A bold, hyperactive road-trip/body-snatcher film like no other, Fried Barry has been taking the festival circuit by storm and has just premiered on AMC‘s streaming service Shudder.
Vampire Squid writer Thom Bee sat down with director Ryan Kruger and co-writer/producer James C. Williamson at Grimmfest to find out more about this rollercoaster of a movie.
Thom: Can you describe Fried Barry for anyone who hasn’t seen it?
James: It’s not what you think.
Ryan: It’s twisted.
James: Yeah. It’s basically a kind of twisted road-trip movie, except instead of a car it’s a human body and our driver is an alien visitor.
Ryan: Barry is the car going from scene to scene and meeting all these different people. It’s him experiencing them and them experiencing him.
Thom: What was it that inspired this idea? How did you get from the original conception of a short film to the finished feature film?
Ryan: The short film was remarkably successful, especially with the all fan art, the festivals, and the awards… but it was never meant to be a feature. It was just a standalone, experimental short film.
At the time, I had something wrong with my kidney, had an operation, got sepsis, nearly died, went through a breakup, my cat got cancer, I went into depression, and just went down this long, dark hole. I was just doomed and didn’t know what to do at the time. So, I thought to myself “What is the number one thing I’ve always wanted to do?”, which has always been to make a feature film. I knew that would be the best medicine for me.
There is no story in the short, it was just about a guy taking drugs and his highs and lows, it had nothing to do with aliens or anything like that. So, when I randomly got this idea, I thought “Shit, I can actually take Fried Barry and make a big story about it.” In three days, I wrote a brief scene breakdown, which was “Barry goes here. Barry does this. Barry does that” for about fifty percent of the movie. I wrote six pieces of dialogue for the main dialogue in the movie. I’d only known James for about a month and a half, but we’d shot two experimental films together, so I rang him and said “Listen, James, I want to make a film and I want to make it next month”. He asked if I had a script and I said no. He asked why I didn’t want to shoot it next year, why did I want to shoot it in three weeks’ time? I just said that if we don’t shoot it in a month’s time then it’s never going to happen, it’ll just get pushed back, so you’re either in or out. He said, “Cool man, let’s do it, I’m in”, and a month later we started shooting the film. We shot over a year and a half for 28 days. Which was great because we got to plan and shoot lots. Even though 95% of the movie was improvised, that was still all workshopped onset, and there was still a lot of planning that went into everything. It was still structured.
Because Gary (Green), our lead, isn’t a trained actor, we had to shoot it in a certain way. He was the only one who wasn’t improvising, and I had to work very closely with him. So, it had to be the right story, the right concept, and the right character for Gary to be able to pull it off. There were so many scenes where I was just saying “OK Gary, copy this face, copy this face, now copy this face” so that I had different reactions for the edit.
Thom: You’ve worked with James before on other films, and you have quite a large and varied body of work. Do you regularly collaborate and bring the same team onto your projects?
Ryan: I work with a lot of the same people, but I also work with a few different DOPs, a few different producers, and I’ve produced by myself in the past. Then I met James, and my life changed. James is incredibly good at what he does and he’s also my best friend now. It was just one of those things where we gelled easily because we have similar personalities and senses of humour. Now I don’t want to work with anyone else apart from James. It’s great having that great team, and with Friend Barry we had an amazing team around us. Every department just had a love and passion for filmmaking and what we love doing.
James: Yeah, Ryan’s OK, I guess.
James: As Ryan said, when we started talking about Friend Barry, we’d only done a couple of shorts together and had only known each other for a short time, but we already got on so well. We just clicked creatively. I thought that this is a guy with ideas and a style that I’ve been waiting for.
I come from a background doing marketing and publicity on studio pictures, so that’s a far cry from what we did on Fried Barry. The team that Ryan brought to the project are all amazing professionals. This was the first feature for a lot of the people who worked on the movie or their first time in a leadership role, myself included. It gave us all an opportunity to take the brakes off in terms of our creativity, and that’s what Ryan brings out in people. He brings together people that he admires and lets them do their thing. The result is a movie quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Thom: How did your marketing and publicity background compare to what you’ve been doing on Fried Barry?
James: I did marketing and publicity for a lot of big studio pictures, working with Netflix, Sony, and Paramount, and you learn a tremendous amount seeing how these big studio machines work. But things are very rigid, and there’s not really a lot of space for creativity, especially if you’re working in marketing.
Ryan and I were just so, so hungry to make our first movie, because Ryan also comes from a background of doing music videos and has clients that he needs to please. So, even though Ryan is known for his style, he does end up having to limit himself or censor his work to a certain extent. Fried Barry was just this project that Ryan and I had been waiting for years to do, where we could totally take the brakes off and go balls to the wall, and throw everything at it, and I ended up being amazing.
Thom: What was it that prompted the decision to improvise 95% of the film?
Ryan: I started acting before I started directing, so I love working with actors just like I love working with directors when I’m acting, and I think that some of the best gems come from improvising together. There are a lot of actors out there who hate improv and want a script, so it was still very structured.
