Don’t miss the audience award winner at Sundance 2018 at The ScreenWednesday, February 13th at 7:00 PM and meet director Andrew Heckler.

Starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and Oscar Nominees Tess Harper and Tom Wilkinson this inspiring true story deals with Mike Burden, a rising leader in Ku Klux Klan who attempts to break away from the Klan when the girl he falls in love with urges him to leave for the better life they can build together.

FILM/TV | The film took home the Audience Award for best U.S. Drama at the Sundance Film Festival. 

“This film is not reactionary to what’s happening in America right now, it’s a timeless study on love overcoming hate.”

The 2018 Sundance Film Festival may have wrapped up, but the impact of the films that screened there are just getting underway. Among these soon to be beautiful classics was Burden, a drama based on the true story of a Klu Klux Klan member who has a change of heart and beliefs after a woman has the power to change his mind. With Garrett Hedlund and Forest Whitaker in the cast, it’s not surprise that the film won the hearts (and an award) from the audience at the festival.

The film’s cinematographer, Jeremy Rouse, spoke with Popdust about his career in the industry, why he was inspired to take on this film, and why the message continues to be so relevant in today’s sociopolitical climate.

How did you get interested in cinematography?

I had two major interests growing up, watching movies and playing sports. I decided to go to film school. It was there I learnt the basics film craft and film language whilst simultaneously immersing myself in a dark room developing film negative and printing photos. Merging a love for cinema and a love for photography sparked my interest in cinematography.

Have you ever been to Sundance before, and what about the festival do you think makes it unique?

This was my first time at Sundance. It was my first time at any festival with a feature project actually. I got the feeling Sundance is a very special mix of film makers and film lovers together with agents and distributers.

You’re representing Burden at the festival. How did you get involved with this project?

I got sent the script and the original ABC news clip with the real Mike Burden and Reverend Kennedy in it. I fell in love with their story and their individual journeys. After reading Andrew [Heckler’s]incredible script I put together a visual diary of images that resonated with me and sent that to Andrew. The images served as a starting point to discovering the world from a visual stand point. From there we could have conversations, not only about the film and its themes but how we would create a visual style. After the call I hounded my agents to keep checking in with Andrew, I’m sure my enthusiasm was one of the reasons Andrew and Robbie Brenner (the producer) offered me the job.

The story discusses a member of the KKK falling in love. Why do you think it’s important to share this story now?

This story is as relevant now as it was twenty years ago when Andrew wrote the first draft. That the film screened at Sundance 2018 with the current racial climate in America the way it is, is coincidental, and somewhat disturbing. This film is not reactionary to what’s happening in America right now, it’s a timeless study on love overcoming hate. The message could be applied to any country where similar circumstances exist. Humanity seems to have de-railed a little all over the world right now. It’s important to share this message, one of hope, more so now than ever before.

Most of your prior work in cinematography involved short films. How was this different for you?

Actually most of my prior work has been in advertising and over the years I have shot lots of short films as well. The feature experience of course is different to shorter format projects. You have more of a opportunity to build complex story arcs. The process though still revolves around finding a visual film language that best suits the story. We discuss where to place the audience, what they should see when and what tone should be applied to that scene. With Burden we pushed hard to make the audience feel they were actually thrust into the ugly world that Burden exists in. Candid, documentative, no romanticism, gritty and raw.

Director Andrew Heckler, Actor Garrett Hedlund, Actor Forest Whitaker and Actor Usher Raymond attend the World Premiere of Burden by Andrew Heckler, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

What was it like working with Forest Whitaker and Garrett Hedlund?

All the actors in this film were unbelievably committed and passionate. It was incredible to watch the transformation of each cast member as they inhabited their character. Andrea RiseboroughTom Wilkinson and of course Forest and Garrett. Actors have their process so I just want to create an environment on set and around the camera that does not inhibit that process. The more inconspicuous the camera can be I think the better for the actors. Of course it is film making, there is a craft and professionals understand that at.

What are your next upcoming projects?

I’m shooting commercials at the moment and I am reading lots of scripts. There are a few exciting projects around this year so lets see which one happens.

