Wow, how’s he ever going to get out of that?” On the different fight style here, that was very much by design by John Salvitti, Jean-Claude, myself and everyone else involved. The idea was that we started off with a classic Van Damme fight against Darren Shahlavi, then as he gets drawn into a world that he doesn’t know that much about then the fights get more grappling, more MMA. Things change. And Jean-Claude really wanted in this film to do a different style. In a way we bookend it; it starts with a classic martial arts fight, then at the end there’s kicking as well as the grappling put together for the final fight with Darren Shahlavi. I’m glad it all worked out. You have a plan but then you’re changing things as you shoot because organically that’s what happens, so at the end I’m glad that it worked out.
And the slower pace of action fits well with the plot of the film, with the fact that Van Damme’s character has been drugged and is missing a kidney.
Right. And Jean-Claude, he really liked that. He’ll say this himself, but he wanted to make it as real as he could to a guy missing his kidney. It was his idea for his character to be taking morphine. As a martial artist, he’s very, very in tune with his body. I wish I was in 1/8 as great as shape as him. So he was very much in tune with making sure that it was very real for the character. And my wife is a nurse! As she watched the film, once in a while she’d be like “How can you really do this?” But I find that sometimes a suspension of disbelief works, and I think that Jean-Claude did a really good job of keeping it real.
The cinematography also helps out in that regard, with the look of the film often taking a hazy turn in order to fit the mind-set of Van Damme’s Deacon character.
I think so, and I think that in a way the messiness is part of it. You really want the audience to see the world as he does, but not in too much of an overt way. In the flashbacks, we really stylised that in the editing room to drive that home. Also, the style of shooting when you’re shooting fights and you’re shooting sequences like that, you really want the camera to be sometimes as fluid as the action without… sometimes I think things go over the top and the camera is so dynamic that you don’t understand what is physically happening with people. That drives me crazy in movies. Yeah, you can have a crazy, shaky camera, and that’s fun for a second, but I want to actually see who’s hitting who in these sequences. It’s a challenge, right, because in editing the fights you wanna be wide enough outside the action to see what’s going on but you also wanna be thrust into the middle of it. I think you need both, but you need to understand what’s going on. If not, then you take people out of the movies for a while.
Ernie with JCVD on Six Bullets
Personally, the first film that comes to mind with that problem is the first of Michael Bay’s Transformers movie, where it all looked really smooth and good but you often couldn’t tell what was really going on.
What’s funny is that when that franchise happened my son was really young, and he loved Transformers. We went to see them all, and yeah, very much, I think in a lot of films I think what happens often is that just because a $200 million can afford those sequences then they’re really, really long. Finally you’re like, “How many different ways can you show things smashing into buildings?” And it’s hard. I get the impulse – you’re spending money on it, so you want to show it. I have a great editor on my films, and he’s always just “The story comes first, the story comes first.” You’re taking the audience on a journey through time, right? I’m an amateur magician, and there’s an old vaudeville adage that goes something like, “Keep it short enough to leave them wanting more.” And I think that’s very true of films as well. You really need to understand the time that something is going to take to view.
That’s certainly a great way to put it, and it immediately brings Man of Steel to mind…
It’s funny, I just thought of that too. I’m a huge fan of those movies, I love them, but once in a while you’re sitting in the theatre, and I turn to my wife and go “Is this still going?” You know what’s funny? In that movie JCVD, Van Damme totally spoofs that whole idea and things just go on and on and on.
On the topic of JCVD, that won a whole lot of plaudits. You’ve worked with Van Damme on three movies now, but it seems that since JCVD and The Expendables 2, people started to see him in a different light and as more than just a guy who kicks people in the face. Having worked with him, do you feel that people don’t appreciate just how good Jean-Claude can be?
