Movies & TV / Columns

Director Barry Hunt Talks w/411 About His New Movie The Lower Rooms

March 31, 2018 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
The Lower Rooms

The 411 Interview: Barry Hunt


Barry Hunt is an actor, producer, and director. He is also the artistic director of Sowelu Theater in Portland, Oregon, and a movie director (his first film was the post-apocalyptic drama The Further Adventures of Anse and Bhule in No-man’s Land). Hunt’s second effort is an adaptation of the Eliza Anderson play The Lower Rooms, a fascinating piece of indie cinema that’s now available for rent via Vimeo (check out the movie here. You can also check out my review of the movie here). In this interview Hunt talks with this writer about the making of The Lower Rooms along with collaborators Nathan Wilson, co-director of The Lower Rooms, and cinematographer Tyler Warren.


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Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you get involved with The Lower Rooms?

Barry Hunt: I first got involved with The Lower Rooms as an actor. I played the “Tenzin” character who was originally named “Paulo.” That was with the Stark Raving Theater company and directed by Gretchen Corbett. Kelly Tallent (Madeline) was the original Rosie. I subsequently formed Sowelu Dramatic and got to know Eliza Anderson when I directed another of her plays, The Water Principle. As we ventured into film, The Lower Rooms was always top of my list for stories I was attracted to. It has become increasingly affordable to make films, there are talented filmmakers, but what is in short supply, in my opinion, is great scripts. I felt very lucky to have worked with wonderful writers in our theater and saw those relationships as a possible leg up when approaching indie film. After all, we have a rich history of films made from plays, like The Philadelphia Story and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? and Doubt. And not being trapped by the Hollywood formula the stories can be fresh.

BK: Where was The Lower Rooms filmed? Is the house set used in the movie an actual house, a set built on a stage somewhere, or was it a mix of both?

BH: We filmed in Portland, Oregon. Portland actually has one of the best torture treatment centers for those seeking political asylum. It is also a destination city for many seeking an idyllic community. The juxtaposition of Portland as an ideal community with the fact that it also has the highest national record of human sex trafficking is fascinating. It sits so well with the themes of Eliza’s story.

The house is my house. Not the way I live in it. It was dressed completely for the film. I joked of the extreme incidents in the film that, this is the kind of thing that happens in a house without a television. I hadn’t wanted to use my house. I worked very hard to get a house donated. It seemed possible after the amazing locations we achieved for our first film, The Further Adventures of Anse and Bhule. Portland is a saturated market for housing, though, and it became clear I needed to bite that bullet to get the film made. My son, also a filmmaker, worked on the crew, so we just gave over the main floor of the house and occupied other floors for the duration of filming.

BK: You are listed as co-director of The Lower Rooms with Nathan Wilson. Explain how you co-directed The Lower Rooms with him.

BH: I am going to let Nate go at this one as well. For my part, Nathan is a co-producer on the film. He and Tyler Warren run The Narrative, an independent production house. I love collaboration. It is a core value of the work at Sowelu. When I was putting together partners for The Lower Rooms I had appreciated Nathan and Tyler’s work in one of my classes at Portland Community College. I then went to one of their locations and their effortless communication and teamwork was remarkable. I knew then that they would be perfect collaborators for The Lower Rooms, for both their aesthetics and their work methods. I chose to co-direct with Nathan because I trusted his eye completely and couldn’t see breaking up that perfect synergy with Tyler. Though we all collaborated on all aspects of the film, I focused more on the actors and staging to tell the story and Nathan focused on the camera to tell the story. Sowelu’s expertise is truly within the realm of the actor and I think Nathan and Tyler where curious to witness our process. Take it away Nathan.

Nathan Wilson: My background in film is on the technical side of things. I got my start as an editor and camera operator, but always had aspirations to direct. By the time Tyler and I took Barry’s class, we had been working together for about a year and had already developed a shorthand on set. At the time, though, I was hungry for more experience with actors. I really didn’t know much about technique or how to communicate effectively with actors, so when Barry approached us about The Lower Rooms I was most excited for the opportunity to witness a true talent with decades of experience firsthand. From the outset it was clear what the breakdown of responsibilities would be, and it was easy because there were no big egos involved. Barry would focus on working with the talent, and I would direct the camera. During rehearsals I would sit in and scribble down my shot list and sketch out floor plans and whatnot as Barry would run through a scene. Then we would touch base later to see if our visions for the film were still aligning and figure out what we needed to work through. Dividing up the workload in this way allowed us to be incredibly efficient which we desperately needed because of the very small window we had to make this all happen. The chemistry between the three of us just worked, and if it hadn’t been for Barry’s willingness to go out on a limb and completely trust two relative newcomers with a project that was very close to him, it could easily have been a disaster.

