BURNING MAN: notes on the ideas behind the birth of a film script.
Many things happen to you when you lose your life partner of twelve years, the mother of your child, the woman you love most in the world, to cancer, and you suddenly find yourself alone and single and middle aged.
Of all the stuff that happens, that you feel and see and experience, two very powerful and contrasting things sweep you up, and for a period of time throw you all over the place, making it impossible to find or even imagine a solid place to land.
The first thing that happens is that you are sad, very sad, in fact so sad that it compounds and confronts every thing you attempt to do in your daily life.
Basically it’s called grieving. And you don’t take a step without that grief being with you and along for the ride. It hits you like an emotional tidal wave that spits you out and immediately sucks you back in, all at the same time.
The pain, the confusion, the loneliness, and the sorrow totally colonise every waking moment, and you sleep so poorly that day often becomes one long journey into night.
There is no escape.
In fact, perhaps perversely, you don’t want to escape, and even though it is devastating and raw and even shocking, the emotional upheaval it causes at least still allows the connection you had with that person who has gone to feel intact, something you desperately cling on to and need.
The second thing that happens is that you are simultaneously swept up by a totally unexpected and unexplainable sense of elation, as the domesticated, routine life of middle age ceases to exist, and you are, somehow miraculously, set free into a new world where you truly are the
centre of your own existence.
And you realise, in an utterly chaotic and random manner that you can do and be anything that you want, where your old life and old responsibilities seem to just disappear and you are set free.
This of course is an illusion, but for a brief and wonderful time a mysterious door opens up for you and you get to look in through to a new world you never knew existed. A world where you are unleashed and open, to say and do and behave however you want, it is a world where you realise you can do whatever you like and get away with it, because your ‘situation’ allows it.
Grief is a cocktail of deep hurt and sadness and an out of control sense
of freedom that is the roller coaster ride that takes you out of death and
darkness to eventually, rediscover life.
Suddenly you have a licence, a ‘get out of jail free card’. It sets you free.
In retrospect, that door stays invitingly open for but a brief and xhilarating time, but it is an opportunity to rekindle and refocus the rest of your life. It’s a life lesson that reminds you of what freedom and fearlessness taste like, and which, if you decide to take it on board, can reenergise and sustain the rest of your life.
Grief is a cocktail of deep hurt and sadness and an out of control sense of freedom that is the roller coaster ride that takes you out of death and darkness to, eventually, rediscover life.
All of which seemed to me to be the type of energy and drama that would make a confronting, entertaining, and ultimately life affirming film, which is what I set out to make.
Burning Man is about Tom, a thirty-something year old man who loses his wife to cancer and descends into the mother of all mid life crisis.
It is very much a point-of-view film, in which the audience is taken on both a physical and emotional roller coaster ride, as Tom’s increasingly erratic behaviour colonises every corner of his life.
Tom is a chef who runs his own distinguished restaurant, but very soon his ability to cope and behave responsibly is overtaken by his reckless desires, his growing impatience, and the increasing realisation that he simply just doesn’t care any more.
So Burning Man is a film that sails close to the edge, a visceral experience in which the audience is plunged with Tom out into the night time streets as he prowls the city unable to sleep, unable to even go home, his hedonistic desires fuelled by the rawness of what he feels, in a vain attempt to keep the pain at bay.
In keeping with Tom’s fractured emotional state, I decided to write Burning Man with a structure that reflected this.
As such, the film uncoils itself not in a naturalistic or linear way, but rather, employs a structure that allows Tom to crash and confront his emotional state in a very spontaneous and immediate way.
I wanted Burning Man to be raw and impressionistic, and full of the ‘other world’ that Tom occupies as he tries to make sense of what is happening to him.
Similarly, the structure allows the film to unravel in a way in which key elements of the story are revealed to surprise and contradict the audience’s expectations and the judgements they make about Tom.
So the film opens on a man out of control, seemingly careering through his life with little regard for his responsibilities and the people around him.
We get a sense that he has an ex-wife/partner whom he is separated from, but it is not until we get well into Tom’s downward trajectory that we discover he also has a nine year old son, much to the anger of one of the woman he is sleeping with.
So is Tom a man going through a mid life crisis, juggling the responsibility of parenthood with a woman who has left him?
Tom continues his seemingly out of control rampage, in conflict with his ability to look after or even care for his son, when suddenly we are plunged even deeper into Tom’s emotional world.
Tom is arrested for his part in a fight in a park, as he prepares his son Oscar’s birthday party, and we are suddenly confronted with what lies at the bottom of Tom’s behaviour when Oscar reveals to a policewoman that his mother died recently from cancer.
So if the screenplay for Burning Man could be defined in three acts, it would roughly be structured in this way:
Tom is out of control, a mid-life crisis that abandons most of his responsibilities and fuels all of his desires. Then halfway through the act, we discover Tom has a son, whom he struggles to look after, and who goes to stay/live with Karen, who, up until this point we have been led to believe is Tom’s ex wife and Oscar’s mother.
