In his stirring feature debut “Burning Sands,” Gerard McMurray finds tension in a number of places, but where it may be least obvious is where it’s most potent, showing the struggle of a young man named Zurich (Trevor Jackson) to put himself through the ritual of fraternity hazing in the name of tradition in order to transcend it. At a historically black university where joining Lambda Phi would mean becoming part of a network of successful African-American men who could help level the playing field once he got out of school, Zurich constantly tries to reconcile the notion of being in college while actually learning about who he is from how he responds to the increasingly perverse demands of the frat brothers in charge of his pledge, a duality of experience that hits particularly close to home for students of color.
“I did undergrad and grad and I learned a lot in school, but I also learned more from the streets, to be honest,” says McMurray. “I learned how to live in this world and survive from my regular friends who never even went to college and that’s the education that’s not in school and that’s a part of who I am, so I just tried to put that into the story.”
That personal touch from the Howard alum and his (and co-writer Christine Berg’s) thoughtful allusions to the African-American experience as a whole is what separates “Burning Sands” from other films documenting the sadism of hazing, and while McMurray was inspired by the death of Robert Champion, the Florida A & M drum major who was beaten by his fellow band members, he doesn’t limit the film’s view to the here and now, but to a consideration of life after graduation and the calculations necessary during this formative period to be successful. Although the late nights spent doing push-ups in the forest may lead to D-pluses on his homework, you never question whether or not Zurich has the will or desire to succeed, but whether he wants to as his recitation of the frat’s mantra “Brothership, scholarship, leadership, compassion” starts to ring hollow in the face of the punishment he endures.
Though the film actually joins a tradition of its own going back to Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” giving this generation its all-too-rare showcase of historically black colleges (joined by others in the years since like “Drumline” and “Stomp the Yard”), “Burning Sands” feels fresh in its approach, finding as much drama in the actions that lead Zurich to have his health threatened by a fractured rib as the thoughts that race through his mind that could lead him to have a broken heart, as his own father had when he pledged. After a rousing premiere at Sundance, the film is now available on Netflix and McMurray and Jackson spoke about the filmmaker’s transition to the director’s chair after producing “Fruitvale Station” and how life imitated art, both in Jackson’s portrayal of becoming a man and in enduring the frat ritual of Hell Night.
Given your producing chops, could you design the story in a way that you knew you’d be able to get it financed and make your job easier as a director?
Gerard McMurray: I did. Being a producer, I knew as a first-time filmmaker what I could probably get with the level of the profession I was at at the time, so a simple story set in a college I knew I could get made. And I knew the time it takes to shoot something like this, based on my previous experience producing “Fruitvale,” but I had a very large cast and some of the actors were brand new to the scene, and I also had some established talent that’s been around for some time and I think just having a good strong producing team and picking a pretty good cast made me feel more comfortable. Casting is a major part of directing a film, so once i got a really good cast, it helped me with any insecurities I had because I knew these guys would help me tell my story. It definitely was a whole different challenge, but I embraced it — the good, the bad and everything that came with it, just to tell the story and get it out there.
Trevor, what got you interested in this?
Trevor Jackson: Gerard had a huge part to do with it. I met him three to five years ago, and after he asked me about this, we sat down and I was just so taken aback by his passion. I feel like when you’re doing a project, you want to do it with people who are doing it for the right reasons. He wanted to tell a great, amazing, heartfelt story and you’ve got a lot of directors and a lot of writers out here that are just looking for a check, that are looking for the fame, so when you find someone who’s similar to heart as you — you know, I’m not in it for any other reason but than to be great and he wants to be great too — it just really inspired me. I love the fact that it shows black men in college, which we don’t see a lot even though it’s always happening, and I also liked that the women are shown in a strong light throughout the film.It was a great cast and a great crew, so I was blessed to be a part of it.
I’m glad Trevor brought up the role of women – I thought the way they had a presence and to show their strength must’ve been a challenge in taking on such a male-dominated subject. How did that become such an important piece of this?
