American filmmaker Kai Barry is the brains behind Newcomer, the gritty spy thriller that opened this year’s Raindance Film Festival. Starring Bafta award-winning actor James Floyd, Newcomer is about Alex, a newly recruited contractor who is framed for killing his team when a mission goes wrong. In order to clear his name, Alex must go rogue and piece together the events of the failed mission. What follows is a gripping drama, which has excellent direction and stellar performances from its cast. Newcomer may only be Kai Barry’s second feature film, but it certainly proves his talent as an independent director, and View of the Arts was lucky enough to talk to him about the film following its premiere at the festival.
What attracted you to spy films?
I mean, who doesn’t like spy films? I have watched James Bond films ever since I was a kid, and Jason Bourne films are great. I think it’s a fun genre because you have certain strong expectations which you can then satisfy or not satisfy.
We have Bond, Bourne, Bower, and more, what do you think Newcomer brings to the spy thriller genre?
It’s not really for me to decide, I wanted to make something that was much more intimate with its main character and make sure it wasn’t just some sort of far flung super sexy big world. So I tried to modernise it a little bit and say “you’re actually in this world, what are you doing?” If people respond to that then maybe there is a more intimate spy film that’s possible.
What was your inspiration for examining the world of independent contractors?
I read a statistic a couple of years ago that 70% of the US intelligence budget is spent on contractors, and so there are a lot of these people out there and we haven’t seen them, black water for army contracting for example. There are even contractors for covert operations and I didn’t know what that world was so I tried to find people and talk to as many as I could. However, the more you try to look into these things, the more you are faced with layers of bureaucracy and the more confusing it becomes, so you wonder who do you trust and what is their motivation? So that became what I wanted this film to explore. The people I spoke to did various things, but they said to me “okay I’ll talk to you but don’t say my name and don’t include me in the movie.”
How did you develop your ideas for the scenarios where the mission goes wrong?
A lot of trial and error, I ended up having to draw it all out as I was writing the script to see what happens in that apartment with all the different iterations, and if it possible to misinterpret certain things. Then when we got to Serbia we didn’t have the money to build a set like my drawing so we had to do it all over again and figure out how it would work in that room.
How did you edit the scene?
It was pretty well planned I think, we talked about it a lot to see figure out how simply can we do it. I mean you could do it a million ways, you could use special effects, you could colour time things, you could change things and I wanted it to just happen in the simplest way, so I hope it worked.
Sounds seemed to be very important to the film, was it important to use these so that the audience knew they had to pay attention?
Yea. The whole thing is set up, so in the beginning there are a lot of sound cues to make sure you realise that you have to pay attention to the film. We tried to make it so that the storytelling in the beginning is very brief and you are not getting enough information so you have to lean in to understand. So hopefully at some point you understand enough of what is going on so you aren’t just confused. You may think “oh, I’ve been given a piece of information and I don’t know what to do with it” and that will pull you into the next scene.
Did you work closely with James Floyd to develop this scene and Alex’s character?
He was great, the way I worked with James mostly was that we met in London first and talked a lot about it, and then he came to Serbia at least 2 or 3 weeks early and we would spend all day sitting in Serbian cafes going through each scene and talking so that we were on the same page that way. Then on set, it was important to just give him the space to play the scene and addressing things that were happening, and there were complicated pieces with it sometimes, but it was best to get on the same page before going in. I don’t remember specific examples off the top of my head but it was definitely a collaborative effort.
What was it like to work with Noémie Merlant?
She’s incredible, I think she’s very talented. It’s interesting because we looked all over Belgrade to cast a Serbian woman but we couldn’t find someone with the right quality. I mean they were all great, but we couldn’t find someone that was able to compliment James and had the right quality of that character. Then, somehow, an agent sent me a tape of hers and it was an amazing audition. I don’t think I even realised how hard what I assigned her was, because English is not her first language, French is her first language, and she doesn’t know how to speak Serbian at all. Speaking English with a Serbian accent is not an easy thing to do. She put a lot of work in, I think she was there about a month beforehand. What was really important for her was not to just work on the accent, but to feel what the people are like and how they think and move. She spent a lot of time working in a bar there, she had an accent coach that helped her out and she just went for it.
Did you use Serbian actors in the film?
Most of the actors were Serbian, all the smaller roles went to Serbian actors. Ljubomir Bandovic, who plays Blix, is a world-class comedic actor in my opinion, and I saw him in a play while I was there and he was incredibly funny.
Did you give a lot of freedom to your actors during filming?
I think so, I hope so. I think that’s the best way to work with anybody whether its actors or other crew members. You just have to say as much as you can because you’ve thought about it a lot more than they have, but to then leave a lot of the execution as to how that’s going to happen in their hands so they really make it their own. I can become responsible for making sure the story is being told but it’s not just me telling them to do this, do this, do this. It’s a lot more fun on set and you get a lot more effort from people, I find.
Why did you decide to set the film in Belgrade?
When I originally wrote the first draft of the script it took place in the generic Americans view of Eastern Europe and its spy world, and then, going location scouting to think about where we were going to shoot it, we went to a number of different countries and got to know the area a lot better. We looked at a couple of countries in former Yugoslavia and Serbia ended up being a little cheaper because its outside of Europe, but also Belgrade is a film hub because they’ve had a film school there for over 100 years so they have incredibly talented people there.
How did you come up with the idea of Alex’s tendons being cut in his hand being cut to get him to reveal his secrets?
I studied engineering so I think my mind works that way, and it sets up something. It is a torture element that really has a time limit to it, because it’s obviously very painful. So each time you say “no I’m not going to tell you” you lose something permanently, unless you get a good surgeon. It seemed like something that would make sense, what was funny though was that when we had a test screening someone who was ex-army intelligence came up to me afterwards and said “oh, how did you know?” and I thought I had just made it up!
What kind of engineering did you study, and why did you decide to go into filmmaking instead?
Product design engineering and mechanical engineering. I worked a couple of years in Silicon Valley, but I changed because filmmaking is more fun. What interested me about engineering was taking an idea and making it into reality, and filmmaking is a similar process but it is just a lot more fun along the way. You get to work with great people and it’s more emotional.
How did you feel when the film was chosen to open Raindance Film Festival?
It was great, it was an honour to open Raindance because a lot of great films have gone through there over the years. So it was nice to see it with a large group of people, and I hadn’t watched the movie in a couple of months. [When asked about celebrity guests that attended the premiere] I was concerned and worried about what people thought, but I did see Martin Freeman there.
Your film had an open ending, do you think you would be interested in exploring Alex’s world further?
Newcomer has distribution so it will come out in several cinemas after Raindance. So if people are interested, then sure.
The release date for Newcomer is yet to be announced, but it will certainly be very interesting to see where Kai Barry goes from here.
Written by Roxy Simons.