Exclusive Interview: Michael Barnett on HBO’s Superheroes

With nearly a full year to go before Comic-Con returns to San Diego in 2012, the sight of costumed characters on the city's streets may come as a bit of a surprise. For real life masked avenger "Mr. Extreme," however, a nightly crime patrol has become a way of life. 
 
It's not just in San Diego, either. Across the nation, a movement has started wherein ordinary people have taken up the call and tasked themselves with an anonymous fight for the greater good. With names like "Master Legend,"" "Thanatos" and "Dark Guardian," real life superheroes are a growing trend and one that filmmaker Michael Barnett has managed to catch on film.
 
Premiering tonight on HBO, "Superheroes" chronicles the lives of the men and women attempting to break down the boundaries between real-world crime and pop art justice. SuperHeroHype spoke with Barnett about his film and his interactions with the heroes themselves.
 
SuperHeroHype: Take me back to when this project started for you.
Michael Barnett: We were DPing a superhero documentary with a producer that I really adored. He was doing a "SpongeBob" doc for Nickelodeon at the time. He asked if I had any ideas for a film and I told him that I had been sitting on this. I discovered it online, this community. I shared it with him and it kind of blew his mind that no one had already made it and that it existed even. We did a little more research on these dudes and kind of focused in on a number of them.
 
SHH: Who did you reach out to first?
Barnett: We reached out to Mr. Extreme first, actually. He was one of the first guys that we got in touch with. First, because of proximity. We were out of Los Angeles and he was out of San Diego. He got back to us immediately. Some of these guys take months even to answer the phone or return an e-mail. They're so mistrusting of media. It took awhile. But Mr. Extreme got right back to us and we cruised down to San Diego and shot with him for seven or eight hours just to see if there was a film there and a story there. We all knew, though, the moment we started talking to him that he was such an extraordinary guy. He became our lead character and that wasn't because of location or anything. We just thought he was such a fascinating guy. He had gone through so much trauma in his life and found a way to turn it into something noble and beautiful and positive and altruistic. He had all the makings for us of a great story. 
 
SHH: It seems like it's a tricky line to walk. There's something very noble about these people, but they're very funny as well. Going in, how did you deal with that balance?
Barnett: When we started, I was thinking that we were going to make this sort of a commentary on the evolution of pop culture and the invented mythology. How it evolved from the page to the screen and then finally off the page. I think that was a really two-dimensional way to think about it, but when you're making a documentary, you have no real way to know what it's going to be about until you start hearing these stories. We found something very authentic but oftentimes really funny and oftentimes really sad and oftentimes really noble. But, ultimately, every case was really inspiring. 
 
SHH: How long was the shoot on this?
Barnett: We shot for about 15 months. We started shooting with Mr. Extreme on February 1st of 2010 and then we wrapped just a couple of months ago. 
 
SHH: Can you talk a little about getting to know him off-camera? There's elements of privacy and "secret identities" that come with a lot of these characters.
Barnett: To this day, I actually don't know Mr. Extreme's real name and I've known him for a couple of years now. The fascinating thing is that I don't need to. I know him. I know him well. I know him deeply. Yeah, it took a long time to establish that trust. And he's seen the movie five or six times now. He loves it. His personality is so pronounced in the movie. I think he finds it therapeutic in some ways. I think the only reason he does this is to spread his message of being a volunteer crimefighter.
 
SHH: In the doc, it does seems like a lot of the superheroes, no matter how seriously they take it, are aware that they appear somewhat silly.
Barnett: Let's be completely honest here: If you put on a costume and run around in the middle of the night trying to fight crime, there's going to be some level of you that understands that it's a pretty eccentric thing. You're going to be able to find humor in it. That being said, they do take it very seriously. I think that, the more they do it, the more they become addicted to the anonymity and the altruism and the notoriety they get. I think that's a potent mix and it empowers them to do more. 
 
SHH: You've got several segments with Stan Lee in the film. How soon did he get involved?
Barnett: When we were doing research and prepping, we knew we needed a voice from the comic book world. This whole world exists because of the superhero mythology that was created in pulp and in comic books. That list is pretty short once Stan Lee's name comes up. Because who else? So we found his phone number online and called him and he answered and said yes.
 
SHH: On the reverse side of that, you have a woman who works in law enforcement and is sort of on the opposite side.
Barnett: Well, Mr. Extreme is really well known down in San Diego and he's becoming moreso with every month that passes. We had a lot of interactions with Mr. Extreme and the San Diego police department. A lot of those people are just doing their job. He's walking along the street and he has weapons on him, so they stop him. It's their job and, in the process, they have some fun from time to time. We wanted someone higher up to comment on what this means for the community and we thought that she had really great perspective. I think she really relates to what they're doing as long as they do it within the realms of the law. As long as they don't infringe on anyone's civil rights.
 
