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SXSW Pre-Production: STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS Director Jeff Burr

by Scott Weinberg

THE 'STRAIGHT INTO DARKNESS' PITCH: Straight into Darkness is a character-led story that is set in the last winter of the Second World War, just after the Battle of the Bulge. It focuses on two American soldiers and their enigmatic, psychological, and religious journey between the lines.

Will this be your first time at South By Southwest? Any other film festival experience?
This is my 2nd film at SXSW. My first was Eddie Presley at the 1st film festival in 1994. I couldn’t go, so this is my first time attending. [Editor’s note: This film arrives in a new special edition DVD package from Tempe Entertainment on May 11, 2004.]

Describe your film in seven words or less.
Ambitious, enigmatic, sincere, hopefully thought-provoking.

When you were 14 years old, if someone asked you what you wanted to be when you grew up, what would your answer have been?
I am one of those guys who knew from an early age I wanted to be involved with film. So at 14 I really knew that I wanted a career somehow in film.

How did you get started in filmmaking?
I made Super 8 movies as a teenager, then went to film school as an undergrad in L.A., then dropped out after my junior year after making a short film called Divided We Fall. I worked for Roger Corman in the advertising department, worked on home music videos, etc… and then inspired by indie filmmakers like Romero and Raimi, decided to make an independent horror film, produced by my brother (who raised the money) and Darin Scott. The gratifying thing is that two important people from my first film (Mark Hannah, Will Huston) were instrumental in my latest film. (And also my brother gets special thanks…we Georgians are nothing if not family oriented!)

How have things changed for you since your film was accepted into the festival?

Not at all yet – it is gonna be the U.S. premiere of the film and we are nervous as hell.

When you were shooting the film, did you have SXSW (or other festivals) in mind?
No…this movie was so hard to shoot that the only thing I could think about was the task at hand. The end result was light years away in my mind.

How did you get your film started? How did you go from script to finished product?
Several different ways. I had done a series of films in Romania, gotten to be great friends with a DP there, Viorel Gergevicj. (We had done 6 other movies together). He had just formed a company, invited me to make a film with him, he put up production services, etc. I put up the U.S. portion of the money, and we said damn the torpedoes, let’s make this fucker! It was written in the Cassavettes style, and the Rodriguez style, around locations I either knew or found on the first scouts, and for actors that I had met in Romania. And I had a healthy does of director’s hubris, too, I am sure. Thinking I could do a low budget epic WW2 movie with children…I am too experienced to be that stupid!!!!

What's the single most important lesson you learned while making this film?
I think the lessons were forever reaffirmed. 1) Stick to your vision NO MATTER WHAT. 2) If you intend to do number one, then you better have an incredibly competent, ENTHUSIASTIC, SUPPORTIVE producing team. I was an am blessed with Mark Hannah, Chuck Williams, Will Huston and Chris Gore.

When you were in pre-production, did you find yourself watching other great movies in preparation?
The DP and I watched some documentary footage together, but no, we really didn’t watch movies. Mark Hannah and I zipped through A Midnight Clear, Ivan's Childhood, Steel Helmet, for scale references, about what possibly you can do on a low budget. And of course, I am sure that Cross of Iron stuck in my mind a little as did Ballad of a Soldier and Come and See, which I saw after I made the movie. And The Bridge, which was pointed out to me after I shot my movie.

If a studio said 'we love this, we love you, you can remake anything in our back catalogue for $40m' - what film, if any, would you remake?
I really don’t think of remaking anything. But please, if you are going to remake something, pick a movie that had a great idea that was SCREWED UP and not used to anywhere near the real potential. DON’T remake personal minor classics, such as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Dawn of the Dead, etc.

Two-parter: Which actor would you cut off an arm to work with, and which relatively unknown actor in your own film do you want the world to start recognizing sooner rather than later?
Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, Dustin Hoffman. To my taste, the three greatest. Of course younger, Johnny Depp. As for my film, I have always thought that David Warner is an undervalued actor. Morgan is amazing, among many others. And to two actors who did cameos for me, James LeGros and Daniel Roebuck. I feel they are extremely undervalued in mainstream Hollywood…look again at Living in Oblivion, Floundering, River's Edge and The Fugitive. All pretty amazing performances!!!

The festival circuit: what could be improved, and what couldn't be?
Tough question. Probably less reliance on names, more experimenting with programming, more regional quirks, etc. But the filmmakers have to take some responsibility (they are less risk taking) and the audience too. (They are less willing to take a leap with the filmmaker).

Have you 'made it' yet? If not, at what point will you be able to say 'yes'?
Heck no. There is no finish line. There is no “making it”. We just have to crank ‘em out and keep moving ahead. But in the back of my mind, I know I am one lucky sonuvabitch because I have been paid to do something I truly love.

A movie is made by a lot of people in addition to the director, but often films will open with a credit that says "a film by." - Did you use that credit in your film? If so, defend yourself! If not, what do you think of those who do?
I have a very strong opinion on that. That credit means everything to me, because I want the credit “A JEFF BURR FILM” to mean something. My personal theory is that credit is deserved if you have total creative control on the movie…from script development to final cut. I have had that on three movies, and they are the ones with that credit for me. Another thought is that…”would the movie exist without you?” These are my guidelines, and I made clear in my contracts that they CAN’T say it’s a JEFF BURR MOVIE unless I have those stipulations. (On the bulk of my movies, I have been hired, in a traditional manner, with the financing company or executive producers trying to impose certain things, too.)

[Editor's Note: Director Jeff Burr can also be heard in a rather excellent audio commentary on New Line's Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 DVD.]

Straight Into Darkness, written and directed by Jeff Burr, starring Scott MacDonald, Ryan Jenner Francis, David Warner, Linda Thorson, James LeGros and Daniel Roebuck, has its world premiere at the 2004 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here and here for more info!

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=1048
originally posted: 03/09/04 18:35:41
last updated: 03/10/04 02:37:16
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