In 2012, “The Great Gatsby” was being remade into a movie. At the same time, Barry St. John, one of the film’s visual effects coordinators, was remaking his career.
“I wouldn’t say that I knew I was going to be in visual effects by any stretch of the imagination when I was young,” St. John, 2004 University alumnus, said.
St. John left Lawrence to focus on his career in film after graduating in 2004. Now at 36, his career has continued to rise, with a timeline that includes work on the Oscar-winning 2016 animated feature “The Jungle Book” and the upcoming Spielberg flick “Ready Player One.” It’s a career built on patience — St. John knew making it in Hollywood would be “a marathon, not a sprint.”
But in 2012 and 2013, when St. John was working on a big-budget production, “The Great Gatsby” became every bit a sprint to the finish line.
Late into the production process, director Baz Luhrmann’s cinematic spectacle was going through some turmoil. Joyce Cox, a visual effects producer who worked on films including 2008’s “The Dark Knight” and 2009’s “Avatar,” was tasked with recruiting an emergency team to ease a visual effects spending that was growing larger by the day.
Even though she had only known St. John for about a year since meeting on 2012’s “Men in Black 3,” Cox knew who would be her right hand.
“It was a great choice. He’s quite good with other people. He’s good with the politics. We survived that one together,” Cox said.
Mastering the art of film had always been the ultimate goal for St. John. As a kid, watching movies was his form of escape. St. John was raised in the West Bottoms of Kansas City, Missouri, until the age of 8, when he moved with his older brother and mother, Jennie Becker — a single mother — to Wichita. She was starting graduate school at Wichita State University for art.
The pressures from the outside world at times would confine St. John to his room, where he’d watch movies such as the 1991 South Central Los Angeles drama “Boyz N da Hood” or Martin Scorsese’s 1990 film “Goodfellas.” From his freshman year of high school on, he knew he had to be in film — and out of Wichita.
“I knew one day I wanted to move out and hit reset on everything,” he said.
And he did. After a disappointing year at Kansas State, St. John moved to Lawrence, where he would soon don the moniker of “Bullet Tooth” Barry, the name of a detective in a music video for his basic video production class.
“It was just hysterical. You could tell they were really proud of their work,” Tamara Falicov said, remembering St. John’s Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” video.
Falicov is a professor at the University who taught St. John’s basic production class in 2002. In that class, students were instructed to split into groups. The goal: take a piece of music and make it into their own. While they could have chosen local music or any pop music at the time, St. John’s group chose a ‘90s music video classic, “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys.
St. John assumed the role of director and actor for the video. Falicov could gauge St. John’s drive to succeed from the moment she watched the finished product.
“We have something special here in the Midwest. It’s a certain work ethic. It’s a certain honesty and integrity,” Falicov said. “Barry embodies that. He’s exactly the kind of person where no matter where he goes, he’s going to be successful.”
By the time he was ready to graduate, St. John started working for and with University professor Madison Davis Lacy on documentary work for his New York production company, Firethorn Productions.
The opportunity pushed St. John to move to New York. Through Lacy, St. John got to know Dikayl Rimmasch, a director who at the time owned a little studio in Alameda, California. Rimmasch is now known for working with Beyoncé on the “Lemonade” video.
It was with Rimmasch that St. John got to work in San Francisco as a cinematographer on the documentary “Cachao: Uno Mas.”
It’s hard to know how far a $550 motorcycle can get you. But, in March 2005, after filming the documentary with Rimmasch, St. John needed to get home to New York. So he burned rubber, and all his cash, to go cross country.
The trip became his best and worst decision. He had to change the clutch on a bike he just bought, and he was hit with a snowstorm in the middle of March. But he kept going. He was always going to keep going.
“It was stripping down all the things you learn growing up in the Midwest,” St. John said. “It was a moment of freedom, a moment of finding myself.”
Back in New York after the trip, St. John didn’t need to hit a reset button to start over. He was already back at square one. St. John soon found a job working as a bartender at the Surf Bar in the Williamsburg borough of Brooklyn while juggling a job as a lighting director for Fox News. Despite every reason to be discouraged, St. John stayed focused. He would soon meet his wife Silvia, a waitress at the bar. He would have his daughter, Sophia St. John, a year later.
In 2010, in a beach in Miami, St. John quit Fox News, hungry to do something more creative — a return to Bullet Tooth Barry.
Almost immediately on that beach in Miami, St. John remembers, he got a text from one of his buddies. There was going to be a film shoot in New York. It was for “Men in Black 3.”
“I called, and he gave me a job immediately,” he said.
Since that call, St. John has worked as a visual effects coordinator, supervisor and producer for studios like Warner Bros. and Disney. During those projects he got to know another Kansan, Cox, from Derby.
St. John calls Cox a mentor to this day.
Although St. John has gone through his challenges in life and working on high-budget films, he still calls one small aspect of 2012’s “The Great Gatsby” one of his biggest hurdles.
Throughout the film, the main character, Jay Gatsby yearns for the character Daisy, the unattainable love interest, who lives across the dock on West Egg in Long Island, New York. In the night, as Gatsby looks out to her house, a green light flickers in the distance. Luhrmann saw the light as a motif for Gatsby’s elusive dream, according to St. John. By the book’s end, the narrator Nick Carraway carries a similar sentiment.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther...,” the book reads.
The green light was so special to Luhrmann that he had the visual effects team create multiple versions of the light to convey a specific, visceral emotion. The team added a flare and timed the score to a crescendo, matching the flare beat for beat. Nights in the editing room with Luhrmann and the editor became tiresome. What initially seemed like a sprint to the finish ended up being a marathon.
“That entire shot is supposed to capture the whole feeling of what’s going on between them. I can’t even tell you how many submissions we had of that one shot. We went through so many versions,” St. John said. “Every time that light came up, we were that flashing hope. There was a glimmer of hope, and then it would fade right away.”
St. John’s mindset went through a similar jostle on the motorcycle trip seven years before. But on that trip St. John learned not to be easily discouraged, something that would pay off in the years to come. He wasn’t discouraged when he had to pay almost the original cost of the bike simply to keep it upright, and he wasn’t discouraged when he was hit by a snowstorm. Even though he had spent much of his money trying to get home, St. John realized that if he wanted to stick around in film, to finally feel that escape, he had to live in the moment.
“It was on the motorcycle trip that I learned to let go,” St. John said. “I let go of everything that I had expected I wanted out of all this.”
— Edited by Abi Gleckler