How This Director Recovered from a Hollywood Nightmare to Make His Passion Project
Writer/director Anthony Scott Burns tells us how he managed to bring to life the horrific dreamscapes of Come True.
In this sci-fi/horror film, Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) is a runaway high schooler struggling with recurring nightmares. When she spots a university sleep study that offers the promise of safety and money, she jumps at the chance. The overseeing scientist is Jeremy (Landon Liboiron), who soon gets close to Sarah. As her dreams seem to worsen and she loses touch with reality, the study uncovers a disturbing idea. Why is everyone seeing the same nightmare?
If you're a fan of old-school genre films, then Come True is the atmospheric, lo-fi, ambient-synth-soaked movie for you. It effortlessly references all your childhood favorites while building a new universe and story of its own. The beautifully horrific dreamscapes will linger as after-images in your brain for days. And after watching, you'll probably want to pull out some of those favorites (for me it was things like Scanners, RoboCop, The Fly), but you'll also want to start Come True over to rethink every nuance after its shock ending.
We spoke with the film's writer/director/DP/composer, Anthony Scott Burns, ahead of the film's wide release. In our candid conversation, he talked about how his chance at a Hollywood dream became a different kind of nightmare, his stylistic influences and how he made them his own, and more.
Dig in, because there's some great advice here.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: I am a big fan of this type of movie. I was telling my partner that I wanted to watch a bunch of older horror/sci-fi after watching yours. I'd love to watch The Fly again. I was getting so many good vibes from your movie.
Anthony Scott Burns: That's awesome. Well, it was built to do that. Talking with people, I get to self-analyze why I did everything, in hindsight, because I talk about the movie so much now. You run on instinct on the day or when you're building this stuff, but when you actually do look back, you get to see that there were reasons, and because this is a film about dreams, this movie, to me, sort of revealed itself to be my dream.
It's built of all the movies I grew up loving, but not in a sort of emulation way. It genuinely is built of all these different things with a new outlook, but using the things that were familiar, with DNA.
NFS: Awesome. I was going to ask also just about your background initially. So I read that you're self-taught—
Burns: Yeah. No film school!
NFS: So it's perfect for us! Yeah, you're an animator, cinematographer, director, all these different things. So I just want to learn more about what your learning experiences were and how you taught yourself while getting into the film industry.
Burns: Well, I've been doing this for a long time. I started making short films with the TV department in the high school's equipment. This is super VHS editing days, like really, really, really old school. And also, where I grew up, we had a film collective that was semi-government funded. So we could rent semi-professional gear from there and edit, edit on the old Moviolas and things like that. And yeah, I grew up on set as a kid in Vancouver, BC. My dad was the military advisor for a number of projects, including First Blood and TV shows like Airwolf. So lots of really cool stuff, and I was always on set because my dad was a little bit irresponsible. I would end up just being there, and it just infected me and it never went away.
Julia Sarah Stone as Sarah in Anthony Scott Burns' 'Come True.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.We moved away from Vancouver when I was still a teen, and I just always wanted to do it. People told me I couldn't do it. Just because it's a hard thing to crack into. When I was starting, the gear was so prohibitively expensive that it did seem out of range. And so I just put my head down and worked really bad jobs for many years and bought equipment. Every extra piece of money that came my way, went towards renting a synthesizer for the weekend because I couldn't afford a synthesizer, and just working on the craft of music and image-making. It just always was a thing, as early as I can remember.
My dad recently dug up all my report cards, and I was a failure in everything—from kindergarten. A failure at everything except art. And so it's just something that I had no other choice, but to do it. And so I always self-taught myself how to do these things. And then eventually, my wife and I moved to Toronto after years of just doing infomercials.
Recently, it came to light, it was a joke. I used to do infomercials thinking, "I'm going to make movies one day." And so I didn't tell anyone my real name.
Burns: Yes. I was like, this is going to destroy me one day. I don't want all this stuff to come up that I made infomercials, but that was the only way I could survive where I was living at the time, which was Alberta. There wasn't a huge film industry in Alberta, Canada. So we moved to Toronto and within about a year I was the senior graphic designer at MTV. And I used that as my film school, to further my experience. So while I had made some shorts in Edmonton, once I got to Toronto, I just used my job as an excuse to get better at the craft. And [say], "We should do live-action. I know I'm a graphic designer, but we should do live-action. We should do full 3D. We should do 3D integration," and all this other stuff that led to the effects expertise when it was a breaking-new-ground place to be with motion graphics and 3D effects.
