‘Rogue Agent’ (alternative title ‘Newcomer’) opened Raindance last September. It’s a spy story with a difference. With his film director Kai Barry puts a new slant on a classic genre – a gritty and gripping psychological thriller. I spoke to Kai ahead of the film’s upcoming UK release.
So, for those who haven’t yet heard of the film, can you sum it up for us?
Newcomer is a spy thriller film about a young agent who goes on his first mission. It goes horribly wrong and he gets blamed for it. He has to figure out what actually happened on the mission just based on the recording of the mission which is all he has.
You wrote, directed and produced the film. How did the process start?
The process started a long time ago – I’ve always loved spy films like James Bond and Jason Bourne – that kind of thing. Then I saw the statistic that in the 70% of the US intelligence budget is spent on independent contractors and so I felt like ‘that must be a really confusing world!’
That’s an incredible statistic!
So then I thought, what does a Jason Bourne or James Bond look like in this world we now live in which is much more confusing? This world is not so much about forcing yourself upon a world and being able to enact things but is more like ‘Wait, what’s going on and how do I figure this out?’ I then just came up with this idea of the sound. I love films that use sound because I think that films are much more what you can put into the audiences head and not so much what you actually put on screen. That’s a really fun way to engage. Films that I love there’s an engagement when I’m imagining things that aren’t on screen – that’s why I’m actually engaged. And I really think sound is a wonderful way to get there.
Then you have to kind of fill in the gaps. Sound is definitely a way of doing that; which you utilise with this film.
Yeah, exactly! So then I thought of something to do with sound and then it was then – ‘How do I work this out?’ Then the idea came of having this mission and he can only build it back from the sound, like The Conversation (1974) or Blow-Out (1981), these films build a narrative from finding the key to that sound. That really seemed like something that might be interesting so I just sound down and tried to write something. Then we tried to find financing and we went through the whole process. Then, eventually, we made a film!
How long did that process actually take – from that first idea to the final product?
Quite a long time! The first idea was about six years ago. I wrote a first draft and it’s kind of gone through the typical independent film route – trying to get the right cast in and things fall apart. Financers disappear, and there was kind of like one cycle of it. So we really got going on scouting locations. We were going to be shooting in Armenia, and then the investors just disappeared and stopped returning phone calls. Everything kind of fell apart. And then I decided to take a break from it, cos it’s a lot of work!
Yeah, it must’ve been quite devastating.
Yes, it was definitely devastating. Then, when I later found Srdgan, my other producer on the film, it all kind of came together. He’s just like a wonderful person and I’d found somebody who was going to go through the journey with me and say, “Ok, we’re just going to make what we want to do”. It wasn’t until after we’d had our first few conversations that I realised that he was born in Belgrade. He grew up there until he was 16 and shooting in that part of the world was like a whole different thing to shooting the US, to have someone who was familiar with that area, and those people there and so kind of a fun. I think it made the whole thing go, I really do.
That kind of kick started the process finding him discovering his contacts on the scene?
Yeah, finding him and like really connecting. Finding a partner who’d go all the way with it, you know?
He was as committed as you were?
When you find someone as committed as you are, you’re in it together, and then who’s going to stop you? If one person is down, then the other person can be up and I think that’s really, you know, what happened and of course there’s all kinds of trouble along the way, that when you have another, a partner, to do it with. It did make things a lot easier.
So what were your kind of influences, both in terms of the story and how you chose to tell it? You’ve got kind of a unique approach, I think, both with the story and how it is told.
The story I think we wanted to make, or look like to Western audiences, is like a foreign film. And I felt like, in terms like the style, and sort of the genre, to put you in a place. At some point I realised you watch a film like Star Wars (1977) and part of the fun of it is it’s so foreign, the part of the world you’re in but because we’ve been all so indoctrinated into that, and we love the kind of Western story telling. We understand the structure and the structure sort of is our guide through this world that we don’t understand at all. So I wanted to make a place like Belgrade feel as foreign as possible and sort of drop you into this world through the use of Alex and sort of get you into that world and make you feel completely discombobulated but also because of the way the story’s unfolding, we as viewers still have a confidence in the film.
So how did you find and choose your cast members, particularly leading man James Floyd?
All over the place. It took a long time to find Alex, and that was kind of the first thing because, you know, it’s important when “saying” you want somebody who’s young, upcoming and has enough going on that the investors are very excited about them and then we should just lock them up. Then when we found James we sort of knew that we had somebody who could really work with and bring that character to life. He’s silent for a lot of the film and the film is then dependent on how he acted with his face. He had to be the guy who you want to go through something that he had to go through, to be able to display all of these different emotions. It was when I sat down with James and was talking through the film with him it was, ok, you want to make the same film. You’ve read the script and wanted to make the film that I had envisaged. And it’s always nice to be met and share a similar understanding.
