SXSW Interview: Austin native Aaron Burns chats about his new Latino horror film, Madre and the need to create

Hot on the heels of the news that the global streaming rights to his new horror film Madre had been picked up by Netflix at SXSW 2017, our own Larry Heath sat down with the film’s director Aaron Burns for a chat that spans his career-to-date,  his process, a never-ending desire to create and the influences that made Madre the film it is.

How did the premiere screening go the other night?

We had a great screening on Saturday, and now we are about to show our movie again here. I’m really excited to be here.

You mentioned just before I started recording that you’ve got a lot of friends, people you respect, who are coming to the screening tonight. Was there ever any doubt in your mind that you wanted to premier it here at South By?

A little bit. Yeah. This is my third time that I’ve been here, and just because it’s kind of hard, I’m from here, I grew up here in Austin, and I had my first short here and my first feature here it South By, and it’s kind of like that hometown boy thing. I live in Santiago, Chile, now, and I have for the last five years, so that’s kind of where I call home, and Austin’s my hometown. Coming back here to see friends and family, do a little bit of organisation on my storage unit, stuff like that, that’s kind of how I see Austin now. When I come here, I’ve been here with those other two festivals with movies, and it’s kind of like you get those hometown claps, and you get oh, he’s a local, you know. I was a little trepidatious to come back for that because it’s not that it’s disingenuous, it’s just that it’s a little too like maybe people from the outside don’t buy it. They’re like oh, well, it’s because he’s from here, that’s why they’re clapping, this movie sucks.

In this case, it’s a movie from another country. It would qualify for a foreign film thing if it was in the Golden Globes. It’s not a language that’s in the English language, I mean it’s not a movie that’s in the English language, it’s Spanish, and it’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done. At the end of the day I do feel a lot more comfortable premiering it here. I know everybody here at the festival so well. That trepidation led me to not want to send the movie here, but my producer, who’s one of my best friends, Nicholas Lopez, and his producing partner, Miguel Ascencio, who’s also a producer on this film, they sent it anyway, behind my back. I didn’t know that they had sent it until we got the reception email.
I saw Jarred Niece the other day who’s the kind of like number two around here with Janet Pearson, and he was like dude, your film’s great, I really dig it, like you’re growing so much, I’m so excited for you. We were just talking, and he was like you didn’t even tell us you were submitting.

Like I was watching this movie, and I’m like who directed this, and I saw Aaron Burns, like what the hell is this, he didn’t even tell us he was submitting. I felt really good that it got in without, because I know people here, I know a lot of the festival people because I grew up in this film scene, so I could do a phone call and ask for a favour and all that kind of stuff, but the fact that I didn’t have to because I didn’t know to because nobody told me is really kind of uplifting, and I really feel kind of humbled by the fact that we’re here with the film, and I get to come back and kind of try my hand again with all this.

There was an aspect of this film that sort of felt like the film you’d always wanted to make, a stylistic thriller, horror, psychological, all those sorts of elements that you’d kind of worked in other films with from a visual effects aspect and otherwise. How much of that is the case, that this sort of genre film, not that I’d even call it a genre film, but existing in those genre worlds that you’d wanted to explore?

First and foremost, in order to enter the genre of things that frighten and disturb people, which you can call horror, you can call it thrilling, you can call it terror, it has so many different kind of names …

Real life at the moment.

Yeah, totally, but in order to enter into that realm, like I’m not a mystical person, I don’t believe in ghosts and monsters and demon possession, that kind of stuff doesn’t scare me at all. Like when I see a movie like that maybe a jump scare will get me, or like a tense moment, but for the most part the concept of the creepy thing that’s in the house doesn’t scare me, like zero. In order to enter into the genre and be honest about it I had to come at it from a position of what scares me. In order to make something creepy for other people I had to see what scares me so that I could do it honestly and do it to its fullest. That is the types of decisions that force you to make decisions, or the types of situations that force you to make decisions that allow people close to you, and allow people close to your house, close to your children, close to your brain, close to your mental and physical health.

