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Robert A. Burns

Rob Burns; everyone's favourite Texan

Conducted by Phil Davies Brown
January 21st, 2004

This week, I had the pleasure of chatting to one of the most influential people in the horror genre Mr. Robert A. Burns, who has helped bring to life many of our favourite and classic movies such as the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Howling and Re-animator. Here's what everyone's favourite Texan had to say about our beloved genre.

When you were growing up, what was it about the arts that appealed to you?
Growing up I was always interested in arts and crafts. I always was clever at putting things together. It was always the practical aspects of gluing this to that which held me, rather than trying to express a particular emotion. This led me into commercial art rather than fine art.

How did you get the gig on Texas Chain Saw Massacre?
I had known Tobe for about eight years before Chainsaw, and worked with him on some other projects, so he knew me and my abilities. When it came time to make Chainsaw I was just the logical choice to design it.

Your work received a huge amount of respect and praise, where did the inspiration to design the set like that come from?
The inspiration for the design of any film should come from the script itself--the characters and what they would do and what they had to work with. I don't think "How can I, as a designer, creep out an audience?" but "What would these creepy people do, and why?" So, I used real bones and animal parts and coat hangers and old boards and rusty wire and such because that's what these characters would use. The result was a convincing place where crazy people lived rather than a designer's idea of where crazy people would live.

Having seen the documentary 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Shocking Truth', I know that the film has a well documented troubled past. So bad in fact that you had second thoughts about working in the film industry. Did the offers of work come pouring in and did you reject them?
When Chainsaw came out it was heavily sold on, and recognized for, the design, but because of the experience I was not pursuing other film opportunities myself. This would have also required moving to LA at the time as the local film industry didn't exist then. When Peter Locke was putting together The Hills Have Eyes a couple of years later he went to very great lengths to find me for that picture which was a much more pleasant experience. The rest, as they say, is history.

Trying out the Killing Mask.

Was the majority of the work you were offered within the horror genre, and did this annoy you, or are you a fan of the genre and pleased to have been involved with so many classics of the genre?
As with any endeavor, however, success in one area of genre will tend to get one typecast which can, of course, become frustrating. But if you are preparing for your wedding you are going to choose a photographer who has experience with weddings rather than one who has great experience with making tractors look good, so it's hard to fault the same in producers. I have always enjoyed scary movies, although not blood-and-guts in general. I have enjoyed being able to have input in some very famous horror films, as well as some other genres that were not quite so successful.

You are notoriously famous for speaking your mind, which I genuinely admire about you as it demonstrates how soul destroying the film industry can be. Do you think that so many people have hired you because of your honesty, or do you think it has hindered your chances?
I've always wanted people to be truthful with me so when someone genuinely asks my opinion, I've never seen any reason not to be truthful with them (which is not to say I don't try to be diplomatic) which can meet with varying results. When the Coen brothers were preparing to make Blood Simple they approached me about design. As part of the process they asked my opinion of the script. I told them what I felt worked and what I felt didn't. Turned out they didn't hire anyone who felt like anything in it did not work. On the other hand I was approached similarly by a local writer/director about a script he had. I honestly told him I thought the script was unworkable. He ended up abandoning it and working towards another (Confessions of a Serial Killer) which he not only hired me to design, he ended up casting me in the lead role. You just never know.

So, how did Peter Locke manage to tempt you into working on 'The Hills Have Eyes'?
As noted above, he really wanted me to do Hills and went to extraordinary lengths to track me down (no Yahoo People Search back then). He flew me to LA to meet him and Wes, talk about the project, and help scout locations. I was pleased with his attitude and felt like it might be time to try film work again.

What was it like to work with Wes Craven (a personal favourite of mines) and was the experience radically different to that of working with Tobe Hooper?
Wes was great to work with. He truly valued my opinions (and other people's as well) on the project, the script, etc. He is a very supportive guy. When I was hired there was much more art direction to be done because it was to be set in the near future with a whole tribe in the desert, but by the time we shot it had been trimmed back because of budget constraints. Even though there wasn't as much design involved, I got to make nice input as a sort of horror advisor. We've ended up being friends ever since.

You worked on 'Tourist Trap' which freaked me out as a child, what was it like working with all those creepy dummies?
When I finished Tourist Trap I never wanted to see another #*%*&%##!! Mannequin in my life. The workshop they had for me to work in was on the second story of a building at Hollywood and Vine. I had to drag everyone of those things up and down those stairs and hump them all over the place. It was fun figuring out how to animate them all, but it involved so much sawing and drilling and sanding that I thought I was going to die of fiberglass dust inhalation. The results were very satisfying though.

Grandma gets her first facial treatment.

Your next big project was 'The Howling', how did that come about and was it an enjoyable process?
The Howling was an extraordinary amount of work for very little money, but was made worthwhile because of the total support of Mike Finnell and Joe Dante. Again, they hired me because of my work and my reputation for getting big results from small budgets. They also appreciated my input and supported my decisions even if they conflicted with other people's ideas.

