Interview: Jonathan Teplitzky (director of Burning Man)

Interview: Jonathan Teplitzky (Burning Man). By Simon Miraudo.

Jonathan Teplitzky‘s semi-autobiographical film Burning Man tells the story of Tom (Matthew Goode), a Bondi chef and grieving widower struggling to keep his life together. He deals with the passing of his wife Sarah (Bojana Novakovic) by letting his volatile temper get the better of him and by bedding as many women as Sydney has to offer, risking his already-fractured relationship with his son Oscar (Jack Heanly). With an elliptical editing style that is suitably disorienting, the picture builds to a cathartic crescendo. We spoke to Teplitzky about developing the complex screenplay, throwing down the gauntlet for audiences (via an opening sequence that begins with Goode’s bare bottom and ends with a devastating car crash) and his next project with Colin Firth.

Jonathan Teplitzky and Bojana Novakovic.

SM: Do you remember seeing any films growing up that planted the seed of inspiration and made you want to get into filmmaking?

JT: I didn’t start being a filmmaker… I was a lot older than a lot of people; I didn’t finish film school until I was 30. Just before I went to film school, I saw two films. One was Stranger Than Paradise, Jim Jarmusch. The other one was Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. And they both had an incredibly profound effect on me and I loved them both. Stranger Than Paradise because, I looked at it and I knew nothing about writing scripts or anything like that at that stage, but it seemed accessible to me; that if I could learn some of the things I could make a film like that. For a lot of people, the accessibility to actually be able to do it is half the battle. And I loved the aesthetic of it; I loved the use of music; the photography of it. I don’t know if you can remember the film; it’s all shot in single takes, each scene is only one shot and it never cuts to another shot within a scene. It’s an incredibly low-budget black and white film and I just thought it was fantastic. I saw it in Paris at the Cinemateque there, which only added to the thing.

SM: It’s interesting you say that, because there are lot of indie/mumblecore films that are springing up now because the technology is so accessible, and people are being inspired.

JT: In retrospect, looking back, that film was really one of the seminal films in the ‘new American’ wave of independent cinema. It came out in the mid-to-late 80’s from memory. Anyway, the Tarkovsky film; to see a film that was so emotional, but was so poetic and full of images that have remained with me forever. That melding of photography and story just seemed like a great thing. I’d built a very huge interest in photography and was doing quite a bit of photography leading up to going to film school, so that was really where my starting point was.

SM: It’s been a few years since Gettin’ Square, and I understand you spent two years writing Burning Man. Can you take me through some of the obstacles you faced in getting production off the ground?

JT: To be honest, Burning Man has been incredibly easy, in relative terms – you’re still trying to raise millions of dollars and make a film – a straightforward process. I probably spent two years  writing the script; completely in isolation, only one or two other people reading it at that time.

SM: So, not trying to pick up funding at all at this point?

JT: Not at all. I then took it to an English producer, because at one point I was quite keen on shooting it elsewhere. My principal place was in Los Angeles, because I just felt that the landscape of Los Angeles would have suited the terrain that Tom goes through; the way he drives around and all that stuff. So I took it to a producer I knew who was English – who really loved the script, wanted to work on it with me – so we started looking at doing it. Then the global financial crisis happened, and when that happened… it was always difficult to fund independant drama, but then it became impossible. But the one place that could do it was Australia, because the producer offset had just started, Screen Australia involvement, Screen New South Wales involvement. You were able to build up with sort-of dramatic material two-thirds of your budget. It makes the job so much easier to find the rest of the money.

SM: You were able to navigate the GFC in a pretty positive way.

JT: In a really positive way.

SM: When you look back on those first iterations of the script, do you see many changes? Obviously money factors didn’t affect it. But was it a different film?

JT: Not really. I sat down to write a film that had a fractured narrative. First of all I started just writing scenes and ideas. About five years had passed since what I experienced – my partner passed away ten years ago – so that was the starting point of the whole thing. I always wanted to respond to it creatively, but didn’t know how I was going to do that. About five years after I’d done Gettin’ Square I started writing little scenes that may have started from a real thing that happened, but then dramatically went into other places and what have you. I still didn’t know what it was going to be. Then, I had started writing a script about a chef, because the rest of my family are chefs. One day I went, ‘These two belong together so well’. That’s when it really started to ignite as a screenplay.

