SXSW Interview: 'Burma'

"Burma", Carlos Puga's feature-length directorial debut, premiered at SXSW earlier this week in the Narrative Competition, where it won Special Jury Recognition for its ensemble cast. An involving sibling story about brothers and sisters who have to deal with the return of their absent father (who unceremoniously left his kids after the death of their mother a few years prior), "Burma" stars "Girls"' Christopher Abbott, Dan Bittner and Gaby Hoffman, who makes a compelling comeback bid with her strong and crackling performance as the oldest of the three. We sat down with Puga and Abbott after their second SXSW screening to discuss the film and the road that got them there. Warning: you're about to very impressed with Chris Abbott's taste in filmmakers.

Loquacious Muse: Is this your first time at SXSW?

Chris: It's my first time at SXSW, but I've been to Austin before.

Carlos: My short film, "Satan Since 2003" played at SXSW in 2011.

LM: Speaking of the short [which is about mopeds], I noticed that line about the moped - was that an intentional nod?

Carlos: Yes!  The mechanic was supposed to be the guy from the short film, but he couldn't come, so we recast it.

LM: How did you guys come together on this shoot?

Carlos Puga: We knew each other. We were friends before this, we met through our friend Brady Corbet and I was writing something and wasn't really sure where it was going, and then I saw Chris in a play ("House of Blue Leaves") and was blown away so I kind of started tailoring the script towards him to see if maybe he would play it when I showed it to him.

LM: Did you guys all stay together during the 18-day shoot?

Chris Abbott: Yeah, at a pretty creepy hotel. It was so--

Carlos: --Vast.

Chris: Vast, and empty during the week. I guess how they make their money is they hold conventions, so when the weekends would come along, all of a sudden the hotel would just flood with a different kind of convention. I think the first weekend was like a hoe-down convention. It was really weird, and then it would just be us in this huge hotel for five days.

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LM: Did the shoot have that summer camp vibe?

Chris: We all knew each other. A lot of the crew was from "Martha Marcy May Marlene", so it was like a family vibe.

LM: During the Q&A, you mentioned that the actors didn't get a lot of time. Can you elaborate?

Chris: We just had a short shooting schedule...

Carlos: Before production we didn't have much time for rehearsals, we just kind of did it all on location when we were there. We would go over scenes and rehearse day of or on the day before.

LM: Are you a "shoot everything" kind of director?

Carlos: I like to shoot a lot. I'm used to documentary stuff, so -- editing-wise -- sometimes I have specific shots that I know, but as far as dialogue is concerned, I just like to get a lot of coverage and then see where it makes sense to edit.

LM: Did anything in the script change while it was happening ... Was there any improvisation?

Chris: It stayed pretty set from the beginning. Very minor things were ad-libbed,  but for the most part we stuck to the script. Carlos' script is very specific in the sense that, I don't know how to say it, there's kind of a cheeky quality to the whole film. It kind of comes down to the last line -- it's actually why I think the script is so brilliant -- it's the last of the line of the film is this meta--

Carlos: --Self-referential...

Chris: Yeah, it's a remark on the film itself. So it was important to stick to the script [to maintain that tone]. But "cheek" is not the right word.

Carlos: I didn't want to be melodramatic, so I did try every now and then to --

Chris: -- To see the humor in some things.

LM: To undercut the tension?

Carlos: Yeah.

LM: Were there any scenes that didn't make the final cut?

Carlos: The first ten minutes of the movie used to be different and was more comedy, just funnier, but we had to switch it up cause it just wasn't working. So we cut out like two scenes and replaced them. We did reshoots for like three days and reworked the beginning of the film. I do miss some of the comedy of those scenes, but it wasn't the right tone for the movie.

LM: It's interesting that the father goes to Chris' character first instead of the other siblings. What's your take on that?

Carlos: There's two lines in the movie, a line earlier that is off set by a line later, when the dad knocks on his door and says "You're the strongest, that's why I came here", but later on when [Chris} is lying on the couch and his sister comes downstairs and says you're the sensitive one, he says "You were gonna say weak" because he realizes then that his dad came to him because he was the easiest to manipulate. At least that was my take.

LM: That absolutely came through. It also made me think a lot about those things that you don't know about your parents. You think they aren't actual people but they are, and of course they know each other better than you know them.

Chris: I find that to be so interesting ... The idea behind the whole movie is in the speech, when the doctor says to Susan, "I loved your mother more than I loved you." It feels like it's a harsh thing to say to a kid, but it's kind of honest, and to me, it doesn't feel like bad, it just kind of makes sense. The history of your parents only lives as long as you've lived, but they've been together and had a life before you ever came along, so in a way I don't find that line that sad. There's a lot of lines like that in the film that stick with me in a big way, these little nuggets of very true little jewels, like that one, and the one where I say "If there is a button I could push to take his prize away, I would." And also the thing about "I thought mom's death would help my image."

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LM: Those are things a lot of people think about but would never actually say.

Chris: Thats why when you hear it, it's kind of jarring cause while people haven't thought those exact thoughts necessarily, similar self important things like that cross your mind.

LM: I like that your character is aware of the fact that he's not a very good person at the moment.

Chris: Yeah, it's like a 12 step program, admittance is the first step and that's important. He's trying to be better, and recognizing his demons is the first step in becoming a better human.

LM: Do you think that eventually there is an amicable conclusion with the father or just with the siblings?

Carlos: I think the father was a vehicle for the siblings to come to terms with the mother and the father and the fact that now they know what the father is like, and whether he comes back or not, I don't think it would ever reach that height again. I think they would accept him, I think if he came back, they'd be like, okay fine, you're an asshole but you are who you are, but I think even if he never came back, they had it out and started on their way to having peace with it all.

Chris: Even for themselves individually. There's another line [laughs], another line that I love -- and I swear it's not just cause they're my lines -- at the end, when I'm talking to my brother about my ex-girlfriend, I say: "Can you tell her?"  Then he pauses and says "Nevermind, I'll tell her." It's a small thing, but it's his way of not passing off responsibilities.

LM: Did you guys go to school specifically for filmmaking and acting?

Carlos: I went to NYU. I studied economics, but that was just sort of to appease my parents. I grew up in Miami, so to have them send me to New York, I went to business school and then I studied acting and directing at a couple studios off and on at that time while I was in school and then I got straight into "True Life" (for MTV) through a friend who was a producer on it. He asked me to shoot and I shooting and producing myself.

Chris: I went to a small college in Connecticut for economics also, then started to study psychology, and then I worked a bunch of different jobs there and then I started taking a class at college and then acting class and I liked it, then went to a bunch of schools in New York. I didn't go to a proper university in New York, I went to an acting studio -- you don't get a degree or anything, but you can take classes at your will and pick who you want to study with.

LM: Which one?

Chris: HB Studio, down in the West Village

Carlos: I took classes there!

LM: Are there any other current filmmakers you guys are really into right now?

Chris: There's a newer filmmaker named Sergei Loznitsa who just made his second film. His first film was "My Joy" and the new one is "Into the Fog". Bela Tarr and Michael Hanake are also some of my favorites.

LM: Is the movie in any other festivals and how can people stay updated on where and when to see it?

Carlos: Burmafilm.com is the website and there is a spotlight screening scheduled at Sarasota in April.