Interview: Barry Jay and Mike Manning on The Way Out

Known primarily as the founder of the hugely successful fitness regime Barry’s Bootcamp, Barry Jay is moving beyond flexing physically to now creatively. As someone who has been open about their traumatic, abusive past, Barry has channelled his experiences into his latest form of art – the tense horror/thriller The Way Out (you can read our review here).

As the film arrives on Digital and On Demand, Pete spoke with both Barry and The Way Out‘s captivating co-lead Mike Manning, discussing the therapeutic process of writing the story, their own relationships with the horror genre, and the natural inclusion of characters who are sexually fluid.

I understand this film was born from trauma for you, Barry, and that the horror genre is something of an escape as the terror we see in films has an ending. Was that one of the reasons you gravitated towards the genre when detailing this story?

Barry Jay: According to one of my many therapists (laughs). The fact that horror movies got me into a place of fear and then it ended that relief is what I was chasing. That’s one theory. Horror (films) are just so cool. It get my blood rushing. I just love feeling things when I’m watching a horror movie. I love getting scared. I love screaming at the screen. I love jumping out of my seat. But I’m the same way if you take me to a tear jerker. I want to be bawling. You know, I just I want to feel the experience of the film.

Mike Manning: When I think I think horror too, just going to piggyback on what Barry said, I think horror and science fiction have traditionally always been a place where because it’s not reality, it doesn’t hit quite so close to home. It traditionally has been a place where filmmakers are able to explore dark themes, like trauma and abuse and things in sort of a sandbox that’s safe. Because it’s sort of all at an arm’s length and it has that escapism element to it. So I think traditionally, you know, filmmakers have been able to go a little bit further than they may have in a drama or a comedy to explore some of those darker themes. And I have tried, since making the film, to picture (The Way Out) as any other genre, and I don’t think that it would have been as effective as it was.

Looking at Barry’s Evil Dead shirt right now, I’m going to ask you Mike if there’s a horror film that stands out as the pinnacle of the genre for you?

Mike Manning: I love horror films. I’ve always been such a fan of the genre. I remember watching A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then sitting in my bed just not wanting to go to sleep because Freddy Krueger was going to get me. I remember being 12 or 13 watching The Sixth Sense. It’s probably before I should have been watching that, but I remember thinking how I was the same age, or similar, as Haley Joel Osment when making that movie, and then the next morning taking a shower and getting ready for school, and everyone else was asleep, and hearing whispers. I turned the shower off and opened the curtain, and the mirror started fogging up and I could swear I saw letters in the mirror. My mind was playing tricks on my because of that movie! That was something that stayed with me. I would think back on that film and the hairs on my arms would stand up. I just love stuff like that. I love movies that stay with you.

As I’ve gotten older I’ve branched out and watched more foreign films and (watched) more directors that are more obscure. I think at the core (though) my favourite types of movies are the ones that fulfil the genre. If it’s a comedy, it makes you laugh. If it’s a drama, it makes you cry. If it’s a horror, it scares you. If it’s a thriller, it gives you that heart racing suspense. But they’ve also got to say something, a message that transcends the genre. After you turn the movie off or leave the theatre it stays with you. Those are the types of movies that I gravitate towards as an audience member. And those are the types of movies I like to be a part of as an actor or producer.

One of the things I really liked about The Way Out was that I went into this knowing very little. I see far too many movies so it’s always appreciated being surprised. The film was sold to me as akin to Single White Female, which I was all for, but then it obviously went deeper than that. Barry, is it therapeutic to write something like this and channel your past experiences into these characters?

Barry Jay: Oh yeah, very therapeutic. But it’s also very challenging. It was not easy, but I felt ready to do it. I felt I was in a very loving, supportive group of people. The cast and crew helped me a lot. This was the big one, the mother ship secret, my big trauma…so it felt like I had to turn that negative into a positive. That’s what I was hoping to come across with this movie. (There) could be something good in my life for once, and hopefully that would help somebody else in their life.

Writer/director Barry Jay

Your main character, Alex (played by Jonny Beauchamp), is essentially an extension of you. Every other character is looking from the outside in. Is it easy to write characters from all the other perspectives that you may not have had?

Barry Jay: To be honest, it was easier. I tap from within myself, and that’s why it’s so much easier to write from the outside looking in. I can look at other people and be so sure about what I want to do. Once I turn it inward, that’s where the work begins. Shane (Mike’s character), I’m not going to lie was fun and easy to write. I loved every page I got to write with Shane. He was just a great creation. He was everything. He was scary. He was right. And then Veronica is a character take on my own sponsor, who is a woman and 20 years older (than me). Initially that’s what we were looking for, but then we found Sherri Shepherd and I literally screamed. I knew we didn’t need to do anything else. The other people in the film are definitely reflections of people in my life, and all much easier to write than Alex.

And Mike, when you read a character like Shane, are you thinking if it’s a good thing you’re being thought of for such a role?

