Interview: Burning Bright Director Carlos Brooks

As you can see in my review of “Burning Bright” here, I rather enjoyed it.  Ignore the fact that it’s a movie about a tiger in a house (something which Carlos elaborates on below) and instead take it for what it is – a tiger in a house movie.  Wait, that came out wrong.

Err, well just trust me – it’s really good.

Here’s what Carlos had to say about the film (there’s the odd minor spoiler, but nothing to start ripping off your trousers, pulling out your hair or screaming about):

Gazz Ogden: Hi Carlos, how are you today?

Carlos Brooks: Good thanks, you?

GO: Great thanks.  Firstly, I just want to say that I really really enjoyed the film.

CB: That’s great, thank you, it’s fantastic to hear you say that.

GO: So, to start off, how did you get involved with the project in the first place?

CB: Well, I had just come back from premiering my first film which I wrote and directed.  We were at Sundance and I was looking around and thinking, ‘I really want to direct something that I didn’t write, I’d like to get a job!’  So my manager sent me this script and said ‘Here’s one, but let me warn you, there’s a tiger!’  I read it and found it to be a complete page turner.  I was so attracted to the potential for the visuals that I immediately thought ‘This is great,’ and I took it very seriously.  I think part of why I got the job was the fact that my last movie was very much a character piece, although I still had to really convince them that I could do suspense.

GO: How did you go about doing that?

CB: I basically had the sensibility to compare it to “Alien” – you know, you’ve got a creature on a spaceship, and you’ve got a girl.  They’re both very similar situations, and I think they went ‘A-ha! We never saw that, we never thought of that!’  I also story-boarded a sequence and showed them – in this case I thought it was one of the more difficult sequences because it’s so clichéd – (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) it’s when she wakes up from her nightmare about suffocating her brother. (END OF SPOILER)  I thought, you know, we’ve seen that a million times so I pitched to them – instead of her bolting up wide awake, which is the classic shot after a nightmare, instead the camera is going to bolt up and she’s going to stay lying in bed.  I mean, when I wake up from a nightmare I’ve never in my life shot up straight in bed…

GO: No nor have I!

CB: I don’t know what sort of strange nervous system reaction it is that causes people in movies to do that, but you and I don’t.  So I said, ‘What will happen is the camera will be on a rotating gib arm and it will swing 90 degrees from bottom to top, so the camera will have that bolting effect instead of the character.’  And I don’t know, that was my bright idea (laughs) I don’t know what did it, but I got the job!

GO: Well, well done! “Burning Bright” is a very serious film, whereas it could have gone the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ route – it is a film about a tiger in a house after all – what made you take it so seriously?

CB: I wouldn’t want to take anything like that not seriously.  I think it’s partly my own sensibility, but I wouldn’t want to go and see a movie that was so tongue-in-cheek.  You know, they did “Snakes on a Plane”, and I was not attracted to that.  It seemed to me that the fun of that movie was all about the run-up to its release – where all the fanboys were saying ‘This is real great!’.  What was happening was they were congratulating themselves for being hip enough and cheeky enough to be in on the joke – and then when it actually came out the filmmaking was not that compelling at all.  So I thought to myself [about “Burning Bright”], there’s real potential here visually and cinematically, we can really make a stand and do this old school, without CGI.  Look back to some of the great movies of the ‘70s, look at “The Shining” – which I did every day when I was shooting.  We could really do something that would surprise people because the idea itself sounds so ludicrous (laughs).  The things I read once the press announced it!  That’s when I realised what you said – I didn’t even know that I was taking it seriously, I thought there was no other way to take it.  I think the effort especially in the online world, is to be in on the joke, and that presupposes that there must be a joke.  So if you say, ‘Hey it’s a tiger in a house with a girl and an autistic brother,’ I mean – could there be a bigger target?  So yeah, that could be a joke, but we’re not in on it!

Then it came out and people are now seeing that it wasn’t a joke and it was not meant to be a joke.  Admittedly, it’s a preposterous premise but hopefully people – once they sort of shake hands with it – will realise ‘Ok, at least I understand how this works now!’

GO: Well I haven’t read a bad thing said about it!

CB: Knock on wood, that’s nice to hear.  It’s very gratifying to find because I read a lot of bad things said about it before they saw the movie (laughs) – but maybe that’s the art of lowering expectations, I might be on to something there. They definitely are really embracing it though and it’s really great to see for all of us that made it.

GO: How did u go about – well, hiring is the wrong word – ‘getting’ the tiger?  I’m assuming there weren’t tiger auditions?

