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Gary and Don McKellar at the Coolidge Corner Theatre

See more with Gary Burns and Don McKellar in Chlotrudis News & Events

Last updated: August 20, 2005
Copyright 2006 Michael R. Colford.
All rights reserved

 

Spotlight On... Gary Burns Gary Burns in the spotlight

 
"I like to make films about regular people, with everyday flaws. I try to avoid Garyescapism by creating characters who aren't always pleasant people." -- Gary Burns

Writer-director Gary Burns combines a wry sense of humour with an observational style to craft his films. In the past seven years, Burns has made three feature films and an handful of shorts. His most recent film, waydowntown, was released in the U.S. in early 2002. Chlotrudis Awards had the privilege of bringing Gary, along with actor-writer-director Don McKellar, to Boston last September for a special premiere screening of WAYDOWNTOWN. Gary proved to be a likeable, laid-back, down-to-earth guy with a infectious sense of humor, a taste for beer and keen eye for human behavior.
 
After studying Fine Arts and Drama at the University of Calgary in his hometown, Gary attended Concordia in Montreal where he graduated from their film program in 1992. Gary's first feature film, THE SUBURBANATORS, was a critical success at the 1995 Toronto International Film Festival. The Toronto film critics placed THE SUBURBANATORS in the top ten Canadian films of 1996 as well as naming Gary in the top ten of both directors and screenwriters in Canada. Mondo Canuck (Prentice-Hall 1996) placed THE SUBURBANATORS on its list of "English Canada's Coolest Movies," calling Gary's debut feature "the most promising first feature by a Canadian director to come along in years." The Suburbanators was also invited to the 1996 Sundance film festival in Park City, Utah.
 
In 1997 Gary's second feature KITCHEN PARTY, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Following it's critical success in Toronto KITCHEN PARTY was then invited to the 27th New Directors/New Films held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City where the New York Times called it "the funniest, nastiest, comedy of manners to come down the pike in months." Other festival screenings included Rotterdam (in competition) Turin (in competition, Fipresci Award, Special Mention), Atlanta Film Festival (best feature). KITCHEN PARTY was the opening night film at SlamDance in 1998.
 
Don McKellar, Michael, and Gary Burns at the Coolidge Corner Theatre
Writer-director-actor Don McKellar, Chlotrudis Awards
President Michael Colford and writer-director Gary Burns
at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, August 2001
 
Gary began production in Toronto and Montreal on his fourth feature film, currently titled, A PROBLEM WITH FEAR. Like WAYDOWNTOWN, Burns' latest film involves urban paranoia. And again it unfolds largely in an enclosed space in downtown Calgary -- this time at Eaton Centre. On the subject of fear Burns told jam! Showbiz, "I'm always afraid. There is more pressure." This in regard to the fact that should he make a flop, no one will let him make another movie. Somehow this seems unlikely given the quirky intelligence and humor with which he infuses all his films. In fact, for A PROBLEM WITH FEAR, Burns enjoyed something he has never had before — a relatively large budget ($4.5 million). That allowed him the luxury of creating some sci-fi sequences.
 
A Problem with FearA PROBLEM WITH FEAR will open the Toronto International Film Festival's Perspecitve Canada Series in September 2003. Here is a synopsis of the film. Global Safety has an incredible new product. The Early Warning 2 system alerts you to imminent danger before it happens. The problem is, fear is now running rampant throughout the city as people’s most banal fears come true. Laurie Harding is pretty much afraid of everything: elevators, escalators, open spaces, spaghetti … intimacy. While his girlfriend, Dot, is trying to force him to commit to their relationship, Laurie is certain the “Fear Storm” gripping the city is a result of his being the guinea pig for the prototype Early Warning 2 device. Laurie resolves he must cross the street alone to save the world. But, maybe by dealing with his fears he’ll save himself from the worst one of all: his fear of commitment.
 
