In our interview with Jeff Barnaby, he discusses his zombie film about colonialism, Blood Quantum, telling Indigenous stories through genre, and working as his own editor and composer. We discussed the film and Barnaby’s previous film, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, in depth on the podcast here.
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How do you get young people to watch the films of Canadian Indigenous documentarian Alanis Obomsawin? For Jeff Barnaby, the answer is to hook them with a genre film that works as an alternative history to one recounted in Obomsawin’s films. Shot largely in the Listuguj reserve, his sophomore film, Blood Quantum, repeatedly evokes Obomsawin’s documentary Incident at Restigouche (1984), about when settler police invaded the reserve to limit their fishing rights, without ever placing limitations on commercial fishing. Appropriately, Blood Quantum opens with a dead fish coming back to life, auguring the zombie apocalypse. It also hearkens back to this important event in Mi’kmaq history.
As an Indigenous, and specifically Mi’kmaq, filmmaker, Barnaby tells his zombie story through a Native perspective. In this film, if you have ‘blood quantum’, and are thus Indigenous, you are immune to zombification. Barnaby’s largely Indigenous cast of characters are not really afraid of zombies. The Indigenous characters are afraid of white people who turn into zombies and are trying to invade their safe haven. It’s a blunt-force metaphor for colonialism. They keep coming, and coming to destroy you, forever outnumbering you, until they eat your brains. But it’s a solid and original one. In a way, Blood Quantum allows Barnaby to ask, what would have happened at Restigouche if we hadn’t let the white police in? Or perhaps, more accurately, if we didn’t let the colonizers in centuries ago? Indigenous people’s immunity empowers them, but they still have to face this enormous, suffocating force.
A long-time fan of genre cinema, Barnaby feels that it’s a particularly good vehicle to create a conversation around difficult problems that settlers, especially, might otherwise shy away from. If he can draw you in with blood, guts, and chainsaws, he can keep you there long enough to provoke thinking. In particular, he wants audiences to think about the lasting impacts of colonialism. It forces Indigenous Peoples to make difficult ethical choice to maintain their culture without creating more violence.
As Barnaby says in this interview, much of the deeper meaning of Blood Quantum may go over your head if you aren’t familiar with Listuguj and Obomsawin. The first time I saw the film at TIFF, I had the sense I was missing a lot of information. Rewatching Blood Quantum after I’d caught up with Incident (proving Barnaby right, that this film would draw young people to Obomsawin’s work), I felt the material was richer and more thought-provoking.
Barnaby’s first feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), was a mish-mash of genres, borrowing from horror, the western, and more. That film was about a 1970s teenager avoiding the authorities to avoid getting thrown into a residential school. Blood Quantum is more purely horror, though there’s a kind of buddy cop movie within. Given the world’s current coronavirus plague, the story feels increasingly like a possible reality rather than far-fetched science fiction. We named Rhymes one of the top 10 films of the last decade. I don’t think Blood Quantum is quite on that level, but it’s essential viewing. And if it draws more people to Rhymes, as well as Obomsawin’s work, that would be great.
At the end of March, I interviewed Barnaby by phone about the film’s newfound resonance in the time of SARS-CoV-2. He also discussed why he loves working in genre cinema, how Blood Quantum engages with history, and being his own composer and editor.
This interview pairs with our new podcast episode on the film, in which we discuss Blood Quantum and Rhymes for Young Ghouls.
Seventh Row (7R): I understand that you wrote Blood Quantum before Rhymes for Young Ghouls. What was it about this story that you have wanted to tell for so long?
Jeff Barnaby: I’ve always been a hardcore horror fan. I almost feel like I have a classic monster trilogy in me, [with one film each about] zombies, werewolves, and vampires. If I go to my grave having done a genre film with each one of those monsters, I’d die a happy man. I felt like, at the time, the only vehicle for some of the ideas that I was trying to express was horror, science fiction, or a genre film. If you put [those ideas] in a straight drama, it has a tendency to be boring. I can’t handle kitchen-table boring drama films. I’m a Conan The Destroyer (1984, dir. Richard Fleischer), Road House (1989, dir. Rowdy Herrington) kind of guy.
