“Burn Country” opens with an arresting opening shot that like the film that follows only gradually reveals itself to you. A young woman (Rachel Brosnahan) speaks in Polish, staring into what appears to be a vanity mirror. It’s clear she’s on a stage, but as the camera rolls towards her, then hovers over to reverse the perspective as an audience looks on, with the foreign suddenly becomes the familiar because while the words may still be unintelligible, the expressions are not. Although only one person in the crowd looks to be absorbed — Osman (Dominic Rains), a recent emigre to this small Northern California town where experimental theater would be something to do on a Saturday night — he is no longer alone in how director Ian Olds conveys his connection to what he’s seeing to ours.
“Initially, one might think let’s drop this Afghan into a very red state scenario and see him face that kind of challenge, but instead we were interested in the impenetrability of this weird, unusual bohemian community,” Olds says now, of conceiving the scene that would introduce “Burn Country.” “I had designed the shot in my mind — the same idea in a slightly simpler way, but when I described it to Adam Newport-Berra [the cinematographer], he took it to 11… In some ways, I have more understanding of it in retrospect than I did at the time.”
Olds’ smoldering character study has a way of sneaking up on you, fitting perhaps since the idea of it snuck up on him as well as he was making the 2009 documentary “Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi.” While not a fictional adaptation of that story, which charted the relationship between Naqshbandi, an Afghan interpreter and the Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, before the fixer was abducted by the Taliban and murdered, “Burn Country” considers what might happen for those who do such work and ultimately escape, leaving behind the anxiety that nightly sniper fire incites but also the only home they’ve ever known. Still, it is more complex than your usual stranger in a strange land narrative, since the culture clash is revealed to be not necessarily geographical as Osman finds a home with a local deputy of the sheriff’s department (Melissa Leo) but sociological as he encounters disparate clans in the community that resemble the rival factions he once had to broker deals with back in Afghanistan but all with their own rituals and codes of conduct.
As Osman comes to learn to navigate the terrain just as he did once before, Olds and co-writer Paul Felten fashion a unique two-way mirror that pulls you closer to Osman and gives distance to the world around him, made even more dynamic by the skills Olds has accrued over the last decade working in nearly every capacity there is on a film crew — besides directing documentaries, he’s long been the accomplished editor behind many of James Franco’s films. (Naturally, Franco shows up here as the enigmatic townie whose eventual disappearance is what leads Osman into the dark corners of the NorCal forest.) After premiering earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Burn Country” is now being released in theaters and on VOD and to mark the occasion, Olds spoke about the inspiration to continue on the path that began with “Fixer,” how sound played such a crucial role in the film and when he saw a connection to the place he grew up and where he would spend much of his young professional life.
It’s not unusual for filmmakers to want to adapt a documentary they’ve made for a narrative film, but it is to continue that story in a fictional way, which this does to some degree – what was it that led you to keep following this thread?
My film in Iraq, “Operation Dreamland,” is where I first got interested in fixers and saw that key dynamic between western journalists and local fixers, and how fixers are not just translators of language, but of culture and essential to getting access for the world. So going into Afghanistan to make [“The Fixer”], the goal of course was to make this film about the mechanics of war journalism by focusing on the relationship between an Afghan fixer, the western journalist and the story they were pursuing, and [I thought] if you could focus on that dynamic, you would be able to see some larger issues about the nature of the occupation and ongoing war in Afghanistan.
Of course in that film, when we were back in the U.S., our fixer [Ajmal Naqshbandi] ended up being kidnapped and murdered and the initial plan was to totally abandon the project altogether because it was just too heartbreaking. But we ended up going back to the footage and saw how central Ajmal was in that story and it became a obligation to go back and tell his story. In the process of finishing that film, we [also] worked with [another fixer], who ended up getting asylum in Sweden and we were somewhat helpful in that process because we were able to document the danger he was under [for] his asylum case. Once he got to the west, it was really fascinating because he spent his entire life trying to escape, jumping through all the bureaucratic hoops, and was officially welcomed to his new home and now he found himself facing this kind of quieter existential crisis of not knowing what to do with himself.
