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John Ralston and Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pound of Flesh.

Pound of Flesh Exclusive: Director Ernie Barbarash on Van Dammage

When Jean-Claude Van Damme played twins in the movie Double Impact, the marketing geniuses called it double Van Dammage. Since then I have enjoyed rating his films by the amount of Van Dammge he brings. He has actually played twins several times, though never triplets so there’s been no Triple Van Dammage. However, his new film gives us a new measure of Van Dammage. It’s Pound of Flesh, so we can measure the weight of Van Dammage, not just the quantity.

Van Damme stars as Deacon, a man who wakes up in a Philippines hotel room missing a kidney. He takes morphine and goes after the organ thieves, but the twist is he doesn’t want it back for himself. He was planning to donate the kidney to his niece and he wants it back for her. I got to speak to director Ernie Barbarash, who has now made three films with JCVD, including the one featured on the reality series Jean-Claude Van Damme: Behind Closed Doors. Pound of Flesh is in theaters and VOD Friday, May 15 so you can even get Van Dammage in your own home!

Nuke the Fridge: How can we measure the Van Dammage of Pound of Flesh?

Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pound of Flesh
Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pound of Flesh

Ernie Barbarah: I think the film packs a punch both in terms of there’s a lot of pretty raw fight sequences and Van Damme brings that a lot. There’s also a big Van Dammage in terms of acting. I think he does a really great job really doing a wide range of work both on the martial arts front and on the acting front. As I’m starting to see people respond to the film, I think that’s what people really love about it. The martial arts fans get what they need from it and are also surprised by the fact that hey, Van Damme can really act. He does a really good job with a really tough role to play on many levels. Physically because he’ s a guy missing a body part and also emotionally because it takes him through a huge roller coaster of emotion.

Nuke: Being your third movie with JCVD, were you able to learn how to get the most out of each other?

Ernie Barbarah: I certainly hope so. I think we did. I’m seeing that people are saying this is our strongest film and I think that makes a lot of sense because I think we’ve developed a working vocabulary together. We seem to trust each other. We don’t have to go through all the formalities all the time. In the beginning, you meet each other, I don’t know how he works, he doesn’t know how I work. I think that’s one of the things here. We have worked together before so we’re able to just get to working together and try more interesting things. So when he says something that, to myself working with him the first time, would’ve sounded like a really crazy idea, I think to myself, “Huh, this must come from something interesting. He usually does not come off the top of his head to change something.” You hear the idea and you go, “Wow, I never thought of that. Let’s give it a shot. Let’s see what it looks like. Let’s see how it works.” I find when you work with people the first time, at least I am certainly not so giving right away. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, I have a plan. We’ve planned this. Now he wants to change it.” But you learn also, “Oh, it comes from a real place, from somebody really experienced. This is what they do.” He’s well aware of what changing things on the fly means on a film set when he’s got a budget and a schedule.

Nuke: Was there an example of something that happened in Pound of Flesh that was changed on the day?

Ernie Barbarah: Certainly some of the, for example, the choreography for our end fight. John Salvitti, our great fight choreographer and I, and the stunt team had worked out some things we had shown Jean-Claude and we had worked with. Then when we started actually shooting it, he had a couple of really great ideas, more than a couple, that were like, “Oh, I get it. You’re going to take the old stuff that people are used to Van Damme doing and some of the new stuff we’re going to see in the movie and combine them together, as opposed to just going onto things we’ve already seen in the film. That’s almost where he’s best is the improvisational thinking about fight choreography. It’s in his blood. He’s done this so many times that he processes it very quickly and then we’re able to change things around. It’s all for the better.

Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pound of Flesh
Jean-Claude Van Damme in Pound of Flesh

Nuke: Was doing the split on the car in the script?

Ernie Barbarah: It was not in the script originally. It was an original idea that came from John Salvitti. I think that actual fight scene is one example where Salvitti really brought it 1000% because it was one of those things where it was not supposed to be that long a sequence at all in the beginning. It was more of the car chase and then when we got to our situation and we talked to Jean-Claude and John saw what he had done before, he had these new ideas and we’re like, “Huh, let’s focus on this.” It really worked.