Mike Manning: Yeah. Well, I will say it was such a joy having Barry on set as the writer/director (and) having a lot of this based on his own story, because he’s such a wealth of knowledge. Every time we had questions, as actors, we would ask Barry “Why do they say it this way?” or “What’s going on here?”, and Barry would just bounce our ideas off. He was sort of a safety net for us. I’m glad that (he) cut deep and told the story the way he did. I found out about the project through a friend of mine, Nick Theurer, who is a producer on this film, and I had worked with him on a film called Slap Face, which was a horror/thriller that I produced. He connected with Barry and they were working on this script and getting it packaged. I think I read an early version of the script, and I gave some notes and ideas. I passed it on and wished him good luck as a friend, you know? Then Barry came back, I think about 3 or 4 months later, and he had retooled the script and polished it with some of my notes. He gave me the script and I thought it was really great, and Barry called me a week later and told me how he’d been thinking of me as Shane. I thought, “Should I be offended?” (laughs).

In the beginning (Shane) scared me. It scared me to play a role like this, something that was so outside of what I typically played before. I was the nice guy, or the jokey guy, or the boyfriend…so I knew I needed to think about it. I think it was that night, or the next day or something, that I called and just said “Let’s do this!” Then I immediately signed up for boxing classes, I adjusted my diet so I could gain weight for the role. I ended up gaining about 13 pounds between that moment (of saying yes) to when we started filming. I knew that if I was doing this and working with Barry on a story so personal that I wanted it done the right way.

Did you feel any pressure in looking that way given it’s Barry from Barry’s gym right there?

Mike Manning: (Laughs) Yeah, I mean it’s Barry from Barry’s Boot Camp, and I’m a character in the film that has to be physically fit and teach people how to box. I knew I had to at least look the part for it to be authentic. I definitely doubled down on working out with boxing and everything. Shane is a character that uses his body, both seductively and in a way that’s physically imposing to get what he wants. I think that (Shane) had to be that strong and ferocious. He had to be muscular in order that make that part of the story make sense. If he was the same size as Alex, Jonny’s character, it wouldn’t have made sense. I thought that was a really important part of the character.

Mike Manning as Shane in The Way Out

One thing I’m noticing about films lately is that queer representation is starting to become extremely natural and no longer treated as if it’s some token additive. Both with Alex being queer and Shane being sexually fluid, it was really special to view from a gay man’s perspective. Barry, have you found these types of additives are more easily welcomed? That you no longer have to fight the system, so to speak?

Barry Jay: You know, when I was writing it it never even occurred to me that I was a “gay movie”, to be honest. I was just writing characters that are related to the spin-off of my life and what not. I never made a mental decision on this is going to be “a thing”. It’s not a gay movie, it’s just a movie. I think we deserve the same treatment as every other movie out there.

Mike Manning: And I think it’s worth mentioning, too, that this film premiered at the Burbank Film Festival last year, in the fall, and it is not an LGBT-focused festival. It accepts films from all around the world, and at that festival we won both Best LGBT Feature and the Audience Award. The Audience Award is based on the audience votes from every film in the festival, so in 2022 we’re winning both these awards is really, really special. It shows how far we have come, like you were saying, in terms of representation and having those types of characters being more than the B storyline or the C storyline, and having straight audiences relate to these characters in just as many ways as they would a straight character.

I like it. It’s showing that if you fuck with gay people, we’ll fuck you right back!

Mike Manning: (Laughs) Exactly! Give me their address! (Laughs) Just kidding. I know when Barry and I talked about the kitchen scene, where Shane kisses a woman and Alex walks in on that moment, we did discuss if that should’ve been a man or not. We decided it should absolutely be a woman to show fluidity. I don’t even want to say bisexual, because I hate putting people in categories. I think, ironically, bisexuals are now the most underrepresented characters in film and television. There’s been this renaissance for lesbians, for gays, for transgender individuals, but I think bisexual representation really hasn’t caught up with that. I appreciate that Shane wasn’t defined in this. He’s sexually attracted to anybody.

I think there was a New York Times article that came out that said, like, one in six people under the age of 26, identify as not straight. So they’re not going to say, “Oh, I’m, I’m lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender…”, they’re just saying they’re not straight. And that’s one in six. It used to be one in 10 was the estimate, but now it’s one in six, so I definitely think that the future generation are much more open to that exact idea that you’re talking about that people are the way they are, and then they just happen to have a certain sexuality and it doesn’t really make a difference.

But the film itself, for me, definitely entertained me from its genre logline, but as someone who has gone through a share of emotional abuse, I have to commend you, Barry, for putting yourself out there in such a way.

Barry Jay: Oh, thank you.

Mike Manning: Thank you for saying that, because it’s also nice to know when art imitates life, people think that it only happens in the movies, but Barry is somebody that experienced some of these things, turned to alcohol, got sober and is currently sober. Went on to start one of the most popular gym franchises in existence, and is now becoming a successful writer and director of film. His trajectory? I think that Barry’s success story and his film can serve as a cautionary tale. He’s a living example of finding “the way out”. I think the main message of the film is that our abuse doesn’t define us. You can go down one road or another, but you only carry that abuse with you as long as you want to. At some point you find a way out of your abuse, and then you move on to do amazing things, like Barry is doing now. I think that’s cool, because now people have a role model, not just on screen, but in real life. When they see this film and they know it’s based on Barry, they can look at him and see he has a film that he has carried on his shoulders. I think that’s remarkable.

The Way Out is available On Digital and On Demand from February 10th, 2023.

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