All art is a product of your life and experience. There’s so much in this film that feels like it’s a mood board of my cinematic influences, and literature as well. It all leads here.
Barnaby Clay is the award-winning writer/director behind The Seeding, his feature film debut, which makes its Asian Premiere at the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival (BIFAN). The Brit has previously helmed a string of short films and music videos for the likes of Take That and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs—he also happens to be Karen O’s husband and the father to their son, Django—as well as the 2016 Mick Rock documentary, SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock.
The Seeding, a microcosmic, slow-burn horror, is something decidedly darker for Clay. On a day trip in the desert to photograph a solar eclipse, an unnamed man (Scott Haze) stumbles upon a lost, panicked young boy. In helping the child, the man is led deeper into the wasteland, when, abruptly, the boy deserts him. In the cold and rainy night that follows, the man is drawn towards a distant ambient light, down a rope ladder, to a house buried at the base of a canyon. He’s relieved to encounter a mysterious woman (Kate Lyn Sheil) there who’s been living off-the-grid. After spending an awkward night with her, he wakes up to find the ladder missing. Now his only hopes of escaping the rocky jailhouse lie with the woman, or with the gang of feral boys circling above.
To take us behind-the-scenes of The Seeding in this special edition of This Course is Clay. The goal of this ongoing series of food and conversation is to keep things as transparent as possible. It’s essentially an open dialogue, in this instance at the Koryo Hotel in South Korea—with an armload of local treats in tow—where we discuss a myriad of things, including the filmmaker’s early influences, coming into fatherhood, and finding a life-long creative partner in crime in Karen O.
The Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival in South Korea runs from June 29 – July 9.
You turned 50 this year. Incidentally, this year’s Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival coincides with the city’s 50th anniversary as well. Congratulations on the milestone.
Thank you! It is a milestone.
It’s a new beginning for you as well, as it’s ushering in your narrative feature debut. The Seeding could only come at this particular point in your life, right? As you’ve previously stated, the film was born out of two deeply important parts of your life: your love of psychological horror, and your family. Life events had to occur first. Family preceded this.
Oh completely. A hundred percent.
At the same time, are you simply always looking for stories?
I am always looking for stories. I think any filmmaker, especially one who writes, generates his own stories. What initially happened is that my documentary [Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock] was very difficult to make, so I felt like I needed a simple enough story [for The Seeding] where I could do it on quite a small budget. When you’re looking for a simple story, you’re basically looking for one with two or three characters, and as minimal a location as possible. It’s almost like a play. At the same time, it’s not so easy to find that kind of story, and also to make it interesting. Obviously, what is that location, you know? So I had my sight set on finding something small and controllable, which I could do on a low budget. For years, I’ve been a big fan of Kōbō Abe’s novel, The Woman in the Dunes, and the film that was made from it. It has a great premise: a man trapped with a woman in some kind of sandpit. And that is a fantastic film already made so I didn’t want to do a remake of that because there’s no point. But as a narrative device, it was a really great place to start. And it really wasn’t until my wife [Karen O] got pregnant. When that happens, you start thinking about life’s big, primal questions so I guess that’s where it came from. Suddenly, there was this idea of procreation at the heart of the story. Also, I lost my dad about ten years ago. When he turned 80, I remember him looking at his family and he was just like, “This is what life is all about, right here around this table: family.” That was his 80-year conclusion to life. It all builds to that, a circle of love. I mean, my film isn’t about love. [laughs] But it certainly boils down to the basics of procreation. It’s about life, death, existence—these big things, in a small way.
The film is quite bleak about a man’s role in all of this. There’s an image of the man left lying on the ground, forgotten about to the point of mummification almost. We’re so disposable.
[laughs] Yeah, yeah, yeah. I came up with the idea when my wife was pregnant, but then I was doing a lot of the writing once my son was born and during his early months and years. You just realize that, especially at the very beginning, as a man, you’re pretty secondary. Once you’ve kind of passed on the seed, that’s kind of it. You’ve just gotta be there and help, and there’s very little beyond that you can do. Your power is quite limited so you do take this step away and feel a little detached in a way. You don’t want to, but there’s only so much you can do.
After completing your studies at the London International Film School, you gained traction with a short film you made and then moved into the world of music videos and commercials. As somebody who went to film school myself, at a time when I was completely enamored by music videos as an art form, I wonder if you had always intended for that, or if it was a more practical decision, to later parlay those opportunities into making a leap into features.
