1988 MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient Charles Burnett was born in 1944 and raised in Los Angeles. While a student at UCLA Film School, he directed the masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1977), which details a poor, black South Central L.A. man's emotional struggles in the face of his brutal day job. The film was later named one of the "100 Most Influential Films of All Time" by the National Society of Film Critics and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress.
Despite the obstacles he faced promoting black stories that weren't deemed "commercial enough," more gems were produced: 1983's coming of age tale, My Brother's Wedding, 1990's ensemble piece To Sleep With Anger and 1994's cop drama The Glass Shield. He was honored by the Los Angeles Pan-African Film Festival this February, where he premiered his epic, Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, starring Danny Glover. Despite his accolades and a fine body of work, he is far from a household name and faces struggles disproportionate to a filmmaker of his stature in getting his projects financed. Preparing for a trip to Toronto, Burnett chatted about his films, the mine fields of low-budget cinema and why you should never disturb a hippopotamus.
The full version of this interview can be found here.
Jason Gilmore: Who were the film directors that inspired you growing up?
Charles Burnett: I was influenced by a lot of people. I suppose a lot of the early black and white films that Hollywood did. [Charlie] Chaplin and [Buster] Keaton and people like that. William Wellman. A lot of the great cameramen that directed.
JG: Jumping ahead a bit, could you talk about the climate at UCLA film school in the late 1960s and early 70s and how that affected your work?
CB: Well, it was great place to be. UCLA was very cheap at the time and it was very diverse in more ways than one. A lot more people of color were in the film department. It was part of a ethnic communication program that was started and I was one of the TAs in that program. The other thing about UCLA that was really great was that you had a lot of working class people there. It was diverse in that sense. And UCLA, the equipment was there so you could go out and make your film. And everyone was really guarded about their projects in Project 1 because it was so competitive. So it caused tension in a good way. And then you learned from other students, you worked on their films and that was the best part about it, you know. You were always on campus, working at soundstage, around the location working. The faculty was great. They really were made up of people who were very open minded. You could argue with them about things, there wasn’t any set way. You could do what you wanted to do to make it work.
JG: That brings us to some of your earliest works like Several Friends (1969), The Horse (1973) and Killer of Sheep. Where did the idea for Killer of Sheep come from?
CB: It came from working on some student films and they were doing films about the working class and the poor and workers forming a union. The people I knew were just happy to get jobs. There were all these other things that were impacting them. There wasn’t any kind of solution. So that’s where I came from.
JG: I really admire a lot of the neo-realism of your early work and I was wondering how much of Killer of Sheep was improvised.
CB: It wasn’t improvised. It was all scripted.
JG: Oh, wow. Okay.
CB: There were maybe one or two [improvised] scenes in there, but 99% of it was scripted.
JG: That’s interesting. So as a director, how do you create -- because that film looked so natural, it looked like a documentary -- and I’m wondering how you can create natural moments like that without looking staged.
CB: Well, that’s one of your goals in making a film like that. You want to look like you just picked the camera up and shot. Documentary-like, but not a documentary. You didn’t want to impose your values on it and make it an obvious, plotted situation. It was supposed to look like a slice of life and form the narrative by the events you see and how they relate to one another.
JG: Right. And I heard that a lot of the actors in that film were locals who’d never acted before. Is that true?
CB: Some of them had dabbled in acting. Henry Gayle Sanders had worked on two films before. And he had the most experience. Charles Bracy, we grew up together and he worked on another film I did. Kaycee Moore, who played Stan’s wife, was someone I met. She was going to an acting workshop in Hollywood. I knew that she had done some stage work but it was mostly like workshop performances.
JG: What’s the challenge of working with established actors versus actors who are early in the process or brand-new?
CB: It depends. You have to work with either one, to get the performance, that’s the main thing. It’s a matter of choosing the right people. A lot of it has to do with giving the person time, some people have talent and some don’t and you discover that right away. A lot of it has to do with you and their trust in you and their knowing specifically what you want. With more experienced actors, you can cut to the chase quicker and get to what you want. They come prepared and have a lot of ideas and things like that and a lot of tools in their repertoire, so to speak. Actors will take their time to mold into the character and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But you need time to work with non-actors.
JG: A practical question: How did you get access to the sheep at that facility in Killer of Sheep?
CB: One of the interesting things is that, around that time, a lot of vegetarians were making films about slaughterhouses. When I tried to get permission to shoot at a slaughterhouse here, they had closed the doors to all filmmakers. And so I had to go way up to Santa Rosa [about 420 miles] and there was a privately owned slaughterhouse and the owner said that he’d be willing to help anyone that was trying to help themselves. He was very very generous and let me have the run of the place as long as I didn’t stop the production.
JG: Was there a time when you thought you’d be accepted by the industry or did you kind of sense from the beginning that you’d have the independent career that you’ve had?
CB: I didn’t think I’d have any career at first. It was very difficult at the time that we were making films in the ’60s to even think about it. It seemed impossible. Unless you had a relative in the business. Even then, they wouldn’t let people of color make films. They wouldn’t let you be in a position of power, like a director or something like that. The venues just weren’t open.
JG: In 1990, you directed the film that first introduced me to your work and that was To Sleep With Anger. You had a real powerhouse cast with Danny Glover and Sheryl Lee Ralph and the great Mary Alice. I was just wondering if you did a lot of rehearsal for that film and if you are a big fan of rehearsal in general.
CB: One of the bad things about independent film is that you don’t get much time for rehearsal. You come to the set and you’ve had meetings, hopefully, to get everything done, worked out with the actors, either individually or as a group. Because on a low budget film, there’s no money for rehearsal. And even a meeting, you have to be careful how you word having a meeting because they could look at that as rehearsal too. It’s really weird. So you come to the set and you and the actors rehearse and block the scene and they go to makeup and you and the cameraman start filming the scene. And [the actors] come back and you rehearse it again and then you shoot.
