Shooting starlight

At a loud, dimly-lit bar, Katie Barkel rolls up her sleeve to show me a small tattoo: In signature, the name Elvis.

"I find him really fascinating, for being a huge success, and then a huge failure," she says. "He's a symbol of the American Dream, and how it collapses. Which is something I think about a lot."

Yeah, people say the same thing about Detroit these days. But "we should just talk about Elvis instead," Katie recommends. "Please."

Dressed in a leather jacket with a shake of platinum hair and a gash on her chin from a Christmas Eve slip-and-fall, she's cut from classic rock-star cloth. And for a filmmaker, she talks about music — a lot. In fact, the 24-year-old wunderkind behind music videos for such local bands as the Silent Years, Lightning Love and the Octopus, as well as a director for the Single Barrel Detroit music documentary series, says she would have been a musician if she had been any good at the guitar. 

"I didn't have the patience for it," she explains. "But if music didn't exist, there's no way I'd be doing this."

Lucky for Katie — and Detroit music — she's a natural. Arranging an interview with her was like scouting a shoot: She wanted ambience, something for me to see. When asked for a two-minute life story, she goes straight for scene. 

"We moved to Minnesota when I was 2," she says, "and I got lost in the cornfields behind our house. Oh, and I tried to eat a tomato like it was an apple. But then we moved back to Michigan." 

She was always attracted to moviemaking — home videos from her toddler-hood show her gazing into the lens, saying, "I wanna look in there." She wasn't sure it was something she could pursue as a course of study, let alone a career. But after two "soul-draining" years in nursing school and a few arguments with her parents, Katie switched to the film program at the University of Michigan. 

She graduated in 2008, and her decision to stay in-state was made partly due to the Michigan Film Incentives, with their promise of work for film industry professionals in an otherwise decimated job market. 

"I got some work," she says, "but I mostly unsuccessfully freelanced. [The incentives] are good for some things — businesses, hotels, caterers — but it doesn't really help people become filmmakers." 

They might have helped Katie figure herself out: After early work on a few studio films in the camera department, Katie decided she definitely didn't want to be a cinematographer.

"I'm not technical enough," she says. "And I didn't love it enough." 

So she shifted gears, got a day job that freed up some time and hunkered down to start her own production company, Kate McQueen Productions. In the fall of 2008, she screened Draggers and Rip Spots, a short narrative film, at Indie Memphis, her first festival screening. In 2009, she directed the music video — her first — for the Silent Years' single, "Taking Drugs in the Amusement Park." 

For the video, which was shot at the Detroit School of Rock, the band members taught a few dozen preteens how to play the song on the instrument of their choice.

"It was my favorite day of the year," Katie says. "A house full of 10-year-olds playing rock music — what could go wrong?" 

Another recently-released video for the infectious Lightning Love keyboard-pounder "Good Time" tells the dark but cheeky tale of a wayward biker on an after-hours prowl for booze and blood. 

"I didn't want to make a cute video for them," she says. "Their music is so catchy, but 'cute' is just not them." 

Finding crews and talent willing to work for cheap or free is a huge challenge for independent filmmakers; assembling small but dedicated creative teams can be a slog when no one has any money. Katie has worked with plenty of collaborators whose pursuit of a common creative goal has eventually unraveled in the shifting winds of politics, clashing visions and competing priorities.

She lucked out, though, with the Biker Dude.

"I put up this ad on Craigslist for a scruffy biker dude who would act and ride his own motorcycle to the shoot and let us film him riding it. I got this e-mail a couple days later that just said: 'I AM THE BIKER DUDE.' 

"Call it luck, or coincidence, or the Internet. But thank God for the biker dude." 

In the near future, watch for an upcoming music video for the Juliets, as well as a daredevil project that will involve Silverghost, 10 different drummers, 10 different songs and a host of hand-selected Detroit filmmakers all piecing together a kind of video drum machine. It's still in the works, and hard to describe, but exactly the kind of community-building project Katie thrives on — even if such projects, she says, are hard to come by in Detroit.

"We have venues for rock bands," she says, "so why don't we have any venues for short films? I'm confused. Is anyone out there banding together? I hear about things sometimes, but I'm just not sure." 

She thinks the Burton Theater, and the just-announced Detroit International Film Festival kicking off there in March, will set off some sparks. But even in the absence of a strong indie film community, Detroit "is a part of me," she explains — the landscapes, the buildings, the people sprawled out for miles, all part of the same strange American epic. And she feels more connected to the music scene in Detroit than just about anything else. 

"There's just something special about it," she says. "I can't say what it is. Musicians here make me feel just as strongly as established filmmakers, with very little means. It's really inspiring."

She quotes something Jeremy Freer of the Juliets has said to her many times before, a phrase she's taken to heart in her own artistic pursuits: "All I want to do is cut people in half." 

She knows her career will pull her away from Detroit eventually, to the blanched expanse of Los Angeles. And she knows it's going to be really, really hard — especially as a woman. 

Male peers have derisively called her "the actress" in technical departments. Constantly intuiting motives and forming equitable creative partnerships is a source of "frustration, pure frustration," she says. And big film is a notorious boy's club — a subject of renewed cultural discussion with Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker likely up for Best Director and Best Picture 2010 Oscar nominations. A nomination would make Bigelow only the fourth female director ever to be up for an Academy Award. 

"The odds are against me, and I don't know what kind of moves to make. I've decided to just stop thinking about it," she says with some ambivalence. "I need to make things happen. I need to let the work speak for itself." 

At the bar, one of Lady Gaga's ubiquitous singles comes deafeningly over the speakers. Katie clutches her chest — clearly, it's cutting her in half. 

We talk about Gaga's video for "Bad Romance" — an haute couture nightmare of bodily commerce, human bondage and top-shelf vodka violence that ends with a gruesome pyre of femme vengeance. Katie now counts it among her major influences. 

"She knows exactly what she is doing," Katie says of the outrageous and unrepentant platinum pop star who played two sold-out shows in Detroit earlier this month. 

The sympathy is obvious, and not just to Katie's slick, industrial artistic style. Here's Katie Barkel, big-eyed, white-tressed, armored in black leather, an outsized and super-focused talent who's not at all sorry to admit her love of the world's biggest, cockiest old-fashioned rock stars — the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits ("I think about him on a daily basis," she says). She sums up her approach with brutal simplicity: 

"There are the two things I love," she says. "Little kids shredding and old bikers smoking and throwing bottles at each other at the bar."

Katie Barkel will present her recent video work next month at a showcase of women in Detroit arts and culture, featuring dozens of other women musicians, comedians, performance and visual artists and crafters, on February 13 at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333. Some of the event's proceeds will go  to benefit the Michigan Women's Foundation. 

Watch Katie's work online at

Amy Elliott is an area freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]