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With her co-director Tom Putnam, Detroit native Brenna Sanchez (pictured, below) has crafted Burn, an intimate yet exciting documentary that all but defines the term 'fly-on-the-wall' filmmaking. Together, they were not only allowed access to the grinding bureaucratic gears of a local government struggling to halt the decline of Sanchez's hometown, but were also afforded a year with the firefighters of a metropolis slowly burning to the ground. Sanchez spoke with SCREEN-SPACE only a few hours prior to the film's Australian premiere at Perth's Revelations Film Festival, filing her email responses mid-flight from Los Angeles to Australia's West Coast.   

The American firefighter has always been held in a sort of mythical regard, more so since 9/11. Your film plays to that but also reveals the very human side of the role. Was that the intention going into Burn?

Absolutely! Some of the best documentaries get beyond what we think we know about a subject. After spending five minutes with these guys, we knew there was more to firefighters than we'd ever seen on TV or in movies. Sure, firefighters are heroes. But they're more than that. We knew there was a deeper story here.

The access you achieved is quite incredible. Not only in terms of the extraordinary footage inside burning buildings but also with regard to the coverage you got of the notoriously publicity-shy local government bodies. Which of the two proved more welcoming?

Once the firefighters (pictured, right; Putnam and Sanchez, back-row centre) heard the tenor and depth of the questions we asked, they opened up. No one had ever asked them about them — who they are, what they do. What they see and deal with every day is too tough to talk about at home; they don't want to scare their wives and families. And the department doesn't have therapists. So once they felt we were there to listen, and tell their story, they were incredibly generous.

We went through four fire commissioners before Donald Austin came in. He was the first to understand what we were trying to do, and supported us. We were transparent with him, and he gave us the access we needed. He could have shut us down at any point, but he saw the good that could come from the film.

I know this may sound unusual but structurally, it reminded me of a western – real-men protectors of the people against a black-hearted villain (fire) and a ‘crooked system’ (local government), all set in a decaying ghost town. I don’t mean for that to belittle the real-world issues of Burn, but does the film embrace a kind of traditional Hollywood ethos?

You're spot on. At its core, BURN is a movie about change. Just like in the old Westerns, there's a new sheriff in town, and the railroad is coming through. Can the cowboys adapt? Does the sheriff have what it takes to lead them through the change? The story is evergreen except, instead of horses, we're talking about shifting industry and economics. We talked about Westerns constantly when we were filming, which is one of the reasons we shot the film in 2.35 widescreen, which is very unusual for a documentary. The other genre we were thinking of was a war film, where we thought of ourselves as if we were embedded with a platoon during a tour of duty in a combat zone. We get to know this tight-knit brotherhood, and we see the larger issues, but through their eyes.

How involved was executive producer Denis Leary? At what point in the production did he come on board and did he have any stipulations as to message he wanted the film to impart?

Denis Leary and Jim Serpico (pictured, above; with, from left, co-directors Putnam and Sanchez) came on about half-way through. They saw what we were doing, where we were headed, and recognized that BURN fell right in line with their work with the Leary Firefighters Foundation. They looked at late cuts of the film, and were always encouraging.

There is fascinating juxtaposition, in that these men and their families represent a classically wholesome American image that has barely altered in a century but the country around them, here represented by the plight of Detroit, is collapsing. Does the film capture the prosperous age of America’s yesteryear in its death throes?  

This is a movie about change. When you go to Detroit, you so often hear, "Detroit was once so great — it needs to be what it used to be." But the world doesn't work like that, life only moves forward. Industry in Detroit and many, many, many other once-industrial areas is gone. Everyone must create a new normal to survive. And whose job hasn't changed in 100 years? Tradition is a dangerous idea if it prevents you from evolving. Detroit, the fire department, and our individual characters are all facing the challenge of change, and learning how to adapt so they can survive it.

When developments occur on a documentary shoot such as the tragic passing of Mr Parnell’s wife or the introduction of the ‘Let It Burn’ policy, does it invariably shift the initial focus of the film? After a year’s shooting, is Burn the doco you thought it would be?

