Andrew Heckler spent over two decades trying to get a film made about the true story of reformed Klansman Michael Burden, and today it's more relevant than ever.
Andrew Heckler first heard about the opening of a KKK museum in a small town in South Carolina. When he next heard about the town, he read that the owner of the museum had given the deed to African-American Baptist Reverend David Kennedy. This was around 1997. An actor by trade, Heckler has spent the last two decades visiting the town, writing a script, and trying to get production greenlit on this real-life story of kindness and love overcoming prejudice and hate. The result is Burden, which just took home the Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Audience Award.
Heckler sat down with No Film School at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to talk about the importance of incorporating real life into scriptwriting, working with actors like Forest Whitaker and Tom Wilkinson, and why telling tough truths is important in filmmaking, even if you think the ‘human experiment’ is failing.
"Ever since that moment, I've never sat in my office and written a script without going to the places involved."
NFS: Burden is based on the true story of Michael Burden, Reverend David Kennedy, and a KKK shop that was opened in Laurens, SC in the 1990s. How did you find out about the story, and decide you wanted to turn the story into your first film?
Heckler: It’s a pretty weird circumstance, but I happened to be hanging out with Billy Bob Thornton a lot back then and he used to always complain about Hollywood. His reason for why his movies weren't very good was because you have a bunch of guys sitting in little offices in Burbank, trying to imagine what life is like outside.
So when I read about this, I think Billy Bob was ringing in my head. I picked up the phone, I found the number for the New Beginnings Baptist Church. I called, and I spoke to the Reverend Kennedy. And I said, “I want to come in.” He said, "Come." So I went. And I ended up spending two straight weeks in the church. It was eye-opening. I'd never seen people with nothing, absolutely nothing. They had no money, they had nothing. Except, they had joy. That was startling to me. Ever since that moment, I've never sat in my office and written a script without going to the places involved. I have to see it, I have to taste it, I have to smell it. Hopefully, when you watch the movie, you can see that someone has been there. You can see that we weren't playing at Southern, we weren't playing at the characters, or the place or the locations. All the details were gleaned from visiting the real people that you couldn’t get otherwise. I only wish I could put more of them in.
NFS: So when writing a character like Mike Burden, spending time with him was crucial to how you captured him in the script?
Heckler: You see Mike Burden, you don't look at him and go, racist. You know this guy only had his upbringing, and he doesn't like himself. There's no foundation for him other than hate. I think you can't get that unless you spend time with these people. At the time Mike was in prison, so I went and I visited him. We started writing letters. And I still speak to the guy. He trusts me and I trust him. You have to get that level of trust in people to get the good stuff.
I also stopped by and I spent a while in the KKK shop with the guys, and hanging out. You know, it's weird. We all want to put horns and teeth and dragon tails on people. And they just don't have them. It's a horrific ideology. The people are just people.
NFS: You’ve had a long acting career both on stage and on screen. How did that background inform the way that you ended up making this film?
Heckler: I think that first and foremost, this film is an actor's piece. I was very fortunate to have those actors. I'm not an idiot, I realize I'm a first-time director and I've got probably as good an acting crew as you can get. Period.
NFS: Forest Whitaker, Garrett Hedlund, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson…
Heckler: Academy Award nominees and obviously, future Academy Award nominees and winners. Half the time, I was just the only one to leave them alone. I think that the theater was a great space to learn for this environment. Which is, when I was directing for the stage, I always had the vision of what I want. But in the theater, you're never going to get that. You start rehearsing, and the more you rehearse, the more you uncover. And the more you uncover, because you rehearse forever. And so, by the time you finish your rehearsal process, you've gotten so much input from the other actors, that your vision that you had originally, and what they bring, you merge and come up with something better. I think we did that quite a bit on the movie. After 20 years, I knew exactly what I wanted to see. But I stayed very open to what they wanted to bring.
"After 20 years, I knew exactly what I wanted to see. But I stayed very open to what they wanted to bring."