I think that absolutely is true. I think he really can do more than people think he can do, and I think JCVD is a really good example. I only started working with him after JCVD but part of me really wishes that he had gone on to make more films like that. I hope he keeps doing films that are out of the genre. Although everybody loves to see Jean-Claude Van Damme fight, maybe comedy… I think he’s a really talented guy, really very versatile, and I guess I can only talk from personal experience. As a director, I’m known for certain types of films and for being brought in to do like “Here’s a $50 million script. Can you make it for $10?” You’re trained as a director in all sorts of genre and it’s part of the fun of the job to one day be making a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie and then one day be making a Hallmark TV movie. Very much the film industry as a business is very much in the business of saying, “Well we have some projects that are horror films, let’s get the guy who made that movie we’ve seen before and are certain he can do the film we want.” I think very much that people think Van Damme and think it’ll be an action movie where he beats the crap out of people. I think he deserves the opportunity to do more and I think he enjoys doing more. If you go through Jean-Claude’s filmography and notice how many times he loves playing people in disguise or doing the whole twin thing, he loves playing different people. Not to sound too artsy here, but it’s almost like back in the ‘20s when Stanislavski’s method acting, what people really thought it was, when that came to America and everybody thought that method acting was sort of like making yourself true to a role. Yes, that’s part of it, but they also misunderstood Stanislavski as a theatre artists doing 100 times that and he got to perform in many other ways. In a way what’s great about actors like Van Damme is that they weren’t placed in what became this American method acting stuff is that it’s not about making the role like yourself, it’s actually about getting yourself be like the role. That’s why I like working with British actors, because they’re really well trained in the theatre and in acting, in creating characters, and they look to come in and play someone else. And it even happens with established actors, where they’re themselves, they’re the persona. You go and see a movie with an actor because you know they’re going to do the same thing over and over again. There are actors who I love working with who don’t need that, who really love being other people.
There was a stage, particularly in the ‘80s, that when you went to sees a Van Damme film, a Schwarzenegger film, a Stallone film, a Lundgren film, you knew exactly what to expect. And even more recently, with somebody like Johnny Depp even there’s a certain similarity and familiarity to nearly all of his roles.
And I think a lot of action movies, sometimes the actors themselves wanna do different things. Sometimes people don’t understand what the film audience want, so there’s just the same old, same old over and over again, just producing the same thing. But I think that it’s part and parcel in having a consumerism-driven film industry.
It’s almost as if there’s a fear to take risks at times.
Very much so, actually. With what I do, the question that comes up disguised in many different ways is “What’s going to sell well at Walmart in the DVD bin?” The fact that that question still comes up really surprises me in this day and age, but maybe the way the media platforms are changing, maybe the fact that you can do much more targeted marketing through a Netflix or through Amazon Prime or through Hulu getting in the game, through Vimeo. I’m very much heartened by the fact that you can see such very good television on Netflix and Amazon Prime, stuff that never would’ve started on network TV or basic cable. I think it heralds a much more robust and interesting period of creative space for filmmakers. I saw something from Kimberly Peirce, the director of Boys Don’t Cry, where she hopes and thinks that this resurgence of great work, of great creativity, taking place in television is going to recycle back and give us great theatrical movies. Instead of killing movies, it will hopefully revive them. I think there’s something very human and deep-rooted in our psyche that makes us wanna go around a campfire and listen to each other’s stories, i.e. why do we wanna go to the movie theatre? Why do we have Game of Thrones watching parties as opposed to just sitting alone and watching it on our laptop? There’s something in a shared event that we need. I tend to enjoy a film personally sitting in a huge space with other people enjoying it as opposed to just watching it by myself.
Darren Shahlavi in Pound of Flesh
With Pound of Flesh, you go to work with Darren Shahlavi on one of his last features before he sadly passed away. How was it to work with him?