SHH: It seems like it's an interesting parallel to documentary filmmaking, because these superheroes are going around and investigating areas where you might have the same trouble heading into with cameras as far as permits and permissions go.
Barnett: Yeah, for sure. We certainly make our films by any means necessary.
 
SHH: There's even one of the superheroes who calls himself "The Cameraman" who began himself as a documentary filmmaker. Was there ever a thought that you yourself might be tempted to go down a superhero path?
Barnett: Strangely, my cameraman — who was with me on every single shoot — has become a superhero himself. He calls himself "Street Devil" now. He stalks around on his bike and goes around and checks into homeless enclaves in the valley. He was dubbed by Insignis, who is the leader of the Black Monday Society in Salt Lake City. In the film we have a moment where they're making masks and that blue mask he was actually making for him. He put the mask on and Insignis said, "Your name is Street Devil." He was like, "Street Devil?!" And we were all like, "Hey, man. You don't choose the name. The name chooses you. You are now Street Devil."
 
SHH: How often does he do that?
Barnett: I would say a couple of times a week. My commitment to the film has been to making it, which has been a 22 hour a day job for the last year and a half.  We'll see what kind of perspective I gain as some time passes here. 
 
SHH: What would you say was the hardest element to capture on film that you knew you needed for the final film?
Barnett: I mean, it's really hard to get these guys to open up. They're so deeply mistrustful of media. And for good reason. They've been marginalized and exploited an awful lot. The hardest thing was to get them to open up about anything other than just being a superhero. Mr. Extreme took us into his home and really shared his personal life with us, which wound up being quite sad and tragic at times. He's such a special guy, though, and he finds so much inspiration in all the darkness that has happened to him. For us, getting anyone else to open up in a real way that wasn't just talking about being a superhero was really, really tough. It took many, many months of just going back and going back and of repetition and establishing trust. The other thing that was really hard was running around at 3:00 in the morning on skid row and filming and seeing the life that exists here in this country. That can be emotionally and physically overwhelming.
 
SHH: Tell me a little about your own background as both a filmmaker and a comic book fan.
Barnett: I was lucky enough to grow up in the golden age of comics. I'm a big fan of "Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight [Returns]." "Grendel" was actually my favorite comic book back then. But yeah, I'm a big collector. I still have "X-Men" mailed to my house to this day. I've been embedded in the comic book world and have always wanted to tell a superhero story. I was lucky enough to kind of stumble across this story. As for my film background, I've been a director of photography for about 12 years now. I've been kicking around LA and have shot a lot of films for other people. I've shot a lot of commercials and music videos and television and documentaries. I thought to myself, "I think I'm ready to tell my own stories." This was the first one that I've tried to do. 
 
SHH: Did your love of comics help you identify with the people in the film? For the most part, they seem to all have been and remain big comic book fans.
Barnett: Yeah, they all love comic book and pop culture mythology. That's the inspiration for why they do this and it really inspires every single one of their outfits. It gets pretty specific at times. Vigilante Spider is saying that's Manga-verse Spider-Man that inspired his costume. Not just Spider-Man. It gets very, very specific. I adore that and all of their origin stories. 
 
SHH: There's a segment of the film, too, that parallels these guys out on the streets of San Diego while Comic-Con is going on. It's a nice parallel between these superheroes and fans who are dressing up without the altruistic side.
Barnett: Yeah, these guys don't go to Comic-Con. I mean, some do. This year, 40 heroes actually showed up and we did a huge, huge handout that was really heartwarming. But none of them actually go to the convention. There was a meetup to help the homeless just under a mile away. They went out to do some good and let people know that they're not forgotten about even though there's thousands of other people in town.
 
SHH: What would advice be if someone wanted to help out and become a superhero themselves?
Barnett: There's a lot of forums online. They have a massive online community. You can just go online and type in "real-life superheroes". You start from there. There's The Real Life Superhero Project. There's reallifesuperheroes.org. You can go online and find out what these people are doing on a daily basis to help their communities. They want to share what they do. They want to share their stories, especially with people who are eager to read something other than the media.
 
SHH: Were there any that you specifically went after that refused to participate?
Barnett: Yeah, there were quite a few, actually, who just don't want the notoriety. They just want to do good work. Phantom Zero is one who is a pillar of the community who, obviously, did not do the movie. We were disappointed, but we understood. Some people are not in it for any other reason than to be altruistic. How can you be more altruistic than to have nobody know what you want and why you're doing this? 
 
"Superheroes" premieres Monday, August 8th at 9pm on HBO.