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Nicholas Barker Makes and Manipulates “Unmade Beds”

Nicholas Barker Makes and Manipulates "Unmade Beds"

Nicholas Barker Makes and Manipulates "Unmade Beds"

by Anthony Kaufman

Nicholas Barker has been called the “most sadistic director in British
television” and “a fly on the wall turned into a vulture.” Although the
experienced doc-maker proclaims his dislike of such epithets, there is
still a discernable glimmer of malevolent delight when he refutes them.
This kind of ambiguity is what Barker, a legendary bad-boy in the UK, is
known for. His two documentary series, “Sign of the Times,” a comedy of
manners about good and bad taste in British society and “From A to B” a
similar probe, this time about The Brits’ relationship with their cars,
caused a considerable stir in his native land, dividing TV executives,
critics and the public as to “whether he committed a crime against the
British people or,” he claims, “if this was a breakthrough in British
documentary filmmaking.”

With “Unmade Beds,” Barker turns his sly eye onto New York City,
creating a feature film that defies categorization. The “real life”
film is a part-documentary, part-fiction, part-artistic journey into the
lives of four single New Yorkers, extreme in their own desperate ways to
find love in the Big Apple. But Barker’s real agenda goes beyond his
four eccentric characters and lies in the manipulation of audience
expectations, emotions, and prejudices.

After “Unmade Beds” played at numerous film festivals worldwide,
garnered multiple awards and several foreign sales, New York seemed a
natural place for the beginning of a US release. But frustration hit
after the two premier New York festivals (New York and New Directors)
lead him astray, leaving Barker with a New York film with no New York
venue to launch it.

Now this Friday, Barker is bringing “Unmade Beds” to New York’s
art-house cinema/bar, The Screening Room on his own, hoping it will do
for his film what it did for the hip-singles-comedy “Swingers” which had
a healthy extended life at the downtown theater. Barker explains, “The only
reason that ‘Beds’ is coming to a theater in New York is that I am
paying every fucking cent: $60,000. I just finished a Nike commercial.
And if I hadn’t had that money, “Beds” would not come to this city. So
don’t let anybody tell you advertising isn’t socially useful.”

indieWIRE: So how exactly did “Beds” get in US theaters? Are you
distributing it? How did it get to open in The Screening Room?

Nicholas Barker: Oh god, how did it get to The Screening Room? Let me
give you a boiled down version of the story. We opened at Telluride and
Venice simultaneously. We were only at Venice, because we lied to them
about it being a world premiere, because, in fact, Telluride, had a
world premiere two days earlier. And we went from Telluride to Venice
to Toronto, and during that time, we had Miramax, Sony [Classics],
Trimark, Fine Line, all the big players were clustering around us like
flies — an incredible buzz — they were observing what the film was
doing to audiences. Certainly in the case of Miramax and Sony Classics,
there were younger acquisition executives who were passionate about the
film. Dylan [Leiner at Classics] loved the film. Robert Kessel, at
Miramax — Robert failed to get “In the Company of Men,” so he was
hoping in a sense this would be his “In the Company of Men.” And so I
had people, Amy Israel, I had people at that level who really believed
in the film. And in every case, they were blown out by marketing
directors who said that it was unclassifiable, which is true, and
impossible to sell, which I think is totally untrue.

I am a shameless self-publicist. This is four years of my life. And
what is the point of putting in all that energy if you can only
communicate to a tiny audience. And so, firstly, I persuaded Virgin EMI
to invest in the soundtrack. And it’s the first time that Virgin have
ever invested in a soundtrack for a movie that didn’t have a
distribution deal. And one of the key musicians is William Orbit, who
wrote and produced Madonna’s new album. We’ve got some really strong,
new British trip-hop ambient Jazz. So I have a CD. I’m having a one man
photography show at the Julie Saul Gallery, which is a series of
portraits through windows. I’ve got a book. I’ve got Greg Denoto, who
is the creative director, doing a free advertising campaign. And I’ve
got probably the shrewdest, most ruthless film publicist on the east
coast, Donna Daniels, working for next to nothing. So I have this whole
package. And I have a cast of characters who would be more home on a
prime time chat show than an art-house movie theater. So the content of
“Unmade Beds” would be as accessible to People Magazine as it would Art
Forum or Art in America. So, I thought I had this succulent bowl of