The goal was always film, always from the very beginning. Both of my parents were actors and involved in film or television or theatre. They kind of educated me from a very young age in film. I just had a love for it, basically. I went to art school and then I went to film school. I came out of film school thinking I’m gonna be like Orson Welles: “I’m gonna get my film out at 21, and it’s gonna be the greatest film ever.” [laughs] Of course, that didn’t happen. Reality is right in front of you: you’ve gotta pay bills, you’ve gotta live—blah, blah, blah. At the time, it was a bit of a golden age of music videos. It was the time of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer.
The golden age of the Directors Label series.
Exactly. And Chris Cunningham. They were all coming out and they were so good and so creative. I was like, “Maybe that’s a good thing to do right now.” Plus, I really love music as well. When I was in school, I was in bands and stuff like that. I just felt like it was a natural step for me, you know? I didn’t think it would be going on for as long as it did, but once you’re in it, you are forging a career in it. Before you know it, you’ve been doing it for like 10, 15 years or whatever.
I did revisit the “Zero” music video you directed for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I’d forgotten how much that had resonated with me when it first came out. As life partners, how do you and Karen manage your creative collaborations? With The Seeding, for example, she contributed music. I’d imagine that, even when you’re not working together, you’re sounding boards.
Yes, that’s right. We discuss everything. Everything, of course. She’s very supportive, and it goes both ways. When she’s doing something and talks to me about it, she values my opinion. I think we’re just the most trusted second opinion, you know? I kind of know with her if it’s not good. [laughs] So that helps. It’s not like with a lot of people where you’re unsure about something and you show it to them and they’re like, “Yeah, it’s great,” where you’re left wondering, “But is it really?” She’s very honest about it. We have always collaborated on stuff from the early music videos. We actually did a really fantastic collaboration three or four years ago when she released her record, Lux Prima, with Danger Mouse. We did a site-specific installation.
You were the creative director on that.
That’s right. That was really fun. I mean, it’s always difficult, and sometimes it’s hard for us within our relationship, but most of the time, it’s fine, you know? That was a really unusual project to do together because it was not film, it was not music—it was somewhere in-between. It was about creating an experience, which just felt really magical. We started that one lying on the floor in the living room talking about it, listening to the music. With The Seeding, she was there from the very beginning. With the early draft of the script, she was like, “Oh yeah, this is great.” She got into it. Then, inevitably, she goes through all the ups and downs of it with me. The downs are when I’m on set and I haven’t slept for weeks. She’s listening to me crying on the phone, talking about what a disaster this is. [laughs] Once the film was edited, she gave me some notes. The lullaby—and not to take away from Tristan’s [Bechet] score, which is incredible—is one of the most important musical motifs in the film. The emotional core of it is that song. That’s by Karen. Honestly, I just know that very few people can do it as good as her, creating a piece of music that’s really emotionally simple and emotionally resonant, which is what that lullaby is. So I asked her and she said, “Of course.” Then she runs off, sits in our attic, and ten minutes later, she’s done it.
And how did you arrive at Tove Lo? I mean, those are the only two tracks in the movie. I think she’s one of the best pop stars in the world. I’m unapologetically into pop, and she’s it.
Yeah, I agree. She’s fantastic. It was actually more of a financial decision/choice of convenience, which ended up working out great. In the film, there was this piece of music they were listening to that’s captured on the digital camera, back when he’s in the real world. He’s just messing around with his camera in the car and he records a little movie of his legs, basically. And in the background, it’s this song playing. It’s written in the script as a pop song, a kind of generic pop song. So in the edit with post-production, we’re sitting there trying to find a piece. For a while, I think we had a Dua Lipa song or something, which worked great, but it was just enormously expensive. We couldn’t afford it. My editor was like, “Why don’t you use some Yeah Yeah Yeahs?” and I just said no. I really wanted it to be something pop. Actually, Karen’s manager, Laura Haber, also looks after Tove Lo so I asked her about it and she was like, “Tove will totally be up for helping you out.” So it was a way of getting a really great hook in there without it breaking our very, very small bank.
Isn’t it cool that, financial decision-making aside, you will have somebody like me come along who’s totally excited that Tove Lo is featured? This is no throwaway—no way.
No, it’s cool. I like her music as well. And it was an idea that I had very early on in the writing process. I liked the idea of it being so pop because it’s this real direct contrast between where they are when they’re listening to it—in this archaic situation in the middle of nowhere, so detached from the modern world around them—and the song, which is so contemporary.
