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Lights, Camera, Action: An Interview with Chad and Aaron Burns

April 6–10, 2015   |   Vol. 122, Week 14

Are you homeschooling a budding movie director? This week on Home School Heartbeat, professional filmmakers Chad and Aaron Burns talk about how they got into this fast-paced industry—and shed some light on why good movies are worth making.

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How does a homeschool student break into the highly competitive and very expensive motion picture industry? Well, for professional filmmakers Chad and Aaron Burns, it all started with a log cabin and some basic videocameras. Hear their story on today’s Home School Heartbeat.

Mike Smith: We’re joined today by Chad and Aaron Burns, the director and producer for the upcoming movie Beyond the Mask. Chad and Aaron, welcome to the program today!

Chad Burns: Thanks so much for having us; it’s an honor to be here.

Aaron Burns: Thanks, Mike!

Mike: Well Aaron, tell me, how did you guys get started in making movies?

Aaron: Chad and I are cousins; many people think that we’re brothers. But we grew up, both homeschooled, and our families would get together, whether over Christmas break or summer break and we’d do different adventures together. One of the things that we decided to do was, let’s shoot a movie! We had built a log cabin in the woods behind our home and that became the set for our first film, a pioneer adventure story. And so from there, just shooting with handicams in the back yard throughout high school. As homeschool families, this is something that we did.

Mike: Chad, did your homeschooling background help you in filmmaking?

Chad: It absolutely had a big impact, Mike. So we—in our homeschool experience, like many homeschoolers, there was a big emphasis on the metanarrative, or what was the big story behind what was happening. So we read a lot of books. And when we studied a subject, there would a great deal of digging into finding out what was really going on, what was the big arc. And so that flowed directly into the filmmaking experience.

And in addition to that, we did a lot of stuff together as a family. Whether it was a large project like building a log cabin or going on field trips or whatever that was, there was already a community and network there within our own family that was a fertile soil for the filmmaking effort.

Mike: As professional filmmakers, you clearly feel that movies are important. Chad, tell us: why do you think they’re worth making?

Chad: Well Mike, a film is a unique experience. Because when somebody walks into a theater or sits down on their couch to watch a movie, they let their guard down. And they’re ready to be—I’m going to use the word ministered to, a lot of people would say entertained—but basically they’re in a position of vulnerability where they’re wanting to be spoken to.

And a film has, different from a teaching or preaching, film has the opportunity to reach somebody’s heart and their emotion. And our desire is really to inflame and to drive people’s emotions to things that are good and excellent. And we find in Scripture that the great war within us is a war between our desires and our affections, and the flesh and the devil want to drive those in one direction, and the Holy Spirit is renewing those desires. And we’re wanting to really encourage people to love things that are good and worth loving.

Mike: Well that’s excellent. Now Aaron, in your opinion, what separates a good movie from a bad one?

Aaron: That’s a hard question to answer, because there’s many different dimensions that you can measure a film on. You could look at, was it a good story? The production values, the acting, the cinematography?

But I think if you look at one measure—does it stand the test of time?—and you look back at movies from decades ago that continue to be watched today, and those messages and the stories and the characters that they create, become a part of our cultural fabric and they continue to make an impact on our generation.

Mike: Chad, how did you make a high-quality movie without a blockbuster budget?

Chad: So Mike, there are no shortcuts, and while it wasn’t a blockbuster budget it was a blockbuster effort. We had hundreds of volunteers, many of them from the homeschool community, who came out to join us in the process of building sets, of sewing costumes, in the process of hand-crafting the scores of weapons that appear in this movie, helping us pull together the production—everything from cooking to transportation. So it was a huge outpouring of effort from the community, and that’s how it happened.

Mike: Well that’s great. Aaron, for your movie, Beyond the Mask, you attracted some seasoned professionals. How did you do that?

