By MICHAEL GINGOLD
It’s a frigid March night when RUE MORGUE pulls up to a gas station/convenience store in upstate New York to check out the shoot of the independent psychological thriller BURN (formerly PLUME). The place is not operational—except as a filming site—though you’d never know it from the way the disused business has been spruced up as Paradise Pumps for the movie, its pumps lit up and its shelves fully stocked. In fact, production designer Eric Whitney recalls a moment when the place attracted a would-be customer who instead caused quite a bit of damage.
“We’ve had bunches of people try to drive in and buy gas, and someone has come into the store a couple of times,” he says. “Then today, I was working in the back when all of a sudden I heard this crash. Someone had come around the cones and driven through the center between the two gas pump islands—where we’d built a fake platform so it looked like concrete, like a real gas station. But it was just luon on quarter-inch plywood over 2x4s, barely spaced out. Nobody’s even supposed to walk on it, and they drove the full length of it and just destroyed everything. And they kept going; they didn’t stop, they didn’t do anything! I came around the corner and saw this red station wagon with these people with panicked looks in their eyes, going, ‘Oh my God, what did we just do?’ They went speeding out the driveway and were gone, and I was like, ‘You’re kidding me.’ The entire thing was just wiped out. Thankfully, one of my carpenters was here, and so we called the production office, they sent my truck out and he and I started resetting all the timbers and cleaning everything up. In three and a half hours, we got the whole thing fixed again. You couldn’t tell there had ever been a problem.”
Fortunately, the accident hasn’t held up the team behind BURN (in select theaters and on VOD tomorrow from Momentum Pictures), led by first-time feature writer/director Mike Gan, in the midst of their swift 15-day shoot. Or, more accurately, 15 nights, as the film is set over the course of one evening. Tilda Cobham-Hervey (HOTEL MUMBAI) stars as Melinda, an attendant who’s clearly eccentric and has tics that annoy her co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse). When a desperate young man named Billy (Josh Hutcherson) tries to stick the place up, Melinda winds up taking charge of the situation in ways that are both surprising and increasingly unsettling.
“A good way to think of the film is as sort of COMPLIANCE meets MISERY,” says Russ Posternak, one of BURN’S producers. “The horror element comes from Melinda’s character once she kind of seizes control and turns the tables on Billy, and craziness ensues from there.”
That craziness, which unfolds in both the front area and back rooms of Paradise Pumps, isn’t in evidence tonight; instead, the BURN crew is filming around the snow-strewn rear of the store (partially lit with a bright pink light) and the woods beyond. As action is called, Cobham-Hervey emerges from a door in her Paradise uniform, looks for something in a dumpster, then heads for the treeline, where she begins digging for something. It’s an eerie tableau, arousing curiosity about just what Melinda is up to.
Indeed, Posternak confirms that BURN is driven by character concerns rather than explicit genre elements. “The horror films and thrillers I’m typically attracted to are the ones where the suspense and tension come from revealing these people, their motivations and their backstories. When you have one location, you’re really forced to build out the characters, and that becomes the driving factor.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by fellow producer Jordan Yale Levine, whose Yale Productions was previously behind JACK GOES HOME and WELCOME TO WILLITS among others, and which currently has the ghost story SEPARATION, directed by William Brent Bell (THE BOY) and starring Madeline Brewer (CAM) and Brian Cox, in postproduction. “I like to think that with every film we do, and this one in particular, we’ve found great actors to bring these characters to life,” Levine says. “The horror that ensues when things go down is very much a function of the cast and their performances.”
Posternak, formerly an experienced publicist before he joined the Yale producers team full-time, adds, “We’re also always excited to work with first-time filmmakers on fairly low-budget genre features and help nurture their careers. That’s a space we love to be involved with, and we’re really excited about Mike, who had a short film, NO EVIL, that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.”
Gan—who subsequently helmed SCHOOL SPIRIT, this month’s entry in Hulu/Blumhouse’s INTO THE DARK series—isn’t available for a chat on this night (look for an interview with him at this site tomorrow), since the tight schedule doesn’t allow for a lot of down time. Helping him through his debut feature gig is co-producer Jon Keeyes, himself an experienced director of fright films (THE HARROWING, FALL DOWN DEAD, AMERICAN NIGHTMARE), which has allowed him to give Gan plenty of guidance.
“We bonded very quickly,” Keeyes says, “and I’m bringing my own experience, from a creative standpoint, of how to make a movie on a fast shoot. So Mike’s been able to bounce a lot of things off me, and I’ve been able to give a lot of advice to him. He’s relying on me creatively just in terms of, what do we need to do, how do we make our days, what do you think of this, what do you think of that? Putting my director’s hat on next to him has given him another level of confidence and stability as he goes through each of the days.”
On the other hand, the vision behind BURN is very much Gan’s own. “Of all the directors we’ve worked with,” Keeyes says, “he’s got one of the best creative minds. He has a very clear and unique perspective on what the movie should be. To read the script, you may not necessarily realize how he’s bringing the characters to life, and he works with the actors in a phenomenal way. I’m actually sitting around watching him a lot, very inspired by what he’s doing and how he’s doing it.”
From a production standpoint, Keeyes notes, “This particular shoot has been a real challenge, logistically. When you’re inside the convenience store, you seeing everything, including what’s out the windows, so we’re constantly trying to maneuver crew, vehicles and equipment all over the place. On the flip side of that, shooting on a contained location is actually fantastic. We get to walk away every day, leave the equipment here, come back the next night and start filming. The fewer locations you have, especially if it’s just one location, the more you can get accomplished in 15 days.”
There have actually been two locations involved on BURN: New York Film Commission rules require at least a day of soundstage work, so the crew built the break room in which a few key scenes take place on a stage. “Many convenience stores don’t have break rooms, and when they do they’re basically closets,” Keeyes says. “The room that Eric Whitney built looked fantastic and was big enough to shoot in, while still feeling contained within the store. It was the one thing we couldn’t shoot at the actual location, and get a camera and lights into.”
And when it came to securing that actual location, Levine recalls, “We wanted to find a gas station that was not open. After looking at some that were, we realized that we couldn’t get what we needed from them, since we would be there 12, 14, 16 hours every day. Then we found this place, and they’re actually trying to sell it right now, and it was not nearly in as good a condition as you see it; Eric Whitney had a cleaning crew in here, he did a lot of construction. It had the right size inside, and also, the desolate area was very important to Mike. It has to look like it’s really in the middle of nowhere.”
Straightening up the store was quite a chore, Whitney recalls, particularly since there was no electricity or heat in the place for the first few days, and it was “knee-deep in garbage.” In addition, it had no gas pumps, and he eventually rented four from a collector in Albany. Creatively, however, he says the biggest challenge in making the place look active was “coming up with the color scheme. Because this is Paradise Pumps, which obviously lends itself to a tropical feel, yet it’s set in the frozen north somewhere, that created an interesting juxtaposition. You look outside, and there’s snow everywhere and everybody’s in coats, and at the same time, I wanted to give the interior the feel of an oasis. We went back and forth on several different color schemes; I presented Mike with about six different palettes, and we also coordinated with wardrobe to make sure the smocks they’re wearing worked with the scheme we picked. So now, everything works together and looks like it’s a brand.”
COMING NEXT: DIRECTOR MIKE GAN ON “BURN”