Arriving in theaters and on digital platforms everywhere this Friday is Mike Gan’s psychological thriller Burn, which is centered around two gas station attendants (Tilda Cobham-Hervey and Suki Waterhouse) who end up being robbed by the charismatic Billy (Josh Hutcherson), but things go awry for everyone once Billy’s plan begins to unravel.
Daily Dead recently caught up with Gan to talk about the inspiration behind the story of Burn, how he worked with his talented trio of leads, and the visual challenges he faced while utilizing the film’s single location.
I'd love to hear about the inspiration behind this story. Because for as much as Josh’s character comes in and brings chaos into this whole scenario, it really is Tilda's character’s story more so than anybody else.
Mike Gan: Yeah, the motivation for the plot of the story came from me reading the article about a robbery gone wrong, and the tables being turned. What I found really intriguing, was that I wanted to see what would happen if I put three very different types of characters together in a situation, and they all wanted something, how will that play out, and who actually gets what they want or what think they want?
And so, what was great about the character of Melinda is that she had the most difficult arc and decisions to make. But yeah, it's an interesting dynamic of having three different characters really wanting something different and deciding that this character that seems the most unique, and docile person, ends up overtaking everybody.
In some ways, Burn could also play out as a stage play, because really it's the two girls at first, and then here you have the addition of the character Billy in there. And it's really a lot of this back and forth between them. Can you talk about putting this cast together, and then working with them, in terms of bringing these characters to life and finding these different story beats with them?
Mike Gan: Definitely. I love reading plays, and I love the ability to establish and say something about the whole universe in one night, in one location. And with the actors, we had a really tight schedule of 15 days to shoot the movie. And what was great was talking to each actor about what each person wanted and their objectives. We also wanted to make sure that every single character felt like this is their movie, and they were the hero. And once we did that, all the drama and conflicts just sort of naturally happened.
And then in a weird way, nobody was the protagonist and nobody was the antagonist. It was just everyone's equal, in a sense. And so because of that, I think every single scene is loaded hopefully with some suspense, because everybody is clearly after something in every single scene. And in that sense, you don't really need as many locations or characters. Once the scenes are established in the writing, it all just happens.
It's like you wind up with four different toys and just let them go, and then shoot everything as they bump into each other and clash. And that was the only way we really could be as efficient as we were.
What’s interesting to me about this film, too, is that folks will often say, "Oh, when you shoot in one location, it's an easier way to do stories like this." But I think it's almost harder, because on a visual level you have to keep things arresting for audiences. I think you do a really good job of doing that with the cinematographer, Jon [Keng]. Can you discuss working on the visual style for Burn with him?
Mike Gan: I really appreciate that because that was one of the biggest challenges. And for us, it was really giving the location its own attachment to something, like an emotional attachment to the characters so they should feel differently, mainly because the characters in these spaces are also feeling very different. Hopefully, they complement each other, or sometimes create an obstacle for each other.
Working with Jon was great. This is the first film that we shot together, and we have a lot of similar influences and understanding of trying to tell this story through light, and that really helped along the way. We were very lucky to have him. We shot the movie on location, and on a stage for the break room. So, really early on, establishing what those rooms represented to us gave us a very clear guideline as to how to shoot, and how to design some of the rooms.
And for me, the locations of the whole movie are actually on the characters' faces, do you know what I mean? They mirror what these characters are going through. So, just by complementing them in that way, the movies just feels so much bigger. We also shot with a lot of wider lenses as well, on purpose, just to make the space feel sometimes really expansive.