Interview With Writer/Director Aaron Burns
blacktino Interview With Writer/Director Aaron Burns
Interview Conducted by Neil Lumbard
Aaron Burns is an up and coming film-maker to keep our eyes on. His first feature film effort, blacktino, premiered to much buzz and acclaim at the 2011 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX. To learn more about Aaron Burns and his debut film please visit: http://www.blacktinomovie.com/
DVDTalk’s questions are presented in bold and Aaron Burns’s responses are the portions not bolded.
DVDTalk: How did you come up with the title blacktino? I also recall there being a certain significance to it being lowercase -- if you can explain that.
Aaron Burns: Oh Yeah. Basically, when I first started writing the story it was something that was a lot more personal. My father is black and from the united states of America, and my mother is Venezuelan so she is latino or Hispanic and they met here (Editorial Note: In the US) and had me. Basically, I am blacktino. If I were to put two races together and come up with a name that would be it. But at the end of the day, I started writing the story and it was an outline of something that was very personal. Like, you start out with a spine of a story that is very personal and you kind of step back from it and read “Oh Crap, That’s not very interesting… No one is going to care about that or any of this.” You have to spice it up. Punch up the script, embellish it, and take things away and just make everything work out the way that it would. You want to make it all fit together and to use a lot of poetic license to make it the perfect version of “whatever”. At the end of the day, the final product is about 10 percent reality and 90% universal fiction. It’s kind of a story that is universal for everybody. Everybody could find a character that they can relate to, or who they knew, or who they were in High School… so that’s where blacktino came from. blacktino as a whole is something that is about individuals. That’s why I wrote the title all lowercase. Because blacktino is the least important thing about the movie. You know -- because racial identity is the least important thing that anyone has now. I mean, I’m Aaron Burns, I’m not blacktino. I’m Aaron Burns, a guy from Austin, TX who happens to have a black and Hispanic heritage. You know, that’s it!
I definitely agree with you. It’s a very entertaining movie. You certainly spiced it up, but it still feels very personal so I think that was a very good decision.
Well, thank you.
What inspired you to make the film – was it your personal background growing up?
Yeah, it was my personal background growing up, but I’ve wanted to be a director since I was a little kid. You know, I really started to get into film-making when I was about fourteen. I got a laptop that had a fire-wire port on it so I was able to make movies. You know, I would pick a camera, I think it was a Digital 8 camera at that point, a Sony Digital 8 Camera, so I could plug that into that laptop and basically start using iMovies to cut little things together, and that was the first time I ever had the ability to edit. I really got down and dirty with that. I packed on a lot of weight sitting in front of the computer, and like, working on that. I became an uber-nerd basically. (Ed. Note: He says this with a clear smile on his face)
I actually know what you’re talking about with this. I am mainly a reviewer right now, but because I want to make movies I have a camcorder and a firewire port.
Yeah. Exactly! And you know… back then I had to spend like hours or days hunting for the connector because they were impossible to find. Sony was the only one that made them at that point. Then Fry’s opened up and it was like “Oh, Gosh, Fry’s!” and they had everything. I ended up going there and getting all of that stuff set up.
As for wanting to become a director, I figured when I was 18 that “I think by the time I’m 25, I want to be able to have a professional product that I can be proud to show to people and that at least looks good enough and has a story that is good enough that it could be in theaters.” I’m not saying that I know if this movie will ever be a wide release in theaters, but it’s certainly something that I can show people without blushing.
I hope it gets a wider release.
Yeah, man. That would be awesome. But for a small budget movie it’s just never enough… it’s not something you can rely on. I just set out to make a movie by the time I was 25 and that’s what I accomplished, you know.
Well… Congrats! You did a great job.
You should be really proud of your effort.
Oh, I definitely am. I’m proud of the effort from everyone who worked on the film. We had a great group of people.
Let’s talk about Austin Marshall [Ed. Note: The lead actor in the film]. I thought he was perfect for this role. How did you meet this kid and cast him in the film?
