Emmy Award-winning producer Paris Barclay recently spoke at the Hot House as part of Columbia College Chicago's Black Images On Screen festival. While he was billed as a 'gay-identifying' artist, the presentation focused on the business and creative aspects of his trade. The format was part talk, part video, and showcased excerpts from his best work.
Barclay, a native of Chicago's Harvey suburb, started out composing music but became interested in theater when he attended Harvard as an English major. He then moved to New York where he meshed both interests by writing a couple of musicals. Name recognition and financial success remained elusive.
It was his day job in advertising that provided the big break. In 1986 he wrote a public service announcement for the American Foundation for AIDS Research. It starred none other than Elizabeth Taylor and Barclay got to direct it himself after the high-profile director who was scheduled to do it refused to fly to Los Angeles unless given a first-class ticket. All involved in the project were donating their time, so Taylor herself apparently wasted no time firing him. The 30-second spot took a full day to shoot and aired only once on ABC. The network received so many letters and calls of complaint that it decided to can it. 'That's just the way the world was in 1986,' Barclay reminded the mostly young students in attendance.
A few years later, a white friend of his who had connections in the music industry suggested they join their efforts to create a production company. They called it Black & White Television and their main objective was to get more minorities involved in the business. Barclay said there were 'so many rap artists and music video people out there [that were] not using diverse casts.' After racking up $35,000 of debt in their first year they got a surprise call from LL Cool J who needed a director for his video Big Ol' Butt.
This marked the beginning of a three-year relationship that saw Barclay direct a total of eight clips, including Mamma Said Knock You Out, which won Best Rap Video at the MTV Awards. It is generally agreed that the simplicity of the staging (LL Cool J alone in a dimly lit boxing ring) is what set it apart from all the others in the category. At the time choreographed dance numbers ruled the genre.
It is probably this aura of originality that led to an offer to direct Angel Street, a new series produced by John Wells. Starring Robin Givens as a detective, it was shot here in Chicago. Barclay was excited to be working in his home town, but only six episodes were produced and the series never made it beyond the pilot stage. He recalled with a laugh that he thought he had personally killed the show and even feared his career would never recover. But Wells went on to do ER and asked Barclay to direct a number of episodes.
Luck smiled at him again when Mark Tinker, one of the producers of NYPD Blue, came looking for a director and gave him the job without having seen any of his work. Over the next three years, Barclay directed 13 episodes, including the hugely popular one where Jimmy Smits's character dies, which won him an Emmy. The final scene lasts almost 10 minutes and Barclay put it up on the giant screen. By the time the lights came on again, you could hear sniffles from all corners of the room. Barclay was emotional, his voice breaking as he began to explain some of the details that went into the making of the scene. He eventually won another Emmy before moving on to create a show called City of Angels with Steven Bochco.
While this new venture only lasted two seasons, it had the merit of being the first Black drama series on mainstream television. 'We tried to do something different,' Barclay said. 'We tried to have a diversified crew, an African-American cast in a drama and for whatever reasons the audience wasn't ready for it, or we weren't up to the game. The show was cancelled.' He has since worked on other popular series such as The West Wing, The Shield, and Cold Case.
Along with the admirable successes there have also been some projects that required a certain dose of compromise. Accepting a contract to produce short clips for a major tobacco company was one of those decisions he reluctantly had to make to be able to pay his bills. Directing a video for New Kids On the Block also proved problematic when the members of the boy band were not speaking to each other and some of them had not seen the lyrics of the song before the day of the taping. But their manager wanted Barclay to 'make them black' so he obliged by surrounding them with multi-ethnic dancers and putting the lead singer in a Malcolm X jacket. 'That was blatant ... I mean it's just an embarrassment,' he admitted with a chuckle. Another accomplishment he cringes about is the 1996 movie Don't Be a Menace to South Central. Although it was meant as a parody, it didn't exactly contribute to the breaking down of negative racial stereotypes.
Barclay had been invited by Columbia's Division of Student Affairs and the Department of Film and Video so he gave the fledgling media students some technical pointers. He gave a lot of credit to editors, saying they are the ones who give life to a piece when their cutting finds the perfect rhythm. Always generous with his praise, writers were next on his list of artists who make directors like him look smart. He even added that he plans to retire soon from producing and directing so he can explore the challenges of writing.
As far as practical career advice goes, Barclay had one overarching message: don't wait to be discovered. Getting a job on a movie set may sound like a good idea, but few people get noticed for bringing coffee or arranging chairs. 'What I advocate now is to make films,' he instructed. Digital technology is becoming affordable, which gives people a chance to impress with original short films. He mentioned that nudity, humor, and in some cases extreme violence were effective hooks. 'It has to be a movie that if I get it, I need to play it for somebody else. It has to be that good.'
In his years in advertising, the music industry, and TV, Barclay has relied on a combination of talent, determination, networking, and some good fortune. But more than anything, he believed in using each particular experience as a way to learn new skills and get better.
'Through the whole thing I saw every opportunity as an education,' he said.