BK: How did you and Nathan Wilson collaborate with director of photography Tyler Warren?

BH: I again will let them tell their side but I can say we all three had strong relationships and communication. I do not think we ever felt compromised in our individual visions. It was a triumvirate. That said, Nathan and Tyler are an ongoing team to this day. Nathan? Tyler?

Nathan Wilson: Tyler and I co-own The Narrative, and like I’ve mentioned our working relationship started a bit before our involvement on The Lower Rooms. We immediately gravitated towards each other in school and by pure luck our personalities happened to complement each other perfectly. I naturally fell into the role as director and Tyler was happy he didn’t have more competition as DP. Tyler’s mindset was “what do we need to pull off this shot” while mine was “what shot most effectively tells the story”. So our communication was effortless by the time we shot The Lower Rooms. Every day it was a struggle to figure out how to make each scene unique when there were basically four rooms that we would be shooting the whole film in and it became imperative that we approached each scene with a fresh perspective and that the camera work truly complimented the tone and subtext of each. It was a very difficult problem, but because of our past relationship and our freedom to communicate openly and freely with one another, we were able to quickly and confidently make those key decisions. That ability to be completely honest with our collaborators is something we still seek out on every project we participate in to this day. Tyler?

Tyler Warren: Working on this project felt very untraditional, which I feel complemented this film where it may have hindered many other projects. In production my job was relegated to namely the technical and aesthetic, but even in that regard there was a tendency to be extremely open minded; a willingness to pivot in order to strengthen each scene as effectively as possible. Both Barry and Nathan are people I trust, and I felt that was reciprocated. Nathan and I have a special language with one another that just works for us. We are incredibly different, often labeled opposites, but where we do align are in those critical areas where we must. It’s a great partnership that’s diverse and complementing to each of our artistic endeavors. With this team, I felt confident I could voice what I felt would serve all of us best in regards to the photography and in most cases I was understood. Adversely, when there was a polarizing opinion, I was able to understand and adapt, and that all really has to do with trusting your partnerships.

There was a great deal of consideration given to all the symbolic moments in the writing, from color to camera movement, familiar imagery and linguistic metaphor etc. The design elements were very intelligent- so much going on in each frame that was intentional which exacerbated a lot of our limitations, but we still were able to find solves that worked well. We had an army of creative challenges that forced everyone to think way outside of the box to simply get the film shot effectively and convincingly. It’s really a feat, and there’s no way it would have worked had there not been such a unique chemistry involved within those turn-key positions on set. Constant communication was a priority, second to protecting the cast and crew mentally, physically, and artistically. We asked a lot of everyone on board, an incredible level of commitment, and I admire Barry and Nathan’s ability to respect and honor that commitment by ensuring those involved felt safe and supported across the board. It was definitely one of Barry’s top concerns as a director, especially due to the subject matter, and I think the result was garnering better performances for it. All and all the film is a very proud moment for me. Both Nathan and I were technically still in school when co-producing this with Barry, and we’ve grown incredibly from the process.

BK: How did you cast The Lower Rooms? How did you cast Lobsang Tenzin? What made him the right actor for the role?

BH: Casting is critical to the work at Sowelu. We love the actor. We also have a training ground because of our unique aesthetic. I like to work with young talent and shape them to their best selves. Kelly Tallent and I had worked together at Sowelu for 20 years, but the youth of these characters and the unique demands of the leading male caused a need to branch out of our core company.
When it came to the leading male, as I mentioned, he was originally written Latin American. I scoured our community, which has many Hispanic actors, but was coming up short on the perfect match. I went to Eliza with this problem. She said, unfortunately this torture exists all over the world. She said, look to China. That opened things up. After all, the fact of the torture is what mattered to Eliza, not the particular details or politics of its origin. The same was true for the fact of Benny’s involvement with a cult leader. It didn’t matter the details of a particular cult.