CB: No – no open casting call. Although they would have been very memorable (laughs). To do that you choose the right trainer.  In this case he was chosen before I came on board but it turned out to be a guy who lives down my street – his name’s Brian McMillan and he’s been in the business for 30 years.  There’s nobody better, he loves his animals and takes great care of them and would never endanger them or anyone else – that was important to me!

The two things I kept saying that I needed were tiger charisma and tiger ambition.  We would endlessly talk about them – did this shot have tiger ambition? Did this shot have tiger charisma? And that was as smart as I got – after that the tiger tells you hows it’s gonna be.  You write a scene with the tiger, you storyboard it and then you bring the tiger out and it says ‘Naa, I see what you’re going for but, ummm trust me were going to do it this way.’ And he can be very persuasive, or in this case she – we had three female tigers and they constantly re-wrote things and did surprising things.  I love the shot where the tiger lunges under the bed and the bed literally lifts off the floor.  When I saw it I thought ‘That is literally something I have never seen!”  Also the shot of the tiger looking up the laundry chute was not something that I planned, but it was gold.

GO: I think that was my favourite part.

CB: I agree, at that moment the tiger becomes a real character, at that moment I buy the tiger as my villain.

GO: What was it you used to attract the tiger and entice him into jumping at things? Meat?

CB: Chicken.  Sometimes beef – mix it up a little bit.  But chicken is what its all about.  Although if they ever get a hold of a whole chicken at one time – you’re done.  That’s all they need for about 5 hours – that cat is done.  We had that happen once or twice – once Katie got a hold of a chicken, you’re obviously not gonna take it away from her, and then when she’s finally finished eating it, you’re not gonna get her to move. Not for love or money.

GO: Were they the only problems that you encountered with the tiger? Were they pretty well behaved?

CB: They were really well-behaved.  There were no problems, although we did have some interesting moments of uncertainty, where the tigers got loose!

GO: Oh dear…

CB: Loose of their trainers anyway. Once in Florida the trainer tried to restrain it but the tiger got loose and I heard the head trainer scream ‘For God’s sake let her go!’  Now when you hear the head trainer scream, it puts the fear in you. But Brian is so good that nothing bad happened – not even slightly or remotely, but we all puckered up a little bit! (laughs)

GO: What about the two main actors? How did you come to choose them? And what impressed you most about them?

CB: I met Briana (Evigan) over coffee.  I’d never seen anything she had done and I didn’t audition her either – I offered her the movie based on meeting her, sitting down with her and talking.  On my first movie I did 11 months of casting and auditions and I knew by the time I came to cast this movie that I didn’t need to waste time with auditions.  I needed to know what was inside the actors, and I think you get a sense of that right away when you meet someone.  You get a sense of what they’re made of, especially with actors, because they’re often very emotional.  Briana also had a physicality about her, the way she hugged everybody, the way she was very positive – there was something very compelling about her personality and I respected her right away.  I thought, those are the qualitites that I want in the character and the audience will hopefully have the same reaction that I had.  That’s my theory about casting – how I end up feeling about an actor is how an audience will end up feeling about them.

I thought Vera Farmiga who did “Quid Pro Quo” with me was just a fantastic person, you just fall in love with her, and the so does the audience.  I had the same feeling with Briana – that I respect her so much and therefore I think the audience intuitively does as well.  As for Charlie Tahan, we found him in New York.  We could not find any other kids who would just sit there – it’s very hard to find somebody who will just sit there and do nothing!  On his audition tape I was impressed with how he listened to the casting director and I thought, ‘This is a kid who knows how to listen,’ so that’s why we went with him.

GO: For my last question, if you had to make another movie about people stuck inside a house with a killer animal, what would the animal be?

CB: Ha! What animal would be better than a tiger? (laughs) I’m being compelled to be cheeky, I won’t say a labradoodle, how about some sort of fish that can’t get out of the tank anyway? (laughs)

GO: Good answer!

CB: Ok I got the answer! A human.

GO: Oh ok, that’s good.  Are you going to make that?

CB: Well, that one’s been made loads of times but we could find another way of doing it. In fact I do have an idea that I’m working on.  A very brand new idea, I won’t say anything about it but you’ve hit on something; actually I’ll say this – it’s part human.

GO: Oh, wow, ok.  Well, let’s end it on that note, thank you very much for your time, it was brilliant talking to you.

CB: Yeah you as well, great questions. Thank you very much.

It was a pleasure interviewing Carlos and I really hope his film does well – because it deserves to.  It makes its UK debut at this year’s Frightfest then hits Region 2 DVD on 6th September.  Also, look out for Carlos’ new film “Blue Byu” starring Vera Farmiga and Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Oh and watch out, there’s a tiger behind you!