At a time when sci-fi and superhero films have taken a prominent spotlight in Hollywood, it strikes me as kind of odd that I’m unable to name a single blockbuster that revolves around a superhero defending Earth from a full blown alien invasion. I’m talking something along the lines of an Independence Day meets Superman kind of thing. So when I heard that the premise behind Michael David Lynch’s short sci-fi film Burden was exactly that, I became very interested.
The story of Burden follows a super-powered ‘Watcher’ named Calik (Grant Weiss) who was sent to Earth some forty years ago to (presumably) observe the growth of our “young” species. He is informed that an alien race called the Cythorians is en route to destroy Earth and finds himself torn between his sworn duty to leave and allow the world to fall (which he is told is a given) or to defy his orders by remaining here to fight in what seems a futile battle to save the planet.
The film itself runs 9:53, although that gets cut back to 7:30 if you remove the credits, and with such a short run time Lynch wastes no time getting to the action. Shortly after the opening credits Calik is told that “Earth will fall” and and less than two more minutes of film pass before the first alien invader arrives to wreak havoc in the streets of Chicago, killing women and children without mercy.
Burden premiered July 25, 2009 at Pasadena’s Laemmle Theater to a sellout crowd. A second screening was quickly scheduled and, despite being unplanned, quickly sold out again. Since then Burden has been touring independent cinemas across the world, impressing viewers and sweeping up numerous awards as it goes.
It won the ‘Best VFX’ award at the Action on Film (AOF) International Film Festival, where it was also nominated for ‘Best Sci-Fi Film’, ‘Best Sound Design’ and ‘Best Special Effects – Short’. It won ‘Best Film USA (Under 10 Minutes)’ at the International Film Festival of Ireland, won ‘Best Visual Effects Film’ at the Fantastic Planet Sci-Fi and Fantasy Festival in Australia, and picked up the ‘Staff Pick Award’ at the September 2009 Dragon*Con Film Festival.
With all of those accolades in mind, here’s the thing that really makes Burden quite an achievement in film making, an aspect of which makes it hard to say anything negative about the production: virtually everyone involved were students. The film was the result of an assignment set when Lynch was studying cinematography at Colombia College and is actually his final student film. Amusingly, taking on this assignment was Lynch’s way of getting access to a 35mm camera to shoot the film he really wanted to make.
“Burden started out as my student film,” Lynch explains, “a class assignment and there were a lot of requirements. One requirement was there wasn’t supposed to be any dialogue.”
Of course, Burden clearly breaks the dialogue rule but it does so in style with Lynch snaring a contribution from one of the most legendary voice actors of all time, Peter Cullen. Yes, the very same voice behind Optimus Prime! For a student film to obtain Peter Cullen’s involvement is something else. Cullen provides the voice of Calik’s off world advisor (referred to as ‘The Voice in the Sky’) and, as usual, his voice adds a depth, emotion and foreboding to the film when he delivers the message about Earth’s imminent, unavoidable destruction. He also provides the narrators voice in the teaser trailer, which you can watch below:
Despite being a student film, Lynch managed to secure another industry professional to help contribute a pro edge to the finished product. This was music composer Rob Simonsen, who you may know from his work scoring a number Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse episodes and the feature film 500 Days of Summer. It’s not half obvious that the music in Burden is of a high calibre from the moment the opening credits roll.
Impressively, Simonsen managed to write and produce the entire music soundtrack from start to finish in less than 5 days, a timeframe that included the coordinating and recording of a 75-piece orchestral score. I’m really quite surprised that of all of Burden’s awards ‘Best Music in a Short Film’ isn’t one of them (at least yet). If you want to hear a reasonable amount of Simonsen’s score, watch the Behind the Scenes Featurette embedded below, a featurette that I recommend to anyone who is a budding filmmaker or who simply wants to be inspired:
Without the benefit of knowing the background to the production of Burden it might be all too easy to become critical with certain aspects of the film. For instance, the duration of the movie is way too short to adequately explore the themes it touches upon. The lack of budget is evident in some scenes where, even if only for a second, the real world and the visual effects don’t fit quite like a glove. It also feels like the story is harmed somewhat by the need to rapidly jump from scene to scene. I’m sure the scripted scenes that never made it to print would no doubt have made for much smoother story telling and would have removed the need for the viewer to piece some of it together themselves.
But these criticisms, while perhaps critically fair, aren’t something Lynch isn’t acutely aware of ; they’re issues that he would’ve have dealt with given the resources.