Heckler: There's actually a scene in the movie that I talk about quite a bit. And it's the scene when the character Judy says, "you have to choose." And for me, I said it in my head a million times. In my head, she was ragingly angry. And she blows up on him after awhile. And Andrea said to me, "I'd really like to just try it like this." And I let her. I said, "Show me." And after she showed me the way she wanted to do it, we never tried it a different way. The intensity, all the rage, was internal. Then the love came. It was a very complicated scene. And it was way better than I imagined. That's a good example of being open to collaboration.
This isn't a special effects movie. This is a movie about people, and so I was hoping that the actors would know more about their characters by the time they showed up on set than I would have. And I think they did. When you watch the movie, we're trying to achieve certain thematic styles. But you could have put the camera on sticks, shot them doing a wide, close-up, close-up, and move on. For all the scenes. Although, we were trying to do something stylistically different with the film.
NFS: Can you explain a little about the stylistic approach and how you wanted the visuals to affect the story?
Heckler: I shared a visual strategy with my DP and my editor, I kept saying, let's purposefully make mistakes. And every mistake we make, or everything that seems like a mistake, let's leave. So we would frame shots where you couldn't see the actor. We would move the camera behind someone's head.
And everybody would go, well you're blocking the actors. And I would say, yeah, because the audience, subconsciously in their right mind would think, there's no way they would plan a shot like this. I mean, they'd have to, so it has to be real. What I wanted to do was subliminally plant the idea that we're making a documentary, as opposed to a feature film. Because most feature films are clean. You have clean close-ups. And you have clean wide shots. But this was a true story, and I wanted people to subconsciously remember that. As a first time director, maybe people might just think I'm an idiot. He doesn't know what he's doing! But I tried to do this, by design.
NFS: How did you navigate or explain that style with the cast? As a first time director, it has to be a little intimidating working on set with such accomplished actors.
Heckler: Everybody bought into it. Everyone treated it like a play. Forest is a filmmaker too, he understood. Everyone understood that the camera was wandering around. Jeremy Rouse, my DP, and I had done a lot of prep as to how to wander and what to find. And we had two cameras. The other camera operator is fantastic, Michael Merriman. We got a DP-quality second unit camera. And we'd just say, “Get weird on us. Find stuff.” And, so they all bought in.
And Tom Wilkinson, I cannot tell you, for a twice nominated for an Academy Award, someone with such a venerable presence, he couldn't have been cooler about letting me mess around as a first-time director. Tom is a very script-oriented person. He felt that this script was good. I think he felt that the script was so good, I couldn't mess up the movie on him! He would just sit there and go like, "Does anybody have any idea what my eye line is going to be now?" And we'd go, “No. It's everywhere.” "Is the camera on me?" “I'm not sure.” "Do I have to do this, again?" “Yeah, you do, because we don't know where the camera is.” And there would be a long, long pause, and he would go, "Okay." And he would do it. I think he was sort of amused by the lot of us. I was having so much fun all the time, and I was making a really tough movie, but having a really good time making a really tough movie.
We’d say that sometimes, directing's a lot like being a therapist. And the reason that they say that is because everybody's got a very different personality. It's your job as director to really to figure out how to speak to each personality without alienating anybody. The second you alienate the actor, it's over. You have no shot at anything amazing.
"What I wanted to do was subliminally plant the idea that we're making a documentary, as opposed to a feature film."
NFS: After 20 years, you’ve finally brought this story to life on screen. What would your advice be to other filmmakers based on this experience?
Heckler: Only that truth is stranger than fiction. I don't think I've ever, or rarely done anything solely out of my imagination. And I don't think anybody can. When you're a filmmaker, you're trying to look at stories now. It's not an obligation, and stories can have mixed, ambiguous endings. I like endings that have double meanings. But sometimes, I think that we crave hopefulness. If you're going to ask an audience spend two hours with you, that at the end of it, you have to have some sort of feeling or some sort of idea to share. This movie happens to end somewhat positively.
Filmmakers should do what comes out rather naturally. I, myself, am somewhat nihilistic right now, about what we're doing here. I think we need a sea change. I think the human experiment is failing. We’re not loving each other, we're not loving the environment, and it's come quite the other way. But I think that for me, there’s an obligation to show the tough truths out there, and then offer something at the end for us to strive for.
For more, see our ongoing list of coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by RODE Microphones and Blackmagic Design.