Filmmaker Ernie Barbarash didn’t actually set out to be a film director, but the events of his life played out in such a way that he would ultimately end up doing everything in the realm of film production from writing to producing and directing.
Over the course of his career, he’s also had the opportunity to make movies with such people as Christian Bale, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon, and Rob Lowe. More recently, he’s dipped his toes into directing action films, and has had the great pleasure to work alongside such luminaries of the martial arts world as Michael Jai White, Lateef Crowder, Scott Adkins, the late Darren Shahlavi, and Jean-Claude Van Damme.
Today, Ernie sits down with KFK to share a few stories of his career as a filmmaker so far and his eye-opening experiences of making martial arts films, as well as films in many other genres.
Hi Ernie, thank you so much for taking time out to share with us. How are you doing today?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great!
Awesome. Have you taken a look at the KFK site?
Yes, I’ve seen the site, and I really enjoyed when the review for “Pound of Flesh” went up, because it kind of took me back to my theater background. A lot of times, when you make a movie, you have to wait months or even years to see the response, so seeing that kind of immediate reaction was really gratifying!
Great! Well, why don’t we start off with some basics, like when and where you were born?
Sure, well I was born in 1968 in what is now the Ukraine back when it was the Soviet Union.
So, how did you first get started as a writer and director in the film industry?
It’s an interesting story, because I never thought I would work in film at all. I actually wanted to go into theater since I was 13 or 14. I did it in college and I earned my Master’s Degree in Theater Directing, and I’ve worked as a Theater Director in New York, and done a lot of lighting design and things like that.
I’d had a job as assistant director on a big Broadway musical lined up after grad school, which was great because I’d be able to stay in the country (I grew up in Ukraine and Canada and didn’t have a green card), but it ended up being postponed for about five months. So, I ended up finding a job with this little Canadian film company in New York called Cinepix at the time, which is now known as Lionsgate, and after a few months, they asked me to stay on as an in-house development person. They were my film school, in a way, because I just learned by being thrown into it.
That’s quite an amazing story!
Yeah, it was an experience that you really couldn’t have planned. I did it for about seven or eight years, and I began to realize that I missed directing, so I pitched them an idea I had for a prequel to “Hyper Cube” and I asked if they’d let me write and direct it. They said, “Yeah, sure”, and three weeks later I had a deal to write and direct my first movie, “Cube Zero”. After that I also ended up directing “Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming”, and ever since, I’ve made a career out of writing and directing.
Well, that leads perfectly into my next question, which is what advice would you give to aspiring screenwriters, filmmakers, and other people wanting to work in the film industry?
Wow! Well, I’m really careful about giving advice because everyone’s very different. I think it really depends on where you start and what your interests are. I find it really helps if you also write, because as a director, if you want to get actors who can help you finance a movie, I’ve found that they’re more willing to go along with a first time director if they’ve already written a script that they like. I also think that technology has made it a lot easier for people to get their names out there as up and coming filmmakers, because these days, you can make a movie on your iPhone! (Both laugh)
Excellent advice. You have also worked as a producer, specifically on the thriller “American Psycho”. What can you tell us about the experience of making that film and working with people like Christian Bale?
Christian Bale is one of the hardest working people alive. He got in insane physical shape for the role of Patrick Bateman and would often put in 20-hour days. He just lived and breathed that part, and I can just imagine what it must have been like to make the Batman movies with him. The entire cast of “American Psycho” was one of the reasons why it was such a great movie to work on.
Nobody on the film was making great money, it was really a passion project for everybody. It was made for a lot less money than I think people realize, because nobody wanted to touch the “American Psycho” novel at the time, but now, all these years later, I still have people who come up and ask me to sign the Blu-ray, which is funny since I wasn’t the director, I was more the money man that nobody wanted to talk to! (Laughs) It was such a great project to be a part of, and it was really fantastic to have the response it got from critics and audiences. I still even have Patrick Bateman’s axe – the cast and crew gave it to me as a gift when the movie wrapped up, and that’s probably the best wrap gift I’ve ever gotten.
In 20/20 hindsight, definitely an enviable relic to hold tight to! Well, moving into directing now, you mentioned previously directing “Stir of Echoes: The Homecoming”. What was the experience of making that film like?
Yes, it was the second movie I directed. I also wrote the script for it, and drew a lot from some of the things I had read about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and from the experience of my brother-in-law, who served in Iraq. It became a supernatural movie about a vet coming home from the Middle East, but it was really about the idea of ghosts being anything, supernatural or not, that really haunts you. I was really proud of it, because of course, it’s a sequel, but it’s also its own movie, as well.
Excellent. You’ve also directed television movies, how does that differ from film direction?
In a way they really don’t, because ultimately, you are still directing a movie. I think in a lot of ways the only real difference emerges in the genre you’re doing. I did a TV mini-series called “Meteor” which was straight-up action, but I’ve also directed romantic comedies for the Hallmark Channel, and the only real difference is just the material. There are situations in doing television where you have a lot less time, so you have to really prioritize different things.
