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Movie about balloon dad could clear him

by John Rogers

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Once Richard Heene admitted in court that he wrongly sent authorities on a wild goose chase across Colorado to save the son he thought was aloft in a runaway balloon, friends and supporters seemed to take off just about as fast as that balloon.

All except for one: Steven Barber, a 48-year-old filmmaker who says he still believes Heene really thought his son was in the balloon as it spun wildly through the skies on Oct. 15. He plans to prove it, Barber says, when he releases the documentary “Balloon Boy: Guilty Until Proven Innocent” later this year.

Barber has known Heene — now serving 90 days in jail after pleading guilty to falsely influencing authorities — for more than 10 years and says he has dozens of hours of film of the backyard inventor pursuing one science project after another. He compiled much of that footage, the filmmaker says, in an effort to help Heene land a TV reality show chronicling his science adventures.

What Heene was trying to do with the balloon, Barber says, was solve the world’s traffic problems by creating a cheap, lighter-than-air vehicle that would allow people to float over congested freeways.

Barber says that although the idea may sound far-fetched to some, even ridiculous to others, Heene is a “mad genius” with a penchant for exploring offbeat scientific theories.

“He’s a freakin’ genius, a really smart guy — and he’s a good guy,” Barber, an intense ball of energy, says of Heene as he sits in front of his laptop computer in the breakfast nook of his cluttered beachfront apartment in the heart of Los Angeles’ Bohemian Venice community.

It is there that Barber is culling through a decade’s worth of interviews with Heene, including footage he says he traveled to Colorado to shoot of the balloon before its Oct. 15 launch and footage taken afterward to get Heene’s side of the story. He wasn’t there on the actual day of the balloon debacle.

He’s willing to show only one brief snippet of film, however, taken before the launch, when the balloon was still in pieces on the floor of Heene’s Fort Collins, Colo., home and he was explaining how he planned to put it together. Barber said he filmed that segment for one of the many TV show pitches he helped put together for Heene over the years.

“I was out here for years trying to help him get TV shows,” he says. “I’ve gotten him lots of pitches.”

Barber declined to show the footage he took after the balloon returned to Earth, saying he worries that if any of it is described or Heene is quoted it will only make it harder for him while he’s in jail.

Barber, whose previous films include the World War II-era documentary “Return to Tarawa: The Leon Cooper Story,” acknowledges he is announcing his plans for “Balloon Boy” just as he is beginning to promote another movie. His documentary, “Unbeaten,” on a 430-km wheelchair race through Alaska, is in theaters in Los Angeles and New York this week in an effort to get consideration for an Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards.

Although he acknowledges the “Balloon Boy” publicity can’t hurt “Unbeaten,” Barber says he’s really pursuing the project because he owes it to his friend to try to right a wrong. He adds that he doubts he’ll make any money on the venture, claiming investors lost a total of $200,000 on his last two films.

The only documentary filmmakers who make profits, he claims, are Ken Burns and Michael Moore.

Barber is also adamant that he didn’t pay Heene for any of the footage he recorded, either before or after the misadventure. Doing so would violate the terms of Heene’s probation and possibly land him in jail for considerably longer. Heene sent the authorities racing across Colorado, as millions watched on TV, when he called authorities and said he believed his son was in the balloon.

Barber says he is certain Heene believed what he told authorities was true, and that as Heene himself has said since, he only admitted in court to lying to protect his Japanese-born wife, Mayumi, because he feared she might be deported. She pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.