We had no idea what we were getting into, we only knew wanted to know more. We sensed the stories were there, but they were a mystery to us at the start. We began by filming a huge number of characters since we didn't know who would have something eventful happen over the course of the year. We ended up filming over a thousand hours, and were over half-way through filming before the central characters began rising to the surface. If you take the time to be still, to watch, and to really listen, really get to know people, don't the stories always reveal themselves?

BURN - Official Theatrical Trailer (2013) from BURN on Vimeo.




Far from the gaudy excesses of Hollywood is Austin, Texas, home to a small but passionate enclave of independent filmmakers producing some of the most idiosyncratic visions in American cinema. The latest is Pictures of Superheroes, a weird and wonderful slice of bizarro humour and eccentric characters from writer/diector Don Swaynos. Swaynos (pictured, below) spoke with great candor to SCREEN-SPACE about stepping into the director's chair, drawing fearless and funny performances from his cast and what life is like for an independent filmmaker deep in the heart of Texas.

Tell me about the Austin independent film scene and the film community that fosters such unique visions as Pictures of Superheroes. 

Well I definitely couldn't have made this film in this way in an industry city like New York or LA. Austin has great supply of really talented people who can find employment here in the field but aren't completely burned out and cynical about it. They're still willing to help out on a project and they're still passionate about it. I'm not sure anyone in town is making a living as an indie film auteur (is anyone anywhere?) but there are lots of production jobs around, and the cost of living is lower than LA or New York so you can actually afford to do things between jobs, spend money on making a movie, instead of just trying to find another job to pay your rent. I tend to gauge the cost of living in a city by how much a pint of beer costs, a good beer. Austin's probably around five bucks right now. I had trouble finding beer that cheap in New York.

The filmmaker community here is growing, but it's still relatively small so there's this shared energy. If a film is shot in Austin, we most likely we shared some crew members. So there's this communal spirit when something succeeds, it's good for all of us. Just last week I finally saw Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess, which is one of my favorite films of the year. Chris Doubek (who plays Gil in Pictures of Superheroes) is in it, as is our colorist Brandon Thomas and some of the scenes were shot at the same house as a film I just edited called Pit Stop, which is produced by Pictures' producer Kelly Williams and co-stars John Merriman. It's all very incestuous but and it's a really great thing to be a part of.

(Above: Kerri Lindo as Marie in Pictures of Superheroes)

Though it is clearly impossible to pigeon-hole, Pictures… kind of plays like a mash-up of mumblecore comedy and Wes Anderson-type eccentricity with a dash of Monty Python. Who are the filmmakers and writers that have inspired your creativity?  

I've always like odd things. Weird music, weird movies, weird comic books, things that don't fit easily into one genre, so it makes me happy that I seem to have created something that's hard to categorize. It's probably not the most financially viable way to make a movie but I wasn't too concerned with that here. When we were making the movie I described it as " what if Luis Bunuel made mumblecore comedy" but "Monty Python mumblecore" seems like a much better way to say that.

I was initially drawn to filmmaking by really visual directors like Sam Raimi and the Coen Brothers, but as I've gotten older I've explored more films and that's changed. I'd say my favorite filmmakers are Luis Bunuel, Pedro Almodovar, Errol Morris, John Waters, Gaspar Noe... probably some others I'm forgetting. Comedically I'd say the first few years of The Simpsons and the George Carlin HBO specials I saw as a kid really had a hand in getting me to actually think about comedy and its potential to do more than just get a laugh. Mitch Hedberg was definitely a big influence. Bob Burden's Flaming Carrot Comics are in there somewhere. Currently I really like Louis CK, but who doesn't?

It struck me that career-obsessed ‘Eric’ and self-obsessed man-child ‘John’ only became a single, more fully-formed man when they embraced a little of each other’s personality. Delve into the psychology of your lead characters for us….

I think they're both parts of me, honestly.  Right now I've kind of over-extended myself work-wise, so I basically just work and sleep, and when I talk to people, the only thing I really have to talk about is work. But since I'm a freelance editor, that'll end, and when I'm not working I can fall into a funk like Joe. Sleep late, basically get nothing done... I've definitely gotten closer to the happy medium recently. I like to think making the movie helped me get there, but it might just be getting older. I don't have the energy to get too stressed about work stuff and I can't sleep late anymore.

