Don Burgess Exclusive Interview on The Witches & His Upcoming Projects

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Don Burgess Interview

Continuing on our goal to bring an insight through our Interviews which will not only take The Movie Culture Readers behind the scenes of a Movie but also that particular individuals career. After having seen The Witches we felt compelled to contact Oscar Nominated Cinematographer Don Burgess who shot the film with Robert Zemeckis. 

Some factual information on Don Burgess will find you that, he is an American cinematographer who was nominated for the Academy Award and BAFTA Award for Best Cinematography for Forrest Gump (1994), directed by frequent collaborator Robert Zemeckis.

Burgess was director of photography for films such as Cast Away (2000), Spider-Man (2002), The Polar Express (2004), Enchanted (2007), Source Code (2011), The Muppets (2011), The Conjuring 2 (2016), and Aquaman (2018). Grateful enough, we had a wonderful chat and we now can present to you the Interview in it’s entirety.

Greetings Mr. Don Burgess, we at The Movie Culture are thrilled to have you. We certainly hope that during times like these you and your family are doing well.

Q. To start this interview I have to ask you about The Witches, do tell us about how you first got involved with it and your experience with working with Mr. Zemeckis again?

Don Burgess: “Bob sent me the script in the fall of 2018 and we started discussions about the project. Ive enjoyed my long working relationship with Bob and looked forward to shooting another project.”

Q. The Witches despite being a Kid Friendly Movie has a lot of Sequences which could scare an adult. How was he approach behind the scenes with Robert Zemeckis on establishing the tone of the film

Don Burgess: “The idea was to make a film for kids that the parents enjoy also. The film is part drama part  horror film with a little BZ (Robert Zemeckis) comedy mixed in.

Q. The Witches isn’t the first time the source material has been adapted, in 1990 there was film too. How important is it to distinguish and establish something of your own, stylistically speaking?

Don Burgess: “I’ve never seen the original film and approached from what I read in this script and the take  Bob has on the material.”

Q. At this point we are expecting complicated set pieces which include both practical and VFX involvement in a Robert Zemeckis Movie, The Witches too had them. What’s that one sequence from the Witches which amounted the most work?

Don Burgess: “The sequence where the Witches all gather in the ball room. Grand High Witch turns Bruno and our hero boy into mice. We spent lots of time in pre-production designing and figuring out how to execute the concept. Bob worked in a Previs situation to mock up all the shots he was thinking about as he worked through the storytelling. The Grand High Witch needed to fly and the transition of tuming boy into mouse need to be designed in detail to understand how the CG character(mice) would interact with the human characters. When we designed the lighting, we had to understand how to interact with the wire flying rigs which hang from above. We had to design the interaction lighting with the VFX of explosions and the actual turning of the children into mice. We used computerized Techndollys to recreate several passes of a shot for post composting. We created a camera mount to a Red Camera so we could flip it upside down and hang it off the crane to get the lens closer to the floor for movement in the mouse perspective. All this and more was figured out shot for shot in planning stages.”

Q. You have had a long career and have collaborated frequently with Robert Zemeckis. What’s the secret sauce which makes your collaboration successful?

Don Burgess: “Bob and I have collaborated for a long time on many films. I think the relationships Bob has with his crew is important to the success of his films. He has a trust in us and we believe in his ability to make wonderful films. He challenges and inspires us to do our best work. I think my ability to understand the film he is trying to make and my ability to execute the shot is the reason he keeps calling me back. In his words, there are no easy shots” is exactly why his films are so beautiful. He puts all his energy and focus into every shot from minimum focus to infinity. It’s all about story telling.”

Q. With a career such as yours, which include both films Mainstream and Indie. How do you select films on which you want to work? Is there a criteria?

Don Burgess: “How do I select the films. It always starts with the script. If I like it and I think an audience will like it, I will do some homework on the director and producers. Look at past work if I haven’t seen some already. Then we will set a meeting and discuss the project. I try to come in with some ideas but like to hear from the director his take on the material. At the end of the day, the director has to feel comfortable with the person photographing his movie.”

