Producer Karen Barber
On May 7, 2002, I interviewed movie producer Karen Barber, 31 years of age, in the office of Quentin Tarantino's producer Lawrence Bender. Barber has a two year producing deal with Bender.
Karen: "I grew up in Woodstock, New York. My parents were hippies. My father Ben Barber is now a famous journalist who covers foreign affairs for the Washington Times. My parents divorced when I was six years old.
"If I'd have grown up with my dad, he would've pushed me to study more math and English. The big thing for my mom was art. I was the best artist in high school. Then I went to the Art Institute of Miami where everyone was the best artist from their high school and I realized that I was not very good.
"I thought graphic design was what I wanted to do. There were all these really talented artists around me and I did not think of myself as talented as them. I have more of a head for business. I could never be a starving artist. I thought that art director for a magazine would be the right place for me.
"In my last year at college, we had to intern somewhere. I interned at a couple of magazines and I realized it was not what I wanted to do. I quit. I needed more intern credits. I was walking down the street and someone asked me if I wanted to audition for the Juliette Lewis part in the movie Cape Fear , which was shooting in Miami at the time. I said no, I'm not an actress. But I need to intern. And I interned one day a week in the wardrobe department. I loved it. They wanted me to be there more and more. They ended up paying me.
"Clothes. Crafts service. Movie. I love to shop for clothes. I loved going to thrift stores finding clothes. We had to find vintage stuff in double and triples because there was a lot of blood in [the movie]. When I went to the premiere of the movie, I was scared, even though I was on set all the time. And that's when I knew I wanted to be in the movie business.
"I assisted the wardrobe woman for a year. I realized I didn't want to be a costume designer. I didn't want to have clothes in my car all the time.
"Then I went to work for a couple of low-budget movie producers. Those were the kind of movies they were making in Miami at the time. We shot one film on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. We stayed at Merv Griffin's resort. This wealthy man had $5 million and he wanted to direct his own movie. So he spent his own money and he wrote his own script. Well, at least half of it. He thought he'd finish it while we were there. We shot half the movie. Then, while he tried to finish the script, he didn't want us to leave. We stayed in the Bahamas for a month doing nothing.
"We would show up on the set and this guy [financier] would sit on a cooler and try to write what we were supposed to shoot that day. I thought that was how things were done.
"I then went to work at a New York talent agency for six months and hated it. I would come home every night and cry about it, it was so horrible. I thought I'd become a physical trainer. Then I got a call out of nowhere that director Abel Ferrara needed an assistant. I said no but my mom and my boyfriend of the time talked me into it.
"Abel is out of his mind but he's extremely smart. He doesn't do anything by the book. He wakes up at 4PM and wants to work through the night.
"I'd been with him for a week when he had a meeting at October Films about the film The Funeral starring Christopher Walken. He showed up to this meeting with all these executives with a six pack in his hands. He said, 'Just tell everything to Karen,' and he walked out the door. I was 23 years old. The executives were all men. They don't say anything to me except to ask, 'Is he coming back?'
"I walk around the office looking for him. He's in the kitchen making a sandwich. He says, 'Make them tell you whatever they have to say.' I say, 'Abel, they don't want to talk to me.' He walks back in the room, 'I said you tell everything to Karen.' And then he leaves the building. That's how I got forced into everything. I ended up producing his life.
"We made a couple of movies during my two years with him. He always wanted to cast Christopher Walken and Harvey Keitel. He doesn't watch many movies so I'd help him cast. If the script called for a 25-year old Mexican, he'd say, 'What about Chris Walken?'
I got a call from Robert DeNiro's office. It was one of the days when I was truly determined to quit working for Abel.
"I went down to DeNiro's office and there were all these people there interviewing. And I had never interviewed for a job. All my jobs had been given to me. I didn't even have a resume. But an hour after I left, I got a call saying I had the job.
"I grew up in Woodstock with Tod "Kip" Williams, who wrote and directed The Adventures of Sebastien Cole . His wife and I told that his first movie should be personal and done for no money. So in three weeks, he wrote Sebastien Cole. He wanted me to quit my job to produce his movie. He manipulated me. He said I was a loser. I'd been an assistant for so many years. I'll never amount to anything. He convinced me to quit my job and produce his movie. I loved Todd's script.
"Through the contacts I made working for DeNiro and Abel, I got a great crew. Everyone worked for $500 a week. I got a camera package for nothing. We shot the movie in 24 days in Woodstock.
