This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 347: With Filmmaker Jeff Barnaby .
Ashley: Welcome to Episode #347 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyers, screenwriter and blogger over at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com. Today I’m interviewing writer-director, Jeff Barnaby, who just did a zombie film called Blood Quantum. He did a bunch of shorts which got him some attention then he did his first feature film, a film called Rhymes for Young Ghouls, and those led him to this feature film, Blood Quantum, which again is his second feature. So stay tuned for that interview. If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving me a comment on YouTube or retweeting the podcast on Twitter or liking or sharing it on Facebook.
These social media shares really do help spread word about the podcast, so they’re very much appreciated. Any websites or links that I mention in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/podcast, and then just look for Episode Number #347. If you want my free guide-How To Sell a Screenplay in Five Weeks, you can pick that up by going to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for five weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons.
I teach the whole process of how to sell a screenplay in that guide. I’ll teach you how to write a professional logline and query letter and how to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. Really, it’s everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/guide. So now quick few words about what I’m working on. Still plugging away with Rideshare Killer, should have some announcements here in the next couple of weeks on that. We’re really close now to locked picture, but the big thing I’ve been working on the last couple of weeks is the SYS Six-Figure screenplay contest. We announced the screenplays that made it into the second round on September 9th.
If you haven’t seen that announcement, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com to see it. It lists all the people who made it into the second round. A big congratulations to everyone whose script made it into the second round. I would also like to congratulate everyone who entered, whether your script made it to the second round or not. I was never a writer who did particularly well in contests, in fact, I never really did anything in any contests. In fact, I even sold some scripts that didn’t get any traction in contests. So these things can happen. Enter some other contests, get some more feedback and just see if you don’t get some traction from other areas. My readers could have been wrong. These things are very subjective, so don’t give up.
If you didn’t get to the second round, it doesn’t necessarily mean your script isn’t ready. It might mean your script is not ready, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that. So go and get some more feedback, enter more contests. If your script didn’t get as highly as you had hoped, I’d really wanna emphasize that you shouldn’t let it discourage you. Rejection is part of the process as a writer. We’re all going to get rejected the vast majority of the time. Ninety nine times out of a hundred, we’re gonna rejected and that’s part of what we’re signing up for as screenwriters. So don’t feel like this is a big setback if you didn’t make it in the second round, just dust yourself off and keep going and again, enter some other contests, send it to some producers, maybe get some feedback and just see if maybe your script is ready or if maybe you think it does need a little bit of a rewrite.
I thought I would mention a couple of things that I took away from running the contest, and hopefully they will be valuable to screenwriters who are entering contests. First, I would say enter early. I really can’t emphasize this enough. With our contest and pretty much every contest I know of they have an early bird deadline where you actually save money by entering earlier. So that’s obviously a good reason just to save a little bit of money, but also things get very hectic as the contest moves along. We had three mix-ups where the reader uploaded the wrong assessment to the wrong script. Two of those three mistakes took place in the last week or two of the contest.
And I could see things were just getting a little bit, you know, people had been doing it for a while, there was more scripts coming in at the deadline. So things get a little bit more chaotic. So again, I think it’s to your advantage to get your script in as early as possible. Also, I noticed with my industry judges, they were much more excited to read scripts early on than as the contest progressed. I mean, I think that’s just how life works, at the beginning of any project people are excited and ready to jump in, but as things go along, some of that early excitement can dissipate. I’m gonna talk more about the industry judges in a minute, but I really wanna emphasize this because this is more than just the contest.
This is more than just my contest or frankly, any contest. For instance, we provide leads through SYS Select where a producer will submit, they’ll be looking for a specific type of script, we will then send these leads out to SYS Select members. And I can tell you the quicker you respond to those leads, the better off you’ll be. Obviously they’re looking for scripts right now, not next week, not next month, and by next week or by next month, they’re gonna be inundated with submissions. So again, if you’re making a submission through any sort of a lead you see through SYS Select or anywhere else, InkTip, Craigslist, the earlier you submit the better off you’re gonna be.