Andrew Heckler’s directorial debut, Burden, was twenty years in the making but, as the writer-director said, it seems more relevant now than it was in the nineties, when the actual story of Klansman repudiating a life of hate took place in South Carolina. It’s not by the film’s linear though compact structure or straightforward photography by Jeremy Rouse that provokes interest,  but the fact that racism is examined through the eyes of a Ku Klux Klansman, who finds himself in a classic dilemma, torn between the woman he falls in love with and the community that raised him.

Andrea Riseborough as the protagonist’s girlfriend Judy, Forest Whitaker as the town’s black pastor Reverend Kennedy and Tom Wilkinson as the white supremacist leader Tom Griffin are exceptional. Even more so, embodying Mike Burden could become Garrett Hedlund’s true breakthrough role. The dirty blond hair, the swagger, and reticence, the rage burning inside — make the final revelation of Hedlund’s clear and sensitive eyes all the more powerful.

Aside from the timeliness of the subject matter,  Burden grips your attention with another primordial conflict — the struggle to do the right thing. Masterfully written, it presents us with the wide arc of a character who starts as a wild white supremacist and ends up as the vehement friend of a black priest who preaches love as the weapon against hatred. It is thoroughly moving to watch an ignorant man who lives in poverty and all sorts of deprivation, who would be destined for a barbaric existence, to recover his humanity through his pure love of a woman, a white woman who nevertheless cannot tolerate racism. In a screening at Sundance’s Eccles Theater, Heckler said that he knew he wanted to bring the story to the screen as soon as he heard about it in 1996. He went to the South to meet the people, to experience firsthand their love, hate, laughter, their way of life. This level of experiential knowledge of his themes seeps through the script: Redemption does not come easy. The hate is “in him” protests the Priest’s wife when he invites the ex-klansman, his woman and her little boy to stay at their home. The external events match the internal trials and tribulations surrounding one question: Is he going to succumb to the pressures of his predestined existence or will he rise above the circumstances?

In a time when fear and moral confusion rule, Burden can remind us that the courage to abide by truth and honesty comes at a high price on one hand, but is deeply rewarding on the other. The titular Mike Burden is part of a KKK cell which opens a Ku Klux Klan and “redneck museum” stoking hate and violence in a small South Carolina town. But he ultimately sells the museum for $1,000 to a black priest, so he can stand for what is right and what we know to be true. If he can admit to beating a black man nearly to death in order to expiate his heart, if he can put purity above self-interest, so can we gather the strength and admit that which weighs us down with deep-seated guilt. And if the white boy that carries the guilt of his ancestors who stole and pillaged the native land and abused the native people, who brought slaves from Africa, and who then deluded themselves to be “God’s chosen people”, if he could defy all that history and vow to fight his way out of hell in order to  meet his black friend in paradise, so can we hope to retrieve our full humanity and look ahead toward a better world.

Andrea Riseborough hits the carpet with her co-star Garrett Hedlund while attending the premiere of their latest film Burden The Park held during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival at Park City Library on Sunday (January 21) in Park City, Utah.

The 36-year-old actress and Garrett, 33, were joined by their co-stars Forest WhitakerUsherCrystal FoxAustin HebertDexter DardenRobbie BrennerTaylor GregoryAndrew Heckler and Tia Hendricks, as well as Priyanka Chopra who stepped out to show her support.

That day before, Andrea was out about attending premieres for two other films she’s starring in: The Death Of Stalin with composer Christopher Willis, filmmaker Armando IannucciHussain Currimbhoy and Jason Isaacs, as well as Nancy with Christina ChoeJ. Smith-CameronRachel Song and Amy Lo.

FYI: Garrett is wearing a Ted Baker London jacket. Andrea is wearing two Pyrrha talismans.

Alongside Forrest Whitaker and Andrea Riseborough, Hedlund delivers in a wrenching and real story that’s both universal and eerily timely.

If Mike Burden didn’t actually exist, and writer and director Andrew Heckler created a fictional character, it wouldn’t work. But as it happens, Mike Burden was a KKK member who left the Klan because of the love of a good woman, eventually aligning himself with an African-American minister he was once prepared to assassinate, all while laboring mightily under the, get this, burden implied by his surname. It sounds too neat, too crazy, too scripted. But he isreal, and so is Heckler’s decades-in-the-making biopic “Burden,” which isn’t neat, crazy, or too scripted.

