Mike Justice on “The Trouble with Barry”

Stephen Kitaen, Mike Justice and Peter Stickles on the set of “The Trouble with Barry.” Courtesy of Mike Justice.

Fans of eccentric B-movie gems may feel giddy while reading the cast list for Mike Justice’s “The Trouble with Barry.” It features a plethora of cult icons and fresh-faced talents ripe for butchering. Peter Stickles (best known for playing the peeping tom in “Shortbus”) stars as Barry, a once promising actor who’s become stuck in a dirt-cheap web series entitled, “I Love the Nightlife.” The film pays homage to the sort of low-budget, gleefully grisly pictures that used to be featured on USA Up All Night, as a mysterious killer starts offing the crew. The ensemble features everyone from Lynn Lowry (“Cat People”) to Juliette Danielle (yes that Juliette Danielle–a.k.a. Lisa in “The Room”…check back later this week for an exclusive interview with her as well).

Justice spoke with Indie Outlook about this wildly exuberant project, which is set for completion in December.

Q: You have a remarkable number of cult icons in this movie.

A: Over the past three years, we’d be getting drunk in bars and talking about who we’d want to put in the movie. Everyone we had talked about agreed to do it. We’re so new at this and we don’t really know what the protocol is, so we would just write to the actors on Facebook. I went to Juliette’s page a couple years ago and was like, “I’m writing a movie, I want you to be in it.” I think when you’re really naïve, people will feel sorry for you and they’ll be in your movie.

Q: What drew you to making features?

A: I’ve been editing a bunch of other people’s low-budget movies for years now. It felt like watching somebody else’s dog. You just want to get your own. So many of my friends had said, “I’ve been trying to make a movie for years, but I couldn’t find financing.” Obviously you can’t make a sci-fi extravaganza with exploding buildings and car chases and robots, but I wanted to show people that it is possible to make a movie for nothing.

Q: What inspired you to pay homage to the USA Up All Night movies?

A: I think it’s a twenty-year nostalgia kick. In the ’70s, people were all nostalgic for the ’50s with “Grease” and “Happy Days,” and then in the ’90s, people were nostalgic for the ’70s with “Boogie Nights” and “The Ice Storm.” Recently, I had been reminiscing about how much I used to love going to the video store and seeing movies like “Chopping Mall” and “Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama.” I’d watch them on USA and the network would censor them and dub in ridiculous words to replace the cursing. They were basically PG-rated when they were on TV. When my friends and I got older and we rented the videos, we were like, “Holy s–t, Michelle Bauer is naked in this for 45 minutes! No wonder the movie was so short on TV!” My producing partner [Stephen Kitaen] is a musician, and he was writing all of this instrumental music that was very synthy and written in minor chords. It reminded me of the score from “Nightmare on Elm Street,” and he asked whether I could use this in a movie. I was like, “Oh no, if we were going to use this in a movie, we would have to make an homage to the USA Up All Night movies, because that’s exactly what it sounds like.” Ten minutes later, I decided that would be a brilliant idea.

Q: You’re credited on IMDb for directing a previous feature, “The Conquest of the Silken Beaver,” which was a series of shorts. Is “Barry” similarly episodic in its structure?

A: It’s definitely more of a cohesive story. For “Conquest of the Silken Beaver,” I had all these short films that weren’t going to be played at a festival because they were shot on a standard definition camcorder. So I put them all into one movie and sent it into a couple festivals just so it could be listed on IMDb. I did it for the actors. The script for “Trouble With Barry” wasn’t episodic at all. [Peter Stickles] saw “Bad Teacher” with Cameron Diaz and said, “I know you’re going to think I’m really stupid, but I f–king love that movie. I think it’s the best movie in the world and I would kill to be in something like that.” And I said, “Okay, I’ll write you a movie where you can play a completely selfish sociopath,” and he was like, “Aw thank you.” Our film in no way resembles “Bad Teacher” anymore, but that was the original germ of the idea.

Q: But according to the plot synopsis, Barry is still a “racist, drunk, bridge-burning has-been.”

A: Yeah, basically it’s like a John Waters movie. Barry is an anti-hero but he’s still pretty much the coolest person in the movie because everyone else is so conniving and contemptuous and hypocritical and drawn very [broadly]. I’m not really big on subtext and layers. The lead guy, with all of his faults, is actually the only sincere, honest person in the movie, He is to a fault in that it makes him a complete a–hole, but he’s actually the good guy. Everyone else in the movie is pretty wretched [laughs].

Peter Stickles and Lynn Lowry star in Mike Justice’s “The Trouble with Barry.” Courtesy of Mike Justice.

Q: This film marks your latest collaboration with Peter Stickles. What drew you to working with him?

A: I went to go see “Shortbus” a few years ago and I really liked it. Of all the people in the movie, I remember seeing [Peter] and was like, “He seems really cool.” So I sent him a quick e-mail and said, “You could totally be the Johnny Depp to my Tim Burton any day. I could put you in anything.” He wrote back and said, “Oh gee, thank you! After doing that movie, no one sends me e-mails saying anything except that they want to have sex with me.” And I was like, “Thank god for the rest of them, they make me look good in comparison.” So we started making shorts together. I’ll just be completely shallow about it and say that what I really love about him as an actor is that he will do whatever I tell him to do and he does it in the exact way that I want him to.

Q: Were you attempting to satirize both Sundance selections and microbudget indies?

