While horror has delved into the subconscious waters of our dreams many times before, director Anthony Scott Burns (Our House) manages to pull off a unique take on the subject in his latest film, Come True. The atmospheric sci-fi horror film celebrated its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival, and its neon-drenched dream world was truly spellbinding.
During the festival, we got the chance to talk to Anthony Scott Burns about his unique approach to horror, the collective unconscious, the future of genre filmmaking, and the elusive brilliance of Sleepaway Camp. Read on for the fascinating chat.
“We should always be thinking about where technology leads us and we don’t […] I think technology is a conduit to horror.”
Stephanie Cole for Nightmare on Film Street: I was really interested in how you took a different approach to nightmares in a horror film. I feel that’s something that’s been explored a lot in the genre in various different ways, but you managed to find a unique take on it. What made you want to go into the world of dreams for your current movie?
Anthony Scott Burns: That’s a tough question. Well, because they’re so misunderstood, we don’t really know what they are really? [laughs] I’m really interested in exploring in my movies, the stuff that we take for granted, stuff that we just don’t really get — It’s hard to explain. It’s usually a technological aspect of it too. I can see that pretty soon, we might be able to do what’s being done in this film. I’m always sort of getting a jump on that as well. I suffered from sleep paralysis. I know a number of people who have suffered from sleep paralysis.
It’s just weird that we all see the same things and we just go, “Oh yes, science says it’s a mass hallucination,” and that’s an interesting basis to a sci-fi story and horror story. I realized there’s been a lot of sleep paralysis movies, but my take on it was not so much the creepy La Llorona in your nightmares, but more of, let’s look at if it actually did happen. Dreams are an unknown place. It’s always going to be a fun starting point for a film.
NOFS: I’ve noticed a connection between this and your last film, Our House, that there was always a connection between technology and something that’s supernatural or less technologically connected. I was just curious about what makes you interested in finding the connections there.
Burns: Well, have you had a chance to see my short film, Holidays?
NOFS: I haven’t yet!
Burns: Well, that one includes a tape recorder. The tape recorder is the conduit in that one. I don’t know if you know, but Our House was vastly re-edited and changed from my original intent. You can see in Come True probably where Our House was going to be heading, as opposed to where it ended up. You’re right, about the technological things — there is a through-line there. The reason is that magic and the occult, and just anything to do with religion, all the things that feed into horror, they’ve only recently begun to intersect with technology.
It’s been a very short period that we’ve had the technology to explore these things and I find it interesting, like in my short film Holidays, technology circumvents somebody’s free will. The message is that these things don’t know about technology, these old things, these ancient things don’t know about technology and therefore what happens when they intersect with it? The idea of looking into the dreamscape, a place that is never supposed to be seen, it’s only for the person experiencing it. Now, technology allows us to do that. What does that mean?
I think for me that comes from just the theme of, we should be doing that with all technology anyways, we’re just looking at where’s this is going for us in 10, 20, 50, 100 years? Should we even do that? [chuckles] I hate to go back to Jurassic Park but that moment with Jeff Goldblum is correct. We should always be thinking about where technology leads us and we don’t. That’s where the fear for me comes from, is that we always just jump off the diving board when it comes to technology. I think technology is a conduit to horror.
“I’m a very logical and methodical thinker. I tend to approach these things from that viewpoint when I’m thinking of ghosts to goblins, any of this stuff.”
NOFS: Yes, I think that it’s a really interesting take on it because I think that despite the fact that these little devices are things that we use all the time, we don’t quite understand the full implications.
Burns: Look, if I asked you right now to describe to me how your phone works, you would probably say magic. [laughs] In fact, the level of technological leaps that had to happen, and that seemed to happen, almost instantaneously from desktop to smartphone almost seems impossible, but yet it happened and now it just is and now we just roll with the punches.
NOFS: Yes! When you mentioned that it actually just reminded me about how the spiritual movement, when everybody started getting obsessed with talking to ghosts and spirits, much of that came about because new technologies like telephones and radio signals and morse code were around and people thought, “Well if we can talk to somebody over here in an instant, why can’t we talk to somebody who’s dead in an instant?” That connection has always been there as long as there’s been that technological aspect. People have wondered, “How far can we take this?”
Burns: Yes. It’s infinitely exciting to ask those questions. That’s always going to be, I think, where my head gets its ideas. [chuckles] I am fascinated with old versus new. Just religion, the occult, and just anything to do with the past, intersecting with the future and what does that mean for those ideas. It allows us to explore them almost more logically because now we have to explore them with math. I think that’s why I do it. It’’s also a self-exploration because I don’t know if you know this, but I have Asperger’s syndrome. I’m a very logical and methodical thinker. I tend to approach these things from that viewpoint when I’m thinking of ghosts to goblins, any of this stuff. I think of the logical approach and what does that mean for people who really do believe? Because I know so many people believe in ghosts.
