By Elia Esparza (Latin Heat)
When it comes to network series crème like CBS’s CSI:NY; NCIS; The Mentalist; and NBC’s Law & Order SVU, In Treatment (HBO),Lights Out (FX) one of Hollywood’s best kept secret has been conspicuously calling the shots from the director’s chair. If you are a fan of these major hits as well as many other shows likeLaw & Order: CI; Numb3rs; Lights Out; The Event, and Lifetime’s new hit series Against the Wall, then you may have noticed the talent of director and executive producer, Norberto Barba.
Piercing through the typically dismal stats of Latinos working in television, Barba has broken the mainstream TV nut by executive producing Law and Order: Criminal Intent, and now, on NBC’s new series Grimm. He has directed close to 71 one-hour TV episodes dramas and counting. Now that is some track record, by any standards, and certainly for this brilliant Latino and Army Special Forces Vet who was raised in the Bronx.
He is in rare company with only a few other Latinos executive producers, e.g., Roberto Orci (Fringe), Rene Echeverria (Terra Nova), Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment), and in the directing realm beginning with a good friend, Felix Alcala (Criminal Minds,The Good Wife, Blue Bloods). They are the few who are working with shows that are ratings bonanzas for their networks – coincidence, hmm?
With over a decade of working on critically acclaimed TV shows and currently, the highly anticipated NBC television network series Grimm premiering in October, we sat down with director and executive producer, Norberto Barba, to collect some clues beginning his short film Chavez Ravine and Blue Tiger (first feature) to Grimm and his providential life.
Latin Heat: Grimm is a fantasy/mystery/crime drama series: what was it about the story premise that drew you to project?
Norberto Barba: I was interested in fashioning these iconic stories in a modern setting wrapped within the well-established form of the police procedural. I was also drawn by the very creative people involved in the show.
LH: Was there anything from your childhood that makes a show like Grimm such a delectable premise for you?
NB: My father was a huge science-fiction fan. We would gather around the TV to watch shows like Twilight Zone and Star Trek.
LH: How did you ramp up for this brand new TV series?
NB: I prepared by studying films like The Orphanage and The Others from Spain, and also other Gothic classic horror films. I came onto Grimm after the pilot was made as executive producer for the entire series oversee all aspects of productions. In addition, I directed its first episode after the pilot and will direct episode 13. If picked up, I will direct episode 22 (the finale). Again, as executive producer, I oversee every production detail throughout series. We shoot in Portland, Oregon and we will premiere on NBC, Friday, October 28th.
LH: Do you think there is a difference between how a woman might direct fantasy/mystery genres over men?
NB: I believe that every director, male or female, brings his/her own sensibility with them.
LH: You served in a psychological operations unit of the U.S. Army Special Forces: is this where you draw some of your directing instincts in your crime, homicide-suspense episodes that you’ve directed for shows like CSI, NCSI, etc.?
NB: Not really. The procedural shows that I have directed came more from having a very New York, streetwise sensibility. I think some of my military background comes across through the deliberate approach that police procedural needs.
LH: What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of TV directing and producing?
NB: It’s amazing that we can make a little movie in 8 days. However, today’s standard for television is very high. Episodic directing is about clever prioritizing. We don’t have the time to make everything a masterpiece, but we sure try. Those scenes that are transitionary, or, say purely expositional, we may choose to spend less time with so that we can focus on more emotional, character-driven moments or big set pieces.
LH: Tell us how your first TV directing gig came about.
NB: Rob Cohen and Rafaella De Laurentiis saw my first feature film, Blue Tiger, and hired me to direct an episode of Vanishing Son, guest starring Jaqueline Obradors.
LH: What was your first executive producing job?
NB: Law and Order: Criminal Intent. I had directed several episodes of the show when I received the call to be the EP/Director.
LH: What was your favorite TV directing experience? Which show/episode?
NB: I directed the pilot, several episodes, and the finale of Lights Out, the FX series. It was great because I was reunited with writer/show runner Warren Leight, who I had worked with in Law and Order: Criminal Intent and In Treatment. The show was way up my alley… urban, gritty, blue-collar, family, and very East Coast. I loved it.
