Burn Gorman on his love of indie film and the filmmakers grinding it out
Burn Gorman, star of Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak and The Dark Knight Rises as well as a host of TV series including Torchwood, Jamestown and Game of Thrones, talks to us about his admiration for independent filmmakers and the hard grind of getting their projects off the ground, working with Guillermo del Toro and kicking off his career on Coronation Street.
It's not often that Burn Gorman attends conventions such as Heroes & Villains Fan Fest. It's at this year's London Olympia event that I hope to catch him, but as there's a rare reunion of the beloved Torchwood stars, he proves to be man rather in demand.
Fortunately for me, I'm able to chat with Burn over the phone after the event in much calmer circumstances. Having attended on both days and witnessing firsthand the sheer number of fans hustling and bustling to see their heroes (and villains) of TV shows such as Gotham, The Flash and Legends of Tomorrow, I first ask how the whole weekend was for him.
"It was really good fun. The old Torchwood lot, we don't get to see each other very often. The last time we were all together was about six years ago. Quite frankly, we always have a real scream. We got on so well. Whatever people's thoughts are about Torchwood, it might have been an imperfect beast, but it had a real sense of 'anything is possible'. They let us get on with our own life down in deep, dark Wales. It was a very special time in all our lives. Also, for me as a sci-fi genre and fantasy fan, I was obviously pleased to be attached to the Doctor Who mother-ship, as it were. It was a real adventure. Lovely to see everyone and have a laugh.
When I'm invited to these things, usually, I'll politely pass. Thankfully, a lot of the time, it's to do with work commitments, but when John Barrowman phoned and said, "Look, we're all going to be together," it just seemed like a silly thing to miss. I'm a fan, as well, Mark. I used to go to comic book conventions and things. I sort of know the world. They've changed over the last 10 years. There's absolutely no stigma at all about going to a fan festival or a genre festival. It's quite a family event, usually, nowadays, so long may it continue. It's really great."
It's at this point I re-state that the aim of the Exit 6 blog is to entertain, educate, inspire and promote independent filmmaking and filmmakers, and as such would like to talk to him about short film The Other Man that he starred in around the time of the first Pacific Rim movie. Before we discuss that subject, however, he does his very best to make me fall in love with him.
"First of all, I've got to commend Exit 6 for your involvement and passion in supporting new filmmakers. Particularly as, I feel, the short film medium is most new director's first experience and any film being made is a combination of luck, timing and passion. So many things can go terribly wrong to make it not happen. So, for anyone who makes a film of any type, from iPhone upwards to 35mm, it's a fantastic achievement and I absolutely support that. Nowadays when there are so many ways of making films. but you still need a good crew, you still need a good script and festivals like yours are very important.
When people ask me, "How do you get into it?" I just say, "Well, that is it. You just get in." You roll up your sleeves, and you graft and you hustle and you grind, and you just don't take no for an answer. I'm afraid that really is a lot of being in this wonderful industry. For directors, I have nothing but admiration for them, because I think it's so difficult to certainly get any funding. God knows how anyone does that nowadays. Like I was saying, it's actually festivals like yours that really get the work out there for people to look at and support things and feel a part of a community, and that's an important thing."
Now smitten, I bring talk back to The Other Man, a short film written and directed by David Raymond, about a man who discovers his wife is having an affair and decides to win her back with a romantic candlelit dinner, champagne and chloroform.
"The Other Man was a very serendipitous thing, as many of these things are. I happened to be in Los Angeles at a time when a friend of a friend was making his first short. David Raymond is the guy who's behind it, and David is one of those guys who basically will grind and grind and grind. Every time I see him, he's back from another meeting. At the end of those meetings, often nothing will come out of it, particularly in Los Angeles, where people just like to take meetings and it can sometimes be like banging your head against a brick wall, but David persists and I've got the greatest admiration for that. His script came along and David was looking for someone. A friend said, "Oh, there's an English guy in Los Angeles." I jumped at the chance. Ideally, I'd like to do more short films, but often I've been committed.
