Dani Barker is an award-winning, multi-hyphenate filmmaker and actor whose talents are displayed in her recent feature film Follow Her, directed by Emmy Award-winner Sylvia Caminer and shot by Academy Award nominee Luke Geissbuhler. Follow Her had its world premiere at Fantasporto in 2022 sweeping the top awards and earning Dani Best Actress along with Best Film and Audience Award and is out in theaters and on VOD on June 2. Dani has also helmed, scripted and starred in projects such as Starvival, the Unprofessionals, which she produced, wrote, and played the lead; and Squirm, produced for Canada’s OUTtv. Her new film, AI ARTIST, premiered at the Runway AI Film Festival March 2023 bringing home the Merit Award. The film is now being developed into an Anthology series with co-writer and co-director Jessey Nelson.
2018, November. Another puddle of snot and tears as I flailed around in my railroad-style apartment in a closet “bedroom” with no door in the East Village. Thankfully my roommate, who lived in the closet next to me, was out. Probably doing something cool like indulging in refined dining and buying regular-priced drinks (not just happy hour drinks) that he could afford with his stable job, while I lay there pondering life amidst the screaming sirens and firing gunshots of a radiator, wondering how in the world I was ever going to pay $1,200 for rent the next day. Especially since my life was now ruined.
This was the third time I had been led to believe a “Mr. Smith” was funding my movie. The ironic thing is: “Smith” was his actual last name. Well … according to the emails.
Garfield Jason Smith. A nice guy with soft eyes, a gentle demeanor – and an absolute crook. As an independent filmmaker struggling to make ends meet in New York City, the only thing that mattered to me was getting my movie funded. Without it, who was I? A human, with no movie. Clearly, I had warped my identity into the success of this film before it had even been shot. I’d written eight or so drafts of the script and attached an Emmy award-winning director, a high-regarded NY casting director and an overqualified cinematographer, so now the pressure was on. I had to get this movie funded. Truth be told, I only had this team because I told them we already had the money. So, was I the crook in this situation? Let’s not talk about that.
I lifted my head from my pillow with a long, arduous moan and looked deep into my feline friend’s eyes: “Lucas, what the fuck is wrong with people!?” Partly referring to myself for believing someone named Garfield Damn Smith. Lucas blinked. He didn’t know what to say in these situations. But it felt better having someone by my side, listening to me complain as I recorded the process on my iPhone. Only a few weeks later, Lucas would be diagnosed with FIV (feline aids) and no longer be at my side. Life is a trip.
Meanwhile, here I was gearing up to go to India to meet yet another “financier” who “most definitely” wanted to fund my movie. (This after I paid $5,000 for a business plan through The Plan Writers – SCAM – for their “financial connections” that led absolutely nowhere.)
“Fuck it,” I said, as I packed my bag to go to India (all expenses paid). After dealing with someone who had more red flags than fingernails, India didn’t seem so bad. Thwap, a final sweater thrown into my bag before I zipped it up. But before we venture to India … allow me to circle back to my friend Garfield. Garfield taught me a very valuable lesson.
“Hi Dani, how are you. Garfield.” A simple conversation starter that spiraled into “I can’t believe you instructed me to communicate with you via email so now you are dictating to me to converse via email that is so rude and I have no more interest in financing your project who do you think you are talking to? I have many companies and I do not have times for your disrespecting me bye” … in just six weeks. Six weeks of kind, friendly banter and in which he constantly expressed interest in funding the film through his contacts in China.
Garfield ran an online shoe store, was a designer, and loved sending me photos of his new shoes. Before I knew it, I was picking out shoes to walk the red carpet in. Looking back at our messages, I still question the validity of everything he said. Prime gaslight material. Cryptic. To the point where I questioned my own sanity. When I attempted to move our messages off WhatsApp into email, Garfield lost it. When I asked to talk to his “financier” in China, Garfield erupted. How dare I go around him … how dare I even suggest it?! Didn’t I know he was a very busy man? Here were eight more pictures of shoes he’d designed.
He wanted us to cross-promote his products in the film. It felt like a win-win. Except, why wouldn’t Garfield sign our contract? When he said he did sign and sent it back, there was no signature. I laugh at that now. At the time, it was infuriating. Running in circles to gather his John Hancock.
After a month of communication, plus video calls introducing Garfield to my director, Sylvia Caminer, I realized there were a lot of words being exchanged but no actual movement. How could such a busy man have so much time to send me so many shoe pics? From my perspective, I had to nurture this relationship to make him trust me. So he would know the money would be put to good use. This is all part of the game. This is also part of the trap. He talked the talk, especially on calls. He understood investing, more than I did. He asked the right questions. He responded quickly, with detail. He convinced me, he convinced the other people on my team. To this day, I don’t know if Garfield was delusional himself; maybe he was an optimist, or perhaps he was a compulsive liar unable to decipher truth from lies.
Garfield and I exchanged messages every few days. I responded quickly. I encouraged him to send pictures. I remained cheerful. I had been through this before: men claiming to be financiers, men wanting to hire me to produce their films, men wanting to grab coffee … and extending the invite back to their place. But Garfield wasn’t making moves. He wasn’t being inappropriate. So, what was the hook? Why was he investing all this energy into me? It had to be real. Right?
But until I was truly able to admit the truth, that this whole thing was made up, I was not able to ask hard questions. Hard questions separate misleaders and deceivers from the truth-tellers.
I was not a victim in all this. I was operating under a blanket of delusion, refusing to acknowledge the red flags, for if I did acknowledge them, I would have to exist in a reality where my movie was not funded. There is a loneliness in that. It’s one thing to attach your name to a project as an “award-winning producer,” and another to have hard money committed. A financial commitment is a higher level of belief in you. It says, “I believe in you so much that I am willing to take money out of my pocket and give it to you with no expectation of return.”
On the positive side, there’s an irony in dealing with fraudulent financiers. They offer a sense of hope. Just enough to keep pushing. It only takes one person who believes in you to keep you going. Without anyone offering interest, trying to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars can be a very overwhelming, lonely and arduous process.
After six weeks of communication with Garfield, two hard questions turned our friendly banter into a plethora of manipulative accusations in a matter of minutes. Two simple requests: “hey can we move this over to email?” and “hey can you introduce me to your financier in China?” And this was how I knew everything Garfield said was a lie.
It is a vulnerable thing to be an artist representing a body of work. We’re often not taught to ask the hard questions. When I asked hard questions and allowed the illusion to be shattered, I was forced to confront my own lies. I had to admit we had no money. So, what now?
My conversations with Garfield took so much time and energy. Time and energy that were needed to pursue money elsewhere. I shed tears. I flailed around and questioned my existence. I felt ashamed. But after I grieved my fake relationship, I was free to chase that money and not take “no” for an answer.
So, I stood up from my bed with my packed suitcase, and you know what I did? I asked the hard questions:
India never happened. Garfield never happened. What happened was … I got smarter.
I stopped investing in people with fake promises. I asked questions without apology.
I bought my own shoes.
Featured image, showing Dani Barker in Follow Her, is courtesy Quiver Distribution. All other images courtesy Dani Barker.