I understand that Scott [Haze] and Kate [Lyn Sheil] came in at the 11th hour just because that’s the realities of filmmaking sometimes, with false starts and whatnot. So is that where your intuition kicks into higher gear? You have an x amount of time to find replacements.
It is. I’ll tell you a funny story, which I haven’t told anybody. We were really down to the wire. We were supposed to be going off to Utah to shoot. The problem is, we had this window that was closing because we wanted to do it after the summer when tourist season had died down. It was cheaper with accommodations and everything. If we pushed it another week, we’d have to push into the next year. And in winter, it starts getting really cold. So I had to just cast the film and go. I’d interviewed Scott and one other actor, who was really good as well. I just didn’t know which one to choose. They both had done great work and they were really excited to play this role.
So you flipped a coin?
[laughs] So I get off the phone with my producer and then the casting director is like, “You’ve got 20 minutes to decide. You gotta decide.” It’s like, “Oh god!” I spoke to Karen and this is where the collaboration went: she was like, “Let’s pull some cards.” So we got the tarot deck out.
We put some tarot cards down and the other actor’s cards were basically earth. It was like, it’s gonna be good, you’re gonna enjoy it, it’s gonna be easy. You’re going to work well together, you know? With Scott, it was fire, so this is gonna be hard, but if you can get through it, you’re gonna bring the best out of each other. I was like, “Do I want the easy one or the hard one?” I went for the hard one. And Scott is hard. He’s hard because he really, really cares. He really wants to get it right. He gives everything. With Kate, it was a lot easier. I’d been talking to another actress for a long time and then we just couldn’t make it work with her dates. It was, again, kind of last minute. The agent of the other actress actually also represents Kate. They said, “Why don’t you check her out?” I was aware of her work, actually. I knew a lot of people who had worked with her. They were all like, “She’s great.” So I met with her, and she’s somebody who holds her cards pretty close. There’s something unknowable about her, which seemed quite right for this character. Her look seemed right somehow. Everything I’d seen of her, she seemed like such a great actress.
I’ve interviewed Kate and I’d made the same observations about her. I also actually met Scott when he was doing the rounds for Child of God, where he plays this violent and feral pariah. I mean, he defecates onscreen in that. He has sex with a corpse in that. There’s an echo of that in The Seeding, obviously, and this is clearly somebody who’s game. Did you watch that film?
I didn’t have enough time when I was making the decision, but I saw bits of it. They sent me clips. Throughout the shoot, he was like, “I can’t believe you haven’t seen Child of God yet. This is, like, my thing!” [laughs] One of the reasons why I went for him, other than his tarot being fire, is that—from the first moment I interviewed him on Zoom, because it was during the pandemic—I had this sense that this guy can get to the place this character goes. There’s a lot of really amazing actors out there who will be fantastic, but can they get to that extra place where they reach their primal selves? I don’t think a lot of them can, actually. But I just knew that he could. I had crew people asking me, “How come you went for Scott?” They were just trying to figure it out during the shoot. Then when they saw him in the final lap to the film when he’s in the cage, they saw the way he behaved and moved. They were like, “Oh, okay. I get it. This guy goes there. He gets to that place.”
As the leader, you’re obviously going to have questions from time to time, wondering, “Is this going to be really uncomfortable for my team? How much can I push this?” Even with someone like Scott, who’s clearly living for his performances, there are limits. I remember asking him about this, talking about Child of God. He said, “You stop when you start hurting other people. You stop when you’re putting your own life at risk. I don’t think you need to do drugs to play a drug addict. I don’t think you need to cut your own body to play a cutter. I don’t think you need to start throwing up to play a bulimic.” Did he set parameters with you?
He really didn’t. I think the parameters were just there because it was an extremely physical shoot. We’re literally in this canyon in Utah in the middle of nowhere. It’s 80 degrees during the day and 30 degrees at night. It’s just very, very intense so, automatically, you’re physically in a very difficult place, which pushes you and everybody around you, which is also kind of what I wanted. When I was searching for a location, I wanted something that would put us all through that experience, like that’s somehow gonna imprint itself on the film. After filming that scene in the cage where he was screaming, he showed up the next day on set and he had lost his voice. He had to take some steroid. I can’t remember what it was, but it was some steroid to get his voice back. His body was covered in bruises from throwing himself around that cage. So he really did push himself, but he never to me was like, “This is too far.” I mean, maybe there were limits in terms of doing some of the stunt work because he’s not great with heights. I think for him it was like, “Let’s not go up too high.” [laughs] That was definitely an issue for him, but for the most part, he didn’t present anything like that.
