By MICHAEL GINGOLD
A remote gas station/convenience store becomes the site of disturbed behavior in BURN, which debuts today, and RUE MORGUE spoke with writer/director Mike Gan about his debut feature.
In select theaters and on VOD from Momentum Pictures, BURN (see our previous set visit here) focuses on Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), an employee at that station whose bizarre behavior puts her at odds with her more outgoing co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse). On a chilly winter night, their routine is interrupted by Billy (Josh Hutcherson), who enters brandishing a gun and demanding money. The young women’s reactions are not what he expects, particularly Melinda’s, which send the night spiraling into deviant directions. Gan, who previously made the thriller shorts NO EVIL and CLASS ASSIGNMENT and also helmed this month’s Blumhouse/Hulu INTO THE DARK entry SCHOOL SPIRIT, talks about creating both the characters and their environment below.
Melinda is a very intriguing protagonist; when you were conceiving the film, did her character come first or the basic story?
The plot definitely came first, and it was an interesting challenge to create the right person to be at the center of that plot. It was this idea of the tables being turned, and thinking about the motivations of someone who would be in that situation. That was what sparked the creation of Melinda.
How much did Tilda Cobham-Hervey bring to the role?
The words and the general arc were written on the page, and Tilda connected to the challenges and the paradoxes of the role and then brought so much of her own. She pretty much took the character and recreated herself for it, staying true to the principles of Melinda’s arc throughout the night. She’s fabulous in it, and many times while I was watching her, I forgot I wrote any of the words.
What was it about Cobham-Hervey that made you initially feel she was right for this part?
Just how connected she was to the flawed but strong character of Melinda. It was not an easy role to take on, and Tilda, who in real life is so charming and just the complete opposite of Melinda in many ways, talked passionately about exploring her dark sides, and the whole aspect of trying to reconcile who you are when you discover all the nooks and crannies inside yourself.
Melinda walks a knife edge between sympathy and behavior that becomes dangerous; how did you and Cobham-Hervey find the right balance there?
That was tough, and something we really focused on. The general concept we had was that Melinda doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong. And we as the filmmakers could not judge her; that was potentially for the audience to do. So we played it purely from her perspective, and were hooked on the idea that we’re all flawed, and that would hopefully be the connective aspect of the character with the audience.
What led to Suki Waterhouse and Josh Hutcherson’s casting?
We cast Melinda and Sheila first. Suki is just awesome, and when you meet her, she has a presence that’s very natural and sincere. She connected with the character, and it seemed like she and Tilda had a great, complementary, opposite-of-each-other dynamic. I wanted Sheila to be sort of a bully, but you can still sympathize with her because there’s a truth to her, and the greatest thing about Suki is that she always feels truthful, and very present.
Josh came in at the very end. As with most movies, there was a scramble at the end to pin down an actor for the role of Billy. We were hoping to get Josh right from the beginning of the process, but he was unavailable until the last moment, and he was terrific. He showed up and we immediately got into it with the character and script, and he did a great job.
There are certain scenes that must have been uncomfortable to shoot, like one that happens in the break room. How was it filming those moments?
We were actually shooting at the same time all the #Metoo and Weinstein stuff was coming out, so that added an extra layer of awareness—which we would have had before anyway. We were just all on the same page from start to finish, before we even started shooting. I talked to the actors, and we all felt we were respectful to each other. And it should be that way; it was actually great to be so concerned about it, which is something we always should be.
What were the challenges of both plotting out and shooting a movie set in a single confined location?
I just determined that the location should support the characters and their actions, so I was never really worried about that. I knew that the characters were going through many different phases over the course of the night, and as long as you could connect with that, it almost didn’t matter where the location was. Obviously we tried to vary it up visually, but the real focus was the faces and the way they were acting.
Shooting-wise, the biggest challenge was the weather. We filmed in upstate New York in February and March, with 12 overnights, and the only way to do that successfully was to be on the same page with all the actors, and logistically know what we were looking for. It was tough to pace our production schedule to accomplish everything we wanted to do and still also be practical, and the weather was insane. It was like 10 degrees with wind chill, and sometimes our camera would freeze outside. And as you can see, Melinda is definitely not wearing a parka for most of the movie [laughs]! We had a couple of days where a blizzard came through and we had to push a day, and random moments when there was insane snowfall. At a certain point, we just embraced it, and there were nights I’ll never forget: We were shooting at 4 a.m., all of us were frozen and going crazy, but there was this beautiful snowfall coming down, and that’s definitely in the movie.
There’s also active traffic going on outside the station throughout the movie; did that cause any problems?
Soundwise, we had a great sound team to deal with that. Visually, it was one of those things where at some point we just had to ignore it, and hope it wasn’t so distracting to the audience, and that whatever was in the foreground would be more interesting. That traffic was one of the challenges, and also something as simple as parking the grip trucks on location, and trying to frame them out.
Did you ever consider shooting it all on sets, rather than at an actual station?
We did. The way movies sometimes work, you get financing and you have a very short time window to prep. We looked around for stages, but it seemed like a better decision to go with a live gas station, only because so much of it was built already. The bones of it were there, and there was this very nice neon light running through most of the station. We weighed it back and forth, but ultimately we decided to do it largely on location.
Where would you place BURN in terms of genre?
I’d definitely call it a dark psychological thriller, and the Coen brothers were a big inspiration, trying to find dark, absurdist moments in crazy situations. It’s a strange genre where you want to laugh at the most inappropriate times, while hopefully it’s still being truthful.
BURN has a few major twists in its story; is it difficult these days to get a movie into the marketplace while preserving its surprises?
I definitely think so, especially with a smaller indie. You want to hint at things, but hopefully there are reveals in the movie beyond just the plot that are satisfying to the audience. You definitely have to sprinkle a few crazy things into the marketing, but not give it all away.
COMING NEXT: ACTRESS TILDA COBHAM-HERVEY ON “BURN”