Interview With the Filmmaker: Dani Barker and Follow Her

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to review Follow Her for Popcorn Frights, and needless to say, it is one of my personal top three favorite festival films of the year. I recently had the wonderful opportunity to sit down with the writer and lead actor of the film Dani Barker. We talk about filming everything from Dani’s early days freelancing wild jobs on Craigslist, filming the spicier scenes of Follow Her, and even working with one of my favorite actors of all time Mark Moses! I am very appreciative of the time Dani set aside to talk with us, and there are tons of great lessons in filmmaking from Dani. Sit back, relax, and enjoy our talk with Dani Barker!

Jess cries when she realizes there is no escaping Tom

Brendan Jesus: Thank you for taking the time to sit down and chat with us, I know you’re running the circuit, and I appreciate your time. I’ve noticed tons of great press about Follow Her, but before we get there I want to talk inspiration. Was there a specific horror film, or film in general, that got you interested in wanting to make films?

Dani Barker: There are a lot of influences in Follow Her. Hitchcock is a big one, that’s why we reference him in the movie, multiple times. I’m really inspired by movies like Don’t Breathe and 10 Cloverfield Lane; films that are primarily psychological thrillers, set in one location. In those films the performances are usually so good you don’t need to move to other locations or introduce tons of characters. 10 Cloverfield Lane is definitely one of my favorites in terms of cast size and not knowing whether John Goodman’s character is the villain or not. I definitely took some influence from that.

BJ: You can definitely see some of that in Luke Cook’s performance. He has a bit of Mark Duplass-ness about him. He has that rich pretty boy vibe, where you’re either a Patrick Bateman or not. I really appreciate how you wrote that character. Did the idea for Follow Her spawn from Starvival?

Dani Barker: No, it actually didn’t. It’s funny because the whole Starvival aspect of it didn’t come in until much later. So the catalyst for this was writing something in one location that can be shot for cheap with one or two characters. I had been listening to a podcast at the time when I was living in New York and was gearing up to start bringing in finances for a completely separate project called The Quick Fix. In this podcast, they had said, “Go make another film first before you make your baby project, go make all your mistakes on that film so that you are ready when you get to the film you really want to make.” That was the impetus for Follow Her. It was like okay, how do we write something that is attainable to shoot, raise financing on, and won’t require a big cast/multiple settings? The whole social media element didn’t come in until maybe three or four months after writing the first draft. The second and third draft is where that really started to come around as I was trying to work on my character Jess Peters and her backstory.

BJ: Out of curiosity, where did the idea for Starvival come from? When I was doing my research I stumbled upon that and couldn’t help but think how brilliant it is.

Dani Barker: I did feel it was ahead of its time. I started doing that around 2010. I had been living off of Craigslist jobs for years in Toronto going from job to job to job, having no stable income and not sure when my next job would be. As most of us starving artists know! There was an ad for 50 dollars to get ticked for an hour and that was the one. That is where the idea [of Starvival] evolved. It was in the film and TV section, which is where I would usually do the majority of my scouting. Because it was in that section I just kept thinking it was so bizarre to stumble upon that particular job. My curiosity got the best of me. From there I realized at that time no one was really doing a show about Craigslist. Then there was that tickling documentary that came out years later, I can’t even tell you how many people sent that to me.

BJ: I don’t know how deep into YouTube culture you are, but Starvival was so incredibly ahead of its time. Now every content creator is going out and doing a shittier version of your idea.

Dani Barker: We did the rounds. I structured the show like a TV series. There’s an introduction to what it is, introducing the hidden cameras, talking about how I was trying to make money. You know we did the rounds of pitching it in Canada, but it was a bit too edgy for Canada at that time. It did end up getting picked up initially by VH1, and then TBS bought the rights to it. That’s how I ended up in New York.

BJ: How did you find moving to New York, as someone from Canada?

Dani Barker: I fell so hard for New York, completely head over heels. It took me a bit, but once I was deep into the show I was like, “I’m never leaving this city.” Unfortunately, my Visa expired and that made me leave.

Jess and Tom have an intimate moment when he grabs her face

BJ: Was Follow Her filmed during COVID?

Dani Barker: It was actually filmed before COVID. We were lucky enough to wrap production right when COVID took off, which is also when I moved back to Vancouver.

BJ: In the most complimentary way, it feels like a pandemic film due to the majority of one location with two actors though it looks better than most pandemic films. On that note, I want to skip ahead a question. There are a few people I’m curious about how you got on board. First is Luke Geissbuhler.

Dani Barker: Luke came on because Sylvia [Caminer] had worked with him on previous projects. He actually shot one of Sylvian’s recent short films.

BJ: The next one was Sylvia Camnier.