That became the very beginning genesis of this writing project. Partly, I was done with documentaries, specifically this war-related stuff, which takes its own toll and I became really interested in this character. I knew I didn’t want to tell a story about this specific guy necessarily, but to take this circumstance and use it as the very starting point. When Paul [Felten, the co-writer] and I started to explore the idea, we quickly came up with two organizing things that we were thinking a lot about. One was that we’re so used to seeing the stories of Afghans through the lens of war trauma, which is reductive [because it] doesn’t allow us to embrace the full complexity and full humanity of these guys, and second, we realized we had a chance to invert this very familiar dynamic — we’re all very aware of the films where the foreign journalist goes to see the war-torn land to report back to us, but we could make a film about an Afghan reporting on America. The final aspect of all this is that I grew up in this area in Northern California that is the setting for where Osman goes, so my own personal relationship to that place and my desire to see it with fresh eyes, [was part of the decision] to bring our Osman character there and have him confront this unusual, bohemian fraught space.
When you were over in the Middle East, did you see a commonality of geography or spirituality with Northern California?
I wouldn’t say immediately, but part of it is these intentions that you’re working with and part of it is intuitive. One thing that became clear to me, being in Afghanistan and seeing a failed state essentially, is that you start to realize how thin the social fabric is between a failed state and a functioning state. A functioning state operates on a kind of loose agreement that you realize could be ruptured at any moment, so I became quickly disillusioned by the idea that there was a clear us and them and realized how unstable our own institutions are in a certain way, even though they’re fairly rigorous. But in the writing process doing this inversion [of the traditional narrative about Afghans], where we’re so used to seeing this tribalism in Afghanistan, we realized in these small towns, there’s a kind of parochial tribalism that exists. At the same time, we also never wanted to say Osman is us and we are him because his history is very specific and he encountered a different landscape than we have and to pretend that we’re all the same is another way we’re too reductive, so we’re trying to find these commonalities and trying to treat him as a complex human being with the dignity he deserves without just simplifying it and saying we’re all the same.
The goal, of course, was to say this isn’t just a film about someone dealing with war trauma. The way I thought about [Osman’s] journey was [how a person] tries to seek purpose outside of war, but when speaking to Dominic Rains, the actor, about what [Osman’s] actually trying to do, I always thought of him as someone trying to become the fullest expression of himself, which is a aspiration that we all share. He’s had a very different set of circumstances to navigate and I think of all the characters in the film as struggling with that same issue. It’s funny, but Paul Felten, my writing partner, and I have joked, “Next time, we’ll write an actual mystery as opposed to an existential one” because it’s clear that there are these genre elements, but we’re interested in this more intimate, human struggle.
The soundtrack in the film is so evocative – the score, as well as the song choices – how early were you thinking about it?
Not necessarily before [post-production], but a little bit. I always knew this is a heightened world we’re entering into — a kind of shifted space — and that sound would be a key part of shifting between this naturalistic state into a more heightened reality, so I knew I wanted to push sound in that way. When I edit, I always work with sound because it allows me to understand how shots work — I don’t know how long a shot works until I understand some element of the sound work around it, so I work in parallel when I’m doing that. In terms of the score, I tried a few conventional guys, but then ended up having this local [guy Jim McHugh], who’s a very film savvy guy, do a couple sample scenes. What he was coming up with, which were these layers of filtered saxophone, was just awesome and also true to the idea that I wanted to have this whole other layer that had its own kind of integrity that worked with the film and where we could get really aggressive musically at times and then also become more subtle. I’ve never been interested in scoring films [where the music] purely supports the emotional lives [in the story]. I really had a great experience with all those guys and was proud of the work we did together to bring that sound because for me, that is a crucial element of cohering this slightly unusual film. I always knew it was going to come down to sound to cohere these kinds of spaces.
Though you had a wealth of experience to draw from, was directing your first narrative feature what you thought it would be?
The first day is daunting, facing the 40-person crew when I’m used to working myself with one other person doing these documentaries often. But the way I’ve always approached things is deep, deep preparation, so I had gone through so much with how to work with the actors and preparing the camera design that it was even better than I had imagined and I had this amazing crew come in. After the first day or two, I felt strangely at home and in the process and as much as I want to return at times to documentary, I’m fully committed to keeping going in narrative for now to try to deepen the craft and keep making better work before I consider going back. Documentaries have given me this great opportunity to pay attention to the world and be present for history at certain moments, but the narrative film is somewhat more internal and I think about it as a way to raise the intimate to the level of the essential as well in the poetic possibility of cinematic language, so all of that I feel like I’ve just begun to explore in this film and want to keep going deeper.
“Burn Country” opens on December 9th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center and in New York at the Village East. It is also now available on VOD.