Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Breakfast with scott burns

Scott Burns's characters are often deplorable and sympathetic, idealistic and pragmatic. And they love their families. The filmmaker and producer talks to Deborah Stoll over a plate of eggs ... 

 

 

 

Deborah Stoll | Spring 2008

"The smallest and most meaningful unit in any society is family". This line stays with me weeks after seeing Scott Burns's darkly beautiful and surprisingly funny film, "PU-239", which first aired on HBO in November. Based on a short story by Ken Kalfus, it follows a devoted father in post-Soviet Russia who gets exposed to a lethal dose of radiation. In order to provide for his family, he steals some plutonium and joins forces with an inept gangster (played by the incredibly talented Oscar Isaac). Together they form an awkward friendship, forged by a willingness to sacrifice everything for family.

The film, Burns's first with a written/directed-by credit, is a highly stylised study in opposites. His two main characters inhabit contrasting colour palates--an effectively claustrophobic technique that hints at a future collision between these two hued worlds, to devastating effect. "I wanted the world where Timofey (the devoted father, played by Paddy Considine) comes from to be a bleached out, green environment, as though it had been radiated," Burns explains to me in a restaurant in Venice (lo, California, not Italy). We are having breakfast, and the reliable sun streaks through the room as Manu Chao's "Luna y Sol" plays in the background. "In Moscow, it was all about a really saturated palette, moving the camera, crossing the line." The way Burns describes colour and composition, I am hardly surprised to hear him describe early dreams of becoming a fine artist. Yet, he admits, "I'm a terrible painter. And I can't draw." 

The primacy of family is a theme that runs through all of Burns's films. In "An Inconvenient Truth" (which he helped produce and accepted an Oscar for, alongside director Davis Guggenheim), Al Gore mentions that his life--and some of his policy priorities--completely changed when his six year-old son was nearly killed darting in front of a car. Gore describes "the possibility of losing something that was precious to me...What we take for granted might not be here for our children. It turned my whole world upside down."

Burns's phone buzzes as the food reaches the table. He learns that "The Bourne Ultimatum"--the final film of the Bourne trilogy, which he penned--has been nominated for a BAFTA award. "That's funny," he says, shaking his head, as if that's the craziest news he's heard all week. And then we dig into our eggs.

"I think of Bourne as being a superhero with a very basic and very human, question", Burns explains. "Bourne doesn't know how he got to be himself. He doesn't know where he comes from and so Bourne's movement in the world is both backwards and forwards at the same time; he has to move forward through this story but he also has to move back into himself." Scott pauses and laughs. "The studio probably doesn't like me talking about it that way."

Intellectualising his characters--mining the depths of their psyches--is what makes Burns such a talented writer. He offers no pat answers, no easy ways out. Even the most deplorable characters in his films are complex enough to be sympathetic. The world is a bit fucked, Burns reminds us, and sometimes survival means allying with our demons before destroying them.

The gritty pragmatism of making nice with one's enemies is part of what interests (and troubles) Burns about his latest project: a drama series for HBO about humanitarian workers in an international aid organisation, modelled on Doctors Without Borders (MSF)--a "neutral" non-profit that he has become involved with recently. "Neutrality is a very complicated issue", Burns says. "If you're a warlord in Afghanistan and you control certain areas of the country, you can say, alright Doctors Without Borders, I'll let you in but I'm taking credit for it." So by setting up a clinic that helps people with TB you are, in effect, endorsing the warlord's authority.

These frustrations will surely make their way into a script Burns is writing in collaboration with Angelina Jolie. The two of them were introduced to each other last year by their mutual friend Matt Damon (aka, Jason Bourne). "I didn't really think it was going to happen, but a couple of weeks later I got a call from her manager asking if I'd come in to meet with Angie and we had a really great conversation." Jolie's humanitarian work as a Goodwill Ambassador to the UN is widely known. But in today's celebrity-cause-bandwagon-brouhaha, it is hard to know who is doing the work and who is merely getting free schwag for attending benefit parties. Burns confirms that Jolie is the real deal.

"Angie is an incredibly great collaborator for me because she can get anybody on the phone and she really has the insight into this world. She works for the UNHCR and she goes to refugee camps and she meets people. This is what she's doing with her life and I find that really inspiring." Burns and Jolie spent a month this past winter attending meetings at the UN together. "One day Angie called me up and said, €˜You know, Brad's really interested in this too. Would it be okay if he worked on it with us?' So now, you know, there are kids from Africa, kids from Cambodia and then there's this Jewish kid from Minnesota."

I wonder at Burns's balance of creatively tackling issues of international importance while also maintaining a sense of humour and some semblance of a social life.

"I've heard developmental psychologists talk about creativity as being a form of madness," Burns says. Maybe a little bit is a good thing--a lot and you're hearing voices telling you to burn down buildings," Burns pauses and looks out the open door to the sleepy beach town beyond. "It is weird to me that the voices never seem to tell people to go stop the problem in Darfur."

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.