Well, the majority of the casting of the movie… I had been at SXSW last year and I was like, you know, I think I’m ready to shoot my feature and If I’m going to accomplish my goal by the time I’m 25 then I’m going to have to do it. I thought SXSW would be a great place to have it. I had to kind of learn the ropes. I had a lot of people to talk to and stuff like that. Then I decided, “Alright, I’m going to do it this time.” I went back to LA, I packed up all my stuff, and moved out of my apartment there. I drove back to Austin with my car full of everything I owned and I took all of the liquid money that I had at the time out of my bank and put it to open a new bank account and put the money in there. I didn’t know anything about the casting world in Austin so I got my little sister, who is seventeen, and she basically knew the ropes because she’s been in acting for a while here in town (Ed. Note: in Austin), and knew about all the websites to go to and all that stuff. She is pretty organized and very smart. She helped set up a database and helped all this great stuff happen where she was pulling in 200 people to come audition for the movie, and we got the pick of the litter: for Tiger, for Devyn, for all these great people. But we were still missing the lead and there had been a couple of people who came in who really didn’t fit the bill to the point that I started putting on a lot of weight and growing my hair out, thinking “Well, I’m shooting the movie this summer regardless, and I don’t give a fuck. I’m going to have to play it.” But I met this local director who gave me some advice about who I should hire and stuff like that and he was telling me how I should look for a lead in New York. You know, to go and find a Dominican kid because it would be perfect – a real blacktino kid who might speak Spanish even, so that would work out really well, and I was like “Yeah, that would be awesome, but I don’t want some kind with a Brooklyn accent. That’s like impossible to change.” You really can’t beat that. And he was telling me about that and then he stopped mid-sentence and was like “You know what, actually, at the school that I teach at there’s a kid that would be perfect.” He looked him up on Facebook, turned around his computer, and I saw the nerdiest kid I have ever seen in my life. With his glasses, and he was holding up a tennis racket, and he was also fat… It was awesome. He just really worked.
He did work well in the role. The casting was genius.
Totally! And the thing I love about him the most, and why I cast him (and some people see it as a flaw), but I don’t really care… is his dead-pan. You know, his dead-pan creates this almost robotic kind of presence. Everyone around him is so lively and he just seems like a robot. I’m really glad I was able to find him. He’s awesome; a 16 year old I would actually want to spend time talking to.
What was it like working with actors like Michelle Rodriguez, Danny Trejo, and Jeff Fahey?
It was awesome, man! It was something that really kind of proved to me that I know what I’m doing (at least to a certain extent), and that I’m in the right place. I had met guys like Jeff and Danny on the set of Grindhouse, and I became friends with them, and when they came back for Machete, like, I got to spend a lot more time hanging out with them and learning what makes guys like that tick as actors and as people. Guys like that, who I have been around, are so experienced and Danny Trejo probably has more IMDB credits than anyone else in the history of IMDB as an actor. I also met Michelle there, I met Daryl there, and they were really what I was looking for to kind of solidify the movie as something that is real rather than just “another indie-movie”.
This was some great casting, and I hope it helps to bring a wider audience to the movie.
Yeah. Totally, man. You know the cool thing was that they not only did that for the movie, at least in a distribution aspect, but they also brought the other actors in the movie up to another level, because actors are very competitive people. They don’t want to look foolish around other, more experienced actors. It made Devyn step up the game, it made Austin step up the game, it made Tiger step up the game, knowing that the eyes of these people that they really look up to in their profession would be watching them and would be there judging them or just giving them a chance to do their all with these people in the same room, and all working on the same material. That was really important and cool for these young guys to get to be around some more experienced talent.
I also wanted to ask you about that cameo by Daryl Sabara. I thought he was kind of a scene stealer, to be honest.
Yeah, totally! Daryl is one of my very good friends and he did me this favor. I was like “Dude, I have this part and I want to work with you…”, we have plans for future projects. I just wanted to see how far I could push him. I made him do about 45 takes of that because it was a really slow day and we were just working the one location. So I had him running back and forth from that kitchen like OVER and OVER for like five minutes straight. Five minutes of takes of doing the exact thing over and over again just to see how far I could push him and to see what he would respond to and what he wouldn’t. He did us a huge favor by coming out and by supporting me as his friend. All of the actors worked for scale, the budget was very miniscule, so it was awesome.
