Jim Burns and I met on Twitter a couple of years ago. Our mutual love of filmmaking and screenwriting brought us together. Jim's good cheer, kind heart and talent were evident from the start. (Plus, he tweeted me pretty pics from Scotland, a far cry from my outpost in the Northeast U.S.) Jim's documentary feature film SERIOUS DRUGS revolves around musician Duglas Stewart and seminal UK pop band, the BMX Bandits. (Kurt Cobain once said if he could be in any other band it would be the BMX Bandits.)
Jim paints an intimate portrait of Stewart, documenting his creative process and struggle with depression. It's a moving, humane and, ultimately, uplifting story of a quirky character overflowing with creative energy and childlike charm.
Jim, how would you define creativity? That's an enormous question. My mind goes on a long journey when I think about this too much. I think that creativity is a bit of a misnomer really, because I believe that at one level there's no such thing as creation. It's all about changing shapes. Molecules being re-arranged and that sort of thing. I remember reading a great book called "Buddhism Plain and Simple" where the author, Steven Hagen poses the question, something like: "When does a book become a book?" and it stunned me. Is it when the book is printed? When the publishing deal is signed? When the author decides to write it? And when does the book cease to exist? When it is reduced to ashes? So that suggests to me that a creation can be a thought, a feeling, or an object. But to notice these things requires some consciousness, perhaps. So is creation, then, just consciousness? And if I create something am I just focusing my consciousness towards some kind of goal that makes sense or has value to me?
Where does inspiration come from? Inspiration has always come from either pain or pleasure. Both forces have fired me up in equal amounts. When I started making SERIOUS DRUGS I had been in a lot of pain and had been depressed for some time. So I think I was moving away from the darkness towards the light.
When do you feel most open to your creativity, or at your creative peak? I'm most open to, or conscious of, my ability and desire to create something when I'm at the extremes of these forces. Writing a poem helps me focus on a situation or person's behavior that's causing me pain and turn it into words and lines that make sense of it and get it out of my head. For a short period last year I experienced a strange feeling that every time I met someone it would be the last time I saw them. I wrote some poems about that experience and it seemed to help me externalize it and dull the pain.
Can you tell us how filmmaking found you? Filmmaking found me when I was about four years old and in my grandfather's living room, helping him set-up the projector and screen for the Saturday night movie show. We edited his home movies, added magnetic stripe to the Super 8mm film, and dubbed music that he'd recorded either from the TV set during the long test-transmissions in the 1960s and 70s or from his collection of Reader's Digest LP box sets. Cut to a few years later and I was pointing the Super 8mm camera at cranes in the harbor, following their movements as they unloaded cargo. I was able to let myself drift when I had my finger on the shutter release and was completely relaxed. I feel the same way today when I'm behind the camera.
Making a film is a long process, much longer than many other art forms, perhaps. What keeps you going for the duration? I think there is a combination of things that keeps me going for the duration. Initially, it's about the unknown. There's a germ of a thought that's planted in your mind "What is this? Is there something here? Can I understand this? Can I learn the skills to capture this?" and there is a desire to uncover and explore a concept or idea. So that tantalises me and keeps me hungry. There is also a compartmentalization process where I divide the project into chunks. Each of these can be juggled and managed separately. So that helps the overwhelming feeling of "This is a huge project," and helps me see that there's an end to it. SERIOUS DRUGS took about four years between the idea and the premiere. I must have been pretty hungry.
Documentaries are often crafted in the editing room on the back end of the shoot. Was that the case for SERIOUS DRUGS? How much of the story did you know going into it? I knew there was a story, because I'd found it interesting enough to follow for four years. I also had strong ideas about how the viewer should feel when they saw the film, and I had an idea about who might like this story. But I didn't know whether I'd captured enough of the sound and vision that would support retelling the story that I had experienced on my journey learning about Duglas and the music of BMX Bandits. So when I decided to start editing I needed to invite someone onto the project. Initially, I thought of SERIOUS DRUGS as a music documentary, and started talking to editors with experience of that genre. But for some reason I was drawn to working with someone who had broader experience. I found a post on a UK film website and got in touch with Fiona Macdonald and loved that she was interested in the story and wanted to help. Fiona and I watched all the footage and transcribed every word together. It became clear after that we had a story, and the footage supported it. There were some gaps, and I shot a few scenes during the edit, but within a week of starting the edit we had a storyboard and Fiona got busy building the sequences. Once I had a rough cut of about 3.5 hours I screened this for a filmmaker friend, Ruth Carslaw, who was moved to tears by what she saw. I knew then that there was something special in the air. So I think it's true that in this case SERIOUS DRUGS was crafted in the editing room. This was my first film and I have learned a lot from the process that I think might help me feel more confident in the future and maybe shoot more efficiently and spot the story earlier in the process.
What was the biggest challenge in making the film and how did you overcome it? The biggest challenge in making SERIOUS DRUGS was my lack of confidence. I had been depressed for some time and that had eroded my already poor self-esteem. You're in this rut and scraping the sides to climb out just makes the rut deeper. It is hard enough to produce, direct, shoot, and edit a documentary film, but when your confidence is shot it's almost impossible. To approach the participants and ask for interviews, organize live concert shoots, etc, when you don't really believe you have the right to ask is just crazy. But somehow I just managed to plug away and got the film made, despite this sometimes crushing lack of belief in the project.
Do you have any daily or weekly habits and practices? I run three or four times a week for about an hour a time. I think that is my only habit. It helps reduce any anxiety I feel and just makes the world seem a better place. I spend most of my life sitting down at a computer so it's good to be intensely active for a few hours in the week.
What's next on the agenda for you? I have been involved in photographically documenting two recent street design projects across Scotland, collaborating with some established and internationally renowned artists. I have also started a new business project - I create bespoke software systems for a living - and I'll be concentrating on that for the next few years. I'd like to make another, shorter, documentary and shoot it beautifully. I can't help thinking about the next film. I think I have the bug now.
Jim Burns is a Scottish filmmaker. His first feature film, SERIOUS DRUGS, premiered at Glasgow Popfest 2011 and screened at London Popfest 2012 and Glasgow Music and Film Festival 2012. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, via the SERIOUS DRUGS website here, or on Twitter at @BrilliantJim. (Photos of Jim Burns by Barrie Spence and Nicola Atkinson/NADFLY, respectively. DVD cover image by Jim Burns/BINARYBURNS and Nicola Atkinson/NADFLY.)