Gary Burns, a writer-director from Calgary, Canada,
has created three features in six years. His first, The Suburbanators was a critical success at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival.
His worked earned the film a ranking on the Toronto Film Critics’
list of the top 10 films of 1996, with additional placements for
him as one of the top 10 directors and screenwriters. Burns’ second
feature, Kitchen Party, premiered at the 1997 Toronto Film
Festival, where it won an invite to the 27th New Directors/New Films
in New York. Its screening there prompted the New York Times to call it “the funniest, nastiest comedy of manners to come down
the pike in months.”
Burns’ latest feature, waydowntown, is a smart
satire on corporate life and modern human existence. This surreal,
hallucinogenic tale was the winner of the Best Canadian Feature
at the Toronto Film Festival in 2001 and is currently playing in
theaters throughout America. In an interview with MM, Burns
discusses the challenges of being a writer-director and the pleasures
involved with dreaming up stories for a living.
P. Pam Sawhney (MM): When did you get into
moviemaking and why?
Gary Burns (GB): I went to film school when I
was about 30. I did a number of things before that. I just jumped
around and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, then I finally decided
to go to film school. In high school, I had really crappy marks,
and really no aspirations of going to a university. I think at a
certain point I kind of went ‘wow, I don’t want a crappy job.’ It
was kind of an odd thing; I just kind of thought, ‘I want to try
MM: Didn’t you think that it would be a
difficult industry to get into?
GB: All the jobs I had previous to that were
pretty hard. When I looked into going to film school it was more
like an idea-I hadn’t looked into it a lot. I didn’t grasp that
fact. I just thought, oh you go to film school to become a director.
I didn’t really get ’til later that it is a complicated process.
I had worked in construction, I knew how to manage people, I got
along with people. I think that helped. So much of filmmaking is
just managing people and getting people to do things for you and
help you out. So I had already done that. And then it just came
down to creativity, and I was lucky. I was smart enough at film
school to look at what people are doing and learn from my own mistakes
and everyone else’s mistakes.
MM: Was becoming a storyteller what attracted
you to film school?
GB: No, not at all. I really didn’t go in as
that. It was almost a shock for me when I got to film school and
realized I had to write my own script! I could almost say I was
almost illiterate. Well, I could write a paragraph but I had never
written anything, really. So the first film I made I tried to make
a real anti-narrative. I made a film about two guys walking across
town, made them Arabic, and I didn’t subtitle their dialogue, so
their performances wouldn’t have to be very good and the dialogue
wouldn’t have to be very good. I’ve always tried to do what I had
to do to make it work.
MM: Was going to film school important for
GB: Very, very important. For me, it was everything.
I got a lot of confidence out of it because it worked. I made three
films. It just went really well for me: I felt comfortable and I
learned a lot and it was a very good environment for me.
MM: Did you make your first feature film
right after film school?
GB: Pretty much. I got money to make The
Suburbanators through some Canada Council grants. I think it
was probably two years out of film school when I made my first feature.
I lucked out; it did okay. It basically got me The Kitchen Party.
I tell everyone that’s how you get movies made, based on what you
made last time.
MM: You wrote your first two films on your own but
co-wrote waydowntown. What was the experience of collaborating
GB: It was really great. The co-writer is a
friend of mine, and he wasn’t a film writer, he’s a journalist basically.
It was new for him. He was great. I find I like both processes but
if you find the right person co-writing, it can be great. It is
better than sitting by yourself in a room. To throw ideas off someone
else, I found it really helpful.
MM: Are you obsessive when you are writing? Is it
always in your head?
GB: My process is pretty long-winded. I generally
just mull it and mull it and mull it and things come out. I keep
a notebook and I write ideas in the notebook for a long time and
gradually I’m like ‘I think I’m getting close to something going
on here’ and then I’ll start writing. It is like that; it is hard
to get it out of your head ever, sort of.
MM: What is your writing ritual like?
GB: I try to write 9-5, only in the daytime,
and don’t work on weekends. I try to keep it like a normal job,
but of course you can’t-you still wake up in the middle of the night
with an idea and you have to turn on the light and write it down.
I use Final Draft; I’ve been using it for quite awhile. I don’t
do an outline and it is probably a lot more time consuming. I generally
just kind of go and then hope I find it, start writing and hope
that I get to the end. Sometimes I’ll have the ending figured out
in my head, but I generally don’t blueprint it out that well at
MM: Do you write the entire day?
GB: More or less. I’ll start at 10 and maybe
I’ll go ’til six, sometimes. I probably don’t get eight hours of
straight writing in, though. Often I’ll get in a full hour before
lunch, and after lunch I’ll get in about four.
MM: Are you character-driven or plot-driven?
GB: I’m usually character-driven. I will plot
out who the characters are-there is this guy and that guy, that
kind of thing-sort of in general terms. Kitchen Party was
about peer pressure, a teen party film for the most part. I was
basically going: there are the losers, the leader, the follower,
the good-looking girl… I would sort of block out what sort of
characters before I started.
MM: What new projects are you working on?
GB: A feature called A Problem With Fear.
A bigger budget, it may go, it may not; it’s like everything. Even
if you think you have all the money, you may not; you never know.
Right now it’s looking good. I’ve been basically writing this and
developing a TV show based on waydowntown. I’ve written the
pilot and the bible, I have two more episodes to write by October,
so I have a bit of time. I’ve never written for TV, it’s my first
time at it. It’s interesting. Obviously there is a real structure
you have to follow. So far so good; it’s pretty fun.
MM: Do you feel that your first three films are autobiographical?
Or about people you know?
GB: My first two films were, but I think it’s
natural when you’re first starting out. Writing is hard no matter
what and of course if you’re writing about something you know or
have a relationship to it can only be easier than if it’s something
you are totally a stranger to. My first feature, The Suburbanators,
was kind of about aimless 20-year olds wandering around looking
for dope, which I’ve done. Kitchen Party is about teen peer
pressure, basically, which everyone has experienced to some degree
or another. So they were quite easy to write because it was something
I knew. waydowntown was a bit of a departure. I’ve never
worked in an office, for instance. After a certain time you probably
have to start writing that way because you can only tap into yourself
for so long!
MM: Could we say then that waydowntown is
an exploration of your own integrity? What you fear you might have
to give up to make it in the film industry?
GB: Ha! I never did but I’m sure it could work
that way. You can’t help it, it is so much about second guessing
yourself and thinking about the marketplace: Who is going to go
to your movie? What is everyone else doing? How is this going to
fit in? It’s hard to insulate yourself from what is out there, what
the industry itself is, what films people are going to. You’re not
elated just creating something for yourself, especially because
you are dealing with huge amounts of money that you have to get
someone else to give you. So I find I do spend a lot of time wondering
‘Is someone going to give me money for this?’
MM: Do you think it’s about selling your
idea, or selling yourself?
GB: I think it is a bit of both. I think it
is mostly selling yourself. It’s all kind of tied in.
MM: We all know that writing is hard. But
do you enjoy it?
GB: Actually, it’s the most enjoyable of all
the different aspects of filmmaking. It is most relaxing: you’re
home, you get up when you want, you’re working out of your home-it
is pretty relaxing. I think it is the best! There can be anxiety
if it ain’t happening. Generally I find it quite enjoyable. Compared
to being on set shooting or even editing, I find writing the most
pleasant. You can get a cup of coffee, go to the backyard, you’re
in your own world. It is pretty comfortable.