I sell the email and fax blast to agents and managers and producers through Selling Your Screenplay, and again, I often have answered these questions where the writer says, “Oh, I’ll do the blast and then if I get some requests I’ll write the script,” as if it’s some sort of, a way of vetting ideas. That’s the wrong approach. Again, when a producer requests a script, you wanna capitalize on that early excitement. If you wait a week or a month before responding to a script request, the producer is likely to have moved on and probably frankly wouldn’t even remember who you are. They’re getting pitched stuff all the time. If something is pitched to them and strikes them as interesting, they might just respond, “Sure. Send the script over,” you wait a month.
Again, they’re probably not even gonna remember who you are. Obviously, if your script isn’t done or it’s not polished or it needs some rewriting, take your time. I can’t emphasize that enough. We had a lot of scripts that were kinda half-baked, they weren’t formatted properly, there were just very, very clear problems with them and it just felt like some of the entries were a little bit rushed. So I can’t emphasize that enough. There’s no point in entering my contest or any contest with something that is half-baked. I mean, especially something like this where I’m getting a lot of reads on every single script. If your script is half-baked, the readers are gonna notice, and you’re not gonna place highly in this contest or in frankly any contest.
So that’s obviously you wanna get your script in early, but you don’t wanna submit your script before it’s ready. That’s the number one priority. Take your time, get your script ready so that it’s polished, but once you’ve got your script ready, don’t waste time not submitting or not getting back to people. Another issue, and this kinda leads into the same issue. I know the vast majority of the people listening to this, do not need to worry about this. They can skip this next minute. It’s almost just gonna be me ranting a little bit, but I did think I should mention it. When you submit a script, and again, this is very a broad statement, whether you’re submitting to my contest, another contest, or frankly to anyone, make sure you use a valid email address that you check occasionally.
There was a few submissions that had problems with them which I think points to a larger problem of disorganization with these particular writers, which is the whole problem. I’ll give you a specific example. I had one submission where the person submitted a script, but when you submit the script, you also key in the title of the script. So you type out the title and then you upload the PDF and you send it along. Well, the PDF, the script and the PDF did not match the title that the writer keyed in. So one of my readers noticed this as they should. And so then when I went back to email this person just to try and get some clarification, the email… I think this happened two or three times, and it happened several times.
There was several instances where I had to get back to the writer. This one example I’m going with whereas I said, the title didn’t match up, I sent him an email and just, he never got back to me. There was another one. It wasn’t quite the same instance though, where the email actually bounced back. And again, really think about this. I think these examples I’m giving you, I think there was maybe about five times where I had to get back to a writer for some reason. I think it was like literally three out of five times, the email communication didn’t work. It either bounced back or the person just never got back to me.
Clearly, if you’re gonna make a submission to a contest, an agent, manager, producer, you need to make absolutely certain that the email address you have listed on your script and that you use to submit the script is an email address that is not only valid, but it’s something that you look at least every couple of days in case somebody does contact you. I mean, think about this person I’m talking about with the script going through the system, suppose he ends up winning. I honestly don’t know. Maybe he put in his Twitter account or something. Maybe I can go and Google him, but if his scripts ends up being the winner, it’s just gonna make it hard to contact him.
And to be honest with you, as I’m moving on, I don’t remember if his script got in the second round. I don’t think it did. But think about that. If you are entering and you don’t have any… I have no way of contacting you other than trying to Google your name or something, that’s not a great position to be in. Think about the producers and the directors. I mean, obviously I’m running a contest you’ve paid to be in there. So I’m gonna make every effort to track you down and contact you. Whether that mean Googling you or whatever, going on LinkedIn, Facebook, maybe I can track you down, but a producer, an agent, a manager, they’re not gonna take the time to do that.