"I like getting things for free. I got every location for free. I got the Super 8 motel. I asked for the cheapest corporate rate and it was about $40 a night. I calculated how much we had to spend. It was about $15,000. They accepted it before they calculated how many rooms we'd need. It worked out to $16 per person per night.
"The only producer I knew advised us not to take the film to the Toronto Film Festival. We did anyway. The producer then advised us that if we got any interest in the film, if anyone was willing to distribute it, we should accept the offer, even if we weren't getting any money for an advance.
"Our film played on opening night. There was a line around the block for our screening. Six hundred people. Kip and I did a couple of shots of tequila before we had to speak in front of everybody. All the studio heads came by and said hello to us. David Dinerstein from Paramount Classics was moved by the movie.
"Our William Morris agent Cassian Elwes said a few different studios had made offers. We met with everyone that Saturday. We had breakfast, lunch, another lunch and dinner. The heads of studios would write down numbers on pieces of paper and pass them to us. We'd have another table at the other side of the restaurant. They'd make an offer and then Cassian and I would sit at our table and talk about it. We'd call my lawyer and the William Morris lawyers and come back with counter offers. Then they would call their lawyers.
"One executive at a studio told us, 'This movie is brilliant. If we just reshoot the entire thing, it will be amazing.' Everybody said they loved it but everybody wanted to change it. Paramount Classics offered the most amount of money and they best understood the movie. It was the first movie they'd bought.
"I wanted to do my second movie with Kip. We optioned a John Irving book, A Widow for a Year. We pursued a book owned by the BBC. I was offered the Pumpkin project a few times and I passed. I wanted to make my secon movie with Kip. Finally my William Morris agent talked me into doing the movie."
Producer Deborah Del Prete told Luke February 19, 2002: "I reject projects when I find the subject matter disturbing. A movie called Pumpkin was a success at Sundance. I haven't seen the movie. I saw the script two years ago. It's a black comedy about a sorority girl who has an affair with a retarded boy. It's a comedy that plays off him being retarded. It was incredibly distasteful. Despite having a commercial sheen to it, the script was making fun of people who were retarded. And I couldn't get on that bandwagon."
Karen: "The script is politically incorrect in every way. I met with the directors Anthony Abrams and Adam Larson Broder. They had a specific vision and I liked their ideas. It was a Heathers-type movie. It could go either way, depending on the director's vision. They brought me to meet the $2 million investor funding the movie. There were five other producers attached to the movie. They'd been trying to make the movie for years and anyone who promised them anything, they attached as a producer. I said that I didn't need to work with anybody. All the other producers were let go.
"I sent the script to some agents to try to attach talent. The first agent told me, 'Oh, I read the script a couple of years ago and did not like it.' I was honest. 'I read it once and I was totally wrong about it. The script is so smart and there are so many different levels to it, that you'll only see it on a second reading.' She liked me and so she read it again. And she called me and said, 'You're right. This is my new favorite script.' So this script which had gotten bad coverage at all these agencies, I would call the agents and tell them that they had read it wrong. So they'd reread it and it was their new favorite script."
Luke: "What attracted you to the Pumpkin script?"
Karen: "It was different. I've always been fascinated by sororities. I've never been a part of any group. I've never been in Girls Scouts or Sororities. I've always had friends in lots of different groups. To me college is the most liberating experience, a time to try everything.
"My mother worked with mentally challenged kids. Some were high functioning to the point of normal and some were low functioning. If you have a 70 IQ, you're considered normal and you can be put in a Special Ed class in a regular school. If your IQ is 69, then you're not able to go to a normal school.
"Pumpkin was put in with low functioning people and he never had anyone to inspire him.
"The director's vision was to take this sappy movie-of-the-week and do it as a satire. The point of the story is that these retarded kids are more intelligent than the girls in the sorority.
"I produced Pumpkin for Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. Because I'd only tried to do two movies, and got them both made, I was getting attention. People thought that with my specific tastes, I'd find the next American Beauty. I had a meeting at Dreamworks. I realized midway through the meeting that I didn't want to be locked up in a room trying to find the next American Beauty. I didn't want to stay in LA and drive to the studio every day. I wanted to find and make my own films.
"I wanted to return to New York but my agent asked me to see Lawrence Bender. I met him the day before my 30th birthday and then the next day he called me and offered me a two year deal.
"LA is growing on me. My stuff is still in New York. I'm still driving a rental car and have a month-to-month lease on a furnished house. I thought I'd go back and forth a lot more. Most of the film people that I want to work with are in New York. Then September 11th happened, and I stopped traveling so much. When I went home for Christmas, and I was freezing, I missed LA. It was the first time I was excited to come back to LA."