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Charles Barker

The Call Up: An Interview with Charles Barker

22 May 2016 Tom Faber

Charles Barker’s script for The Call Up won the Brit List award for best unproduced screenplay in 2011, but its only now that the film is hitting screens. We chat to him about the creation process, technology and video games.

London Calling: Tell me about The Call Up.

Charles Barker: It’s about a group of anonymous online gamers who receive an invite to come to an empty building. When they get there there’s a piece of hi-tech kit which they put on. It’s like virtual reality but in a few years time, when all the glitches have been ironed out. It’s amazing, it renders them into this high-definition warzone. To begin with it’s a gamer’s dream. But then when they suddenly get shot, it’s real - the hi-tech suit they’re wearing gives them real feedback of the bullet, indistinguishable from the real thing. The stakes get raised from there.


LC: So there are horror aspects?

CB: Yes, it’s a 15 so it’s been toned down a little but there is a horror aspect. It went down really well at the closing night of the London Sci-fi festival. People told me in feedback that they were on the edge of their seats the whole time. It’s a rollercoaster popcorn film.

Another thing about the film is that it was made for a very modest budget of £1.3 million. Part of what excites me about film is by making something epic on a small budget. We shot on one floor of a building, did the shoot there and then redressed it as a game world, and as different floors in the building even though it’s actually all shot on one floor. As a team we created something really epic on a really tight budget.


LC: You’ve had the script around for a long time. Has it been a hard process to get it onto screen?

CB: After I won the Brit List I thought that would be it and I’d be on the way. It was such an honour to be the most-liked screenplay in the British film industry by your fellow professionals. But being a first-time director it was a really tough and gruelling process. We found it difficult to convey what the concept was to financiers. You need to understand what augmented reality is, that there are two environments that coexist at the same time. It’s hard to visually explain that. Financiers weren’t getting it. We had to beg, borrow and steal £15,000 from friends, family and investors to make a proof of concept. Once we’d made that, everyone got on board and we finally got there.


LC: You worked on videogames as well?

CB: Yes, I’ve been asked to write a couple of games. It’s very different to film because game designers generate ideas in-house. I was brought in to do story and the projects are still bubbling away, they haven’t got the green light. To green light some of these ideas is $100 million. But I do like the combination of gaming and storytelling. The Last Of Usimmersed you. You’re following a great narrative and then it’s very participatory. It was a magical balance, drawing you in and immersing you more than either medium could alone. But this is rare. I think Virtual Reality will really make a difference. It’s going to be revolutionary in terms of storytelling.


LC: Do you think it’s the next internet?

CB: I think the internet is more of an information thing, but this is more about storytelling. When the Lumiere brothers played their first film with the train coming towards you, everyone ran out of the cinema. You need that game or that story that suddenly makes the platform amazing. Like Tetris with Nintendo, you need that piece of content which makes an impact, and suddenly people see the potential of the technology.

These VR kits are amazing, it’s scarily immersive. There are also going to be some negative, scary elements to what we are offered. We don’t even know them yet. It’s not going to go away, it’s going to enter peoples’ lives and it’s going to be huge.


LC: Might the scary aspect be people finding it hard to divide fantasy from reality?

CB: Yes that could be it, and just how immersive it is. How intoxicating it’ll be compared to your reality, when you can have such a seductive life... forget about Warcraft, this is so much more extreme because you’re in it. It’d just be so amazing that it could make reality a little dull.

LC: Every five years there’s a new scandal about videogames corrupting children and causing violence. Won’t that just get worse as the technology is enhanced?

CB: You have to discipline yourself. I’ve got kids now so I can’t play games as much as I want, you’ve got to have a healthy life balance. The average gamer kid now, by 19, has played 10,000 hours of video games. It’s a huge thing in peoples’ lives. Gaming as an industry is bigger than film and music combined. It’s massive. It doesn’t make as much noise as music and celebrity culture and film but it’s such a big part of peoples’ private lives.

The Call Up is in UK cinemas now and on DVD & Digital 23rd May


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