A Breath of Fresh Air: Steve Barron on ‘Choking Man’

By Dan Lybarger
Posted 08/21/08 14:03:07

Chances are pretty good that you might have seen something Steve Barron has directed, even if you don’t know it.

During the 80s, the Irish-born filmmaker helmed a series of creative music videos that stretched the technical and content possibilities of the medium. Name a memorable video from the era, and he was probably responsible.

He had a sleazy private eye stalking a weirdly mystical Michael Jackson in “Billie Jean” and had a real girl frolicking with cartoon versions of the Norwegian band a-ha in “Take on Me.” Just in case you’re feeling nostalgic, I’ve included some YouTube links to the videos so you can recall your youth or find out what music your parents used to like.

Barron started making features with the 1984 comedy Electric Dreams. From there he brought Saturday Night Live’s the Coneheads, the Teenage Mutant Turtles and Pinocchio to the big screen.

While the pizza eating terrapins were a huge box office success, Barron’s best post-MTV work has been in television. He helmed the pilot for Jim Henson’s acclaimed but short-lived Storyteller and earned critical raves for his work with a trio of miniseries: Merlin, Arabian Nights and DreamKeeper. For Merlin, he received nominations for both an Emmy and a Directors Guild of America award.

While Barron has successfully turned John Leguizamo into not one but two genies and made viewers belief that giant turtles could indeed inhabit the alleys of a major American city, his newer films have examined a world that is much less magical but just as challenging to film.

His latest movie, Choking Man, deals with a young Ecuadorian dish washer named Jorge (Octavio Gómez Berríos), whose interior life is vivid but rarely shows what he thinks to others.
He’s afraid to talk to others and avoids looking them in the eye. He’s so lost in his own world that he sees eerie cartoon-like images and has a make-believe roommate who gives him mean-spirited advice.

Barron counterpoints the tight-lipped protagonist with colorful supporting characters instead of fantastic locales. Set in the multi-ethnic Jamaica section of Queens, NY, the story features Jorge’s outgoing Greek boss (Mandy Patin), a sunny Chinese waitress (Eugenia Yuan) and a brusque but occasionally charming coworker (Aaron Paul).

The film was made for approximately $1 million, a fraction of the budgets of Barron’s previous movies. After having won the Gotham award and Best Director and a Special Jury award at the Ibiza Film Festival, Choking Man is now available on DVD through Film Movement. The specialty film company releases their movies through conventional outlets like and offers viewers a monthly subscription service.

Contacted by e-mail, Barron was eager to explain how he’s moved from epic fantasies to more naturalistic stories. Nonetheless, he was still happy to discuss the films and videos that helped make his current project possible.

Dan Lybarger: The scope of Choking Man is a lot smaller than your earlier films. Why do you think you chose to tell a more intimate story?

Steve Barron: This was my first-time writing and I wanted to make sure I would learn from the process of actually making the film that I'd written, rather than have the script sit on a shelf.

I set the ambitions of the project and therefore the budget low enough to make sure it got made. I was finding myself more engaged and interested in character driven indies than multiplex spectaculars.

DL: You’ve filmed everywhere from Turkey, to Prague, to Morocco. Has traveling ever made you feel the same sort of loneliness that Jorge experiences?

SB: The places I've traveled to I've often been accompanied by 300 crew, so it’s pretty hard to get lonely and isolated with work. Jorge is based on some real “loner” characters I've known.

Two in particular that have acute shyness to the core, unable to make eye-contact, extreme difficulty in functioning socially. I think almost everybody can relate to shyness to some extent.

DL: Why did you choose Jamaica, Queens as a setting instead of say, your native Dublin or London?

SB: I wanted to explore people who lived on the edge of their cultural groups. The film was about communication (minimal in Jorge's case) Jamaica was a very interesting palette for the subject: So many different languages, so many different frames of reference.

I really like entering the unknown and learning about new cultures. I'd already done my personal Dublin film Rat. I was inspired by NY and its indie scene.

DL: Was it tricky to make a believable film about a character who shows little of his internal life to others?

SB: I guess that was the point. I wanted it to be tricky. I felt that if I was going to learn to write on many levels I needed to see how deep and subtle a layer the audience will tune into.

Exposition is the easy way out and often just feels contrived. I wanted to let the audience do some work if they wanted to go there. This was a very difficult character—very inaccessible—the person you would rarely make a film about.