Gerard McMurray: Yeah, that was definitely a tough balance, but I hope I figured it out because the women definitely have a place in the film because guys have girlfriends and there’s going to be sorority girls – it’s just going to be part of that world. Especially with the Toya character [played by Nafessa Williams], I tried to make her three-dimensional because you expect her to be a certain type of girl – she’s a round-the-way girl, but I really wanted to make her whole and also get her to challenge the things that [Zurich’s] considering, to make him realize why is he doing this? Is it worth it? Is it important and is he comfortable with it? She’s comfortable with the things she does, so I used the character to really help [elevate] the story of the main character. [But in general] it was important because women are important, especially in the African-American community. We lean on our sisters a lot and that’s really important because they hold us up and they uplift us, so I definitely tried to bring them in the best way I could with this story.
Trevor, was there any key to figuring out who Zurich was?
Trevor Jackson: There was research I did online and actually having Gerard, going to him and making sure that it was something he believed in because it was his vision. Exhaustion played a huge role. I tried not to sleep at all when I was filming this and it’s funny because I feel like I was going through similar things [as Zurich] in terms of I was 19 when I shot this, so I feel like I was in the same space of growing up and becoming a man. Zurich was in a similar position, so there was frustration and excitement, and anxiety – it was all these things. So he wasn’t hard to find. I’m really excited about the way it turned out.
Did Gerard did a lot of takes, given how physically and psychologically demanding a lot of the scenes must’ve been in the film?
Trevor Jackson: Yeah, those scenes were intense. They weren’t fun to shoot, but they were very important scenes. They bridge the story and that’s the great thing about this movie, it doesn’t have one aspect, you know? It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s dramatic, it’s intense and there’s light moments, and it does a great job of balancing that all out.
Because all the main characters get their heads shaved on Hell Night at the end, I assume you must’ve saved that until the end of production. Did it help with the character development to have the full experience behind you or was it just crazy to build up to such a big scene?
Gerard McMurray: It was very helpful because at that point, we shot out of sequence like with any film, but once we had the head-shaving part at the end, it was all sequential order, so it was very helpful to the actors and go through that process, like they were really going through hell night. But that was one of our toughest scenes because we only had four hours to shoot hell night. We shot in a barn from 1800, so they didn’t have electricity, and we had to bring generators in, but there were thunderstorms going on that night, so we couldn’t use generators in that building because it could start a fire. Instead of having 12 hours to shoot that scene, we only had like four-and-a-half and I had actors leaving because they had to catch flights — like Rotimi to “Power” and Trevante [Rhodes] to “Moonlight,” they had to leave, so I had to shoot them out. It was difficult, but we got through it. I was shooting with two cameras. I had a great DP [Isiah Donté Lee] and we got it done.
That amazing party sequence must also have been nerve-wracking. What was it like putting that together with all those extras and so many rooms?
Gerard McMurray: Oh man. Originally, when I shot that party scene, I shot it as [one lone tracking shot]. I was trying to have my “Boogie Nights” moment with that opening scene where you see everybody, so we shot it as a oner, and I got about 12 good takes of that scene, but I ended up chopping it up in the editing room. We rehearsed for it for four hours and we shot it all in one take, so that was pretty difficult, but it was fun because we had the music there, the background performers and all my main actors were there, so it was really great. Everybody was excited and doing that scene as a oner really worked, but once I got to the editing room, I had to cut around some things. It still ended up working anyway, but that was one of the out and out most fun nights that we had.
It seems like you work hard in a lot of places to get some powerful simplicity, I’m thinking in particular about that beautiful scene with the phone calls between the alumni and the pledges where it’s a a short montage, but it says so much since you can see in the background the disparity between where these young men are and where they can go. How did that come about?
Gerard McMurray: That, for me, was always a simple scene, and when I first wrote it, I wasn’t sure [it’d be in the film], to be quite honest. Actually, one of my good friends, Ryan Coogler, read it and he said, “I love that scene, don’t cut that scene.” And I would always say, “I don’t know if it’s needed,” but I kept it and when I kept it, I shot it, and it came out so good. I had wanted to have a scene that warms people’s hearts and for me that scene, it really shows the positive aspects of what a young man can get from big brothers. I thought having a scene like that, showing a connection between young and old, brotherhood, black men caring for each other, was very important, so it came together. Even with the music, my composer [Kevin Lax], I spoke to him [about that scene] in emotional terms, like, “Hey, this should warm people up and make them feel good,” and he gave me some good music that helped really helped push the narrative of that scene, so that’s one of my favorite scenes too. I love my whole movie, but again, that particular scene warms my heart and I hope it has an effect on other people also.