Nick Barker’s Unmade Beds Shows Unreal Lives of Real New Yorkers

Bracing his bare feet against the floor of his small, genteelly shabby West Village rental, Nicholas Barker shifted his Pilates-stretched frame in his chair. The 42-year-old Londoner was dressed as if he were planning to attend a rave later in the day. He wore a T-shirt with white stripes on the shoulders and a pair of dark parachute pants. Mod bangs and squarish tortoise-shell eyeglasses framed his angular Thin White Duke face.

The director adores dialogue, his films are crammed with it, but for 30 minutes he had been filling the room with a monologue about how he had to pony up $60,000 of his own money and distribute –himself–his latest film, Unmade Beds , because no film distributor in the United States would touch it. “I am a perplexed, confused and frustrated man when it comes to this film,” said Mr. Barker, although the light in his eyes said that part of him was enjoying the controversy. Anyway, he was comfortable enough with the fracas to have included this blurb from a publicist–”I have to tell you that this film upset me so much that I really don’t want to have anything to do with it”–on an advertising flier for the film.

To independent distributors, a film like Unmade Beds , which has no star power going for it, is a risky proposition. This helps explain why the movie opened on Aug. 7 in exactly one theater nationwide: the Screening Room in TriBeCa. Yet there is something about Mr. Barker’s documentary that has produced an unpleasant reaction, even among usually adventurous independent players. October Films co-president Bingham Ray, who saw the movie at the Venice Film Festival last year, could not recall precisely why he did not like Unmade Beds , but said, “I remember it being a very full and angry reaction. I remember walking out and I rarely walk out.”

Mr. Barker is determined that his film can become at least a cult hit, and as of the weekend of Aug. 7, he has some ammunition to back up his hunch. The Screening Room, which holds only 130 people, must have been packed over that weekend, because Henry Hershkowitz, a co-owner of the theater, told The Observer that Unmade Beds “broke a record for us” by passing the $10,000 mark at the box office, earning three times what a typical Screening Room film does in summertime.

Having riled provincial England with a series of documentaries about British taste, Mr. Barker trained his ironic point-of-view on New York’s singles scene for Unmade Beds . What resulted is a funny, discomforting and riveting look–part documentary, part scripted, art-directed feature–at two men and two women searching for their ideal partners in a city that symbolizes the pinnacle of money, beauty and status, but often requires its denizens to settle for much less, or nothing at all. As the subjects of Unmade Beds rattle ever more forlornly through the metropolis, they seem certain of one thing: that they are not complicit in their unhappiness. In their eyes, it’s the world around them that has become twisted.

Forty-year-old, 5-foot-4-inch Michael De Stefano is convinced that the “baby boomer’s handbook,” which dictates “that the man must be taller than the woman,” has hamstrung his romantic life. A 15-year veteran of the singles scene, Mr. De Stefano has consulted a dating coach and tells his blind dates, “If you take one look at me and find you want to projectile-vomit, just come over and say … good night.” That way, he says, “we both go home intact.”

Mikey Russo, a cross between Dennis Hopper and Rod Steiger, was once a ladies’ man, but at 54 he’s no longer reeling them in. That has not caused him to relax his no-“mutts” policy. Mr. Russo is as hardboiled as the unsold screenplays he writes. Giving a tour of his heavily mirrored home, he says, “This apartment says to every woman who comes here, ‘You’re here to fuck.'” New toothbrushes await those who acquiesce.

Aimee Copp says she’s “freaking out” because she’s 28 years old and not married. At 225 pounds, she has had a weight problem since she was 5 years old; she contends she’s “O.K. with it.” Her last boyfriend was a taxi driver who was into sadomasochistic roleplay. “It’s embarrassing,” says Ms. Copp. “I mean, I was dumped by a submissive.”

Finally, Brenda Monte, a self-described “Guidette” from Jersey City who steals only dog food and “expensively priced” items like shampoo and pain relievers, professes to be stymied by the effect that her blowsy-sexpot look has on men. “I don’t need dick. Dick is all around you,” says Ms. Monte, who also steals the film. “I need cash. That’s what I want from a man.”