By the same token, I don’t think [genre films] should be relegated to being just entertainment. What I’m trying to do is take high art sensibilities and apply them to those formats. I’m just happier making genre films. They’re better vehicles for dense ideas, and you’re starting to see more and more people think like that. [Guillermo] Del Toro has always been on that trip. Robert Eggers [director of The VVitch (2015)] and Ari Aster [director of Midsommar (2019)] are making relationship films more or less revolving around the horror genre. They’re doing it fantastically. Those two filmmakers are making exceptional films. You’re starting to see a bit of mainstream acceptance [of horror and genre films] with Jordan Peele doing Us (2019) and having the success he’s had with winning Oscars [for Get Out (2017)].
You get the impression that the new genre to be in is horror. I mean, fuck, just take a look outside your window, or get a pulse of the environment we’re living in! Everybody is tense! Horror has always operated as a release valve for a lot of that tension. At this point, I don’t know how fiction writers can outpace reality. [With the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic], everybody’s talking about how prescient the film is, and it’s just … Is it though, really? Is there really a prescience in the film? Or is it just that I had the wherewithal not to ignore everything that was going on around me? This is, again, a film that I wrote ten to fifteen years ago.
7R: What can you get from horror that you can’t get from straight drama?
Jeff Barnaby: Anything goes. Can you see The Human Centipede (2009, dir. Tom Six) played out as a family drama? Literally anything goes in horror, and that’s not just in terms of graphic expression of violence, but ideas. You can take any idea and express it any way you want in horror. Antichrist (2009, dir. Lars von Trier) is another good example. There’s a lot of extreme images in there, but at the same time, you don’t really feel like they’re thoughtless. That’s where horror is evolving to… but you can’t even really say that! [David] Cronenberg has been around since the ’70s, and he’s been doing cerebral stuff for quite a while.
The genres of science fiction and horror lend themselves to expressive imagination. You can hold nothing back. That is the space that I like to operate in. If a monster falls out from the sky, in one of my films, it doesn’t seem out of place, because you’re in a horror film. We’re in the middle of this [global pandemic], almost like a cosmic horror, in a sense. You don’t really know where that fear is coming from, because there’s no ideology behind it. A virus doesn’t hate you for the colour of your skin, or your religious preference, or whatever the case may be. You’re going to die regardless.
I think horror, and science fiction in particular, lends itself to that unknowable unforeseeable future. I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of post-apocalyptic science fiction and horror films, too. To a certain extent, filmmakers are telling their audiences, “Look, we can survive an apocalypse. We can exist after the world has ended. Don’t worry about it. It’s going to be bad, but we can still be here.” The idea of a person being alive after an apocalypse is in and of itself kind of a positive message. Whereas the reality is so much more unforeseeable and unknowable to the point where people are literally not leaving their house anymore. Because at least, you hope, the four walls and the roof over your head are safe. But fuck, you don’t even know that.
I read an article this morning, “Can coronavirus be delivered on packages?”. Right now, in the cultural tension that we’re living in, I just feel like you can’t really express it. You can in drama, I suppose, but where’s all the chainsaws and stuff? I say that having done a short film called The Colony (2007), a straight drama, and it ended with a chainsaw.
Jeff Barnaby’s films on the podcast
This week on the Seventh Row podcast, we discuss Barnaby’s two features: Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Blood Quantum. We delve into the cultural context, what makes the films great, and how they leverage genre.
7R: Blood Quantum is a pure genre film. But your previous film, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, mixed a whole bunch of genres. How did you approach genre differently for these two different stories?
Jeff Barnaby: I didn’t do it deliberately, I kind of just liked the atmosphere. I almost took offense to the idea that people were qualifying me as a horror director. I thought they were being dismissive of my films. Like, “Oh, they’re just horror films.” I think the atmosphere is there. But I haven’t really ever done pure horror beats, with the exception of another short film I did. I’ve always just flirted with the genre. I think that was another reason why I wanted to do just a straight horror film. It was like a “shit or get off the pot” scenario. I wanted to know if I could do it.
But I’m almost taking a polar opposite approach in the case [of Blood Quantum]. A zombie and a zombie film are supposed to be scary. But [in the film] Native people aren’t scared of zombies because they’re immune to the zombie plague. It’s really the [white settlers whom they’re scared of].
