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SxSW 2017 Interview: MADRE director Aaron Burns

MADRE at SxSW 2017
by Jason Whyte

"In MADRE, the main character Diana is at her wits end. She is pregnant and her first born son, Martin, is 10 years old and severely autistic. Her husband works in Asia for most of the year, and every child development specialist they've hired to help with Martin has deemed him a lost cause. Diana is all alone, with a pregnancy which is limiting her mobility by the day and a son who is growing more uncontrollable at the same rate. In a last ditch effort to regain some sanity, Diana places her trust into Luz, a gifted nanny from the Philippines. Even though Martin quickly begins communicating and improving under Luz's tutelage, Diana becomes jealous of their relationship. Diana has convinced herself that Luz is trying to turn Martin against her, and potentially into something far more sinister." Director Aaron Burns on MADRE which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.

I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.

Great to hear from you man. MADRE is my second film at SXSW. I was also there in 2011 with my first film blacktino. I grew up in Austin so going back to SXSW with a new film in another language is an interesting homecoming. My favorite aspect of the city is the great food culture that has expanded Austin's palette. I'm always happy to hit up my old haunts like Pokejo's and County Line, but I really love great new places like Swift's Attic and WuChow as well!

So how did you get into this business? Talk to me a bit about how you got your start and what you have worked on in the past.

I started out working on Hollywood movies at 19 for Robert Rodriguez at Troublemaker Studios, where I worked on films like SIN CITY, GRINDHOUSE and MACHETE. He was a great mentor and let me work in every department that interested me. From there I befriended Eli Roth who cast me in THE GREEN INFERNO and KNOCK KNOCK, and Quentin Tarantino has told me he's a big fan of my work in the films. I have been working on and acting in movies here in Chile for the last five years and I finally feel experienced enough to come back to directing with MADRE.

Great backstory! So how did MADRE come together for you?

I have been working with Miguel Asensio and Nicolas Lopez (producers from SOBRAS) for over a decade on lots of different movies. About five years ago, they asked me to work on a movie called AFTERSHOCK down in Chile as a camera operator. I have been here ever since. We have got a vibrant film scene and I have gotten to work in everything that has interested me, even getting into acting for Eli Roth in several movies we shot in Chile.

I have always had plans to get back into directing and I had a script ready to go, so SOBRAS gave me the green light. Miguel and Nicolas are some of the best in the business and I'm really happy that we got to finally work together on a project I was bringing them instead of vice versa.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?

Sad to admit it but Diet Coke, or as they call it in Chile, Coca Light. I have since given it up but everyone knew it was my vice and would bring them to me on set. Oh and I also ate a mini lemon meringue pie for dessert every day while we were shooting. Poison, I tell you! I read a book back in December called THE CASE AGAINST SUGAR by Gary Taubes and I have since given my beloved mini pies up as well.

So besides battling the sugar intake, what was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?

My favorite moment was getting to work on a movie with my younger brother Racer Rodriguez. He was 18 and living with me in Chile for almost a year. He has been on movie sets his whole life, but this was the first time he's ever had real responsibilities on set, with people counting on him and money on the line. He kicked ass. Everyone loved him, he woke up every day hungry to work and learn. He worked in at least eight different departments and even did a lot of key art for the movie. It was an experience that prepared him and demonstrated that he had the set instincts and work initiative to come back to the US and work on an even bigger movie a few months later, ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL.

I remember you once told me about your behind the scenes work and cinematography, so let’s get technical and how you did the visual design of MADRE!

Now you are speaking my language. I have spent much more time behind the camera operating more than I have spent in the director chair. About 90% of SOBRAS movies at this point have used the same cinematographer, Antonio Quercia. He is amazing, he thinks outside of the box and is constantly coming up with solutions to difficult balance problems of staging, price, and time. Usually his solution involves going home and soldering or making his own gear for a specific use case. We love him and love working with him.

Here's a presentation with Eli Roth, Antonio Quercia, and I at Sundance 2015 talking about the 1DC, the same camera we used on Madre, and working with Keanu on KNOCK KNOCK!

Having worked with Antonio since 2010 on both large and small films, we have developed a shorthand that allows us to quickly be on the same page with just a few words. As a director this kind of trust in your cinematographer is so imperative because you know that you are in good hands as far of the look of the film and can concentrate on performances.

MADRE is a film with dark subject matter but it's also a film that lives in the realm of the real. This isn't a film about ghosts or demonic possession. It's a film about real people doing terrible things to each other. The humanity is the star not the spectacle. The actors had lots of lines and long takes. Antonio was key in melting the camera into the background so we could forget about what we were seeing, and just experience the story. It was a very hard job and Antonio did an amazing job photographing our film.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

The festival public's reaction. We have only shown the film to a few select people in Chile and at one festival in an unfinished form in Mexico, so I have no idea what the reaction is going to be. Also, no one in my family has seen the movie yet. They just heard me pitching it to them about 18 months ago. I'm excited to see how they react to it because they will call me out if I don't meet their expectations.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next? Theatrical, online, more festivals?

MADRE will be releasing wide on April 27th, 2017 in Chilean theaters and we will have something great to announce by the end of the festival as far as where it will be seen by the film watching public worldwide.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

Quentin Tarantino's private theater! I have known him for a long time and been invited over to watch things many times, but I have always been away or unable to attend. When we made GRINDHOUSE, we were shooting nights for six months straight. So in order to keep the crew on night schedule over the weekends, Quentin would rent out the original Colorado Street Alamo Drafthouse Downtown and we would watch movies all night long. The first movie was usually something fun like JACKASS NUMBER TWO and it was packed, but by the second movie the crew started to dwindle until it was just me, Quentin, and a few other diehards. Watching movies with Quentin is one of my fondest filmmaking memories because his love of the cinema is as pure and romantic as possible. Getting to sit down in his most private of cinematic sanctums to watch my new movie with him would be a dream come true.

What would you say to someone who was being disruptive during a movie, your own work or anyone else?

This is not your fucking living room. This is our church and whatever is on that screen is our god, so cut it the hell out.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?

Filmmaking is just problem solving on a large scale with a few more variables. So start small and scale up, learn what everyone's job is on set and why it's important. It's easy to dismiss a grip if you don't know anything about the technical intricacies of his profession; I have done it and it is hard work! This will allow you to empathize with your crew and know when someone really needs that extra five minutes or when they are being impractical.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I'm not sure if it's the best movie I have ever seen at a festival, but it's definitely the best time I have ever had in a festival screening. The festival experience is as much about the vibe and the experience of a screening as it is about the movie itself.

It was back in November at the Morbido Film Festival in Mexico City. We had met this hilarious director/producer team from Spain, Roberto San Sebastian and Kevin Iglesias. They invited us to their movie THE NIGHT OF THE VIRGIN and snuck beers into the theater. I can honestly say it was the darkest most fucked up horror comedy I have ever seen and I have been to Fantastic Fest at least five times. This movie is amazing, I hope they get picked up at Fantastic Fest this year because they will win everything. If you can find a copy watch it, laugh along, and have a beer or seven.

Saturday, March 11th at 7:00pm, Alamo Lamar D
Tuesday, March 14th, 1:30pm, Alamo Lamar B
Wednesday, March 15th, 9:00pm, Alamo Lamar D
Friday, March 17th, 9:00pm, ZACH Theater

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/10/17 03:45:45
last updated: 03/10/17 03:50:37
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