Van Damme’s latest project is Six Bullets. Mike Leeder caught up with director Ernie Barbarash for the following skip-chat about the JC project…
Impact: How would you pitch Six Bullets/The Butcher to a prospective viewer?
Ernie Barbarash: Best Damn Movie Ever! – 🙂 OK, for real now… I guess it would be something like: A retired mercenary with deadly skills and a hell of a guilty conscience helps a family navigate the sex trafficking underworld to find their kidnapped daughter. I'm not great at log lines…
Impact: It’s your 2nd film with Jean-Claude Van Damme, how would you describe the working relationship the two of you have? Will there be further collaborations; you seem to know how to play to "JC's" strengths
EB: I really enjoy working with JC. He's a terrific and often underrated actor whose commitment to doing good work despite tight budget and schedules is really crucial to the success of these lower budget independent films. JC gives it his all and I think he appreciates that I give him honest feedback and that I work day and night to make the movie the best it can be despite limited resources.
I originally come from directing theatre and I think that's where I learned to really collaborate with actors in a very serious and practical way – in a way that they can feel that they're really part of the creative process and not just pawns in the director's scheme. I feel that it's important to really take actors' suggestions seriously and try to make many of them work if you expect them to listen to your ideas in return. In terms of further collaborations, yes, we're trying to put together another project – it's an excellent script but it's a bigger budget movie so it might take longer than usual to set up.
Impact: The film was originally called The Butcher during production but retitled to Six Bullets, can you explain the relevance of the original title, and which do you prefer?
EB: Actually, the film was originally called Six Bullets, then after Jean-Claude and I reworked the original script we renamed it The Butcher since that seemed to us to be more relevant since we had the idea that his "day job" was a butcher —- and of course, in his darkest hours, that's how his character thinks of himself because he was responsible for the deaths of innocents, and his skills are those of a killer, not a detective, etc. His "friend" the detective once actually says to him "Stick to what you know, Butcher" – so it all seemed to make a lot of sense… However, the distributors who'd pre-bought the film apparently hated the new name so we had no choice but to go back to the original Six Bullets. Personally, I think The Butcher is much more effective since it has a lot more to do with the story – but sadly I don't finance the movie so I didn't get my way on this issue.
Impact: The film has a 'Taken'esque feel to it, was this something you were aware of, did that film have any influence upon this movie?
EB: Of course we were aware of the similarities – and we both loved the movie, HOWEVER, we never set out to copy it — the script that came to us already had the kidnapping aspect (as do many other movies) — I think the fact that we shot in Europe instead of America also gave it a similar feel. Human trafficking – or let's call it what it is – modern day slavery – is a worldwide epidemic facing us today – really a cancer that you think should have been eradicated by the 21st century… and my wife and I donate money to groups that combat human trafficking so in that way it was personally a very interesting and important topic for me to explore in the film. One of the reasons we made JCVD's character a gun-for-hire instead of just making the lead the father character Joe Flanigan played was that we did want to make it different enough from Taken.
Impact: How would you describe your approach to film-making? What was your strongest memory from the making of this film, and what would you say are the strongest moments in the film that stand out?