Losing Darren, to all of us, it was just a huge blow, a huge tragedy. I’d never worked with him before, he was introduced to me by Mike Leeder, who was our co-producer and a friend of mine who lived in Hong Kong and is a huge martial arts casting director and producer and fan. Darren was just so terrific to work with, always there 150%. He came, I think, easily a week earlier than he needed to to the shoot so that he could train more and work with Van Damme. He stayed later than originally planned so that he could do more work and help out. He was just the nicest guy, he was a consummate professional. He was perfect for the role, he wanted to do more. It was such a tragic moment. The last time I saw him was late November last year when we met to do some looping on the movie and fix some sound issues that we had. He was going off to work in, I think, Romania or Bulgaria to shoot a film, and we made plans to get together when he was back in LA and we could maybe do another project together. The next thing I heard was the night he passed away, somebody posted on Facebook that he’d passed away and I was just shocked. It’s a real loss both to the martial arts and to filmmaking. Through the tragedy I got to know his sister and mother, who came from England to Los Angeles, and they’re just a wonderful family, really nice, beautiful people. It was just completely unexpected as he was in top shape. It was really tragic; they found he had some heart condition that he didn’t even know he had, and he had a heart attack out of absolutely nowhere. What I remember Darren saying was that he’d always wanted to work with Van Damme because Van Damme was one of his childhood heroes and was one of the reasons that he wanted to be a martial artist and an actor. And that really showed in his joy of working with him on the movie. It’s a real loss because he really was incredibly talented. Not just as a martial artist but as an actor. What convinced me to cast him in the role was not really his martial arts. It was more that he was this guy who could take a bad guy and make him kind of human at times. It was really the dialogue that he has with Van Damme when they first meet up. He was just terrific to work with and it’s a real shame that it was the first and last time I got to work with him. His sister’s putting together some sort of memorial fundraiser in, I think, Manchester coming up pretty soon.
Having worked with Van Damme three times now, have you noticed any changes in his approach? And was there any consideration to maybe having him play the bad guy in Pound of Flesh?
There wasn’t, only because when I suggested the film to him he really wanted to play Deacon. I think he enjoys playing the bad guy – I’ve talked to a lot of actors over the years who always say the bad guy is the more fun role to play. The challenge is humanising the bad guy. The key when I’m writing my own material, I find the key to making an effective bad guy is actually making sure the audience understands why he or she became the way they are. In truth, I have worked with Jean-Claude three times but we’ve worked together in terms of time over 4 or 5 years, so it’s not like I worked with him 20 years ago and 10 years ago and now. In a way, he personally hasn’t really changed that much in that amount of time. I think he just loves exploring new material and to try to stretch himself and push himself, but it also has to do with the material too. Again it goes back to I wish people would offer him different material. I know he’s trying to develop several comedies as well. I think that it’s important for all actors, actually, to do different things, to stretch beyond where they’re comfortable or where people are comfortable seeing them. In a way, I think we all need to push ourselves to take risks. Despite the fact that of how some things will feel, somehow there’s no way we’re going to get beyond churning out the same stuff if we don’t try new things. And it’s hard. I can only talk for myself, but this is what you do for a living so in a way you can’t fail too many times. I think it’s one of the challenges of being a working filmmaker as opposed to a filmmaker off a trust fund. Often I find it’s easy to be an interesting, risky filmmaker when you only have to do it once. I enjoy working with Jean-Claude, and hopefully we’re working on a few potential future projects. I like the fact that he also works with other people and then we get to come back and work together. It’s healthy, and we get to learn from each other. The thing with the film industry, I find, is that because things cost so much money then it’s hard to take a risk.
Last year saw Van Damme playing the bad guy in Peter Hyams’ Enemies Closer, and he just seemed to be having so much fun in that role…
I’ve only seen pictures and clips. I’ve not seen the whole film yet, and I should, but I think that he enjoys that stuff. Like anybody. It’s like I make action movies, I make family movies, I have done some horror films, as a writer I’ve written African-American romance, erotic thrillers. Those things came to me originally as just a job. You’re offered to write something and you take the gig. And I find those things, to do projects that are out of what you’d normally do, there’s some freedom to that. You try stuff because if it’s not going to work then it’s not like someone’s going to hire you again to do that. Then you kind of do it and realise it kind of works, then they hire you again. Like with anything, because you give yourself the mental freedom to be able to enjoy what you’re doing, you actually do better work. And I think that’s exactly what happens with Jean-Claude playing Villain in The Expendables 2 or playing that crazy guy in Enemies Closer. Because you’re finally able to kind of enjoy it, you go “Hey, let’s have some fun.” Then the results are really entertaining.