There was no script apart from the dialogue that I wrote with the scene breakdown, and there were only certain details in each scene breakdown. For example, Barry goes to the supermarket, the checkout girl is there handing out the samples, and it was just a set-up like that for each scene. I got to be creative with that and figure out what every character was doing in those moments. Then someone would have a great idea, so we’d add that on and totally change it. Most films are normally set in concrete, and it’s very “This is the script, this is how we’re going to direct it, this is how we’re going to perform it!” We got to think outside the box on every single scene, and that’s where all those gems came from, and it was just a very organic way of working with the actors. Although, as I said earlier, with Gary it had to be very structured in that he didn’t improvise, and I had to shape him. It had to be the perfect script and the perfect character, and we moulded that around Gary to make it work, otherwise, it would just fall flat.
I’m extremely fortunate to have a lot of people who want to work with me. We had a lot of big South African actors working on this movie, even doing some of the really small roles. Like James was saying earlier, making a film is about teamwork, it’s collaborating. I’ve worked on big sets before, and everyone’s really scared, and they’ll throw you under the bus if you do something wrong. I like to work in the moment and to be open, so for every single scene we were living in the moment, and that’s what brings the most unique stuff to the table. So, of course, you throw away the script and break all the rules, and James and I only had to answer to ourselves. We go to say “This is a bit risky; this is a bit cool; this is a bit nuts… put it in!” That’s what made it a special film. Yes, it is about a heroin addict that gets abducted by aliens, but there’s a lot more to the film and to the story. All those random situations are designed to make you feel uncomfortable, it’s designed for you not to have a break so you can go on this journey with Barry as Barry. It’s not a movie where you can pop to the bathroom or get a drink, because you’ll come back and not know what the fuck is happening. We tried to make it as unpredictable as possible.
James: I don’t think that many movies would have worked if you shot them this way with a very loose improvised script, but with Fried Barry this was the only way to make it. Reason one: Gary Green. If you put a script in front of him, it just wouldn’t work because he doesn’t come from a professional acting background. Number two, we had this amazing cast of almost a hundred speaking roles, where a lot of the actors in the film are some of the biggest actors in South Africa, but they end up playing these tiny, almost featured extra roles for thirty seconds on screen. If you got actors of a lower caliber to do that, they wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but we had this amazing cast and amazing team. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
Thom: I don’t know a great deal about South African cinema. How would you describe the overall scene right now, and do you have any recommendations for getting into it?
Ryan: South Africa is a service country for overseas films that come and shoot here. Fried Barry is the first of its kind to come out of the country. We don’t make films like Fried Barry here. South Africa is quite conservative, but the film industry itself is growing and getting better. I think a lot of moviegoers and filmmakers here are sick of seeing the same movies repeatedly. I’ve lived here for about eleven years, and was back and forth five years before that, and people just want something different.
James: South Africa does have some incredible local filmmakers. We regularly produce films that play at some of the biggest festivals in the world. But there is this kind of blind spot when it comes to genre films. It feels like only in the last few years we’ve started producing more genre films, and if you look at films like Five Fingers for Marseilles, The Soul Collector and Fried Barry, you can see that we’re more than capable of producing these great genre films that not only get critical success but financial success as well.
Ryan: One of my favourite directors in South Africa, a guy called Christopher-Lee Dos Santos, made a film called Last Broken Darkness¸ which was great, but there are so many people who haven’t seen it. It’s like James said, you have these genre movies that I think South Africa sees as a bit too risky, and don’t think people will like it, but they will. That was the big thing with Fried Barry. If you don’t make different movies and different things, then it’s never going to change. You must stop that trend so that people go “Well if they did it, why can’t we do it?”. I think that’s the whole thing with pushing the limits. Even with Fried Barry overseas, it’s been doing so well at all these festivals and people keep saying it’s a cult classic. The response has been amazing, and everyone keeps saying it’s unique and different. It’s great to hear all that. I didn’t even think it was that unique until maybe I sat and thought about it. I guess we have never seen a film about a fucked-up heroin addict getting abducted by aliens. That’s what everyone has been raving on about as well. It’s been amazing.
Thom: You’ve also done GTV in the past, which involved following very seedy rock stars around. Has any of that real-life debauchery inspired things that happened in Fried Barry?
Ryan: GTV was so long ago. We shot with over sixty major bands, mainly American with some UK acts, over three years. That was just partying backstage, partying on tour buses, partying in hotels, but none of that came into Fried Barry.
Thom: That must have been exhausting over three years.
Ryan: Yeah, it was every week, one day weekday, and then all weekend. A lot of the stuff we did got featured in Kerrang! The worse stuff that we did got featured in more things. It was all these different punk and metal bands like Misfits, Black Flag, Slipknot, and partying with them. There are lots of different stories that came from it. It was a great three years of partying, getting kicked out of venues, and pushing the limits of all those people.
James: That’s where Ryan learned about jenkem.
Ryan: I didn’t know what jenkem was until James told me. Obviously, Fried Barry features a lot of drugs in the movie. So, that’s why James decided to tell me about jenkem.
