Expat filmmaker finds just what he needs making creepy sci-fi horror in Edmonton

Toronto film maker Anthony Scott Burns will be releasing his film "Come True" in Edmonton this week.Toronto film maker Anthony Scott Burns will be releasing his film “Come True” in Edmonton this week. Photo by Larry Wong /POSTMEDIA NETWORK

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When Toronto filmmaker Anthony Scott Burns returned to Edmonton to shoot Come True, his new sci-horror feature, he did so because his former hometown had just the perfect, vibe: something of an echo.

“I can honestly say we wouldn’t have shot anywhere else — this film is encoded with my childhood,” he says.

The feature — Burns’ first he embraces — is about 18-year-old Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone)’s extremely rough landing into adult life into a realm of living nightmares. Homeless, she signs up for a sleep study just to have a place to crash, and — this being a twisty sci-fi horror — things get decidedly creepy as a mute, shadowy figure with glowing eyes starts to haunt her dreams.

Fresh from getting lots of love at Montreal’s Fantasia Festival, on Friday, Come True will premiere in 85 theatres in the United States and be available to stream on iTunes, Bell, Rogers, Shaw, Telus, Vimeo on Demand, Cineplex Store — “on demand everywhere in North America,” Burns says happily.

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Further spoilers here would not serve the film well, but anyone familiar with Edmonton will tingle with a sense of the very familiar watching it — and not just for its wide open, uninhabited spaces.

“The Take 5 Donut Shop in Beverly, for example,” says Burns, “we shot a lot in Clairview where I grew up.

“This script was written to have its finale in an empty downtown. I spent my 20s there and knew that, after a certain time, you get those empty streets. It was made to be shot in Edmonton.”

Recognizable locations include the University of Alberta’s brutalist Arts and Law buildings; the dark paths of Rundle Park; Garneau Theatre’s brick-walled side door; and numerous streets and interiors downtown — the historic McLeod Building included.

The 43-year-old filmmaker praises our very sky and its long shooting days, insisting, “In the summertime, Edmonton has the most beautiful lighting you can ask for in Canada.”

An Edmonton childhood

Born in Kitchener, Burns grew up in film — his ex-military dad, Robert Burns, was an advisor on TV’s Airwolf and First Blood back in the ’80s. So as a kid, he got to hang out on sets in Vancouver and Rambo’s wake in Hope, B.C., which he recalls as “misty and beautiful.”

His family moved to Edmonton in 1990, where Burns spent his formative years, ending up at Victoria School of the Arts, where he picked up a camera and started doing visual effects work.

He started making videos, including one for Fubar but ended up finding more success doing graphic design, which is actually how he ended up in Toronto.

“I didn’t want to go, but there was no way for me to break out in Edmonton. And within a year in Toronto, I was the senior designer at MTV Canada,” he says.

There, Burns directed commercials, but his short films, where he wore many hats — visual effects, cinematography and directing — landed him Hollywood representation. After a couple of false starts, including walking away from directing a film called Our House (currently on Netflix), Burns was back in Edmonton, where he shot Come True in 60 days back in 2017.

Taking on a mind-boggling number of crew positions, Burns co-wrote, directed, shot, costume designed, headed the dream-sequence effects team, and even did some of the film’s music under the name Pilotpriest.

Asked why, besides budget, he took on so many roles, he laughs, “Well, it really is budget. We just didn’t have the money. We had a crew of five people.

“In modern times, on a horror, you’re lucky to get 14 days, so I wanted to break through that and so, with a smaller crew, it just gives you more time. It’s also how you get the magic from your actors.”

Burns also edited the film, incorporating details he wanted, down to, for example, digitally adding graffiti to a bathroom stall.

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He did the work himself, spending his time instead of cash, admitting, “It’s how I’m able to create budget from nothing.”

The film looks, and especially sounds, totally pro — especially its nightmare dream sequences, from which its shadowy antagonist emerges. Well, by way of the filmmaker’s own nightmares, that is.

“I had sleep paralysis when I was a kid after my mother passed away,” says Burns. “I was eight years old and I would see this shadow at the end of my bed. At first, I thought it was my mom, but I couldn’t move. It was horrible, I wanted to tell her I missed her.

“But as time went on, I realized it wasn’t my mom because it would never look at me. And I got to this point where I thought, ‘If it turns around, I’m dead.’”

He took these ugly dreams and used them as a template creating digital dream sequences, even before the film started shooting.

“We were trying to make things that were just as scary as they were beautiful,” he says.

Though shot four years ago, there’s a familiar emptiness to the streets and a distance between characters that feels very pandemic, very now.

Burns cites Jungian synchronicity, saying, “There are parts of the movie that I don’t even understand because they came from my subconscious — I just listened. And I think by listening you end up finding something that’s more interesting than had it been the perfectly crafted screenplay.

“I understand the film is probably not for everyone, where I do a bait and switch and bring you into a world of experimentation.

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“I come from liking flaws in cinema. Some of my favourite films are deeply flawed.”

Two of his early favourites — both Disney, both flawed — are Tron and Alice in Wonderland.

“It’s the nightmare you can’t get out of. I stole a lot of the lighting design for our dreams from Alice in Wonderland — it only shows you what it wants to.

“What I love is, they created other worlds within a narrative that is supposed to be real. That’s sort of what I wanted to do with Come True.”

In November, in part to be close to he and his wife’s family, they moved back to Edmonton.

“We spent the summer here and it became obvious that family was the focus. Maybe without COVID we wouldn’t have — you just want to make use of all the time you have,” he says, admitting the move required a certain professional confidence. “I had established myself enough as a filmmaker in the U.S. and Canada that now it’s time for me to make my Kubrick film compound here.

“I’m going to make my films out of Alberta for as long as I can. And as soon as COVID is done, we’ll get back to it.”

The pandemic has done strange things to us all, often revealing who we really are, for better or for worse. But for Burns, something surprising happened while plotting his next moves.

“Instead of going darker, all that COVID has done is make me want to tell brighter stories.”

fgriwkowsky@postemedia.com

@fisheyefoto

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