By Patrick Z. McGavin
Patrick Nelson Barnes began editing as an impassioned amateur, learning how to cut a movie by working with a video camera as a teenager.
A Bay Area native, he has worked in virtually every format, encompassing features, television, documentaries and shorts. His varied background also includes a stint working on the first Bill Clinton presidential campaign.
His newest project is “No Man of God,” by the director Amber Sealey, structured around a series of Death Row prison interviews, exploring the complicated relationship of FBI behavioral scientist Bill Hagmaier (Elijah Wood) and serial killer Ted Bundy (Luke Kirby).
The movie premiered at the Tribeca Film festival and was acquired for distribution by AMC Networks RLJE Films division. It opens Aug. 27 in a limited release in theaters.
CineMontage: What attracted you to this project?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: The straight answer is Amber (Sealey) asked me. We’ve worked together several times now. She didn’t write the script. This is a project that found her. When she told me what it was about, I was really intrigued. It seemed a little bit out of left field, subject-wise, for her.
She also told me that she wanted to do something very different. She wanted to bring in a feminist angle. She wanted to bring something in about the victims. She told me, “Everybody knows the name of Ted Bundy, but nobody knows the names of the victims.” I thought that was interesting. We started talking about all kinds of ideas. Anything that she is interested in, I am interested in because we work so well together.
CineMontage: How would you describe your creative dynamic as a team?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: We know each other so well now. She gives me a huge range of creative latitude. She can let me go off and try a lot of different things, and she can pick and choose what she likes.
For instance, I’m able, in the editor’s cut stage, to try things that are way off the scripted page. We talk a lot before Amber gives me all of her ideas, and I absorb all of that. When I look at all the footage, I am looking at it with that information. I feel comfortable with going off and trying things and pushing the envelope. Her films always have a unique storytelling angle or devices. There’s a lot of room for that.
CineMontage: How did you decide on which archival and news footage to use?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: None of that was scripted. That was completely done in the editing room. All of that came out of our experimenting using home movies and archival footage. We sourced the archival material through an archivist. We also collected a lot of home movies that Amber had her friends send in. These were friends that grew up in the eighties. They were not Bundy’s victims.
What we decided to do was present this textural, historical, lyrical work that focused on girls and women at various stages of their lives, doing mundane things, working and interacting with people, that any young or older woman might have been doing during that time. We wanted to infuse the film with those images. These were the victims. That’s what they represented.
CineMontage: Amber Sealey is also an accomplished actor. How do you think her background shaped the film?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: Ted Bundy was known for playing head games with people, going from very cooperative to flying off the handle, and also trying to manipulate the people around him. He was always performing. That was something that Amber talked about.
Absolutely for Bill, his goal going in there was to extract information from Bundy in order to try and help resolve other serial murder cases in the future. His thinking was, if can understand somebody like Bundy, we can apply some of the things we learned going forward. It was always a performative game between the two of them. They each wanted something from the other. As they got closer, I think they had to shift those performances on the fly as their emotions got involved, and that’s what made it interesting.
CineMontage: The first interview between Hagmaier and Bundy is crucial to establishing the themes and ideas. How did you arrive at the particular pace and tempo?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: It was a lot of work. The pace and tempo was in development for quite a while. We experimented with a lot of ideas about how to introduce Bundy in that scene. One of the original ideas we had was holding off being able to see him for an extended period of time. We realized it didn’t work. It was even shot with the possibility of doing that.
We realized you needed to see Bundy clearly pretty quickly. There are those under the arm shots, and sometimes he’s kind of hidden, but that was our compromise. The pace found itself. We wanted to go slow, keep that tension as long as possible.
CineMontage: What about the dramatic use of the close-up, often as a way to punctuate the power dynamic?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: Not every film can pull off an extreme close-up. To have that opportunity to use it as a tool is very powerful. Amber loves close ups of faces, body parts, eyes and mouth. It goes back to acting, and using every part of the body as a form of emotional expression and being able to tell what’s happening psychologically or imply it by showing a close part of that.
In terms of using it editorially, we did everything from trying to intercut with those close ups, implying the similarities of the characters, and also when implying when one or the other was getting deeper into the other’s head. There was a lot of tension in the ability to cut between wide shots and extreme close ups. It’s a thing that can only happen in cinema.
CineMontage: What about the larger portrait of Ted Bundy? Can you humanize someone who did things that seem unfathomable?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: That was a constant discussion that Amber and I had. I should also mention producer Daniel Noah, who we worked with very closely with. Getting not just the tone, a real fleshed-out human being, making sure they weren’t a caricature, making sure Ted was not too sympathetic. A lot of the serial killer films frankly romanticize these people. Bundy was handsome, smart, and he cracked jokes. He had an attractiveness about him that was kind of horrible when you think about it.
As an editor, what I do with anything I work on and especially this film, I ask myself all the time does this ring true. This is a real person, they are sitting in the room with another real person, how’d they honestly respond to what Bill was saying at that moment. Trying to make things feel authentic, drifting away too much, scale that back some. The last scene, which is one of my favorite scenes, I think it’s very clear where Bill stands with Ted and where the filmmakers stand with Ted.
CineMontage: Do you think you have your own style, or is it more malleable and open to the needs of the director?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: I would say both. I do think I have a style. That style is what I call cinematic. I’m always trying to see things in a cinematic way. How do I tell a story with as little dialogue as possible through facial expressions, through body language, through the juxtaposition of images that you might not expect, through the creative use of extreme close-ups and wide shots.
CineMontage: Was becoming an editor a linear movement, or more sideways action?
Patrick Nelson Barnes. It was definitely a zigzag. I started there, and then I came back to it. I was editing home movies when I was a teenager. I had a video camera I bought, and I would hook it up to our VCR, and I’d shoot movies with my stepbrothers starring in them. I’d edit them either in camera or hooking it up to this other VCR. I didn’t really think about it.
I was interested in film from an early age, especially foreign language films and independent films of the late ’80s and early ’90s. At some point I got very interested in graphic design and art. I wound up going to art school at the California College of the Arts, in Oakland. I got this big internship, and I was the art director of the newspaper at my school.
I wanted to make films, so I switched majors and I finished in film The rest is history. I still do a lot of design, sometimes the films I work on, like the titles or opening credit.
CineMontage: Did you have a mentor during this stage of your career?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: I’m sort of self-taught. I was never an assistant. I think my career trajectory might have been different had I been an assistant.
I edited so much on my own that when I moved to Los Angeles for a documentary project, I felt like becoming an assistant after that meant going backwards. I didn’t know how the industry worked that well. I just called myself an editor and went forward from there. It’s been a slower process for that reason, but now it’s caught up and going well. I didn’t do the standard track, for better or for worse. I took my time.
CineMontage: What is your greatest personal thrill or personal excitement making films?
Patrick Nelson Barnes: I love everything from sitting in a room alone to working on the details of a scene to arguing about that scene with the director and coming up with an even better solution. I also love hearing somebody talk about a film or show that I worked on and say they enjoyed it. The whole reason we make movies and television shows is for people to watch them, and get enjoyment or learn something from them. I’m always reminding myself of that.
An audience member is going to bring their own history and POV to the project. They’re either going to get something out of it, or they’re not. I think, ultimately, it’s about the audience and putting it out there into the world and have people get meaning from it or after perhaps see their life a little bit differently.
Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and cultural journalist.