It led to me later having a career in commercials after I left MTV, and after being sick of working in commercials, I decided to try making some shorts again. So I had given up on being a feature filmmaker, because it still seemed out of reach, even though I was doing all those things. It now seemed like, "How am I going to make that next step," as I'm sure everybody feels. "How do I get someone to give me millions of dollars?" It's a hard scam.
I just made some shorts. There's a lovely man out of Toronto named Todd Brown. I don't know if you know him, but he's somebody who, in the business, has really helped a lot of young filmmakers.
Julia Sarah Stone as Sarah in Anthony Scott Burns' 'Come True.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.He introduced me to people like Vincenzo Natali, the director of Cube, and went, "Anthony can make some really interesting things." And once I made this short called Manifold, it really opened a lot of doors for me. Once I made Manifold, it got representation at William Morris and management at Anonymous Content. And I was off to the races.
I had a really great experience meeting everyone in Hollywood. And then I wanted to make this movie that I had dreamt up called Come True. For whatever reason, no one wanted me to make that as my first movie. So even though I felt like it would be truest to my—I hate saying this—but to my brand, like this is what I want to do in my life, this kind of filmmaking. And so I saw a lot of scripts and things, and I was offered a lot of stuff and I worked on some projects, and eventually, I got a project being produced by Jeremy [Kleiner], [Dede] Gardner, and Brad Pitt—12 Years a Slave team.
So I was in a really great place, but then I directed a movie in which I did a no-no. This is a good one for anyone who wants to do this as a career—don't ever quit a film.
I quit a film because I wouldn't bend. Because what happens sometimes with first-time directors, I think—maybe this was just my experience—was that I really wanted to do good. And I really wanted to make a great film, and I wanted to make something that could stand the test of time. And so my aim was, Don't Look Now. I wanted to make a Nicolas Roeg horror film. And I think the people that I was making the film with just said yes, because I was able to make things well and on budget and they looked good and the performances were good. And I had a great time with the cast on my first film and it was a lot of fun to shoot it. And then we got in the edit room, and we just didn't see the same film.
And so I quit. I lost my representation and I lost my management and—it's all fun. And I thought, "Oh no, my career."
But then, I have really great friends and really great collaborators and we just decided let's make Come True anyway. And so I asked—I had been working with Copperheart [Entertainment] who made Ginger Snaps and Splice with Vincenzo—how much would it cost for me to make this movie and not have anybody involved? And so they gave me a number, and I said, "Yes, I will do that." So it was sort of a return to short filmmaking for Come True in that we had a very reduced team. There were five crew members total, and that's for everything. And then we had our cast. We shot for 60 days, and I think it turned out.
NFS: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you for your honesty.
Burns: So there's my long-winded, honest... Well, I think the types of people who will read this on your site, I think it's important to note that... Have you ever seen the documentary about Troy Duffy? The fellow who made Boondock Saints.
NFS: Yes, I have.
Burns: Yeah. I think it's called Overnight. There's this idea of "making it" in Hollywood, and it's the dream, but you hear so many times of first-time filmmakers going and making this film and it just becomes a nightmare. I didn't know that I was going to have that scenario. And I think it's kind of a great cautionary tale just to—if I had any advice for myself back then—is don't say yes to anything you don't feel 100% on, even if people are telling you it's the right decision. And not because the creative wasn't there, it's because sometimes you're in such a rush and you're so excited to get the film made, that you'll do it any way possible.
I've seen this happen many times with filmmakers, but if it's not the right team who understands you and understands your motives and why you're doing things, it's never going to work. It will be a fight. You hear about that all the time. So I had that experience and if I could go back in time and say, just say no to that one and just wait until it feels right. And all the same team members as representation and things like that, but just don't feel pressured to say yes.
Julia Sarah Stone as Sarah in Anthony Scott Burns' 'Come True.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.NFS: That's really great advice.