But the characters are also the two extremes I've seen people become as they enter adulthood. Some dive right into "being a grown-up", like this  forced adulthood, where they graduate from college, get married, get a "real job", get a house, have kids and tell themselves "this is what I'm supposed to be doing now, I'm 23.". Then there's the other extreme, where people refuse to grow up. That's definitely more common in a city like Austin. But neither of those are good, healthy ways to live your life, there's a happy medium in there somewhere. That's the goal in life. Get a real job, but leave time for some other stuff too.

In creating ‘Marie’, I imagine it would’ve been hard for Kerri Lendo, or any actress for that matter, to play so droll and so caustic for an entire shoot. How would you define the relationship between director and star?

It's funny because I wrote Joe and Eric with John Merriman and Shannon McCormick in mind. I had worked with both of them before, I knew how incredibly funny they both were, and I was hearing their voices in my head as I was writing. But I never had anyone in mind for Marie. Even when we decided to make the movie, we had no idea who to cast. I tried auditioning a few people, but that didn't really go anywhere. I was sitting with producer Tate English trying to think of what we were going to do and he suggested Kerri (based on a short she had made with John Merriman). I had seen Kerri do stand-up a few times and I just thought she would be perfect. We didn't even audition her, which seems kind of crazy in retrospect, we just offered her the part. As a first time director, I probably wasn't much help to her. Kerri gets all the credit for Marie.

All the men in your film are really quite grotesque, even idiotic, in a hilarious, playful sort of way, while your women are very sure of themselves. Marie is quirky but very quick-witted and incisive; Danu Uribe’s ‘Susan’ is actually a real-world human being. Are you suggesting that, yes, it’s true - women are the stronger sex?

Yeah, I mean, they pretty much are. I think it's easier for me to apply negative traits to male characters than to female. Maybe because there are some autobiographical elements in all of the men in this film or maybe I've just had more bad experiences dealing with men than I have with women. I'd hate to analyze it (or myself) too much but it seems like if I think, in general, about humanity as a whole, a lot of dudes are assholes, but most women seem pretty cool.

My sound re-recording mixer Eric Friend pointed out that like Joe and Eric, Marie is also a loser. She's stuck in this job that she has no interest in, that she doesn't seem to be particularly good at, and she's allowing the direction of her life to be controlled by the people around her. The difference is that, even though I'm not totally sure she's aware of it, she's at least fed up with it, while the men around her are happy stuck in their ruts. Marie can actually do something and break the cycle that her life has fallen into. Not sure what that means in terms of gender roles though...

(Above: Lendo and co-star John Merriman)

You’ve been an editor most of your professional career. What sort of learning curve did you go through when you stepped behind the camera? What surprised you most about the role of feature-film director?

I'm comfortable as an editor and I'm comfortable as a writer, but directing was a new experience. I liked the script, and I has a list of shots that I knew I needed to be able to cut scenes together but everything else was totally alien to me. Editing is such a solitary task, you do it by yourself, you can apply as much or as little time as you feel you need, but when you're on set and there are a bunch of people looking at you for a plan and you've got a schedule and something isn't working- it's really nerve-wracking. Basically the whole "interacting with other humans to make a movie" thing is new to me. I lucked out with the cast and crew that I had and if you didn't know better, watching the film you might think I'm competent. 

Editing other people's films prepared me, in a sense, to direct my own. I'd seen the problems that had arisen on other productions that we needed to fix in post and kept a tally to make sure I didn't commit any of those. But also, when you're editing, it's so easy to say "why didn't they get that shot?" or "why didn't they do another take?" but being on set actually served as a harsh reminder of why. Because you've got time constraints, and the sun's going down, and getting that angle would take too long, etc. 

How does your vision for the world and wonderful but oddball sense of character translate to studio-size budgets and Hollywood fame? Will ‘A Film by Don Swaynos’ ever adorn a multiplex screen?

