An Interview with Michael Barnes

Michael Barnes, Mark Faiers and Chris Dawson, had a brilliant idea - they'd shoot a movie. There was only one drawback - they didn't have any money. So in the true spirit of outlaw film-making they went ahead and made one anyway. A full five years later their celluloid baby was in the can. But how did they shoot a cool, hard-edged, surreal movie that has the same brain-frazzling intensity as Eraserhead, on a miserly budget of just 16K? Michael Barnes - director of Cardiff-set gangster flick Fatigue - gives us the low-down. This email interview was completed in February 2004.



What compelled you to make a gangster movie in the first place?

Michael Barnes: After many years of writing scripts and making short films to try and get a start in the industry and having those works rejected without even being read/watched we decided to take Peter Jackson's lead (Bad Taste) and finance and shoot the film ourselves. Little did we know what we were letting ourselves in for!

You actually started shooting Fatigue over five years ago - why did it take so long to complete?

Michael Barnes: When I first started looking around at other ultra low-budget movies an obvious one to look at was El Mariachi by Robert Rodriguez. In his book Rebel Without A Crew he states that he shot the entire production in just over a week so quite naturally we thought we could do the same. A week into shooting when we hadn't even got an eighth of the film in the can we realised just how ambitious our script was with a new location almost every minute! This slowed the shoot down considerably. Also we had to stop each time our budget ran out which was often - sixteen millimetre film costs a bomb to purchase and develop, at one point we had shot for a year without seeing any of the rushes!  We just couldn't afford to get it developed - it seems madness just thinking about it now.

What was the total cost of making this film? Do you think the economic constraints imposed upon you actually inspired even greater levels of creativity.

Michael Barnes: The total cost was approx £16,000 give or take a few hundred. £12,000 of that was on film stock! Without doubt the economic restraints created the look and feel of the film - we were restricted in what we could do with camera movement, sets and design; we wrote down every location that we thought we might be able to get for free and crafted the script around them. Because of these restrictions the story came together very quickly.

The term 'multi-tasking' could have been invented for yourself (director/writer/camera/lighting); Mark Faiers (producer/writer/soundtrack/art direction); and Chris Dawson (asst. producer/soundtrack/art direction). Did the distribution of jobs between the three of you fall into place quite naturally or was there all kinds of squabbling?

Michael Barnes: Oh you missed a couple! I edited, tracklayed and dubbed the film too! And Mark and Chris did many more jobs than they credited themselves for as the films end credit roller just looked ridiculous. I've never really thought about it before but yes, I guess we all slipped into our specific roles naturally which looking at it now was a major blessing. I'd be lying if I told you it was all plain sailing though. There were a couple of times during shooting and post production when opinions differed but we got through that and  looking back I really appreciate that Mark and Chris trusted me to deliver with the directing and editing because it must have been frustrating for them at times. Thankfully we all loved the end result so they didn't feel the need to beat me up and dump me in the Taff.

You've done loads of television work in your career - did that influence the aesthetic of the film at all?

Michael Barnes: No, nothing I've ever done on TV influenced Fatigue. Television has become so restricted regarding drama production - stale - so many rules, Fatigue doesn't have any rules!

Fatigue is mainly set in Cardiff and London - what kind of potential does the Welsh capital have as a cinematic setting?

Michael Barnes: Well Cardiff is undoubtedly a beautiful city but as with every metropolis it has its dark corners and Fatigue explores that perverse, dark, underbelly because it reflected the main character's predicament and state of mind. I don't think the Welsh Tourist board would use Fatigue to attract holidaymakers. Cardiff also doubled up for London (low budget remember) apart from the underground of course! Personally I always think it's great when you see a film at the cinema that's set in a location that you know. When it's done well it can only add to the aura and mystery of a city.

Tell us some of the specific locations used.

Michael Barnes: Most of the locations we filmed at have been knocked down. I wish I was joking - the hippo club, the set for the big dance floor gunfight has gone and has now become offices! The house we shot in was repossessed! The Cafe Alba disappeared!  The scrapyard is now a block of flats! The car park is now a building site! And the covered indoor market has become a shopping precinct!  Talk of a 'Fatigue curse' started to be heard around town but I have a simpler theory - if you stand still long enough you'll be cemented into a large ugly building.

Is it fair to say that Fatigue has a harder, more psychological edge than some of the style-over-substance Brit gangster flicks of recent years?

Michael Barnes: I hope so, most of that crop of late 90s gangster films were played for laughs but Fatigue is very dark, there's a couple of gags in there but blink and you'll miss them. We really wanted to make something that would feel odd, surreal and different but still have a recognisable genre feel.

As well as being a gritty thriller Fatigue is also an excellent portrait of a man suffering deep psychological despair. How did the character of Mitchell Willow, the guilt-ridden former drug dealer, evolve in the writing process?

Michael Barnes: Well we started with Mitchell, the script evolved from his character and to be honest he came from myself and Mark - not that we were ever drug dealers you understand! I mean we really were Mitchell Willow at that point in time - no hopers with no jobs, money or prospects and we really didn't know what our next move was, and the story really sprung from taking that character one step further - what would I have done if I'd been offered that job? You know, just deliver some slightly dodgy parcels? I mean the money's okay?! At the time I'd have probably done the same as Mitchell, out of the frying pan into the fire!

There's plenty of kudos in making an underground film but if you had access to an unlimited budget what kind of movies would you make?

Michael Barnes: Well that's a bit of a dream situation and to be honest I haven't given it much thought. The only thing that's important to me is to keep working because when you stop the rot sets in. At the moment everything I'm writing is aimed at a low budget because it's so much easier to raise the finance. It really is a jungle out there. Woody Allen's latest film won't be getting a cinematic distribution in the UK despite its undoubted genius so if a giant like that can't get his work seen it really makes you realise that the most important thing is just to try and keep working and if that dream ticket arrives then thank you very much but I'm not gonna sit round and wait for it. 

Cannes, LA, the Great Lakes - have you had fun touting Fatigue around the film-festival circuit or is it as much business as pleasure?

Michael Barnes: Well it's just fantastic. The response around the globe to Fatigue has really justified all the effort that we put in - we walked away with Best Picture at the Great Lakes Film Festival late last year and this week we've just been selected for festivals in Brussels and Luxembourg ..... pleasure well deserved!!

Any plans to make another movie in the near future?

Michael Barnes: Of course, though all three of us agree we could never make a film the same way we made Fatigue, it almost killed us and tested friendships. The next one will be financed the normal way with a budget, a full crew, and a break for lunch!

Thanks Mike

For more information and the latest news on Fatigue click here

İAnthony Brockway 2004