Mike Gan is an up and coming Chinese-American film director. With only a few short films under his belt, he makes his feature debut with the contained thriller Burn. Set entirely at a gas station, it stars Josh Hutcherson, Suki Waterhouse, and in a breakthrough role, Tilda Cobham-Hervey.
We spoke to Gan about being inspired by the Coen Brothers and keeping a film with limited locations visually-interesting.
Keep an eye out for Burn when it hits theaters and Video On Demand Friday, August 23.
LRM Online: Hi, Mike. Nice to meet you. I saw Burn and I really enjoyed it. Congrats on getting a feature made. It’s a pretty big accomplishment.
Gan: Thank you. Yeah, it definitely is. I’m really thankful for that.
LRM Online: Now, I’m curious, is this your first feature or was it the episode of Into the Dark that you directed? Since those are feature-length, as well.
Gan: This is definitely my first feature. We shot this last February. And I shot Into the Dark earlier this year.
LRM Online: Did this lead to that? Had the producers seen Burn before you got hired on to that?
Gan: They, the producers, watched this movie and heard my pitch, and it definitely was because of Burn that I was hired.
LRM Online: You’re in pretty good company there. They had a few seasoned vets directing that show like Patrick Lussier and Nacho Vigalondo but then a lot of up-and-comers like you and Chelsea Stardust. It’s an interesting mix of directors that they had.
Gan: It was a really fun process in that they, the producers at Blumhouse, are just wonderful, and I really appreciated them taking a chance. Looking for different voices. I’m really grateful that they took a chance on me and let me direct one of the episodes.
LRM Online: I’ve heard good things about yours and a couple of others. I hope to get a chance to check them out and hopefully, that will come back for another season on Hulu. Onto Burn, which is what we’re here to talk about. It’s a contained thriller, as they say, limited location. Pretty much just one, the convenience store. What was the mix of location vs. set, or was it entirely shot at a real convenience store?
Gan: It was all shot in upstate New York in a gas station, other than the break room. That we shot on a sound stage a couple of miles away.
LRM Online: How did you find the right actress, Tilda Cobham-Hervey, to play Melinda?
Gan: Well she read the script and she was interested in meeting and we talked. When I met her and heard the way she talked about the script and the story with as much curiosity and enthusiasm for it, I was very much convinced. I think it’s definitely not an easy role to take on and there are some things in it that could go bad, but you know I mean it’s amazing. She’s one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met, and she is very opposite of Melinda in many ways. At first, it was hard to imagine, but when we first started hearing her read and going through it, it was just like instant. It was just like, oh my god. Take this character. Like it wasn’t even you are Melinda as much as whatever you are, that’s the route we should go with. She’s incredible in the movie.
LRM Online: I would put her on the shortlist of great female movie villains. She’s a little more complicated and possibly misunderstood, though. But she’s kind of on par with Kathy Bates in Misery or the Lola character from the Aussie horror film The Loved Ones. She definitely reminded me of them.
Gan: Yeah, she’s got all the nuances, because we didn’t want to make a character of just some crazy person. That wasn’t what we were interested in. There’s some truth in Melinda, despite some of the things that she does that just haunt me when I watch it.
LRM Online: That character is very out there but you can kind of understand her motivations. You take what a normal person would do times ten. I was curious to see if you had any film inspirations for the look of it. Were there any other contained thrillers, like say ATM or Phone Booth, that served as inspiration for you?
Gan: You know we watched some movies for practical reasons like Compliance, which was set in a fast food store, but overall it was the tone that I loved more of it. I’ve always been very inspired by Coen Brothers movies and Fargo. The tone of Fargo was very influential in the entire process. In a way, it was putting very flawed characters, that are very true to themselves, in just absurd and horrific situations and trying to see them make sense of it. We watched that, and we decided to shoot the movie ambitiously. We watched movies like Prisoners to see about widening the lenses and really keeping the characters interactive in the space. But we ultimately knew, we shot the movie in 15 days, we knew that we had to prioritize things. Performance was definitely the highest priority. Trying to figure out how to not do too much but still do enough. Obviously, we had to make the movie visually interesting and have the drama and characters still be interesting.
LRM Online: In regards to Officer Liu, I was just curious if it was important to you since it was such a small cast to make sure that one of the actors was Asian or Asian American? Is that something you take into account when you’re writing?
Gan: That’s definitely something I always take into account, and its great to see that the industry is changing. For Officer Liu, who is somebody who is a fish out of water type of character in that situation, it was great. Harry Shum jumped in at the last minute and took on the role. It was very important. It was great that he did it.
Burn hits theaters and Video On Demand Friday, August 23.
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