Q. Speaking of career, you are working in the business since the 90s. What’s the key difference you see on a movie set between over the years?

Don Burgess: “The biggest difference is all the visual effects work. We just did most of the work on the set to create the illusion, now we have a whole big world out there of creating in post. We still have a day of solving problems that arise with the process and making our day relies on solving those problems. No matter how much technology we have, we still have to tell stories and connect our audience to the characters and the story.”

Don Burgess images

Q. As a cinematographer what is your goal at the end of each project? What makes you satisfied?

Don Burgess: ” I write my own photographic narrative of the story. I use every tool and my toolbox, like color, composition, depth of field, movement, lighting and filtration, to connect the audience to the images. I really don’t know until the end if it worked. The audience will decide and thats when I know if I’ve done my job.”

Q. If we may, we wanted to segway into Fan Service by asking; how was it like working on Forrest Gump did you and Zemeckis ever thought of the success it’d become?

Don Burgess: “Forrest Gump was a huge brake for me. I remember feeling terrified at the beginning, but felt very good about the prep work, with a solid bible of my plan. We all new it was something different and something we had never seen before. It was a huge leap of faith by Bob Zemeckis and Tom Hanks and I’m grateful to have been a part of the film making experience.”

Q. In the new list of directors you have a prominent work relationship with James Wann, how did that happen? Is there a young upcoming Director who you wanna work with and create something? 

Don Burgess: “I’ve made two films, Conjuring 2 & Aquaman, with James Wan and will shoot the next Aquaman for him in 2021. He is a wonderfully talented director who is a pleasure to work with. He has a tremendous amount of energy and a great sense of humor. He never stops thinking about the movie and how he can make it better. I respect his dedication and work ethic, which is so important to making great films.

Q. Speaking of Cinematography, in your days as an aspiring Cinematographer is there anyone who you looked upto as an idol? Was there a favourite movie which you saw and that made you fell in love with the artform?

Don Burgess: “The movie which inspired me was and still is “Lawrence of Arabia” David Lean is the master we can always learn from. That is cinema. Freddy Young was the DP of this perfectly sculpted epic. Other cinematographers that influenced me are: Caleb Deschanel, Haskel Wexler, Conrad Hall, Owen Roizman, Jordan Cronenweth, Gordon Willis, Vittorio Storaro and so many more.”

Q. The Movie Culture is situated in India and we being fans of your work, we’d like to know whether you are aware of Bollywood? If yes, is there an actor you admire or a film?

Don Burgess: “I’ve certainly heard about Bollywood and would like to travel to India one day.”

Q. We hope you are doing well in this Pandemic, and we have to ask is there a binge watch party you have done with your family or friends? If yes, which show or movie Franchise?

Don Burgess: “I’ve learned about streaming and all the material to watch is unbelievable. However, it does not compare with going to a movie theater and having a collective experience with an audience.”

Q. Do you have any future projects lined up which you’d like to share with us and your fans?

Don Burgess: “In January I will start Pinocchio with Zemeckis for Disney and later in the year, we will start shooting Aquaman 2 with James Wan for Warner Brothers.”

Q. Being a great Cinematographer such as yourself, is there a key advice which you give to people trying to make it big? Given the vast competition in the media field, how does one cope with rejection, any words?

Don Burgess: “If you want to make it big in the movie business, you first have to love movies and be very passionate about telling stories. You have to want to work harder than your competition. You have to be willing to fail and pick yourself up and get back on the horse and try again. Keep making that film until you get it right. If you have talent and tenacity to keep going, believe in yourself. It can happen.”

The Movie Culture Synopsis

With this we came to the end of our Interview with Mr. Don Burgess, we were thrilled to have an insight of what went behind the scenes on The Witches and Don Burgess’s upcoming movies with Robert Zemeckis and James Wann are something we can’t wait for.

We’d like to Thank Mr. Burgess for agreeing to this interview, which we only hope benefits movie enthusiasts such as ourselves reach somewhere.

You can catch The Witches on HBO Max and some of Don Burgess other amazing great works such as Forrest Gump and Cast Away are easily available on iTunes.