Written by: Ron Cotton on May 1st, 2006
Joe Burke, one part actor and one part director and yet another part writer, has developed three influential films in the past three years: Disturbance 2013, Hunter’s Fall, and Coop’s Night In. Although Burke’s resume paints a larger picture, these films have the hallmarks of great technical filming. Below, Joe Burke details his journey into directing:
Ron Cotton (RC): What influenced you to act in and direct in film?
Joe Burke (JB): I have been influenced by a lot. Growing up, I loved going to see movies. The art form of filmmaking was something I wanted to be a part of from a early age. When I was 8 years old I made my first short film with my uncle Bob, my brother Dusty, and a few other family members titled “The Camper Man and The Lost boy”. It was a very memorable experience for me. Since that day I haven’t been able to put the camera down. I credit that experience when I was 8 to the reason why I got started in filmmaking. I think I am lucky in the fact that I’ve known what I want to do with my life from such an early age. It has allowed my to practice and prepare myself for years to come.
RC: Were you first an actor or a director?
JB: I started acting and directing simultaneously. Growing up I continuously shot short films with my younger bother and friends. I would usually direct and also play a role in the films. Once I hit junior high school I got involved in theater which I continued to partake in heavily until college. I was a theater major at Columbia College Chicago for a year and a half, but then changed my major from theater to film in the middle of my sophomore year. I will be graduating this May with a B.A. in film. Changing my major was one of the best decision I’ve ever made. I do think my experience as an actor is extremely useful when it comes to directing. They are really hand in hand.
RC: Who are your major influences in film?
JB: I have been very inspired by many filmmakers including Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Ron Howard, Richard Linklater, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Zemeckis.
RC: Your films appear on par with feature films. What is your shooting ratio to achieve this level of professionalism?
JB: It really depends. I like to get a lot of takes and have many options. I like to improvise shots while on set as they come to me. I think it’s important to capture a lot and piece it together in the editing room. However, once I start shooting on actual film, and not digital, I know I’m going to have to plan out my shots better and not do so many takes as it will be to expensive with the high cost of film. The biggest advantage of shooting digitally is that the cost is much less and you are allowed more freedom.
RC: As you’ve directed more shorts, has your shooting ratio on average increased or decreased over time to complete the film?
JB: I would say my shooting ratio has increased. I have learned over the years that getting the shot right is extremely important. When I was younger, I would just shoot the shot and move on. Now knowing the importance of getting the shot and performance right, my shooting ratio has increased.
RC: Your actors performances fit perfectly with the script. As you write a script, do you have specific actors in mind for the role?
JB: Sometimes I have a specific actor in mind for a certain role I may be writing. But usually the roles I write are cast after the script is done. I don’t like to limit my options of who can play the role before I write it. I like to write a role, and then see how different actors play it off in the audition process. I will say that I do enjoy working with certain actors over and over again. I find myself lucky to be able to work with such talented actors that have the ability to play so many types of different characters.
RC: Did you toil with the actors and script immensely to get the delivery needed for the film?
JB: I love actors who bring a lot to the film. I am open to suggestions and ideas that they may have. Usually a script of mine will change based on who the actors are.
RC: In Disturbance 2013 and Coop’s Night In, actors and actresses are partially nude for key scenes. Does this ever present a problem?
JB: It’s never been a problem. I like to work with actors who are willing to take chances and do what’s needed to be done for the role. Like I said, I’ve been lucky to work with professional actors who understand the importance of playing the role the way it needs to be played.
RC: Are all your films storyboarded or do you have general ideas of what shots that are needed to complete the scene?
JB: I don’t usually storyboard. I gather ideas before I go to set and then start shooting. Sometimes I will storyboard certain scenes before shooting. That being said, I do plan on storyboarding more for my future films because I think storyboarding is extremely important and in the end, if you story board what you want, it usually turns out to be stronger then if you go in to the shoot with out really knowing what you need to get.
RC: All of your films contain at least one scene with a phone call. In 2013, it’s both shock and discovery. In Hunter’s Fall, it’s a desire for a rekindling of a past relationship. In Coop’s, it’s the prelude to the introspective night. Is there a reason for this?
JB: I like to write films that have a sense realism to them. I usually base my ideas off events and feelings I’ve experienced in my own life. I guess I just include phones because they are heavily used in our daily lives. We can’t escape them.
RC: After making films with both natural lighting and controlled lighting, which do you prefer?
JB: I like controlled lighting more. But it takes more time and money. I plan on using more controlled lighting as I continue to make films in the future. But I do think there is something neat about natural lighting. And it is also cheaper then renting lights.
RC: Do all your films come out shorter than expected?
JB: I think my films come out longer then expected. My film “Hunter’s Fall” was only a 4 page script, but the film is 9 minutes in length. I think it really just depends on the script and how you edit the film in post-production.
RC: Will any of your other short films such as The Distance be released in the future?
JB: Unfortunately, I don’t think I am going to be releasing any of my older films anytime soon. Most of the films I made growing up include music I don’t have the rights to, and that prevents me from selling them.