Aaron: Mike, it really comes down to the story and the script. We reached out to Paul McCusker, who is the creative director at Focus on the Family. Growing up, we listened to his Adventures in Odyssey, and he’s one of our favorite writers. And so when Chad and I brought him the idea for this film—it’s set in 1776, it takes place in Great Britain, in India, and in the American colonies. It’s a story about an assassin for the British East India Company, who seeks to do enough good deeds to pay for his past, but ultimately he learns that he can only Christ can justify us. So we brought this story out to Paul and he said he loved it, he wanted to be a part of it.

We also had a chance to work with John Rhys-Davies, who you may have seen play Gimli in Lord of the Rings. And we showed him and his agent the script, and they really enjoyed it. They were able to pass on a couple of other projects because he wanted to come out and play this really fun bad guy character.

Mike: Chad, you’ve been making movies for quite a while. How have you grown in that time as a filmmaker?

Chad: Mike, that’s such a great question. And I think the most important thing is learning what you’re good at, and learning where you need to find partners to help you. And that’s something that Aaron and I have really tried to grow in, in this process.

So if you look at our first film, Pendragon, we wrote the script and we acted in the film. And on Beyond the Mask, we didn’t do either one of those. So we worked with really great SAG talent to do the filming, to play the roles; they just chalked up great performances. And on the script side, we worked with some top-flight creatives. We worked with Paul McCusker from Focus on the Family; we worked with Steven Kendrick of the Kendrick Brothers movies (they’ve done the Courageous and Fireproof films), and some other folks from LA. And we really reached out and said, “These are not our core strengths. How can we find people that complement what we do?”

Mike: Well Aaron, what kinds of films would you guys like to make in the future?

Aaron: We really enjoy telling stories, and our passion is to use stories to point people to a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. And we love to do that on a big canvas. So growing up, I enjoy action-adventure movies; I enjoy the journey. And so our desire is to take people on a fun, exciting journey that is entertaining, but more than that, it points them to some of the deep truths of our faith in a way that they can be entertained but engage with, and take something away that will last a lifetime.

Mike: Aaron, there are homeschoolers listening right now who would love to make really good movies. What advice would you give to them?

Aaron: Well, the first thing I would say is that more important than your cameras, more important than your costumes or your sets, is your story. And so take the time to develop that story, to develop the script, and really, really invest in that. And until you have your script finished, you’re not ready to get started. And so take that out to critics. Get feedback. Get input. And then move on.

And after that, build a team around yourself. There’s no one who is able to do the whole film alone. So finding good partners, whether—if you want to be the director, then find a good producer. If you want to be the writer, then find yourself a good director and a good DP, and build those relationships. And starting with your script, then building your team and moving on from there.

Mike: Chad, what are some classic mistakes they should try to avoid?

Chad: Mike, one of the mistakes I think people can make is failing to count the cost. And so if you’re called to be a filmmaker, this is a full-time vocation, and there’s no shortcuts; you have to take the time to learn, to invest, to do this seriously and well and excellently.

If you don’t feel a calling in that direction, maybe this is more of a hobby for you, then I would encourage you: don’t start your own project. Find somebody who does feel the Lord calling them in that direction and support them. If this is going to be a weekend warrior thing for you, join somebody else who’s really called to that full-time and make their project excellent.

Mike: Gentlemen, thank you for being with us this week and thank you for that great advice. And until next time, I’m Mike Smith.

Aaron Burns

Aaron graduated with his Masters of Business Administration from Oakland University in May of 2011. He served as the co-producer, production designer, score supervisor, and lead actor on Burns Family Studios' Pendragon: Sword of His Father. Aaron was recently married, and lives with his wife, Andrea, in Lake Orion, MI.

Chad Burns

Chad Burns is the award-winning director and co-producer of Burns Family Studios' first feature film, Pendragon: Sword of His Father. Chad completed his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, Control Systems and Human Factors at the University of Illinois in the spring of 2011. Chad married his wife, Angie, in August 2011, and they live in Champaign, IL.

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