Hmmm....I don't know. I think I've just come to the realization that that probably won't ever happen, but I'm totally fine with it. So many of the things I've loved have always been on the fringes that it probably makes sense that the things I make are out there too.  The film industry is going through some pretty radical changes right now and I'm not sure what's going to happen but it's a great time to be making independent films, because you can actually get them out there. So as long as I can make films that are financially sustainable that people seem to be enjoying, I'll be happy.

Picture of Superheroes has it's New South Wales premiere on Saturday 7th of September as part of the Sydney Underground Film Festival. Tickets available here.



Given the recent dire efforts in the field of found footage horror, some may suggest a parody is a bit redundant. But for writer and comedian Marlon Wayans, there is still a lot that can be laughed at.

Breaking away from the big-screen act he perfected with his brothers Keenen and Shawn over the last decade in the hit films White Chicks and Little Man, Wayans has returned to the mockery of one of his franchise starter, Scary Movie, for his latest comedy, A Haunted House. “They did something special with the first Paranormal Activity film, like they did with the first Blair Witch movie. They did a really good job spinning the bullshit, making you believe the house was haunted,” Wayans tells SCREEN-SPACE while in Sydney for a series of sold-out stand-up shows. “But by the time Paranormal Activity 3 came out, I was thinking ‘Man, this is getting bad.’ It was time to make fun of them.”

The film is a typically low-brow but occasionally hilarious send-up, with elements such as set design and narrative beats taken directly from the Paranormal Activity series as well as recent hits The Devil Inside and The Last Exorcism. Wayans fans won’t be at all surprised to learn the film is full of sexual innuendo and base crudity and that’s exactly the way they like it. “I make it for the kids, who don’t care too much what’s right and what’s wrong in the eyes of grown-ups, who just want to have a good laugh,” he says. “But I also make it for the 30 and 40 year-olds who still have that little kid inside of them and who want to be a little naughty and a little crass.”

It is a formula that has proved enormously successful for Wayans; budgeted at around US$2million, the film became a sleeper hit Stateside, grossing nearly $45million. The final tally is doubly impressive given the film took a critical savaging from the mainstream media, very few of whom have ever sided with the young comic’s popular appeal. He takes their disdain philosophically. “I think sometimes critics tend to overthink comedy. I think they should watch some comedies with a paying audience and watch the audience reaction,” Wayans theorises. “Then they can say ‘Well, it wasn’t my thing, but the audience seemed to love it’. That would be the fairer thing to do with a lot of comedies, because what makes each of us laugh is such a subjective thing. Some people think themselves too intelligent, or too above, a good fart joke.”

Body functions are just one of the many avenues explored by Wayans and his co-stars David Koechner, Nick Swardson (pictured, right, with Wayans), Cedric the Entertainer and Essence Atkins (“She had a baby five weeks before we started filming, but she still got on the rig and let us pull her around. She was incredible.’) Free-wheeling their way through many improvised moments, the cast push a lot of boundaries in terms of physical humour; in one scene, Wayans enjoys a wild sexual encounter with two stuffed toys. Wayans agrees that there’s not much he won’t do for a laugh. “Oh man, I go there! I’m absolutely happy to go there,” he says with laugh. “Comedy has always got to be all or nothing. But you have to have layers, of course, and I think with this movie we accomplished that.”

He is also proud of the way he and first-time director Michael Tiddes adapted the clichéd use of the camera in found footage films for comedy impact. “The style of the movie we were sending up, all that handheld stuff and the CCTV footage, was able to be used to our comedic advantage,” he explains. “We were able to let a group of very funny people just do take after take of really funny stuff, just non sequitur, bizarrely funny shit that, if it worked, we would use it. Absolutely the aim was to do a comedy version of a found footage movie.”

A Haunted House opens in Australia on May 30. Follow Marlon Wayans on Twitter here.



One of the film world's greatest costume designers, in Australia for the launch of her exhibition Hollywood Costumes, recalls her first big-budget studio feature - Steven Spielberg's grand folly, 1941.

Steven Spielberg’s 1941 holds a very special place in film history as one of Hollywood’s most grand follies. The 1979 production, which comedically chronicled one night of mayhem when Los Angelinos were convinced Japanese forces were launching an attack on Hollywood, ran way over budget and opened to scathing reviews, leaving co-financiers Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios in the red on a film that was greenlit to give the super-hot director total creative control on a scale he had never known.