And, of course, you’ve dabbled in a wide range of genres, including action movies, and one that got a lot of attention recently was “Falcon Rising”. How did you become involved with the film and what was the experience like making it with people like Michael Jai White, Larnell Stovall, Lateef Crowder, and Laila Ali?
I actually got involved with it fairly late. There was originally going to be another director, but they left because of scheduling. I already knew the producers of the film, Etchie and Shahar Stroh, and they sent me the script. We actually filmed it in Puerto Rico, and that’s my only real regret about it, I would’ve loved to have filmed in Brazil, but it just came down to the budget.
It was a really great experience, and a great lesson in how to be disciplined in making a martial arts film. It was also the second movie I’ve made with Neal McDonough after we made “Ticking Clock” together, so it was great to reunite with him. Michael, of course, is a martial arts master, and he and the fight choreographer, Larnell Stovall, were very adamant about the fight sequences being realistic – and not just in that they looked real, but that they were real to the character of John Chapman, because certain movements he could do might look cool, but they wouldn’t necessarily make sense for the character. Laila Ali was a lot of fun to work with, too, and it would’ve been great to have her do some fighting in the film, of course, but it just didn’t really fit in with her character. Lateef Crowder is such an amazing Capoeira practitioner, he can move like nobody’s business. He should seriously have his own series or martial arts franchise.
Totally agree. Well, let’s jump ahead now to your collaborations with Jean-Claude Van Damme, which began with 2011’s “Assassination Games”, which also starred Scott Adkins and Jean-Claude’s kids, Kristopher and Bianca. What can you tell us about making this one?
It was a really good experience. Scott reminded me a lot of working with Christian Bale, because he was so focused and disciplined and he’s definitely leading man material (I think he should’ve had a much bigger part in “Zero Dark Thirty”!). It was fun working with Jean-Claude’s kids, too, and we got the chance to again in “6 Bullets”. Jean-Claude is really close to his family and he really loves having them around, so I think it was a huge plus to have them as part of the team.
Wonderful to get some of the background. Let’s talk now about “Pound of Flesh”. How did you become involved with the film and how was your experience of making it?
Well, the script for “Pound of Flesh” actually started out a little differently. Originally, it was centered around a group of guys, not just on one guy and his brother -the writer Joshua James, had sent it to me as a writing sample several years ago. Later, when Jean-Claude and I were looking for another project to do together, I remembered Josh’s script and so Jean-Claude and I took a look at it, and it all just went from there.
Sounds like “Pound of Flesh” evolved a bit from what it originally was. How about working with the film’s fight choreographer, John Salvitti, along with the late Darren Shahlavi?
Well, I met both of them through my friend Mike Leeder, who was a co-producer on the film. He really recommended John as the film’s fight choreographer, and John had a lot of ideas about working with Jean-Claude in an MMA grappling-centric style. Jean-Claude wanted to go in a new direction with his fight work, so we thought it’d be a perfect combination. A lot of the work with the fight choreographer is done in pre-production, and then the filming of it is just executing it, and he and I met up at a coffee shop in L.A. a lot to work out the fight choreography before the film started.
Mike also brought Darren to my attention, and I knew of him before, but seeing some of his work made me realize that he’d be the perfect villain for the film. The character Drake wasn’t as martial arts focused before Darren came aboard, but of course, his abilities in martial arts were excellent, and in a way, his acting reel sold me on him even more for the character.
A lot of his dialogue could’ve sounded too on the money and cliché in the wrong person’s hands, but I saw that Darren really had an ability to give Drake some depth. It was a real joy to work with Darren, he came to train with us early before his contract had even started, and he just gave 250% every day. We were talking about doing another movie together back in November 2014, but then, of course, I heard the news of his passing back in January.
That news really tore all of us up inside…we really miss him right now.
It did the same to me. Darren was someone who just had incredible potential.
OK, some of the stunts and fight scenes in “Pound of Flesh” were quite innovative especially when Jean-Claude uses as a Bible as a weapon! What’s the story behind that?
That started in the script. Sometimes you’ll read something like that and it seems really gimmicky, but it was very much a part of the conflict between the two brothers which revolves around faith and religion and from his brother’s point of view, Jean-Claude’s use of the Bible is very sacrilegious.
Indeed the film has a religious theme to it, so that’s what I thought; that it was supposed to be emblematic of the rift between the two brothers and their disparate perspectives on religion. There’s also another action scene that’s quite memorable which is of course, the split scene. How did that come about?
That came about when John and I were in the coffee shop planning out the fight sequences, and this was around when the commercial with Jean-Claude doing the splits between the two trucks was really making news. While we were talking, I actually got an email from the producer Kirk Shaw, and he asked in kind of a half joke, “One of the international distributors wants to know if Van Damme is going to do the splits in the movie?” and then a few weeks later, John came back with the idea for the split scene. It was originally going to happen much faster and then move into the car chase, but John kept coming up with ideas, so we decided to make the scene longer than was originally planned.
It was a great idea to implement and turned out really well. OK, so moving ahead now, what are some of your favorite action scenes out of your filmography?
