A few days ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing the director Carlos Puga as well as actors Dan Bittner, Christopher McCann, and Christopher Abbott for their film BURMA.
Annette Kellerman: Did you guys do any exercises or preparation to play siblings or did it come very naturally?
Christopher Abbott: We didn't really do any exercises together. I mean, we auditioned together and kinda got a feel off of that.
Dan Bittner: The script gave us a whole lot, and we didn't have to fight against anything. I think everyone grows up in a family and knows how to have those conversations as a brother, sister, mom, or dad, so we were all sort of on the same field. And then having such talent across from you makes your job easier, the the script and director made it a pretty easy experience.
AK: Carlos, can you talk about the differences in directing television versus directing your first narrative feature?
Carlos Puga: The only directing on television I've done was on TRUE LIFE which was documentary style, so I think I brought some of that experience to this because I was just so used to shooting that way, intimately. With a film, you have to wait a lot longer, you have to light everything. I was always just a little bit antsy because for me even if it doesn't look exactly right it was always more important that you just get the moment that's real, but when you're working with actors they can make that moment come when called upon. So, it took a while for me to figure out that it was a process that was going to take a lot longer than I was used to. Other than that I think I tried to shoot in a style that made it look as real as possible, so kind of a documentary style sometimes.
AK: For the actors as well, how does working in television differ than working on a smaller film like this?
Christopher McCann: For me, the television work that I've done, I'm engaged for one day, if I'm lucky maybe two, so it's very very fast. There's a lot of pressure and a lot of money on the line and there's no rehearsal. You get a rehearsal for the camera, but that's not for the actor that's basically for the camera. And here, first of all we had the script for a much longer period of time before you shoot and we have lots of time on the set with Carlos and with each other. We were together for about three weeks, so you get the opportunity to get to know one another and to feel relaxed with each other and to learn each other. It's very different.
CA: And you know the ending also which is always very different that television.
CM: (chuckling) That's true!
DB: That's a good point.
CA: I find that very useful. (everyone laughs)
AK: Carlos, you also wrote the script. Talk about your choice to revolve the story around Christian's character.
CP: I'm a middle child, so I think I gave him the most quintessential problems of the middle child. He sort of has more of the abandonment issues and issues with not getting as much attentions, so I figured he would be the fulcrum of the story.
AK: How did you want Christian's substance abuse issues to play into the whole family dynamic?
CP: I don't want to call it a device, but when you have a mother's death... I guess I used it to create dramatic moments in other parts of the film. Most of the others scenes have nothing to do with drug use, but once you see the drug use all of the scenes play out within that context. So, it gave us a way to kind of give it more depth in the other scenes. When they're not talking about drugs, or not talking about their mother being dead you're still looking at it through that lens.
CA: I think the really great thing about it is that the drug use is not the focal point at all. There are a lot of scenes in the film where I'm drinking or I'm doing drugs and there's not that typical way that you show that. Like even technically, you usually punch in on the wine bottle, ya know, and that never really happens. It's just a secondary thing. That's a reason why I think this movie is so great because it deals with everything in a real way. It doesn't over dramatize those kind of elements which can get pretty melodramatic after a while.
AK: The story takes place mainly in one location, how did that affect the shoot and the performances?
CP: That was also very new to me. The amount of people who work on a film is just surprising when you're not used to it. There were like 40 people doing stuff and you have no idea what they're doing or how they're not doing anything. (everyone laughs)
DB: It was a small house too.
CP: Yeah, it was a tiny house, so we actually didn't even shoot many of the interiors there. The bedrooms we shot in were at a different location because the house was so small. It was fun I guess.
CA: It definitely made it easier.
CP: Yeah, we kind of had a central hub which made it easier to wrap your head around the whole movie.
CA: Even technically, like if we missed a shot the day before, we could pick it up the next day, so that helps.
AK: Gaby Hoffman's not here, but can you talk about her reluctantly taking on the maternal role with her brothers in the film?
CP: I have an older sister, and I guess she's the more family-oriented one. So I think I drew from my sister for that character at least. Once Susan's mother died and her dad left, she just had to take a position of taking charge and moving on. One day to the next she had to be the leader of the family, and that's why I think it was more difficult for her to include her father when he came back because she had already nixed him all together.
AK: Mr. McCann, how do you reconcile your character's un-altruistic nature in abandoning his children?