RC: Overall, which do you believe will give you more experience for your feature filmmaking career, your short films or Columbia College in Chicago?
JB: Both experiences will be invaluable when beginning my feature filmmaking career. I think I learned a lot at Columbia. But if I didn’t take what I learned from Columbia and make the many short films that I did, then I don’t think I would’ve really been able to comprehend and understand what I was learning. The only way to learn how to make films is to actually make them.
RC: Although the lighting of the white walls was harsh, do you feel it adds to the ambiance to the film?
JB: I think the white walls work for the film. But if I were to make the film today, I would light it darker, and give the film more of a contrast look.
RC: There are many formulas for fake blood out there. Is this fake or real? If fake, what was the formula?
JB: I use fake blood in my films. My formula is corn syrup, 3-5 drops of red food coloring, a drop of blue food coloring, and a little Hershey syrup (it helps with the taste).
RC: The most shocking scene in 2013 is when the victim’s cell phone rings. What gave you the inspiration for this?
JB: I wanted to give the dead girl “life”. I didn’t want her to feel like just a prop. I felt if she received a phone call from a friend who cares about her in the “real world“, it would make her feel more real, and make the whole situation that much more disturbing. We also needed a way to share with the audience who this girl is. By having a phone call, we were able to learn her name which was a set up for the next scene.
RC: The blind man in the hallway was perfection and then keeping the camera at his perspective was quite riveting. Was this all planned before shooting?
JB: Most of “Disturbance 2013” was not planned before shooting. We really ran through it from beginning to end, shooting pretty much in order because we didn’t have an exact plan. It was a very fun shoot, but I don’t think I could work that way again. We shot the whole film in 1 night which I think works for this film because the whole story takes place in 1 night. It’s almost like we shot in real-time, which adds something special to the film and how it translates to the viewer. The audio commentary on the “Disturbance 2013” DVD shares more about the filmmaking process.
RC: Did you have different ideas on what the final outcome was to be?
JB: When I first wrote the script, I ended up having everyone die in their own way. Howie was still going to slit his wrist, Lindsay was to accidentally trip backwards and hit her head on the glass table as she was going to call the police, and Jimmy was to jump out of the window of his apartment on the 20th floor after the other two were dead. When we shot the film, I knew Jimmy was no longer going to kill himself. But we still shot Lindsay falling back and hitting her head on the glass table. We cut it out in the editing room. It was a little to comedic. We also had a shot of Jimmy going to tell Jeff, the blind neighbor, all that had happened. But we decided to end the film on a more exciting note. We ended up focusing more on Howie. I think the way the film ends now is the best option for what we had to work with.
RC: How much film was lost because of people getting in front of the camera during the shoot?
JB: Not much of the film was lost. But we did have to shoot some shots over again while on set because of people on the streets getting in front of the camera. That’s one of the issues you have to deal with when you shoot “guerilla style.” But sometimes it also adds to the film and makes everything feel more real, since everything really is real around you.
RC: I understand that you filmed many of the scenes in digital before shooting on film. How do the two compare with each other in terms of quality?
JB: As stated in the audio commentary on the “Hunter’s Fall” DVD, we shot the whole film digitally before we were to shoot it on 16mm. However, we never re-shot the film on 16mm. We liked what we got digitally so much that we didn’t feel the need to re-shoot it any other way. The final film that is on DVD is the version we shot digitally, and I think it turned out great.
RC: When you filmed at The Chicago Burrito House, did you ask permission days prior to the shoot, or did you have the camera at hand?
JB: We just walked in with the camera that day and asked if we could shoot a quick shot. They were very cool about it. Later we had them sign a release form granting us their permission to use their store in our film.
RC: The sound design in Hunter’s Fall is quite intricate and important for the film. In this respect, was the film in post for a very long time?
JB: The film was in post for a very long time. “Hunter’s Fall” was a 1 man crew; just me. I wrote, directed, shot, edited, and produced the film. It didn’t take me more then a few weeks to edit the film. As the producer I needed to find a sound designer and composer for the film. I found a sound designer that ended up working with me all through the summer of 2005, but in the end he wasn’t working out the way I wanted him too. His commitment towards the film wasn’t there, and I knew I needed to find someone else. I was also working with a composer on the film. He was very talented guy and I heard a few samples of what he was scoring for the film, but one day he just disappeared, and I couldn’t get a hold of him again. (He is alive and well, but we haven’t talked since) It was a shame because I really liked his samples and I was looking forward to hearing the rest of his score for the film. So I was now a few months into post-production with out a sound designer or a composer. I was stuck. Eventually I was introduced to Justin McGrath who had experience scoring films. I decided to hire him to score the film. He also told me he did sound design for films. I asked him if he would be willing do both the sound and music for “Hunter’s Fall”, and he said “yes”. It’s funny how some things work out. In the end, I couldn’t be happier on how it turned out. The film really came together nicely.
