How to tell your story from the heart: An interview with Norberto Barba

Norberto Barba is a well-established TV producer, director and writer, and he's a U.S. Army veteran. His career began directing independent films which led him to breaking into the TV industry on the show "Law & Order: Criminal Intent." He is…
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Norberto Barba is a well-established TV producer, director and writer, and he’s a U.S. Army veteran. His career began directing independent films which led him to breaking into the TV industry on the show “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” He is proud of his Cuban heritage and family’s cultural influence on his life.

WATM: Can you share about your family and your life growing up?

I grew up in the Bronx, NY, where I am first generation as my parents came from Cuba in 1960. We grew up very humbly with six of us in an apartment. We had been evicted from a couple of apartments growing up. Although we did not have much in material possessions, my parents instilled a drive for excellence in us. There was a love of education and discipline in our family. My siblings are all highly educated with master’s degrees, which is a testament to my parents as we have all become successful.

The neighborhood was an interesting place and we lived in the Bronx during the “Bronx is Burning” period where it was rough. I went to Regis High School in NYC, which is one of the top five high schools in the country, where upon acceptance I got a free ride I was accepted into Columbia where I had an interest in pursuing medicine. I had done a lot of theater in high school which weighed in on the decision for me to study film instead. I studied film at Columbia for two years, mostly graduate courses and transferred to USC where it was all “hands on.” My next stop was at AFI where it was all story and character.

WATM: What is your most distinct memory of your mother and your father?

My mother worked hard as a seamstress and embroidery work. She did that for over 30 years. My father had a strong work ethic as well. They got to see all three of us succeed. They started from scratch and sacrificed for the next generation. They were highly successful in sacrificing so we as children could succeed in the US.

I went to Cuba in 1992 for a film festival and then went back in 2000 to take my mom who hadn’t been back since she had left. It was a heartfelt experience with her.

WATM: What values were stressed at home?

Self-sufficiency and that we were capable of anything if we set our minds to it. Education was the driving factor as well. With the little they had they made sure I had piano lessons, the latest encyclopedia and we were reading at an early age. They knew the power of our future would be based on education, discipline, self-belief, hard work, and determination. They taught us not to give up. The bar was set very high and there was an expectation of excellence. Having a “drive” is a very Cuban culture trait. Cubans are one of the most successful immigrant groups based on a solid value system. Family was stressed and important in life.

WATM: What influenced you to join the US Army, what was your experience and what lessons did you take away from your service?

Through college I worked consistently where I bar tended and worked at a Broadway theater on weekends while at Columbia. Between USC and AFI I recognized my need for help with my student loans where the military had a program to help pay them back. I enlisted in the Army Reserve and did Basic Training at Fort Sill, OK. I placed into the advanced courses and was a 25P for my specialty. I did my weekend a month at Los Alamitos by Long Beach. They would ask me if I was available to film a conference or a documentary which sometimes, I was. I did Basic Training right after the Panama conflict and then was in the Reserves during Desert Storm and Kosovo.

I met a lifelong friend while in the service and I do not regret having joined. They did make it difficult to get the Army to pay back my student loans where I never got what was owed to me. There was a lot of red tape in the student loan repayment process. They only were paying back the federal loans I had taken out. It seemed the Army was not used to paying back Ivy league types of expenditures. The expense of education is one of the drawbacks of going for higher degrees and training in the US.

I thought back to my time before entering the Army and what I was experiencing when I joined. There were no prospects where my dream was to be a director. I was burnt out of the part time jobs, temping and driving a taxi. I had the desire to do the Army and liked the idea of the discipline. I wanted a life experience and so I went. I liked the group of guys we put together out of the 306th Psychological Operations Company. We would mount radio stations and do propaganda work. I met actors and filmmakers in that unit where it was an interesting group.

AFI was a tough school to get into where only 23 candidates were selected per year. At that same time Desert Shield was starting as the lead up to Desert Storm. There was talk about putting boots on the ground where it came to January of 1991 and my unit asked me about if I wanted to deploy to the Gulf War. I told them I couldn’t do it as I was in the middle of production for my school. A week later they called me back asking me again to go to Kuwait. I told them again all my chips were up to AFI. They called a third time and said we need your MOS where you are being called up. I packed my TA-50 and picked up my weapon to head to Fort Bragg for deployment to Kuwait. I was ready to go even though I was in the middle of production. A day later or so the news came out that they had boots on the ground in the Gulf War and Desert Storm began. The war lasted about 100 hours where they stood me down before leaving. I was on the brink of going.

I finished AFI and was on the verge of my first feature film just a few years post my Desert Storm call up, and I get a call about me being needed to go to Kosovo. The Army did call me up, but my enlistment had just ended the day before and I didn’t go. My best friend in the unit took my place and left for Kosovo. It changed his life and he had a rough time. He came back to the states and was an actor where he decided to get a master’s in clinical psychology where he focused on PTSD. He then worked in Long Beach with the veterans with PTSD and returned to St. Louis to run a nonprofit support group for veterans that are homeless and that have difficulties. He is now the director of this program. Things are meant to happen where now he is doing this incredible work in St. Louis.

WATM: What values have you carried over from the Army into directing?