The first image you see of the second act is the town burning, the bridge being overrun with zombies. Then, you cut to Kiowa [Gordon, who plays Lysol] standing off with a zombie, not scared of it at all. No more than thirty seconds after that, a sick hapless little white girl comes in. And he treats her like he’s scared to even touch her. He’s horrified by her. Right there, you see the cultural dynamic. He’s not scared of the zombie; he’s scared of the people. Then, the whole scene ends with the compound door closing. You see this big sign spray-painted across the front of it: “If they’re red, they’re dead, and if they’re white, they bite.” Then, he proceeds to murder the little white girl.
It’s meant to give you a complete total power shift. If you’re a non-Native person in that audience, looking at that, you don’t get it. Because you don’t really know the history. In the scene right after that, [James, played by Devery Jacobs] dismisses an infected blanket: “You can’t bring that in here. What are you, fucking crazy?”. If you’re not informed about the history [that smallpox was deliberately brought to Indigenous people in Canada via infected blankets], that scene completely goes over your head.
What you’re hoping for there, as a filmmaker, is that they’re [the audience are] entertained by a girl being murdered, but the core of your film is they’re [the Native characters] not scared of zombies at all. There’s all these beats in there where, if you’re a non-Native viewer, I don’t think you’re catching them. So you’re trying to sell it as a pure zombie film and hope that on repeated viewing, everybody else gets these ideas.
Where could these ideas exist, in an entertaining fashion, if not in horror? I want these dark ideas that we all need to face, as a culture, to be palatable, and I find the vehicle of genre films does that. That’s really why I’m attracted to genre films: there’s almost an innate entertainment value in them. All these [recent] genre mashups, they’re not new ideas.
But with me, you’re seeing them filtered through a Native perspective, for the first time. In a classic horror sense, you’re supposed to be scared of zombies. But in this sense [in Blood Quantum], you’re not scared of zombies; you’re scared of white people. How do you get that across [to a settler audience]? It’s a tightrope walk, as a filmmaker, that I think you can only walk by doing genre. To a certain extent, it provides a mantle to your storytelling because you’re once removed from reality.
Tracey Deer did this very well in documentary with Club Native (2008). She explored these ideas in a documentary way better than I could. But you can’t put asses in seats with a documentary, typically. You want as many people as you can to see your film, so you’re dressing it up as a zombie film. Because it appeals to the lowest common denominator, and it makes it harder, in a way, because it’s a saturated genre. I couldn’t not do it, as a filmmaker, because it was such a challenge. I think it’s a dream for so many Native kids to do a zombie film, or in lieu of that, at least a zombie film with a Native in it. How the fuck do you not do it?
7R: I know you Alanis Obomsawin’s Incident at Restigouche had a huge impact on you. Blood Quantum almost feels like an alternate history, and the bridge, which is such an important image in Obomsawin’s film, is also an important part of Blood Quantum.
Jeff Barnaby: That’s really a great way of putting it: an alternate history. We’re all aware of that moment in our shared past, as Canadians, along with the Oka Crisis. Well, maybe not so much the Incident at Restigouche, but definitely the Oka Crisis. So even if you’re not familiar with that film, you’re at least somewhat familiar with the Oka Crisis, and those images hearken back to that time. That’s just an explicit metaphor right there. It’s taking the behaviour that you saw during that time in Canada’s history and calling it out as the kind of behaviour you would expect from a mindless fucking zombie that doesn’t do anything but consume everything in front of it.
That’s ultimately what these people were fighting about: resources. Like I said, it’s an explicit metaphor. It’s not even fucking thinly veiled; it’s like a shovel between the eyes. You’re recreating that scene specifically to hold a mirror up to settler Canada. It’s a crazy image specifically for that reason. I’m curious if audiences are going to make that connection, and when they do, if they’re going to resent the comparison. Or if they’re going to see the way things are going [and think], maybe he’s got a point. You hear stories about resources running out in the middle of the year, and half the planet being basically incapable of feeding themselves and providing basic human necessities. So fuck yeah, there’s a lot to unpack in the movie. It’s more than we have time to discuss.
