By Danny Peary
Becoming Bulletproof fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. Meanwhile you can see this uplifting, enlightening documentary at the IFC Center in New York City beginning this Friday, and at the Music Hall in L.A. starting on October 2. The third doc by Emmy-winning director Michael Barnett and producer Theodore Thomas, following the acclaimed Superheroes and Gore Vidal:The United States of Amnesia, this unique film has won awards at numerous festivals, touching hearts and lifting spirits. This is the brief synopsis from the film’s press notes: “Becoming Bulletproof documents the making of an original Western [with the final shootout on the set of the Burt Lancaster-Kirk Douglas 1957 classic Gunfight at the O.K. Corral] called Bulletproof [a 35-minute film directed by Peter Lazarus].
Bulletpoof features actors with and without disabilities who meet every year at Zeno Mountain Farm [in Venice Beach] to write, produce, and star in original short films. Founded by two brothers [Peter and Will Halby] and their wives, Zeno Mountain Farm’s philosophy is to create a truly inclusive community that builds friendships that transcend stigma and stereotypes. For them, their films aren’t about making a statement; ‘It’s all about making awesome movies.’ Inside the whirlwind filmmaking process of mastering lines, pushing through take after take, and grappling with high expectations, Becoming Bulletproof chronicles the genesis of a riveting film and a personally and socially transformative experience. The film captures the essence of artistic expression through vibrant human bonds and powerful insights. As one of the actors [AJ] says, ‘I do not want pity because I have a disability, I just want to be understood. I want disability to have a seat at the table in pop culture.’” I guarantee that this movie will invite you into a world that you are unfamiliar with—who knew?—and you won’t want to leave. You’ll see why it was chosen by the US State Department to screen in over 40 countries worldwide as part of the cultural diplomacy outreach program called The American Film Showcase. I recently spoke to Michael Barnett about his movie.
Danny Peary: Tell me your film background leading up to this film.
Michael Barnett: I spent years as a DP. Shooting anything, really. Reality, indie films, commercials, episodic, and most importantly, docs. It’s where my love for vérité really developed. I found myself gravitating toward long-form human stories that reveal a deep understanding of the human condition and stories that typically focus on a sub culture that the everyday world is almost completely unaware of. After shooting films for other filmmakers, I thought it was time for me to take a chance and drive the story as the director. I wanted to be the lead architect, so I self-financed my first film, Superheroes, and was incredibly fortunate that it resonated with audiences and found a home at HBO. My second film, Gore Vidal: The United States of Amnesia, was released theatrically by IFC and Sundance Selects. Shortly after Superheroes was released, I started on Becoming Bulletproof, which was supposed to be a quick project – a film about filmmaking but seen through a very different lens. Well, hundreds of hours of footage and three and a half years later, we finally get to share Becoming Bulletproof with the world. It’s been the most emotional and fulfilling experience of my career.
DP: Was making this film the next deliberate step in your progression as a filmmaker or did you think it was separate from the rest of your work?
MB: As a filmmaker, I try to have a voice. I mean, who knows if I do or not, but I certainly try. My first two films have stories and subjects that are totally different but I think that at the heart of both films are a unifying voice and themes that tie them together. They are about creating long lasting and sustainable communities, they are about overcoming adversity, they are about making the world a more just and inclusive place; and both films are filled with diverse people living out their dreams in extraordinary ways. So yes, this film, which also touches upon the themes of community, advocacy, and diversity, is, I guess subconsciously, a deliberate step in the evolution of my film-making career.
DP: How did you know about Zeno Mountain Farm and its yearly film project?
MB: A dear old friend of mine, Suzi Barrett, the [improv] comedienne you see in Becoming Bulletproof, had been volunteering for years at Zeno and was trying to persuade me for a long, long, long time to come and check it out. I avoided doing it, making excuse after excuse: I was busy, I was working, I was out of town. The truth? I was nervous and afraid. I had no experience whatsoever in the disability world. Suzi was very persuasive and eventually convinced me to go to a screening of one of the films Zeno produced. I showed up at a grand premiere in Hollywood–red carpet, a massive crowd, and above all, a great film that blew me away. It was funny and sad and ridiculous and fantastic and I laughed and I cried and I had so many questions. I found myself at Zeno the very next day sitting down with the Halbys and talking for hours about what the hell Zeno is and what they do and why they do it. We spent the next year getting to know each other and gaining a mutual trust, and eventually we all decided that it was time to share the remarkable philosophy and approach and story of Zeno.
DP: My guess is that you worked through Peter Halby, perhaps taking his lead on when to film and when to turn off your cameras.
MB: Actually, the Halbys really gave me total autonomy to tell the story the way I saw fit. That is not to say that they weren’t nervous about sharing every detail about the inner workings of their organization, but we had a lot of conversations about my intentions. I made it clear that I never meant for the film to be some sort of investigative piece about Zeno and how they operate; instead I wanted the film to be an illuminating look at what it means for a person to live with disability and to contribute and be included in the creative process, at every level. Zeno often says the work it does exists in a bubble and we discovered very quickly that what they do is very personal and intimate. We were distinctly aware that our cameras could and might disrupt that process, so we treaded lightly at first until we all became more comfortable with one another’s presence, and from then on, we became like family.
