Jason Barker, the internationally renowned film maker has just premiered his fourth flick, Flower Arranging for Beginners. It’s a delightful film with a fab ending and you should see it at the earliest opportunity.
Jason could tell you a story about anything and make it the most compelling, funny, amazing thing you’ve ever heard. Here’s a long-ish interview about Flower Arranging for Beginners, see what you think.
So what’s your film about?
I don’t know!
It’s hard to say it briefly, I’ll tell you for why: I’ve been having to fill in things for film festivals and it’s always this 25 words or less option. I think the trouble where it’s a tranny thing is you end up, it sounds like: Oh, well they used to be a man, now they’re a woman but the family say they want to bury her as a man and her best friend wants to stop her being buried as a man because she’s a woman and she wants to be buried with a woman’s name. And then you can just imagine people going: “Oh! I just don’t get it!” and then picking up the next application and reading: “Boy meets girl – yes!” So it’s really hard when you try and say it like that.
But essentially it’s about an unlikely friendship between this older woman and this younger woman, and the older woman is a tranny woman, and then she’s dead, and the younger woman is fighting the family to make sure she’s buried in the right name.
I really like the way you didn’t go into the whole ins and outs of her dying, that it was just a given
You see it now and there’s all sorts of stuff that I wish I’d done, so I’m going to try and not say that again, “I wish I’d…” I think that was also because the bits where you see the two main characters are the memories rather than the whole thing. Also I figured that because it’s from the younger character’s point of view, that if you were somebody who’d died, and if you were approaching the family gathered around to deal with the death, you’re not going to see any of the dying part, that’s all going to be kept away from you.
Who’s your ideal audience for the film?
When you make these things you always think “Everybody will love this, it’s going to be universally loved and everyone will take something from it,” but then actually it probably will be gay and lesbian audiences who, I imagine, will see something of themselves in it.
Are you hawking it around the gay film festivals?
Yes, but I’ve been a bit of a fascist about it, saying: “Well, we have to go to the main ones first and if they reject us we can approach the smaller ones,” which is really evil. I don’t know why it is. I still have that preaching to the converted thing, and I really like my films to be seen by people who wouldn’t normally see them.
Like transgendered films being seen by mainstream gay audiences?
Yeah. Or mainstream audiences in general. Audiences who go and see a selection of short films and they see something that’s queer, that’s a tranny thing, and perhaps they wouldn’t normally have seen that, or thought about how names could be a problem.
Why do you like making films?
Well, I like telling tales, so I suppose it’s from that. I like writing scripts because they’re brief, less is more.
Flower Arranging for Beginners came out of a screenwriting course?
Yes, and the original story is based on a true story although it’s very hard to say that because then you get into this whole minefield of what the true story was. I put “based on an original idea” in the end because it was my friend Brixton Brady, and Brixton’s friend Ka had died and she made the flower arrangement. When she took the flower arrangement to the coffin she found that it had the old name on it. I asked Brixton what she’d done and she said she’d covered the old name with the flower arrangement. I really liked that image, but in this script I didn’t want it to be covered, I wanted it to change. The other part, that’s a true story is that Ka had also got her name from a flower winking so I kept that bit as well. Most women’s names are long, and the men’s name is the shorter version, so then I came up with Colin. Then I did a search on the internet and I came up with this flax flower, which luckily was there in the Geffrye Museum, where we filmed. It was all a bit of luck. That was where the idea came from.
So I was on a screenwriting course at the City Lit and I just started writing, I didn’t know what I was going to write about, but I started writing the first scene, the one between Jo and pat, where they’re having an argument. It was the first time I’d written anything and it was really like a soap opera. It had things like: “You never knew Lynette!” “Well you never knew Colin!” When we read it out in class I just thought “Oh god, I can’t do this!” And it had people coming in, the Mum saying: “My son, who later in life lived as a woman, was a good friend of yours…” and it was terrible! So I had to change it around and re-write it, and then I came up with it.
What did other people on your course say about your script?