Darren Shahlavi, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ernie Barbarash on Pound of Flesh
So what is up next for yourself then?
I’m working on a number of projects. Unfortunately some of the stuff I’m contractually told not to quote things or talk about. In the current world and with social media, it’s almost the minute you mention something then it becomes real before time. That’s the thing with having platforms that are both news as well as publicity. For me, I am working on another potential project with Jean-Claude. Yes, it’s an action movie but it’s a very different kind of action movie. It also involves Kirk Shaw, the producer of Pound of Flesh. That is probably a project that will shoot in Europe, so that’ll be interesting as it’s more closer to Van Damme’s home base and where he’s from. And I really love working in Europe. I haven’t worked there since I produced a prequel to 9 1/2 Weeks, called The First 9 1/2 Weeks, in Luxembourg. So I’m looking forward to that. I’m also writing a pilot for potentially a new TV series that I’ve been hired to create. It’s sort of a superhero franchise and I can’t really say more than that. It’s sort of taking a character that was mentioned once in a comic book and making this character in to a real known superhero.
And is it a mainstream comic book that they’ve been mentioned in?
Yes. It’s really kind of a very minor character. So that’s a fun project. And I’m talking to some folks in Canada about a ghost movie. I haven’t done that in a while, and I really enjoy that stuff. It’s about ghosts, and I believe that Guillermo del Toro said it best in Devil’s Backbone when he said that the definition of a ghost is something that’s sort of a memory. There’s a very smart way that a character in the movie says that, that ghosts are truly about psychology more than supernatural. I enjoy that ideal. I find as a freelance filmmaker, you always have to keep nine balls up in the air for one of them to hit, so I’m overlapping right about now. I’ll potentially be off to shoot something in the early summer. But I’m always on the lookout for smart material, and I’m always writing myself, but I really enjoy smart genre films. I love genre movies but I love when they’re smart and tell a story too.
And do you personally prefer the writing gigs or would you rather direct?
I guess I’d always have to say directing, mostly. As far as work goes, as in work-for-hire, I get more directing work than writing work. On the other hand, part of it is down to economics; directing work tends to pay more. I think you need to do literally five writing jobs to make up for one or two directing jobs. I love doing both in the sense of I enjoy writing. Not so much Pound of Flesh, but with other projects I often rewrite what I direct pretty extensively just to make it my own and also to make it ready for production and sometimes to fix story problems. Also to maybe tailor it to the actors. But I love doing both. It’s a very different process. When you’re directing, you’re dealing often with hundreds of people at the same time. With writing, you’re kind of dealing with you, and it’s an interesting dynamic to go back and forth because it uses different parts of your brain. It puts you in different places. When I’m a director, I sometimes look forward to being alone in a room with my computer or alone in a coffee shop with my computer and I’ll deal with one executive or one producer on a project. Whereas when I’m alone writing, I’ll wonder where all of the people are. But I’m very fortunate to be able to keep working, to have different aspects of filmmaking that I can delve in to. I find that writing is one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process. People have sometimes asked me what is my advice to young filmmakers, and I’m always like, “Teach yourself to learn how to write more.” I think that’s the key. Most problems in most films actually come from the writing as opposed to anything else. You can fix any aspect of filmmaking after the script much easier you can the script after it’s been shot. Some people talk about saving movies in the edit room but it’s actually kind of a miracle when you’re able to do that. You can fix things in the edit room but you can’t really save anything. You can put band aids on things but you can’t carry out surgery.
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