Dani Barker: I connected with Sylvia through a bit of a New York independent film legend John Gallagher. He was around for so many years in the industry. He, unfortunately, passed away during COVID. I never even got to meet him in person. Which is crazy because he was the first champion of the movie, he was one of the nicest guys I ever met. I talked with him many times over the phone, and I feel like I know him. John initially came on because he wanted to direct it, at that point, I was super gung-ho because I wanted to shoot it for 100k and in six weeks, but he was busy filming another project at that time. He introduced me to Sylvia who had produced a bunch of films with him.

BJ: Finally, you have one of my all-time favorite actors in this film Mark Moses.

Dani Barker: Mark I think was through Judy Henderson. Judy was our casting director. She may have been the one who recommended Mark. At that point, we put an offer out.

BJ: How was it working with him?

Dani Barker: Oh it was amazing, I love Mark.

BJ: Is he as nice as I hope he is?

Dani Barker: He is so nice! Plus he is a very pro-independent filmmaker. He has a lot of respect for people who have gone out, written a screenplay, and got it produced. It’s nice to hear from someone who is established like he is to feel that appreciation and respect.

BJ: Follow Her looks and feels like something a Utopia Films of A24 would put their name behind, there is that independent feel to it but it feels studio worthy. As a whole, the film feels very authentic, and having someone like Mark in it adds a level of authenticity.

Dani Barker: Yes, it has that credibility to it. For me, as a screenwriter, it’s easy to fall into the clichés of an unsupportive father. Mark was really good at not falling into that. There is a gentleness to his character, while still being able to make jokes and find the harshness when he needs to. That’s a hard balance to find as an actor, and I’m extra appreciative of him.

BJ: When I was watching Follow Her there were two timelines I was trying to wrap my head around. Is this film a dystopian alternate timeline, or does this take place in our world today?

Dani Barker: Oh it is definitely our world today. That’s why we brought the livestream aspect. Initially, I had taken the idea of Starvival to have the hidden cam stuff, because I know that world, and basically upgraded that concept into livestreaming because that is way more current and modern.

BJ: I feel like you have created the ultimate story. It puts the main character in the position to create their story. Plus the online collective thing is very interesting. Follow Her feels like it could be a successful one-off where you can easily move on to your next project, or an anthology series could somewhat spawn from this. Do you plan on going forward in the Follow Her universe, or do you plan on moving on?

Dani Barker: I have been moving onto the baby project, which is funny because I lost some interest in it during Follow Her. I fell more in love with Follow Her. I have picked it back up more recently and finding that passion for it again. In terms of the Follow Her sequel or trilogy there are a lot of ideas in play. I’ve written half a feature leaving the second half open-ended. That feature could fall into a sequel or be a stand-alone. As I get The Quick Fix moving I will also be pitching a Follow Her sequel. I also want to wait and see what happens with Follow Her. Seeing where it lands, and the potential success it could have would help with bringing in finances for a potential sequel.

BJ: It’s still in the festival circuit right?

Dani Barker: We’re gearing up for Woodstock at the end of the month, which is where we shot the movie.

BJ: That’s upstate New York right?

Dani Barker: Yep, that’s upstate. That is going to be a really fun festival. After Woodstock we have Nashville, Heartland, also a bunch of us are attending [REDACTED]. After [REDACTED] we will be in Austin, that one is a big deal for us. Then we’re doing A Night of Horror in Australia, opening night for that one. There’s a lot going on!

BJ: Are you aiming for VOD or physical release? Or a mixture of both?

Dani Barker: Definitely both. We want to do a theatrical run still, so we’re figuring out the details on that. There’s a minimum amount of screens you need to play, so there has to be some money for that. Plus we have XYZ Films and UTA repping the project. I know we’re in good hands, we just have to be patient.

BJ: I keep equating Follow Her to Starvival, but with Starvival you wrote, directed, and starred in it. With Follow Her was there a specific reason you wanted someone else to direct? Was it to focus on character work?

Dani Barker: For the longest time I have created art as a platform for myself to act. Because I had taken a break from the industry, I used this project as a merger to come back into the industry. I didn’t want to put the pressure on myself to direct this, because I have never directed a feature. I didn’t really entertain the idea of directing at all. I knew there were so many people out there who could do it, and I could learn from that.

BJ: There is a certain amount of your life experiences in Jess Peters. With exception to the opening ideas of the film, was there a lot of you in this character?

