Steve Barron, Choking Man
Considering Steve Barron’s career, you can’t help wondering why he isn’t better known. Having grown up around films (because his mother, Zelda Barron, was a script supervisor, producer and director), Dublin-born Barron progressed from a clapper loader on movies like A Bridge Too Far and Ridley Scott’s debut The Duellists (both 1977) to one of the most influential pop promo directors of the 1980s. He was responsible for the videos for Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean, Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing and a-ha’s Take On Me. After making the cult classic Electric Dreams (1984), he worked with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, a gig that lead to him helming the hugely successful Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). He followed it up with Saturday Night Live spin-off The Coneheads, then worked as a producer on a handful of Hollywood movies before making three memorable, big-budget mini series, Merlin (1998), Arabian Nights (2000) and DreamKeeper (2003). Between the latter two, he returned to his native U.K. to make a brace of distinctly British comedies, Rat (2000) and Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001).
Despite the variety of his work, nothing in his past indicated that Barron would make a film like Choking Man. An inventive, understated New York indie, it tells the tale of Jorge (Octavio Gómez), an Ecuadorian dishwasher working in a diner in Jamaica, Queens, said to be the most cosmopolitan place in the world. Crippled by shyness, Jorge is almost incapable of communication and spends most of his time staring at the poster of the Heimlich maneuver that hangs above his work station, but sees hope of redemption in cheery Chinese waitress Amy (Eugenia Yuan) who owner Rick (Mandy Patinkin) has recently hired. Choking Man is Barron’s first time as writer as well as director and sees him reinvent himself with a pared down, quietly evocative film marked by its smart use of animation, which acts as a window into Jorge’s inner life. Choking Man debuted at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, and won Best Film Not Playing At A Theater Near You at the Gotham Awards later that same year.
Filmmaker spoke to Barron about his surprising move into indie filmmaking, spending his childhood on movie sets, and how Anthony Minghella got him the job directing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
STEVE BARRON POINTS THE WAY FOR HIS LEAD ACTOR, OCTAVIO GÓMEZ, ON THE SET OF CHOKING MAN. COURTESY INTERNATIONAL FILM CIRCUIT.
Filmmaker: What was your inspiration for Choking Man?
Barron: I’d spent a couple of years in New York before deciding to do this particular film. I was looking for a story. I was inspired by independent films coming out of New York in the last six, seven years, [like] The Station Agent and Raising Victor Vargas. I thought, those scripts, if there were any flying around, they wouldn’t be coming to me in a million years because I’m so far from that kind of material in what I’ve done so far. I’d always wanted to write, so I decided to find the story in New York.
Filmmaker: And where did the main concept come from?
Barron: I’d originally been sitting with my son in a diner and we’d been looking at that poster of the Heimlich maneuver and thinking how unappetizing it is, but looking around I could see that it really was invisible to the locals. That related to another conversation with my son about how the people who work in the kitchens, a lot of whom are illegal immigrants, fade into a sort of anonymity. I felt that one character could find some solace in that poster, and a window into his life through the non-descript character in the graphic. Those two things felt quite exciting, so I spent a few months getting on the train to Jamaica and just wandering around: I’d go from one diner to the next and I’d listen to dialogue and watch what was going on through the kitchen doors, how the relationships between the waitresses and the kitchen staff are, and slowly the pieces came together and it seemed like they were all right for each other.
Filmmaker: How easy was it for you to write once you’d done that research?
Barron: Very easy, actually, I loved it. It’s my first script, so I didn’t know what it was going to be. I was really nervous because I’d never written dialogue, but that was what I concentrated on, what I was hearing, and I’d often be scribbling down [lines] in a notebook. I got some funny looks. I had to move diners every two hours, so I drank so many cups of tea and so many bowls of gravy mash, but I really got fascinated by the culture, and the story grew up [out of that].
Filmmaker: Was it is easier for you to write the dialogue when your central character is essentially mute?
Barron: Yeah, it was easier. Having him mute was a definite decision also because when I was in those diners I thought, I want to do it about a character you don’t normally make a film about. In fact, somebody asked me after one of the screenings at Tribeca, “Why on earth did you do it about this character when there’s five other characters in the film that it should have been about?” I said, “That’s precisely why I did it, because I’ve seen films about those other characters, but I hadn’t seen this film.”
Filmmaker: It seems like with this film you overhauled your whole filmmaking process and redefined the way in which you work.
Barron: Yeah, totally. I feel like I’ve more than overhauled it, I’ve started a new track of authoring a film, literally. What I felt I could get out of this was more depth in the film and the characters if I wrote it as well, because I’d have a bigger understanding of what was going on beyond it and I wouldn’t have to paste those layers on, they would exist [anyway]. These are much stronger performances than I’ve ever been at the helm of, and I don’t think that’s any coincidence: it’s because I’m able to imbue a lot of that in the writing, and really understand it and go there in a way that I haven’t before. Also, my tastes have changed: I used to be first in line at the theater when Ghostbusters opened, and I’m not anymore, I’m first in line at Lust, Caution.
Filmmaker: Ghostbusters takes us in the direction of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. How did you end up directing that film?