DP: I’d think you had two or three goals when making this film—what were they?
MB: My goals have changed so much over the years while making this film. I can hardly remember how I felt when I started, although my initial goal was probably just to tell the story honestly We learned so much more than I ever anticipated about the disability rights movement and this knowledge is now ingrained in me, so this is tough question. I would say that as I discovered the nuances of the story, new goals emerged, and the most important one was to become an advocate in the disability rights movement. I can tell you what my goals are now that the film is being shown. I would love Becoming Bulletproof to be part of the larger-scale conversation about how there has been the lack of disability topics being portrayed in all media. I would love to see an actual change in how the lives and stories of people with disabilities are told. I would love for more people with disabilities to get a chance to portray wonderful and nuanced characters with complex lives and incredible stories. Also, I would love to see more people with disabilities working behind the camera.
DP: How did you work with Peter Lazarus as he directed Bulletproof? Were there things that were off limits or did you have independence?
MB: Peter had his plate full every single day, tasks at hand that did not involve our documentary crew getting in his way. We did our very best to be a fly on the wall, but the process at Zeno is so intimate that we couldn’t help but overstep the journalistic line from time to time.
DP: The shots of sky and of the final shootout are very striking. How much in the film is what you shot and how much is what Peter Lazarus shot?
MB: Anything in our documentary that is documentary footage or vérité or interview, is footage that we filmed. When we include shots from the actual film, we use the footage that Zeno shot for their film.
DP: When filming or editing your movie, did you decide to eliminate any footage that was totally downbeat or might elicit pity for the disabled subjects in your movies? I ask because I sense you primarily felt admiration for your subjects and most of all wanted us to feel that.
MB: I honestly can’t think of a single moment when we edited something out because it was too sad or tough or painful. If anything, we cut out some of the overly happy moments to balance some of the reality of what it means to live with disability. I can think of nothing more heartbreaking then when AJ doesn’t want to return home after the shoot, because at Zeno he feels dignity and purpose, and gets to contribute while in the “real” world, he says he feels worthless. We did not shy away from anything. What you see in the film is what we experienced while filming.
DP: Jeremy, who is the lead in the Western, Bulletproof, is a striking personality and even a decent actor, but if AJ hadn’t been present to be your lead, could you have made this film? Did he evolve into the lead?
MB: When we first started shooting we focused on Jeremy as our lead subject. As we continued in the first few days of filming we decided to focus a little more on AJ, as he was new to the experience of Zeno and we thought the best way to tell the story would be through the freshest eyes.
DP: Did all the other disabled actors in the movie feel close to AJ, the newcomer, or was he mostly welcomed by the Zeno Mountain people and the film crew?
MB: Zeno is a totally welcoming community, but like it is with anybody, filming can get tough and tiring and exhausting, and people could get short-tempered in the moment due to exhaustion. But by and large Zeno is a community filled with tons of love.
DP: If somebody had made a documentary of your experience making this documentary, what would we see?
MB: A film within a film within a film, which would be mind blowing. If somebody were documenting me documenting Zeno at first they would have seen a nervous and emotional train wreck. I was so incredibly overwhelmed with everything the first few days. It was an explosion of new experiences for me. They would have seen me randomly breaking down in tears, some tears of laughter, others of sadness. Then they would see me gain my footing–with experience comes understanding and confidence. Then they would have seen us cross over the filmmaker/subject line and start helping Zeno make its film. Making movies is so tough and it requires all resources present and sometimes those resources were us, the doc crew. They would have seen the definition of exhaustion. We shot up to 20 hours a day to capture everything. They would have seen a group of filmmakers, who had never experienced anything like Zeno before and they would have seen those filmmakers become transformed by the experience.
DP: Talk about the editing process.
MB: The editing process was painstaking long. We edited for nearly two years with over sixty iterations of the film. As we continued to learn and understand the disability rights movement, our view of what this story was continued to evolve. There was as much learning going on as there was editing. We could not have done it any faster or we would have done a disservice to this story.
- Talk about two words that AJ uses toward the end that I think are pivotal to understanding what your film shows. You mention the words earlier: dignity and purpose.
MB: I think dignity and purpose are something every human deserves on a very basic level. However, through the marginalization of the disability community, those two things have been stripped from many people living with disability. It’s sad, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to change.
DP: What did you take away from your unique experience that you think your audience can take away when seeing the movie?
MB: When I started this film I had no experience whatsoever with the disability community and through this process not only did I rid myself of any preconceived notions that used to exist, I discovered something much deeper, and more simple than I ever could have imagined, that people living with disability are just people that have as much right to contribute and be included in society at every level.
DP: Make note: Michael Barnett has partnered with Time Inc. for his next film, “The Mars Generation,” a documentary film about the future of space exploration.
DP: For movie fans who are or know baseball fans I hope everyone will order a copy of my new baseball book, an oral history of Detek Jeter.
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