Not to jump away from the acting, but I was impressed by the costumes in the film by Charlotte Harrigan. I’m not really familiar with her work but I thought she did a really great job on this film.
Charlotte did a really great job and she’s from Austin as well. She had just recently come back from New York and I didn’t really feel the vibe of the other costume designers. I think maybe it was an age thing as far as other people not being in the same mind-set as me, and I didn’t want to work with people who were too old or too experienced because then they think they know better than you. And, you know, they might… but I’d rather have people who grow up with me and who I can use constantly in the future. It’s funny, I just shot a music video over the weekend with Charlotte where she was also the costume designer on that. She sought out clothing from secondhand shops that kids wear in Austin because a lot of time kids aren’t the richest people in the world here. They might not be able to go to the mall and buy all these different things, but if they go to used clothes shops (like Good Will or places like that) those are the kind of places that she went to, and I thought that was very interesting. She got a lot of eclectic pieces that just really worked. In Devyn’s case, I think, she made some really beautiful choices (Ed. Note: for the film blacktino).
Is shooting a music video something you’ve done before or is this just a new side-project for you?
Yeah, that’s something I’m going to be doing a lot more. One of the producers on the movie is my best friend, Carlos Rincones, and we set up a company that we are going to be co-directing music videos for together, and we just directed a music video for a London band called The Cooler who was here at SXSW. Literally, we had the screening of blacktino, and then we had to wake up early to get to a music video set. We are going to be doing that a lot more.
What was the most difficult aspect of making this film for you?
The most difficult aspect was just learning to work with people a lot more… to learn about being a collaborator. Not necessarily in the sense that “Oh, I don’t like working with people.” I just never had the opportunity to work on something where everybody has their own department and everyone reports to a different department head and then you only talk to the department head about what you want to do and stuff like that. It’s just something that takes a little getting used to. I mean, I’m very experienced on sets, as I’ve been on movie sets since I was around 17 years old so I know the protocol for how things work but those were also big, 30 million dollar movie sets which doesn’t compare to the kind of movie set that this was. This was a lower budget movie set. We don’t have 200 crew members. We have 30, you know. It was just one of those kind of situations where we were just looking for something that was going to be important. With this movie, I just kind of had to turn my brain into something that it wasn’t, but I have a very crime-solving, logical brain so I was able to adapt to it very quickly and after the first week it was no sweat.
OK. I remember that after the premiere film screening of blacktino at SXSW you said something about wanting to do, obviously, bigger budget films and I think action movies was something that you said. What do you want to do next? And, is the action movie thing partly a result of working on Robert Rodriguez projects or was it something you just always wanted to do since you were a kid?
Oh, definitely. Robert Rodriguez was my teacher. I was like twelve years old when I read Rebel Without A Crew (Ed note: Rogriguez’s book on making El Mariachi) and kind of thinking “Oh Wow, that would be really cool to make an action movie!” Those are the movies that I started out with. You know, one of the first things was white paper battle and gun fights, like, visual effects wise. That was definitely the kind of world that I came up in and fell in love with movies in: watching Hard Boiled over and over again on a loop, watching The Killer over and over on a loop, watching Desperado over and over on a loop, and just kind of getting that action side of my brain working. As far as movies with very John Hughsian like comedy and not just the American Pie (you bring at the door) kind of funny, I definitely wanted to do something action oriented but that also has a heart. I want that to come across. I want something that has a message that people care about it’s not like you just walked out of a theater and you’re like “Oh Wow, I just saw [Ed. Note: such and such]3”. Who gives a shit, You know? I’m definitely going to make something next that is an action movie that has a heart. Hopefully I can shoot that either this fall or sometime early next year.
Are you mainly interesting in doing projects that you’ve written or are you open to doing films that you weren’t the author of?