At the end of the act we reveal the real context…
Karen is Oscar’s aunt, sister to Tom’s wife, and Oscar’s real mother Sarah, has recently passed away.
The film now flashes back to Tom and Sarah’s relationship, their intimacy, the arrival of Oscar, and her illness. Inter-cut with this, are a continuation of the relationships established in act one, which further deepen and reveal the breakdown of Tom’s life.
The film further explores Tom’s deepening isolation and loneliness, and his increasing inability to maintain his work and his relationship with his son.
It also charts Tom’s increasing retreat from any intimacy, and his increasing desire for fleeting, hedonistic experiences.
Tom is set adrift, struggling to even maintain any semblance of normality.
Tom’s emotional state reaches rock bottom. But it also coincides with his changing feelings as time catches up with him, and the realisation that he can no longer simply neglect the life he appears to have just cast aside.
As the passage of time begins to take the edge off the rawness of his emotional state, so his realisation that he can increasingly, no longer do and ‘get away with’ anything he wants, he can no longer sustain his behaviour.
A realisation also dawns on him that he must reclaim his son Oscar, and the responsibility for loving and looking after him, and that he must start to build a new a family for each other.
In a sense, Oscar brings Tom back to planet earth, and Tom’s ability to land and take care of Oscar is ultimately his redemption.
As the structure intimately circles and reflects Tom’s behaviour it begins to
unwind and starts to reveal the context of many of the relationships, with a series of women, that Tom has encountered through the course of the film.
His desires are dampened as he fights a losing battle to rediscover the intimacy he once shared with Sarah, sex leaving him more isolated and alone.
Dramatically, a monumental event takes place and Tom is confronted with his own mortality which snaps him out of his selfish, destructive rampage, and brings him back to the here and now, realising what he must do and allowing him to fulfill Sarah’s expectations of him.
Which is, for Tom to reclaim life from the tragedy of her death.
Through out the film, Tom tears around in his little ‘VW Beetle’, a battle ground for his increasing agitation, frustrations and grief. When he collides with another car, crossing an intersection, he is badly injured and ends up in a coma in hospital during one crucial night.
Tom awakes the next morning, and suddenly, from out of his despair and sadness he sees that nothing is more important than to care for and love his little son.
Momentum is the key to this film, and influenced all aspects of what went into making it.
It is a very clear single point of view film in which we follow Tom on his ‘heart of darkness journey’, as he searches for light.
We are always with him as he collides with other characters and other lives, it is an emotional dodgem car ride, as he crashes and lurches and rebounds through his life, desperate in his search for what he has lost, happy to give his desires full reign, unable to satisfy his hunger and his rage.
So this sense of momentum greatly influences my approach in establishing a visual style that would best suit the telling of Tom’s story.
The camera needs to be mobile, capturing in a visceral way all textures and details that cross Tom’s path, I want the audience to see and feel what Tom sees and feels, as the camera moves with Tom through his world.
It is very important though that the visual style does not get in the way of key emotional moments, and that it has the inherent ability to come to rest and take in the subtlest nuances of Tom’s emotional state.
However, this is not a wild “hand held” extravaganza. Rather it is the cameras ability to be as if one with Tom’s emotional life, where we use his action and physical life to capture his journey.
When light breaks in through this, it should be
bright and harsh, as it cracks through a thick
shadow layer, before being shut out again.
As Tom descends into his own dark world, so the naturalistic world around him should reflect this, with the shadows and darkness closing in around him, almost to claustrophobic effect.
When light breaks in through this, it should be bright and harsh, as it cracks through a thick shadow layer, before being shut out again.
Then as Tom begins to emerge from his grief, and begins to reclaim his life, the film starts to bath more fully in a warmer glow, the shadows are illuminated, and the darkness that traps Tom through much of the film begins to open out and release him from it’s grasp.
As I say, I really wanted this film to be a very visceral experience for the audience, when Tom is drawn into darkness, so are we. When Tom squints from the brightness, so do we.
Likewise, a big part of Tom’s experience, and hence our experience of the film, will be the richness of the textures of sound and vision. This should have an almost semi-abstracted or impressionistic feel as we are taken on a journey that is difficult to determine exactly where reality begins, and Tom’s emotional subconscious ends.
There is to be a dream like tone and feel to the film, but one that is never self conscious in the way that we experience it.
In telling this story I don’t want the audience to experience the film knowing what exactly is a flashback, what is the here and now, or what is a projection into the future. The key is that the layers of the film must reflect and bring to life the dimensions of Tom’s emotional state, one that is at times very fractured and vulnerable, so creating a reality all of it’s own.
I started Burning Man as an exploration into male grief, and set out to make a film that takes the audience on a transcendent journey that begins with death and ends with life.
Jonathan Tepliztky is a film director. He is currently working with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman on the new feature film, The Railway Man. He lives in Sydney, Australia.