A: We were trying to figure out the other day if any particular type of people would be mad at us and think that we were making fun of them. And my producer was like, “Wait–who won’t think they’re being made fun of?” We make fun of all aspects of the film industry. Barry starts off making the sort of Miramax-y movies that get all the great critical blurbs but you never end up actually seeing, sort of like “The Flower that Drank the Moon” in “Ghost World.” We see during the opening credits how Barry’s career starts taking all these twists and turns that plummet him down. We’re doing a lot of in-jokes based on real-life [flops], such as Demi Moore’s remake of “The Scarlet Letter.” Barry performs in a really ill-advised sub-Baz Luhrmann reinterpretation of a beloved classic and it just flops miserably. By the end of the credits, he’s doing these weight-loss videos where he’s clearly sticking out his stomach in the “before” picture and sucking it in for the “after” picture.

Q: What has it been like working with Lynn Lowry?

A: It’s been super-interesting because she plays Barry’s mom, and I wrote her character  while exorcizing all of these mommy issues that I have with my own psychopathic mother. I’m giving Lynn Lowry all of these ridiculous lines that my mom would say, such as that she hates Chinese people because they throw cabbage in the street. It’s been weird to hear her say this dialogue and have her play my mother. But she’s been a joy. She is a real actress and very prepared. She read the script two months before she had to shoot, getting pieces of her costume together and looking for motivation. She’s deep.

Juliette Danielle on the set of “The Trouble with Barry.” Courtesy of Mike Justice.

Q: Since “The Room” was intended to be a drama, many moviegoers haven’t seen Juliette Danielle deliver an intentionally funny performance. What was it like directing her?

A: She is actually a really brilliant comedian. My producer and I were aghast because we knew that she would be good and that we could make her funny. But she was hilarious. We have tons of outtakes where we would just crack up, and she’s really good at ad-libbing. Whenever I think someone is cool, I just think that the whole world does, so I couldn’t believe that she hadn’t been in much of anything since “The Room.” When I called her and asked if she was busy and if I should call her agent, she was like, “Um, I live with my husband and we have four cats.” I was so happy that she was still working and open to it because a lot of times when you try to track down some of your favorite cult stars, they’ve become a born-again Christian who hates the movie industry. Juliette is not like that at all.

We initially just cast her as a stunt, but I was talking to my producer yesterday and asked, “Wanna put her in our repertory company?” and he was like, “Yeah…” She really got the script and got my sense of humor. I had done some YouTube videos where I had performed comedic monologues and she watched them first to see what I thought was funny. She was really prepared. If Juliette isn’t knowledgeable about something, she’s really curious about it and she wants to know more. We were talking to her about “Suspiria” and “The Bird with the Crystal Plumage” onset, and she was just sitting there nodding and taking notes. She also has a background in marketing so she likes to know what people like and why. I think it helps her.

Q: Were you intending to evoke USA films in your special effects as well?

A: Oh yeah. This isn’t an older film, but we wanted one of our characters to get killed like Sarah Michelle Gellar in “Scream 2” by having her thrown off a balcony. I considered using a blow-up doll. Each murder in the script is an homage to a movie. We have a killer who’s wearing a cat costume with steak knives for claws, which is based on this old horror movie that we like called, “Girls Night Out,” where the killer dresses in a bear mascot outfit. We consider the scene where Juliette gets covered in fake blood our “Suspiria” scene because we shot the whole thing in red and blue gels. It looks so surreal. It’s supposed to take place in a gym, but we couldn’t shoot it in a gym, so we shot it in an empty room. I was like, “How can I make this interesting? Let’s light the s–t out of it and make it look creepy as hell.” It actually turned out better because our [limitations] forced us to be more creative.

Poster art for “The Trouble with Barry.” Courtesy of Mike Justice.

Q: How do you envision this film’s future?

A: There are so many wonderful people in this movie. There are cult favorites and then there are some people who will become famous any minute. I feel like this movie will have a long life of getting dug up to embarrass various cast members on Leno. As each person gets their big break, Leno will go, “I’ve got a clip from a movie you were in,” and they’ll be like, “Oh god.” So that’s one way it’ll be popular. We’re shooting for a December release. It’s going to be online, but I want to send it to some festivals first. It would be lovely if it could get picked up for distribution by some little company like Breaking Glass Pictures, but I’m not holding many breath for that. My personal opinion is that the movie will be popular in five years. It reminds me of something like “Super Troopers.” It might be a flop when it comes out but as the years go on, all these people will get stoned and rent it and be like, “This is hilarious!”

All of our favorite cult movies were made really seriously. “Birdemic” didn’t know that it was “Birdemic,” and “The Room” didn’t know that it was “The Room.” “The Room” thought it was “Howard’s End.” We have a very tongue-in-cheek approach, but we are taking this movie super-seriously and are super into it. We’re editing scenes and watching them over and over and falling in love with them. We were starting to take it so seriously that I was like, “What if it comes out and it’s popular for a reason that we did not anticipate? What if everyone is laughing at what we don’t want them to laugh at? What if we have no idea that we’re being ridiculous right now? Will we be okay with that?” My producer was like, “Would you?” and I said, “Yeah, I think…” I might need a month to lie in bed and not answer the phone but I think I would come around. If it’s inept beyond belief and we had no idea that it was, I’d be okay with that too.

Keep updated with “Barry” on Facebook by clicking here.

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