LH: What is the most important asset one must have to actually get to run a show?
NB: You have to be able to see the big picture while bringing out the best in your creative team. One must also serve as the conduit from the writers to the production team. Be collaborative yet decisive.
LH: You started directing on TV and now you are an executive producer. Was that your goal when you first started?
NB: Actually, I started in movies, then episodic. But I did not think of being an executive producer. It became a logical extension, though.
LH: What do you like best about being an EP?
NB: Helping shape a show, molding it while working with all these wonderfully creative people who are unselfishly giving their all to make the show a success. I also like guiding the directors through prep, as a director. I am completely jazzed by seeing how these other talented folks approach the material.
LH: With the economy being what it is, many are bypassing education and trying to break into the industry by simply learning on the job. Do you think there is a way to break into the type of work you do without a formal education or training?
NB: I don’t believe that you need any formal education or training to be a director. I think living life richly; experiencing diverse peoples and situations; and exposing oneself to great music and art is crucial. It’s about discovering ones voice and tapping into the stories that can only come from you – that’s important. But, I must say, that as an impoverished kid growing up in the South Bronx, I had dreams of making movies; but had no money for film or equipment and I knew no one. Going to film school afforded me the access to equipment and, more importantly, exposed me to classmates who ultimately became my colleagues in the business. It’s the ultimate networking opportunity. So you can say I belong to both a USC and an AFI mafia and that’s all good.
LH: ABC is continuing its cancelled “All My Children” on the internet. Can digital programming have profit potential for networks?
NB: I think it’s too early to tell, but it looks like the outlets for what we shoot are growing exponentially. It’s all good. There are lots of stories to tell from lots of disparate viewpoints. It’s exciting to see that anyone with a good story can go, shoot it, and put it on YouTube or something like that and let the world watch.
LH: What has been your experience with regard to diversity and working with the networks and cable networks?
NB: I am a member of the Western Directors Councils of the DGA and on its diversity committee, whose members meet and speak to executives about promoting diversity. The shows I’ve worked on always make sure there is a diversity writer or director, women, and people of color. In fact, there are financial incentives for production companies to hire a diverse group and cast.
LH: Your projects, since breaking into the industry, have primarily been working on mainstream television shows, why not Latino-themed projects?
NB: It is by choice that I am more involved in mainstream television shows than Latino-themed projects. In my opinion, a Latino breaking into mainstream, well that’s a huge accomplishment. I agree that more Latino representation is needed in mainstream and there is room for talented Latinos. But honestly, I want to be hired for my talent and not my ethnicity.
LH: Are you offered Latino-themed stories?
NB: Yes. In the past, I’ve been offered Latino themed stories dealing with gangs, drugs, and negative situations of Latinos. That is not my thing, not my life experience.
I feel that when a Latino can work with non-Latino stories and succeed with its mainstream audience, then that’s when the networks notice. That’s huge! I want good stories, not stereotypical stories that pigeon hole us to the point where we will only be considered for Latino themed projects.
LH: How do you feel about a non-Latino actor playing a Latino role or vice versa?
NB: I’m not one who believes a Latino must play a Latino. A good actor, the best actor should play the role. Bottom line, we tell good stories. Good acting is where you can play any character.
Thank you, Norberto!
Norberto Barba is based in Los Angeles, in the Hollywood Hills, but spends a lot of time in NYC. His wife is a photographer from Mexico City. They met during the post-production of Chavez Ravine, a short film he did under the auspices of the Universal Hispanic Project. He loved living in Mexico’s San Miguel de Allende for a few years.
Grimm is a dark fantasy, detective drama that puts a new twist on the stories of the Brothers Grimm in which a homicide detective learns he is a direct descendant of a the “Grimms,” the original profilers who fight to keep humanity.
Grimm stars David Guintoli, Russell Hornsby, Silas Weir Mitchell, Bitsie Tulloch, Reggie Lee and Sasha Rolz. Grimmis shot in Portland, Oregon and premieres on NBC on October 28, 2011 at 9PM/8C.
Categories: NGLC Conference