You wanna have clear, concise contact information, phone number, and email address that is accurate and valid and working. You wanna print that on the front of your script so at the very least someone can just look at the front of the script if they like it and see your contact information. But again, just make sure it’s valid and working. The last thing I wanna talk about was the industry judges. In some of the conversations that I had with them, it wasn’t hard to get the industry judges to sign on as judges, obviously they know who I am. Many of them had been on the podcast. But everybody, all the industry judges, they are on my email list. They get submissions from SYS writers frequently.
So they kind of know who I am already. So obviously I have a leg up in terms of just getting judges involved, because a lot of these judges I know personally, but certainly they know who I am or they wouldn’t have been judges, but mainly producers, they wanna read material. The reason I’m pointing that out is because I don’t think they signed on the contest because they know me and respect me. I’m sure they like me a little bit or whatever, but really they did it because they have the self-interest of trying to find good material for themselves. That’s sort of the point, is that these industry judges came to the contest trying to find good material. Producers want the vetted material that has come through some sort of a vetting system, because then they don’t have to wade through the mountains of scripts that aren’t that good.
So again, I think the way I presented this as I only was gonna give them the vetted scripts, they seemed quite eager to do it. And it seemed to work quite well and getting them to read the scripts, frankly, it wasn’t that hard either. Obviously getting them to option and buy a script is a little bit more difficult. That’s kind of the interesting thing about this. In many cases the producer came back, I mean, in many cases I sent them a script, they say, “That’s a pass. I’m not interested.” That was obviously the majority, but there’s a good number of cases where the producer comes back and says, “You know what? This is an excellent script, kudos to this writer, really keep an eye on this writer, but it’s not a script that I can do anything with.”
This is something to really think about. I feel like a lot of newer writers have this sort of attitude that, well, if you just write a great script, a producer will take and find it. It’s not always as simple as that. Producers, they typically work in a very specific space, whether that be making Hallmark and Lifetime movies, whether they’re making indie horror movies, and they know their market, and there’s a lot of nuance and subtlety to that. It’s more than just romcoms, it’s more than just horror. There’s nuances and subtleties within genre, within budget, within just things that frankly, probably we don’t even know about, but it’s a complicated equation. I feel like again, newer writers just have this attitude, “Oh, I just got to write a great script and then it will be found.”
But again, it’s not always that simple. Overall I’m really enjoying running the contest. I’ve gotten to know a lot of the producers better, and I’ve also gotten to know a lot of the SYS listeners better as well through email and that kind of stuff. So it’s been fun reading scripts, discovering cool scripts. Definitely stay tuned, we’ll be announcing the quarter finalists and semi-finalists in October, and then we’ll be announcing the finalists and the winners in November. I have a very specific calendar. If you wanna know the exact dates, just go to www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/contest. I’ve actually listed the exact dates when we’ll be making these announcements.
But we will be running the contest next year as well in case you didn’t get a chance to enter it, or if you did and wanna enter again, we definitely will be running it again next year. So just keep an eye out for that announcement. Anyway, that’s obviously been a lot of work, but that’s been the main thing I’ve been working on here over the last couple of weeks. So now let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m interviewing writer-director, Jeff Barnaby. Here is the interview.
Ashley: Welcome Jeff to the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show with me today.
Jeff: Thank you for having me.
Ashley: So to start out, maybe you can tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and how did you get interested in the entertainment business?