Laurie tries to conquer his fear of escalaors in A PROBLEM WITH FEARA PROBLEM WITH FEAR played at the Independent Film Festival of Boston 2004, and several Chlotrudis members made it to the screening. Despite lukewarm reviews from Toronto, the five Chlotrudis members who caught the film at the IFFB loved it. Reminiscent of WAYDOWNTOWN, FEAR utilizes the insular setting of Calgary's enormous shopping mall. With an absurdist tone, and hilarious dialogue, Burns examines the culture of fear in which we live. Burns and co-writer Donna Burnsdale take a sharp look at the way the media fans the flames of society's fear, a theme reminiscent of Michael Moore's BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE. The acting is stylized, but strong, particularly lead actor Paulo Costanzo, and his two supporting actress' Emily Hampshire as his wildly funny girlfriend Dot, and Willie Garson as his sister Erin. I don't know if this film will receive distribution in the States, but hopefully more Chlotrudis members get to see it. If you enjoyed WAYDOWNTOWN, A PROBLEM WITH FEAR shouldn't be missed.
 
Gary Burns is delighted to receive the Best Canadian Feature AwardWAYDOWNTOWN, Gary's third feature film, was awarded the prestigious Best Canadian Feature Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2000 (see a delighted Gary accepting the award on the left.) Canada's National Post calls WAYDOWNTOWN, "A deadpan, almost pitch-perfect comedy." Chlotrudis first became aware of Burns at the Toronto Film Festival, lured to the screening by one of our fave actors, Don McKellar. We were impressed by the witty and insightful screenplay, inventive camerawork and overall tone of the film, both humorous and meaningful. Co-writer/director Gary Burns answered questions for the audience afterwards. It was then that Chlotrudis Awards thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to premiere WAYDOWNTOWN in Boston with Gary in attendance?" It took another year for that event to materialize.
 
In downtown Calgary, a complex of shopping malls, offices and apartments are interconnected via glass walkways for block after city block. Five wildly different office colleagues have wagered a month's salary that whoever caFab Filipo in waydowntownn stay inside the longest wins the pot in cowriter (with James Martin)/director Gary Burns' WAYDOWNTOWN. Playing in relative real time over the course of a lunch hour on the 24th day of the bet, we first meet Tom (Fab Filipo, pictured right), the new guy in the office, a marijuana smoking Goth and the bet's chief architect. Tom takes pleasure in rattling go-getter Sandra (Marya Delver) with creepy facts about recycled air, while growing somewhat concerned with the mental health of 'Sadly I'm' Brad (Don McKellar, LAST NIGHT), a twenty year office veteran. Over the course of the lunch hour, a series of mishaps and antics occur, reaching a morally ambiguous pinnacle when Tom won't go outside to check on the possible suicide he may have caused. By film's end, all five game-players will have shifted their priorities when they realize where their bet as led them. (synopsis courtesy reelingreviews.com)
 
Burns put the idea for WAYDOWNTOWN together in 1988 based on his long-time gripe about his hometown's "plus 15" walkway system. Built 15 feet above the streets, the walkways interconnect many of the downtown's buildings. "The unfortunate result of this ever-expanding system is that these walkways have sucked the life out of the downtown core," says Burns. "I imagined a film where the main characters inhabit this architectural anomaly: a metaphor of sorts for modernism gone wrong."

Working with his friend, writer James Martin, they tossed ideas around until they came up with the story. On day 24 of the bet, while running errands for the retirement party of the founder of their firm, the bet unfolds. Over the course of the lunch hour they become variously sex obsessed, suicidal, self-doubting and short of breath. Burns wanted to explore the idea of these people trapped inside an environment that was designed to help them be more comfortable. "The film really questions why we're working where we're working. Is this where you want to spend the rest of your life?"
 
At first, Gary considered shooting the entire movie as one continuous shot which could only be achieved on video. That initiated the thought of using video for its flexibility; an idea that endured even after the script developed into a more traditional form. "There were a couple of reasons for staying with the video format," says Burns. "I figured the only way the film was going to fly is if we had unlimited access to the malls and walkways...I think a small crew that looks like a television crew has a better chance of having the run of downtown." The other reasons for choosing video were for the look and flexibility. waydowntown was shot on digital video with small sections shot on 35mm film. It was an inventive choice for the film, and allows Burns to bring a surreal touch to the proceedings. Scenes of Tom flying through the mall, superheroes leaping to inhabitants' rescue, an Bradley's unfortunate encounter with a bottle full of marbles are both absurd and emotional, as these character struggle with what they're doing with their lives.
 
