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BLOOD QUANTUM Writer/Director Talks Inspiration, Zombies & Representation [Interview]

By Marina Antunes [09.04.20]


In 2013, writer/director Jeff Barnaby emerged as a force to be reckoned with, an aboriginal artist with a unique, developed vision and fully primed to be the next big thing. And then the years passed.


While Barnaby kept working, his sophomore effort wasn't easy to get off the ground but persistence and determination led to the release of Blood Quantum (review) last year; a bloody, in-you-face zombie movie where the native people are immune to the zombie virus.


Leading up to the movie's home video release, we had the chance to speak with Barnaby about the long road to making his new film, the lack of aboriginal voices behind the camera, and what he's working on next.


Blood Quantum is now available on VOD, digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray.





Quiet Earth: Where did the concept for Blood Quantum come from?

Jeff Barnaby: The necessity to circumvent the idea that the zombie market is oversaturated? Right. It's really weird, man, because you're striking a fine balance between figuring out a way to make this appeal to a broader audience or at least a cult audience, and the need to figure out a way to find a vehicle for some of these sociopolitical ideas and do it in a way that doesn't alienate the audience. And if you look at the history of the zombie movie, if you look at Night of the Living Dead, that's really where that sweet, sweet spot is, where you can make a film that has a political adjunct to it while at the same time making it appeal to a broader general audience. So that's really where it started. It was kind of a Eureka moment after the film festival, where it was like, "Let's make a zombie movie" and I was told it was a terrible idea. So immediately after being told that I was like, well, what if I made the natives immune to the zombie plague? And once I said it, the wheels in my brain started turning and it became obvious that it was going to be bigger than just the idea of cannibals running around each other.

How long did it take you from idea to writing the script to actually getting the movie made?

I came up with the idea at TIFF in 2006 when we had a film there called The Colony, a short film that I had done. And then I pitched the script next year at TIFF. So really it took me the space of a year to do the outline and start pitching it. But from that point on, it took 15 years to actually start shooting. So we did a film in between called Rhymes for Young Ghouls because the idea was there was nobody in Canada, in the public funding system that we have here, there was no way that they could just give me the amount of money it was going to take to make what I had written and put it on screen. So we basically I had to do a calling card and that's what Rhymes for Young Ghouls was.

I think it was shortly after that that Todd Brown at XYZ suggested we take it off the shelf. So from that point on we started basically using the clout and the goodwill that we got with Rhymes to get this off the ground. So it took quite a while from concept to execution. And there were quite a few hoops to jump through from that point to where we are now. And it was exhausting.



You mentioned that you used some of the goodwill from Rhymes to get Blood Quantum made. Did you find that that film really opened the doors for you and avenues to get funding in Canada to get Blood Quantum made?

I don't know.

I thought: we did Rhymes and won a bunch of awards and everybody looked at it as this watershed film that people still talk about today but that didn't really do anything, honestly. I had that script for Blood Quantum locked and loaded from that point on and I got no offers. So I ended up writing for television.

And it became kind of crazy, honestly, looking back on it. I just had my son right after Rhymes, I was a new dad and I'm trying to support my family.

My wife's an immigrant. My wife's Navajo from the US but she's an immigrant. We have these crazy rules here in Quebec about immigration where I as the sponsor, needed to make a certain amount of money for that to happen. So the whole thing was really crazy.

When you see people have a hit film like that, and they aren't native, you see them get offers right away to do something else but that never transpired even to this day. It's never transpired. There's no real offers for coming.

It's more like "Hey, we have this script written by this non-native dude that needs a native co-signer, are you down for that?" or "Do you want to be a script editor or whatever?" That's kind of what I was dealing with for a long time. It was Todd Brown that really pushed the script. XYZ had just finished The Raid and their stock was on the up and up. Those are the guys that really made it happen.



So clearly we still have a lot of work to do to give voice to underrepresented populations.

Yes. Particularly with native voices. The metric now is native people on screen, not native people behind the camera or native people writing. It's native people on screen. And the fundamental problem with that is white people are still in charge of the image, still in charge of how it's going to be represented. And that, for the most part, leads to misrepresentation.

