Mike Barker

This first appeared in the Sunday Independent in July 2005

When Mike Barker, a married Englishman, got caught with gorgeous American starlet Scarlett Johansson in his arms on a sun kissed Italian beach it was a tabloid front page made in heaven. The two were ostensibly ‘just good friends’ – he was directing her in ‘A Good Woman’, an updated version of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’.

But try telling that to the Daily Mail’s vigilant readers.

‘It was hilarious’ Mike tells me. ‘She just said she was tired and asked me to carry her. And the next thing we know it’s on the front page.’ So did the wife of the up-and-coming director buy this somewhat threadbare explanation? ‘She works in the film industry too, so she knows how these things go. Actually she was rather chuffed that anyone believed for a second that her old fella could pull someone like Scarlett,’ he laughs.

In fact far from being a personal disaster this quasi-scandal was just the thing Yorkshire-born Mike and his (relatively) low budget independent film needed. For one thing it prompted him to lose weight. Next to the elfin Scarlett he felt like some huge boned clod and every minute of his thirty-nine years. ‘My friends were ringing up and saying things like ‘Mike, who is that nine year old child in your arms? And I had to say ‘well that’s an actual size Scarlett Johansson. It’s just because I’m so bloody fat. I’ve lost two stones since then,’ he adds proudly.

For another it was just the promotional fillip that ‘A Good Woman’ needed. While they were filming in Amalfi on the Italian Riviera ‘Lost in Translation’ came out to much fanfare. Suddenly Johansson was suddenly one of the biggest stars in the world. Everyone wanted a piece of her and it seemed increasingly unlikely that she would be onset a second longer than contractually necessary. Nor did it seem probable that she doing many interviews on Mike’s behalf once the film came out (release dates have had to be staggered because the film is not being backed by a studio). And so the supposedly revelatory photograph was a sensational reminder that he was, almost literally, sitting on the hottest property in Hollywood.

But while he is rightly hoping that the newly installed lights around Johansson’s name shine on his latest project, Barker assures me that nobody took advantage of the (then) eighteen-year-old ingénue. ‘There was one guy who was fairly high up in the crew’ he tells me. He went back to her room with her one night (Eagar not to be seen as the precious Hollywood diva, Johansson had moved from the palatial five star hotel she had originally demanded to a little local chalet, known to everyone onset as ‘the sh*t shed’) and she couldn’t get rid of him. I don’t think anything happened but there was a string of messages on my phone the next morning to tell me Scarlett had ‘an issue’, she wanted to speak to me, and it may affect filming. When I spoke to her she told me she had a serious problem with that guy and I told her she’d never have to see him again. So we’re in the middle of filming with her and suddenly I see him waving and calling to me and going ‘Cooeee Mike!’ So I jumped up off my chair and ran over to him and grabbed him gently against the wall. The next day I got a call from her agents in America saying ‘Hey Mike we were pretty impressed. We heard you beat that guy up pretty bad.’ And I was like ‘Oh sure, I’d do (italics) anything (close italics) for Scarlett.’

After hacking his way into directing via stints as a lowly crew member on music videos and an award Barker won for a self-financed short film he went on to work with Rupert Everett and Renee Zellwegger, albeit, like Johansson, before she became A-List. As he became more prolific the tension between uptight Hollywood bigwigs and the lower key, lower budget English film industry was something that struck him. ‘Unlike France or Germany we (the English) don’t have our own language which automatically marks us out as different, so our films constantly lean towards the other common language territories, predominantly America.’

The shark-like instincts of Hollywood agents were also new to Barker. He remembers sitting at lunch opposite one well-known starlet who smiled sweetly while her agent ripped him to shreds on the phone. ‘When he was finished she just said ‘oh ignore him!’ But it’s not just how they go on’, he tells me. ‘We don’t live like they live. You might travel from your little dingy flat to meet Helen Hunt. (Who also stars in ‘A Good Woman’) The money they earn is huge. Then you fly back first class from some glamorous film shoot and then when you get to Heathrow you’re like ‘oh now we have to get the tube.’’

While he is happy to have Renee, Scarlett and Helen on his CV, Barker’s appetite for A-List actors seems to be limited. ‘A lot of American Actresses and actors think about how they’re perceived as a personality even while they are playing the role. Jack Nicholson – to take one example – can rewrite his own dialogue to ‘Jack Nicholson it up’ a bit. The likes of him or Tom Cruise have a persona, which is their most valuable asset. So in every role they play they have to bring an element of that to bear. When you work with these kinds of actors that is the most difficult thing. Thankfully I didn’t have that with Scarlett or Helen.’

With no red carpet to entice them with Barker has had to nag both leading ladies into promoting the film (‘they’re very busy’ he diplomatically adds) but is hopeful that once the film comes out in America this autumn they will once again row in behind it. ‘Ah no, Helen and Scarlett have been great,’ he tells me. ‘Two wonderful performances and forcing me to lose two stones, you don’t get much better than that,’ he adds chirpily, before growling under his breath, ‘Damn Paparazzi!’

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~ by Donal Lynch on January 21, 2008.

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