Oh yeah, there are a lot of projects that I haven’t written that I’m looking at right now but for right now this next one is going to be something that I write. The one after that, we’ll see. I’m not opposed to making a movie that is about something written by somebody else. I’d love, in the future, to make a movie about Huckleberry Finn. To do Huckleberry Finn the proper way – a rated R or strong PG-13 film about Huckleberry Finn, or even as a TV mini-series. I think that story is one that hasn’t been told the right way. You know, it’s probably the most beautiful story that has ever been written. I think Mark Twain is probably the greatest writer that ever existed and that is a story that needs to be showed and told the right way. It’s a wonderful story of a young man finding out what he believes in and doesn’t believe in, on his own, without anybody telling him, and I think that is something that is really great.
Did you go to film-school or was your film-making talent something that came naturally to you?
Basically, my film-school wasn’t the traditional “Oh, I’m going to go to film-school and then from there I’m going to do X, Y, and Z”. My film school was being fourteen years old and sitting in front of a computer with a mission, cherry pie, and a diet coke… with learning Photoshop or learning final cut pro. Just teaching myself those things, you know. And then, after High School, it was like “Okay, what do I do?” and I ended up going to the University of Texas film program. I was able to enter because I had a pretty good reel. I was one of the only freshmen that was admitted to the college of communications film program specifically. From there, it just wasn’t my thing because over there – until you are a Junior – they won’t even let you touch a camera. So I was already ahead of where I would be when I would graduate so I thought “Why would I stay here and waste my parent’s money on this?” This wasn’t something that would be valuable to me. I was already working part time at Troublemaker Studios [Ed. Note: Robert Rodriguez’s production company] and they offered me a full time position in the visual effects department so I took that and I never looked back. I just really forced myself to work. Everyone else would go home and I would be there until 3 in the morning. During Grindhouse I shot footage and we were shooting nights so I would be shooting 14 to 16 hours daily on set and then I would go back to Troublemaker and work another eight or nine hours on visual effects. I was doing that day in and day out, staying up for three days at a time, just forcing myself to push through it. So I developed this really good threshold. Troublemaker Studios was my film school and me and my friend Carlos both worked there for about four years, and when you work for Robert if you don’t have nine jobs your fired, you know? You develop tolerance and skills in many different fields. Your doing clerical work, your keeping track of shots, doing visual effects and graphic design, editing, putting things together, shooting things, doing cinematography. I mean, your just doing all kinds of things. You have a million jobs. So there is no one there to hold your hand but there is also no one there to hold you back. We basically had a good free reign at the studio and really took advantage of that golden opportunity.
What films or film-makers would you say have been your largest influences as an artist?
Of my largest influences, the movie that made me want to make movies was Jurassic Park. I could definitely say that for sure. I mean, I had seen tons of Spielberg movies prior to that but the culmination of the arts and sciences that went into making that movie blew my mind as a kid. You know, the CG dinosaurs mixed with the prosthetic dinosaurs, the melding of live-action with virtual, that was just something that was really incredible to me. That was a huge influence, and that was the time where I was like “Wow, Somebody made this.” I could make this, maybe, you know? For film-makers that I really love the guy that I probably look up to the most is (well, I can’t really just say one) but off the top of my head everybody from James Cameron and Spielberg to Robert and Quentin, to Kevin Smith, to even all the way across the pond to John Hughes and Greg Mottola. Greg Mottola made his first movie, Daytrippers, for 40 grand and it was produced by Steven Soderberg. It just followed some people around New York and it’s a wonderful story and then that guy disappeared off the map and came back with Superbad. Then he came back with Adventureland, and now Paul. So he’s doing really great stuff and that guy is probably the director that I most see myself like, in a way. I just really respect his style and he speaks to me individually.
That’s interesting to me personally as I’ve seen a lot of films at SXSW and two of my favorites were your film blacktino, and Mottola’s film Paul. I thought those were two of the festival highlights.
Yeah, man, and I’m just a really big fan of those London boys. They’re awesome. I really like Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. That whole Edgar Wright clan.
Those would be the guys that I really look up to, and I just really respect smart action and also funny action because that shows that you have a heart as well. There’s not a James Cameron movie that you can watch and not laugh in the middle of some of the most hardcore scenes: Arnold Schwarzenegger coming into the police station, seeing that he can’t get past the guards, and then going “I’ll Be Back.” before driving the car through the entire police station… That’s hilarious! You know, that’s really funny that a robot would do something like that. And True Lies, one of the funniest movies I have ever seen in my life is just a really well done action movie. It’s funny, and charismatic, and charming, and everything. I just really respect directors that know their job and know how to give an audience what they want or maybe that they don’t even know that they want.