Burns: Well, a lot of stuff comes across your desk and you feel like, "Wow, this guy says I should do it. And he's a big shot. I probably should do it." If you're not interested in the material or it doesn't feel right, there's no reason to do it, other than it's your dream and you really want to make movies. And that's the hard part that you're being like, "I would love to just be on set tomorrow." That's the excitement level, any way to get there again. And I think you just have to fight that and just get there on your terms. Get to set on your terms.
NFS: That's amazing advice. So thank you for that. Regarding Come True, I was going to ask about—you already mentioned Don't Look Now, which is an amazing film. What films specifically were you referencing on this one?
Burns: Well, it's weird. I don't think I was consciously referencing anything because the way that I wrote this and the way that I shot it, I tried to just listen to instincts and what my subconscious was telling me to do at every step of the way. But in hindsight, there are obviously influences and they're all over it. And it is built of my dream to be a filmmaker.
So it's everything from, there are hard references that you can see, like Manhunter, Michael Mann's Manhunter. That was a movie that really affected me when I was growing up. Weirdly, American Psycho. I know you can't see it, but it's in the DNA of trying to make something that is both entertaining as a flat-out genre film, but also as a commentary and something that's draped on a flat-out genre film. And so American Psycho is definitely an influence in that regard, because if it works as both.
And then everything from Sleepaway Camp, too—there's Stanley Kubrick in there, of course. I tried to fight David Fincher as much as I could just because—I talked about this, when we worked on this movie, I wanted to make sure that it wasn't perfect because the genre films that I grew up loving weren't perfect. And sort of the weirdness within the reality of the films made them worth coming back to. And I find there's this modern-day search for perfection in filmmaking [that] makes things very sterile. And very few filmmakers can actually pull off sterile. Fincher is someone who can, but now it's sort of a genre of this sort of perceived perfection. And I tried to fight that as much as I could. But there is a part of you that goes, well, I want people to think this is a professional movie. So you can't always leave things longer than they should.
But yeah, I think Manhunter is probably the biggest one in terms of visuals. In terms of story, a lot of books were influential. The work of Carl Jung, the work of Philip K. Dick. And the films of Cronenberg. I'd be lying if being a Canadian who didn't grow up in the same sort of headspace. Vincenzo Natali films influenced me. Yeah. Even Brian de Palma has influenced this film.
NFS: I just watched Sisters recently. So I can see that. Yeah, absolutely.
Burns: Well, to be more exact, it's probably most influenced by Body Double because that's the movie that has most influenced me of his, and it's not in—I read the making of that book. I found it in the library. I don't know if it was the making of Body Double or if it was just a Brian de Palma book. I was in the library as a teen, and something struck me is that he explained—have you seen Body Double?
Behind the scenes of 'Come True.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.NFS: I haven't seen that one, actually.
Burns: Okay. It's—listen, the politics of that movie are not great. They're really not great. Or the portrayals are really not great of sexuality. But the thing that drew me to what he was doing in that film is that he was, he was allowing himself to be true, like 100% truthful to how he was making the movie. And no matter what came out, he allowed it. And if something was perverse, he did it.
The importance of when you're trying to examine your true feelings and influences and why we do what we do. I don't know why I was trying to examine that in Come True, but I was, and I feel it's important to be honest in those sorts of expressions. That's how that film influenced me, is that good and bad, he put himself into that film. And I think that we respond to films like that. Good and bad, when someone puts something truthful to themselves, it really, really resonates much further than if you are trying to construct the perfect screenplay, you know?
And so, in doing that, I tried to create archetypes of people that I grew up watching in cinema. And one of the things that Come True has that is really bothersome to some people is the "love interest." And for me, it's supposed to bother you because he, Jeremy, is built of all the people that I grew up watching in horror films and in genre films and in films in general, throughout my childhood, who did really questionable things all the way through. And yet, they were the good guys. And that always really struck me.
Later on, I found out that one of the reasons I'm very good at autodidactic learning is that I have Asperger's syndrome. And so I have a deep focus and I have a semi-removed understanding of personal interactions in a way where I watch things as equations. And so when I'm watching a film and someone's acting a certain way—and that's not moralistically correct. And I know good and bad.
I use the example of Explorers [from] Joe Dante, where I'm watching a bunch of kids create some sort of scientific discovery together. And the first thing they do when they discover this ball, where they can go and float and stuff—I don't know if you've seen the film.
