Years before he was standing on the set of “Come True,” Anthony Scott Burns had been asked by Bronwyn Griffin and Austin Garrick, better known as the Toronto-based synth duo Electric Youth, to do some remixes as a friendly gesture. The tracks were never released publicly, but Burns asked if he could hold onto them because he had something in mind.
“A lot of the tonal ideas for the film were years in the making, like pre-“Stranger Things,” recalls Burns of “Come True,” which he had intended as his first feature. “We were wanting to bring this synthesizer stuff into films before it became a thing.”
Burns put “Come True” on hold when other opportunities came along, but it doesn’t seem any less original now than it if the filmmaker had made it when the initial spark for it first popped into his head, telling the story of a young woman named Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) who looking to make a quick bit of cash submits to a scientific sleep study, seemingly requiring nothing else but to be hooked up to a monitor as she catches zzzs. Of course, there’s more to the two-month exercise than what those conducting the study let on, with the nurses all cagey about what information their equipment is actually capturing, but Burns lets you enter the thoughts of all involved, easing into the subconscious with a seductive fusion of soothing electronica, a color scheme awash in refreshing purples and turquoises and gliding camerawork that’s at odds with the jagged edges of memories that his characters are all too aware of as they try to move on in the world.
Although the team overseeing the study may only be able to get so far inside of Sarah’s dreams, “Come True” pulls you in completely, congealing nods to the pop culture ephemera around her and the inescapable notions that lurk inside her head from being a latchkey kid and while it’s clear Burns has watched his share of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg films, the commonality between them that emerges is one of having a distinctive voice, one that’s made purer by virtue of Burns handling much of the filmmaking duties himself as its writer/director/composer/cinematographer and fashioning a production where he wouldn’t be disturbed by the typical demands of a budget-constrained indie. After debuting last year virtually at the Fantasia Film Festival, “Come True” is making its way into the world this week and Burns spoke about giving audiences something to hold onto in his harrowing investigation into nightmares, bringing his own personal experiences into the film and the responsibilities he takes on in protecting his vision from the script to the screen.
Is it true this started out because of your own experience in sleep studies?
My wife was in sleep studies and I had sleep paralysis as a kid, [which] sometimes happens because of stressful situations. It was directly related to the passing of my mom when I was eight years old, and I used to see this shadow at the end of my bed and I thought it was my mom, but it turned out that it wasn’t. [laughs] And there was a video I had seen of Berkeley testing out a technology where they could basically digitize what our eyes were seeing. It was very, very rudimentary and rough, but that’s what also made it scary and that opened the door to what if we could see our dreams. If we could see what we’re seeing, maybe there’s a way for us to interpret dreams in the same way.
When there’s that personal connection to this, were you waiting to get it just right? As I understand it, you sought to have creative control over this in a way you didn’t on your first film.
Yeah, I had made some shorts and they had gotten the attention of people in Hollywood and “Come True” was supposed to be the first one I made, but under advisement when something came along that was sent to me through a bigger studio, they said, “Yo, you should do this.” And I went off and made that movie and in the edit process, I realized that because I’m somebody who shoots and edits and does VFX and scores. That’s an exciting proposition for people, but at the end of the day, why I do that is to retain control so that I can make movies more in the vein of things that I grew up watching that were a little bit different and a little bit more experimental, so “Come True” is really me trying to show people what I wanted to do in the first place.
It was incredible to hear this was a two-month shoot.
I’m very collaborative with actors and that’s part of why I like to have time on set and why “Come True,” we shot for 60 days, which you just don’t get that kind of time anymore. It’s really so those collaborators will bring as much to the characters as they possibly can and want to. At this budget range, I have a very strict want and desire for a level of quality that costs money and so far in producing these films, unless I have the best of the best, I’m left wanting more. This movie was shot with five people on the crew and that’s how we got the 60 days, so it’s not that I want to do everything [on set], but at this budget range, if I want it to look and feel a certain way, it’s got to be this because we just can’t afford to have the collaborators that we want.
