Burn – Interview with Film Writer/Director Mike Gan

Mike Gan interview of Burn

Burn is the directorial feature film debut from Writer/Director Mike Gan. We meet Melinda (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), the lonely petrol attendant who is frequently overshadowed by her pretty co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse). One eventful night when the petrol station is held at gunpoint by the unassuming Billy (Josh Hutcherson) in an attempted robbery. Things take a turn for the worse as Melinda decides to take matters into her own hands.

Mike Gan kindly answered some questions on his process writing and directing the film, Burn.
Momentum Pictures releases Burn in theaters, VOD and Digital on Aug. 23, 2019.

Burn does wonders visually with the limited space of a petrol station ⁠— through the thoughtful use of color, light, shadow, and icons emblematic of American petrol stations in a distinct way that is in equal parts, vibrant, engaging and foreboding. How was your experience of working with cinematographer Jon Keng to help bring your vision to life?

I approached Burn as a twisted fairytale, and I knew early on that the performances were going to carry this story. Jon and I worked to create visuals that supported what the characters were doing and feeling in each scene. We used different colored light motifs for each character and area of the gas station and tried to incorporate plot elements with the practical lights of the location. Overall, we wanted the gas station to feel like a whole world with different landscapes, rather than a single location.

Melinda (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey) has an outwardly meek personality but is yet still strongly rebuked by others for being "creepy". Who is Melinda outside of this one unfortunate night and what motivates her to act the way she does in the film? 

Melinda is looking for sincere human connection but is always unsuccessful because she is too sincere. It’s like a puzzle she cannot piece together, and this film is about a night in which she gives up trying to solve the puzzle—she decides to break it.

Josh Hutcherson and Suki Waterhouse in Burn
Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures
What sources of inspiration did you use to write the screenplay for Burn? What advice do you have for those who are writing one?

I believe I read a short article about a victim of a robbery turning the tables on their assailant, and then feeling as though they had permission to act upon them. What helped my writing was coming up with a tough question about life, and then having the story constantly try to answer that question. It’s all a matter of curiosity.

Each of the main characters has a hand to play in Burn ⁠— from Sheila’s abrasiveness, Billy’s robbery plot, and Melinda’s boundary issues. Do you find any of the characters majorly to blame for the events, or is it more akin to a “perfect storm”'? Also, was Billy going to rape Sheila in the backroom or just playing tough?

The way I see it, every character in Burn believed they were the hero of the story. Because of that, I gave them the license to go for what they wanted, with the entitlement of a protagonist. This immediately created conflict, and it was interesting to let it play out. In terms of what Billy was going to do to Sheila—he claims he wasn’t going to rape her, so it’s just a matter of whether you believe him or not.

What was your favorite part of directing Burn?

Working with the actors. I was very fortunate to have such a brave and incredible cast, who all really shined in their own unique, memorable way. 

Josh Hutcherson in Burn (2019)
Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures
What films and/or directors have had the biggest impact on you as a filmmaker? 

I think the greatest film ever made is Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, but I learned the fundamentals of storytelling through studying Hitchcock’s filmography. I love the dark, absurdist humor of the Coen Brothers, the craft of David Fincher, and the elevated allegories of Jordan Peele.

What’s next for you? 

I’m currently writing a horror script that combines some ancient Chinese demonic folklore with a group of assimilated Chinese Americans, set in Los Angeles. I’m also exploring additional TV opportunities after working with Blumhouse and Hulu on the Into The Dark series, which was such a great process. 

Watch Burn in theaters, VOD and Digital on Aug. 23, 2019.