The notion that the truth is stranger and more compelling than fiction has become so rote that it obscures the meaning of the phrase. We’re often more captivated by the truth not because the real world naturally fosters more interesting plots, but simply because it’s the truth. Facts transmit their own kind of alchemy to a story. A writer easily could have invented the plot of Andrew Heckler’s debut film BURDEN, but we’d never believe it.
BURDEN tells the true story of Mike Burden, a South Carolina member of the KKK who, in 1996, not only left the Klan but also sold his town’s controversial KKK museum to the man who helped him leave: a black Baptist Reverend named David Kennedy. Heckler first heard about the story as it was happening in real time and worked for over twenty years to tell it. Now, it’s here. The film stars Garret Hedlund and Forrest Whittaker as the respective heroes, with supporting performances from Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Usher, and more. The film was produced by Oscar-nominated producer Robbie Brenner and released by 101 Studios.
FRONTRUNNER spoke to writer/director Andrew Heckler about the process of bringing the story to theaters, what it has to say about the power of love, and why the events depicted are even more relevant twenty years later.
How did you first hear about the story of Mike Burden?
I read a blurb in that small town Southern newspaper that said, “KKK Museum Opens On Small Southern Town Square.” I couldn’t believe [that] in 1996 that was even possible. But before I even had a chance to do anything about it, I read another story in 1997 that said, “Klansman Sells Redneck Shop and KKK Museum to Black Baptist Ministry.” At that point I was sort of floored and thought to myself, “what is going on in this town?” So I picked up and I went down there to see what [was] happening and got a chance to meet the Reverend, the church, and the congregation. Clarence Simpson, who is played by Usher, spent a lot of time down there with those guys. I sort of fell in love with the people, researching the town.
And what was most interesting to you about the story, that grabbed you and made you go down there?
It was sort of a wonderful story about love conquering hate, and it’s a very simple story, you know, a very brave and courageous thing that these people did. I just felt that it was a wonderful story that meant so much to me about the power of love that I knew at some point, it would mean a lot to other people.
I read that Mike, himself, was hesitant at first – that he’d had a lot of offers to adapt the story and didn’t want to get involved. Did he ultimately talk to you for the film or get involved?
I spoke to Mike Burden yesterday.
So, yes, he ultimately did. You know, that’s true and it’s not true. Mike doesn’t liked to call attention to himself and he’s a very private person, as is Judy Burden. And it was very difficult to gain their trust and have them tell this story. What’s so nice about them is that they’re humble people. And even though they did something that I considered incredibly brave and courageous during that slice of time, they didn’t see it, the magnitude of their actions. And so, when I started investigating the story and trying to connect with Mike, Mike was like, “I don’t understand. Who would want to see a story about my life?” So, I just stayed with it and stayed with it and gained his trust so much so that, you know, he trusts me and I trust him.
Has he seen the film yet?
He has, he’s seen it twice now. What was beautiful about his reaction was it was very emotional for him to see the movie. Obviously. I’m sure it’s very difficult for anybody to see a movie about their own life. But, I think he’s very happy with Garrett Hedlund’s performance and portrayal of him. What was pretty shocking was when he came out of the theater the first time, he looked at me and he said, “It’s amazing watching your movie, I realized that I thought for all those years that those people respected me. Now, I realize that they didn’t respect me at all. They just feared me.”
The movie is centered around Mike as a protagonist and the audience is asked to sympathize with him despite seeing him do some really horrible things. How did you decide, as a writer, that you wanted to make him the main character, even knowing the feelings people might bring into the movie about someone who’s involved in the KKK?
You know, I never really even considered [telling the story a different way]. For me, the simplest version (and I wrote the first draft in 1999), the simplest story I whittled it down to is that you have an extremist who is steeped in bigotry and racism, who is pulled across the chasm to acceptance and tolerance through the love of a woman and the faith of a Reverend. So, the story for me when I read it – and even as I went down there and I went to the church – it was always about Mike Burden. It was: how do you get a man to come over from hatred to love? Like I said, I’d written this movie in 1999-2000. So, we’ve been trying to get it made ever since. Subsequently, I think there’s a lot of filmmakers out there that are trying to tell stories like this because I think we need stories like this. I think we’re desperate for stories like this because we’re feeling fairly hopeless as to [whether] we could ever find any sort of middle ground between the two extremes. It seems like at the moment, you know, unfortunately it’s more relevant than ever that we all have our blinders on right now. No one wants to see the other person. They just want to call names and stay entrenched in their own positions. So, I think that these kinds of films are coming out now to show that if, you know, in real life, if someone who’s an extremist can change, that we all can do our part in changing.
