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FilmOut Highlight: Eugene / Interview with Director Jake Barsha

Director Jake Barsha Talks About His Feature Film Debut

Above: Stuart G. Bennett and Ryan Reyes in Eugene

Film festivals that focus on under represented communities tend to highlight works that present positive role models. So what you tend to find at Gay, Lesbian, Asian, Latino and Black film festivals are films that tend to place issues of identity in the forefront and serve up positive images to contrast with what the mainstream media tends to show when it bothers to show them at all. But in some ways the most positive sign I see of an under represented group breaking through is when filmmakers from those communities step up and deliver dark complex works with flawed characters at the center. It's a sign that they are moving on from just wanting to be represented to wanting to be shown in a full range and depth of characters. That's why Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow – in which Asian honor students fall into drugs and crime – caused such anger on the part of some in the Asian American community but won over influential critics like Roger Ebert. This year, FilmOut San Diego showcases an indie film called Eugene (playing Saturday at 10:00 pm at the Birch North Park Theater) that stirs a similar controversy. It's a dark tale about a seriously flawed protagonist named Eugene who struggles with loneliness in Los Angeles. His attempts to connect with the outside world fail and then he hooks up with a street hustler and his soft-core porn model girlfriend. Their odd triangle provides Eugene with a connection he's never had before but it also leads to disastrous consequences.

I applaud programmer Michael McQuiggan for picking Eugene and I applaud filmmaker Jake Barsha for making it from practically nothing. I had a chance to speak with first time feature director Barsha. The film represents a true indie project, made completely outside the studio system. While that provides considerable obstacles it also allows for considerable freedom in terms of content. Eugene would have been a different film if it had more backers and a studio. So here's to that independent spirit.

Stuart G. Bennett in Eugene

Jake Barsha

Above: Stuart G. Bennett in Eugene

How would you describe Eugene?

JAKE BARSHA: I would describe it as a psychosexual thriller. I would say it's a story about the need for love and presented in a way that's exceptional and vivid. It has a lot of elements that make it very edgy and unusual. People have said it's violent or has sexual politics. There is sex and there is some violence but that is not the entire thrust of the story. So I would describe it as a psychosexual thriller that's not to be missed.

How did you come up with the idea for Eugene?

JAKE BARSHA: Eugene was inspired by real life. It's a story of a very lonely person who is trying to make a connection with the world. I think that's the basic premise: the need for human contact. Then there's a level of denial in this character. My influences in coming up with this story were Jim Thompson's books. He's a pulp fiction writer and I like his stories where he would take a hero and turn him into a villain or vice versa and turn a villain into a hero. I'm intrigued by dark humor and strange stories. So I think Eugene was inspired by real life, by living in LA.

Megan Lee Ethridge in Eugene

Jake Barsha

Above: Megan Lee Ethridge in Eugene

What was the process of getting it to the big screen like?

JAKE BARSHA: I really wanted to make a story about a guy who comes to L.A. to deal with the remains of his brother and pick up his brother's ashes, and that was the story. I wrote the screenplay and I was trying to figure out how to make it because it involved so many different locations and an extensive cast. Then I started looking at some of the other stories that I had written, like short stories and Eugene was one of them. As I mentioned I was working as a film loader and I was working my way into the camera union and I started shooting my own short videos when I met Stuart Bennett who had moved to L.A, from Washington, DC to pursue his "acting career." He had played a role in some of the no-budget short films I had made and we had talked and thought it would be fun to make a movie sometime. At one point I showed him this short story and he really liked the main character and I think he identified with the main character to the degree that he really wanted to make the movie. He was just really enthusiastic about doing it and he wanted to bring the character to life. That got the ball rolling. I wrote a micro budget for making the movie at like $40,000 with just bare minimum resources and Stuart decided he was going to raise the money and he eventually raised like four or five times that amount. It was a difficult process. It was like making something out of nothing. And everyone who was creatively involved with the project sacrificed a lot and we were all basically first time feature filmmakers coming together and trying to make something and get it to be as good as we could get it.

Can you elaborate on what you said earlier about like heroes that turn into villains?