A lot of people connected with 'The Howling' have gone on to big success, what was the atmosphere like on set? Did you have any idea that the dedication by all concerned would pay off?
The atmosphere on the set was always positive even under enormous stress, mainly because of Joe Dante's attitude. He was always funny and supportive and never took things so dreadfully seriously. He never looked upon it as making great art that was going to save the world. The attitude on a film comes down from the top and it can make an enormous amount of difference. Some of the most unpleasant experiences I have had have come from projects I was getting paid the most for.

In 1983, you worked on Mausoleum which William Vail was in. Knowing that most people connected with 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' had fallen out, were there any problems between the two of you?
I never had any problems with the cast or crew of Chainsaw and worked with several of them over the years (Daniel Pearl three or four times). I always felt like Bill was kind of the forgotten guy of the cast, being the first to die. After the shoot of Mausoleum was over I ended up giving Bill the special effects hammer he was killed with in Chainsaw. Of course, now I could sell the damn thing on eBay for a fortune!!!

I also noticed that you gave a helping hand on two of Tobe Hooper's later projects, 'Poltergeist' and 'Salem's Lot'. Had you resolved your differences by then or was your argument never with Tobe?
After Chainsaw I had an axe to grind, but later we buried the hatchet. We've ended up staying in touch. Last year Tobe was inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame and invited me to be a guest at his table. We have discussed film ideas to work on again if the time comes.

In 1985 you then worked on Re-Animator, was that a radically different project to your previous work and what was it like?
Re-Animator wasn't radically different content-wise from everything else, but was radically different in approach. Neither Stuart Gordon nor Brian Yuzna had ever really been around a film before, so didn't know how all the departmental politics were supposed to work, so they hired people they believed knew best and then trusted their judgement, so there wasn't nearly as much second guessing and personality conflict as there usually is on a film. Everyone felt supported and appreciated and worked together as a team quite well.

About the same time, you took on multiple roles on 'Confessions of a Serial Killer' that of star and production designer, was this a huge task?
As production designer on any film I am one of the first crew people hired. I was working away on the art direction while they were casting. They were auditioning actors from all over the state (it was made in Texas) for the lead character based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. They were desperately wondering "Where are we going to find the right psycho for this part?" when they all started looking over at me. They actually decided I was the psycho for the part without knowing I had ever acted in anything at all. They were amazed to know I have a by-god college degree in acting (a very handy degree to have). We had enough time to work on the film that it worked out well. We did hire an additional person to oversee the set construction etc. that I would have been doing myself.

Robert: "I never repeat myself!"

I personally prefer the film to 'Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer' which to me seemed unnecessarily gory and explicit. Did it annoy you that the 'Confessions' languished on the shelf for so long that all of the attention went to 'Henry'?
Actually, both these films were made about the same time and sat on the shelf because of pending court rulings on making films about real people. Henry did not precede Confessions by very much time, actually, but of course it did get more attention because it was first. Henry used the actual names and family relation, but had nothing to do with any actual events, while Confessions was very much based on real events but changed the names. I was very pleased that in the long-run Confessions gained a more lasting following based on opinions such as yours. Several reviewers preferred the "realism" of Confessions of the theatricality of Henry.

Last year, the remake of 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' was a huge success (I know we've already discussed this). 'Salem's Lot' has just been remade and there is talk of a 'Hill's Have Eyes' update. Does it annoy you that people keep tampering with classic films which you have worked on?
It really doesn't annoy me when remakes are made, because it is a testament to what a good job we did to begin with. With Chainsaw almost every review made preferential references to the original (The LA Times once again credited the "extraordinary production design" for much of the success of the original.) The remake has stirred enormous interest in the original. Let's just hope to god no-one actually makes a good film while making a remake.

Would you ever consider doing a 'Daniel Pearl' by taking the same role on a remake as you did on the original?
I have actually been approached about some of these sequels/remakes, but as I must have said a million times, "I never repeat myself!" Of course, Daniel's situation was unique because he had been the cinematographer for the director of the remake on his other projects, so was the director's choice anyway.

Finally, can you tell us a little about your latest project 'The Legend of 80-John'?
Actually, The Legend of 80-John, which was well on its way (locally here in Texas), had to be put on hold because of economic downturns. Investors' money was refunded until a later date. There is a producer in LA who is trying to put the money together out there. It is a legend based on a true event from two hundred years ago about a badly abused slave who is said to return through the years to help avenge injustices suffered by his descendants. It is a small tale set in very rural America not about Black vs. White, but about justice vs. injustice.

If you could also mention a little about any other future plans?
I've written several screenplays recently (just starting on another now) that have some LA interest in various corners of the business. After many years I finally wrote the Rondo Hatton screenplay which is the biggest budget. Of course, all that and $1.75 will buy me a cup of coffee these days. More can be seen on all this stuff on www.robert-a-burns.com.

"Thank you ever so much for taking part in this interview Robert,
and we wish you the best of luck in the future."

Visit Robert's website here: www.robert-a-burns.com

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