Burden Interview: Director Andrew Heckler On This KKK-Centered Film

LRM Online recently had a chance to sit down and speak with Andrew Heckler. Heckler was the writer and director of the film Burden. The story follows an orphan named Mike Burden who was raised by the Ku Klux Klan.

Below is the official synopsis for the film:

“Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker (The Butler, Black Panther) and Garrett Hedlund (Mudbound) star in a powerful and timely true-story of faith and love overcoming hate. Set in a small South Carolina town scarred from deep-rooted racism in the mid-nineties, an unlikely friendship forms when an African American Reverend (Whitaker) shelters Mike Burden (Hedlund) a KKK member, along with his girlfriend Judy, a single mother played by Andrea Riseborough.  Through his faith and love, Reverend Kennedy helps Mike leave his violent past in the Klan ultimately helping to heal the community.”

Check out our full interview with Heckler down below and you can see Burden in select theaters on February 28!

LRM Online: It’s a pleasure to sit down and discuss Burden with you. I mean, you have this guy, Mike Burden had … Even his last name, the title, it came in perfect.

Heckler: It’s sort of amazing, right? I had another working title and I was sitting with my partner at the time working on it and he kept saying like, “I love one word titles for movies, what could possibly be?” And we sat there for a while and I went, “What are we stupid? His last name was Burden.” The whole thing is about everybody’s shared burden here and how to overcome it.

LRM Online: Yeah. Because I was like, “Oh, this is a good title.” And then I’m watching him like, “Wait a minute, that’s his last name.”

Heckler: That’s his last name.

LRM Online: Yeah, and for starters, you took a full on load. And for first time, writer, directing and then it’s based on a true story, which can be a little more critical and a little intimidating.

Heckler: Yeah.

LRM Online: Why this story?

Heckler: In 1996, ’97, I had a theater company in New York and I would put ideas aside, but when I first heard this story about a Klan shop and KKK museum opening in a small Southern town in 1996, I literally almost fell over. I thought, “1990? It sounds like 1950s, 19 early 60’s when this all was going on.” And most movies are sort of about that era. And then when I read a Klansman sold the redneck shop and KKK museum to a black Baptist minister, I went down there. I actually drove down to South Carolina to see what was going on down there. And once you go down there and once you meet the people that did this … sort of these heroes that did this really, really brave thing. And once you get to know them and once you get to see what’s going on down there, I just knew, it meant so much to me, the story.

It was so simple. It was just really simple, “Do unto others as others would do unto you.” And you can never turn an enemy into a friend through hate, only turn enemy into friend through love. And so I just thought if it meant this much to me, that it’s going to mean this much to everybody else and I really wanted to tell it.

LRM Online: Well, and then what were some difficulties you had for starting as the writer and writing the script?

Heckler: You know, it’s funny, I’ve had lots of problems writing things in my life as a writer, this was not one of them. I read the story, I went down there, I spent weeks down there and when I actually sat down to my computer … At that point, it was not much of a computer in 97, to write the treatment, the outline of the story, it just literally came out of me. And I wrote the first draft I think in two and a half weeks.

LRM Online: So it was really coming out of the heart?

Heckler: Yeah. I just put my … I started writing and I just didn’t stop until it was done and it just came out of me. There’s no other way to say it. I didn’t think about it too much, I wrote it. I could see the movie and I wrote the movie.

LRM Online: So when did you know this was something you wanted to bring into the picture, starting as a writer? When, what moment? If we were to go back-

Heckler: When I got down there.

LRM Online: Okay.

Heckler: Really it was the story really, really got to me.

LRM Online: So you already had the intention of writing and producing something?

Heckler: Well, I had a theater company in Manhattan.

LRM Online: Okay.

Heckler: So I had a theater company in New York where we were writing, directing, doing theater. I was acting mostly, I was doing a lot of acting at that point. And truly my manager, my acting manager at the time, because I didn’t really love coming out to LA and acting, he said, “You should write. You’re the kind of person who should write.” And I wrote a screenplay and then this was my second ever attempt to write anything.

LRM Online: Oh, okay, okay.

Heckler: But I really … I thought it was … After I finished writing Burden, I was like, “Ah, writing screenplays are easy.” Because this was so part of me, something was so important to me that it just came out. I didn’t realize it was not that easy.

LRM Online: Okay. So you say that you did get a chance to interact with the real character, real life characters. How did you approach them? When you went and drove and asking, wondering, weren’t they kind of skeptical or maybe they were used to it? I don’t know at this point.