And maybe if he didn’t go to such lengths, he would’ve been left feeling like, “I didn’t do it right. I didn’t give it my all.” He has that air about him. He exudes that kind of commitment.
The main thing with him is—and he’s said this to me—he’s very concerned about every take. Sometimes, too much. I’m like, “Scott, trust me.” There’s a lot of trust involved in film. You have to trust the people you work with. He says, “I just want it to be real.” That’s his general mantra.
You’re working with ingredients, like Scott, that are foreign to you, at least at the outset. You’re choosing new collaborators. On the other end of that, you have somebody like Tristan, your composer, who also happens to be your cousin. There’s familiarity and maybe a shorthand with him. I understand that he was sending you music before you even started filming. That must be setting the stage for things like visual cues, tone, and atmosphere. When you first heard the music, what ideas and images were being conjured up?
I mean, I use music for writing. I also used other soundtracks as well. I remember listening to a lot of Mica Levi’s work from Under the Skin, and a few other things like this one piece of music from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. There’s this one crazy piece of music from that with folk instruments. That was a big thing. But with Tristan, we have a shared language from working together for years. We’ve known each other all our lives and we know each other’s tastes. We have similar tastes as well. I know Tristan comes at everything from a very unique viewpoint. He doesn’t take the easy road. He takes the complicated, the more unusual left-field route, which I love about him. He started giving me music when I was first writing the film and, immediately, it was the right kind of thing. I was also playing it to the actors. The aspect of the score, which he’d not done before, nor had I, was the chanting. I had some idea of what they were in my head and he would send me YouTube clips of various, weird throat chanting from around the world. It was a lot of folkloric kind of stuff. Initially, the demos he was sending me were quite weird because they were basically just his voice layered on top of each other. So it was gonna sound even better once you get the kids doing it, especially because they’re not singers. Immediately, the chorus was a bit weird and crazy.
Apart from the expected challenges of casting, I would think creating a combination of these feral boys would be a lot of fun. It’s like, what combination of the boys is most fun to look at?
Our casting director, Bess Fifer, was really responsible for that. I wanted to cast a lot more, actually, but being such a low-budget, we could really only afford our key players. The boys were from all over the States. Alex [Montaldo], who played Corvus, is from New York. Michael [Monsour], who plays Arvo, who’s actually Texan, is from Los Angeles. Vela, who’s played by Aarman [Touré], is from Utah. Thatcher [Jacobs] was from Milwaukee. Again, this was during the pandemic so it was all Zoom. I mean, we would’ve been doing this anyway because they’re so spread out. I remember the first time I did a group Zoom, it was this demented Partridge Family or something with everybody’s faces in the Zoom squares. [laughs] I’m like, “Wow. This is a pretty crazy looking gang here.” It was exciting to see that because they just look so good together. I was like, “This is cool, man.” Then once they got in their wardrobe, it’s just next level.
If there’s one consistent thing that’s said about making movies, it’s that it’s difficult, no matter what level you’re working at or how many times you’ve done it. You’ve previously spoken about having wanted to find the right producer, an indefatigable person. You had the foresight to know how difficult this would be to pull this off. Who did you end up finding?
Brian Etting. I was meeting with producers in Los Angeles for two or three months. I was just asking everybody I knew in the film business. But I was looking for somebody specific. Somebody who had experience on this level: somebody who had made films with budgets somewhere between $500,000 and $3 million, let’s say. Somebody who maybe still has something to prove as well. Somebody who had a hunger to do something. It was also just about the right kind of personality: somebody I jelled with. I met a bunch of people and they’re all great, but nobody seemed right in terms of ticking all the boxes. Then I met Brian. He’s done a few films, but he’s primarily a producer on commercials so he kind of comes from a similar world as I do. He knows what he’s doing, he has great knowledge, and he is just a cool guy. The other thing is, I remember it was around the time Mandy had just come out, and I really liked it. It was, for me, a great litmus test because that was such its own movie. There are people who love it, or just don’t get it. So I was like, “Do you like Mandy?” He’s like, “Oh yeah, I loved it.” I was like, “Okay, great.” [laughs]
That’s also from XYZ [Films, which picked up The Seeding for its New Visions roster].
