Actor, Writer and Director John Michael Burdon on: Tap Dancing, Shakespeare, Spinning Rooms and A Love of All Things Horror!
Today I delve deep into the dangerous mind of another entrepreneurial actor in Sydney, one that I have the privileged of calling a good friend. His name is John Michael Burdon. That almost felt a little Fight Club there, how auspicious! JM as he's more commonly known to his friends has been working in theatre since 2000, starting out in Musical Theatre, before moving right through the dramatic canon from Shakespeare to Miller with highlights like playing Benedict in Much ado about Nothing as part of the Sydney Shakespeare Festival. Last year I had the privilege of working along side him in 54 Days The Movie. In this interview we cover acting, overcoming self doubt, the wonderful world of horror films and JM's next big project.
Have there ever been any shows or roles that you've done to date where you thought "I could be in a bit of trouble here" and you surprised yourself, or conversely; something you thought would be easy, that ended up being harder than you predicted?
JM: I was once cast as Henry in Cosi by Louis Nowra. Henry is a 65 year old man. At the time I thought the casting director had made a huge mistake but it ended up being one of my best acting moments, I've come to find the characters that seemingly the furthest from who I am are the ones I most enjoy playing. That’s what made me realize I’m a character actor. On the other hand I had always wanted to play Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew and generally speaking I feel I have a very good grasp on Shakespeare. I was cast in the role and very excited, thinking I had it in the bag, only to discover on the rehearsal room floor that I didn’t understand the character at all. It wasn’t until the very final rehearsal before moving to the performance space that I tapped into the character and understood him.
Give us a quick run down of your next big project, what's it all about?
JM: My next big project and my passion project, is my own horror movie Detour / Theatre that I co penned with my brother Trevor Burdon that we are aiming to move into production in November 2015. It took about two years to write with 9 drafts before the final draft this year. Detour / Theatre is a horror film combining my love of horror and the theatre. It’s a large undertaking, with a leading cast of 12 (which is very rarely seen in the horror genre) and a style reminiscent of a throwback to the 80’s horror canon, while staying in a very modern setting. We're planning on minimising the use of CGI effects, in favour of as many practical in camera effects as possible, not only because I enjoy the challenge or because they look incredible, but also because there are a number of amazing make up artists who are finding their work is diminishing due to digital effects. Our budget is tight and we’re currently in the middle of a crowd funding campaign to try and raise half of our budget through the horror fan and general film making and acting community. Also, we wanted to create a horror film that portrays women in a completely different light into what has been considered the norm. Every woman in our film is a fighter. And I'm extremely proud of that.
So you're obviously a pretty die hard horror fan, I always like watching movies where the writers and directors really love the genre they're creating. You see it in Tarantino all the time, what makes Horror special to you?
I feel horror is the only genre open to actors where you get to experience the full gamut of human emotion and the entirety of the human experience right out to it’s extremities. In that way I feel horror is almost Shakespearean when done right. I mean, Titus Andronicus is still to this date one of the best horror scripts ever written. Many people don’t respect the genre because of the “silliness” involved, but I feel it is exactly that, that gives horror a unique way of looking at life. Stakes are always high (life and death 98% of the time), and as an actor myself, I really enjoy watching good actors in well written horrors. When you're thrown into that kind of larger than life scenario you really just have to commit and give yourself over to fully suspending your disbelief and riding the wave.
On a larger scale, what does an audience member get from seeing a horror film?
Well first and foremost, entertainment. People love being scared in a controlled environment. The feeling of the heart racing, the suspense, watching the screen through your hands or covering your ears because you know a scare is coming. There is something truly exhilarating when watching a good horror movie. Also avid horror fans such as myself, also really enjoy the mechanics of in camera or practical effects, like when Tina is murdered in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, which involved a spinning room to allow her to be dragged across the ceiling and up the walls - in essence it was all the actress' own physical work which is very impressive when you see the scene. Unfortunately, in camera effects are a dying art these days due to CGI and digital editing. But I will always be the first one to sit and watch the special features on a horror DVD because more than anything, I think an avid horror fan wants to know “how did they do that?”
Have you ever seen horror you expected to be crap and it turned out to be really enjoyable? (maybe remakes, sequels)
The Evil Dead remake, in my opinion has been one of the better sequels of late. It was slick and fun and an homage to the original. I also really enjoyed 'Triangle', filmed in Australia with Melissa George and Liam Hemsworth. More of a psychological horror, I thought the premise and the actual camera work were amazing and bettered my expectations.
