Ever so often a B-movie comes along that goes beyond its modest budget and genre trappings to do something more, something unexpected, something prophetic and just sometimes even better than the films it predicts. The virtually unknown Mindwarp (1990), directed by Steve Barnett, is one of these movies. Showing a debt to author William Gibson and pre-dating films like The Matrix (1999), directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, unlike the The Matrix, Mindwarp does not fall prey to romantic triteness. Whereas The Matrix naively suggests that the global-everyman (or nondescript-mannequin as played by Keanu Reeves), could fight and change the system, Mindwarp realistically posits that ideals put into practice are more apt to fail than they are to succeed. The Matrix remains at its best, like Star Wars before it, a cultural event, and at worst, a hackneyed intellectual hodgepodge told and sold with martial arts and leather trench coat cool. Mindwarp conversely is never easy to swallow. Hiding its compelling story in high-concept gore, the film features the legendary talents of both Angus Scrimm and Bruce Campbell. With its supergroup cast, you would expect that the film would be as well known as Scrimm’s and Campbell’s respective calling cards, Phantasm (1979), directed by Don Coscarelli, and The Evil Dead (1981), directed by Sam Raimi. Yet the film has yet to even see a proper DVD release. And it needs one desperately along with a commentary from its director Steve Barnett. For now Mr. Barnett, who is no longer directing but is working as a vice-president of post production at 20th Century Fox, has kindly answered a couple questions here.
How did your involvement with Mindwarp come about?
After editing trailers and features for Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures, I directed BACK TO HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD for him in 13 days. Rodman Flender, the executive on that film, recommended me to the producers of MINDWARP. This was the first movie for Fangoira Films and they needed someone who could bring it in on time and looking like a real movie. I had a pretty good take on the material, and I took a chance in telling them that the script was a terrific yarn that fell apart in the second half. I guess they agreed, since they hired me. I worked with writers Mike Ferris and John Brancato (aka Henry Domonick) and the producers to get the story working better in the second half and then beating it to within the confines of the very limited budget. My wife had turned me on to William Gibson cyber-punk, and this show fit into that world very neatly. Ferris and Brancato created a wonderfully twisted world (five different worlds actually) filled with bizarre and memorable characters. I managed not to screw it up too badly.
How did you approach working with the actors?
Not as well as I could have, but they all shined in spite of me. We had little or no rehearsal, just the time on the shooting stage or location. They are all better actors than I am a director, but they put up with me and the arduous circumstances in which they found themselves working.
Hiring Marta Alicia (now going by Marta Martin) was one of the best things I contributed to the cast. She had to carry the whole film on her shoulders and did so very well, always with texture and layers running beneath what was on the surface of the scene. It was a tough shoot for her, and I wished I could have taken more time with her. Marta always rose to the occasion in the physically demanding scenes and still brought tenderness to her role.
Angus Scrimm and Bruce Campbell had been cast before I came on. Angus delved into his three parts (The Seer, The SysOp, and Judy’s Father) very seriously. He wrote detailed essays on each of them, including justifying the Seer’s incestuous advances by touching back to ancient Egypt where the royalty married brothers and sisters quite readily. Working with him was always an interesting intellectual process, and he was very dedicated throughout the show.
Bruce Campbell is, of course, Bruce Campbell. He was very smart and very serious about his job and still easy to work with. After his time with Sam Raimi, he had a great working knowledge of film making that allowed me a short hand in explaining what was coming up next. He always understood the low budget short cuts we were using to get a “feature” film in the can, not just a TV movie. He took Stover into a very romantic and heroic realm and was later able to spice it up with a little bit of Ash from EVIL DEAD. I underestimated his physical capabilities at first, but then took advantage of them and took them for granted. He was great in some very hard scenes: lying in freezing water being infested by leeches, running around in sub-zero weather in little more than a t-shirt, sliding down slimy tunnels in the clutches of mutants. Through all the drafts of the script, Bruce still was the one who had a grasp of the story’s core. He said that in the end, “This is the story of a girl trying to find her father.” And that helped me a lot.
One of the most impressive things about Mindwarp is the theme which suggests that as humans we are more inclined to be broken by the system(s) rather than continue our idealistic fight against it. As director, did you have any particular take on the story?