It was to be the third feature for a young costume designer named Deborah Nadoolman (pictured; right), who had honed her craft on the low-budget comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie and the surprise smash hit, Animal House (both directed by her future husband, John Landis). Now one of Hollywood’s most revered costume designers with credits that include Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, the two-term President of the Costume Designers Guild spoke to SCREEN-SPACE of her experience on Spielberg’s enormous spectacle.

“The first thing I should say is that Steven really gave me carte blanche,” Nadoolman-Landis says from her West Coast home, prior for leaving for Melbourne to oversee the launch of Hollywood Costume, a collection of iconic outfits that she has spent five ears curating. “He had come to a screening of Animal House and had fallen in love with the film. So he called me to come in and talk about designing on 1941. I had never designed on a movie of that size. My entire CV at that time was Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House.”

Spielberg has since admitted that his self-belief was running rampant at the time, after the one-two box office punch of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Clearly taking its inspiration from Stanley Kramer’s frantic 1963 farce, It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, the director was in charge of a cast that included Hollywood bad boys John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd (both pictured; right) and Treat Williams, veterans Toshiro Mifune, Warren Oates and Slim Pickens and wide-eyed stars-in-the-making Bobby Di Cicco and Dianne Kay. For Nadoolman-Landis, it was clear her director was going to need all the help even her limited experience could offer.

“He was a still very young,” she remembers. “He had Jaws and Close Encounters, both of which I had adored, but he had not had a lot of experience with costuming or with costume designers. In fact, on those films, I don’t think he had even had a costume designer!” Conversely, 1941 would use 100’s of extras, all of who required fitting for a very specific time in American history; the key characters include a troop of USO girls, a tank crew, some zoot-suiters and a Japanese submarine crew. “He was going to be making a period film and he had no idea what to do,” she says with a laugh, tempered somewhat by hindsight.

“He and I sat together, and got on very well at that first meeting. He told me that the film was going to be as Spielberg/Nadoolman co-production,” she says. Thrilled to be offered a gig on a major studio production, the breadth of her task soon dawned upon Nadoolman-Landis. “I had read the script and, at that time, I was like ‘Oh, my goodness!’, this is going to cost a fortune. At the time, the budget was like $22million, but…well you know, right. A huge film.” (pictured left; Spielberg on-set with actor Ned Beatty, centre).

“After the meeting, I was walking to my car and it just struck me, ‘How am I going to do this?’,” she recalls of a moment when the pressure to make real a vast directorial vision consumed her. “My last costume budget, on Animal House, was $50,000 out of a $2million budget. On 1941, my budget was going to be $250,000! I ran to a payphone and called my boyfriend, John Landis, and cried ‘John, this is going to be such a huge movie and I’m in way over my head’ and I really did start spinning out. And John said, ‘Just realax. It is the same job.’”

Thirty-four years later, Deborah Nadoolman-Landis would recognise it as a defining moment in her career perspective. “Costume design, whether its on Kentucky Fried Movie with $15,000 or 1941 with $250,000, is exactly the same job. And that’s what I took away from 1941. Steven and I had a fabulous time working on the movie, as we did on Raiders of the Lost Ark,” she says.

Spielberg’s costly flop went through a number of re-edits and has emerged as cult favourite for many, though still carries the stigma of being associated with a flagrant period of excess in Hollywood history (it is often spoken of in company with infamous bombs Inchon, Heaven’s Gate and Ishtar). However, Nadoolman-Landis has no regrets, emerging from the production with the utmost respect for her colleague. “I just think he is terrific and adore him as the captain of the ship,” she says, fondly recalling the production and its director. 

Deborah Nadoolman-Landis has curated Hollywood Costume, which begins a 4 month season in Melbourne on April 24 at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. 