CM: I guess how I approach it is one beat at a time. That everything that is happening now is who the guy is. So, I don't actually have to reconcile like this long big arc. When I'm dealing with Christian it's like what is happening now, and when I'm dealing with Win it's what is happening now. Then when we talk about their mom, that's just the way it is. Then the audience- it's a little theoretical- gets to put the story together.
AK: Dan, your character has a lot of success, but plays it off as no big deal to his siblings. Talk about that conflict within your character.
DB: I'm the younger brother, I have an older brother that I grew up with. This will probably sound cliche, but it seems like the older siblings always have a harder time because the parents are new. So, I just assumed that Christian and Susan had a harder time because once you have the third kid, you kind know more what you're doing, so my character had a bit of an easier time growing up. Now that I'm having successes you want to tip toe around that. I totally get why Win would want to not bring up his success around his brother. It makes total sense to me. Even with friends, if they get a good job there's that little part of you that says, "I wish I got that." I think everyone feels that, it's pretty natural. So, Win's reasoning came very easily to me as far as why he would hold information back from his brother, and then also trying to be more the big brother in some situations without overstepping boundaries, which is delicate.
AK: What was the most challenging part of filming?
CM: Jacinta? What about you?
JP: Just a small challenging part, and it took like 30 minutes, but we were shooting in the car and Carlos is like, "You have to point with your left hand!" (everyone erupts in laughter) I just couldn't! I kept pointing with my right hand, and finally in the end I did it and he was like, "No, it has to be stronger!" (more laughter) I don't know why it was so hard, but that was challenging.
CA: The dinner scene.
DB: Yeah, the dinner scene. It was the best and the hardest. It was so fun, but it was the most difficult. There was so much going on and that was where everything happened.
CA: There were a lot of lines and after a while you just forget when you're supposed to talk. I think there were a few times when I had a line and I just wasn't talking. (everyone laughs)
AK: And I'm sure continuity was an issue.
DB: Oh yeah.
CP: We had two cameras going and Tom lit it so we could just kinda move around. So it was fun, but the continuity with that was tough.
CA: And it was late at night too, so you just get tired and weird and you're doing it again and again. It started to feel like a dream at one point because it's like, Gaby's just moving the same way everytime. (more laughs)
DB: And we were jumping around a lot too. The scene is like 10 minutes long, so we'd do minute one and then jump to minute eight and it would sometimes feel like, "I thought we just had this argument."
AK: What was your favorite part of filming this?
DB: Dinner scene! (everyone laughs)
JP: I guess acting is new for me, so it was just really fun. I always wanted to do that, it's like every child's dream to act in a movie.
AK: Was it every tiring for you?
JP: When we did one of the scenes at night and I had to go to school the next day I was like, "Oh please can we get this over with?" (everyone chuckles)
AK: Was there anything that didn't make it into the final cut that you wish you could've included?
CP: That I wish would've? No, but there was a lot that didn't make it in. We actually changed the beginning quite a lot. We shot the first ten minutes and then decided to reshoot it because the stuff was good, but the story just wasn't moving along as quickly as we needed. I guess there were a few scenes that I wish we could've left in. There was a lot of humor in some of the scenes- I guess I was just trying to do everything in one movie and be funny and dramatic which I guess you can't always do. Most of the "ha ha" humor was in the stuff that was cut. Maybe I'll just re use it in the next script.
AK: Was there any improvising?
CA: Not much. Sometime little things just to make the fluidity of it more natural for your voice, but we stuck to the script.
DB: Again, the script was so great, we didn't have to.
AK: How much input did you have with your characters, or did you just stick with what was on the page?
DB: Carlos wouldn't let us! (everyone laughs)
CA: There were very small discussions. We would kind of break it down day to day, scene to scene, ya know? We would just pow wow before we'd do the scene. We would just read the script and figure it out and maybe change just a few small things, but it wasn't so big picture stuff.
DB: It was a good balance of Carlos giving you his little nugget and then letting you choose what you want to do. It was nice to have that balance because free reign can be terrifying. You hear about working on a Woody Allen film and you're on your own. That sounds terrifying. With Carlos is was very collaborative and he knows when to say something and when not to say something.
CM: Ditto. (everyone laughs)
AK: I think that wraps it up. Thank you so much for your time!
I hope you enjoyed the interview! Look for more from me at this year's SXSW film festival.