But I think it’s just a direct, scathing critique of settler culture. This is a broad way of putting it, and using those specific moments in our shared history, non-Natives and Natives, as a platform to make it legitimate. It’s a legitimate comparison. You’re hoping, as an artist, that it allows for settlers, colonists, or whatever the fuck you want to call them, old stock Canadians, to take stock of how they’ve conducted themselves. It’s a high ambition for a zombie film, but it’s the reason why I made those comparisons, and I think, to a certain extent, to draw a new audience to Alanis’s work, because it deserves to be seen. Christ, she’s been doing it forever! She is one of Canada’s biggest filmmakers. End of story.
7R: What were some of the influences on the designs for the blockade and the fortress in Blood Quantum? What was your process for collaborating with your production designer to achieve that?
Jeff Barnaby: It’s funny you should mention that, because we had a falling out with the production designer who didn’t see eye to eye with what I had envisioned for the film. We asked her to change it, and she didn’t want to, and she ended up leaving. So if you look at the credits of the film, we have two production designers, specifically because of that reason. The designs of the blockades were pretty obvious, because you’re specifically designing them [based on] blockades that you see in the nightly news, or at least documentaries.
For the compound itself, we were going to make it into a steampunk castle. We were going for a medieval look. We were like, “Let’s try to make it look like the Dark Ages.” So we predominantly lit everything in the second act with fire. It was just torchlight. We had specific fire lights to make it look like everything was on fire. Everything’s been dialed back to zero.
There were really specific things that we didn’t get to do that you see little hints of in the film, like funeral pyres. I had written the final scene set at the compound at the church in Listuguj. There were meant to be more historical allusions and giant funeral pyres. We were going to do Holocaust imagery, like piles of shoes. We were going to leave the impression that there was a mass exodus from the other side of town to the point where Native people had to close their borders. That’s why you saw those barricades at the beginning of the second act: they were trying to basically keep people out.
I think it was almost a criticism of post-colonial Native men in particular, not so much the women, but men. The idea that Lysol was the head of this brigade of renegades, this group, this contingent, that didn’t want these white people on the reserve. Part of the design — that you only got little hints of — was supposed to be a reflection of what he [Lysol] was doing in order to ensure the safety of the borders of the reserve. That was like mass executions, basically. Again, you get little hints of it. You see the corpse hanging off the tractor or the backhoe. When Lysol gets set on fire, the two things going up beside him are two giant funeral pyres. They are an allusion to one of Beksinski’s paintings from the ’40s that was making direct criticisms of the Holocaust.
I wanted the design of the film to speak almost more loudly than the characters, in the sense that the environment that they occupied was polluted. Right from the beginning, everything is industrial. You get the sense that time has stopped. We took a very post-apocalyptic steampunk aesthetic to everything. The idea being like, “Oh my God, it’s the apocalypse. Everything looks horrible.” It’s like, “Nah, it’s the reserve. It always looked like that.” So it was again, extended to the idea that Native people were equipped to deal with the Holocaust, or deal with the mass death of most of the population, because they’ve experienced it for the past two to three centuries.
7R: I understand you co-wrote the score for Blood Quantum with the film’s sound designer. How did you guys think about integrating the score with the sound and what was that whole collaboration like?
Jeff Barnaby: Well, I’m the writer; he’s the engineer. He catches lighting in a bottle, because typically, what I do is try to find our palette. In this case, we wanted to go for an ’80s synth, horror vibe, but a little bit more updated and not too overpowering. I just sat down and played until, “Wow, that’s it.” He’ll loop the scene that we’re doing, and I’ll play until we find the sound that we’re looking for.
What did I have? A banjo, a keyboard, a guitar, a bass, a standing bass, I think a harmonica, my hand drum, my powwow drum, my rattles, and that’s it. I was able to play those instruments individually as we laid down the tracks, and that’s basically how we work.
There’s no writing in the classical sense of the word; we write as we go. Some of the tracks in there were played live as I watched them play out on the screen. So I wasn’t sitting there like Beethoven banging my head against the keyboards, writing down notes on a page. We could do that, but it’s like, “Hey man, you have two weeks and no money, and you have to write a soundtrack that’s sixty minutes long. Go.” So you’re not fucking around writing down notes and shit; you’re just playing to cover the amount of time that you need to do sounds for.
