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Gary Burns

Director, Producer, Screenwriter
(b. January 1, 1960 Calgary, Alberta)

Gary Burns graduated from Concordia’s film program in 1992 and quickly became Alberta’s rising star in independent filmmaking. Burns cleverly combines a wry sense of humour with an observational style.

Influenced by the low budget, but conceptually complex work of American independent filmmakers Richard Linklater (Slacker) and Jim Jarmusch (Strangers in Paradise), Burns made the award-winning short film  Happy Valley (1992), about two men of Arab descent who get lost in the suburbs and mistakenly enter the wrong house. The film, which was shot almost entirely in Arabic, helped establish Burns with key funding agencies like Telefilm and eventually helped provide him with partial financing for his next short Beerland (1993).

The Suburbanators (1995), his ultra–low-budget first feature, is an artful, uneventful study of twenty-something suburban male boredom. It was a critical and festival success in 1995, and Toronto film critics placed The Suburbanators in the top 10 Canadian films of 1996 as well as including Burns on top 10 lists of both directors and screenwriters in Canada. Mondo Canuck (Prentice-Hall, 1996) put The Suburbanators on its list of English Canada's Coolest Movies, calling Burn's debut feature "the most promising first feature by a Canadian director to come along in years." It was also invited to the 1996 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.

Kitchen Party (1998), which starred a young Scott Speedman, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and following its success there, was invited to the 27th New Directors/New Films held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where the New York Times called it "the funniest, nastiest comedy of manners to come down the pike in months." At the Turin Festival in Italy, it won the coveted FIPRESCI prize and was also named best feature at the Atlanta Film Festival.

Burns' third feature, waydowntown (2000), was described by the National Post as “a deadpan, almost pitch-perfect comedy,” and by The Village Voice as “a palliative pharmaceutical rush!” I Originally, the film began as an almost experimental project documenting The Plus 15S in Calgary, a series of heated walkways fifteen feet above street level which allowed people to move between office towers without going outside. The film’s premise was that a group of office workers (played by Fabrizio Filippo, Gordon Currie and Marya Delver) bet on how long they can avoid going outside. Meanwhile, a largely ignored fellow employee (Don McKellar, in one of his most bizarre and memorable roles) plots to kill himself but keeps failing in spectacular fashion. waydowntown won best Canadian feature at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival, best Canadian feature at the Atlantic Film Festival, most popular Canadian film at the Vancouver International Film Festival and achieved a wide U.S. and Canadian theatrical release. Burns’ most successful film to date, waydowntown was also was the first of his films to be produced by Shirley Vercruysee, who would produce all of his subsequent film work. It was also one of the first Canadian features shot on digital video.

Co-written with his wife Donna Brunsdale, A Problem with Fear opened the Toronto International Film Festival’s Perspective Canada section in 2003. Starring Paulo Costanzo and Emily Hampshire, the film shared a similar theme with waydowntown, focusing on a character whose phobias are even more advanced and delusional than some of the previous film’s principals. A Problem With Fear was less well received critically than Burns’ earlier work, possibly because of the timing of its release -- it was only two years removed from the World Trade Centre attacks – which perhaps wasn’t the optimum moment for a comedy about fear and paranoia. That said, Burns’ exploration of this touchy topic certainly says a great deal about his courage as an artist. Regardless, the film’s scope was substantially larger than any of Burns’ preceding films, and it was also technically far more sophisticated and adventurous. The film received two Genie nominations: one for cinematographer Stefan Ivanov and another for Emily Hampshire (Best Supporting Actress).

After working on a number of television movies and series, Burns returned to feature filmmaking with the hybrid documentary Radiant City (2006), possibly his most daring work. A rather blistering indictment of suburban life packed with experts outlining the negative social and environmental impact of suburban life, Burns and collaborator Jim Brown skillfully mix fiction and documentary to hilarious and often disturbing effect. The film is at once a remote cousin to Guy Maddin’s docu-fantasia My Winnipeg and Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary about environmental issues, Manufactured Landscapes. Radiant City was named to TIFF’s annual Canada’s Top Ten list, was nominated for best Canadian feature by the Toronto Film Critics Association, and won the 2008 Genie for best documentary. (A product of suburbia himself, Burns was raised in Calgary’s Westgate neighbourhood.)

Another hybrid, The Future is Now! reunited Burns with Jim Brown in a remake of an influential futurist film, Nicole Védrès’ 1950 film, Life Begins Tomorrow. The film culls scenes from the original, most notably in a sequence which focuses on existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Following the set-up of its predecessor, the film contrasts the pessimistic Man of Today (played by Congorama’s Paul Ahmarani) with the exuberant, excited journalist, the Woman of Tomorrow (Lianne Balaban) who introduces him to leading lights in a wide range of different fields.

For more extensive discussions of Gary Burns and his work, see The Young, the Restless and the Dead: Interviews With Canadian Filmmakers, Volume One (2008), edited by George Melnyk and “A Problem With Rules” by Patricia Gruben in Great Canadian Film Directors, edited by George Melnyk, (2007).

Updated January 2014

Film and video work includes

Happy Valley, 1992 (director)
Beerland, 1993 (director)
Turtle Heads, 1993 (director)
Fuck Coke, 1999 (director)
The Great Goose Caper, 2003, in production (director)
My Life as a Movie, 2003 (co-director with Josh Levy; TV pilot)
A Problem With Fear, 2003 (director; co-writer with Donna Brunsdale)
waydowntown, 2003, in development (CBC; TV series based on the film)
Radiant City, 2006 (co-director with Jim Brown)
The Future is Now!, 2011 (co-director, co-writer with Jim Brown)