I love behind the scenes documentaries – always have. What began as 60 minute specials and from there graduating to EPKs (or Electronic Press Kits) have become full-blown features, at times several hours long. And the longer the better I say.
Robert Burnett has been that guy. The guy behind the scenes. Armed with light-weight equipment and a small crew, he has captured the people who make the magic and the war it is to bring a dream to life on film.
He has been there to witness the making of the multi-Oscar winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. He has seen what it took to orchestrate Superman’s return. He has ventured back in time and brought us wonderful retrospective looks at films like Disney’s cult classic Tron.
But Robert is also a passionate filmmaker in his own right. Having made his own film Free Enterprise, directing episodes of the TV series Femme Fatales along with short films as well. He is a prolific producer having shepherded films like The Hills Run Red and Agent Cody Banks 2. And, just when you’re about to say, “Stop it Rob, you’re just too talented,” he is also an experienced editor; often times chopping his own work, whether it be for DVD special features content or the films he has worked on.
Beneath all of his success, Robert is a massive film lover, citing The Right Stuff, All That Jazz and The Godfather among the countless films he adores.
It was a real pleasure to chat with him about all he has seen behind the scenes, but more so to simply chat movies with a man who knows his stuff. Turns out he loved his time here in the great southern land (Australia), along with our beer and music. It is my hope Rob finds his way back so that I might take him up on my invitation to share a cold VB (Victoria Bitter) and talk movies…
…but until then, enjoy our chat.
No matter how many times I watch The Usual Suspects, and believe me it’s been many, I still get the same diabolical thrill, the same rapturous excitement and the same rush of storytelling and dramatic payoff as I did the very first time I saw it. Every performance from the vast and diverse cast is a devilish creation packed with red herrings, juicy dialogue and bushels of menace, every scene piles on the mysticism of the criminal underworld beat by beat, until the characters begin to pick it apart and the whole thing unravels like a great serpent coiling forth bit by bit, scale by scale, swerving toward the shocking, disarming third act that has since become as legendary as it’s elusive and terrifying antagonist. In the crime/mystery corner of cinema, there’s no arguing that this delicious piece of hard boiled intrigue reigns supreme, and it’s easy to see why. In a seemingly random police lineup, five career criminals are harassed by an unseen hand, pushed into carrying out dangerous heists and violent manouvers by a shadowy campfire tale among the world of organized crime, a Boogeyman called Keyser Soze, if he even exists at all. Slick and sleazy ex cop Dean Keaton (Gabriel Byrne) heads up this dysfunctional crew of vagabonds which includes hothead McManus (Stephen Baldwin in a role originally intended for Michael Biehn, which kills me to this day), weirdo Fenster (Benicio Del Toro, using an indecipherable mishmash of an accent that would be the first of many), spitfire Hockney (Kevin Pollak) and Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey) the runt of the litter. The lot of them are intimidated into performing risky enterprises by lawyer Kobayashi (Pete Postlethwaite) until the climate of their actions reaches a boiling point and answers emerge from the darkness. This is all told in retrospect by Spacey, to a rabid customs agent (Chazz Palminteri) who has designs on ensnaring Soze. Spacey scored Oscar gold for his heavy work here, spinning a tale whose layers interweave and pull the wool over our eyes time and time again before offering any glimpses of truth. Byrne is a fiercely guarded storm as Keaton, a man with secrets so deep even he doesn’t know who he is anymore, letting the anger set and smoulder in those glacial eyes of his. The supporting cast adds to the class and confusion terrifically, with fine work pouring in from Dan Hedeya, Suzy Amis, Giancarlo Esposito and a wicked cameo from Peter Greene, who provides a moment of inspired improv. The score of the film rarely relies on dips and swells until all is said and done, keeping a tight lid on the orchestra and feeding us nervous little riffs of anxious portent that keeps tension on a tightrope and anticipation on call. A mystery this tantalizing is irrisistable the first time around, but the trick is to make your story rewatchable, and I’ve seen this thing over a dozen times. Every viewing provides some new angle to the story I didn’t see before, or I notice a subtle interaction in the very naturalistic and funny dialogue which escaped me in the past. My favourite thing to do is watch films with someone who hasn’t seen them before, observe their reactions and opinions on every little story beat and cinematic flourish, it’s almost more fun for me than the actual film itself. The Usual Suspects is a showcase piece for that activity, because you get to see this very complex revelation unfold through new eyes as you watch them experience the revelations. Whether your first viewing or your fiftieth, it never loses its power, and the spell it casts just doesn’t dim. Masterpiece.