At 19, local filmmaker is already a veteran
Seattle Times movie critic
Tonight, the 3-½-week cinematic candy store that is the Seattle International Film Festival opens for business, with more than 300 films on display at four venues. Dozens of filmmakers will be visiting Seattle from around the world, but a few have less distance to travel. The "Spawned in Seattle" series showcases the work of local filmmakers, some of whom are still hurrying to put the final touches on their films.
Among these is Robert Burke, whose "Max Rules" will have its world premiere at SIFF on June 12. Though the action-adventure film is Burke's feature debut, he's an experienced maker of short films (which have been presented at Sundance and on HBO), has his own production company (Jumpshot Films) and appeared as an actor in several feature films in the 1990s.
Oh, and he's only 19.
Burke, a Bellevue native currently attending the University of Washington, deliberately chose to make a film that would appeal to young people. "For my first feature, it seemed good to do something that speaks to this stage (of life)," said the upbeat Burke, in a shadowy editing suite at KOMO, where he's completing post-production on his film. He was concerned about taking on something too adult at this point in his career.
And he had a theory he wanted to test about movies aimed at kids. "I'd seen a lot of other kids' movies. They kind of spoke down to kids, taking humor down to a level that's stupid. I wanted to talk to kids the way they deserve to be talked to."
As a child actor in made-in-the-Northwest studio movies like Steve James' "Prefontaine" (1997) and Rich Cowan's "The Basket" (1999), Burke learned about directing firsthand. At 12, already determined to make films of his own, Burke took some of his acting earnings and bought the 16mm camera on which he shot his first film: the short "Naughty Pooch," starring his dog Greta. The film screened at SIFF — making Burke, not yet a teenager, the youngest director in the history of the festival — and other film festivals, ultimately winning an award from HBO.
Screenplay written at 11
Burke's friend and mentor, Seattle filmmaker Rick Stevenson ("Magic in the Water"), remembers helping Burke with the editing of "Naughty Pooch." "The main thing I contributed to it was just being really hard on him — telling him 'You can always make it better, try harder.' All the rest was him."
Four more short films followed, and finally Burke felt ready to tackle his first feature. He had an old screenplay for a short film, written at age 11, which he reworked into a feature three years ago, about three Washington, D.C.-area kids who band together to steal a valuable computer chip. "Max Rules" was shot in the Seattle area in the summer of 2002, with an all-local cast and a crew that included local filmmaker John Jeffcoat as director of photography, Burke's sister Nicolle as production manager and his grandmother Carmen Jackson as costume designer.
"It was a big mountain to climb, and a lot of people helped us climb it," remembered Burke. He's quick to praise everyone involved with the film, especially his family, Jeffcoat ("he was such a huge part of this") and Stevenson, who provided advice and encouragement throughout the two-year journey. Working from a budget Burke describes as "really, really, really small," and a script that included such ambitious details as a car chase, the young filmmaker benefited by having great support from the community — many of the film's locations were donated.
"He's one of these rare people that can ask you to do him a favor and you feel like you've been blessed by it," said Stevenson of Burke. "He's totally nonmanipulative, just a sweet, caring person."
Post-production has been lengthy for "Max Rules." Burke edited in his McMahon Hall dorm room last year ("with headphones on, late at night") and recently partnered with KOMO for final touches to the film. With the help of David Solheim, KOMO post production editor/compositor, and the kind of multi-screen, high-tech computer setup that looks like it could, if necessary, fly a plane, he's finalizing color correction and sound, getting the film ready for its SIFF premiere.
Stevenson praises "Max Rules" as "really well directed. The script's really good, for a 19-year-old. But he's just an extremely talented storyteller, with editing." He predicts a bright future for Burke. "I have a feeling he's going to be very successful in the industry. He's a generous storyteller, he likes accessible stories — he's not going to be out there making abstract art. ... I think he's going to be working in television and eventually in movies and have a really great career."
Burke, who greatly admires the work of Steven Spielberg and John Woo, points to Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption," "The Green Mile") as having the kind of hands-on career he'd like to emulate. "He makes only a couple of movies, every once in a while, and does some of his own editing. He doesn't just (rush to) get something out there."
Burke hopes "Max Rules" will find an eventual home post-SIFF, perhaps on television. But for now, he's enjoying the details of post-production and thrilled to be, finally, a feature filmmaker.
"This is the fun part," he says, gesturing toward the computer screens. He grins, looking fleetingly like a dazzled kid in a candy store — and then, a moment later, like a young, focused director at work.
Like all of SIFF's filmmakers, he's looking forward to the exposure that the festival brings, and hoping that it might just be the start of something big.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company