And in my naiveté and arrogance, I thought I’m going to clean up. I’m
going to make money. . . And I thought it was all going to have a happy
ending. And what happened, was from our early meetings with
entertainment attorneys and publicists in swanky hotel rooms in Toronto
and Venice, one year later, having been passed on by every single
distributor in the US, we ended up talking to shady, one-man operations,
operating out of broom cupboards in lower Manhattan and in LA, begging
for distribution in some flea pit. So, we failed. There’s no other way
to describe it. We failed. And I still, I still don’t know why.
Because to me, it seems illogical. Either they’re right and I’m wrong
or frankly, I’ve wasted the last 4 years of my life. At least now I
have an opportunity to put it out to The Screening Room, see if it has
the word-of-mouth appeal that I’ve always claimed it has. . . So if I
could do at The Screening Room what’s happened at festivals, where we
sold out at every screening, we could build word-of-mouth, and maybe
then, either a distributor will help us go to 10 other cities, which is
my ambition, or we’ll do it ourselves.

iW: What about television?

Barker: Television, it will go out on Cinemax on Valentine’s Day.
Reluctantly, we made that deal. I had to take their gold, because the
budget of the film was $1 million of which we owe about $250,000 in
deferments. And most of the money came from American and European
television money, with a few private investors, including my aunt who
put in $60,000. So, the problem, if you take television money, you have
a big problem with the length of the theatrical window. We’re hoping if
the movie takes off in the US, maybe Cinemax will hold out a little

If I fail to get a return from my investors, they won’t do it again for
other independent filmmakers, so I feel like I have a responsibility to
them and other people who’ll show up with their begging bowls. It’s an
odd, difficult film, but I’ve always maintained, if you have the
nosiness and emotional intelligence — which probably means you’re a
woman — you will find something memorable in this film. It’s strange,
but I don’t think it’s that difficult. It’s certainly an extremely dark
comedy. And the reason for that is, I’ve always found that whenever
comedy gets close to things which are deadly serious, then it’s even
funnier. But it’s painful comedy.

iW: How has the film played to the audiences at the different film
festivals worldwide?

Barker: When we had our European premiere in Venice, we played the film
to a stunned silence and I thought, “Oh, my god, the film is bombing.
They don’t seem to be getting all the linguistic nuances of New York
slang.” So I was extremely depressed and then was mobbed, literally
mobbed by students who were ecstatic, but somehow had completely missed
out on the comedy. They were engaging with it on a very cerebral,
aesthetic level. They were interested in the look; they were interested
in the sensibility, although they didn’t understand the conceptual game
that I was playing, in terms of, trying to manipulate the audience, to
initially recruit them into quite a cynical relationship with these
characters only to then implicate them in their own laughter, make them
feel bad about it and explore the boundaries between permissible and
impermissible laughter, which is one of the main agendas of the movie.

iW: Do the festivals consider it a documentary or a narrative?

Barker: We were not entered in a single documentary category. We were
in Critic’s Week at Venice. I was lumped together with Harmony [Korine]
with “Gummo,” which is my favorite American film in the last 5 years.
“Gummo” for me is a masterpiece. . . So Harmony and I were in the same
category — we were at Telluride, we were at Venice, we were at Toronto
and we were always lumped together as the neo-realists, with a kind of
dark humor, although Harmony’s work is much darker than mine and is much
more preoccupied with extreme otherness, . . . a kind of a modern
Fellini-esque freak show, whereas what I attempt to do is to present
characters who encourage you to view them as otherness, different,
freakish only then to recruit you into an awareness that in fact, their
foibles, their follies are remarkably similar to your own.

iW: Your attitude towards your characters is very interesting. From
what I’m getting from you is that your attitude shifts.