Chlotrudis Members Comment on WAYDOWNTOWN: Ellen says, "I'll state at the outset that I am a cubedweller myself, so I have a strong appreciation for this film set in Calgary where all the hi-rises are connected by walkways (really true). Four co-workers make a bet about who can stay inside the longest without going outside. As the bet progresses, the anxiety levels rise. The lead actress, Marya Delver, was wonderful at portraying the mounting anxiety. Subplots involved the general misery and moral compromises of corporate life as well as the ridiculous humor of it all. If you work in corporate America, and even if you don't, I think you will find this film humorous and touching."

Fred says, "I loved waydowntown. It was unexpectedly much much better than you might expect from a so-so sounding plot. This movie shows what you can do with a small budget, a great idea, technical skill and superb writing. It's original, with smart and unexpected twists and touches. It was often fall-down funny. Many of the characters are quirky and unique. This movie's unlike any movie you've probably seen, in plot and execution. "

Michael says, "Director Gary Burns captures the absurdity and the harshness of life in a sterile, corporate environment with exaggerated humor and a gentle hopefulness that we can be better than that."
 
In his off-beat second feature, KITCHEN PARTY, Gary explores, with a candid edge and cutting humour, the ironies of life in suburbia. Scott Smith (Scott Speedman, Felicity), youngest son of Brent and Scott Speedman in Kitchen PartyBarb, throws a Friday night party as high school graduation approaches. With both Brent and Barb away at an overnight dinner party, Scott seizes the rare opportunity to have some friends over. Not only a golden opportunity to break away from the repressive heavy-handed regime of his parents and score some points with his friends, having the party neatly serves a secondary function for Scott: the social humiliation of his reclusive basement-dwelling older brother Steve. Seemingly, Scott's only worry is keeping everyone and everything confined strictly to the kitchen. With the basement off limits due to his war of attrition with Steve, and the rest of the upper floor a virtual mine-field of domestic obsession carefully set by his mother, Scott erects a chair barrier across the entrance to the living room and hopes for the best. As the group of young friends congregate in the kitchen, across town their parents are arriving at their own liquor-fueled dinner party. As the evening's events unwind, so do the pent-up tensions between the characters - teenagers and parents alike - leaving behind a trail of dented cars, bloodied noses, mussed carpet, and if anybody bothered to stop and notice, ruptured lives.

The parallels between the teens and their parents are highlighted by Brent and Barb's constant setting up of their children to fail. Ultimately, Brent and Barb follow the same path as their oppressive parental rules backfire and their children, in separate, frustration-fueled acts of rebellion, cut themselves free, if only for a single night. While KITCHEN PARTY shares the obssessions of getting high, getting laid and hanging with friends with the scores of Hollywood films on high school graduation parties, it consistently rises above the cliches inherent in the genre. Sadly, KITCHEN PARTY is only available on video in Canada. It is a film worth seeking out by American indie film buffs. Chlotrudis members should contact the organization (info@chlotrudis.org) for an opporunity to see this funny and insightful film.
 
SuburbanatorsGary's first feature, THE SUBURBANATORS, is the only of his films available on video in the U.S. This 1995, slacker style comedy focuses on three culturally disparate groups of young men looking for something, anything, to do one lazy Saturday afternoon and find their paths crossing. The apathy abounds as bus fares, haircuts, trying to score some weed and picking up girls highlight the lives of suburban youth in Canada. THE SUBURBANATORS weaves a series of outrageous occurrences into the lives of our protagonists, yet never manages to break through their collective malaise. This low-key, screwball comedy is like a cross between SLACKERS and AMERICAN GRAFFITTI.
 
GaryGary Burns is a director whose craft is continuously evolving. With each film, both his storytelling and filmmaking skills grow more refined. Chlotrudis Awards is eager to see the future work of this talented filmmaker, and hopes that a U.S. breakthrough comes soon. For more information on Gary, visit his website, Burns Film Ltd. Thanks to Burns Film Ltd., for some excerpts used on this page.