Well, the split scene would certainly be in there, and when John was designing the scene, it was one of those things where I say, “Okay, that’s going in the trailer!” I also really like the final fight in “Falcon Rising”, and the fight earlier in the movie where Mike takes on multiple attackers in the Japanese garden. I also really loved Jean-Claude and Scott Adkins going at it in “Assassination Games”. There was also one fight in the film that wasn’t actually planned, but Scott had some time off and he just kind of came up with a fight on a balcony, and we decided to put it in the film.
Scott, always thinking ahead. So, having worked with so many incredible martial artists, who else do you really admire in the realm of martial arts films?
Definitely guys like Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen. Jackie is my kid’s idol! Also, someone I would love to work with is Tony Jaa, I think he’s the closest thing in the world to somebody who can actually fly! He’s a wizard, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve met Tony through a friend we both have, and he’s such a gracious, kind, giving person. I must say that I’ve really been fortunate to have the pleasure to work with all of the martial arts masters that I’ve worked with so far, and I’m not one of the people who really hates CGI, I think as a filmmaker, it’s one of many tools you have at your disposal and it’s just a matter of knowing when and where to use it. However, coming from a live-theater background, I have tons of respect for martial artists because it’s a lot like dance; it’s something that you need a great physical command of to be able to do well.
Well said! So what would be some of your favorite movies of all the artists you’ve just mentioned?
Oh, wow! For Tony, of course, it’s “Ong Bak” and “Skin Trade“. I was actually at the “Skin Trade” premiere in L.A. For Donnie, I really liked the “Ip Man” movies and “Special ID”. As for Jackie, I think I know every frame of “The Spy Next Door” because my kids have played it so many times in our house. (Both laugh)
With all the names you just mentioned, if you had no limitations on budget, what would be the ultimate martial arts thriller you’d want to do – who’d be in it, what would the story consist of, etc?
Wow, that’s a tough one! One thing I’d like to do that I haven’t done before would be a period martial arts film. I’d also really want to do an ensemble martial arts film with the same basic idea as “The Expendables”, where you’d have a whole group of people and each one would have their own individual style, and they’d end up fighting alongside each other or against each other.
That’d really be neat. On that note, could you give our readers a little bit of a layout of the process of making something like “Falcon Rising” or “Pound of Flesh” in terms of writing and directing?
To me, it all starts with the script. In the case of films I didn’t write the scripts for “Falcon Rising” or “Pound of Flesh”, I read through the script and take down notes about it, usually from the perspective of the story rather than the production side of it. I find that’s important because it’s your first impressions, and of course those only happen once, but you also don’t want to dilute the original idea that the writers had.
A great approach. So, to some fun stuff now, what’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t know?
(Laughs) Well, I’m an amateur magician. I’m a member of the Magic House in L.A. and I really enjoy performing magic for people.
That’s certainly the first time we’ve heard that! And, if you could be a superhero or possess a particular superpower, which one would it be?
My son asks me that question all the time, and my favorite has always been Batman. I thought a lot when I was a kid, it’s pretty far-fetched to have a superpower, but I could see with enough training and brains and money, somebody could be Batman. I’ve also always liked Doctor Strange, and that’s probably because of the magic!
Interesting choices! So moving ahead, what are some of your favorite non-martial arts movies?
I really gravitate towards action movies and supernatural thrillers. “12 Monkeys” is one of my favorites, because I love time-travel. I also love “Goodfellas” and a lot of crime movies. “Hotel Rwanda” and “Arlington Road” are some other favorites of mine, because I think that films are a platform where people can be educated about a lot of the problems going on in the world and it can inspire people to go and fix them. I’d actually love to make a documentary that addresses issues like why we have so much poverty in such an affluent first world country like the United States.
Super! What’s your favorite music?
I love all kinds of music, and I think it all depends on what kind of mood you’re in. Everything from Broadway music to rap to classical music, and something I really like that is that all kinds of music can hit you on a visceral level without images and only sound.
Definitely. So what are some of your major likes and dislikes in general?
I don’t like egotistical, mean people, and I really don’t like seeing that in filmmaking, with people who really get off on making their crews and their casts suffer. It’s the reason why I really love the saying, “The graveyard is full of talented people who thought they couldn’t be replaced”. Conversely, I really like people who try to help others, and in another life, I think I might’ve been a human rights lawyer.
Awesome. So, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
I’m really proud of my two kids. They’re very both really bright, inquisitive, kind people. I also think that it’s an accomplishment just to keep making a living as a filmmaker.
Wonderful and yes it certainly is a privilege. So, what are you really keen to accomplish in the next five years?
I really want to make a movie or two that would shed some light on problems in the world that really need solutions. I did that previously with Jean-Claude with “6 Bullets”, which dealt with human trafficking, which is a horrible problem in the world today that really needs to be eradicated. I think if I can draw attention to problems like that through a movie and show people some solutions to it, I’d be really proud of that.
That sounds like a plan! Well, as we wrap this interview up, where would be the best place for people to find out more about you and your work?
Perfect! Thank you so much for your time, Ernie. We all look forward to everything you have coming up in the future. Keep in touch.
You’re welcome, and thanks for this opportunity!
Sidenote: Shortly before the publication of this interview, we are pleased to say that Ernie officially became a U.S. citizen.