I’m going to shame myself and admit that I haven’t seen True Lies.
Oh, man, you have got to watch that movie. It’s incredible.
It’s the only James Cameron film I haven’t seen.
Out of interest, were there any films at SXSW you saw (other than your own) that you thought were noteworthy to you?
I didn’t really see any. I was too busy doing press or stuff like that. It was a whirlwind of crazy times. I was also attending mixers or parties and seeing all these different people. I would say that the movie that affected me the most, that I did take the time to go see, was James Gunn’s Super because James Gunn is a god, genius, super-smart dude. I mean, Slither, I loved that frikkin’ movie. That was a really smart horror film. I was like, “let me see what his sophomore effort is like” and it is phenomenal. It’s Slither ten times better. He took like an eight year break. I mean, it’s been a long time. And he’s just really honed his craft and thought about… Whatever time he took off he’d been wasting. He took himself up a notch. I think Super is probably the best film at the festival.
OK. In blacktino, it seems as though there are a lot of moments where you put a lot of effort into only a short amount of footage or screen time – like when you show the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine. How did stuff like that come into the film and how much effort did you have to put forth to do that?
I had seen that car driving around and I had a Scooby Doo joke in the movie. So I found the license plate number, found the guy that owned it, and basically asked him if he would come out for a couple of hours to just give us the car. They are just stupid jokes, and that was probably one of the most missed jokes... like hardly anyone laughs at that one. That’s awesome! You were one of the few, the one percenter that got that joke, but it was definitely one of those kinds of situations that a lot of the jokes and things… We shot the movie in twenty days. As for the entire production cycle, pre-production through post was six months. We finished the movie within six months of when we started pre-production.
That’s amazing considering how much stuff was going on in this film.
It’s just a push! You go, “Okay, I got to get this stuff done by Friday…” and you go “Okay, let’s do it!” That’s what we did. That’s why I’m really proud of the film. I’m a very pragmatic person and I know it’s not the greatest thing that’s ever been made by humans, but it’s also something that I’m proud of because of the fact that it was made in such a short amount of time, on such a low budget, with a small crew, and just a lot of heart. A lot of love was put into it.
Because we are a DVD website, can you tell us about any favorite DVD’s or Blu-ray’s you have in your collection and why you’d select them?
Dude, I have over 1200 DVD’s. (laughs) Let me think…. The ones that are awesome because they are so rare --- there’s a version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off that has a directors commentary on it from John Hughes and it was the only directors commentary that he ever did for any of his films.
I didn’t realize that.
It was only on one version of Ferris Bueller. There are several different versions of Ferris Bueller out there because, you know, how they do a different “Anniversary Edition” or “Ferris Bueller Day Off Edition” and all they do Is change the box cover, but there was only one version that had the director’s commentary on it. I had watched it when I was younger and really got a lot of wisdom from it, but to watch that one after he was dead was… really kind of a treat – to get to sit down and hear this man’s voice, talking about a positive movie that came out of his head, and to see that after I had directed a movie… to see that we thought similarly on a lot of things was really cool. To see that you have a lot in common with one of your heroes, because you will never get to actually speak to them… that’s just really cool. That’s why it’s probably one of my favorite DVD’s of all time.
Do you have any last comments you would like to share about your film or what you wanted audiences to take away from it?
Basically, the quote at the end of the movie really says everything that I need to say about that as far as what you should take away from the movie. Just treat everybody like you would want to be treated, man. It’s just a golden rule… Don’t treat people based on their groups -- treat people based on their individuality and their own personal actions. I mean, if I stole a car, someone would go “Hey, that black guy stole a car!” but that doesn’t mean you should treat someone else as if he is going to steal a car, you know? “I’m the one who did it – don’t punish him [Ed. Note: another person] for my actions!” You would want to punish him for his own personal actions. That’s kind of my emphasis in the movie.
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