DL: Your movies, television productions and music videos are often technically sophisticated. For the most part, this move seems more naturalistic than anything else I’ve seen from you.

SB: I'm trying to transpose the technical sophistication with more character sophistication, maybe to merge the two back together at a later date and with a greater understanding.

DL: But it sure has a sense of claustrophobia. Did you do anything to make the film seem more confining?

SB: Technically we used a Slant or Tilt lens which gave a narrower depth of field to help depict Jorge's social suffocation.

DL: How exactly did you find the actors? Mandy Patinkin is familiar, but some of the others have been landing interesting jobs since then. For example, Octavio Gómez Berríos landed a choice role in Steven Soderbergh’s new Che Guevara film after he worked with you.

SB: I worked with Maria Nelson and Ellyn Marshall who put some very interesting cast up for the film in New York. It was enjoyable working with relatively unknown actors and in particular Octavio's energy and unrelenting enthusiasm and dedication to the project was priceless.

He worked undercover as a dishwasher before we started shooting and would call me every night with exasperated and exhausted stories.

DL: Eugeian Yaun has a pretty interesting background, too
(she’s the daughter of martial artist Chen Pei Pei).

SB: She is a natural—very free—also dedicated to the cause. And funny!

DL: This is the first time you’ve been the sole screenwriter on one of your feature projects. What was that like?

SB: This was the first original screenplay I had worked on. I loved the process of working with a blank page again. Like my music video days—it got different creative juices flowing—dug deeper—the process of directing your own script connected me more strongly with the actors which I think helped their performances.

DL: How tightly did you script the movie? Are the actors reciting the lines exactly as you wrote them, or was there some improvisation?

SB: The movies final cut is very close to the script with a bit of improvising from Mandy Patinkin. The religious lady outside the diner did her own dialogue.

DL: You’ve worked with several different animation styles in your other projects. How did you decide on the one you used here?

SB: I saw Marina Zurkow’s work because she was a college friend of my wife’s. I really loved her child-like sensibility and thought it would be a good fit with Jorge's naive mind. She did an amazing job.

DL: How exactly did you start working with animation because it seems to be a recurring element in your work from the Dire Straits and a-ha videos to the present?

SB: I was always a big fan of Disney’s Pinocchio growing up. When i started doing videos, animation became the Holy Grail, being able to control the images and movement frame by frame. It always seemed to fit better on a tempo level with most music, more so than most live-action, with the exception of dance.

DL: Are you fluent in Spanish? If not, what was it like to film long sequences in a language you don’t speak?

SB: I don’t speak Spanish but I relied on the many crew members that did. You definitely feel less sure-footed giving direction to an actor who is going to speak a language that you can't when you roll the camera.

DL: When I watched the featurette that came with Arabian Nights, I saw that some of the most ingenious special effects you worked with sometimes don’t draw attention to themselves. For example, you used digital tricks to make the crowds look larger. Are there any other “trick” shots you had in Choking Man or your other projects that you’re proud of but viewers might take for granted?

SB: Choking Man had very few tricks. The shot in all the projects I have done that I am most proud of is in the Native American mini-series Dreamkeeper, where the camera travels right around the moving truck past the two main characters during a dialogue scene, then out the window the other side before disappearing under the hood.

Most very technical people can’t work out how we did it. I think it appeals to my mischievous side.

DL: I brought up Arabian Nights because I though you and Peter Barnes (The Ruling Class) did such a fine job adapting the stories.

SB: Peter did a great job on a difficult subject. RIP>

DL: One thing I really liked is that you two preserved some of the bawdiness of the original tales and still made it relatively kid-friendly.

SB: Yeah—that is always the challenge with material that can be
adapted in extremely opposite ways. I think the youthful spirit of curiosity can merge young and adult tastes and wants. In fact “spirit” is the key generally.

DL: How did you get involved with that miniseries?

SB: After we made Merlin, [producer] Robert Halmi asked what I wanted to do. The lure of Arabia had always been there for me.

DL: Your miniseries projects like Merlin and Arabian Nights have up until this point been your most well-received. Why do you think you’ve had some of your best luck with those?

SB: Working with Robert (Halmi) has always been an extremely liberating process. He allows you the freedom and backs you up with the resources. Also having three hours to tell a story means you can go off-track and make interesting tangents into scenes that would never normally survive the script of a theatrical movie.