Jeff: I grew up in a little reserve on the border of New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada. I never really got interested in the film business. I kinda stumbled into it when I was taking a class in college and I needed to fill out my course load and I decided to pick up film into television class. I forgot. It turns out I had an aptitude for it and it was just, it just kinda took off from there. Prior to that, I had always been interested in writing. I had been playing music for years and I had been an artist. I figured if there was any point of entry for me as an entertainer, it would have been comics because that’s really what I grew up loving and really tried to emulate. I never really looked at…
Well, the weird thing about growing up on a reserve, the idea of being a filmmaker is absurd because you don’t even know if it… You don’t even know it as an occupation. I had options to be a carpenter, a lumberjack, or an ironworker, or join the Marine or whatever is typically available to small towns. And that’s really what happened, but I ended up going to school and I just stumbled into it. I was there with a lot of people who were interested in being filmmakers and I was kind of doing, compared to what I was doing, and that’s when I realized I had a real aptitude for images and constructing stories. I had a really good teacher, a lot of really good instructors at Dawson here in Montreal that basically fostered the idea that I could be a filmmaker. So that’s really how it happened. I stumbled into it.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. That’s a great story. So let’s talk about some of the short films you’ve done over the years. On IMDb you have a number of short films, which you’ve written, directed, and in some cases edited. Maybe you can talk about those a little bit. How did you get those going? How did you fund those? What did you learn and how did they help you prepare you for feature films?
Jeff: Every time you step on a set, you’re not prepared for anything that’s gonna happen, and if anybody tells you that is lying. Nothing prepares you. For any shoot that I was live, everything was always gonna be a new adventure. So the first thing that broke was back in the day, there was a show here on CBC called ZeD and they sponsored a short film competition. I won that. And then a production manager here in Montreal kinda took pity on me because obviously I didn’t know what I was doing. So they ended up coming in and bringing in like a whole crew of people and bringing all that experience to help me make my short film, my first short film outside of school. I was still in school, but it was considered a professional film because people were getting paid.
So I took that 20 grand, I made this film called From Cherry English, and that ended up at Sundance at the native initiative. That wasn’t really requested into anything, so I used that short film to make a calling card, to do a longer short film called The Colony. That’s the one that kind of took off that showed more than just a visual aesthetic. It showed like an ability to write a original story. From there I did my first feature, well, I did have a couple of shorts in there too, but nothing extraordinary because I was building towards that first feature. And here we have an institution called the Canadian Film Center and they loved my shorts and they wanted me to work on something longer, but they gave me five grand to write a screenplay.
The screenplay I ended up writing was called Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Then that screenplay went to Tribeca and Tribeca has a kind of emerging artist award and I won that award with that screenplay. That’s when my career kind of took off. That’s what got Rhymes for Young Ghouls green lit. From that point I was able to work professionally in the film industry. And then I had already… the weird thing about that, I had already written Blood Quantum prior to filming Rhymes for Young Ghouls. I wrote Blood Quantum in like 2006. We filmed Rhymes for Young Ghouls in like 2014. So there’s quite a lot of [inaudible 00:18:07] energy distance between those two projects.
And then we ended up shooting that like three, four years later after Rhymes. So everything, to a certain extent, I had to prove myself every time I had on a project. And we have our public funding, art institutions here in Canada, besides Canadian Film Center, the organization that’s been behind me the most from day one, from my shorts and everything else I’ve done was listed out here in Quebec. They’re all about artistry. Those are the guys that gave us Denis Villeneuve and the great fresh Quebec directors that you see coming out of this province. So I had that stick behind me and I had that appreciation for my work behind me. They’re the ones that really trust me in my work and everybody else got on board.
Blood Quantum was really spearheaded by a guy named Todd Brown at XYZ. I don’t know if you’re familiar with their work. There’s a guy…
Ashley: Yeah, sure. And let’s dig into Blood Quantum. Maybe to start out, you can just give us a quick pitch or a logline. What is this new film all about?
Jeff: Yeah. I suck at that [laughs].
Ashley: Is that right?
Jeff: I’m terrible at that.
Ashley: Just off the top of your head, what’s the story about?
Jeff: It’s about a small indigenous community in the midst of a zombie plague that find out that they’re immune to the disease. I think that would be the, I don’t know what the logline, I think it’s something with resistance is in their blood. Sad that I don’t know this, but this is the aspect of the business that I’m terrible at. Like the pitching aspect. I actually didn’t pitch this project when I pitched it at TIFF of all places.