People in close proximity that you haven’t had a good chance to kind of judge who they are, but you’re just opening your door to them carte blanch, that’s always frightened the hell out of me. Like in this movie, this woman has a severely autistic son who she’s at her wit’s end with, and everyday he’s getting stronger because he’s eleven-years-old, and about to go through puberty, and everyday her mobility and her patience is lacking because she’s pregnant, and she’s all alone. Her husband works in Asia, and their relationship is basically over Face Time. When she happens across this maid, this nanny, that is good with the kid, she kind of sees it as a godsend.

As the woman starts helping the kid, her jealousy increases with the fact that the kid’s never spoken a word up to this point, he’s eleven-years-old, and within eleven days this maid has done something that she couldn’t do in eleven years. They’re speaking in a language that she doesn’t understand because that’s what the woman speaks better. She doesn’t know how to speak Spanish very well, so she teaches him in Filipino, which is where she’s from, the Philippines.
It’s kind of an interesting dynamic. It’s right for drama and jealousy and all those good things. I was really happy to be making something where it allows the characters moments to breathe, to have time for themselves, and the actors to find the deepest emotion of the scene, and kind of really understand. We’re kind of up against the wire. This is the fastest I’ve ever shot a movie. We made this thing in thirteen days.

 I imagine years went into the process before then.

No.

No, really?

No. The thing about how we work in Chile, I work with a production company called Sobras, and we’ve made tonnes of movies. We’ve made movies like Green Inferno, and we’ve made movies like Knock Knock with Keanu Reeves, Eli Roth’s last two movies were with us, and we make about five movies a year for Chile, for Mexico, for different places like that. We’ve made four English language movies so far.

You’re not directing these films.

No, I’m not directing. I’m working in the crew. We’re constantly doing stuff. I have no plans to stop working crew. I dig working crew, I love it. I love working with my people and shooting movies, being camera operator, and just like always being up on the latest trends in tech, and all kinds of stuff like that. At the same time, I really do like directing, and the way we can shoot movies down there in thirteen days is it’s something where we control everything from the idea to the DCP. We literally can do everything in house, all the visual effects, all the editing, all the colour, all the DCP, all the sound, all the everything. We’re not beholden or waiting for anybody. We have the money, we have the funding, all the stuff that we want to do.

Anytime that a project comes about, and in this case it was Miguel and Lopez always making fun of me for being like oh, you’re a fake director, you keep on saying I’m such a great writer, blah blah blah, oh, where’s your script, when are you going to do your next movie, and they ribbed me for like a year and a half. I’m just like man, you guys are jerks, man.

I used to go work out at this gym everyday that has a swimming pool next to it, and you can order lunch or whatever there, and they were hitting me, hitting me, hitting me with those jokes, and so one day I sat down and for the next month and a half I just wrote the script, like I’ll show them. Within a month and a half I had something to present. I wrote it in English because it’s my first language, but I do speak fluent Spanish. Once that kind of got approved, I translated to Spanish and we really got going with the movie.

Yeah, man, it’s been a cool process, and I’m just happy to be here, man.

From everything you told me as well it seems like so much of the direction that the film took was because you were trying to make a film for yourself, a film that would scare you.

Yeah, exactly. The concept of somebody, because everybody has that relationship with someone who has manipulated your emotions, or manipulated you into doing something you didn’t want to do, or lied to you, or set you up to fail at something, everybody has that relationship. I don’t know too many people that have relationships with monsters and ghosts, those kind of experiences. I think this is much more human and visceral kind of thing that everyone can relate to, whereas those other movies they’re just kind of like supernatural, and a little bit more foreign to people, and maybe that’s why it scares them.

Being able to make a movie that is something that people can relate to is something that everybody has experiences with is definitely a positive, I think.

You mentioned that you’re not going to stop working in crews, but will you continue directing?