RC: Was the legal services for Hunter’s Fall only for discussing the acquisition of Superman Footage or for other reasons?
JB: Other reasons. At the same time I was finishing up “Hunter’s Fall”, I was also trying to start up my production company Elantra Films in a more legit way. I needed an attorney who could make sure I was handling the business side correctly. He helped me obtain contracts from everyone involved with the film, and helped me make sure that the entire film was legit and ready to be sold. He has been very helpful in helping me start up my production company, Elantra Films.
RC: Do you feel the Superman Footage was focal for this film to come full circle?
JB: No. I think the message of the film still gets across. I think the Superman Footage would’ve been neat to have. It would have given the film a different feeling, and would have made the end relate more to the middle. But I don’t think the film is missing anything by not having the footage. It’s just different then it would’ve been if we were able to use the footage..
Coop’s Night In
RC: In this film, the candle burning scene is perhaps the most naturally lit scene and for some, the most memorable. With you good luck with natural lighting, will you stray away from controlled lighting in your later productions?
JB: No. I do like controlled lighting because there is so much more you can do with it. There is actually some controlled lighting in the bathroom scene of “Coop‘s Night In”, but it’s very well done that it looks like the only source of light in the bathroom is coming from the candles.
RC: Did you enjoy the extra control of working on a set with all of the equipment at your disposal?
JB: Yes, it was very cool and convenient. It helped us create the look we wanted easier.
RC: Did you enjoy the look of hand held filmmaking?
JB: Yes. I think the look of handheld can be cool. It fits the feel I was going for. I don’t think it’s a good style for every film. But for “Coop’s Night In” I think it works great.
RC: This appears to have the most people collaborating on this film. Because of this, did you give others the authority to present their ideas and mold your film into something different than what you wanted in pre-production? Did this make your job easier?
JB: With collaboration comes other people’s ideas. I am open to ideas and suggestions. I encourage them. I will still have the final say, but I usually take the ideas and suggestions that the crew and cast make. I wouldn’t say their ideas mold the film differently then what I want in pre-production. I would say that their ideas usually help make what I want stronger.
RC: Max lives irresponsibly while Coop plays it safe. In the end, Coop decides to fulfill his desires at the risk of his future. Do you feel that Max is completely in the right to live every moment of life without considering the final outcome?
JB: I think Max has the right to live his life as he pleases. I don’t agree with his ways totally, but he is still entitled to live his life how he pleases. I think there is a part of Max in all of us.
RC: What kind of advice would you give a director making his first low to no-budget film?
JB: My advice would to make the best film you possibly can. Don’t let the fact that you have no money to work with hurt the quality of the film. Be creative. Figure out ways to capture what you want without having to spend a lot of money. Be dedicated to your work. Don’t settle for anything less then what you want. Some of the most expensive films ever made have turned out to be flops. It’s not about how much money you have to work with, it’s about what your vision is. Money usually just gets in the way of the art. Do the best you can with what you got. Learn from your mistakes and your victories, and take what you learn and use it towards your next film. With every film you make, you will learn what and what not to do in your future works. And most importantly, don’t let anyone stand in your way of what you want to do.
RC: On your DVD’s, do you prefer to loop the films in your commentary rather than having multiple audio tracks or is technical difficulties behind this?
JB: I decided that looping the film would be the easiest way to go. I didn’t want people to just listen to certain parts of the commentary. I think it’s important to listen to all the commentary together because a lot of what we say in each loop relates. The audio commentary for “Coop’s Night In” is just a single time through. And the DVD has a feature that allows you the option to turn the commentary on and off.
RC: Michael Simoneau’s DVD covers are quite professional and eye-catching. Has he worked on other DVD covers besides Disturbance 2013 and Coop’s Night In?
JB: No. I think “Disturbance 2013” and “Coop’s Night In” are his first two DVD covers. He is a professional graphic designer, but I don’t think he has done DVD covers before. He is wanting to do more in the future.
RC: You’ve genre’s include Horror and Drama that are either dialog or visually driven. Should we expect something totally different in the future or improving more of the same ground?
JB: I like many different genres. I think “realistic” comedic-dramas are what I will be focusing on in the near future. I do love the horror genre, and someday I will hopefully have the opportunity to make another horror film.
RC: Justin McGrath does a superb job at sound design and scoring. Are we to see more of him in the future?
JB: Justin McGrath is very talented. He is currently taking time off from scoring films to focus more on his own music for a CD he hopes to release in the near future.
RC: With these shorts behind you, what’s next on the horizon?
JB: Well, I want to keep making films. I want to eventually in near future make a feature length film. I think these short films I have made will help me when it comes to finding investors for my bigger projects and I hope they will help show people that I am dedicated and ready to start making feature films.
RC: Thank you for your time and I can’t wait for your next film release.
JB: Thank you. It was an honor being interviewed.
For more information about Disturbance 2013, Hunter’s Fall, Coop’s Night In and Joe Burke visit Elantra Films.
All Screensots and Photos copyrighted Joe Burke. All Rights Reserved.