Instead, what Heckler — a first-time filmmaker finally getting to make his passion project after nearly 20 years — offers is a hard-won redemption story that doesn’t cut corners and or look for easy answers. As Burden, Garrett Hedlund astonishes in a nuanced portrait of a man resistant to change, until he finally comes to understand that hatred is literally killing him. It’s a timely story, of course, but it’s also a universal one that delivers a necessary message without shirking from the realities of breaking free from a lifetime of evil indoctrination.

In 1996, a group of men set about turning a long-closed movie theater into a new business, meant to invigorate the small-town of Laurens, South Carolina. Heckler opens “Burden” in the middle of their reconstruction work, resisting the big reveal: It’s”The Redneck Shop,” filled with KKK paraphernalia and the back half occupied by the “KKK Museum.” Heckler’s choice to hold back that information as long as possible enforces a queasy but necessary twist: The Klansmen who operate the business think that creating such a horrific symbol of bigotry is just as normal as opening a restaurant, grocery store, or dry cleaners.

From the start, Heckler is compelled by the gray areas of his story, seeking shreds of humanity in despicable characters. An average afternoon cookout transforms into a full-scale KKK rally, complete with burning crosses and white hoods. The effect is chilling, but it also plunges the audience into the reality of Burden (Hedlund), who has known no other life, and no other people.

Loose-limbed and hangdog, Mike’s quiet nature hides some huge secrets, like his propensity for horrific violence and his high-ranking place in the Klan, which he believes is the only family who could ever love him. Heckler’s script lightly doles out key knowledge, like Mike’s abusive father and his time served in the Army, but it also doesn’t let Mike off the hook. He’s a bad man who does bad things.

Elsewhere in Laurens, there’s Reverend David Kennedy (Forrest Whitaker), Mike’s opposite in every way: a family man dedicated to his faith, one who is always committed to doing the right thing and stopping every injustice in its tracks, and who truly believes in the power of redemption. If Mike Burden is a man driven by hatred, Reverend Kennedy lives in love, and walks the walk.

It’s a woman who initially turns Mike’s head and heart. Powerhouse Andrea Riseborough plays Judy Harbeson, another Laurens local who managed to escape the cycle of hatred that consumed her community and even members of her own family. Steely-eyed and soft-hearted, Mike connects with Judy instantly – he also happens to be attempted to be repossessing her TV at the time, just one of the odd jobs his de facto father, Klan boss Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) provides for him – his first experience feeling any kind of connection with a woman.

Judy’s love that begins to push Mike into new places – he’s attentive and sweet to her, and he just loves her young son – and “Burden” makes a graceful move towards showing Mike’s real humanity, even as he also continues to give himself over to the violence of the Klan. As the Redneck Shop continues its mission – even serving as a recruitment ground for scores of wannabe Klansmen – Mike has to make a choice. When he does, the Klan rejects him fully. He and Judy lose everything, from their home to their jobs, and Mike’s rage only continues to grow.

It would be easy to put a story like this into soft focus, letting him have a couple of slip-ups on his way to redemption — just enough to show he’s worked to become a good person. Heckler isn’t interested in that; he and Hedlund dig deeply to chronicle the true price of Mike’s journey.

Hedlund responds with the kind of truly conflicted performance often missing from the genre. This is a man in pain, but he’s also a man who has caused tremendous pain. The magic of “Burden” is that it marries those ideas, with Hedlund providing his most nuanced, lived-in performance yet. It’s also his best.

Production design from Stephanie Hamilton is another highlight, and the film feels pulled directly out of a very specific time and place; Jeremy Rouse’s cinematography is gorgeous without being at all showy.

There are a few rough spots: Heckler tosses in a pair of scenes meant to approximate Mike’s mental and emotional state during the roughest of times, but the gauzy fever dreams feel far removed froma deeply grounded movie. The film doesn’t need them; “Burden” feels much richer when it returns to its reality, where the gray spaces live, where a man can be redeemed, and where love is the only answer to hate.

Grade: A-

“Burden” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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