Scott Z. Burns is an Academy Award winning producer and writer, originally from Golden Valley, MN. His work includes An Inconvenient Truth, Contagion and The Bourne Ultimatum. Scott will be speaking at the Sabes JCC on Sunday night to benefit the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival taking place from October 23- November 2nd.
Molli Mayeron interviewed Scott for this article. Molli is a Minneapolis native who worked for 10 years as a producer in New York and LA before returning to the Twin Cities last year. She has produced shows for networks including NBC, MTV, and VH1 and recently worked for E! Entertainment where she produced the red carpet for the Oscars, Emmys, Grammys, and Golden Globes for many years.
Molli Mayeron: You were originally in advertising and worked on the “Got Milk” campaign. What made you decide to leave a successful career and try your hand at a new one?
Scott Z. Burns: I always wanted to be a storyteller, and even the commercials that I wrote were sometimes accused of being short films. I felt like I wanted to be able to tell stories without having an obligation to a product or a sales pitch.
MM: How did you get your foot in the door of the film world?
SZB: I started writing television commercials and, you know, I’d write them and go on-set. When I was on-set, I was so fascinated by filmmaking and I’d get involved in editing the commercials, so that was sort of my education. Then, Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) and I met and we started talking and really hit it off. He had written a show before Friday Night Lights named Wonderland and he offered me a job writing on it. I went to NY and wrote for that show for a season. That was the first time I wrote anything long-form.
MM: Today, people are finding themselves shuffling through numerous industries and careers. You made the transition from ad-man to filmmaker so effectively; do you have any advice for people trying to transition from one field to the next?
SZB: I was really fortunate that the best advice my father ever gave me is, “Don’t think about what you want to do with your life, just think about what you want to do next.” If you are in a job, especially a job that is utilizing a skill like writing which transfers across many fields, you just need to follow your heart about what you want to do. People always ask me, “Should I write a genre movie, an action movie, horror movie…” I ask them, “Is that really what you want to do? Why don’t you write the story that you really think needs to be told? Not the one with commercial value. Find what’s unique about your voice and tell the story in a way only you can tell it.”
MM: How did you begin collaborating with Steven Soderbergh?
SZB: I had heard the story about the informant on the NPR show This American Life and I went around LA and pitched it. I hadn’t really sold a pitch before, and Steven’s company initially passed. I called their head of development and said, “I don’t know Steven, but from my sense of him I’m surprised you’re passing. Can I have another chance?” They said, “No we don’t give second chances.” I said, “OK, well is there anyway I can drop off a CD of the radio show that I heard?” They said OK. I did it, and two days later I got a phone call from somebody going, “Hey, this is Steven Soderbergh.” I think my response was “Oh bullsh-, it is not.” He said, “No really, it’s me. I think that story would make a great movie. Why don’t you come in and meet with me?” We’ve been working together ever since. It hasn’t just been an immensely rewarding collaboration, but it’s really great that after working with somebody for 10 years you still feel like they are your friend.
MM: Do you have a favorite memory from being on-set?
SZB: There was a good trick that Steven and I played on Matt Damon while filming Contagion. The whole time that we were doing the movie Matt kept saying that it would make a lot more money if we’d put a zombie in it. He’d say, “So I’d do this and take the gun off the wall and go hunt some zombies.” There’s a scene in the movie where the supermarket is being looted. Steven and I hired this really big guy that’s like 6’10 and we dressed him up like a zombie with great special effects make-up and blood pouring out of his head. We did a couple takes with the real actress, a little woman who was 5’2, where Matt runs around the corner and down the aisle. Steven said, “Let’s just do it one more time.” So we put in the giant zombie and Matt comes running around the corner and jumps about 5 feet in the air. [Without missing a beat] Matt yells, “Zombies!” and ran with it.
MM: Do you think we’ll ever get to see it?
SZB: I’ll have to talk to Steven about that. Maybe when we reissue the DVD. It was hilarious. We were laughing so hard.
MM: Are there any experiences from growing up in the Twin Cities you’ve used for inspiration in your movies?
SZB: Constantly. I think we all are both doomed and best served by writing what we know. There are always characters that are influenced by people I’ve met. Strange and dark stories from growing up there that have found their way into what I’ve done. The other thing that I think had a big influence on me was that Joel and Ethan Cohen were from St. Louis Park. It all of a sudden felt like people from Minnesota could possibly make movies and write movies. It really made it feel possible.
MM: Have you hidden any Easter Eggs in your movie for us Minnesotans?
SZB: No, I don’t think I’m as obvious as Joel and Ethan are. I always think I’m not allowed to do what they do. Contagion was set in Edina, though. Unfortunately, Minnesota doesn’t have a tax rebate for filming, so we shot in Illinois but it was supposed to be set in Edina.
MM: What are you looking forward to doing while you’re back home this weekend?
SZB: The Replacements were my favorite band and had a huge effect on me. They’re playing Saturday night for the first time in 20 years and I’m incredibly excited to go see that. I’m hoping to see some camp friends too. I also kind of just want to drive around and look at Lake of the Isles and the neighborhood I grew up in. I’ve actually been writing a TV series that I’m trying to create that is set in Minnesota. I’m really excited about getting to go look around and soak it all up.
An intimate evening with Scott Z. Burns will take place at the Sabes JCC this Sunday, September 14th at 7:30pm. Scott will discuss his films including Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum, Side Effects, and An Inconvenient Truth. Star Tribune film critic, Colin Covert, will moderate the event. Tickets are just $12 and are on sale now at tcjfilmfest.org. All proceeds benefit the Twin Cities Jewish Film Festival.