They thing I enjoyed most about the script was the many different thematics that Ferris and Brancato wove into the story. They explored the nature of reality, the individual versus society, environmental disaster, the degeneration of civilization, mother/daughter relationships, father/daughter relationships, the dissolution of the family, incest, cannibalism, religion and ritual, abortion, matricide and patricide, mutant leeches, and recycling. And we got to grind people up in a tree chipper kinda thing. So it was definitely not your standard four-door monster slasher/horror/monster movie.
Bruce boiled it down to a “daughter’s search for her father”, and that was the spine of the story that I hung onto as we explored the other aspects of the piece. How one took the film as a whole, however, had a lot to do with how one took the ending (or endings). During editing, we had lots of active discussions about keeping all three finishes of the show: Judy escapes with Stover, Judy’s father is the Sys-op who turns over that post to her, and finally, the whole thing, from Judy killing her Mother to meeting Stover and the two versions of her Father, all of it was her fantasy.
I think Judy wanted to be a heroine who fought the system. In her heart she did want to rebel, but there was no way for her to do that. I don’t think she was so much broken by the system and she was resigned to it. There was nothing she could do. Angus offered that a major parallel to the story could be found in the play “No Exit”, where there is no way out of dire or drab circumstance.
What was the most difficult part about shooting Mindwarp?
The headache for me was not the short schedule and tight budget. Having been schooled by Roger Corman, that was something I knew how to do. I’d say the biggest problem was the location.
One of the producers had bought an abandoned camp in Eagle River, Wisconsin where he built a pair of sound stages that he could bill to the show. All well and good, but it was two airline flights and a long car ride from LA or New York, where the gear and personnel came from. Travel and living costs had to be pulled from other parts of the budget where we needed the money more and it was a bad trade.
You go on location to get great visuals not available in Hollywood or New York. We shot on Lake Superior for only a week out of the schedule and spent the rest on a sound stage in the middle of no where. We should have gone home for the rest of shooting. We ended up with all the disadvantages of a location and all the disadvantages of a stage shoot. I later did additional scenes in LA and got great value for much less money than we spent in Eagle River. (The exterior locations were great, though.)
The distant location also meant we couldn’t add or drop equipment (lenses, etc.), which kept us from getting the right tool for a number of the jobs and we had to make do. Also, we couldn’t fire people who weren’t working out because there wasn’t airfare to bring back a replacement. Which brings us to the second big headache: some lacking personnel in key positions.
I never appreciated until that moment what a unique system that Roger Corman put together where everyone thought the same way in making a low-budget movie. You planned meticulously, worked ahead (laying dolly track or lighting for the next set while you filmed another one), and adapted quickly to circumstance. As a director, you were wrapped in a cocoon of experienced low budget people pulling for you to succeed. I thought everyone did it that way. They don’t.
On MINDWARP, wardrobe, props, and the art department were great and rose magnificently to the occasion. KNB Effects Group came back to their low budget roots doing an amazing job delivering the gore and populating the movie with Crawlers. Camera, headed by D.P. Pete Fernberger, was swell. The electrical crew eventually came around, but the grips never got what we were trying to do. I have infinite respect for grips. They can make or break a show, and these should have been let go.
Finally, the production department was run by the wrong person. I brought a great Corman assistant director and terrific script supervisor form LA, so the floor was in terrific shape. These guys knew how run a show, but the line producer on the film seemed to fight everything we were trying to do. That position is quite high up and my AD and I had to fight everyday to do things the right way. She said she viewed the project as a TV movie, not a low-budget feature. You get the idea.
When we wrapped, I went to Mexico for a week to decompress and try to get over the deep seated feeling that I’d botched the job pretty badly. When I got back, however, my editor, Adam Wolfe, had saved me with a pretty good cut that actually made sense. He was invaluable. Also, my composer, Mark Governor, really rose to the occasion. He put together a live orchestra in Phoenix, Arizona, of all places, so we had a great sounding score, and he wrote terrific, heart felt music.
Do you know if there are any plans to put Mindwarp out on DVD?
My composer, Mark Governor, and I have been wondering about that for a while. I’ve been meaning to track down where the rights lie since the original producer, RCA/Columbia was absorbed by Sony. I’ll figure out who to call one day, and if you know, give them a holler.
How did you break into the motion picture business?
While I attended UCLA’s film school, I picked up some money writing about film sound for a magazine called “Recording Engineer/Producer”. Through Steve Flick and Richard Anderson, two amazing sound editors I had been interviewing, I got a “job” as an unpaid editing room intern on a Julie (wife of Roger) Corman movie called SATURDAY THE 14TH. That gave me a glimpse of the cutting room, and I liked what I saw. Editing was always my favorite subject in college.
