TIFF 2016: Five Questions for Barry Director Vikram Gandhi
Barack Obama has four months left in office, and no matter one’s politics, one can already detect a wistfulness, a nostalgia, even, for the charismatic, complex and quite human figure at the center of his administration. In a year that’s already seen one Barack Obama picture (Southside with You) go from festivals to theaters, another — one that goes even further back in time — premieres today at the Toronto International Film Festival. Vikram Gandhi’s Barry looks at Obama’s pre-Barrack early years, when he was defining himself intellectually and forging his identity while a student at Columbia University. The film is a surprising third feature from Gandhi, who previously made Kumare, a documentary in which he transformed himself into a charismatic Indian guru and actually attracted a cult of followers among Arizona’s New Age community.
Barry premieres today at the Toronto International Film Festival. Below, I ask Gandi about casting a relative unknown as one of the most famous men in the world, the relevance of his movie during this election cycle, and making movies about very charismatic people.
Filmmaker:Your first film, Kumaré, dealt with a deceptive guru who built a cult of personality. In the midst of this crazy election cycle, is there any continuity between Kumare and Barry in the way they portray a charismatic central figure?
Gandhi: My first film Kumaré was a dissection of racial identity in America through my own personal story. In a more universal way though, that film had a philosophy: inside every charismatic leader is a regular person with a regular struggle. Barry, starts from an opposite place, but tells a philosophically similar story. Behind the great icon we know as Barack Obama, there was once a regular kid known as Barry, who played basketball, smoked weed, went to parties, dated girls, read T.S. Eliot and Ralph Ellison, and struggled with issues of identity, career, and family just like everyone else. Obama may be the most documented human being on earth yet little of what we see isn’t planned and programmed. This is a film that tries to get a glimpse of a side we don’t normally see. Beyond just being president, Obama’s life is also an extraordinary prism through which to understand the complexities of race in America. I never set out to make a film that celebrated Obama’s charisma — instead, I wanted to make a film that shows how universal and human his personal story really is.
Filmmaker: How’d you get involved with the project? Did you develop the script, or did it come to you? What made you want to do the film, and were you worried at all about making a film that would be released right as its central character takes his own step out of the spotlight?
Gandhi: Barry has been in the works for a long time, and sort of snowballed into the film that you see now. About five years ago, near the time of Obama’s re-election, I read Dreams from My Father and soon after, several biographies and biographical articles written about Barack Obama. Having gone to Columbia myself, and having lived on West 109th St in the building next door to where Obama had once lived, the sections about Obama’s college life really resonated with me. I could see the whole thing playing out in this really nuanced and colorful way — I knew the classes he took, the books he read, the bars he’d gone to, the streets he’d walked down, the music that filled those streets. 1981 was the time of Andy Warhol and Basquiat, the birth of hiphop, the most violent year in New York history, and the time of Ed Koch — its a New York I’ve only experienced through photographs and writings. I just wanted to see it all come to life. I soon decided that this would be my next feature film, and I just began researching every thing I could find on his life at that time and writing a film script. As you can imagine, it is a daunting task to make a film about Barack Obama on one’s own, let alone developing your first film while on the road with VICE on HBO. At some point, I reached out to a Columbia classmate Adam Mansbach, a great writer who is also an expert when it comes to race in America and old school New York, as well as my one of oldest friends, producer and Cinetic-partner Dana O’Keefe, a native New Yorker. We spent about two years developing the script together, until last year when we decided it was ready to share with Blackbear Pictures. A couple days after meeting with Teddy and Ben, we were all working together.
As far as being worried about making film around the time of Obama’s leaving office, his exit was obviously a good way to motivate the development process but my main goal was to make a film that represented this story properly, no matter when it was released. I had a hunch we’d have a lot of Obama-nostalgia around the end of his term. I think that given the current political landscape, that nostalgia is even deeper than anyone would have ever dreamed.
Filmmaker: What sort of research into Obama’s early life did you do, and what do you learn about Obama while making this film that our readers wouldn’t know?
Gandhi: The information about that time in Obama’s life is a bit opaque, so I really went after any and all information I could find: speeches, interviews on the radio, old YouTube videos, and articles written about him. I think people will be surprised that Obama wasn’t always the charismatic and confident leader that we see on television and online. Obama’s college years at Columbia, as he represents in his book, was a extremely introspective time. He lived on 109th St, a Dominican and Puerto Rican neighborhood one block beyond the bubble of Columbia University’s Morningside Heights. At some point, he removed himself even more from the Columbia community by moving to the East Side with a bartender friend who didn’t attend Columbia, in a dilapidated building beside a junk yard. Barry took long walks around the city, ran three miles a day, and fasted on Sundays. His girlfriends around the time describe an extremely thoughtful yet emotionally-detached young man, interested in literature, who was struggling with issues of personal identity. He read Invisible Man and explored Harlem — it was a time for him to understand how he fit into America and about the African-American experience. While it’s hard to pin down exact timing, it was also around this time that Barry started referring to himself as Barack.
Filmmaker: Why did you pick a relatively unknown actor, Devon Terrell, to play Obama, instead of a more experienced actor? Tell me about that casting process, and what aspects of Obama were the most important for you to capture in Terrell’s performance? Conversely, what aspects of Obama did you let go of in terms of on-screen depiction?
Gandhi: Our objective in casting was solely to find the most talented actor for the role, and because no experienced actor immediately came to mind, we worked with Doug Aibel to look all over the world for our Barry. I was not interested in finding someone who could just impersonate Barack Obama; I didn’t want a caricature. I was interested in finding was someone who could represent the inner emotional life of a kid named Barry who would one day become our president. I had heard about Devon as he’d been cast by Steve McQueen to star in his since cancelled HBO series. As a big fan of Steve, I was intrigued to know about whom he had cast as his lead. Devon had a lot stacked against him — he lived in Australia, sounded like it, and had no performance footage I could even see. After he taped his audition and did a Skype interview with me, there was no doubt in my mind that he was the one. On a performance level, I knew that I could watch this kid for hours — he strikes you immediately as a charismatic leading man when the camera is on him. But beyond that, Devon, being a mixed-race kid who never met his own father, knew the pain and struggle of Barry on a cellular level. The honesty and intensity with which he studied the script and the character allowed me to learn about character in an even deeper way. By the time the camera started rolling, Devon really sounded like and embodied a young Barack, but that was just an added bonus.
Filmmaker: What message do you hope to convey with this film, especially as its appearing during this election cycle?
Gandhi: Since we started the development of this film, the dark reality of American prejudice has reared its head. I believe that the only things that are new, though, are the cameras. Even with a black president, we witness a Rodney King-level event nearly every week. Now a large section of America is confused and disgruntled enough to be seduced by demagogue who rallies around hate. I keep wishing that Trump is just pulling a Kumaré, and that one day he’ll tell us that his campaign is all a hoax to teach us not to be duped by false leaders. I do think though that there is a lesson to be learned — America has a lot more work to do. I believe that the antidote to racism and prejudice is empathy, seeing ourselves in others. As a filmmaker, my hope is that an audience can see their own story and potential in the humble story of a kid named Barry.