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Art House Death Wish: An Interview with Burning Inside writer-director Nathan Wrann

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Art House Death Wish: An Interview with <em>Burning Inside</em> writer-director Nathan Wrann

The suspense of the opening sequence of Nathan Wrann’s grim no-budget experimental revenge movie Burning Inside is all about how long we’re willing to sustain our interest in a completely inactive picture. A nurse sits next to a comatose man in bed, and the moment draws on for several minutes—the pacing is somnambulant, and it’s a big moment when the man finally sits up. Strange that a brooding, intense and ultimately violent revenge movie should open this way, but in doing so Wrann makes an announcement that he is a filmmaker marching to the beat of his own drummer.

The central character who becomes labeled “John Doe” (played by Michael Wrann) slowly rebuilds a life for himself, but running through his everyday existence are nightmare visions which may or may not represent a terrifying incident from his past. The art-house audience able to handle the aesthetic challenges—namely, long, slow takes in high contrast black-and-white, obscure storytelling with minimalist dialogue and images that seem degraded and dug up from some at the bottom of some time capsule from yesteryear—will find that ultimately Burning Inside is a tale of repressed violence, which asks questions about how we respond to brutality ourselves, and the various ways we are affected.

Re-imagine Death Wish as if Charles Bronson were unable to connect with rational thought: You’d have a very American fable of rage and retribution told via the techniques of DIY-filmmaking, with inevitable links to German expressionism simply because the movie is meant to be experienced and felt. It’s sensory and tactile—the kind of movie that’s meant to seep into you, and leave you with an uneasy feeling. If it’s meant to inspire thought, it’s the thoughts you have after a particularly unusual bad dream that you might not want to figure out right away, since it taps into those personal gray zones of manhood, morality and empathy.

Being distributed this spring by James Felix McKenney’s new distribution company Channel Midnight, and having its world premiere at the Connecticut Film Festival this May, Burning Inside will surely find a loyal cult audience willing to tap into its rigorous midnight movie sensibility. After grappling with the content of his film, I touched base with the filmmaker to discuss his work, and found him erudite, thoughtful and equally willing to wrestle with his movie’s heavy, disconcerting themes.

Burning Inside might be described as a revenge film, but it starts out very different than the way we expect that subgenre to work—the hero is inert and we don’t know who he is or where he has come from. What inspired your choice to open the picture this way?

I actually intended, from the beginning, to write a classic revenge movie. As I worked through the process, I found that was giving me problems. Trying to do something unique, meaningful and representative of what I wanted to say about revenge in the socio-political environment that we live in, especially in the mid to late 2000’s. I spent a considerable amount of time thinking about revenge, the nature of revenge and the elements of revenge. My varying thoughts and ideas about revenge made their way into the numerous rewrites of Burning Inside. One of the aspects that I kept coming back to was the fact that revenge is based solely on memory. If the initial victim doesn’t remember the evil that was done, they have no inkling to get revenge. I challenged myself to write a revenge story around a character with amnesia. I wanted the audience to start at the “beginning” with John Doe. If Doe doesn’t know it, the audience doesn’t know it. As Doe travels through the story, so does the audience. As Doe discovers things, so does the audience. My intention is to put the audience in Doe’s empty head and see if they come out in the same place. I’m not sure if I answered your question regarding “inspiration.”

How so?

It’s very possible that the inspiration came from a tragic event in my own life. In 1999, one of my best friends was in a terrible car accident, sustained a severe head injury and spent over three months in a coma and many more in rehabilitation. Thankfully he has recovered—and without the memory loss that John Doe sustained. As I look back at the pieces that I’ve written since his accident I see that many revolve around car accidents, comas, memory and characters leading lives with disabilities, I think it would be naïve to say I don’t draw inspiration, at least, subconsciously by this event in my life.

The camera is rigidly locked down; very controlled—did this restriction open up possibilities for you? Do you think it creates a kind of tension?

I don’t know if it creates tension on its own, but combined with the constant sound, black-and-white, long cuts, overall lack of dialogue and mystery of John Doe, that it takes the audience out of their comfort zone. Audiences are very used to the way most movies are made today: lots of movement, quick cuts, a lot of color, a lot of dialogue, cut-ins, very little subtlety. Mind you, not every movie is like that, but the vast majority of the motion picture media is: movies, TV, on-line video. I wanted to make the audience uncomfortable. Give them anxiety. Make them feel lost like John Doe, lost in a world they don’t know. The static camera and long cuts help to draw the audience into that shadow world and unnerve them.