I brought esprit de corps over into directing. The way I run shows is a lot of the same camaraderie and mutual respect as you would have in a unit. The best producers delegate where I believe in the chain of command. As an EP I work in tandem with the writers where my primary goal is to protect the show and execute the writer’s vision. I have to run a production machine that is creative but at the same time it is pragmatic and a logistical effort. It is M an episode with a certain amount of time to shoot it and prep it. I have heads of departments and confirm with the writers what we are looking for. This runs down the chain of command to the different departments. I empower those department heads as captains and lieutenants where they have NCOs within the department to empower.

I remember an early comparison with the Soviet and US military where it was said the US would likely win. The Soviet military if they lost a captain or senior officer no one below them could run the unit. In the US military if the captain is taken out, the next person in line runs the thing and so on. If you are taking out the top guy you are not taking out the group. I think this is true because you are empowering through the chain of command where I don’t have to dictate everything and creative people in the chain of command can come up with new things. It allows for creativity and leadership that is inherent.

One morning while directing an episode on the set of “CSI:NY” Gary Sinise comes up to me and shakes my hand while saying “thank you for your service.” He found out the day before that I had served in the Army. I told Gary I am not some super patriot where I joined because I was broke and needed to pay back student loans. He said, “That doesn’t matter where folks join the military for different reasons. You shouldn’t feel ashamed or that you are not patriotic where your initial reason was financial. You didn’t have to join the Army where you could be sent somewhere and might be killed for serving your country.” His comments really stuck with me.

One thing I have noticed is that the majority of accomplished people have the most humility and gratitude.

WATM: What is the most fulfilling project you have done and why?

Martin Scorsese said this on revisiting films he had done before where he answered, “We grow as people and humans. The stories we want to tell fifteen years ago are not the stories we want to tell now. We grow and change.” Stories that make a humanistic difference are the most moving to me.

On “CSI:NY” I did an episode called “Yahrzeit” where Ed Asner plays an Orthodox Jew through the story, we see he was actually part of the Nazi Youth during WWII. He escaped Germany after the war, changed and embraced Judaism so as to not be discovered. For the show we interviewed Holocaust survivors as part of a documentary for the behind the scenes of that episode. It was a rare experience on “CSI:NY” where every time I watch that episode, I feel sad. It was also a powerful episode, where Gary Sinise’s character’s father in the show was part of liberating camps in WWII. I thought that episode made a difference.

I loved my experiences on “Better Call Saul” and “Lights Out.” “Lights Out” had a lot of heart. I loved working on “Grimm” and it was so fulfilling on a visual level, storytelling level and the audience we reached. It was the first series where my boys got what I did for a living because they were fans of the show. To this day I am very close to the actors and filmmakers of the show.

I have made some stinkers in my lifetime as well. Let’s not talk about them.

The cast of “CSI NY”. Photo credit tvseriesfinale.com.

Barba with the cast of “Mayans M.C.”. Photo credit Zimbio.

WATM: What was your experience like on projects such as “New York Undercover,” “CSI,” “Grimm,””Law Order,” “Mayans M.C.” and “FBI”?

When you look at a career, people tend to get pigeonholed for the things you do. I tailored my career from action to police procedurals and moved into more dramatic shows to avoid being pigeonholed. It is a journey through a career and it also reflects where I am in life at the time. I had a slow period in the early 2000s where it was just an inconsistent time. I remember thinking if I got “Law and Order”, that would really change things. Then I got an offer to direct “Law and Order: CI”, where one of the best things I did was the first episode I directed for the show. They asked me back for “Law and Order CI”, then I directed “Law Order: SVU” and even got to direct the original “Law and Order”. I did so well they asked me back to be an EP on “Criminal Intent.” I got very close to the Dick Wolf family and owe them a lot where it has become a somewhat symbiotic relationship.

I came back to “SVU” as a producer/director last season (2019) and am back this season (2020). You can be in a lot of producer camps where I have been in the Bruckheimer camp and Wolf camp.

The cast from “Law Order: SVU”. Photo credit tvinsider.com.

WATM: What leadership lessons in life and from the Army have helped you most in your career?

Looking at the group you are meeting as equals and sharing the same goals. I don’t look at a leadership position where people are under me, but we are in this together. We are equal compatriots in reaching the same goal. We had to put up a radio tower in the Army where we are all in this together. Basic things as night watch in the Army where you are all supporting each other stick in my mind. It is a leadership quality that goes back to humility and gratitude.

Supporting each other going back to humility. I try to engender a cohesive group mentality, where they work out of desire to make the whole better and not out of fear. You want team members to desire to make the whole better. It all starts at the top and you can set the tone from there for the project.

Barba on the set of Solo. Photo credit IMDB.com.

WATM: As a veteran, how do we get more veteran stories told in the Hollywood and stage arena?

It all goes down to a story where we shouldn’t be result oriented. We should not just want to tell more veteran stories we should have a veteran story that is really going to be impactful not just because it has veterans in it. An organic and true story as opposed to results-oriented veteran story. We will have more of those stories if we come from truth and from the heart.

WATM: What are you most proud of in life and your career?

I am most proud of my family, my boys and my wife. I am proud of my work as a director although it took a while for me to make it. I am proud that I hung in there.