Barker: Totally. I think that what I really am is a portraitist.
Working on film. And all of the portraitists that I most admire from
August Sander, Diane Arbus, Judith Joy Ross, Thomas Ruff, in Germany,
for me, all memorable strong portraiture, is portraiture where the
voyeur walks a tightrope between a merciless detachment and a
simultaneous capacity for general empathy for the person he or she is
trying to capture on film or on celluloid. And what I try to do is
create portraits where the viewers are forced to make a judgment. I
apply similar quantities of irony on each character. And I apply that
irony in a very erratic way. So that one moment you feel the filmmaker
is actually being very sympathetic, the next moment you might think he’s
taking a few cheap shots, the next moment you might think he’s being
mercilessly austere. But I will never give the viewer a firm handle on
where I stand in relation to my characters. Because, in truth, my
feelings toward all the principle characters were a complicated mixture
of affection and at times, horror.

I am not, as a filmmaker, I am not an advocate. I am not a part of the
liberal, humanistic tradition of documentary filmmaking in which I
advance a point of view or attempt to educate or raise people’s
consciousness. That is a tradition that I have enormous respect for,
but I am an auteur director. So that’s not my bag. Instead, I try to
explore my own reactions to these characters. To present my portraits,
almost in the form of gossip. So, you gets these shards of information,
you get an abundance of emotional minutia, and then I rely on the
audience’s innate nosiness and emotional intelligent to piece it
together. And one of the by-products of this particular technique, is
that at each screening, the audience response will be radically
different depending on the age, the gender, marital status, general
psychological outlook of the different people watching the movie. People
argue vociferously, not only about what they think I was doing, but
about their own reactions to the same characters.

To give you a crude example, Mikey, the aging screenplay writer, is
adored by young men. Probably because he’s this very hip composite of
Rod Steiger, Marty Scorsese, and Dennis Hopper. The first time I met him
I thought I was in the presence of a B-movie hero who I’d always known,
but never seen. And so he has this retro-quality and this outrageous
tendency of telling it how it is, in terms of male libido. So, when he
says, “When you come up to this apartment, you’re here to fuck. If
you’re not here to fuck, then leave. End of story.” That’s what most
young men have in their mind, when they’re trying to get into a girl’s
bra anyway. So, young men really get off on Mikey. Women uniformly
detest him. Because he represents everything they most fear. He’s like
the enemy. And similarly, somebody like Amy. . . I mean what you think
about Amy is very much dependent on your own feelings about heavy
people, your own feelings about whether you agree with her diagnosis of
her situation. But in all my films, what the characters say is not what
they do. So, obviously as a filmmaker, I play unashamedly on this gap
between self-image and external perception.

Compared to the work I’ve done with British television . . ., what I did
was I said, here are a series of films about apples. And in both cases,
viewers halfway through each film turned to one another and said, this
isn’t a film about apples, this is a film about pears. So, I would
always seduce you into believing here is a film about dating — well, it
is a film about dating — but it also has nothing to do with dating.
It’s a device to start a cinematic or photographic exploration of things
that interest me.

iW: Can you talk about the style of the film? The carefully constructed
visual look?

Barker: “Unmade Beds” was a softening of an extremely austere, rigorous,
highly conceptual form of filmmaking which I pioneered in “Signs of the
Times” and “From A to B.” With “Signs of the Times,” I effectively
wrote a manifesto. In retrospect, it’s rather pathetic. But sometimes,
you need to express yourself in opposition to other people. So, I had
no dissolves, no music, no arty angles — everything was shot square-on
— at the height of the observer, no indulgent lighting — I bestowed
the minimum of artifice on each frame — each frame was held as long as
it could sustain itself. And each cut in the film would have to create
an awareness in the viewer that there had been a cut, so it would be
like watching a sequence of film stills. People were always shot wide,
so you were encouraged to look at them as you listened to them. Objects
were always shot close, so that they were almost anthropomorphised, so
that in fact, one critic said, I shot people like objects and objects
like people. But there certainly was an entirely democratic treatment
of inanimate and animate objects and the soundtrack, the dialogue was
cut to the film in such a way that you either had too much to look at
and not enough to listen to or too much to listen to and not enough to
look at. So, what I was doing, was marry traditions of radio drama and
still photography. I wasn’t using the grammar of film, which is
essentially illusionistic where you’d cut from a wide shot to a mid
shot, and would be unaware of the cut.