Nuke: And that was the clip they showed on Conan.

Ernie Barbarah: That was indeed the clip they showed on Conan. That was a lot of fun.

Nuke: I love the relationship between Deacon and his brother, and John Ralston is great in it, but did you ever consider having Van Damme play the brother too and they’re twins?

Ernie Barbarah: You know, Double Impact is one of Jean-Claude’s favorite movies I think. He’s always speaking about that project. It’s interesting, he’s mentioned Double Impact in other circumstances but for this one it never really crossed our minds. Possibly because there was so much work to do that given our production situation, it was really great for him to be able to focus. He was really into making sure the sentimentality of it was real. It was a challenge having somebody who is so physically weakened by what happened to him with the organ stuff, that he really wanted to track that role through and get it right. Also, obviously when you have the same actor playing two people, there’s all sorts of visual trickery you have to do. Part of it was we were trying to get away from a lot of visual effects if we could help it. So the answer is it’s a fun idea but it didn’t really cross our minds. We had so many issues to deal with and wanted to perfect that we didn’t jump that way.

Nuke: No, obviously, I’m just making a reference to his classic movies. I saw Van Damme’s reality series Behind Closed Doors which was great. They were actually filming that when he was making Assassination Games, so what was it like having his reality crew on the set of that movie?

Ernie Barbarah: In the beginning, I had a lot of anxiety about it. What was great about that particular crew and that show, they were only two people. They were so friendly. They were really helpful and they were not at all intrusive. They were great so from the first day they were on and I saw what they were doing was not at all intrusive and they weren’t getting in the way, they became kind of organically part of the team. I remember the cameraman and somebody else came to us when we were shooting in Louisiana as well and it was fun to have them there. I kept joking, “Just don’t show me.” But in the end it worked out really well. It was the first film I had done with Jean-Claude so there was a little bit more anxiety than there was on this. Again, we hadn’t worked together before and it’s like oh great, here’s another thing to add, a reality show. From the first moment those guys showed up and I saw oh, okay, they’re a small crew and they’re really friendly and helpful, they’re not getting away and they’re fun to have around. So it was actually a lot of fun. I’ve seen that show and it is a lot of fun. It was so warm and so loving, so much about his family and the dogs, I said, “Oh, this is great. This is a very sweet, different angle on JCVD than people are used to seeing.”

Nuke: Sadly, we lost Darren Shalahvi this year. What would you say about working with him in Pound of Flesh?

Ernie Barbarah: He was just wonderful. It’s truly one of the worst moments of my life finding out about Darren. I just thought he was the consummate professional. He was exactly the kind of actor you want in any movie, especially in a martial arts movie where he’s a really good actor. He’s a really great martial artist. He was just there 500% all the time no matter the time of day or night. He was very creative. He was very respectful to everybody. He was just great and it’s really sad. We did his ADR looping in L.A. in late November. I remember one of the last things we said to each other is, “Okay, I’ll see you after the New Year.” He was going to come back to L.A. after shooting a film and we were going to talk about doing projects together. He’d just gotten new management and we were literally just looking for more stuff to do together and then the next thing I hear is that he passed away from a heart attack. It was horrible. We dedicated the film to him and his sister came to the premiere in London. I’ve been in touch with his mom. They’re just lovely people and it’s a horrible thing. It’s really tough.

Nuke: Thank you for speaking about him. Quickly, are you attached to do another Falcon movie with Michael Jai White?

Ernie Barbarah: It’s funny, I had lunch a few weeks ago with Shahar Stroh who’s the producer. We started talking about it so yes, there are ideas in the works. They just opened the film in England so based on its European opening, they’re trying to figure out how, where and how we’re going to do that. But I am and I’ve been looking forward to that because working with Michael and Neal McDonaugh, Masashi Odate and the rest of cast was a joy. We’re just looking forward to seeing what other exotic, wonderful locations we can bring that to.