Burns: First thing they do when they get sent an image or the inspiration from outer space to build a microchip. And these kids, one of them is a real nerd and he builds the microchip, and it creates a bubble that can move throughout space. And they're like, well, what if we put a vehicle in that bubble, we could go out to outer space. If we had oxygen tanks. It's like this cute kids movie—but the first thing they do when they get that bubble is they go and spy on the other girl in their elementary school, in her bedroom.
And it's stuff like that. That is peppered throughout every movie I love as a kid, but it always got me. And I never understood why I was like, "Am I the only one seeing this as unethical behavior?" Because I'm running on logic over here in my Asperger's brain.
And so I kind of loved putting in this character, Jeremy, because I'm able to have him do things that walk a line. And then when he goes to that realm of what he actually wanted to do in the first place, based on his actions, we have all the people in the audience going, "Wait a second. Why did you do that?" And you go, "That was his end goal from the moment that he saw her. I don't know what you were thinking." And so for me, almost every character outside of Sarah is me having fun, examining icons and stereotypes of media that we grew up within the genre that I love.
Behind the scenes of 'Come True.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.NFS: That's awesome. What did you shoot the film on?
Burns: I shot the film on a Sony a7S II because I don't have access to really expensive stuff. And for me, actually, out of all the cameras I've tested—because I used to have a RED. I sold my soul to the devil way back in the day and got a huge loan so I could have my own RED, as digital cinematography was beginning. So I bought RED early on when they were so expensive. I knew that I had to be an expert at it to make it work for me, because you could see things shot on digital that looked horrific, and then you could see things shot on digital that looked beautiful. And I thought, "Well, what's going on here? These are the same capture devices."
Whereas with film, it was much more forgiving in that realm. You could shoot something pretty baseline and still get a beautiful image because of the medium, where digital was unforgiving if you didn't know what you were doing. And so in all my travels, the Sony a7S II came along, and I just really, really loved the quality of the dynamic range and how the falloff was.
Its only real limitation, and this is for people's thinking of using it, is that it has 8-bit color. So you end up with banding in gradients, which isn't great. But it really does have a filmic quality that I enjoyed shooting on. And because of its low light capabilities, I was able to do a lot of things that look unlit even though they're lit, but they look unlit because it's a lot of natural bounce.
We shot for 60 days, that's the other thing. We created a schedule where, and another reason why we had such a small crew, we could spend as much time with the actors just shooting them and getting those takes like a real movie that we don't get on a budget, because we don't get the time for takes.
Landon Liboiron as Jeremy in Anthony Scott Burns' 'Come True.'Credit: Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.NFS: Awesome. And then as far as the dreamscapes, I assumed CG.
Burns: Yeah. And part of the design and part of the necessity of the budget is that we wanted to create something that was uncanny, that felt not of this planet and not shot on this planet because that would take away from the dream aspect of it. It needed to feel like it was not shot, but it felt real, but unreal. So they're fully CG and those were developed by me and a group of my good friends who I've worked with over the years on short film projects together. We just spent months jamming, and I created a groundwork, and we all worked from that. And it's based on my dreams and traditional icons from dreams that we all share, going back to supporting this sort of collective unconscious, what the film is about.
And yeah, it took a long time to get them right. Feeling right. To keep an artfulness to them because dreams and scary dreams could go into what I would call "hard horror" territory, where it's just really gory. We wanted these to be scary but have the ability to be shown, outside of that and still see the beauty in the art.
NFS: They were scary beautiful. How about that? I love the way they looked, but definitely unnerving.
Burns: Yeah. That was the thing, I wanted people to be both scared of them, but also be intrigued and maybe even want to frame them on their wall. That's the delicate balance we were looking for.
NFS: Is there anything else that you wanted to add that I didn't ask about?
Burns: Don't go to film school. It's not for everybody.
NFS: All right!
Burns: You know, I don't recommend my journey for everybody of not going to film school, but I do think that when it comes to arts and especially now with so many tutorials and the technology being so available, you're going to learn so much just going out and doing it, and keep doing it and get better at it. And one day someone will knock on your door. That's it, that's really what happened to me. And it's what happens to a lot of people. Just make what you love and then one day someone says, "Make what you love for me."
Come True opens in select theaters, digital platforms, and cable VOD on March 12, 2021.