If the first day of shooting on his first feature “Tears of God” was any indication, let no one ever say Robert Hillyer Barnett pushes an audience to more uncomfortable places than he’s willing to push himself or his cast. That’s why the filmmaker could be found earlier this month asking his lead actor Samuel T. Herring to go shirtless to film a scene in a heatless, abandoned movie theater as a blizzard raged on outside.
“We almost killed Sam,” says Barnett, who needed the FX-heavy scene with Herring before the Future Islands singer went out on tour. “He brought a kind of manic and theatrical fury rarely if ever shown in American indie cinema.”
And Barnett hasn’t even really started. Nor, as the filmmaker is quick to note, can he really without the help of Kickstarter, where he is currently raising funds before a January 29th deadline to begin production in earnest on the horror film in February. If he’s successful, it will be the culmination of two-and-a-half years of hard work on the part of Barnett and his co-writer Diamondo Proimos, who met at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and after discovering their sensibilities meshed — “While I find importance in grand themes, Diamando finds it in the small or strange, overlooked moments,” says Barnett — the two started work on a feature set in Greece.
“Obviously, that was a massive undertaking, so we decided to shoot a short film for no budget in the mountains of North Carolina as a way of experimenting with narrative,” says Barnett. That short, “Holy God Holy Mighty Holy Immortal Have Mercy Upon Us,” an evocative, meditative slice of existential dread about a woman who finds her connection to the dead tangible in the days after her father dies, found an audience on Kentucker Audley’s NoBudge.com and led Barnett and Proimos further down the path of making a full-length feature in the vein of European horror films of the 1970s and ’80s.
“The short gave me confidence to go all the way with this film,” Barnett says of “Tears of God.” “It taught me that there is an audience for films that don’t exist in the dramatic entertainment framework that dominates indie film, and that to make a film worthy for this audience you can’t hover halfway between weird and familiar – you have to fully leave anything that feels comfortable if you ask people to forfeit an hour and so of their life to watch it. I like to imagine ‘Tears of God’ picks up on the tone of the last shot of the short film and goes insane with it.”
To properly convey that madness, Barnett found a willing partner in Kate Lyn Sheil, whom he bonded with after the New York premiere of “Sun Don’t Shine” when the actress told him that Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession” had been an influence for her character, as it happens to be for “Tears of God” in its exploration of an age when beliefs are challenged and potentially reinforced by the creep of mortality. Sheil will be surrounded by an impressive cast including Herring, who will be making his film debut after Barnett saw him perform with Future Islands and though he might make an ideal “impassioned ergot-addicted preacher,” “Dead Man’s Burden” star Barlow Jacobs and Kira Pearson, who caught the director’s attention in the short “The Mud.” Despite the film’s subject matter, it’s this aspect of the production Barnett finds unreal.
“Having a dream cast, it feels really surreal,” says Barnett.
With the help of the crowd, that’s a feeling that audiences will be able to share in later this year.