They liked it a lot, and they were funny, a real mixed bag. It’s not like I’m really closeted or anything but when I was doing the course, it’s only two hours a week, so it’s not like I go there and say: “Speaking as the transsexual of the group…” So I feel quite funny because I imagine they just think I’m this boy who writes these things about tranny stuff. It’s weird but twice, on two different courses, two male teachers have insisted on calling the character Lynette “he”. I correct them for it and I don’t really know why – it’s just a weird middle-aged man thing – that even though the script is telling them that she’s a she, they’ll still go: “Oh yeah, and he…what is he? He’s a drag queen?”
I’ll tell you a funny tale about the most recent course I was on. I’ve been working on this idea about an f2m who has a baby. So trying to explain this idea in a one-line pitch, I said: “Okay, mine is a story about a female-to-male transsexual – that is, he used to be a woman but is now a man…” and the teacher interrupted me and said: “I like it! A new twist!” He said: “An original twist on a story we may have heard before. Let me get this straight: was a woman, now a man. Yeah! You’re onto something, I’ll be interested to see how this goes.” I was like: “But he has a baby!”
You mentioned that it was a film about an unlikely friendship, do you have anything to say about that?
It’s not that unlikely, but you don’t often see friendships where people are of different ages and so on. Also, certainly with the f2ms there’s always a lot of grumbling about the lesbian community not being very welcoming, but actually I’ve said that a lot of lesbians have done very well as far as accepting transwomen. I wanted to show that. Jo, who’s a young dyke, who’s maybe a bit androgynous, for her it’s perfectly ordinary to have a tranny friend. It’s not as though she thinks “Oh, this person calls themselves a woman and…” They just go out and have a laugh. I can imagine them down at Ron Storme’s or the Way Out.
Did you think of there being a back story?
Yes, and that’s the limitation of having a film that’s nine minutes. That’s the stuff I really regret not being able to include. That’s also the limitations of taking something that comes from a true story because you’re always constrained by what really does and what really could happen. I don’t think that it should have been longer but, for example, that first scene with the two of them is a wasted opportunity, there could have been more, it’s just the two of them talking in the street. It’s partly a budgetary thing, but since then I’ve been tormenting myself with good ideas about how that could have been!
How did you get funding?
We got some money from Westminster Arts Council. They were very canny because they gave us £900, which is not nearly enough, but they also made us sign something to say that it would be ready on January 13 to be shown at the Curzon Cinema. So you’re beholden to it and you have to try and get the rest of the money. It was good because it helped us get funding. If we hadn’t got that then we wouldn’t have done it. After that we applied for some money from Hackney and we got down to the last six from 500 applications. Then their budget was cut and there were only two films being made. The reason why we didn’t get the money is because we’d already decided on a shooting date. By the time we met them it was a week before shooting. If we’d kept that secret we would probably have got the money but they said: “We really liked it, you gave the best pitch but we can’t make a decision in a week and we can’t backdate funds.” Then I took out a loan. The whole film cost about £3000.
Tell me about the crew
Mike Wyeld told me that he really liked the experience of doing things rather than the rewards, so I thought he’d be the perfect producer, which he is, although it’s been a steep learning curve for both of us. He’s worked on loads of films, doing sound and music.
Lucas Lundgren, our runner, had only just had his chest surgery. We had a scene on Sunday morning and we all had to meet on location in Hackney at 3.30. Lucas drove the camera assistant from West London to the set, and then he went back home to his home in South London and went to bed.
It was really me, Mike, Brixton and Faz Velmi, who’s the Assistant Director who were working on the whole pre-production. Brixton was in charge of all of the visual stuff so she made the flowers, and came with us to the locations, and was there for the casting, and she was reading the script from the early stages as well. Even though it’s my story and I could do with it what I wanted, it was based on a real event and I didn’t want to fall out with a friend over it, I wanted to keep it in the spirit of her thing.
Tracey Hancock, my girlfriend, and her sister Kath did the catering. They were always there with beakers of squash, because we filmed on the hottest ever weekend in Britain.
Who did everybody have a crush on?
A lot of people liked Faz, who is one of those really shy people who doesn’t realise how gorgeous they are. She’s got this Elvis quality about her, and if you told her she’d go: “Shut up!”
Did you feel like the Dad?
