With the recent release of action thriller Pound of Flesh in the UK on VOD, DVD and Blu-Ray, which sees Jean-Claude Van Damme as former soldier Deacon hunt down those responsible for stealing his kidney, we took the opportunity to interview the film’s director, Ernie Barbarash, about the movie.
HCF: What inspired you to get into filmmaking?
EB: What’s funny is that I never intended to go into film at all. I was a theatre director and lighting designer, I have both my Bachelors and Masters degrees in theatre – and I ended up working in film completely unexpectedly. Right after graduate school in New York City, I was hired to assist the late Mike Ockrent, a terrific Broadway director, on the Broadway musical adaptation of the Tom Hanks movie BIG, and then that show suddenly got postponed by a few months and I desperately had to find some paying work in the interim –and I landed what was basically a slightly paid internship for a Canadian film company I’d never heard of at the time called Cinepix that had just opened a New York office – I knew so little about film that I didn’t realize the significance that John Dunning and Andre Link, the two principals in the company, were the producers who first gave both David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman their start. A few months later, they offered me a development job and I accepted it instead of going back to the Broadway show because the incredibly kind people at Cinepix agreed to help me get a green card in the US – which was something no theatre in the country could ever offer me at the time… So there I was, reading scripts, learning hundreds of new things every day, and about 6 months later I was suddenly the production executive they were sending out on small genre movies to represent them… Without realizing it, I became an in-house producer for an indie film company… A few years into this, Cinepix became a publicly traded company called Lionsgate… I learned by doing, by being thrown into the fire on film sets and edit rooms in several countries, and then suddenly I was a producer who actually knew a few things… And then around 2001 I realized that I really missed directing and that if I was to stay in the film industry I really had to start directing… So in 2002 I was sitting in the sound mix of a film called HYPERCUBE with my friend and former boss Mike Paseornek, and I told him that I had an idea for a prequel to CUBE, and if I pitched it to him and others at Lionsgate and they liked it, would he let me write and direct it – and he said yes, and 3 weeks later I had my first movie to write and direct…
I was incredibly lucky to have incredibly supportive teachers and mentors my whole life – both in theatre (directors Andrei Serban, Anne Bogart, George Ferencz, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton, theatre designer historians like Arnold Aronson, to name a few), and in film like the Lionsgate and Cinepix key players who believed in me and gave me a chance to both learn and took a chance on me as a producer and then director and writer – Mike Paseornek, John Dunning, Andre Link, Jeff Sackman… I owe those guys everything.
How did you get involved with Pound of Flesh?
Josh James’ script was actually sent to me as a writing sample of his work as a screenwriter a few years before – and then I was sent another script meant for Jean-Claude Van Damme that neither Van Damme nor I liked at all – and then I remembered Josh’s script Pound of Flesh and I called Josh and asked him if it was available and he sent me this even better version of it and I loved it and so did JCVD and we made it. It was a real joy to start with a good script.
Was Jean-Claude Van Damme always meant for the role of Deacon?
I don’t think that Josh wrote it with anyone particular in mind, but once Jean-Claude was interested we tailored the script a bit for him and he fit right into the role.
Did you have any input in the fight scenes or did you leave the entire decision making to the fight choreographer?
As the director, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I just “left the decisions” to anyone about anything. That being said, I worked together with our brilliant fight choreographer John Salvitti in pre-production discussing the arc of the way the fight scenes work organically in the film – then he went away, worked out fight ideas, came back to discuss them with me, I gave a few notes here and there – he made a few changes… John is really excellent at what he does so my notes were very few and very detailed – he really took to heart thoughts I had about the martial arts in the film and not only brought them to life, but like any true collaborative artist, he made them of course a lot better. Then we presented the fight ideas to Jean-Claude, got his input, made some adjustments and off we went to shoot.
What was your favourite scene to shoot from the movie?
There were quite a few really… Let’s see, off the top of my head – I loved both fight scenes with late great Darren Shahlavi, the fight prior to the car chase where JCVD did the splits because the way Salvitti choreographed it, the splits were organic to the film and the fight work… I also really enjoyed shooting the big confrontation scene between Van Damme’s character and his brother George played by the incredibly talented John Ralston – the one where it all comes out and George decks him and his faith is questioned to its core. Also loved shooting that one car conversation where Aki Aleong’s character questions George’s belief in God and religion – to me that’s one of the core things in the film that made it interesting for me personally.
Have you any funny stories from the shoot?
None that I can share in public – LOL! Shooting in China certainly had its challenges for all of us who had never worked there before, but our host, producer Henry Luk, and his team from Nanhai, as well as my brilliant friend Mike Leeder, our Hong Kong based British ex-pat co-producer, helped us put together such a fantastic team of talented, hard working, dedicated and genuinely welcoming and caring people that we were able to pull off miracles.
How long did the film take to make and where was it shot?
I actually can never discuss budgets or schedules of films, but we shot mostly in mainland China, a few days in Manila in the Philippines and a bit in Vancouver, Canada. We had more time in China than we would have had on a similar budget in Canada…
You directed Falcon Rising which was recently released in the UK. Are there plans to film a sequel and where in the world would you like to see John Chapman next?
Shahar Stroh, the producer of Falcon Rising, and I are indeed discussing the possibility of a sequel – I’d love to see Chapman somewhere in Asia next – Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam…
Are you a fan of martial arts action movies yourself and do you see yourself continuing to direct martial arts action films in the future?
I’m a fan of character driven action films. I do love great fight choreography – especially if it’s organic to the story. To me, the story is always the most important thing. And as I get older, action movies where the fight scenes are there for no reason, or worse, if the story is just obviously a pretense for a bunch of fight scenes, it just starts to bore me. I would love to direct more martial arts movies, of course, as long as the scripts are good and the story is character driven.
What’s next for Ernie Barbarash?
I have several projects in the works, but sadly I can’t name any of them because none of them have been announced yet – sorry!
Thank you, Ernie!
You can follow Ernie on Twitter @erniebarbarash