Why do we need to be shaken out of the comfort zone? A counter-argument could be made that life is already pretty uncomfortable; why does a movie like Burning Inside need to take us there? Why do we need to be unnerved?

Cinema, like other arts, can serve a lot of purposes in our lives but they almost always revolve around catharsis. That purging of emotion can come from the laughs from a piece of pure entertainment, like Zombieland, or it comes from crying your eyes out during a ten-hanky weeper. Or it can come from the anxiety created by leaving the comfort-zone in movies like Eden Lake or Last House on the Left or Burning Inside. I tend to gravitate toward the unnerving dramas that take me out of my comfort zone and think about my place on Earth as a human.

It seems odd to think of the “cool” kills as a selling factor for certain horror movies. What does that say about us as a society? Does it mean that we are desensitized? Is it okay to enjoy seeing pain inflicted on people, even if it’s make-believe? I don’t know. But I do know that I greatly appreciate when a movie can make me feel disgusted, and not by the gore on-screen. If you see a movie like Eden Lake and feel unnerved, it means that I still care about the bad shit that happens to people. It means that a movie can still evoke that kind of reaction in me.

How are we to determine the audience’s level of comfort?

If it’s a teen sex comedy there’s no reason to be uncomfortable in this sense, maybe uncomfortably funny will work, like the phone call in Swingers. If we’re talking child rape and murder, like Last House on the Left, if the audience feels comfortable watching that, there might be a problem. The material might have been a little too watered down. With Burning Inside, I want the audience to feel uncomfortable because the subject matter is uncomfortable. There are a lot of questions to ask when passing judgment on the characters. Is John Doe justified in what he does? To answer that question the viewer is going to need to determine how they feel about other aspects of the story. What is the past and what is the future? Who did what to whom?

This may sound like a pretentious question, but is there any positive side to an act of revenge?

I think there is a large contingency of people that might believe so. And that contingency grows and recedes depending on events, either in individual lives or society as a whole. Following the attacks that took place in NYC, Washington DC and Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001 support for revenge was very high in the U.S. Of course, there is a very, very fine line between revenge and justice. It’s an important, not pretentious, question to ask and one that artists have been studying for centuries. Revenge is probably one of the most popular story subjects of all time, even finding its way into movies that aren’t blatantly “revenge movies” like romantic comedies. There are a number of “good revenge” movies out there, where the protagonist’s revenge is justified and the audience cheers him/her on. Mad Max and Hostel are interesting examples, and my first film, Hunting Season, explored this by looking at the cyclical nature of revenge. Something bad happens, the “bad guys” get revenge, then at one point a protagonist has the opportunity to walk away but instead, compromises their values and gets revenge. The audience burst into cheers at that point. Personally, I find it tragic.

Revenge is a purely human endeavor. It doesn’t exist in the animal kingdom and for that reason, because humans invented it, I think it is worth deconstructing, studying and exploring all facets of.

How much do you think about the audience when you write?

To alter a common philosopher’s riddle, if a movie plays in an empty theater, was a story told? Movies and stories don’t exist without an audience, so I consider the audience with every aspect of the production from writing all the way through post-production and even now with this interview. I have to consider that people reading this might at some point be an audience for the movie, so my answers are given in a way to hopefully enhance their experience. If I could influence the way the audience sees the movie, how high the volume is, how dark the contrast or bright the screen, I would.

Your cast and crew seems to have been dedicated to a project that was filmed over time.

After Hunting Season was shot part-time, three partial days per week over the course of a few months, I intended to shoot Burning Inside straight through in two weeks. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. Actors have jobs, I have a day job, and people just can’t drop everything for that long to work on a micro-budgeted independent, semi-experimental film. Fortunately, people are still willing and dedicated to put the time and effort into a project they have faith and trust in. I’m extremely fortunate to have a cast and crew that was willing to spend their free time working on Burning Inside.

Can we talk about your work with the lead actor?

