Horror and History: 1on1 with Jeff Barnaby (BLOOD QUANTUM)

Directed by Jeff Barnaby, Blood Quantum brings us to the isolated Mi’gMaq reserve of Red Crow where things begin to spiral out of control when an unseen virus begins to turn the locals into blood-thirsty zombies. As the dead begin to come back to life, the Indigenous inhabitants discover that they are strangely immune to the plague and are forced to care for those in the area who are desperately seeking sanctuary themselves. Asked what inspired him to make his film from the perspective of First Nations peoples, Barnaby states that his vision simply extends from a desire to tell a zombie story in fresh and exciting ways.

?I reversed engineered this story from just wanting to do a zombie movie,? he begins. ?Honestly, we’re sitting around at TIFF in either 2006-7 and John and I, the producer, had just finished screening?The Colony, which blew up. We ended up on TIFF’s Top Ten… We were feeling pretty good about ourselves. So, we were like, ‘Let’s do a zombie film!’ [laughs] Nobody was going to hand over $5 million to any first-time filmmaker to do a zombie film. So, that’s how we ended up doing?Rhymes [for Young Ghouls]?first because we wanted to show people that were viable for that kind of money and that kind of market? So, with?Blood Quantum, it was just the idea of wanting to do a zombie film…?

In developing the film, he wrestled with how to make use of the ?virus? motif within the narrative, especially considering the historically traumatic relationship between Indigenous people and foreign disease. 

?I think people are making that association because of the environment we’re in now, but also because of the history of indigenous people and their association with viruses,? Barnaby clarifies. ?The word ?virus? is never even mentioned once in the film and neither does a source and everybody’s just assuming it’s a virus. If they don’t die, it could be a Martian. You don’t know. It was implied in a couple of other things too [that] there was a spaceship showed up out of nowhere and the dead started coming back to life. But it is a virus, to end the debate. In earlier draft of the script,?it was more explicit to be more like a?28 Weeks Later?virus. And I felt like it would’ve been in bad taste to do something like that considering the history of indigenous people. I felt like indigenous people love zombies and to turn it more into a classical zombie horror film class rather than make the explicit comparison. I felt like just by putting natives in that context, people were going to do it anyway and I didn’t really even draw those connections too explicitly.?

While the concept of the ?killer virus? movie is far from new, the current global pandemic certainly gives the film a more realistic edge to it. In light of a COVID-19 world, Barnaby points out that history may have shown that a situation like this should not have been unexpected.

?I’m here more or less because somebody in my historical lineage survived a pandemic, which is true of basically anybody on the planet right now,? he explains. ?I think we’re just a group of people with the idea that it can’t happen to us. We were due for a major outbreak like this because you see it. Virtually every century, there’s some major pandemic. Almost hundred years ago to the day, it was the Spanish Flu. It seems like all the things that came up then are coming up now and I keep hearing myself explaining over and over again [that] humanity’s learning curve is a circle. I feel like the film in and of itself is expressing that same idea. You’re picking a film and you’re basically creating this false construct them from making a comment on postcolonial North American culture. I didn’t really do anything besides following the patterns. I feel like I was just making logical leaps… There have been minor outbreaks here and there. We were getting warning shots across the bow for so long. I feel like this was bound to happen and I didn’t even think like that when I was writing the film. To me, I was following the pattern, right? I was following the patterns of disease and the pattern of social structure and reaction to the disease. So, you still see the xenophobia that you saw from the early turn of the century and it’s just one big circle.?

With this in mind, Barnaby goes on to say that?Quantum?ultimately serves as a metaphor to the relationship between First Nations people and the pain of colonialism.

?It’s the retelling the story of colonialism, which invariably involves disease,? describes Barnaby, ?and it wouldn?t be a stretch to say we are where we are right now because of the mass pandemics on this land. If the smallpox fires didn’t wipe out half the population, would the face of this culture look the way it looks now? Of course not. Diseases and the xenophobia that comes with that has shaped our society. I think natives or indigenous people have such a weird relationship with that history because, in a sense, that’s what led to our decimation. Our population disappeared 90% in about a century. That’s one of the comments in?Blood Quantum?also that we’re the perfect post-apocalyptic society because we survived all these pandemics. We’ve survived violent oppression and we’re pretty good at making barricades.? [laughs]

Frustrated by the limitations of conventional filmmaking, Barnaby considers the horror genre to be the perfect place to discuss cultural issues through the metaphors inherent to wild and out-of-the-box circumstances.

?I think when you deal with mainstream film, you’re dealing with the group of people that do not want to rock the boat,? Barnaby argues. ?It’s nauseous now. Never mind, [writing] an original script. You’re never going to see that. Everybody needs to get something that’s worked before so it’s either going to be a book or comic book or some sort of previously accessible whatever. Everybody is scared to make a leap in narrative. We’ve been making the hero’s journey for like two millennia. Now, it’s time to move on from those narrative beats for real. You can look at the hero’s journey and you could apply it to like literally 99% of the stuff that’s being released on a quote unquote mainstream market.?

??All the craziest stories in every platform, comics, novels, video games, whatever. I find everything interesting right now is going on in either horror, science fiction or drama. I know I’m sick of superhero films, like Marvel. You can only see that applied to so many different characters before you’re wondering, ‘okay, what’s next?’ You start looking at the alternatives like?Brightburn?or some of the other films that have come out that have tried to subvert that hero’s journey.?