EB: Wow. My approach to filmmaking… Not sure you have enough space to write about "everything" 🙂 I guess in a general way I think that my job is to give "the fifth dimension" to the story – to really bring it to life visually, to figure out the metaphor, to figure out how it's relevant – to figure out its rhythms and energy… I always feel a little weird talking about my own "process" since it sounds so pretentious and really I always feel like I'm still always learning – and this is my 10th movie in 8 years… Maybe I should focus on the most important first step – at least to me – I always work the story first – to make sure that there are enough surprises, enough turns, enough going on really. Audiences today are much more story-savvy than all those audiences for whom the old screenwriting books were written – and of course they've seen the trailer so they know basically what the story's about so you can't spend too much time on the setup. On the other hand, you also have to spend ENOUGH time to set up the people in the story – especially your hero to understand his or her inner problem – to understand what makes him or her tick…
Also, it's incredibly important to have characters who really have an internal problem that is intertwined with their external problem. Without an internal problem, a character is just a person going through the motions. I'm a firm believer in the fact that you need to start prepping the best possible script. It sounds very cool and romantic to say that "oh – we saved the movie in the edit room". 99.9% of the time, that just doesn't work. The old adage stands: "If it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage." A lot of films get ruined because they're rushed into production before the script is ready…
Strongest memories from the making of the film… Let's see – meeting JCVD in Thailand and Vancouver to discuss the story, the script, the characters… Shooting in Jilava Prison in Romania – a real working prison – and we shot in the old "Soviet and pre-Soviet" section of the prison – some seriously horrible spaces there where you can just imagine all the tortured souls that were imprisoned, tortured and died there… And JC, being super generous, went around signing autographs for prisoners and even having a long, positive talk with them that I heard many found very inspiring… Shooting the opening sequence knife fight with the help of our brilliant stunt coordinator Diyan Hristov from Bulgaria, as well as JCVD's friend Fred Maestro, the Silat master with all of his personal crazy hidden weapons he showed us every chance he got… And of course I really enjoyed working with the cast from the US, the UK, Romania and the Romanian crew and my great collaborators, DP Phil Parmet, editor Pete Devaney and my partners in crime – producers Patrick Newall, Justin Bursch and Brad Krevoy. As always there were challenges but as they say "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger".
Impact: The film sees Jean-Claude playing a troubled soul; your 2 movies with Jean-Claude have been very 'dark' do you want to do something that is a little lighter in tone?
EB: You're right – darkness always seems to find me – and a part of me certainly craves it 🙂 — but yes – I would LOVE to do a comedy. It's funny; I used to direct a lot of comedies in the theatre – Moliere, Shakespeare, Neil Simon, Ken Ludwig… But in film, as a practical matter of getting financed or getting hired, people often just want you to repeat what you've just done – everyone tends to put you in a box and that's all they want from you – if they want comedy they'll go to the proven comedy guys but I'd very much like to get over that hurdle. Hell, I'd love to do a comedy with JCVD! We both know he’s got a great sense of humor and it's really time he did his "Kindergarten Cop", if you know what I mean…
Impact: How did you find working with Joe Flanigan, and Jean-Claude's children Kristopher and Bianca on the movie?
EB: All the cast on this movie were great actors and terrific people. I've read a few reviews that criticize some of the acting and I just can't agree with that. Joe Flanigan was a real joy to work with – a consummate pro. The thing about actors who've done a lot of TV, especially TV with action elements is that they can work fast, they make strong choices and they can adjust on the spot to anything that comes their way. And someone as talented as Joe – well, I sure hope that I can find more projects to work on with Joe.
It was great to work with Kris and Bianca too. They're both growing a lot as actors — and I'm very proud of the fact that we crafted bigger roles for them in this film than Assassination Games. There's no other way for actors to get ahead and develop – they need material that they can really sink their teeth into. I'm glad Kris could actually play JC's son – they look so much alike and they have a very similar spirit… and I LOVED creating Bianca's bad girl role – especially as she played a victim in Assassination Games. I think she did a great job – and it's funny – I remember pitching the idea to JC in a coffee shop in Vancouver last year – "let's make Bianca a bad guy! She's in league with the traffickers!" He loved the idea and we were off and Bianca really embodied that role incredibly well.
I also think the rest of our cast did a great job – Anna-Louise Plowman as Joe's wife built a terrific performance, Charley Beaumont as the kidnapped daughter was awesome and a real pro despite her age, Steve Nicolson as the Moldavian detective was masterful and Mark Lewis as Bogdanov the mob boss and of course both Uriel Pollack and Louis Dempsey as the two key villains NAILED it and I can't imagine the movie without any of them.
Impact: What’s next for Ernie B?
EB: I'm not quite sure yet. I'm attached to a number of projects that are all waiting for either the cast or the final piece of financing to fall into place. I've just written a book adaptation for Lionsgate that's about to go into production in November and having just finished another family movie just a short while ago I'm actually looking forward to a bit of a break to spend time with my family and to maybe even write a few ideas that have been racing around in my head with no time to land on paper!