For first-time directors, there can be a general thing where it shows they haven't directed or worked with actors before. Luckily, I think David is quite collaborative, and I would say this to all filmmakers actually - don't be afraid of actors. Everyone seems to think they're incredibly demanding idiots and high maintenance, but actually, if you tell them what you want, they will do their damnedest to try and give you that. That was something that I worked with on David. He's doing well, actually. He's just finished a film, Nomis, with Henry Cavill, Stanley Tucci, Alexandra Daddario and Sir Ben Kingsley. He's literally doing the edit as we speak. A big part of that was him hawking around his short film saying, "Look, this may not be perfect, but there are some interesting shots and there are some interesting ideas in it." I think that's what is important to have, is a calling card or at least a palette of some of your work."
In terms of scale of production, the experience of working on The Other Man and then the first Pacific Rim film around the same time, must have been wildly different. And who could have predicted back then that the man who brought us Kaiju and Jaeger city-wide smackdowns, Guillermo del Toro, would be an Oscar-winning director years later?
"Yes, so interesting, isn't it? Guillermo del Toro, as you know, is a genius. He's got an extremely clear definition of what he wants, what shot he wants to get, but he's also incredibly collaborative and keeps things light and friendly on set. You can very easily get overwhelmed, especially on the bigger budget things, by just, say, on the amount of stuff you've got to do. Actually, if you keep calm and you create an atmosphere where people can genuinely feel like they can put ideas forward, then there is a particular momentum to that, which Guillermo brings. I think, if you noticed, when he won his Oscar for The Shape of Water, there's so much warmth in the industry towards him. I think that the reason is because he's such a good guy to collaborate with and such a good designer, director or producer. He's just one of those special people who doesn't have a big ego and who doesn't let this pressure get to him.
Contrasting that with David's film, which was shot in Los Angeles on a shoestring, where a lot of the time we didn't have permits. Obviously, in Los Angeles, like London, you have to have a filming permit a lot of the time. We didn't do that, especially in the parks and all that sort of stuff. It was a bit hairy sometimes, but it was the same feeling. It was the same feeling of, "Look, we've got six days to do this. Let's enjoy it as much as we can."
David is very fluid as a director. I think a new filmmaker will have a very specific idea about what that shot is, and if they don't get the shot, they feel frustrated. Actually, it's important to realise the alchemy of the day will also bring you something that may not be the shot that you were looking for, but in the edit, will be as good, if not better, than what you originally thought. That is collaborative film-making, rather than being completely set in your idea, like, "No, I definitely want this shot." Sometimes, you're not able to get it in the time that's given, and so you just try something else and that may work. That was what was similar. That kind of very open feeling on set."
Gorman has traveled extensively between the US and the UK for film and television projects, and as such has seen how things work in the industry on both sides of the pond - particularly when it comes to the television boom in the US over recent years.
"I think I've been extremely lucky, because I was born in America and I am able to work over there, which is a big thing, really. Working over there has changed. It is this "golden age of television" that people talk about. That genuinely is true, in terms of the amount of work and the amount of stuff that is being made. Okay, not all of it will pop, not all of it is innovating, but there is a much more accepted thing that they will cast people from all over the world. They're looking for the right person to fill the role. They don't care where that person comes from.
I've found in America, they're very, very open and respectful, actually, of the experience you have. Like I say, if you're the right face then you're going to get a chance. Whereas, it never used to be like that, it was much more closed. Also, nowadays, while you'll probably get your job in London, New York or Los Angeles, you may not film there. You'll film perhaps in Canada or in South Africa or Atlanta. You're not filming where you get the job. There's much more opportunities and that can only be a good thing."
He's had the opportunity to feature in numerous high-end television shows in recent years, most recently in Jamestown, The Man in the High Castle and TURN: Washington Spies. While he says himself that he's often taken on 'dastardly' characters, there are key differences for him between working on TV and film.
"As an actor in a television series, you obviously get 10 to 13 to 22 episodes in the States to develop a character. The writers will also respond to that character. For example, I did a series which was a Revolutionary War drama called Turn, on AMC, which was the story of the revolution in 1776. I started off as a dastardly, rule-abiding Redcoat. At the end of the series, by season four, the writers had responded that it was a very, very complex thing for many Brits over there. Basically, this man went from a sort of middle manager to a man who is really searching for his destiny.
As an actor, it was incredibly rewarding to see this thing grow. I think the classic one we all probably refer to is Walter White in Breaking Bad. You start off with archetypal chemistry teacher and however many seasons later, you've got this amazingly complex, addictive television.