Dani Barker: She was an interesting character to tap into. There was a mixture of my old self, and the bravery I used to have. It was so ballsy to take those Craigslist jobs, I had very little fear! Now I could not do that. I don’t have that same desire to put myself out there like that. I had so much energy, it’s really interesting to reflect on that. I was definitely safe about it though, I would have people go with me so they knew I was safe. Finding that bravery in the character of Jess, oh and she’s very tech savvy, way more than I am. Plus I tapped into her naivety. Maybe I had that in the past, but it was a blend of refinding that bravery but mixing in the naivety. It was tricky to find that combination.

BJ: Follow Her is very much an erotic thriller. For the, eh, spicier scenes, were those beat for beat planned out? Or was there an improvisational nature to them?

Dani Barker: We stuck to the script in terms of structure for every scene, there is a specific beginning, middle, and end to each scene. Luke Cook is a brilliant improviser. He brought a lot of his own improv that I was able to play off of, it kept me on my toes. That helped significantly as an actor, it helped me be present. He also really enhanced the comedy of the script with his improvs. At the end, though it always came back to the script.

Tom shines a red light on Jess as he attempts to get her succumb to his whims

BJ: Random side question, with film festivals and COVID, how do you feel about the virtual aspects of festivals or the hybrid festivals?

Dani Barker: That’s a good question. I’m learning as we go. I think it’s tricky for filmmaker to play virtually. The biggest benefit of in-person is getting to be there to represent your project, and getting to meet the festival heads as well as other filmmakers. You get to learn about their distribution tactics, their sales agents, their plans for streaming, or other projects. That’s a good way to find people to collaborate with. When it plays virtually there is less of that opportunity to connect. That’s also a reason we decided to wait for our festival run. Also fests weren’t announcing being virtual from the beginning, but as the dates got closes they were starting to turn virtual. I think we made the right decision in waiting. Even now though, we’re still posed with other festivals for a straight virtual run.

BJ: It’s interesting to hear how different filmmakers have different thoughts on it.

Dani Barker: I also don’t know what the right answer is. I mean just to have eyes on it could be great, but it’s a tough call to make.

BJ: Back to Follow Her. In the more sexual scenes, in both the beginning and the middle, there has to be a lot of understanding between the actors. Would you two sit down and discuss boundaries and what you’re both expecting for the scene work? Did you have personal prep for these scenes?

Dani Barker: I couldn’t speak to Luke’s prep, but I was taught in acting classes to have these conversations with your scene partner and have your boundaries out there. You will shake hands and hold hands as you go through your pact. I was kind of nervous because we started day one with the bedroom scene! That was not intentional. We were supposed to do the park scene, but the weather was not cooperating. So that was the only other scene we could set up for without loosing a whole day. We made our pact pretty quickly! Our pact was us saying you can touch me here and here, I’m not comfortable being touched here, you know? You can slap me in the face, or my body, but don’t punch me.

BJ: I hate when films feel unsafe. I mean I was worried for your character the whole time, but at no point did this film feel unsafe. I found comfort knowing the film was made in a controlled environment. I respect the feeling you were able to give me for my viewing experience.

Dani Barker: We really tried to create as safe a set as possible.

BJ: The first time Follow Her played in person, how did you find the audience reaction?

Dani Barker: We did a cast and crew screening in New York, which was super fun. Our first live audience was in Sana Porto in Portugal. It was a blast! The theatre was pretty full, and there was a great audience response.

BJ: Any last thoughts you would like to share about Follow Her?

Dani Barker: It was just a very collaborative project. In terms of the script, it was work shopped and we had tons of feedback. Even our editor Alex Gans was fabulous in contributing ideas to the ending. Also Sylvia is brilliant when it comes to work shopping something. And Preston Witt was really helpful with the story, he worked more as a script consultant. The whole project was just really collaborative. It’s the beautiful thing about filmmaking, if you can stay really open through the whole process there is more of a chance you’ll create something really cool.

BJ: You have all created something amazing. It is in my top three favorite festival films of the year. I feel like seeing something like this on the big screen would enhance the experience tenfold. Especially in a midnight movie setting. My final question, do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers, or people who want to get jobs on Craigslist?

Dani Barker: Just don’t overthink things. That can really hold a project up. There’s a flow as an artist that you can fall into, and that’s the best state. When you fall into overthinking it can stall things. You cannot lose steam. You also need to be very deliberate in who you consult with. It’s like the term wet blanket. There are people who can stall progress, or be too cynical and jaded. That can hurt and take you down the wrong direction. You need to find the right people to work with.

I just want to extend my thanks again to Dani Barker for taking the time out of her day to talk with us and share her stories about Follow Her. If you get the chance I highly recommend the film, it is a blast! Keep your eyes peeled for a theatrical run, a possible VOD release, and hopefully a physical release!

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Written by Brendan Jesus

I am an award-winning horror screenwriter, rotting away in New Jersey.

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