A conversation with British filmmaker Dominic Burns

Oli Davis chats with Dominic Burns, the British filmmaker behind How to Stop Being a Loser and the upcoming features Airborne and U.F.O….

“The same day as Twilight,” director Dominic Burns rather merrily observes of his latest film, How to Stop Being a Loser, and its release date on Friday 18th November. His chuckle is sincere – that he knows his film could never compete for the hearts of Team Edward, nor draw their attention from his stupid, sparkly skin – but you get the sense he doesn’t really care. Burns isn’t in it for the money; he’s in it for the love of making films. His enthusiasm is infectious even over a phone.

Friday 18th November was last week already, so go and see it. How to Stop Being a Loser, that is. Not Twilight. The film has secured a distribution deal with Showcase cinemas and will be exhibited across their chains. Bluewater is my nearest one. And if for some reason you miss it, the DVD is out in February.

The film is about a serial loser-in-life, James (Simon Phillips), and his efforts to find a woman. His friends are also losers. The trailer shows one of them, Ian (Richard E. Grant), jumping in front of a train after failing to chat up a girl on the platform. That’s not a spoiler. It happens pretty early on. It’s the ‘instigating incident’ of the film, and James hires the “pick-up” coach Ampersand (Craig Conway), a self-styled love-guru.

“Initially we thought we were making a comedy, but it ended up having a lot of heart,” Burns said of the film. “We had the premiere down in London, and the thing with comedy is that if people don’t laugh, they don’t laugh – people can’t hide if it works or not. Thankfully, people were roaring by the end.”

“The problem with independent film is that you have very little money, but you do get a bit more breathing space.” Because of the low budget, there is very little time for preparation. “The first day we had Sheridan Smith on set, I got to the location where we were shooting five minutes before she did. I’d never seen it before and had to find the best shot as quick as I could.”

This wasn’t an issue with Burns’ first film, Cut. In fact, by the time shooting had wrapped, he was very familiar with the location. “Cut was a nightmare. We literally had no money… We wanted to make a horror film in a single take, which had not been done before. When we asked around about doing it, everyone laughed in our faces. But I’m a stubborn idiot.”

So they assembled a team of likeminded, stubborn idiots – one of who was Zach Galligan, of Gremlins fame. “We went up to Zach and said ‘we’ve got no money’, but he was passionate about the idea.”

He must have seen it as a challenge. A seventy-minute long, uninterrupted shot with gore probably took quite a few attempts. “We had a point of no return – when the blood started to spill. As soon as that happened we had to see it through to the end. We had quite a few takes where cast members would call each other by their real names. It was all filmed in a real house in Derbyshire, not a set, so the shoot had an amazing atmosphere.”

And to make things just a little bit harder, Burns and Phillips (who were both acting onscreen), partook in an improvisation competition. They were each challenged to come up with one random piece of dialogue per take without corpsing. Phillips won when he reeled off the line: “It’s like you’re dangling off a cliff by your balls and you’ve got to choose between grabbing at barbed wire or an electrocuting stick.”

“Acting’s my first love. We were essentially filming a play. I wasn’t supposed to direct Cut originally.” Burns took up the reigns when nobody else would, and found he enjoyed the experience tremendously. He still finds an acting role in all his films, and those of others (Strippers vs Werewolves and Cockneys vs Zombies), but he’s still experimenting with directing. “I’m going to try a few different genres, a few different things, to find my creative voice.”

He’s certainly racing through the genres. “I’ve done Cut, which was a horror/thriller; comedy with How to Stop Being a Loser; Airborne, which is more of an action/horror/thriller; and U.F.O. which is an action/sci-fi.”

Those last two are due out in the next year, the latter of which has a 10-minute continuous take around a supermarket riot. Burns reflected on the connection with the single shot of Cut, and how he’s always learning and building upon his experience. Not in an arrogant way, as he constantly remarks how he’s fully aware that he isn’t the best director in the world, making the best films. If he continues to learn and improve from his experience, though, he’ll surely become a pretty good one.

U.F.O. is the one he’s looking forward to most. “We’ve just wrapped U.F.O. and we’re doing the C.G.I. now, but I can’t tell you much about it. We really raised our game on this one. We’re all bloody excited about it.”

Throughout our conversation, there’s definitely been a concentration on ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. It’s a genuine one, too. Burns comes across as fiercely loyal to his creative team, and it’s shown in how a core group of actors follow him from project to project. “You’ve got to have a great team behind you. That’s one of the best pieces of advice I can give to anyone just starting out.”

And Burns’ team has a distinctly British flavor, including the names of Sheridan Smith, Sean Brosnan (son of Pierce), Simon Phillips and Gemma Atkinson. Burns speaks very highly of that last one. “She’s a joy to work with, and so down to earth. People assume she’s just a model, but she’s given up posing in her knickers – which she got a lot of money for doing – to act. She’s going to turn a few heads soon.” Some have even labeled this group as the “Brit Pack”.

“I was speaking with Sean Pertwee,” whom Burns has just directed in U.F.O., “and he was saying how him and Jude Law were branded as the ‘Golden Generation’ when they started out. So I really don’t mind being in the ‘Brit Pack’.”

Burns has not limited himself to just British actors, though. He has a knack of procuring a cult American legend for each film he makes. There’s the aforementioned Zach Galligan from Gremlins, for instance. Mark Hamill stars in Burns’ upcoming Airborne. Working with Jean-Claude Van Damme in U.F.O. was a “wonderful experience. He’s a great actor and bloody talented.” That last one is from Brussels, but that’s beside the point – what’s it like to direct Luke Skywalker!?

“I cannot rave about Mark enough. I love the original trilogy” – note the emphasis on original – “He’s so modest and matter of fact. Which is good, because if he’d been as arsehole, what would I watch at Christmas?”

“You forget who he is after a while because he’s so genuine. And he’s a big movie fan himself, especially of classic movies. I got to talk film with Mark Hamill!”

“We have these names like Mark Hamill and Richard E. Grant, and they’re there because they’re passionate about the project. We’re not paying them much. Grant wanted to be directed very intricately, and that’s a joy for a director – that an actor of the quality and class of Grant wanting to be directed like that.”

Burns has risen under the radar over the last two years. His modest beginnings with Cut have led to him working with Mark Hamill and Jean-Claude Van Damme shortly after. The production value of his films has visibly increased since, too. One need only look at the trailer for Airborne and its Hans Zimmer-influenced score, to realise Burns’ new scope.

“The three things you need to succeed in this business are passion, talent and determination. Don’t be scared of rejection, because that’s going to happen a lot. Mr. X will think it’s shit and Mr. Y will love it. You can’t please them both. But I’d rather have hate or love than indifference. And I’m still on this steep learning curve. U.F.O. is the one where I feel all the experience I’ve gained so far is being used.”

“And find a team. Stay loyal. Do the work for them and they’ll do it back for you. You need to find people who would drop everything they’re doing on a phone call and arrive on set as soon as they can. And you would do the same for them.”

Many thanks to Dominic Burns for taking part in this interview.

Oli Davis