Bearing in mind, obviously, that what we were saying about films, for any film to get made is still a mystery. There is always that feeling of chaos like you're lucky enough to be attached to a movie, and it's filming in February. Then a month before, "Well, now it's filming in August," and a month before, "Well, now it's being pushed." There's always reasons, usually to do with finance, that these things change around. At least for television, you've got a very, very intense work period, but you know when it is and in between the show, you can do other jobs."
Speaking of other jobs, there's an upcoming independent feature called Undergods written and directed by Chino Moya. It's a project that has faced many of the issues so common to many low-budget feature projects, but one he's very excited to have been involved with.
"This is a classic example, dude! It's a very interesting director, Chino Moya. He's done commercials, music videos, all sorts of things. He's had this script that he's worked on for many, many years. with a very, very persistent producer. It's been nearly made for a number of years and then something will happen. It just so happened that finally, they got some money from Belgium, the European Script Fund, they've got this and whatever. They suddenly went, "Okay, let's go. Let's do it. We finally got all the pieces." It got pushed a few times.
It was only a month's notice or something. I just wanted to be part of this very interesting script. It's not a huge part at all, but it was a very dystopian, very clear vision, from Chino. Who knows what it'll be like, but I personally love to be involved in projects that I'm like, "I'm not really sure I understand this but I know that it's incredibly visually striking and has a great ambition to it." Fingers crossed. I had a great time out in Serbia filming it. There was a definite element of chaos that there always is with low budget films."
He's clearly had many experiences being attached to feature projects that have, for whatever reason, have not quite made it to production. Obviously, the main reason nearly always comes back to finance, and I ask Burn what his thoughts are on the funding and opportunities available for British filmmakers to create ambitious and original work.
"Listen, we should probably have a conversation in private about what I think the opportunities are! I'm sure you and your community has its own feelings, but, a classic example for me is a friend of mine just made a film, Funny Cow. Kevin Proctor was the producer. Tony Pitts is the writer. Maxine Peake, Paddy Considine, Stephen Graham, Christine Bottomley. Wonderful, top-class British actors. Still, they couldn't get funded, particularly not from the national bodies whose only remit is to support British film. They couldn't get a penny out of them.
On one hand, I think there's all this PR about, "Yes, we're supporting new scripts," and all that, but actually, when it comes down to it, I still think it's as difficult as it was and always has been to raise money in Britain to make films. It's like it's a catch-22 situation. It seems to me that sometimes you have to really allow your script to be torn apart by people who perhaps don't really know what the vision is, in order to get some funding. That's just my own personal opinion. I might be completely wrong, but that's my overriding impression, at the moment is that it's still very hard to raise money.
Also, you need to be an incredibly good form filler. I'm not saying that's a bad thing. If you're getting funding, fine. But, sometimes you wonder whether or not the real original voices are just simply starved at the point of entry by the fact that their film isn't seen as sufficiently British, whatever that means, or commercially viable. Can you imagine the pitch meeting for Serpico or Dog Day Afternoon? It's tricky."
On to a lighter note, and something else that Burn also found a little tricky, his first screen credit appearing in Coronation Street. The mere mention of the show draws a nostalgic chuckle.
"Coronation Street was very much as a result of studying up in Manchester and somebody in the casting department saw me in something at college or a play or something and said, "Look, there's this part." I was absolutely terrible. I didn't know anything about cameras, about shots, or anything. I saw that the camera would be right next to my face and I did everything really minimally. I haven't seen it back, but I can assure you that at the time I thought, "Oh my God, I'm in the wrong career. This is terrible." [laughter]
From there, the only way was up. There was a project called Bleak House, for the BBC, which was a period drama back in 2005, which was when somebody really took a chance on me. They'd seen me in a play. The director was an ex-actor. The producer saw something in me, and they took a chance. That's what you need, you need somebody to actually go out to bat for you. You need a break, and that was definitely mine. After that, I thought, "Oh, this is something which I really have a passion for."
Burn's passion for acting, as well as for independent filmmaking, is clear. While there are talented actors such as him taking their chances of their own on up and coming directors by appearing in their work, there will always be allies out there willing to help new projects get off the ground.
You can follow Burn on Twitter: @BurnGorman