My brother Michael Wrann, who also appeared in Hunting Season, plays John Doe. Working with him previously allowed him to begin to understand my process. It’s a process that I felt uncomfortable with originally, but soon came to realize was the way I work, especially under the conditions of a micro-budgeted film with very little crew. Basically, I shoot, review the footage, and if I’m inspired with a better way to do the scene I’ll re-shoot if we’re at the same location. This can be frustrating for a performer, especially if it’s a taxing scene, but Michael had seen first-hand the way the process can be successful. He also had a lot of faith in me and was excited to be in a project with artistic integrity. He walked around in his pajamas in the Connecticut woods during the frigid cold of March, and kept his dedication and enthusiasm all the way through shooting scenes in an old black Bonneville on the hottest day of the year in August. To say he worked for it is an understatement.

What about the actress, Kristina Powis?

We found her during a casting session after we had already started shooting. We had two previous actresses attached who both had to bow out due to scheduling issues. Kristina had recently moved to New York from Alaska and was really receptive to the project. We spent a good deal of time discussing her character’s background and worked on bringing who she was out on screen. The Nurse doesn’t have much dialogue so it was important for Kristina to portray her needs and desires with actions and expressions.

How did you run your casting session, and what were you looking for?

All of the actresses that were at the casting session were there by invitation. Our associate producer secured a great space for us at the Milford, CT train station, which also doubles as a performing arts space. The space had two rooms: one was a lounge that we set up as a staging area where the actresses could sit, relax and prepare for the audition. Adjacent to that was a blank room with a table and chairs. Michael, producer Kimberly Dalton and I were in the audition room and I set up a camera.

Once the actresses were all there and signed in we called in the first actress. In the invitation I suggested that, if possible, they come with a prepared piece from any other show or part they may have worked on. When the actress came in the room we interviewed them. I had a list of prepared questions with spaces for me to write the answers. I asked them about the script, the character, nudity etc. Then if they had a prepared piece they could perform that. Next I would have them perform a piece from Burning Inside, opposite Mikey. I’d have them do it a few different ways to see how they took direction. If there weren’t any further questions I would ask them to send the next actress in, and we would do the same process.

One of the things that I’m not too keen on is the whole callback process. I don’t like the practice of having these performers come in, spend their time trying to get a part and then sending them home with the hopes that they might get a call in a few days. So I planned on having the entire audition and callback process in one night. After the first round of interviews and auditions I knew right away there was a handful of actresses that I wasn’t going to be considering, so I went into the waiting room and let them know that they did a fine job, we appreciated their interest and effort and that we wouldn’t be casting them and they could leave. It’s not fair to continue wasting their time. Then we would do another round and make some decisions. The pool was whittled down to around six by the end of the night at which point we called Kristina into the room to tell her she got the job. While she was in the room, I went out to the waiting room to inform the other candidates that we had made our selection and thanked them for their time. That was a very tough thing to do. It is so much easier to either never say they didn’t get the job or send them a rejection via e-mail. Telling a room full of actresses that they didn’t get the job is pretty scary. There were definitely some mixed reactions.

You’ve described the storyline as being like an elliptical Möbius strip. Did anyone who read the script find it confusing?

The script read exactly as it plays out on screen. I did some rewriting as we were shooting, adding some aspects in; fun things like making Mikey memorize seven limericks. In editing, I cut out some of the dialogue that might be over-explanatory. I don’t think that anyone reading the script found it any more confusing than it would be to watch the film, with one exception. There are two characters named “Jennifer” in the movie. In the script I had to distinguish between the two, so in order to do that I spelled one of their names “Gennifer” and the other one “Jennifer.” Somehow, some of the early scripts that I circulated had some typos in it where the last 10 pages of the script had the “Jennifer” names flip flopped so as elliptical and weird as the script is, now it was about 10 times crazier.

Do you enjoy creating these sorts of challenges for yourself?

If there isn’t a challenge, I’m usually not interested. Through those challenges I try to find creative ways to succeed. I’m not naturally attuned to putting a camera on a tripod. I love cinéma vérité and all of the camera movement that comes with it. With Burning Inside, I challenged myself to keep the camera locked down.