Barron: It happened through the Henson Creature Shop primarily. [In the late 80s] Jim Henson approached me about doing a TV series, a very interesting, dark early folk tales [series] called Storyteller. I found that really fun because it was a blank page again, and Anthony Minghella was the writer, so we did what I felt was good stuff together. Because I’d worked with creatures, Ninja Turtles came along and it was actually Anthony Minghella’s suggestion to the film’s producers that I do it. I still feel I’m in that pigeonhole: I still get sent the 6-10-year-olds scripts, even though I’ve not done any for some time.
Filmmaker: Looking at your résumé, you’ve had discrete periods when you focused on one type of work (like music videos, children’s films, mini-series, etc.). Is this the start of a new period in your career in independent film?
Barron: I think so. There have been chapters and I do sort of stick on a chapter, but once I’ve done it, I feel like I’ve done it. I’ve just written another screenplay which I’m hoping to shoot in India next year. I’ve started casting and that feels like part of the Choking Man thing, as it’s an independent film that I’ve written that is as uncompromised as I want to make it. It’s definitely not in the commercial bracket on paper, but it could become [something like] Monsoon Wedding. I would be very happy with that.
Filmmaker: What have you taken from those different chapters of your career that you put into Choking Man?
Barron: In a lot of ways, I took more from what I did in my first chapter, the music videos, which is how to stand up there and drive it with adrenaline. You had to make 23 set-ups a day and you were on a pulse that was very different. The thing I didn’t take from any of those [other chapters] was that comfort zone that you would get into on most of the films. I went back to that adrenaline that came out of being very light-footed and not stuck in a groove and that was a massive difference.
Filmmaker: The animation in Choking Man seems to hark back somewhat to the video you directed for A-Ha’s Take On Me.
Barron: When I was putting it together afterwards it reminded me of Take On Me, but I hadn’t thought of it while we were making it. I’ve always had that rule about animation that it’s got to be motivated. When we made Take On Me, we had this animation style we wanted to use with the guys, but I wasn’t comfortable with using it until I thought of the idea, which was motivated by a comic book. Once it had that motivation, it really grew in stature and [it was] the same with Choking Man: the concept came before the animation, and it’s the idea of his window.
Filmmaker: Because of your mother, who worked in film in a variety of roles, you were on sets quite a bit as a kid. What effect did that have on you?
Barron: It had a big impact, massive. I hated school, my mom was quite liberal and my dad was always not around so she would go onto a film and we’d either look after ourselves at home or I’d convince her to take us to wherever she was filming and we’d be around the set. But just because it was a laugh, not because I was interested in film. It was a way of avoiding school. I had good “set smarts,” but I was more interested in playing football with the technicians than finding out what a director did. I had no idea what a director did even though I was around sets for years as a kid. I just thought they turned up and were treated very well!
Filmmaker: So when did your interest in film really begin?
Barron: It actually changed at school, when I was 15. I was getting nowhere on any of the exams and I was crap at art as well, mainly because I didn’t show up a lot and I couldn’t draw. But this art teacher said, “This year you’ve got a CSE [course] and instead of doing a drawing you can make a little film and they give you a 3-minute roll of film.” The government giving you a 3-minute roll of film was so abstract and so unlike anything that was going on, but I’d seen cameras on the set so I said yes to the roll of film and camera and then made a film about the colors and magic of glass, and got my only pass in an exam. That was the main reason I got inspired, but it was more about the cameras. I was fascinated with the cameras, left school and just rang up all the camera hire firms and said, “Have you got any jobs?” I got a job as a teaboy at that biggest camera hire firm in London, and for a couple of years all I was interested in was the cameras, not the filmmaking process.
Filmmaker: Presumably your mother becoming a director herself was an inspiration to you too.
Barron: Totally. Actually, what happened was I got pulled onto Superman and A Bridge Too Far as a clapper loader. On days off, I’d be in town getting interested in New Wave bands and started meeting people in music whilst I was working at Pinewood [Studios] on these massive films. I put the two together and [one] guy gave me a bit of cash and said, ”Will you make a film on our group?” It was pre-MTV and we were making these promo films, and the first few we turned up for, no one was the director and I was the producer. We did The Jam, their first , Strange Town. We all just turned up and there was an idea, but [the lead singer] Paul Weller didn’t want to go out in the rain, so we changed the idea. After doing about 20 of them, I realized that I was just starting to be a director.
Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?
Barron: Right now, the film I would make is the film I’ve written about a kid and a rickshaw driver in Bangalore in India. It’s got Irfan Khan in it, the guy from A Mighty Heart, and that’s who I’d have, even with an unlimited budget.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Barron: I think the first film I was saw was called Sammy Going South, which no one’s ever heard of and I’ve never found since. It’s probably the reason I want to do this film in India. It’s the story of a little kid who gets kidnapped by a sheikh and taken across the Sahara, chained from his finger to the [sheik’s] little finger. I was transported into another world for the first time I can remember. The first [movie] memory I’ve got is that film. I can still see some scenes in it today, and I think it’s influenced some of the things I’ve done. I think you re-dream these films and reinvent and restage them. There’s one particular night scene where he throws a little stone into the fire and it jumps out and blinds the Arab. I’ve not seen it since I was [a kid] — I bet it’s not got the same angles that I have in my head.
Filmmaker: Finally, should a director always take risks?
Barron: There’s a quote by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, the famous philosopher, and he said, “Always do what you’re afraid to do.” I only found that out later, but that’s what I was doing. Unless I was afraid it, it wasn’t going to be any good, and I found the biggest risks I took — when I was really out there and on a limb with the things I did — those were the ones that were easily the best at the end of it.