JG: One thing that I just learned about you -- and I don’t know why I didn’t know this -- was that you write most of the films that you direct.
CB: A lot of them, I try to, yeah.
JG: Because I’m a writer-director also, so I’m really intrigued by what the original inspiration is for some of your stories. I was really wondering about To Sleep With Anger and where that story came from.
CB: It developed after trying to do a film that was based on a true story. We started working on this film that took place here and then [the production company] started wanting to change everything and make it more “commercial” or something, I don’t know. I said, “You can’t do it that way, it’s based on a true story.” And so we got into this big argument. So I said, let me do something that’s not based in reality. So I started on that and they started putting their hands in the pot again and wanted to make changes. I said, “Wait a minute, you’re taking the whole heart of the movie out.” They didn’t want the folklore stuff in it. They wanted the black middle class portion to be expanded. So we parted ways again. But as soon as you started writing and bonding with the material, then they come in and want to screw up everything. The other part of it was that I wanted to do something with folklore and how important it is. How when I was coming up, it was part if a foundation that you grew up to really respect in life. Looking around, you find it’s gone. Without it, I think people are soulless. That’s why I wanted to do something that talked about that.
JG: Then, after that, you did the highly underrated The Glass Shield, which had an early performance from Ice Cube. Was that movie done for Miramax?
CB: No, it was done for CiBy2000. Miramax distributed it.
JG: Oh, okay. So did you have any interaction with the Weinstein Brothers?
CB: Only towards the end.
JG: When was that?
CB: When we finished the film and CiBy 2000 and they took it to them for distribution.
JG: I just finished a book about the Weinsteins. What was that like?
CB: It was interesting. They’re upfront. Harvey is like, if he disagrees, he disagrees. You’ll just leave and box it out. (laughs) And there’s no hard feelings after that. But that’s the way it is. But they’re very straightforward and I have to give him credit for that. They didn’t try to do anything underhanded.
JG: And you also directed some TV movies that I think people might have seen but they might not have known it was you. [a few notables -- 1998’s Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding with Halle Berry, 2000’s Finding Buck McHenry with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, a segment of the 2003 PBS documentary The Blues.] What are some of the challenges you faced in working in television versus film?
CB: I don’t think there’s a huge difference. Episodic television there’s a lot of challenges, you’re just punching the clock. But in a drama, a movie of the week, it’s like doing a low budget film. It depends on who you have to work with. Who’s the producer and what are they like? And how respectful they are. Usually, you don’t have that much money, so you have to shoot quicker. There’s less chances for nuances, I think, because everything has to be explained from top to bottom.
JG: I’m really sorry that I missed Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation at the Pan African Film Festival. Let us know more about it for those who aren’t familiar with the film or your struggle to get it made.
CB: Well, it’s a story about the liberation movement of southwest Africa. Under the leadership of SWAPO, the South West African Peoples’ Organization, under Sam Nujoma who started leading this whole thing in the late 1950s. Then South Africa took control and decided to annex [Namibia] and [made them a part] of the apartheid system. Then, they started to form organizations to rebel. And then finally, came the massacre that happened in the old location, there were shots that killed about 11 of them and that’s when [Nujoma and his supporters] went into exile. Finally, after years of war and attrition, South Africa finally gave up. But with the help of the Cubans. The Cubans came in and really were responsible for a lot of the militia moving out.
JG: Do you have a distributor for that film?
CB: No, not yet.
JG: What was it like shooting in Namibia? This is the first motion picture shot there, right?
CB: Right. Some places you still had wild animals running around. Elephants and stuff like that in the road. There were hippos over at the bottom of the bank and alligators. So when you came in at night, you looked around and when you got up in the morning, you looked around, because you didn’t want to walk into the hippos any time because they were very dangerous. They kill more people than anything. We were shooting in that area and there was an elephant water hose and we were right in the middle of the path to the water hose. Then we shot in Etosha, which is a place where lions and you name it were running around loose and that was interesting. The people were great to work with. It was a great experience because we were all over Namibia from the west coast from Swakopmund and Walvis Bay all the way to the East, which is bordering Botswana and Zambia.
JG: My final question is being a writer-director and a black writer-director, where I’ve been in Los Angeles for eight or nine years and been in meetings where they say, “Oh, we love your script but....” You know, whatever whatever. What are the things that keep you going and continue to encourage you?
CB: I wish I could tell you. It comes down to the individual. How much desire you have to do it. You have to have some kind of support. If you have a family, it’s disastrous, you know, because you don’t work that often. You have kids going to college and stuff like that. I would tell someone they should get a part-time job or do something to support yourself. There’s so many people out of work and so many people who I know who’ve gone on to other things. I don’t know. I do it because I have this optimism that maybe I can do it again.
Many thanks to Bill Wynn for helping to arrange this interview.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
4.11.08 @ 7:32a
Good on ya, Jas. Great interview.
I think it's mindboggling that Hollywood doesn't realize a larger market for Burnett's films.
4.11.08 @ 10:48a
That was simply wonderful! Good on you, Jason! These are, in my opinion, important films, even if they are low budget with minimal distribution. You had some good questions.
4.11.08 @ 11:21a
Excellent interview, Jason, capturing not only the perspective of Burnett as a filmmaker, but also the different circumstances of the years when he made each of his films.
Killer of Sheep made a VERY brief run here in STL last summer, and I made a point of pushing it to the masses, but I have no idea how many people might have attended. The decade may have changed, but story is timeless.
4.14.08 @ 1:20a
You had interesting material to work with, sure. But you also wrote it in a way that was fun to read. Thank you!