Ashley: It’s fairly high concept. I mean, your pitch is I think better than you’re giving yourself credit for. It’s a nice high concept pitch.
Jeff: Yeah. If I have time to like rehearse and I do rehearse, I drill myself when I do pitches. It’s kinda one of these things where you memorize everything and then you forget it, and then you get up there and pitch. I’m not an adept public speaker in a sense that I can go and tap dance in front of everybody. I feel really awkward when I’m doing it, so I really prepare. I always prepare what I do. That’s how I pitch.
Ashley: Yeah. Where did this idea for Blood Quantum come from? What was the genesis of the story?
Jeff: I just wanted to do a zombie film and we needed to figure out a way to make it interesting because it’s an oversaturated market. The last real original zombie film that we saw was probably 28 Days Later, and we needed to find something akin to that. Like you’re making a definitive comment. You’re taking that original platform of social commentary that Romero gave us and you’re finding your own idea. Whereas a lot of the films between Night of the Living Dead and Romero’s stuff were just about zombies. They were just like zombies are cool, they’re running around eating people and that’s fun. So what we wanted to do was kind of harking back to those more original ideas like Night of the Living Dead and 28 Days Later and bring the politics back into the zombie film.
So we needed to figure out a way to apply that to native [inaudible 00:21:16] my culture. To me, it was a eureka moment where you were like, “Hello. I’m into to the zombie play.” Because that right there is flipping the whole idea of colonization on its head, where once upon a time it was the colonizers that were immune to the diseases they brought. Now it’s the native people that are immune to diseases that, well, in the context of the story were brought from the earth as, they kind of talk about it in the film as if the zombie plague is the word and the world’s diverse immune system.
Ashley: Yeah. I’m curious. You had this previous feature film, you had done a bunch of shorts and now you wanted to do a zombie film. Did you start to reach out to some of these contacts in the industry and just get their take on what about doing a zombie movie? What about doing a zombie movie around an indigenous people like this? Did you start to get some feedback for the idea?
Jeff: Everybody knew about it from the pitch at TIFF and that’s where Todd learned about it. Todd is the one that was like, “You need to take that down off the shelf and we need to do…” That’s really what happened. At the time, I think I was writing a TV show and I was just getting by working like that. So it wasn’t really like… at this point too, you need to understand that back then when this film was first conceived, there was no wokeness anywhere. So the indigenous filmmakers that was still like a novelty and nobody knew what the hell to do with it. There was nobody to pitch that idea to because nobody was really open to the idea or saw the benefit of doing something that was specifically built around an indigenous character.
It was still like, I think at the time everybody was still kind of infatuated with like the real… then it took off like 15 years ago. So that’s kind of what I was dealing with. It took all this time for really the industry to catch up to the script. And even when we started it, it still wasn’t as pronounced as it is today because we didn’t have the pandemic and the racial tension in the US and in Canada didn’t come to a boil like it is now. So now the themes in the film are so much more pronounced and you can see the benefit of doing something like this. But even prior to the pandemic it was still kind of, the reception was kind of a little warm as a… we didn’t sell it as a vehicle of representation, we sold it as a zombie film.
If I showed you the trailer that we started selling the film with at Cannes you don’t get the impression that it’s this high concept idea about colonialism, you just see people chopping other people up with chainsaws and [inaudible 00:23:58]. And that was a very conscious decision on my part to make it a zombie film, because I didn’t want to wrap these ideas up in a social protest film, a puppet dumping. I want people to be entertained. I think if your audience should come away with anything, is that we’re entertainers first, which isn’t to say that we can’t have ideas, it’s just that we need to find a creative way to put them in there.
Ashley: Yeah. Yeah. So what did you prepare when you… you said you went to Cannes and I imagine a number of other places like TIFF, you did that pitch there. What did you prepare? You shot a trailer, like a short 30-second teaser trailer, was it a full two-minute trailer, and then you brought that? Did you have a pitch deck? Maybe you can talk a little bit about your pitching experience?