James: In the scene with the character Daddy, the serial killer that tortures Barry, he walks in with this bottle of brown liquid with a balloon on top, and he inhales the gas through the balloon. That’s called jenkem. It’s an acquired taste… it’s raw sewage that you leave out in the sun so that the methane collects in the balloon, which you then inhale. I guess it’s comparable to poppers or something.
Ryan: It’s shit in a bottle.
Thom: I absolutely don’t want to try that.
Ryan: Listen, Thom. When we come to Manchester, we’ll take you out and we’ll all do jenkem in Satan’s Hollow.
Thom: If Gary wasn’t from a trained acting background, how did that casting process work?
Ryan: With the whole cast of the movie, not one person auditioned. A lot of these people I’ve worked with a lot of times in the past. There were a handful of people that I hadn’t worked with, but I knew their work and wanted to work with them. So, everybody that I put into those characters, I knew that they would be great. That’s basically how I cast the movie and got the people that I wanted.
I’ve worked with Gary for about eleven years. He was doing a lot of extra work in my music videos. Over time, his parts got a little bit more featured in my stuff, and then when we did the short, that was the biggest role that Gary had done before. After that, I approached him and said that I was going to do a feature, what it was going to be about, and he got excited. On the first day, I told him that he wasn’t there by mistake, and that he was meant to be there, and that this part was written for him and his role of a lifetime. Everyone has that one film that is perfect for them, and this was it for Gary. So, I said “Don’t feel intimidated by all these other well-known actors…this part is for you. If you listen to me, and we work closely, people are going to love you!” And he gave 120%.
This was mine and James’ big shot with it being our first feature, but I think Gary knew that it was also his. He gave it everything for every single scene, he’d always want to go again to do another take. I think just having that little talk with him at the beginning, and just saying he’ll be amazing, and telling him to have fun, really helped. I told him that people would love him, and he’s had the nomination at Rapid Line in South Africa. He won the best actor at Fantaspoa. It’s been an amazing journey for all of us. James and I were so proud and so happy, he was this extra and now he’s the lead!
He’s a very well-known extra. He’s always in the background of everything that’s shot over here. People know who he is because he’s always overreacting in the background, and the AD always wants to swap him out because he’s taking too much attention. The thing with that though is that he just wants to be seen. He loves what he does, and he just wants a shot, and it feels great that I’ve given him that shot, and he’s done so well. I’m incredibly happy for him, and that we went on this journey together.
Thom: Do you often bring that style that you have as a music video maker to your general filmmaking practice?
Ryan: I think it comes down to more of a visual style for Fried Barry, and that is there in my music videos. But I don’t think I bring that much over. I’m mostly known for narrative storytelling and visual stuff for music videos, and less for music performance. The only difference is that filmmaking is long-form. It’s working on character development for way longer than anything else I’ve ever done. Obviously, those things are going to be more visual or edited in a crazy way, but I’ve always loved that. That edgy and creative style of editing has always appealed to me. There’s no better way to show that than with a film like Fried Barry.
James: That’s the thing about Ryan’s style. I think that because Ryan comes from a music video background, he’s a very visual director, and for a film like Fried Barry this is essential. It’s basically a story of a guy who doesn’t talk walking around for the entire movie. You need everything you possibly can to put yourself inside his head and to feel what he feels.
Thom: Fried Barry isn’t exactly a film made by the Cape Town tourism board. What prompted this direction?
Ryan: I’ve probably fucked up tourism completely. Cape Town is a beautiful place, and that’s why everyone comes and shoots here, because we’ve got all these amazing different locations that can look like Spain, Italy or Mexico, or wherever. James and I really wanted to make Fried Barry different, we wanted to show a new side of South Africa and shoot it in a certain way just to show South Africa in a different light. I think we achieved that.
James: When we were scouting locations, if we could see shit on the ground or smell shit, we knew that this was the one.
Ryan: If the floor’s sticky, it’s going to work.
Thom: What’s the one thing that you would want audiences to take away from Fried Barry?
Ryan: At the end of the day, you make a film, and you want people to see it. You want people to enjoy it. The movie is designed to make you feel uncomfortable, it’s designed to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s unpredictable, and you can’t run to the bathroom or get a drink because you’ll have no idea what’s going on when you get back. We really tried our best to entertain the audience, but it’s the type of film where you either love it or you hate it. The people that love it will love it, and the people that hate it will hate on it, and that’s fine. If we all liked the same films, it would be boring.
How many films do you watch on Netflix where they’re not that good, so you don’t even tell your friends about it because it’s not worth the time? With Fried Barry, even when someone isn’t our target audience, they will still talk about it, and they will tell their friends about it. Someone could do a negative review and someone else could come along and think it sounds good, even if they’re ripping into it. It’s good that people are speaking about it. I’d rather people speak about it than not speak about it.
James: You can extract all sorts of moral lessons and themes from the film about STDs, drug use, and the nature of humanity. But, at the end of the day, we just wanted to make something that was totally different. We just wanted to grab our audience and shake them awake. Like Ryan says, there’s so much media out there, and when you’re scrolling through streaming platforms, it can all kind of blend into each other. A lot of films that we watched ended up being so forgettable. So, like Ryan says, whether you love it or hate it, it’s a film that you’re going to remember.