Under their New York-based Passerby Film banner, the team of director Andrew Robertson and producer Lilly Kanso shot the gritty, post-apocalypse thriller The Mansion in the eerie abandoned middle class suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia over 19 days in the fall of 2011. The long journey from script to screen has been a labour of love for the pair, who are about to premiere their gripping, moving film to an enthusiastic Australian audience. SCREEN-SPACE spoke with them ahead of the screening of The Mansion at the A Night of Horror Film Festival on April 18.

The 'post-apocalyptic' genre is a tough one to freshen up. What differentiates The Mansion?

Andrew: The post-apocalyptic genre is so popular right now and we feel it taps into much of the same fascination people have had with westerns. It's like the neo-western in a sense. The two genres share a lot in common, in that they basically put modern humans in a paradigm of lawlessness and then watch to see how they treat each other. When you watch a western, you know the genre instantly. There is no need to explain the setting at the outset..."In the late 19th/early 20th century America, the west was a lawless, uncivilized land, etc..." We all know the deal and there's no need to over explain. I think the post-apocalyptic genre has reached that point. There's no need to explain, we all recognize that human life and the societies we've constructed can be quite tenuous. We have a lot of extinction anxiety, which is what accounts for the fact that our movies, tv shows and video games are all obsessed with the genre. What differentiates The Mansion is that it doesn't try to explain what happened to civilization. I mean, it hints that there was a plague, but it just accepts that you hopefully know the genre and don't need over explaining. Also, it's an intimate film that hopefully portrays what life would really be like after the fall of society. There would be a lot of waiting. Life would be quite slow and there would be a lot of vigilance in dealing with other humans. 

Is it a pessimistic film? It could be interpreted as suggesting that society implodes without a structured order or government control in place.

Andrew: I suppose it is pessimistic in that people treat each other pretty poorly in the movie. But don't want to over think it too much, because the truth is when we make movies and tv shows about the post-apocalypse we're just playing with the idea. We're not taking it very seriously. We like adventure movies and thrillers, because they are entertaining and let us pretend. But if we really wanted to honestly explore our darkest fears about the end of the world, there would be no swelling, anthemic music and heroic grandiosity. We would all split our time between being terrified and bored out of our minds. I guess The Road did that pretty effectively. But I wasn't interested in doing a bleak film like The Road. I grew up on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Terrence Malick. I wanted to do something more fun and hopefully a little bit thoughtful.

The ensemble seems very tight. What was explored during the rehearsal period?

Andrew: Our cast had a natural chemistry from day one and there weren't any rehearsals. We have always felt that bad acting is the achilles heel of small indie films and that it's worth the time and investment in picking solid actors to sell the story. 
Lilly: But that they had such a strong chemistry between them right off the bat was something we really didn't anticipate. A lot of this we attribute to the trappings of being a low budget film. We rented a house for them all to live in and it really paid off. They actually lived together, in a real suburban Georgia house throughout the shoot. So, they lived together in their post-apocalyptic house scrounging for food and struggling to survive by day, then rode home together, made dinner together, and basically spent time bonding by night. I think this is significant, because we really couldn't have afforded to put them up in their own hotel rooms. But it really played into their dynamics in the film-- they were a real family, on and off camera (pictured, l-r; Kanso, cast members Carter Roy, Chris Kies and Sebastian Beacon, and Robertson). 

How difficult is it to direct a child actor in scenes such as the final confrontation? This extraordinary young actress seemed to be very in the moment. 

Andrew: We based the character of the young daughter in the film on our niece Eva (pictured, right). She was always in our minds and so when it came time to cast the role, we decided why not just use Eva. We know her, we're a close family, we all speak the same language... so why not? We did entertain casting experienced young actors and auditioned the part with a handful of kids, but Eva was a natural and she really wanted to do it. Working with her was a fantastic experience because she's a real kid. She's not an actor. So you didn't get a young performer, you got the reactions and reads of an actual kid, which really felt right for the often solemn mood of this close family unit living in isolation. There was an austerity to how she carried herself that worked really well for the film. As for the final scene: this was one of the final scenes of the film, so Eva was very seasoned by that point. Plus, there wasn't much for her to do beyond clinging to her mother as a sadist held a gun to their heads, so, I think she pulled it off pretty effectively.

The Mansion - Trailer : from Passerby Films on Vimeo.