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Local filmmaker goes from SA to LA

2015-05-13 12:10

Cape Town – Breaking into the Los Angeles filmmaking scene can be tough. Being a woman and a foreigner, former South African journalist turned filmmaker, Jean Barker is finding out that for her, it’s all about femininity.

In an industry that favours male stories, male directors and male pretty much everything, it was a risky move.

In addition to working as a script consultant, writing coverage of screenplays for agencies and individual screenwriters, she is also a scriptwriter for Emet Comics, which produces comic books and graphic novels featuring adventurous female protagonists.

Her passion is directing and in 2014 she won the DGA-Award for her short film, One More Day.

We had a Q&A with this up and coming filmmaker.

What was the move from SA to LA like?

At first, incredibly hard. I was attacked by bed bugs on arrival in my nasty motel room so I spent the first few weeks looking diseased. Combined with a foreign accent? Not fun. I kept offending people without meaning to by discussing politics and religion. I missed my friends, my mother, the air, the sea, and the sound of South African voices. I found everybody attractive, even the dumb asshole guys, because they all had cute American accents. I made my mistakes and burned a few bridges. But I have come to love it here now. I still get homesick, and am told I am "A one-woman SA Chamber of Commerce".

What’s been the hardest thing about living and working in LA?

It’s not that hard, really. I love work, so maybe it finds me. I love the city, I love a lot of the people I know and the new ones I keep meeting. It can be a little myopic, but the people that want to work with me tend not to be, so I hope I’m helping to start something new. I guess the traffic is the biggest ongoing challenge. I spent five hours in traffic today. Usually I can keep it under two hours if I plan well.

When did you realise that filmmaking was not just a hobby, but that it would be your life and your living?

Perhaps, when I signed my first screenplay writer’s contract, in February this year. But I don’t know if you ever become completely sure of success – it’s the ultimate freelance profession. You finish one project and immediately begin panicking that you’ll never get another.

What sparked your love for movies?

I love stories, I love sound, I love pictures. Movies combine all three, so they satisfy every kind of creative urge I’ve ever had, including procreative ones.  Spark? I don’t know. I made a documentary in Durban about meat eating and slaughtering your own meat, in 1997. I hadn’t felt adrenaline like that, ever before. I always wanted to feel it again – but also dreaded it so much that I chased other dreams for years instead.

What films have been most inspirational to you?

Amadeus blew my mind as a child. E.T. also did, twice – once when I was 10, and again as an adult, when I discovered new layers of meaning in it in the divorce sub-plot. Along the way, so many that the question seems unfair. Dirty, Pretty Things still haunts me and makes me laugh. Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men. And I genuinely adore District 9. And The Truman Show. I think Sci-fi and futurism has the power to allow us to look at our present and our past, with fresh eyes, through the lens of the future. Last year, I thought Birdman and Boyhood were both amazing, and a little indie with Elizabeth Moss, The One I Love, was my favourite screenplay. The Coen Brothers... Tarantino… 

This isn‘t a fair question. How long do you have? It’s also sometimes about seeing people who get to meet making films, and realising that actual people, not mythical beings, achieve this stuff. Having mentors who are famous has changed how I see success. It seems really possible.

What are the types of stories that you want to tell?

Stories about ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things in order to defy, escape, or defeat repressive institutions. I also like telling stories about really bad relationships, especially when someone gets their ass handed to them in a darkly funny way. Up in the Air is my top chick flick of all time.

Jean Barker's 90-Second Directing Showreel from Jean Barker on Vimeo.

What do you think could make the film industry - both locally and internationally - better?

The courage to tell new stories, to find the universal in the specific. This means fewer fat people / farting people jokes / poop jokes / hate jokes / death / explosions and better characters. This means spending less money per film and making more low and medium-budget films. This means fewer sequels, star vehicles and adaptations. In a way I think TV points the way forward for movies. I love movies, but I spend more actual hours watching TV series. Don’t you? That may be because TV is taking "risks" – it’s exploring racial diversity, femininity and things you don’t find in the old boys’ club of movies – at least, not at as much. I also wish "art" movies wouldn’t fear being entertaining, or enjoyable, the way they often seem to.

How important are film festivals for filmmakers? And how have they helped your career?

They’re fun to attend and they allow you to screen short films, which don’t screen anywhere otherwise. But the reality is that very few of them matter in the industry, and when it comes to genre (such as Sci-fi) films, there are none that likely to get you a feature deal (big festivals like Sundance barely even screen sci-fi). There are also literally 1000s of film festivals that are just total nonsense – so beware. Many have $50-80 (R600 - R1000) entry fees and nice websites and pictures of audiences on their home pages, but actually take place in garages with roll-down screens and terrible sound, if they take place at all. Luckily, I had help figuring out where to submit. Not everybody does.

What advice would you give someone who wants to pursue a career in filmmaking?

Don’t be crazy. But if you can’t help chasing this dream, then don’t do it for the fame, the money or the power. Learn a little bit about what everybody on a film set does, and then find really great people you trust to collaborate with and never, ever try to do their jobs for them. You have to love your co-creators and respect them, because you’ll be stuck with them for 12-16 hour days, for months on end. Get training – whether on the job, or in film school, or both – in your chosen profession. Stay humble, stay curious. Be a nice person, even when you’re really tired and especially when you’re drunk.

Any tips for anyone who is dreaming of "making it big" in Hollywood?

Dream of "making it small to medium-rare"… Kidding.  Make something of yourself in your own country first. LA’s an expensive place to start from zero. My journalism background and life experience, as well as attending a top 10 film school, have helped me get further, faster than a lot of people who may be as or more talented than I am.  Finally, celebrate what makes you different. Even just being Flavor Of The Month is better than being No Flavor At All.

GALLERY: A year in Los Angeles.

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