Exactly. I’d been aware of them for a while. The film was initially gonna be produced by another company that put a slate together and it was gonna be made at a higher budget. Then it fell apart and that was the end of it. I spent six months to a year just regrouping, trying to figure out how we’re gonna do it. I remember calling Brian when I was actually in the desert at Joshua Tree: “Look, do you think we could make this for like a million dollars?” Because, initially, it was like a $3 million movie. He’s like, “Yeah, why not?” So we finished the film and we were editing, but we’d basically spent everything. We still had two days of reshoots. We needed to do pickups and we just didn’t have any money left. That’s when I went back to XYZ, who’d read the script before and they were interested in it. I said, “The film is pretty much done. Here’s a trailer. Do you wanna get involved and finish this off with us?” That’s how they got involved.
Now here we are. I went back and watched your Book Friendzy! interview from 12 years ago.
Oh wow! You did?
I love how off-the-cuff that is, and seeing you in your personal space surrounded by so many books: Cronenberg on Cronenberg, Midnight Movies, Shocking Cinema. That was you at your more impressionable, probably, and that was your early days as a transplant in New York City. Looking back on those days, do you see some of that guy in the film you’ve just made?
Of course. I think all art is a product of your life and experience. It all leads you to that thing. It’s interesting because I spent years writing scripts and not getting them made for one reason or another. You look back on all those projects that you didn’t make and you’re kind of like, “Well, this was the one I was supposed to make, and that one wasn’t.” Yeah, there’s so much in this film that feels like it’s a mood board of my cinematic influences, and literature as well. It all leads here.
Where does it go from here?
I have something I’m working on, actually. Well, I was working on it. When I told you that we had lost that initial funding for The Seeding—during that pandemic year of 2020 with the crazy lockdowns—I was still calling people up, trying to get financing. It was very depressing. And I kind of knew that I couldn’t do anything more on The Seeding script because it was done as far as the script was concerned, even though it changed when we went into shooting it. There was nothing I could add to it at that point. So I just had time on my hands. I started writing something new and got pretty far into it. I wrote a whole treatment and fleshed it out and then started writing the script. I got pretty excited about it, but I put it to one side when we started on The Seeding. I just picked that one back up now and I’m working on it again. It’s still in the horror world, but it’s different. You just brought up Cronenberg—it’s more in that kind of body horror. I won’t always make horror, but I do love horror. I grew up with it. I grew up going to film festivals like BIFAN.
You’re unlikely to find audiences more passionate than genre fans. It’s just something else.
Oh completely. It’s so nice when you see that. One of the people who works at BIFAN asked me today: “Are you gonna go to your screening tonight?” I think I will, actually, because I’ve only seen the film with an audience at Tribeca. This would be the first time I’m seeing it with a specifically genre audience, and I don’t know what the audiences are like in Korea as well.
I once asked a filmmaker at BIFAN what they thought was different about Korean audiences. He thought they were very quiet in the screening, but in the questions that were being asked after the movie, he could tell how invested they were in the film, breaking it apart in an almost forensic way. With that, love it or hate it, you’re gonna get their undivided attention.
That makes perfect sense. Yeah, I’m really curious to see how The Seeding plays with Korean audiences. I’m a huge fan of Korean cinema. My jaw is constantly on the floor when I’m watching Korean movies. It’s always just so insane. It’s like they really just go for it, man. No holds barred. They have that mixture of insane brutality, wrapped up in humor and high melodrama, which is just amazing. I love it. I feel like there’s some sadism in there, too, which is in The Seeding as well.
By the way, I hadn’t realized Karen also studied film at NYU. Filmmaking seemed to be her trajectory, but the band obviously took off, and the decision was made. So you two are connecting, not only through a mutual appreciation of music, but for film as well.
Totally. Completely. I mean, she still harbors ambitions to make a film of her own. Hopefully, she will, because she’s got such a strong voice. I’ve seen some of the shorts she made back when she was at film school. They’re really great. They’re totally wild and pretty out there. They’re so uniquely her. So I hope she gets to do it. Although, I think she probably gets second thoughts when she watches me going through all the pain that I go through in making something. [laughs] She’s like, “You know, this kind of makes making a record look really easy sometimes.”
Do you share similar tastes in film?
We do have similar tastes. She likes horror movies as well. It’s great. We sit and watch stuff together and get very excited about them. I recently showed her Society by Brian Yuzna. She’d never seen it. She loved it so much. It’s so twisted and weird and so 80s. It’s kind of genius.
It’s a great feeling to discover the classics. I watched The Doom Generation for the first time at BIFAN the other day—on the big screen. It came out long ago, but for me, it’s entirely new.
Karen and I watched The Doom Generation two weeks ago when it came on Criterion. It’s great, man. I’d never seen it before as well, I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just very American and didn’t quite hit it over in England. Growing up, I missed Gregg Araki’s stuff. It’s uniquely him as well.