JAKE BARSHA: I started reading Jim Thompson's books when I was in high school and I just found them to be not the mainstream hero book, stories where you are presented with a hero and as a reader or as a viewer you're not really entitled to question his actions or his behavior. But when I started reading Jim Thompson's books I was presented with characters who were unlikely heroes who became villains or corrupt policemen or just very strange characters, and I thought that there was more of a balance to these types of characters in terms of a reflection on real people. I mean we all have our good days and bad days. As a filmmaker I just love the idea of taking a circumstance or presenting circumstances to a character that would alter his path or cause him to question his own moral fiber or act impulsively, and in Eugene's case with disastrous consequences. I also like dark humor and the unusual.

Stuart G. Bennett in Eugene

Jake Barsha

Above: Stuart G. Bennett in Eugene

Did you face any problems when you were submitting it to festivals? Was it ever deemed too dark?

JAKE BARSHA: We've definitely had some resistance in terms of the subject matter. It's very dark, and it's not a type of movie that was made to kind of stroke an audience. I watch as many movies as I can and I think I've been very influenced by some foreign movies that are definitely not the cookie cutter Hollywood type movie and when I was making Eugene it was mainly just about the strange story and trying to do a good job telling this guy's story. I hadn't thought too much until after the movie was made that wow this might be difficult to a lot of people who do go to movies because they want to be thrilled in a very positive way and presented this kind of happy ending to any circumstances. A friend of mine who's a stuntman asked, "Why did you make as your first movie one that was not mainstream and with audience appeal?" I think Eugene does have audience appeal, it's just a different look so to speak. Some people really enjoy the thrills and the thrills of Eugene get really intensified by the pace of Eugene. So the pace of following the story brings the viewer to the end where there's a very exciting and kind of thrilling set of circumstances. I've had a lot of very positive reactions to that from people and it seems like the people who really like it really like it a lot. But I've had the opposite reaction. The interesting thing is that it's a movie that leaves an afterglow and people think about it afterwards like "Whoa! What was that about? What did I just see?" So Eugene definitely leaves an impression

Do you feel Eugene challenges its viewers?

JAKE BARSHA: Eugene is the alternate lifestyle of the character in terms of sexuality and identity. I feel like one of the flaws in our society is we want to label things, we want to say we are this or I am this or I am gay or I am straight and I think the reality is that we are human beings and we all exist with the same needs, the need to be loved, the need for human contact for validation. As a filmmaker I want everyone to love the movie but I don't know that everyone will. It's such a strange movie, it has a hard time finding a niche in terms of is it a gay movie or is it a straight movie? I don't know. I'm just extremely honored that any festival is willing to show the movie and that's just really rewarding.

How do you feel about showing Eugene at festivals like FilmOut?

JAKE BARSHA: For an indie film with no stars, festivals are extremely important and also for a viewer. Festivals give me a chance to see movies that are not being force fed to me by an industry of hype. I wouldn't complain about the industry so to speak because it's creative and it's goal is to present people with movies that are compelling and give people something they'll enjoy but for a low budget movie it's very challenging. I think the big companies don't really want to hear about a movie that can be made for a fraction of their big budget does well. Things are changing with advances in technology and so forth and filmmakers are able to make movies at a much lower cost. It's something that the larger film companies will have to adapt to and I know some already have.

I know it's difficult to work on such a low budget but did financing the film yourself allow you greater freedom to make the film you wanted?

JAKE BARSHA: It would have been easier to make the movie with a little bit more money and more resources but at the same time using all available resources creates a situation where we have to think really creatively and have to make most of what we are working with. I'm really proud of the outcome based on those circumstances. My background was I worked as a camera assistant on commercials and I've worked on other jobs where there's enormous amounts of money involved. The projects I've made have basically been "Don't let anything stop you if you have a story to tell." Or if you have the ambition to make a movie start with the available resources even if that's just a pen and a piece of paper -- start writing. And it's that's kind of the philosophy that I've had that's moved me toward actually having made a movie.

Companion viewing: Taxi Driver, Better Luck Tomorrow

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