Heckler: No, zero used to it. Well, the reverend, I called him and I asked him if I could come down. He said, “It’s a free country.” And I came and I spent a lot of time with him and he was very gracious and the congregation was gracious. I spent a ton of time in that church, in the kitchens, watching them dance and sing and the joy that they had was unbelievable. I felt bad about myself. I’m like, “I have so much stuff materially and these people have joy,” which is eye opening and I tried to put that in the movie a little bit, about how much fun they have with each other. But as far as Judy goes, she didn’t want me to find her.

LRM Online: Oh, interesting.

Heckler: She didn’t want this and she remains a very private. They did this thing, she wasn’t aware of the magnitude of what it could mean to people when she did it, she was just doing the right thing. That’s who she is. She’s the same person you see on screen. She didn’t want to make … She wasn’t excited about me telling this story to the masses. She likes her privacy, but I tracked her down and I’ll never forget, I found out that her daughter worked at a gas station.

LRM Online: Okay.

Heckler: And I called the gas station and she picked up the phone and I said, “Hi, I’d like to speak to Stacy.” She goes, “I know who you are.” And so eventually, this is a true story, I had to go to that gas station and I think Stacy said, “I’m not going to tell you where we live. You’re just going to have to follow me.” And so I drove and followed her to this house in the woods and at one point when I was driving in there, I’m going, “Hmm, this may not be the smartest thing I can possibly do.” But when I got there, Judy was there and she couldn’t have been more lovely and nice and wonderful to me.

And I’d spent a lot of time also researching the Klan and getting to … At one point, I actually went to the redneck shop and KKK museum and told them that I was a white nationalist from Colorado. And I spent the day there with them. So I’d got to know them a little bit, and I just don’t think I could have written the movie without at least interacting with those guys and getting to know who they were. And as vile as the ideology is and as vile as the rhetoric is, you know what? They’re people there. They’re not monsters, they’re people. And so that was really informative on how to create the movie, not only writing, but directing as well.

LRM Online: So now going on as a director, what were some surprises that you came across being your first time directing, once you were hands on?

Heckler: Yeah, surprises … I’m not really … Nothing surprising, in terms of the directing, comes in the top of my head. I focused on the acting and coming from the theater, that was my first and foremost concern was the actors. I got incredibly lucky because the actors that we cast in this movie couldn’t have been …

LRM Online: Outstanding cast.

Heckler: It’s amazing, right?

LRM Online: You got huge names in there.

Heckler: Yeah, just amazing. And there’s uber talent, incredibly talented. And I think that because I’d been after this for over 16 years, that they saw my passion for the story. They all met the real people. So they saw the responsibility to the real people that tell the story and it made them not only use their talent, but all their effort. I mean they all came with so much preparation, so ready to do the movie that it made my job really easy.

I will say that it is a little daunting as a first time director when your two leads have both been nominated and won Academy Awards, amongst other things. But I will also say that the 16 years that I had and the 18 years that I had since I first heard of the story, to when I started filming, I’m not a child. I have three kids of my own now. I didn’t when I first heard the story. And I think that that grasp of sort of reality, like my reality’s my family and my kids. So to go and direct a movie was sort of fun. It just became something that was fun and as important as it was, we were there to do something positive. And when you have that mission, I think everybody pitches in and no one wants to sort of disrupt that process.

LRM Online: Is there anything that, in particular, that you had a chance to … some of this talent to improvise in, that you were kind of like, “Oh, that would work better than maybe what I had in my mind?”

Heckler: So it’s a good question. And there’s one … We improvised a lot. I was never precious with the script. I wanted to get what I wanted to get, but above and beyond that, we would just have fun. I thought it was really important for the actors, especially because of how talented that they were, to get in the spaces that we found for them, locations and just sort of find their own way for a while with the lines and with the interaction with each other and sort of block themselves naturally. And then we would set parameters for the camera. So it was actors first in terms of that.

So there’s one particular scene that I’d seen in my head so clearly for 16 years. I knew everything about it, I knew the shades, I knew the lighting, I knew the setup, I knew how it was supposed to look, I knew when each character was supposed to say what they were supposed to say and how they were supposed to say it. It was the one scene I really had in my head done. I’d seen it too many times. And we’re about to film it, literally about to film it, and Andrea Riseborough, the actress who played Judy came up and said, “I’d like to try it a different way.”