Jeff: Well, that wasn’t even the case because we ran out of money shooting this film. So we had to stop everything and make a trailer from what we had shot to go out and get more money at the Cannes. So we were still… when I prepared the original pitch and me basically just pitching the story and memorizing it and trying to sell it as a zombie film first and all these high concept ideas after. It was never really… it was always by necessity. We did that pitch at Cannes out of necessity to raise more money. I think, again, you’re approaching it as we need X amount of dollars to do this, so it can’t be bogged down in politics if that makes any sense. So you have to kinda codify everything that you’re putting in the film so as not to turnoff investors.
Because [inaudible 00:25:41] social ideas first, you could literally see the audience, just their eyelids getting heavy. That’s kind of the way we’ve always approached it. That’s why we made it a zombie vehicle rather than like 28 Days Later, a virus or something that you really kind of went the idea that it was more high-concept than it was blatant guts.
Ashley: Got you. How can people see Blood Quantum? Do you know what the release schedule is gonna be like?
Jeff: It’s kind of crazy because it’s all over the place because of the virus. It’s already gotten released on Shutter, but I think it’s being pulled back to VOD and online, like VOD and… I couldn’t even tell you. I know it’s being released on DVD, on VOD on September 5th. I think it’s being released too on Crave on the same date. But you see people online, I was getting confused as it was on Shutter and now it isn’t and I don’t know where to find it and it’s already for sale here on DVD, but not in the US. That’s being released September 1st and all this is because of COVID with the [inaudible 00:26:52] right out the window in I think March.
Ashley: Yeah. What’s the best way for people to keep up with what you’re doing? Twitter, Facebook, a blog, anything you’re comfortable sharing, I will round up for the show notes.
Jeff: I’m on Twitter and I’m on Instagram, but I’m on Twitter more. My handle is @tripgore, T-R-I-P-G-O-R-E. I go by my name, so you can find me on Twitter. I’m not hiding behind any avatars or hipster names.
Ashley: Well, perfect. Well, Jeff, I really appreciate you coming on and talking with me today. Good luck with this film and of course, good luck with all your films in the future as well.
Jeff: Thank you for having me.
Ashley: So thank you very much. Bye.
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Every script will get a grade of pass, consider or recommend, which should help you roughly understand where your script might rank if you were to submit it to a production company or agency. We can provide an analysis on features or television scripts. We also do proofreading without any analysis. We will also look at a treatment or outline and give you the same analysis on it. So if you’re looking to vet some of your project ideas, this is a great way to do it. We will also write your logline and synopsis for you. You can add this logline and synopsis writing service to an analysis or you can simply purchase this service as a standalone product. As a bonus, if your screenplay gets a recommend or a consider from one of our readers, you get to list the screenplay in the SYS Select database, which is a database for producers to find screenplays and a big part of our SYS Select program.
Producers are in the database searching for material on a daily basis, so it’s another great way to get your material in front of them. As a further bonus, if your script gets a recommend from one of our readers, your screenplay will get included in our monthly Best Of newsletter. Each month we send out a newsletter that highlights the best screenplays that have come through our script analysis service. This is monthly newsletter that goes out to our list of over 400 producers who are actively looking for material, so again, this is another great way to get your material out there. So if you want a professional evaluation of your screenplay at a very reasonable price, check out www.sellingyourscreenplay.com/consultants.
On the next episode of the podcast I’m gonna be interviewing James Di Martino, who just did a low budget horror film called the Faceless Man. He’s another writer- director who came up doing shorts, and he talks about how he was able to turn that experience, writing, directing, and producing shorts into this opportunity doing his first feature film. Great story, and again, just a guy out there really hustling, getting things done. So keep an eye out for that episode next week. That’s our show. Thank you for listening.