BURDEN: Writer/Director Andrew Heckler on His Sundance Audience Award-Winning Debut

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Andrew Heckler spent his time in front of the camera before making the move to write and direct. His years appearing on shows ranging from Ally McBeal to Law and Order helped him understand how to create a good story, both on the page and from the director’s chair.

Heckler’s directorial debut drew talent such as Garrett Hedlund, Tom Wilkinson, Tess Harper, R&B star Usher Raymond, and Forest Whitaker. Burden centers around a museum celebrating the Ku Klux Klan in a South Carolina town where a reverend (Whittaker) strives to keep the peace while helping the group’s Grand Dragon (Hedlund) disavow his racist past.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher talked to Heckler about how the story made it to the screen and his process for crafting real life events on the page.

John Bucher: How did you become aware of Mike Burden and this story?

Andrew Heckler: You know it’s a little surreal, I have to say. Mike Burden, as we speak, is texting me. The real Mike Burden, that is. He’s in Los Angeles for the first time ever, saying where am I going for lunch? How do I get off the bus?

All communication with Mike, for about fifteen years, has gone through me. In 1996, I saw a blurb in a small Southern newspaper that said “KKK shop opening on town square.” And I thought in 1996 that was nuts, you know? I mean, I thought that that kind of overt bigotry and racism was somewhat gone, but I put it in a folder to get back to it. But in 1997, before I got back to it, I read another article from that Southern newspaper that said “Klansmen sells KKK museum to Black Baptist Minister,” and frankly I almost fell off my chair. I thought, what the heck is going on in South Carolina?

So I picked up the phone and I called the Reverend Kennedy and I drove down and I spent ten days on my first trip down there getting to know the people, getting to know the reverend, getting to know the congregation, getting to know the town itself and what it felt about the story.

I came back home and I thought, you know what, if I’m really going to tell this story about a Klan family built on hate and a Klansman who leaves it, I better get to know the Klan family and Klansman a little bit. So, I went back down to Laurens, South Carolina, posing as a White supremacist and hung out with the guys in the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum for a while, and then subsequently started writing letters and met Mike Burden.

John Bucher: Wow. What a story. I’m curious how, as a writer, you took these newspaper articles and personal interactions and began to formulate them into a two-hour film?

Andrew Heckler: My process is a little different from most, and I guess the way I work as a writer is that I have a big pot and I fill it up with a stew, and that always helps for me. I have to see, smell, and touch what I’m working on, no matter what it is, honestly. So, having the articles, then having met with the reverend and heard the stories from the church and spent lots of time with a guy named Clarence Simpson (who Usher’s character is loosely based on) gave me what I needed.

Then I finally met Judy Burden and I got so much stuff in my stew that by the time I sat down to write it, it literally came out of me. The first draft was done in two weeks and for me, that is usually the most pleasurable experience. I’m not a big, huge fan of rewriting myself. It’s more painful for me.

John Bucher: I understand that. You’ve got stars like Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Tess Harper and Tom Wilkinson in the film. How were you able to pull all of this talent in to help you tell this story?

Andrew Heckler: Well, I think there’s a couple of factors at play. One is the story’s amazing and I think that the story means something, and it has a lot of resonance. And I think that people really wanted to play those roles. I mean, Mike Burden – it took us twenty years to get to the set of Burden, from the time when I wrote the screenplay. We had so many young actors who were hungry to play this role over the years. I joke around that we had the entire cast of The Avengers at one point or another cast as Mike Burden.

And that’s not really a joke. In 2006, we were ready to shoot the movie and we had cast a young actor named Channing Tatum and with him we had Woody Harrelson. And then we had Forest Whitaker signed on in 2006, and I just don’t think that he thought it would take ten years to get to the set when he signed on to do the movie. But he never let go. He always wanted to play the role. He was incredibly gracious and, honestly, I have an Academy Award nominated producer who was able to attract a lot of talent as well, but Forest became the magnet.

John Bucher: Let’s talk about the story. One of the things that I’m always amazed by is when good writers are able to take events and compress them in space and time. You mentioned that the Clarence Brooks character is based on someone that you met once you entered the story yourself. Can you talk about that process? Creating an amalgam of characters like Clarence Brooks while also compressing space and time?

Andrew Heckler: For sure. I mean I think that some people wish that I compressed space and time a little better than I do because I tend to write long and I tend to shoot a lot. In the original, the assembly of the movie was three hours and eight minutes. So we shot a three hour and eight minute movie in 27 days, which is crazy. But we did it. I will say that in terms of my process with that, I’ve studied screenwriting, but when I write something, I don’t subscribe to it all together that much. And that’s a blessing and a curse, too, because I don’t make it easy for the characters. I think that shooting things is very, very challenging. Whether it be alcohol or drugs or the Klan itself. I like to show that it’s not an easy journey and that takes a lot of hands in the pot.

John Bucher: How do you approach directing a legend like Tom Wilkinson, who plays a character that is, in many ways, a monster, the face of evil itself.

Andrew Heckler: So, it’s a pretty straight forward answer. I was an actor myself and I think when you are lucky enough and blessed enough to attract a cast that’s that talented, I think what you try to do, your main job as a director, is not only to get out of their way, but make them trust you as much as possible and then make them feel comfortable enough and respected and heard enough that they will give you their best performance.

That’s one of the things that I really, really made sure of as a former actor who knows how it feels to be on both sides of that equation. I gave my best when I felt like I was heard and respected. And I wanted to do that for all the actors who were willing to work with me on the movie.

As far as the specific question, I didn’t want to cast a bad guy. I didn’t want to cast anyone we thought was a bad guy that we think we see as a bad guy. I wanted to cast someone who we don’t see that way and that is Tom. Not only that, but I told Tom over and over and over again, although I don’t even know if I had to, “Look, I never want you to play a Klansman. I don’t want you to play a bad guy. I don’t want you to play evil. I want you to play a father who believes in his son.” And he took that direction to heart, so much so that some of the scenes not only give the character a humanity, but they seem extremely weird because he’s spewing the most vile, racist, and bigoted vitriol. But he’s doing it with such love and tenderness to his son, to try to get him to stay, that the scenes take on a very unusual life of their own.

John Bucher: Obviously there are some very straight forward themes in this story, but I was also struck how there are also more subtle and nuanced themes going on in this story. What is it that you hope people walk away from this film with?

Andrew Heckler: I don’t need anybody to think of a Klansman or a racist or a bigot as a human being that we sympathize with. It’s up for the audience to decide that. I do want us to open our eyes and open our ears and look at people. Because what I tried to do in the movie is to take the hood off the Klansmen so we see there’s a person under there, and if there’s a person under there who has learned this behavior, maybe they can change. No one’s born a racist. No one comes out of the womb with a Klan robe or a Nazi uniform. If you learn how to become a racist, if you’ve learned bigotry and racism, it can be unlearned, but it won’t happen unless we can see that there’s a person there.

At the end of the movie, you see the real Mike Burden. He says it best where he says, “She (Judy) changed me. She saw that little bitty hole in me and she kept chipping at that hole until it got bigger and bigger and bigger.” What I want audiences to take away from this movie is to look for the hole. We just have to start looking for that hole again or else we’re never going to chip away at it and we’re just going to stay on a one-way street down towards hatred and vitriol, which is where we are today.

Burden is playing in theaters nationwide.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

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