You’re talented enough to pull all of it off. What was interesting to me was it’s actually really great you’re using older technology in the film because it’s so tactile, but likely helped the budget – was it difficult placing this?
I run on my subconscious of what I want to make something look like, but it’s always in hindsight you can start to decipher where this stuff comes from. The films that I enjoyed when I was younger had similar qualities in that their authors pulled from places that were familiar to them but maybe didn’t really match the current contemporary style. David Lynch is a great example. His films feel both ‘50s and ‘80s at the same time — the way the characters dress and the way they do certain things and by doing that, you create a landscape that is its own. It’s built of what I’m exploring in the film anyways, which is this collective unconscious and Carl Jung’s theories on what we get from our ancestors, so it fits thematically, but it’s also something I tend to like because it’s something that I fully understand. We can in hindsight understand the way technology works after we’ve had more time to live with it, whereas if you’re making something and everything’s super-contemporary and of now, it’s harder to get a grasp on. That’s why the tactile technology is something I both want in the film, but also really makes sense for what we’re exploring.
The way you move in the physical world connects to the dreamscape – was the dreamscape constructed based on what you were filming in the physical realm?
Definitely, but that’s how I tend to move through my own nightmares. I don’t know where that comes from. It could be from watching too many Kubrick movies when I was a kid. But that movement forward is also how we interact with a lot of narrative now as people. This is how video games work, and my nightmares work that way, so it just seemed like a no-brainer that movement is how you bring people into dreams and that forward momentum came from my nightmares and I started to reverse engineer it [where] you start to feel oh, okay, this is something that’s part of the collective unconscious as well. It’s something you just give into.
It’s quite an emotionally expressive color palette you work with as well – did that come to mind early?
Those were always there and I’ve always been drawn to the early films visually of James Cameron. James Cameron’s palette is blue and it just made sense to me in terms of how to tell this story that it be a very blue movie and it wasn’t us trying to make any kind of statement, although it is definitely born of my love of that kind of cinematography. I just can’t get that out of my own DNA. I also enjoy early Michael Mann films as well where they have a similar color palette when you look at “Thief” or “Manhunter.”
I couldn’t imagine a better avatar into this than Julia – what sold you on her?
Pretty much sight unseen after I watched her in “The Killing” years before, when her name came up in the list of people that we could get, right away, I was like that’s her. And I had drawn a bunch of composites and even in the script had written Sarah in a certain way. She was perfect and she could not be played by anybody else.
When you shot this in areas of Edmonton that had been part of your own experience, was it interesting to bring her into that?
It really was. At moments, we were in my old neighborhood one night shooting some of the stuff where we’re walking at the end and all of a sudden, these police helicopters came with the lights and we heard gunshots. And I was like, “Yeah, this is my neighborhood.” [laughs] So it was good. It kept us on edge because because so much of the feeling of why I made “Come True” came from personal experience, much of which doesn’t exist in the film anymore. We shot a lot more for the opening third of the film that for pacing reasons we had to remove, but a lot of that came from my own childhood. I find encoding yourself into the films is really important and that familiarity with the environment creates a familiarity with the photography and how people interact with the items in it. It was catharsis and collective unconscious for myself.
When you had an idea of the way you wanted to make film, was it satisfying to be able to try it out and see what you could make on your own terms?
Absolutely. That’s what I’ve learned most from the last two films is I really love being on set and I really love collaborating with actors, so the process for me has been a blast. Do I want to make all my movies with me doing all the visual effects, the score and everything else? I don’t know that my body could handle it. But it’s a product of the modern day market as well. I want to be making a particular kind of genre movie that requires budgets that they don’t really hand out for this kind of movie anymore — the “Highlanders” and the “Terminators” — and they just don’t happen very often, so I hope we can return to get the budgets necessary to tell these kinds of stories, but if we don’t, I’ll continue to do this because I love putting this out into the world for people to interact with and enjoy.
“Come True” will open on March 12th in select theaters and on demand.