SM: I want to talk about the shape of the script, because I really love the structure of it. Frankly, the film it reminded me of most is Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life, but with less dinosaurs.

JT: Less dinosaurs and less planets.

SM: But definitely the elliptical editing and the fractured memories coming together. I know you can’t sit down, write it chronologically and mess it up, because it still has to work as a film. So, once you had the chef storyline, is that when it started to find its shape, or were you still doing that up until the editing?

JT: No, it found its shape very much in the screenplay. I had one rule as I was writing , and that was to go from a scene to another scene – it didn’t matter what those scenes were – the first priority was they had to have an emotional reason. So, sometimes something that happens in this moment, we cut to a scene that’s maybe six months earlier or later, and somehow it emotionally connects, or somehow it emotionally pays off. There had to be some emotional connection. And then with the next scene. And then with the next scene. By following that, and not following that it had to be a story-plotted film, it allowed me to go to places and make those jumps and make those leaps. In many ways I just wrote – and obviously I reviewed it a million times and you discovered ‘this’ would be good with ‘that’, but you put ‘that’ together and ‘that’ wrecks ‘this’ –  all that sort of stuff. It allowed the film to find the film’s shape, which ironically is very much in keeping with the emotional and psychological state of the character Tom. I wanted it to have a fractured narrative because Tom’s life is fractured. It’s like with the car crash; I wanted a visual metaphor to say, ‘That’s what the film’s about’. It’s about this guy whose whole life spirals out of control. All those feed into what the structure would be, but I never did that thing where you put up all the cards and did all that. We did that in editing to a degree, but I just followed what I thought it needed to be.

SM: You found your arc in the emotional story, instead of relying on going from ‘a’ to ‘b’ to ‘c’.

JT: Exactly.

SM: You’re a writer, director and producer on this project. When you are writing the screenplay, do you have to divorce yourself from the knowledge that eventually you’ll be producing and directing this. Or does that knowledge of ‘budget’ and ‘logistics’ help you?

JT: It didn’t’ concern me being a producer. Everything I write, I think, is going to be from the perspective that I am a director, you know? The screenplay is written very much from how I see the film. Those things you can’t separate them. But I also wanted it to be a succinct screenplay, because other people are going to read it. So, you know, there’s a screenplay’s craft that is just about writing that you need to address, but I wanted it to be an emotional and visceral film, and that is to a certain extent what I would bring as a director. It was always going to be written from that point of view anyway.

SM: Tell me about getting Matthew Goode involved. Were any other actors attached prior to him?

JT: No, there weren’t. I met Matthew in London; he had read the script, and I think we met each other at the right time, because he was at the time of his life and at the time of his career looking for something really challenging dramatically to sink his teeth into. He really responded to the script; I think it scared him as well, which I think is a good thing. If you took this as ‘everyday’, you wouldn’t bring that energy to what it takes to play Tom. Over the course of a month, we met three or four times and we talked about it, and Matthew’s very charming and funny and kind of has a nice twinkle in his eye and you can see that he’s a naughty boy sometimes, and all that kind of stuff. That’s exactly the sort of person I wanted to play the role. He obviously had to be a good enough actor to go to the emotional places, but he also needed to have a warmth, and a playfulness that made him a well-rounded character, and a character that no matter how badly he behaved, we still were able to empathise with him; still be able to like him in some form.

SM: I was going to say, were there any instances where you had to talk him through his apprehensions on the set, because he does bare all in an emotional and literal sense.

JT: Not really. We talked a lot beforehand, which got rid of a lot of that stuff. I think probably the times when he really had to be emotional… people think sex scenes are the hard things. They’re tiring, but the really hard thing is the emotional stuff. There were times, for example, when we shot the ‘death’ scene [the passing of Tom’s wife], he asked me if he could do his close-ups first. Bojana’s always happy; that’s what’s great about them. They complemented each other really well. She’s happy to do 20, 30, 50, 90 takes, because she sees them as all part of her process. So she was happy to let Matthew do his close-ups first, and what was great about that was we did three takes, and he was able to just go ‘whoompf’, and then for the rest of the day he’s just responding to her, but to get his close-up done there was just fantastic, because it allowed us a freedom for the rest of the day to focus on what Bojana had to do. It was things like that; just accommodating him like that, more than having to talk him through stuff. We tried as much as possible to go through ‘what this scene’s about, what that scene’s about’ beforehand, but there weren’t really many times when he said ‘I don’t get what we’re supposed to be doing here’. It was good.