It must have been fun on the filming to have such a mix of people and backgrounds on set.
Yeah, it was really fun. It was so heavily Serbian/Belgrade based as all of our crew were there. We brought, basically, no-one over and the cast, sort of added the interesting international thing where you have people from the UK, are the main actors, and are from France. It was an interesting couple of months in Belgrade.
James is fantastic as your lead. Spy films are so dependent on that central character, a job which James is great at. But he isn’t your typical kind of spy lead. How did you construct his character? Was it beforehand or was it a collaborative process James?
I claim the character. I created the character beforehand and then it all shifted when James came in. I think that that’s usually the right way to do it. You go into it with having an idea of someone in your head who has to go through a certain thing. But then, suddenly, that person is in front of you and that’s the person that’s going through this thing and so really became a kind of joint project. I think even the editor, you know, was a huge part of creating that character. Because when you bring all those different people in who bring different pieces to it and then by the end you see something that the audience gets to see. Each person involved definitely had a big part in it.
The use of re-enactment elements was very effective in the film. To see and then of re-see that scene again and again was so interesting. How did you come to choose that visual style?
I thought that I wanted to basically marry the film as much as possible to Alex as the main character and I wanted it to almost be reflective of his character. When it first happens you go out there in this very relaxed position. You just kind of know what he knows and you’re discovering what he’s discovering and so I feel like those flashbacks and the way the scene what he sees are other ways of seeing as his character sees. You’re getting to know his character better even through the re-enactment and so it really, really became that. First it was, oh isn’t kind of fun to go and, like, see something over and over again, like Memento (2000) or something where it feels like ‘Oh! I’m seeing it from a different perspective!’ and then as we get closer and closer I realised how much we could put it with that character.
Is there aspect of the film that stands out for you? That once you saw it on the big screen it was so rewarding to finally see it finished?
I love the cinematography he [cinematographer Erol Zubcevic] does an incredible job and some of the shots at the end in mountains are truly beautiful. Then I think everyone’s response to the torture scene as being rather rewarding…
That’s my next question! I found that really difficult to watch. I was writing notes while watching the film and my hands kind of had empathy twitches…
Good good. I’m glad that was worked!
That sequence realy stands out, particularly the style of torture you chose…
During a test screening of the film we showed it and one of my producers friends is ex army counter terrorism and he’s been a part of done interrogations and he walked up to me afterwards and said, “How did you know?”
The shooting style really exaggerates the horrendousness of it and hot it is shown is rather restricted
Yeah and if you actually watch it again we don’t actually show anything. If you pause it on the button it’s really not really not that gross of a shot.
Like that scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992) with the ear cutting, you’re not shown anything but you fill in the gaps and it causes an emotive reaction.
Yeah, like we were saying right before, I think that when it’s activated in your head and you’re imagining it, then you’re actually engaged with it as opposed to just seeing something is horrible
So know you’ve established Alex and this world that he lives in would you like to return to it? Do you think there’s more to explore?
I think it’s a fun world. It obviously depends on if has enough of an audience it or if they I love that kind of world. Hopefully it’s a little bit unique in how I describe that world and sort of the perspective that it comes to. I think there’s definitely more there. At the end of the film he’s sort of left to it. A bunch of choices that we don’t quite know how he’s made them or what is going to do to move forward. I think that’s good that there’s something he could seem to explore there. Once a little bit of the world has been revealed you want to know what decisions that someone made next.
Like in The Matrix (1999) the red pill or the blue pill
So, final question, have you any advice for any of our readers for aspiring filmmakers? Particularly as you’ve kind of been through it all haven’t you making this particular film!
It’s the same advice that people gave me that I sort of doubted at one point but I think that there’s a lot of things you can take that don’t get you anywhere and you’re actually the skill of actually telling a story and working with people out how to get what’s in your head in front of people and how they respond to it is that’s the primary skill if you want to make films and the more you do it the better you get at it. Things are so cheap these days that you can really make something for nothing! The people who really work at it – the people who learn more and more, developing their skills are the people who will then be called upon to do that later on. So, if you want to be a director or writer make sure you direct or write. Be familiar with everything that everyone on the crew is doing, that’s really important but it even more important to respect the skill of each craft. There’s always so much more to learn!
Rogue Agent is available on DVD and VOD from the 26th September.