To top that crazy timeline off, the producers didn’t clear the music right away. So as we were recording the sound, they kept adding songs, because we couldn’t afford the tracks. What a lot of people don’t realize is you could pay up towards fifty-fucking-thousand dollars for a song that you barely hear [in the film], and it can just murder your budget. We had to rewrite songs on the fly, and that’s really what I was doing like two weeks before the film premiered. I was writing songs. When I wasn’t doing that, I was re-editing scenes, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was rewriting scenes. It was nuts. It was fucking nuts.
It’s so much simpler once you find your sound. Once you find your sound, once you find your theme, it’s like colour by numbers. The real problem was when we found out we lost music, because there’s a really big difference between cinematic music and something like the title track of the second act. It’s upbeat, and it’s pop; it’s meant to overpower the scene. There were a couple of tracks like that in the film that once you lost [them], you find yourself composing a whole song.
When you’re missing lyrics, or you’re missing the vocal arrangement of a song, you feel the emptiness, despite there being music there. It’s not the same thing as a pop song or a classically composed rock song. So that was a real problem. We got those curve balls, and we had to go back into the studio and re-record shit. To this day, actually, all my gear is still over there. All my instruments and all my drums and stuff are still at the sound studio.
7R: You edit your own films, and you write and direct. How does your process change once you hit the editing room? What do you feel that you get out of being your own editor?
Jeff Barnaby: Again, you’re talking about saving money. You can pay somebody to edit, and they’re charging like five-hundred bucks a day, and then your fucking budget is gone. Once that money is gone, then they’re not going to cut anymore. Whereas you get the director, you can pay him like five bucks, and he’ll sit there for hours going over the film with a fine-toothed comb. The other part is there’s a lot of Mi’kmaq in the film that any editor is not going to be able to just sit down and understand. I’m going to have to sit there and be with them anyway.
The real problem with being [your own] an editor is getting married to scenes. That’s when you start bringing in other people, and that’s when you have to be receptive and listen. I think the term ‘director’ is a bit of a misnomer, because you’re the one that’s fucking constantly being directed, man. You’re not telling people what to do; they’re telling you. It’s all mitigated by time, money, and resources. If you don’t have all of the things, and you never do — I don’t give a shit who you are, if you’re fucking Taika Waititi with like a gazillion-dollar budget, or if you’re Joe lunch-can doing something for five bucks. Time, energy, money, those are things that are always going to be in demand on a set.
Being somebody that can do all these things, you save in all those departments, because you don’t need to pay me as much; my time is inexhaustible, and so are my resources. I own my editing suite. That’s the other thing: you’re getting charged for the editor; you’re getting charged for the editing; and you’re getting charged for the editing suite. You’re fucking saving like fifty grand, and that makes a difference when you’re dealing with tens-of-dollars on the dollar that make or break your shoot. That’s the reason why I do it.
The other reason is just I’m a control freak. That’s what you look for in a director, and I think the ability to devote all the time I can devote to it, and pore over it, I think that’s an advantage.
If I had one complaint, it burnt me out. It really did. I’ve never been as burnt out at the end of a film, or at the end of anything, honestly, even my son being born. Being the writer, director, editor, composer, and producer fucking really kicked my ass.
7R: It’s a lot.
Jeff Barnaby: I wouldn’t recommend it. I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody.
7R: How do you maintain perspective when you’re doing that?
Jeff Barnaby: You have your crew; you trust people. I’ve been working with the same people for over a decade, so I trust them to tell me when I’m off base. I’m pretty good anyway, instinctually. I’m pretty good at seeing it for myself, and when somebody points it out, I can really see it. I have people that I really trust that I’ve been working with since film school, for like twenty years. I really trust their opinion. My wife is also a filmmaker and merciless, so I really trust her opinion. Being humble and listening to people, I think that’s how you do it. If you’re a filmmaker, you’re pretty crazy as is, and I think that translates to the obsession of getting everything right.
Where it becomes exhausting and frustrating is that you wanted things a certain way, and you realized it would have worked a certain way, and you lament having left that on the page, or left it on set. With Blood Quantum, because of time and money issues, I’ve never experienced more loss from script to screen than I have with this film. So that’s really, at the end of the day, what exhausts you — not the physical labour or the mental labour, because if you’re doing this, you love it. It’s not getting what you want and realizing it months after, years after, in this case. I just watched it this morning, and all I noticed were the fucking mistakes. You can’t appreciate your own work on that level. That’s where it becomes taxing.