One of the reasons why people have such an astonishingly high recall of
the dialogue in my films is precisely because I turn film into radio. To
give you one example, in “Beds,” all the blind dates, I simply have
static shots of the exterior of the location where the dates have taken
place. What that does is it turns the language into a form of
eavesdropping, which is the aural equivalent to visual voyeurism, which
I use in the window shots. If you have less to look at, your ears work
harder. And there’s a greater degree of imaginative participation.
Conversely, with the windows, I give you too much to look at and nothing
to listen to. And so, you fill the gaps. Given that you’re not quite
sure what’s going on in those windows, they imply a narrative, which you
don’t fully understand, but you fill those gaps with your own imaginings
and your own fantasies and it bestows some meanings on those scenes. So,
this technique of cutting sound to picture in a way that is either
sound-dominated or picture-dominated, so that with the picture, you are
forced to read the television image as if you were scanning a painting
or a photograph. And I was the first British filmmaker to use wide
screen in documentary, so the frame was always paramount. . . So I had
all these rules, and in retrospect, it was too rigid. But I needed to
do that to get where I am now. And all of the films were underscored
with this simple, conceptual aim: which was to send the viewers on an
emotional assault course, of which, they would have to confront their
own anxieties and prejudices in relation to the characters they were

So when I came to make “Beds,” the first motivation is I wanted to do a
picture on a big screen. Not because I think film is bigger, glossier,
more glamorous than television. I happen to be certain that in Britain
film is a much less powerful medium than television. But I simply
wanted to work with a bigger picture, because it’s so frustrating
working . . . if you frame like a still photographer, which is what I
do, it’s really frustrating working with a small picture. . . I wanted
to see if I could apply my own film language. In doing that, one of the
first decisions I made was to shoot as much as possible at mid-level.
Because for most people, New York is experienced at mid-level. You’re
up in your apartment and you’re seeing all these other windows. Most
filmmakers get on the street or they’re very high up. I also have an
additional incentive, which is I’ve always been a pathological voyeur. I
make no bones about that. I love staring at people. Looking through
windows is a thrilling source of visual pleasure. I would be a liar if
I denied it. And I wanted to use that device, not only to suggest the
multiplicity of lives, who represented either promise for the principle
characters or a juxtaposition with their own lives. Compared to them,
these other lives might be happier, less happy, more successful
romantically, less successful romantically, more luck in getting sex,
less luck or whatever. I think it also suggested the process of
serendipity by which I only went through 4 windows. There are all these
other lives, but by this erratic editorial process, I selected 4. Now,
in fact, the process of selection was not erratic, because I had written
a character profile of the 4 principle characters before I found them. I
always knew I wanted 4 characters who almost had an operatic quality.
And made a common mistake, but on a truly monumental scale. Or who had
a handicap on a bigger scale than we would flatter ourselves that we
have. So, at route, you have one character is too short, one character
is too fat, one character who is too old, and one character who has
traded romance for materialism.

iW: So once you had these live people that you were dealing, how much of
them did you write, how were they accommodated or not?

Barker: We filmed the 4 principle character over 7 months on a camcorder
first. I made transcripts of everything they said and collated, edited
them down to a film script. I would say 95% of what you see and hear
was based on words and behavior that I observed. I certainly don’t
claim to be objective, this is highly subjective filmmaking, but it was
based on the truths that seemed potent to me. And seemed to be the
truths that I felt were dominant in the lives that I was observing. So
all I was doing was refining and finessing their language and then
turning it into a script, so that I would then teach them to act their
own story in my version of their lives.

[He emits a brief, kind of sinister laugh.]

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