It really becomes a “chicken and egg” conundrum when thinking about how the inspirations, influences and possibilities are opened up. For example, did the German Expressionist look and silent-film inspiration force me to lock the camera down, or did locking the camera down force me to find a creative way to work that restriction in? The artistic ideas and influences have to work with the practical considerations and resources in order to successfully overcome the challenges and effectively create the complete piece. One thing, for sure, is that everything has to work in servitude of telling the story and portraying characters. If it doesn’t have a meaningful, story based reason for being there it shouldn’t be there.

Why the aesthetic choice of black-and-white?

There were many reasons that I shot in black-and-white and all of them impacted and reinforced each other. My “inspiration” came while I took a break from writing and started painting scenes from classic black-and-white movies. It was during this process that I really began to visualize the movie. Prior to that I had always intended it to be beautiful and sweeping footage with a hint of darkness, like a cinematic version of Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” Even though that’s what I intended I could never fully visualize making it that way on a micro-budget so I had trouble finishing the script. After taking a break and painting, I knew where I needed to go. The B&W German Expressionist style works really well on many different levels to tell John Doe’s story, whether it’s from practical, production considerations to symbolic meaning to timelessness, to how the audience perceives the “reality” or “fantasy” of black-and-white compared to color. Once that piece was in place the parts of the script that I was having trouble with really fell into place. B&W allowed me to take more chances and not restrict the movie to “realism.”

Did any of your techniques surprise you? Was there any moment when you thought you’d try something cinematic and it was a little scary for you because it takes a risk?

I like taking risks. Monetarily it’s not really too scary at this budget level because nobody is “losing the house” if the risk doesn’t pay off. I wish there were more risky, daring micro-budgeted DVDs out there. Maybe there are and I just can’t find them. But, back to your question, artistically it can be scary right before the production starts because there are all those nagging questions and thoughts: What if it doesn’t succeed to my intentions? What if it doesn’t look as good as it should? What if it doesn’t sound as good as it should? I think that not taking risks would actually make these fears more legitimate. There are a great many horrible movies out there that are made on a micro budget. They are easily identifiable by the trailer that usually includes flat cinematography and dialogue audio that doesn’t sound like it does in the big budget movies. Going into the production I worry: What if my movie ends up like that? What makes a good movie look and sound good and a bad movie look and sound bad? Ask those questions, study good and bad movies and figure it out, and then figure out what to do about it within your own limitations. I challenged myself to lock the camera down on this shoot. I was a bit nervous that it would feel detached and flat. So I shot some test footage and was happy with the results. The great thing about shooting digital is that it can keep being reworked, much like a script is rewritten, until it passes the test. Preparation and planning can help to take a lot of the fear out of the process.

Some filmmakers say that every movie is kind of like a diary for them—it says a lot about where they are at. Now that you’ve finished the film, you’re in a position of looking back on the project. What does it reflect back to you?

Looking at Burning Inside as a reflection of me at a certain period of my life is a pretty damn difficult chore. There are many different ways to look at the film, and I hope each audience member brings their own experiences, thoughts, perceptions, ideas and interpretations and maybe what they come away with will be a reflection of them. Of course, their reflection will be based on the final film they see on screen.

When I finished Hunting Season we received mixed reviews, but audiences loved it. A screening we held locally resulted in a packed standing ovation. Needless to say the applause, cheering, screaming, people yelling at the bad guys, was intoxicating, and Hunting Season isn’t exactly “feel good.” But it feels good to make a movie with that kind of reaction. It would have been really easy to go down that road again. But I wouldn’t have learned anything or grown. Another Hunting Season wasn’t what I wanted at the time. I had to push the envelope further. Making movies at a micro-budget level—Hunting Season was $5,000, Burning Inside was $10,000—is very freeing and should encourage filmmakers to take risks and be daring. Nobody is losing the house if the movie doesn’t sell. Plus it only has to sell a couple thousand copies to make its money back. Looking at the mixed reviews for Hunting Season it could be tempting to make something that hits everything the reviewers are looking for. It would be easy to see what gets the good reviews and try to mimic those movies, but fuck all that. I wanted to make something challenging and unique, something risky, creative, unexpected. The last time I felt this kind of creative freedom was during college when I bucked the system and directed the avant-garde, experimental short play “HamletMachine” by Heiner Müller in 1998. I guess if I use Burning Inside to look back at who I was while making it, I was someone striving to grow and experiment creatively. I was someone rebelling against the establishment and willing to risk pushing the envelope. It’s called independent film and I’m independent to the core.

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.