DL: You worked on Jim Henson’s short-lived but fascinating series Storyteller. I think it’s interesting that you and Anthony Minghella both worked on that show. What was it like to work on that?

SB: I had met Jim Henson on a video for the movie Labrynth. He told of their plans for The Storyteller series and asked if I would be interested in directing the pilot and setting the style of the show.

The collaboration with Anthony was truly wonderful and inspiring. He was an exceptional man, as was Jim. I based the style of the series on a children’s silhouette artist called Jan Pienkowski, who had also inspired a video of silhouettes I had made for a-ha's “Hunting High and Low” video nine months earlier. Anthony's beautiful words from the series still ring around my ears all these years later.

DL: A lot of my readers grew up on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and would like to know about your work on that. What was it like to supervise actors in those elaborate costumes?

SB: It was so hot inside those suits that all the performers lost 20lbs minimum. And they were already trim! We built special wooden “horses” that they could rest on to support the weight of their shells which contained all the electronics.

I looked around the set in-between shots one day and saw the four exhausted mutant turtles dangling “dead” on their horses, mouths wide open, resting in a huddle that looked like it belonged to a very freaky piece at MOMA.

I thought if people ever turned up to see this film they couldn't possibly ever imagined this odd, eerie moment. They didn't. (Imagine the scene). But they did. (Turn up).

DL: I’ve always loved the floor lights and stalker
mentality that runs through “Billie Jean.” It’s really eerie and creative.

SB: We shot the video in LA some six weeks before anyone had heard the album. On the set Michael was quiet and charming. Whilst I apologetically showed him the few paving stones that would actually light up I asked him if he wanted to rehearse. He replied softly that he was OK to shoot.

I was operating the camera and as the sound of the Billie Jean chorus filled the studio he danced that dance along that street. The eye-piece in my camera literally steamed up as I witnessed for the first time the birth of a modern day phenomena.

DL:Take on Me” is still amazing 20 years later. How exactly did you and the other filmmakers decide on the visual style and approach to the story?

SB: I had told Jeff Ayeroff at Warner Bros that I wanted the time on some project or another to do a big animated piece. He showed me Michael Patterson's animation from a short film and gave me the a-ha track. I went away and, inspired by a comic book from my youth, wrote the idea about a girl entering the comic dimension.

The image of the animated hand reaching out from the page was the first
thought. It gave me goose bumps, which I knew at the time was a good sign.

DL: Are there any videos you’ve worked on that you’re proud of that viewers aren’t familiar with?

SB: I was proud of a video we did for the Human League “Fascination” where we painted the street and everything red to represent a “You Are Here” map. Trouble was when we had finished we couldn't wash the red off the street as promised and I was banned for life from the Royal Borough of Peckham in London. I don't think I'm missing much though.

DL: What’s it like having a filmmaker for a mother (director and script supervisor Zelda Barron)?

SB: It was lovely when my mother was around. I would go to see her with my concepts and she would edit and advise. I miss her.

DL: Are any of your kids interesting in making films?

SB: My son Oliver and I came up with the basic premise for Choking Man. He now has his own film company in London. Gemma is working toward becoming a music supervisor.

DL: It’s important to note that you worked as a clapper loader with directors like Sir Ridley Scott and Sir Richard Attenborough before you had helmed any of the videos. Did any of this experience help you?

SB: Both directors inspired in different ways. Ridley was such an extraordinary visualist. On The Duelists, he would paint pictures with the camera in a way that I never imagined was possible. Sprinkling baking flour along a muddy French path was just one of his improvised strokes. On the set Harvey Keitel screamed at him to come out from behind the camera and talk to him.

“Dickie” Attenborough was an actor’s man. They couldn't have been more opposite.

DL: You were planning on doing a film in India with Irfan Khan (The Namesake). Is that still going to be made?

SB: Very much hoping we will be making the movie in India soon. Damon Bryant is producing and we are attempting to be one of the first films through the new UK/India co-production treaty. That treaty took seven years to negotiate so we have to be patient with the process.

DL: Film Movement is a unique company. I recently saw and loved their Norwegian import The Bothersome Man . How have they approached releasing your film?

SB: They are a very pleasant group of true movie fans. They certainly seem like a caring and nurturing company.

I spotted the DVD of the film at my local Blockbuster in the middle of nowhere so I'm sure they are doing a good job.
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