Tell us the story of your "why I watch horror moment". What was the film? What was the moment? And what effect did it have on you?
One evening, I noticed A Nightmare On Elm Street (the original) was playing on TV. I first watched that movie when I was 10 years old and it terrified me (also because my mother asked me to put the bins out straight after watching it – I’ll never forget that). I hadn’t watched it since. With a lot of trepidation, I turned the channel over and settled down to watch the movie, trying to avoid my inner child who was going mental at the time for watching it. As the movie progressed and the familiar images came on to the screen, my adult eye took over and I started to look at the camera work, the special effects and all the way through the movie, I kept wondering “how did they actually achieve that?” By the end of the movie, I had seen the film in a different light, through an actor’s and film maker’s eye and I felt I had conquered my fear of what I had experienced as a child. So in a way, my love of horror stemmed from a need to comfort that extremely sensitive, ten year old child that had constantly been living in some sort of perpetual fear that something would get him.
Has there been a point in your career up to now where you thought it was pointless to carry on? What happened and what advice can you give to anyone else that might be feeling that way?
There has been many. I have failed so many times and as some people know with me, sometimes I’m an all or nothing kind of guy. At one stage I threw out all of my dance shoes because I decided to give up dancing – only to be asked to tap dance in a show later that year. At one stage I decided to completely give up on acting – only to be asked to appear in a film later that year. I feel for me I wanted everything and so I was always disappointed when I didn’t get what I was looking at. It’s really only been in the last two years that I’ve actually pinpointed what I want and LIKE to do in terms of acting. Many people feel they have to be the world’s best actor as did I. I soon realized that I didn’t have to be. It was okay that I didn’t like certain performance styles or film genres. I believe in finding your niche and passion within this large world we call acting and following those passions. For me, my passions are Shakespeare, the horror and thriller film genres and strong supporting character roles. 5 years ago, it used to be musical theatre and sitcoms. For others it might be creating new independent works or puppetry. It’s always fluid. But give yourself permission to follow your passion within the industry. And when in doubt, create a retrospective of your work that you can look back on and see how far you’ve come yourself. It really does help in times when not much work is coming through.
Who have been some inspiring or guiding mentors that have helped you track your course in the industry so far worthy of thanks?
There are too many to list. But teachers with passion such as Anthony Brandon Wong who runs his own Ivana Chubbuck masterclasses is an amazing teacher and I would highly recommend working on his classes. Sean O’Shea from my Bell Shakespeare training again, is an amazing artist and teacher. My second year acting teacher Andrew Lloyde was a huge influence on me at acting school way back in the late 90s as was Adam Macauley. But right now, and it may sound trite, my biggest mentor is my 6 year old son Lachlan. He’s the one who guides me. I see his passion for his own interests (which are very far from mine own) and truly wish to recpature that childlike wonder for the world and what you can create.
Finally JM what are three resources in a book, a film and a documentary you would recommend any young actor or film/ theatre maker read or watch and why?
Book: The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook by Chris Jones & Genevieve Jolliffe (a fantastic book that explains the practical ways of going about low budget indie film making, using experiences they went through as well as other film makers accounts of their film making experiences)
Documentary: There are so many but for horror fans or filmmakers, GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER MOVIE (2006) is a great indepth look at the horror genre, how it rose to popularity and looks at the golden age of horror cinema.
Film: I don’t have a particular film because I feel every film or theatre piece you see, regardless of genre, is a lesson in acting and film making. I feel every film contains inspiration, even the ones we don’t like as it focuses us in to what we do want to make or act in.
Bonus Easter Egg: After our interview I asked JM for a suggestion for the film he'd suggest anyone use for getting into the horror genre. He suggested Behind The Mask: The Rise Of Leslie Vernon (2006) a film that starts as a documentary - breaking down the classic horror archetypes and then ends up being much more sinister. If you'd like to see JM attempt to scare the bajeezus out of you head over to his Crowd Funding Campaign for 'Detour Theatre' on Indiegogo. Big thanks to JM for taking the time to chat!
Did you like this interview? How was the format? Any questions you would've liked asked? Do you like the links to the resources? Look forward to hearing from you soon!
Film and Theatre Actor Based in Sydney. Creator of Script Gym. Lover of Stories.