SM: The first shot of the film is very memorable, for a number of reasons.

JT: [Laughs]

SM: In your head, was that always how you wanted to open the film?

JT: Mmm-hmm.

SM: It felt a little bit like – and not in an aggressive way – you were throwing down the gauntlet to the audience. ‘If you’re not in by now, you’re going to have a hard time with the rest of this film’.

JT: I think that’s a really good observation. I think audiences will go with you wherever you want to take them, as long as when you show them the world you’re going to exist in, you’re going to be true to that world. You can’t tiptoe around it. One of the ideas of the three or four minutes that lead up to the title, is to say to the audience, ‘I’m throwing you in the deep end; come along for this ride’. Hopefully, in itself, the images and the vitality of [the opening] is enough to go, ‘F***, I didn’t expect this, I’m going to go with it’, and then it starts to pay off, and explain all those images and explain all those moments. You know, scene one [laughs] is probably throwing people in as deep as they can be, but there’s a certain comedic element to it as well, so it’s not grim, you know? I’m sure some people are confronted by it, and some people embrace it, and what I sort of wanted to do really is make a film that everyone in the audience has an opportunity to identify with it because ultimately the film’s about life. I hope people will bring whatever their own life experiences are, and identify with the film and take from the film what is true to them.

SM: I think the opening sequence in particular does that. Can I ask how long the shoot was?

JT: Eight weeks.

SM: Were there any days on set, or a shot, or a scene, that you really struggled with, and almost had you saying, ‘I’m done; I’m walking away’.

JT: It’s hard, because there are some things you think aren’t going to be easy and work out, and vice versa. Some scenes, ‘Ah, I never liked that scene’, and suddenly it comes to life. Look, on this, no. I’m not saying there weren’t scenes that were hard to do. There was always a couple where you’re shooting and you’ve only got a half hour to do one shot; you always thought it was one of the top, most important scenes of the movie and after five years of preparation you’ve got to do it in 20 minutes. All that sort of stuff, which are just practical things. But being a screenwriter, and spending two years in that script, and finessing it and finessing it, I could virtually sit here and take you through the whole screenplay. You learn it so much; you know most of the questions that could come out of the scene; what it’s about. I felt as if I had control of it, to a large extent, which was really good. It’s a very freeing thing that you can just allow actors to kind of go off and do their thing. You sort of know what the boundaries are, and we cut a couple of scenes from the screenplay, which we shot. One just didn’t work, and it was one of my favourite scenes. But it just didn’t work. The other didn’t work, not because of what we’d written, but the tone was all wrong for that moment in the film.

SM: You don’t know that until you edit.

JT: You don’t know that until you edit. There’s little bits and pieces we lost along the way. On this one, there wasn’t really that many where you just go, ‘Ugh, I knew this was going to be a problem, and it is’. It was a really positive experience.

SM: I understand your next project has pretty much come together rather quickly. Jeremy Irvine was just announced as the lead. Can you tell us a little bit about The Railway Man?

JT: Colin Firth is also in the film. Colin and Jeremy play a guy called Eric Lomax, and it’s based on a  book that he wrote with his experiences as a train enthusiast who ended up on the Burma railway in the second World War, and was tortured very badly by the Japanese. He survived, and kind of has a very, very destroyed emotional life as a result. Through various circumstances, goes back to confront the torturers. It’s about what happens when that happens. It’s a story of forgiveness. It’s brilliant. It’s an amazing story. But it’s also a love story about this amazing woman who he meets on a train, and this is all real, which only makes it more vivid. Really, she’s a catalyst for so much of what unfolds, and in a sense, saving him from a life of misery.

SM: When do you start rolling on that.

JT: March next year we start shooting.

Burning Man arrives in Australian cinemas November 17.

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