Words Kirk Truman
“I love to surround myself with people who are all about encouraging and making creativity happen. I love working with creative people, whether it is a camera man, a wardrobe designer, writers or actors – it is just the most fantastic thing to work creatively. Creativity is everything to me. Creativity is all.”
There is a rare glow of energy and positivity that roars from this recently discovered neighbour. Quietly in one another’s shadow we have moved about Fitzrovia unbeknownst to each other, until now. A perfect balance of quirk, intellect and talent – I present to you a man whose endless creative motivation has moved swiftly between the small screen and the silver screen. A BAFTA winner and Oscar nominee, British Film Director Daniel Barber tells me of his work in commercials, his Fitzrovia birthplace, directing Michael Caine and his latest feature film starring Sam Worthington and Brit Marling.
A true Londoner and Fitzrovian, Daniel was born in the Middlesex Hospital. He spent much of his youth in Camden Town, Rochester Road. He describes himself as loving to hear stories as he was growing up, indulging his curiosity for them by reading and watching numerous films, holding a special fascination with the Western genre. During his youth, he watched on as his father worked as a film and theatre producer, running a company for Albert Finney. “The process for me is always about; what is the story? My love is stories. When I was growing up I always loved to hear stories. I liked to read stories, I like to see stories on film. For me that’s where it started. The writing of a story is the most important element of a film to me.” Says Daniel.
Studying graphic design at St. Martins School of Art, he graduated in 1988 and went on to join the TV department at Lambie-Naim & Co. Here Daniel began to establish himself by designing title sequences, such as those for the BBC Nine O’clock News as well as the BBC brand identities for both BBC1 and BBC2 in the 1990s. Remember those number twos that you may remember having being been covered in paint? Yes, that was Daniel.
Going on to work for and becoming a partner of Rose Hackney Barber, Daniel won numerous awards for his work in commercials both in Europe and the United States. In 2006, after having made hundreds of various commercials, he joined Soho-based production company Knucklehead with whom he also became a partner. With Knucklehead, Daniel was able to work on commercials for clients such as the automotive giants Audi and BMW, on top of Adidas and British Airways.
The time had come for Daniel to turn his talents to filmmaking, and in 2008 he released his first short film The Tonto Woman, a 35 minute western adaptation of the short-story by Elmore Leonard whom he describes as ‘the writer’s writer’. Daniel tells me of the process that led to the creation of a previously watched art form: “It took about ten years or so to get into features. I was very much into graphic design and graphics for film, one of the nice things about that was I would work initially in a solitary way. I love living in my own little world in my head and slowly introducing my ideas to other people who can help bring them to life. I’d managed to build up a network around me of very talented creatives (actors, musicians, designers) who I could ask for criticism and discuss ideas with. I guess at first I was always a little shy, it’s taken me a few years to have the confidence to get to this stage” Daniel concedes.
He explains to me that one project generally tends to lead to another. With his short-film winning Best Film at both Palm Springs and LA film festivals, as well as garnering an Oscar-nomination, Daniel turned his eyes to a full-length feature. A friend, cameraman Ben Davis, told Daniel of a script he thought he would be perfect for. Unfortunately it already had a director attached, and in any case Miramax, who were producing, would not work with a director who had not directed a full length feature. However, it was British film producer, Kris Thykier, a co-producer on this project, became a firm advocate, ultimately offering Daniel the chance to direct another of his scripts, an opportunity that led to the release of Harry Brown in 2009.
A modern urban western written by Gary Young, the film was shot on location in South London, primarily on the infamous Heygate Estate prior to its closure and demolition. “It was wonderful that as a London boy I got to make a film that was so about the city. I would pass the Heygate Estate on my way to college and think ‘oh fuck, I’m glad I don’t live in there…’” Daniel laughs. The film is a reflection of the grim reality that surrounds youth crime in 21st century Britain and it stars Sir Michael Caine in the title role as the widowed veteran who decides to take matters into his own hands following the murder of a close friend. “It was very interesting talking to Michael, who grew up just down the road from the estate. Estates like Heygate were the way to the future. Architects never took into account the sense of claustrophobia of living in such close proximity with people. In Harry Brown, the sounds that you hear through the walls were what I heard through the walls” he explains.
He describes working on this project as one of the memorable experiences of his life, made more so special by the infamous Caine. He recalls watching Zulu (1964) and The Italian Job (1969) as a child and the longstanding memories that go hand-in-hand with these films. Working with Caine would be any director’s dream and, indeed, he describes it as a beautiful process working with one of the UK’s most recognisable faces. “Michael is a salt of the earth, a pure English guy whose worked his arse off to make the most of his talents and to get himself to where he is now. He talks to everybody. Whilst we were on set he would always talk to people. He always said he’d be nowhere without his audience” Daniel talks about Caine with a fittingly impeccable cockney accent.
Daniel was sent to meet Michael at the infamous Mayfair fish restaurant, Scotts. Michael had the seafood cocktail and the fish & chips (which he always has). Sitting nervously, Daniel had the same. When the waiter approached, Michael said ‘we’ll have two of what I have.’ They discussed the Harry Brown project, and Caine suggested an idea, while pausing to think on Caine’s thought, Sir Michael said, ‘I’ll have lots of ideas, and most of ‘em will be shit, but there might be the occasional diamond in there, anyway, when we make the film, you’re the boss, so I’ll do what you say.’ “He’s got that fantastic traditional working ethic of his generation, he’ll never stop working” says Daniel. Sir Michael Caine wrote in his autobiography that the film was one of his top 10 films he’d ever worked on.
Daniel has recently finished working on his second feature film, The Keeping Room (2014) written by Julia Hart, which was filmed entirely in Romania, doubling for North Carolina – the area has become a hub for movie making in recent years. Set in the dying days of the American Civil War, the film tells the story of three women fighting to survive in desperate times where the antagonists are two rogue soldiers. The film differentiates from the conventional western as it has the three women in the centre roles, with men placed in the side lines. Daniel discusses how it was to have this departure: “It was a fantastic opportunity to make a film with such strong female characters. In most films, the women’s roles are reduced to the love interest where the only conversation they have is about the men in the film.” The Keeping Room premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September and distribution has already been sold in the UK to Lionsgate, who also distributed his previous project. The Keeping Room will be released in the UK early next year.
Daniel’s projects have often begun at his kitchen table top, starting on the production of a script between director and writer. The industry has helped him to develop as an individual and created a foundation for his confidence. “I’m a student of body language, I endlessly observe people, watch what they do and how they do it, this feeds my work, and helps to make it both natural and real” he says.
Today his career is looking bright; he is able to work on personal projects as scripts keep flying in. He has decided, as ever, that he is going to choose his next very carefully, feeling strongly that creativity cannot be forced. The process for Daniel is always born of the story. He will always want to affect people with his filmography, he wants to tell stories that pass on a message and cause people to ask questions. He wants to treat the audience with intelligence, rather than force-feed them. He wants the audience to be moved by his films, for them to cause and create conversation. Living along Colville Place, we dip in and out of conversation about many local businesses, florists and restaurants. We discuss the meaning of local, we talk on and on about the elusive thing that is working creatively, Daniel is somebody I admire for his unique way of making creativity happen.