“I am an ‘accidental filmmaker,'” says director Steven C. Barber. “It never occurred to me to produce, create and direct a film. I had been a marketing executive with a large firm and we were bought out by a large hedge fund. The new CEO and I were like oil and water and I was given a nice severance and shown to the door. It was suggested to me that I give documentary filmmaking a shot and with that, I went out and bought $20,000 worth of equipment and started shooting everything and anything.”
Now this accidental moviemaker has made his debut with Return to Tarawa, a documentary narrated by Ed Harris detailing WWII veteran Leon Cooper and his trip to the site of the Battle of Tarawa on the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific Ocean. While there, not only did Cooper find the battle site littered with garbage, but he also uncovered hard evidence that the remains of deceased U.S. soldiers are not being properly reclaimed or protected. The film is now available to stream for free on Hulu and SnagFilms. Here, Barber speaks to MM about his debut film and how moviemakers can properly leverage the Internet for exposure and cold, hard cash.
Elissa Suh (MM): Firstly, this movie has created quite a stir, and has even spurred a bit of movement in the United States government. Can you please give us an explanation of the bill currently being discussed and an update on where everything currently stands?
Steven Barber (SB):The bill is Amendment H.R. 2647, as reported offered by congressman Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, and regards the recovery of the remains of members of the armed forces who were killed during World War II in the battle of Tarawa Atoll.
Basically, the language is direct and quite specific, and encourages the State Department of Defense to review and research and pursue new efforts and to conduct field studies and to undertake all feasible efforts to recover, identify and return remains of members of the Armed Forces from Tarawa.
MM: The story of Leon Cooper is an extraordinary and obscure one. How did you end up meeting Leon Cooper and learning of Tarawa’s conditions?
SB: I met Leon Cooper two years ago at the UCLA Festival of Books. I had not spoken to anyone in an hour and there were 50,000 people there, but for some reason I was drawn to Leon. We began a dialogue and I noticed he had a article from the L.A. Times on his desk and I just caught the word “Tarawa.” Ten years earlier I had interviewed the late, great actor Eddie Albert, and Eddie spent an hour telling me about the Battle of Tarawa in 1943. Eddie was one of the heroes of Tarawa, dragging Marines out of the Lagoon; 1,113 Marines were killed in 76 hours and over 5000 Imperial Japanese were killed as well! Leon had shared with me that Tarawa’s present state was that of beaches of garbage where the Marines were killed; in his words, “hallowed ground.”
MM: Although Return to Tarawa is a small-budget documentary, it does contain a big name actor. Was it difficult enlisting Ed Harris to narrate the film?
SB: Ed Harris came on-board the project after a lunch we all had together in Malibu. One of Leon’s associates, who is a very accomplished screenwriter, put in a call to Ed and asked him if he would meet with Leon and myself. The lunch went extremely well and Ed signed on with no hesitation. Leon is quite a compelling character as the documentary will show.
MM: Why did you decide to put the entire film on Hulu and SnagFilms for free? What are your feelings on new media sites like this and their impact on independent moviemakers?
SB: That is not exactly the case. Return to Tarawa had one of highest debuts on Discovery’s Military Channel of any documentary they had ever shown. I was paid a very solid and fair fee for North American TV rights and I retained the international TV rights and world wide DVD rights. Hulu and SnagFilms both have a revenue share model that is very fair. In fact, the more you market your own film and the more people that click onto it, the more you get paid.
However, I never made Return to Tarawa to put money in my pocket. I did it because I felt compelled to help Leon Cooper tell this forgotten story and, in my heart, I felt as if it was divinely sent to me. I still think about the day I just happened to be riding my mountain bike in west Los Angeles in 1998 and there was Eddie Albert, age 95, on my path. That was truly a magical moment and then to run into Leon Cooper—who also had been at the Battle of Tarawa—10 years later… well, it seemed much more than a coincidence.
Also, I have a few other projects that I am raising money for and Hulu and SnagFilms are amazing marketing opportunities. The reason Congress and the United States Senate are involved is the light speed of which I sent my film to them. One click, and there is my film on your computer. No FedEx, no mail, no one throwing it away, no DVDs to get scratched. Also, sending an e-mail to a potential investor in future films and with one click having your art play out in front of them… well, that’s as close to “magic” as I have ever seen!
MM: What’s next for the movie and the causes for which you now find yourself and Mr. Cooper fighting?
SB: I am currently looking for a world wide DVD distributor, and I am quite confident I will find one. This film is too good and with Ed Harris at the helm… well, how fortunate am I to have this be my first film. Also, we are just getting started with Congress and want to pursue that all the way to the White House and back to Tarawa and bring these men home. I made my way into the White House last year and actually yelled at President Bush, and he just gave me a goofy look and kept walking. The Secret Service were none to pleased. But, I figured I am six feet from the leader of the free world; I better say something!
MM: How has your experience with this movie changed your views on moviemaking in general?
SB: As far as changing my views, I knew very little about filmmaking, so I had no preconceived notions. I had done some acting work and had been on quite a few movie sets. I watched and learned what I could from those days, but never thought that I was going to be able to utilize what I had picked up. What I have learned the most is that a great editor is the key to any film. He or she can make or break the story!