A master of the extreme

David Barrett on the set of Blue Bloods, readying another episode. Photo: Levi Perlman
His father broke the sound barrier in a rocket car. His godfather was Paul Newman. And he’s pretty cool himself.
By Mac Blauner

David Barrett, once an extreme-sports athlete, has parlayed his taste for high-stakes competition into a successful career as an Emmy-nominated director and co-producer of the hit CBS police drama Blue Bloods. The scion of a family of accomplished stuntmen, Barrett grew up on movie sets, watching his father double for A-list stars like Burt Reynolds and Paul Newman. He used his skills as a stuntman to break into the industry, eventually ascending the hierarchy of the film business becoming stunt coordinator, second unit director, first unit director and eventually show creator, while gaining a reputation for speed, efficiency, and meticulous attention to detail.

How did you get your start in film?

My dad [Stan Barrett] was Burt Reynolds’ and Paul Newman’s stunt double. Paul Newman was my godfather, so as a kid we would visit all the sets that my dad was on. All the big movies [like] Smokey and the Bandit, Hooper, Cannonball Run. I was always asking every director what they were doing and why they were doing it. I knew from a very early age that directing was what I wanted to do. I knew growing up in the business and given my own background in extreme sports like motocross racing, that the best way to break in was to become a stuntman, and to become a very good stuntman. I knew that I could ... climb the ladder, so to speak.

Is there anything about your background as a stuntman that enables you to bring something different to the table as a director?

Absolutely. [As a stuntman] when you are risking your life for a scene, and the [director has put the] camera is in the wrong place and it’s not going to capture the most exciting moment, and it’s really going to hurt, [you learn] exactly where that camera should be placed. Early on, I paid very close attention, and that eye for detail has really paid off as a director.

What about your experience as an extreme sports athlete has influenced your work as a director?

I want to be the best that I can possibly be, as a motocross racer, as a ski racer, as a stuntman, and as a director. You want to get that perfect shot. I want to know that I have left it all on that set, and that I was able to capture the perfect arc, that I have given as much as I possibly could. Ultimately, I always think about the mistakes, and how I could have done better. Because we are competing. We are competing for audiences; we are competing with every other network show on television. Every new episode should be better and more refined than the last episode, and if it’s not, I’m not doing my job. We are invited into the living rooms of people on Friday night, and they have a choice whether to turn it off or on, and for me it is a competition that at the end of the show they are moved on an emotional level, and that they have grown a little bit closer to this family that we are depicting.

How did you end up working on Blue Bloods?

I begged my agents to get me the job because it was a story that I could really identify with. In season three, I was able to do an episode [which was nominated for an Emmy for an action sequence] where the grandfather of one of our characters, Jamie Reagan (played by Will Estes), is mugged at an ATM at the beginning. Ultimately Jamie finds the perpetrator — and the guy ends up hanging off the side of the building. He has every opportunity to let him fall to his death, but that character, Jamie, will always do the right thing and he chooses to pull him to safety. So that episode got some attention, not just for the production value, but from the emotional connection that he had with his grandfather. I think the actors and the writers and the executive producers Leonard Goldberg and Kevin Wade saw the passion and enthusiasm I had for the show. Ultimately they asked me to produce the show the next year.

Is there any similarity between the family of cops you depict on the show, and the family of stuntmen and extreme sports athletes you grew up with?

One reason I really identified with Blue Bloods is because of how I grew up, with the patriarch being my grandfather, who founded Mammoth Mountain ski area. He is very gracious and the morals and the ethics and the vision that he had is a lot like Frank Reagan (Tom Selleck).

Also, having a stuntman for a father, I never knew if my dad was coming home, which is a lot like a cop’s son. My dad was the fastest man in the world. He drove a rocket car at 740 miles an hour, and was the first man to break the sound barrier. He drove it eighteen different runs, and each time, we said goodbye to our father. On run eighteen, he tells me, “I want you to promise me to take care of your mother, brother, and sister if something happens.” I’m eight years old.

My situation is not any more unique than any of those sons or daughters of the military of law enforcement, but I was really able to understand love and what is worth dying for.