By Jamie Isbell.
Charles Burnett’s journey as a filmmaker has not been one of equidistant success after success. Starting out with untracked intentions of becoming an electrical engineer and no grasping desire to become a man with a movie camera, he was in a strange position of observation in his neighbourhood of Watts, Los Angeles. Through his late childhood he experienced, both first and second hand, the beating heart of this black community during a time of social shifting and racial upheaval, which resulted in one of the most astute yet unseen panoramas of southern Los Angeles working class living and adolescent energy, Killer of Sheep(1977).
Film International (FI): You started your MFA in Film at UCLA during a time of huge change in the political status and consciousness of America. How did this affect your views towards filmmaking?
Charles Burnett (CB): Well, there were a lot of social issues being debated and discussed, everyone felt as though they had a chance to do something. A lot of people in the community were using arts to express these issues. Hollywood was responsible for a lot of the negative images of the conditions in the community. Initially I got into film to talk about local issues and things like that.
FI: I understand that you started out training as an electrician?
CB: Yeah, um, it was expedient in a way, I had just got out of high school and I had no idea about filmmaking, I had no idea it was possible. I started taking creative writing and drifted towards filmmaking from there.
FI: What was the catalyst for Killer of Sheep?
CB: At UCLA there were a group of people making political films about the working class and poor people being exploited by management. That wasn’t the situation I knew, and the people I knew. I wanted to do a film that reflected reality, but also because UCLA was sorta’ anti-Hollywood.
FI: The music in Killer of Sheep works on various levels, sometimes subtly and other times powerfully. Is music something that you are always conscious about whilst writing and shooting a film?
CB: Well, then I was. I used to play trumpet and music was very big in the community. My mother used to play a lot of pieces and I think it was from her and listening to her music over and over that made me aware of the potential of music.
FI: Was it your intention to use the music to settle and humanise the strong images of the slaughterhouse?
CB: I was looking for pieces that sort of complimented what was going on in the scenes.
FI: The slaughterhouse comes across as a benign place for Stan to work, compared to his home life, which appears more stressful and complex. Was this juxtaposition intentional?
CB: I wanted them both to have the same effect. The slaughterhouse, ironically, is a place where you have to kill to survive. It’s a cruel profession and I think it alienates you. But in reality it doesn’t bother them, they could eat sandwiches right in front of an animal being slaughtered. But the community was a negative force on Stan and he was trying to navigate through that, and I think it was the attention of all those things that was his problem.
FI: How did you go about selecting the locations for the film?
CB: I grew up in that area and knew those places. The slaughterhouse was difficult, there was a meat packing plant and a slaughterhouse, and they used to allow people to shoot there. But there was a time in the 60s and 70s when vegetarians started to make these anti-meat films under the disguise of a different movie. I had to go way up beyond San Francisco to find a privately owned slaughterhouse and the guy was nice enough to let me use it.
FI: The characters in the film have an impressive screen presence, how did you approach the casting for the film?
CB: Most of them were friends of mine. Henry Gale Sanders I met in an elevator at UCLA. I said, ‘Have you ever acted?’, he sort of smiled and said, ‘Yeah I’ve worked on a student film’. But most of them were people I knew in the community.
FI: Can you explain the representation of children in Killer of Sheep?
CB: It’s from their perspective, partly anyway. It’s kids in the neighbourhood that see everything. You’re taught things to survive, and in doing so you learn that you’re part of humanity. The opening scene is about this kid being told the facts of life, you know, if your brother’s in a fight, I don’t care you help him out. The kids are so much a part of life, when you’re in the community that’s all you hear and see, they’re like birds in the trees, all you hear is this chatter. Kids are much easier to work with than adults, the kids have that memory, it’s just amazing how they can remember everything from the script.
FI: Community is a recurring theme in your films. How did the community ethic change from the time you started at UCLA up to the time Killer of Sheep was first released?
CB: Well, two things happened. When I made Killer of Sheep there was a certain innocence around that period, there wasn’t the drugs and dope you find in the 80s, where it became vicious. When I did My Brother’s Weddingthere was this sense of the community totally changing, dispersing. There was this point where you could make a job without an education, you know, it didn’t take much to fix a car, but now you look at a car, it takes an education. It’s a different ball game.
FI: Your first short film Several Friends shows similar themes to those seen in Killer of Sheep, for example, the slaughtering of animals and the two friends repairing the car. Do these subtle themes appear naturally within the fabric of the film or do you weave them in intentionally?
CB: I mean, you start of with an abstract element, a theme, but you’re trying to find it in what people do in the community; you find a narrative there. UCLA’s philosophy at the time was that you have to go out and do your thing and come back with something we haven’t seen before. This whole idea of becoming a black filmmaker and the responsibilities was also something that was affecting how you looked at things.
FI: How do you feel about the opportunity that University students are given today? Does the advancement of technology and the easiness of producing films excite you?
CB: It does, it makes it possible for anyone who wants to make a film to try and make a film. I think film teaches you discipline, because the film costs so much you really have to use your imagination, you have to really know the film stock and there are a lot of things delayed by working with film. There’s a sort of magic in the old way of doing it, you can’t shoot and shoot and shoot. Whereas in video you can get it instantaneously. I shot a documentary on digital and it’s tiring because you can sit behind the camera and it never ends, and you have so much material you can’t even use it all. You see the impact of film and the impact of storytelling, digital just blows it up.
FI: When did you first feel like a filmmaker?
CB: It’s something that a bunch of us are talking about now, can we call ourselves filmmakers having made a few films? Say for example you say, ‘What do you do?’, ‘I’m a brain surgeon’, ‘Well, when was the last time you operated?’, ‘Umh, maybe a couple years ago’, ‘Well I don’t want you operating on me’ [laughs]. We’re working at being filmmakers I think. When we made films at UCLA we tried to put everything in, including the kitchen sink, because we thought we would never make a film again. You don’t know when you’re gonna do another film, so it’s going to be harder.
FI: So how about the future?
CB: Well you wanna sort of look around and grow, there’s so many different stories to tell. You don’t wanna tell the same story over and over again. You want to go and show you’re a filmmaker, you really have to include all the stories you can because there are so many, ones that you can be satisfied and happy with, and not just anything. Right now I’m just trying to get the job.