Mr. Barker, who intersperses scenes of his characters with arty shots of the city and voyeuristic peeks inside apartment windows, said, “I’m always interested in people whose behavior is at variance with what they say.” The world of dating, singles bars and personal ads has become “a device” for his goals. He chose his subjects after his production team spent seven months interviewing more than 1,000 players in the city’s singles scene. “I’m always attracted to characters who tend to make the same mistake over and over again,” Mr. Barker said. “That’s rather like me, I tend to make the same mistake over and over again. And as a humorist, I love folly. I am a bit of a miserablist as a filmmaker.”

His background includes attendance at the prestigious Eton school, where he said, he was thrown out for a “combination of drugs and attitude”; study of social anthropology (he has a degree from London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies); work in radio drama (he directed plays for the BBC’s Radio Service of the World) and advertising stints (he has directed spots for McDonald’s and Honda and most recently did a cheeky World Cup ad for Nike called “Condolence.” Unmade Beds , neither a straight documentary nor a feature film with actors, appears to be a culmination of those influences.

Mr. Barker chooses to call his work “constructed reality.” Even documentarians shape the information presented via editing and tone, but Mr. Barker said he relies on the “art of omission. I always deprive the audience of crucial information.” What the characters do for a living is never divulged in Unmade Beds . (Ms. Monte is a director of sales and marketing at the strip club Scores, Ms. Copp is an account manager for a medical education agency and Mr. De Stefano works as a project manager for the city’s Department of Transportation. During filming, Mr. Russo was chief of security for a large corporation.)

Mr. Barker further noodled with the documentary format by whittling hours and hours of interview transcripts with his four subjects into a script “which I negotiated with them.” He said that “95 percent of the words that they utter in the film are verbatim that I’ve just edited down” and “tweaked” for “comedic potential.”

In the film, Ms. Monte decides that in exchange for a cash sum, she’ll marry a man who needs a green card. Mr. Barker said that in reality, a similar situation presented itself to Ms. Monte but that at the last minute, the wedding failed to come off. “I don’t have a problem altering the truth if it suits my purposes as long as they’re small distortions,” Mr. Barker said. Having Ms. Monte get married “was entirely in keeping with her personality. It seemed to me an acceptable lie. All of the lies in the movie, I think, are acceptable lies.”

A Documentary With a Rearranged Reality

Some of the distortions speak to Mr. Barker’s esthetic preferences. For example, in the scene where Ms. Monte is explaining her kleptomania, she holds up a can of Alpo dog food. Ms. Monte told The Observer that the brand she steals is Mighty Dog (adding that the film has put an end to her days of petty theft), but that Mr. Barker depicted her stealing Alpo because he liked the way that brand’s label looked.

Ms. Monte also claimed that she did not want to do a scene in which she disrobes in order to reveal the imperfections of her body–largely because she was worried about what her teenage daughter would think. But Mr. Barker, she said, “wore me down.” To which he replied: “I didn’t wear her down. The stumbling block was her daughter. During the middle of the shoot she freaked out and said her mother shouldn’t be doing this. I said, ‘Listen, compared to everything else your mother’s doing in the film, this is innocent.'”

Mr. Barker offered no apologies for his art-direction of the truth. And his rationale seems to have something in common with the New Journalism of the 60’s and 70’s. “I’m rearranging reality to make it look the way I saw it,” Mr. Barker said. What he does, he said, is “seduce [viewers] into a film world that feels fictional, but I don’t allow them to suspend disbelief.”

He certainly seems to be playing many of the scenes in Unmade Beds for laughs, and he said he’s observed that “married people tend to be very sanctimonious. Married people gloat as they watch this film.” But, he added, “I would argue that I never, ever pass judgment on the characters. I apply equal irony to all of them and then leave it to the viewers to decide who they want to celebrate and who they want to trash.”

Therein lies at least one reason that Unmade Beds makes people uncomfortable. Filmgoers tend to want their truth straight up. Roger & Me director Michael Moore was a documentarian-hero until it was discovered that he had played around with the sequence of events in his film. Mr. Moore was also criticized for poking fun at the working-class folk that his movie was supposed to be championing. Remember the lady who sold and skinned rabbits for food? Mr. Barker has taken similar heat. “Creepily voyeuristic, the film treats its characters like freaks,” read the Daily News ‘ review.