No. It’s weird because I don’t really remember it now. I didn’t get a lot of sleep, and I was so nervous because I hadn’t actually directed people before. The scariest part was the auditions because I felt like such a fraud, and I knew that I just couldn’t giggle. I now know why people have casting directors. For one, people apply and you and they know that they’re not what you’re looking for, but they apply anyway and they come along and everyone’s just a bit embarrassed. And you’re also asking people to give up four or five days of their life for no money. But it was great when Cheryl turned up. Nicky was great too, we found her in a nice way. We made some flyers and took them to Ron Storme’s and left them in bars, all over the place, and she was one of the people who replied. When we met she told Tracey that she just thought I was “some geezer” who was doing a film! But we got on like a house on fire. Anyway, although we were all quite nervous, we had some read-throughs and we did a lot of work altogether.
What was it like working with your mum, Dorothy Barker?
I wanted to write her into it anyway because I think my mum is a really good actor. It kept changing because we didn’t know the ages of the people coming, so we had to fit it all around. But yeah, my mum did it. On the day she’d been to the dentist and had a tooth removed so she says she sounds a bit lispy on it, but she’s really good and really funny. Some of the camera people were saying: “Where did you find that woman?”
Will you say a few things about all the little things in the background that people could look out for, like Hans Schierl’s paintings and the t-shirts?
The t-shirts were about me, Mike and Brixton wanting to support from afar things like Queeruption. I’m not an activist, but I like what they do. So I wanted our character to be someone like that. We all had ideas of how we wanted things to be, and it’s funny in a way because none of us, including Cheryl, would identify like that. It’s like us going: “Ooh, what do we think a young dyke would be like?” The Pussy Pumper t-shirt was sent down by some women in Scotland, and Sarit Michaeli lent us some stuff.
What about your other films (St Pelagius the Penitent, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Millennium Man)?
This follows on from the theme of those. It’s something about identity, I guess. I’m learning. This one is the technically proficient one. We were working with people who knew what they were doing. Before it was just me cobbling it together a bit. It’s still got the home made look about it though, even though we were a bit worried that it might look too slick!
And the animation?
People like it, I’m pleased with it. It’s funny, we went to this facility and the guy thought that that was how it was supposed to look. But it was that thing where what’s in your head and what’s on the screen are different. In my head I was imagining a real cgi-thing, it was going to be like ‘The Matrix’ but in reality there’s this thing that looks more like ‘Roobarb and Custard’.
I’d like to see you do a whole animated film
I’d like to. But it’s like with this software – I can use it but I don’t really know how to use it. So everything will always have that random element. And then I’m like: “I meant to do that,” and you make yourself like it because that’s all you can do!
Do you consider yourself a transgendered film maker?
I suppose all my films have had a hint of that. I don’t know. The thing that I’m writing at the moment isn’t at all transgendered, it’s about this boy and it’s about this girl. But then you start writing it and you start thinking: “Well, maybe they’re actually trannies…” and it’s quite hard to get out of that.
What are your hopes for the film?
I hope a lot of people see it, because I’ve got a really complex theory about how much time was put into making it compared to how many people see it. The film’s only nine minutes, and took maybe 15 people four days and quite a lot of hard work. The only way to get that back would take however many people times nine minutes until the time adds up to the work that was put in. About 150 people saw it at the Curzon, and then people have been watching it on video, so that adds up and eventually we’ll break even.
What’s next for you?
Well I’m writing. I’ve got a couple of things on the go. You know how I said that I was writing this thing about the f2m who had a baby? That had to go on hold. I just got so caught up in it that in the end I thought that I couldn’t write it. Immediately after I thought that I sat there and typed, and wrote this story. I’m going to just write this one from beginning to end.
What are your film making ambitions in general?
I’d like to do another, we’d all like to do another as a team. Everyone was saying: “When’s the next one?” and a lot of people were saying that they’d like to be in the next one, I’d really like that. But certainly for anything that I’m doing or writing, it’s going to take at least a while. I can’t rush into it, it takes as long as it takes. I like the idea of being a group that makes films, but unfortunately I can’t churn them out that quick. I’m thinking more of writing something to be filmed rather than writing a script that has to be a script.
And, er, what’s a howlin’ halo?
You know when you go and see a film and you get the bit at the beginning that says Miramax, or Warner or whatever. I thought of Howlin Halo being like a black screen and a howl, and then this halo would appear. I was thinking that it would be good in surroundsound, howling all around the auditorium. Then it became a bit weird because our hairdresser was called Halo, and it became about her!