“I had a lot more that I wanted to do, but being a limited budget really stopped me,” he explains. “You know the scene in Watchman that shows the death of Night Owl? The first draft of Burden cut back and forth from the 1940’s to present day just like in that scene, contrasting then and today. When I saw that scene in Watchman, I was like if I had made Burden my way people would have thought I was copying Watchmen, even though I had never read it. I had roof top battle sequences, and cutting back and forth in time with punches, it was great. Just didn’t have money or the people to do it.”
As a student project it’s hard not to appreciate both the scope of Burden and the quality that Lynch managed to inject into it despite his resource limitations. I’ve seen the film half a dozen times now and I can confidently say that each time I watch it I’m actually more impressed than the last. There are a couple of scenes I’d like to comment on that were feature film quality in themselves, but doing so would unleash spoilers that I feel are best left for you to discover for yourself. You’ll know the scenes I’m referring to when you see them. They’re the kind of scenes that deliver a blend of visual effects, music, and artful direction that convey the perfect kind of “uh oh we’re doomed” – scenes that demonstrate Lynch has what it takes to direct films that appeal to genre lovers.
One such scene is the final scene of the film, a very cool moment but one that ends so suddenly many viewers might find themselves criticizing it since the scene is more of a beginning than an ending. That’s right, if you’re expecting a story to unfold that concludes before the credits you’ll be disappointed. I for one found myself expecting the film to continue from that scene and felt surprised and somewhat disappointed that it didn’t. Arguably, however, it ended right where it should have. You see, as a short film Burden would never have been able to effectively deal with its huge premise in less than ten minutes and, with that in mind, it can never really end in a fulfilling way. In its current format Burden acts more like a preview or pitch of what it could be if taken to a blockbuster level. When viewed in that manner it's really quite an exciting film to view. Lynch himself agrees, referring to the film as a "teaser" for the larger film version that he hopes to make.
If a major studio does back him with Burden, the only additional thing I’d hope is for actor Grant Weiss to be retained in the lead role. As far as I’m aware Burden is his only acting role to date, and while he gets only limited dialogue in the film, he delivers it convincingly. When he isn’t speaking, his facial expressions also suit – he has the chiseled look of a superhero and, I’m sure you’ll agree, he makes some of the best “I’m angry and I’m going to unleash my super power” faces in the business. If the film were to progress to a full blown motion picture, just as Neill Blomkamp was able to transport Sharlto Copley from his Alive in Joburg short to District 9, I’d hope Lynch would be able to do the same with Weiss.
I have little doubt that in the future the name Michael David Lynch is going to be associated with some seriously great genre flicks. He’s the kind of guy that wants to push the envelope, especially when others say it can’t be done, but ultimately he’s one of us – the kind of guy who’s in it for the love of it. If he gets his way, Burden will one day make it to the big screen as a full blown motion picture. In fact, as we speak the feature film screenplay adaptation is underway and Lynch himself is pursuing avenues to try and secure the backing he needs.
If you think it’ll never happen, think again. He’s got some seriously good contacts in the industry and has gained top level experience working on such films as Iron Man 2 and A Nightmare on Elm Street. He’s also inspired a number of highly talented individuals to express their interest in working on a Burden feature film, including people associated with James Cameron’s Avatar and some associated with the Jurassic Park films. Further, he’ll be quick to tell you that the short film itself was one everyone said couldn’t be made given his lack of resources, and if not for maxing out his credit cards they may have been right. But they weren’t, and despite accumulating debt that forced him to find additional work in the industry to help him pay it off, Burden the short film is now a reality.
When asked about the finance side of Burden, Lynch clarifies, “I maxed out my credit cards to fund this project because I believe in myself. I wanted to show others how confident I am and how much I believe in myself by putting my money where my mouth is, but I really had my back to the wall. When I first shot Burden I had to wait a month to get my deposits back before I had enough money to develop the film and telecine it. That one month almost killed me, hoping that everything was exposed properly and that we actually had an image. If I had been given everything, it wouldn’t have taken 3 years to finish and I would have been able to do the film I wanted to do. I put it all on the line and really had to bust my ass, but I want to make big blockbusters and Burden was the perfect way to prove that if given a little I’ll take it along way. If given a feature I will kill it!”
He adds, “If it’s not a challenge, why do it.”
If his Burden-the-college-assignment-film is any indication, I have absolutely no doubt. In fact, I’ll be there to buy a ticket on opening day.
By Darren Albert