In 2020, that's still what we're dealing with, films like Bone Tomahawk get mass distribution, gets all the weight put behind them, and traditional native voices or voices that come from the community don't. We really aren't getting a foothold yet. Like the guys that I came up with, I mean the only one that's still really around is probably Sterlin Harjo and that's it. I mean, there's a picture of us at Sundance and most of the guys in there aren't making movies anymore. And the one, the probably the most successful one is Taika [Waititi] and he had the New Zealand film commission behind him and everybody in North America is looking at that model and asking "When are you guys gonna do the same thing for us?"

We're starting to make small strides here in Canada and I'm not really 100% sure what's going on in the US cause I'm not part of that system, but I feel like as of right now it's still a paper concept that not really being executed. Everybody is still hung on representation "Look, we have a black role here" but nobody's really controlling that image, as of yet, for native people.

Anyway, I think you're starting to see that change. Like with what Jordan Peele is doing on television with I May Destroy You on HBO, which is awesome. So you're starting to see that come about a little bit, but why is it genre? Like why is it horror and what is it about genre or films that make the audience more receptive to representation more so than the mainstream film industry? I'm literally asking because I just don't know.

Sadly I don't have an answer for you on that. I really don't know but with both of your films, you've managed to hit on a balance between genre and important themes. But with Blood Quantum... I'm shocked that no one had thought of this approach before.

Well, Stephen King is the first person that I can think of. He did a pandemic book, "The Stand" where you actually had a group of people, like 5% of the population, immune to what was going on. So I read that like eight times as a kid. So I'm sure that's where some of that came from, but the idea to apply it... that was one of the things everybody kept saying. It's such a good idea. I'm surprised somebody didn't come up with it before.

There's another comic that I can't really remember the name of right now, terrible with names, but it's kind of the same idea where only black people have superpowers. That came up in the past few years too. So you're starting to see people play with the genre a little bit where you're finding really artistic ways to make really hard topics approachable and I think that's what artists do is they take these hard topics and they make them digestible for the average person to mull over and seriously consider. Like, you can talk about Blood Quantum and it eventually leads into this more serious conversation about the history of non-natives and native people and the role they've played in developing what we know as America and Canada, South America too.



It feels appropriate that Blood Quantum came after Rhymes because on-screen at least, it looks like it's a far more complicated and larger production. What was production like and how did it compare to your first feature?

Well, first of all, it was mostly much of the same crew and most of the same people doing the same jobs so we all know each other. But it basically played out the same way in the sense that we front-loaded all our effects and atmosphere. We told all of the actors as well that we only have one or two takes to get through these lines so don't screw it up. That's how we make films. You know you hear Kubrick shooting like 200 miles of footage or whatever it is and Fincher throwing a guy down the stairs 16 times to get the perfect take. It's none of that stuff. It's basically "Did it show up on the screen? Is the boom mic in the shot? No, then alright, we got it."

And even then, getting to post-production and finding out we don't have money for editing and then we don't have money for music. And it's like, well, I could do that stuff for free I guess. That's why we ended up saving money on Rhymes because I did the music and the editing for free. And then we did the same thing for Blood Quantum where I wasn't working for free, but I was working for way less than somebody who's doing a feature edit or the soundtrack for the entire movie and I'm playing every instrument on there too. So you're occupying all these other roles that I think a normal filmmaker in the same position wouldn't have to do. Zack Snyder didn't have to do the music and the editing for Dawn of the Dead whereas I did.

That's how you end up throwing those images up on screen. At the same time, it's a double-edged sword because you're kind of losing shots too, and you're losing scenes and you're making decisions in the moment that you end up regretting later because it's like "Oh, we didn't get this" or "this feels a little awkward because we didn't get this." I think it's the story of every underfunded indie project where you don't have time, you don't have money and then you kind of makeup for it with enthusiasm and energy.

What are you working on next? I hope it's not going to be another five or six years before we see another Jeff Barnaby classic.

I'm doing a cosmic horror movie about... I guess the end of the world and it's set in the future. So it's a cosmic sci-fi. I've been working on that for the past couple of months and I'm not really sure when it's going to land because you know, everybody's in the middle of a pandemic.

I actually have a couple of television shows sort of in the works too. They wanted to do a TV show of Blood Quantum and I had written this show while I was doing Blood Quantum called "We Remain" about missing and murdered indigenous women. That I really liked because it's kind of this neo-noir and it has the same kind of vibe as Rhymes. It's my take on like Philip Marlowe, except the Phillip Marlowe is a 20-year-old gay native woman.

Blood Quantum is now available on VOD, digital HD, DVD, and Blu-ray.



Recommended Release: Blood Quantum



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