Oh, definitely. Yeah, that’ll be my main focus right now. I mean I’m also an actor, so I was in the Green Inferno, I was in Knock Knock, and I’ve been in movies, The Stranger, little cameos that I cannot really talk about in Eli Roth’s new movie, and just like a lot of fun stuff. I really enjoy collaborating, and just being on set with friends, and bullshitting, and just talking about fun stuff, and joking around, and just trying to be oil to the motor of the machine of making movies.

You must still be at that point in your career where you’re still learning a lot, as well, from the Eli Roths and the Robert Rodriguezes.

One hundred percent, dude. I started out here in Austin, working at Troublemaker Studios for Robert Rodriguez, and the first thing I ever worked on was like some graphic design stuff for Sin City, and nobody knew who I was. I was just like some intern, sweeping the floors, getting coffee, and kind of doing a little bit of graphic design here and there. That one day moved into a full time position at …

Did he have you do a painting for him?

Oh, yeah. Well, that was definitely something that we did later on, during Grindhouse. He does this therapeutic painting thing. Yeah, he’s a big artist, man. I’ve known that guy for a long time, and he’s always been like somebody who feels like he needs to get his ideas out through drawing or through writing. He has a piece of paper in front of him, he’s nervously kind of like doodling, or not nervously, just constantly. It’s a tic. Like it’s a tick I have, I don’t know if you noticed the whole time, I always have like my knee shaking. I don’t know if that’s something I need to get checked out by a doctor, but I’ve noticed that with a lot of guys.

Quentin does that, Eli has has, Nicholas Lopez has that because he’s only thirty-four and he’s directed twelve movies. There’s a lot of kind of not nervous energy but just like intensity of thought that if you’re saying something or doing something else part of your brain is still working out and churning through another idea, and so maybe it works out to the leg, like vibrate or whatever.

Literally not being able to sit still.

Exactly, not being able to sit still. When I’m on the phone, I’m walking. I’d walk this entire floor of the hotel. I cannot sit down and talk to anybody on the phone. It’s very difficult for me. Because you have this microphone and we’re not in a super portable setup, we’re not walking right now and talking.

Ideally we’d be like in a West Wing scenario…

Exactly, yeah, we’re constantly going somewhere. I don’t know. We’re going to the situation room. I do like being in motion, and constantly getting a little bit of a change of scenery, and being outside, and trying to do different stuff.

I recently started, I have an electric scooter, and I started making electric scooters like as a hobby.

As one does. Where do you fit in time to do that?

Because it’s fun. I don’t know. I do it in the middle of the night. I only sleep like four hours a night. I started making electric scooters because I live in a very urban city. Santiago, Chile, is a very urban city. It’s eight million people all crammed together in like a few hundred square miles. It’s really nothing. Being able to get around the city quickly is great, and I ride my electric scooter around everywhere, and that’s where I think, that’s where I come up with a lot of ideas. I do that a lot, I ride my eclectic scooter to the mall and back, to the grocery store and back, just for fun.

It seems like people are doing things with your film that you don’t realise they’re doing, so you might not even know, but what are the plans for the film beyond here? We already know part of that answer… it’s going to Netflix at the end of the year.

Oh, yeah. It will be on Netflix at the end of the year.

Congratulations on that. I meant to lead with that.

Yeah, I’m super excited about what’s happening there, but in the meantime we have a lot of work to do because our first market for this film is Chile, and the domestic release is coming up in April, so April 27th we release wide domestically in Chile. That’s where we’ll recoup the majority of our money, and we’ll make the most noise hopefully. The cool thing is that now being considered a foreign director in a way, it gives me more clout to go and pursue projects here in the United States again, as well.

Congratulations on the film, and look forward to seeing what comes next for you.

Yeah, man. If you guys get a chance, check out Madre on Netflix, if you’re reading this sometime in the distant future.

Madre screened at SXSW and will debut exclusively on Netflix in late 2017.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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