And I thought, “Any other scene but this one,” and … Thank you so much. And so the funny thing was is I said, “You know what …” I tried to tell her that I’d seen the scene. I said, “I’ll tell you what, why don’t you do it your way, if you promise you’ll do it my way after.” And she said, “Sure.” And she did the scene differently than I envisioned it. And I sat there watching her do her thing and so we yelled … I was what they call a late cut person. So I would just let things run because I was enjoying it. I’d never sat in the monitor, I’d always … And they said, “Cut.” And she came over, she goes, “Okay, thank you so much, and now let’s do it your way.” And I went, “We don’t have to.” That’s it.

LRM Online: She crushed it.

Heckler: That’s the way to do it.

And that was sort of early on in the shoot. And that informed me of a lot, is that I know what I know and I know what I don’t know now. So between the two somewhere, is the best project, the best moments.

LRM Online: So now that the film’s been out, what feedback have you gotten from the real life characters?

Heckler: So, so far so good. The reverend has seen the movie, Mike has seen the movie, Judy has seen the movie.

LRM Online: What do they say?

Heckler: Mike really likes the movie. In fact, Mike … They’re removed from it by 20 years, even more now. But I think Mike actually learned a lot about himself from the movie. He said to me, “It was funny watching the movie because I thought those people, all my friends, all those people back then respected me. They didn’t respect me, they feared me, but they didn’t respect me.” And that was cool to hear the real person talking like that. And I also said, “How do you feel about watching yourself?” And he said, “I was never good with it. I was good with you, but I was never good with telling my story.” He said, “But now I realize that that person that’s in your movie, that person’s dead and buried to me. So it’s okay for me to watch him and it’s okay for you to tell this story, because this story means something. And it doesn’t mean it reflects me anymore, that person’s gone, he doesn’t exist.”

LRM Online: You gave him closure in a way.

Heckler: Yeah. It was sort of cool. And Judy and her daughter saw it together and they loved it. They just thought it was beautiful. And the Reverend Kennedy, I think he also really likes it. I think that for him it’s tough having lived through that whole … it’s not just that moment, it’s the totality of that time and it hasn’t gone away for him. I’ll never forget when he came to the set and he first saw some of the scenes and I’ll never forget watching him walk into the woods and sort of sit there like this on a log with his head down and his hand over his face.

It was very emotional for him to relive that time period. And I think it’s very … it’s tough for us all, for him especially and the congregation. But we just screened it for his congregation in South Carolina and I think people were overwhelmingly positive towards it.

LRM Online: So to finalize, I know this was out 2018?

Heckler: It was at Sundance.

LRM Online: So where can people watch it now?

Heckler: So it was at Sundance in 2018 where it won the Audience Award and then it won Audience in Nantucket and then it just got stuck in sort of a lack of distribution just for no particular reason of the film-

LRM Online: It wants to be out there. It was a great story.

Heckler: Well thanks. It comes out February 28th in New York and LA. And then week by week, it expands from there to more cities and more cities and more cities. And so we can only hope that … it’s just a simple …. If people go see the movie, it’ll keep expanding and keep staying in theaters.

LRM Online: Great. Well, thank you. And great lines. One of my favorite was the one from Judy, several, but this one where she says like, “We’re poor white trash just trying to step on them to make ourselves feel better.” And the irony is that in the film, you have like the reverend, more knowledgeable and more educated versus to Tom Griffin.

Heckler: Right. It’s true. There’s this whole notion that … white savior movies and all. I like to say that this is a black savior movie in that it’s Mike who need saving. It’s for the first time we’re trying to show that it’s not always … it’s not always a one way street. In this instance that this guy … and Clarence said it to me, the real Clarence said, “I feel sorry for them boys, because they’re not supposed to be like that. So everybody treats them worse than they treat us.” Clarence is the black played by Usher.

LRM Online: Usher, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Heckler: And the real Clarence said that to me and I thought he was nuts to say that, but he felt it. And so this movie really tries to open up that conversation, that it isn’t always a one way street. And yeah, Judy’s line, it’s pretty much the meaning of the movie, is you just … Racism, bigotry, it becomes senseless. It just becomes a habit, it becomes habitual, where you don’t think like, “Okay so …” And she says to him, “So let’s say you chased all the blacks out of Lawrence, then what?” And he never thought about it, and he says, “I don’t know.” Because yeah, then what happens? You win. “Let’s say you win, then what?” She says and then she says, “We’d still be white trash with no one to step on and make us feel better.”

LRM Online: Yeah.

Heckler: And that is sort of the message of it, is just stop for a second and really think about what we’re doing. There’s no winner.

Burden hits select theaters tomorrow!

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