Yes, of course there’s another interesting angle here. I tried to portray it as best I [could] and give everybody equal time. Because the burden is not just Mike Burden’s: the burden is Judy Burden’s, the Reverend Kennedy’s, Clarence Simpson’s, and the burden is the Reverend’s wife’s, the congregation, the town’s, and the audience, as well. So, if we don’t want to take that burden, as an audience; if we just want to call names, close our eyes, and go off to our various corners, well that’s okay because that’s what we’ve been doing for the last…how many years and look where we’re ending up now. It’s a one-way street, you know, that dead ends in hatred and bigotry.
I read that you were actually in production in October and November of 2016. As you said, it took a long time between first draft and when you were shooting. What was it like for you, once you did get shooting, to arrive at this point with the state of the country being what it was when you were shooting the movie?
It was a crazy time down there in the South and filming in small-town Georgia during the election. You know, the movie is not a response to current events. The movie, as I said, I wrote it in 2000. It’s always been the simple message of love conquering hate. Unfortunately, hate is always here. We can’t seem to shake this kind of hatred and bigotry that has been a shadow on our country for a long, long time. My intention and my hope with BURDEN was that it could be a bright light on that shadow. And the only way to erase the shadow is through light. So, it was challenging filming during the election, but probably no less challenging than any other time. I think that the reason [that] it’s more relevant now than ever is because we now have the unfortunate opportunity to only hear and see the information that we want to hear and see. And, yeah, we had some crazy incidents while we were filming that were indicative of where we are today. Very simply, we had to recreate the KKK museum as if it were real, obviously, for the movie. When we were finishing up, on many occasions people came in and started shouting. So, you know, that that wasn’t a very positive sign for the state of affairs in the country.
One of the things I found most interesting about Mike’s story was seeing just how tied membership in the Klan was to economic opportunity in his town. Did you get the sense that the Klan in this town, overall, was about financial opportunity for its members, even more so than ideology?
I think it’s a big stew of things that brings someone into that group or into a family built around hatred. What I tried to show is that it’s really about being left behind, being vulnerable. It’s about kids who are from broken homes, who have suffered abuse, people who don’t have economic opportunities that others do. Their lives can be hijacked into families built around hate because any family is better than no family. No one comes out of the womb in a Klan robe or a Nazi outfit. Those are learned, those are taught behaviors. So part of it is, who’s vulnerable to be taught that? Well, if you grow up in a strong family environment with lots of love around, you’re pretty fortified against joining one of these groups. But if you’re vulnerable, you know, it’s much more challenging. And yes, you’re right – The Klan provides a lot of things for you that you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise. Is that the only reason? No, not even close. But, it sure is a big one.
Shifting gears just a little bit, this is your first feature. You were an actor for quite a bit in Hollywood before directing this.
I have an acting background for sure, but I opened a theater company in New York in 1992, and so we were writing, directing, producing, acting. It was an unbelievable artistic experience, one that I never thought I would have again until filming BURDEN, which was equally gratifying. But, we did it all back then. The one thing I always joke about is [that] we had to. We were very good at putting on theater, and I was really, really bad at raising money for the theater. So, you know, we had no choice but to just do work all the time.
How did your background with the theater company and also your background with acting push you towards wanting to direct features?
When you start working on movies and TV shows, there’s a point, especially when you’ve done it all at a theater company or another venue or another artistic endeavor, there’s a point when you start looking around when things are going on and you realize, huh, “I would’ve done it this way.” Or, “Wow, it seems so easy for me to figure out what we’re doing here, why is it so challenging for them?” When you start asking those questions, when you’re feeling like you’re not being heard enough as an actor and it’s frustrating, is when you start directing. It’s just the natural progression. So, if you’re satisfied, completely satisfied in the collaborative experience as an actor to director, that’s great. But if you’re not, at some juncture you want to try it by yourself. I had started writing a long time ago and at some point I just thought to myself, it’d be really great to get out of my writer’s cave and get onto a set somewhere and see what was going on.
How did you find that experience, once you did step onto set as a director?
It’s like nothing else I’ve ever done. It was the most fun I’ve ever had. It felt like I’d finally found my home. Not withstanding the challenges, of course, that you have making an independent movie. But, I felt like I was gifted with an incredibly talented cast. From Garrett Hedlund, who was like a dream for me. Forrest Whitaker was, equally, beyond a dream. He’s amazing. And also as a human being. Then you throw Tom Wilkinson, Crystal Fox, Usher, these guys. Even Usher, you know, who’s known as a singer. You don’t get to be Usher by being lazy. He came completely and utterly prepared for the time and this role.
And the truth is that I think it was such a passion project that these guys all gave it their best efforts. And that was really, really satisfying for me. The crew was amazing and not to be left out, I also have a producer, we started this project together. I started in 2000 or 1997, actually. Then Robbie Brenner came onboard in 2004, 2005. She just kept driving that boat no matter how far it took to get there and without her, this movie doesn’t get made.