Yet as the seasons pass and the four characters’ fortunes do not improve, there is something a little too familiar about their misery. And in these heightened states of pain, maybe or maybe not with Mr. Barker’s string-pulling, they achieve moments of brutal clarity about love, sex and life in New York.

Mr. De Stefano tells the camera that when a man in his building died, his relatives put the contents of his apartment in the garbage. It was then that it hit him: “If I remain a ‘bachelor’–a word I despise–all that will be left of me is stuff. And since I’m an only child, strangers will be combing through my stuff.” Mr. De Stefano concludes, “Frankly, I’m afraid of dying alone.”

Mr. Russo laments about spending $197 for dinner at One if by Land, Two if by Sea on a woman he met through the personals, only to hear her tell him that “she would be embarrassed to present me to her friends because I’m not high enough in the corporate scale. Wonderful ,” said Mr. Russo. “She’s a judge. She sits on a bench every day and judges people.” Juxtapose this scene with some of Mr. Russo’s more misogynistic quotes and it’s no longer easy to sit in judgment of him.

And there is this question: Can Mr. Barker be mocking his subjects if they don’t feel mocked? “I don’t see anything mean or cruel about the movie,” said Ms. Monte, although she added, “I think Nicholas is definitely a Peeping Tom. I think he’s a pervert of some kind.” (Mr. Barker, who is married with one daughter, replied that he has been in analytical therapy for five years and that “the thing that really infuriated Brenda is that I never submitted to her sexuality.”) Said Mr. De Stefano: “I was concerned that I would come off as a whiny complainer … but much to my delight and relief and astonishment, I come off as a decent guy who has a few things to say.” Mr. Barker said that three of the four characters were “euphoric” over the finished film, once they got used “to the notion that people were both laughing at them and with them.” The director is not so sure about what Mr. Russo thinks. He was last heard from somewhere in New Mexico, but the director has not been able to locate him.

Distributors and Critics Cringed

To a city that prides itself on candor and originality, Unmade Beds might seem like a welcome antidote to a slate of summer movies that represented New York by blowing well-known bits of its skyline to hell. No such luck. While the documentary garnered good word-of-mouth and prizes on the film festival circuit (Critics Choice, Venice Film Festival), it was turned down by both the New York Film Festival and the Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors/ New Films series. “I still harbor deep, unchristian thoughts for both those institutions,” said Mr. Barker.

And despite initial interest from distribution scouts who troll the festivals in search of marketable films, the director said “we were passed on by every single independent distributor in the U.S. In the entire U.S. We started with our fancy meetings, with entertainment attorneys with Miramax and Sony, and we ended up talking to some shady one-man operations working out of broom cupboards in Los Angeles and Manhattan.… Everybody described this film as … beyond classification.” Further complicating matters was that the pay cable network Cinemax had helped produce the picture in exchange for cablecast rights, thus eliminating one potential revenue stream for any distributor.

The director has been down this road before. Two documentaries he made for the BBC– Signs of the Times , about the decorating tastes of the English, and From A to B , about Brits’ automobiles–provoked similar divided reaction. London’s Independent newspaper called Signs “socioporn.”

“I think that the distributors found the very unfamiliarity of the film unsettling,” said Mr. Barker. “But I thought that they betrayed a complete sort of schizophrenia because these people search out newness in independent filmmaking and yet when they find newness that doesn’t fit into an existing model, they’re terrified of it. As a bunch of individuals, they really are pathologically indecisive and insecure.”

He was beginning to sound like one of the subjects of Unmade Beds . Asked if he saw the parallel between his inability to secure a distributor and his subjects’ inability to get a date, he said the thought had not been lost on him. “I was talking to Michael De Stefano in a brief moment of self-pity,” Mr. Barker recounted, “and I was saying to him, ‘You have no idea what it’s like to have been turned down so many times.'”

To which Mr. De Stefano replied that, actually, he did.

Nick Barker’s Unmade Beds Shows Unreal Lives of Real New Yorkers