Uninhibited by the confines of mainstream cinema, Barnaby believes that horror gives him the freedom to tell more human stories.

?I don’t think any human story is that cut and dry. I don’t think I’m reinventing anything,? he continues. ?I’m just telling stories the way they exist in life and I think native people have always done that. I think if you look at traditional native stories, they’re all over the place. People can change into boxes and time can shift all over the place. So, I’m just kind of following that rich tradition of crazy storytelling that I’ve come from and I’m applying it to cinema. I think you can’t really do that in mainstream cinema [but] horror will do anything. I think that’s why you’re seeing a renaissance now because the real ideas are coming out in horror. I think that’s how you get Us.?I think that’s how you get the Ari Aster or Robert Eggers [stuff]. They’ll tell you they’re not horror directors. They’re dealing with the human condition. It just so happens that they’re using horror as a vehicle because that’s their aesthetic. I feel like I’m exactly the same way. When I looked at something like?Midsommer, I don’t look at it as a horror film. I look at it as a breakup film. That’s exactly how it goes down in a mediocre relationship. It just so happens to take place in this environment where there’s a cult. That’s the only anomaly. I feel like, if you’re a storyteller that wants to deviate from those beats, horror welcomes you with open arms, whereas everybody else has their game plan to follow. Horror says ‘do what you feel’.?

Of course, by grounding his zombie horror on the Mi?gMaq reserve, Barnaby has ample opportunity to explore more conventional horror tropes through the eyes of the First Nations people. For example, when one character makes his ?last stand? against the oncoming horde, most films would stereotypically use this as an opportunity for that character to prove their individual worth. However,?Blood Quantum?more poignantly uses that moment to speak more to that character?s connection with the land itself, rather than any personal glory.

?Typically, when you see those ?last stands?, [they are] for some sort of noble [crap],? he explains. ?The native in?Predator?comes to mind. He’s just going to stand there because he wants to have a man-on-man fight,? he illustrates. ?I think for [that character], I think he did that because he’s a veteran? He’s a WWII veteran so you get the impression that he has left the land to fight for this ‘country’ and he ended up coming back realizing that, [he was] just murdering people for no reason. You hear stories of native veterans coming back. I could see why he would not want to be chased off that land again. The idea that he plans on making the last stand there is absurd because this old man has no intentions of dying there. He plans on killing every zombie that shows up and it’s left ambiguous. To me, it’s not a last stand, it’s more like a beginning. The ending of the film is the beginning of the world and a new order where indigenous ideals are front and center. One of those ideals is that I’m not leaving my land anymore. You’re not moving me off my land with your violence and your aggression. That’s the last statement. If there’s a sequel, I think that that’s going to be the first thing we address.?

Having said this, Barnaby insists that his vision for this story is far from over and, given the chance, he?d be very excited to revisit the world and pick up where?Quantum?leaves off.

?I don’t feel like I wrapped it up at all,? he beams. ?The first version of the screenplay was 140 pages or something. There’s a so many more stories to tell in that world, centralized around the main concept of native people being immune. There is an outline of a sequence in this too where they start trying to do a blood serum on that baby. So, basically, it’s a retelling of snatching native babies so we can experiment on them. The surviving military industrial complex is visiting reserves to get these immune babies so they can make a blood serum out of it. That’s the premise of this second movie… That’s such a hard movie to make. I don’t know if I would like step up to the plate. Let’s see what happens. If that became an option, I would definitely not say no because, like I said, the idea is already there. I’ve already written down the beats. So, it’s just a matter of writing the story. Personally, I would like to see the Jeff Barnaby I am today and the progress I’ve made as a screenwriter and director versus the guy who wrote a screenplay 10-15 years ago.?

After showing the film to other Indigenous people, Barnaby is excited by their overwhelmingly positive response. Though there are some people who have found underlying issues that they find troubling, he thinks that the true horror audiences will take these supposed problems in stride and understand the true message of the film.

?[The response from Indigenous people] is always positive,? he asserts. ?I have had some negative reactions from people that I think had an agenda going into the film. I mean, there’s obviously a lot of triggers in that film. I mean, there are beats of misogyny. There’s really obvious violence. I think what makes the violence that much more disturbing is that there’s a bit of a philosophy behind it. I think when he started seeing that if you’re a kind of a reactionary person, your immediate reaction is going to be ‘Jeff Barnaby’s a misogynist’. I think, if you come in with a bit of a raw spot, this film is going to pull up at that raw spot and whether it be race relations, gender relations, whatever the case may be, it’s all in there. I think it’s in there in a way that doesn’t wrap it up with a nice bow on top. It presents it to the audience. And assumes that the audience is intelligent enough to unpack it. There’s no real beats where any of the main characters are kind of kind of like, ?Gee, I wonder why [this character] so misogynistic??

?I think horror audiences have that wherewithal to read films that are layered with subtexts. So, I think it will be good. I think you are going to get those idiots that are like comparing me to Harvey Weinstein or saying that I’m trying to enforce blood quantum laws, whatever the case may be. But I think the great overwhelming majority are going to grasp what’s behind the film and what’s being said. When you compare this to my previous work, I think there’s a narrative thought that you can follow from one piece to the other. So? if you see something in this film that’s off putting, I think it’s more because you’re choosing to focus on it rather than big picture.

For full audio of our interview with Jeff Barnaby, click here.

Blood Quantum is available on VOD now.

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