Thomas Barnes and I stayed at the same cozy motel in Woods Hole, just over a half-mile or so from most of the festivities of the Woods Hole Film Festival. I gained my primary impression of Thomas as he and his family (wife and two children) walked back and forth between their temporary residence and the main festival locations. I, too, prefer to walk distances like a mile or two and a few days we found ourselves walking and talking at the same time. Although I love my family, they are not in the filmmaking sphere (for the most part). I had a moment of envy seeing Thomas’ children. I thought about what it might be like to grow up as part of a family where my parent traveled to film festivals to present work and wondered, ‘Would that have been better? Is that the equivalent of a content creator’s head-start?’ Especially because Thomas is so good at articulating the merits and demerits of a film – that’s bound to soak through to his own family.
Anyway, those walks weren’t the only time I spent time with Thomas. We also saw a few films together and then participated in a classic filmmaker’s discussion/debate about some of what we’d seen. That conversation alone was enough to feel confident that his short film Porgies & Bass should make my list of things to see.
Hunter: I saw your short film Porgies & Bass. I don’t want to give anything away, but what a dark turn that film takes! What inspired you to make it?
Thomas: It’s about the collision of two fishermen one day on a beach, a local Long Islander and a Latino. About five years ago, I started fishing on beaches on Long Island. I met many fishermen like the ones in my film. Most of them were decent guys, but I observed many spoken and unspoken tensions that in some ways mirror larger social rifts. And since this remote location and these gritty characters seemed pretty underexposed on film, that appealed to me. The fun of films for me as an audience and filmmaker is entering specific and unfamiliar worlds. So, I started mulling story ideas, but honestly it was when the title Porgies & Bass (a riff on the musical Porgies and Bess obviously) came to me in a rare flash of inspiration, that I knew I had to make the film.
Hunter: It’s a very memorable title with immediate associations for most people. It appears that a number of your films feature a seaside setting. What is your connection with the water? Why do you think it keeps popping up in your work?
Thomas: You are right. I am drawn to the water, having grown up by the sea in Hong Kong. As a kid, I fished off the rocks. One day, I observed the body of a drowned swimmer slowly carried into shore by the tide. The ocean has beautiful surfaces but savage depths. So, it makes a great natural and psychic backdrop for characters on film. And of course, the visual scope is so cinematic.
Hunter: What a terrifying an unforgettable image – no wonder your films end up there. On a lighter note, you were influential at MTV at a crucial point in its development as a maker and definer of culture. Can you talk a little bit about that experience and how it has influenced you as a filmmaker?
Thomas: As a young producer at MTV Asia in the early 90s, it was fascinating to observe the impact of this energetic and irreverent Western culture as it hit places like India, Korea, and Taiwan. It took off like wildfire. On the other hand, it began to feel like selling Coca Cola at a certain point, a little too easy and a little too under nourishing. From a creative viewpoint, MTV was a place that worshipped at the altar of visual style and flashiness. It took me a while after MTV to stop making pretty pictures for the sake of it. Story story story!
But I have a lot to be grateful for. The experience gave me personal confidence and professional skills as I moved on to direct independent music videos, commercials and narrative films.
Hunter: You’ve had a cross-cultural experience, working in Asia, Europe and the United States? How is being a filmmaker in Hong Kong different than being a filmmaker in the United States?
Thomas: The job of the filmmaker is the pretty much the same, the culture around it is different. Directors are treated super respectfully in Asia where hierarchy is king. In Hong Kong, the work is highly commercial on the whole, with some notable exceptions. In the States, you get the whole gamut of films from arty to mainstream. In the U.S., there are thousands of film makers at all levels and it’s harder to stand out. In Asia it’s a smaller pond. Each place has its own set of distinct challenges though.
Hunter: For our readers who are actors, what do you find most satisfying about the director-actor collaboration? What do you find most difficult?
Thomas: Trust. I love it when you get to the point that you treat each other like comrades in arms on the battle grounds of film production. When I see an actor connect to the material and give it their all, it’s probably the greatest high amongst the many highs you get to experience as a director.
Probably the most difficult part is balancing the demands of production – everything from time pressures to storyboarded sequences to continuity elements – with giving the actor space to explore and invent. Actors who can work the camera and transcend the obstacles baked into film production are a blessing for us. On the other hand, we directors need to try our damndest to always keep spontaneity and freedom alive, not just in rehearsals but on set where it counts.
Hunter: Spoken like a true actor’s director. You’ve made a number of short films, from Porgies & Bass, Whales, Miss Chinatown, Cement, Pork Chop…of all the characters in your films, which one is most like you? Why?
Thomas: The character of Miyuki, a Japanese girl in Pork Chop is someone I identify with though not obviously from a gender point of view. She’s a young woman living in Hong Kong who is estranged from her Japanese expatriate peers who think she is weird, and she cannot fit in with local Chinese, who also treat her with suspicion. In short, she’s a cultural and emotional outsider. As a half-Chinese, half-English guy brought up in Hong Kong and the U.K., I never felt totally at home or sure of my identity, so there’s a lot of Miyuki in me and lot of me in Miyuki. However, I would not go to quite the extreme that she does with her pork chop habit, greedy though I am.
Hunter: Anyone who has a habit related to pork chops is already kinda interesting on that fact alone. What are you working on next? And how is it going?
Thomas: A love story of sorts that I’ve been struggling with for a while. Plus, I’ve been reading scripts and hoping to find a nice little movie to direct or produce.
A sample of the work of Thomas Barnes may be found at: ThomasBarnesfilm.com. Or get in touch with him directly at: ThomasB77@gamil.com
Hunter Lee Hughes is an actor-filmmaker living and working in Los Angeles and founder of the open source production company Fatelink.