Now I reached out to friends in the Asian-American community and was introduced to Tenzin, then a student in the Mt. Hood Community College multi-media program. He was a talented filmmaker, musician and all around artist but had never acted. I was taken with his charisma. He exudes a quiet confidence. I had a year. I cast him and gave him a scholarship to my professional acting classes. It was a perfect choice. He won Best Actor at the OIFF (Oregon Independent Film Festival) in 2016 and is forging a strong professional career all over the world, working with some of Hollywood’s best.


For the other young actors, I cast J’ena Sancartier out of a conservatory that I had also taught at and Kelly Lambert and Ty McAllister out of classes at Portland Community College. I am not an elitist. I love a working class artist. I am very proud that this caliber of talent is being developed at the Community College level. Obama was right, “Train for trades,” and the arts are a valid trade. Make education affordable. The money in Hollywood can blind us to the fact that talent reigns at all levels. On The Lower Rooms 90% of crew and all post sound, as well as the amazing original score by Leviticus Appleton, came from Portland Community College. It is a pleasure providing opportunities for young artists to get a first feature credit and then watching them soar the rest of their career.

BK: How long did it take to make The Lower Rooms, from completing the script to finishing post-production?

BH: The Lower Rooms was much faster than my first film, a fairly traditional year of preproduction, 5 weeks of shooting and a year of post. The script only had minor adaptation. We adapted the main character to Tenzin, trimmed some dialogue, cut one scene and opened up locations a bit. The confinement to a single house was perfect for the pressure cooker of the relationship between Rosie and Tenzin and made production easy in relation to my first film, which was epic by comparison. Also, Nathan did the edit on this so it seemed like a breeze for me after cutting Anse and Bhule myself.

BK: How difficult was it to find distribution for The Lower Rooms?

BH: We are exploring self-distribution at this time. Having the experience of outside distribution on The Further Adventures of Anse and Bhule, we want to try this tack. We have an offer for distribution but we have discovered that many indie artists reap a greater financial return through self-distribution. A distributor may get the film into places that you cannot on your own but we want to compare the two experiences and see what we learn.


BK: How was directing The Lower Rooms different from directing The Further Adventures of Anse and Bhule in No-man’s Land? How was it similar?

BH: Apples and oranges. Anse and Bhule took 5 years, was shot all over the states of Oregon and Washington, had dream sequences and visions and was our first effort. We learned a lot that made the smaller scale of The Lower Rooms much easier. I always knew these two scripts would be the first films I made. I chose to make the most difficult one first, not because I thought it was the best artistic choice but because I knew it would take much longer than The Lower Rooms and would create a large gap between releases. I wanted them to appear to release back-to-back. I think that paid off.

BK: What do you hope viewers of The Lower Rooms take away from the film?

BH: I think the primary theme of Eliza’s story is simply stated in one of Tenzin’s last lines. “This does sound unbelievable, but it can happen. And can happen anywhere.” We are always at risk of our human frailties. We are not immune through our tribalism and belief that we are innately good. All cultures face the potential of our darker side and must work to triumph for our better selves. I love these characters for their complex and understandable motivations that so easily go awry.


BK: What’s next, film wise, for Barry Hunt?

BH: I will be co-producing Daniel Hill’s (Bhule in Anse and Bhule) writing/directorial debut this summer and have an adaptation of another play in development with writer Luke Heyerman that I hope to direct next year. How about you, Nathan?

Nathan Wilson: Tyler and I are wrapping up our first feature length documentary, Thunder for the People, about a group of Lakota working with a small community in rural Nebraska to reclaim items from the Smithsonian. The trailer can be viewed at We are also beginning development on our second feature film based on a screenplay I have written, and we are in pre-production on a short film to be shot later this year that focuses on cult indoctrination.


A very special thanks to Barry Hunt for agreeing to participate in this interview and to david j. moore for helping set it up. I also want to thank Nathan Wilson and Tyler Warren for participating as well.

You can check out The Lower Rooms here.

You can check out the The Lower Rooms Facebook page here.

Check out the Sowelu official website here.

All images courtesy of Barry Hunt and The Lower Rooms Facebook page.