Just before graduation I got a job as a production manager on a mercifully unseen video pilot of a soap opera in space shooting on sets in Roger’s Venice studio. After graduation I got work as a property master on a low budget cable film and then worked as set dresser on a pair of Corman movies, then I got work as an AD on an low budget horror film and worked for that show’s production manager on a number of rock videos (Sheena Easton, The Gap Band, Toto, etc.). I was sampling as much as I could of the film world, and low budget in the 80’s was a good place to do that.
After a lot of thought about where I wanted to be in movies, I decided to get back into the cutting room and managed to land a job as an assistant sound editor and then as an assistant picture editor on two forgettable low budget shows. This led to assisting and then editing in the trailer department at New World Studios (just sold by Roger) and that led to me working for Roger himself at his new company, Concorde Pictures.
For Roger, I re-cut his acquisitions, edited TV versions, produced and edited product reels, cut trailers, and finally edited features. He then hired me to run his post department, supervising other people doing all of the stuff I just mentioned. I supervised post on about 18 domestic features and built him a recording studio so he could mix his own movies. He paid all of us terribly, but I was rewarded with the chance to direct new scenes on some of his films and was finally given BACK TO HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD as my own feature. I left to do MINDWARP, then worked for Pierre David on MISSION OF JUSTICE and SCANNERS: THE SHOWDOWN ( The film that put the last nail in that franchise’s coffin). The directing didn’t pan out as I might have hoped and I returned to post production, first as a freelancer, and now as a staffer here at 20th Century Fox post production, where I just finished on LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD with Bruce Willis. Now I’m handling post on STARSHIP DAVE, with Eddie Murphy.
You can look up all my dubious early credits on IMDB. I’m Steve Barnett (IV)
What movies have influenced you? Do you particularly like science fiction and horror films?
Movies have been a huge part of my life since I was a kid. Before VCR’s, I’d get the TV guide religiously and circle the best shows that were on that week. When my dad caught me up at two in the morning watching LITTLE CEASAR, I’d tell him that I was going to do this for a living some day, and he’d sigh and go back to bed.
There are huge number of films that had an impact on me, to many in fact. Here’s a list of favorites that I will inevitably call to change in a few days: PATTON, OF MICE AND MEN, THE WILD BUNCH, HIS GIRL FRIDAY, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (by Roger Corman), TERMINATOR 2, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (by Frank Oz), PUBLIC ENEMY, ALIEN, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, ALIENS, THE GODFATHER (Parts 1 and 2), INHERIT THE WIND, STAR WARS, CASABLANCA, ANNIE HALL, THE EAGLE AND THE HAWK, ANIMAL HOUSE, CHINATOWN, WEST SIDE STORY, THE MALTESE FALCON, MY FAIR LADY, HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, MOULIN ROUGE (by Baz Luhrman), THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, M, JAWS, MASTER AND COMMANDER, BRINGING UP BABY, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, GOOD FELLAS, A WALK IN THE SUN, DIE HARD, TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, FAHRENHEIT 911, SHANE, REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT, THE COMMITMENTS … You get the idea.
You can tell I love almost very genre of film. As for sci-fi and horror, I’ve mentioned ALIEN and ALIENS, which are hard to beat, but John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN and THE THING are certainly stand outs for me. FRANKENSTEIN (by James Whale), ROCKING HORSE WINNER, THE INNOCENTS, and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (by Roger Corman) scared me to death as a kid. THE EXORCIST scared me to death as a teen, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET knocked me down in my 20’s.
When I got the assignment to direct MINDWARP, Damon Santo Stefano, the co-producer, was concerned that I was a light and gregarious a guy, that I might not have a dark side to inform the story. I told him that we all have a dark side, but that I don’t like to visit mine to often. And then I promptly went out and rented every horror film I could find and lay in my living room for a week watching them one after the other. My wife thought I’d slipped off the edge. I didn’t quite, but that helped get me in the mood for MINDWARP. A possible flaw of the film is that there are no (intentional) laughs. I just didn’t see a place for them. As opposed to EVIL DEAD (Parts 1 and 2) which were fucking brilliant and scary as hell and funny as can be. MINDWARP really is a world with nothing to laugh about, except for the blood that spurts out of the elementary school drinking fountain on the chipper.
Can you leave us with a closing quote?
“Puss head ain’t got no cup.” JB Rogers, Assistant Director when it was discovered that one of the mutant crawlers had lost his skull full of blood.