NOFS: When you mentioned your interest in the intersection of past and present, I really noticed this consistent visual style in your films that’s sort of retro, maybe a little ’80s inspired — but the films are still very much set today. What draws you to that aesthetic as your distinct style and visual language?
Burns: Thank you for noticing! I think what it is, is it is a way to disorient the viewer — I don’t know if this happened to you, but if you really surrender to the movie, the idea was that it would hypnotize you. When the final moments happen and the message is there — I don’t know if you got this but the message is for you. It’s not for the character, the message is for you. It’s supposed to disorient and the whole idea of all my films is to be immersed in a world that is other.
You could almost say it’s another dimension, but it’s the dimension that I wish had happened. [laughs] I think that comes from the films that I grew up loving. If you look at something like Twin Peaks, that’s the 1950s, but it’s the 1980s. It took place in the ’80s, but it looks like the 1950s and I think that’s just a progression. I think what David Lynch wanted was the things that he grew up with and what I want is the things that I grew up with. You get a nice hybrid of these places that don’t really exist. There is no Twin Peaks and there is no wherever my movies take place.
It’s other, and I like creating worlds and I like disorienting in my world. That’s where that comes from. It’s that it doesn’t really make sense but it does. I think Cronenberg had a lot of that as well. That disorienting feeling is important, I think when you’re working within science fiction and horror, to instantaneously put the viewer in a state of dread.
NOFS: Yes, and when you mentioned that it’s meant to put you in a trance and then the ending has the effect of maybe popping you out of it, I was really fascinated by the dream sequences in the film because they were both unsettling and often terrifying, but also strangely soothing. They get you into this lull and it really felt like you were sleeping, which I feel like is not something that a lot of dreams in cinema often do. What inspired you to create those specific dream worlds and the rhythm of them?
Burns: Well, firstly, I’m really sad that you didn’t get to experience them in a theater because they were designed for the big screen. When you’re floating through them on the big screen, you really feel it like you’re being sucked in slowly. You’re exactly right, they’re meant to both soothe and disarm your subconscious. They’re built of imagery that is mundane sometimes and also otherworldly. Each dream has three segments and one is the entrance. The second is the subconscious and that’s where you see everyday items moved into different places.
Then the third is an otherworldly shadow domain. They’re designed to do exactly what you’re saying, to make people feel at ease. The worst part is these come from my own dreams. I took a lot from my own dreams and from other people in my life who have explained some scenarios in their dreams to me. I think a lot of these things, the reason they work is that a lot of people see the same things in their dreams. I think that again comes back to, “Well, isn’t that interesting? Isn’t that a nice idea to explore?”
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NOFS: Yes. I noticed that you touched on some of the concepts of Carl Jung in the film with the title cards being the aspects of dreams that he describes. That connects to your overall thoughts about the collective unconscious, which is something that Jung talked about, asking, “Why do we all dream about the same things?” Have you always been interested in Carl Jung and thought of making a film that would incorporate these themes, or did it just naturally come about?
Burns: It naturally came across as I did more and more research. I’ve been reading his stuff for a number of years, but it didn’t really click until the idea of watching people’s dreams became something that could be a reality in the next decade. I don’t know if you know this, but Berkeley’s technology really does semi-work, and it works for seeing images in our brains. I think that in our lifetime, we might be lucky enough to see that happen. To see an AI interpret what our brains are dreaming about. The collective unconscious is– Listen, one day, a guy walked up to me, this is going to sound crazy.
One day I was walking, and this was right when I was writing the film and this fellow walked up to me and he looked very normal. Probably a college student, dressed really nice, walked up to me, he said, “Hey, man, you know this is all a dream, right?” Then he just walked off. I was like, “Okay.” That kind of stuff, it hits you and makes you think. I think the horror in that idea is what drew me in and I think Carl Jung’s theories support that.
I think that’s why I liked linking the two, is that it supports this idea that there’s a thread inside all of us that knows that maybe when you die, you just wake up and do it all over again. We don’t want to know, but there’s an idea there that it’s possible. I think that’s the thread that I’m feeding on.
“[The dream sequences] come from my own dreams. I took a lot from my own dreams and from other people in my life who have explained some scenarios in their dreams to me.”
NOFS: Do you think about the music as something that comes to you while you’re writing a film? Or does it come around when you’re creating the imagery? How does that process work as somebody who also helps with the music for your films?
Burns: Well, for this one, it’s interesting. I collaborated on a number of tracks, but the film was much longer in my director’s cut. Most of the cues that were written by Electric Youth ended up by the wayside again because they scored Our House originally as well. There was a longer version [of Come True] that existed with way more of their music and so it saddens me but this is part of the marketing aspect of making movies as well. They do have to be a certain length. Listen, I think that for most people, this version works. I’m very proud of this version, the festival version, but there was a lot more with Sarah in the opening bits of the film. I specifically tapped my friends, they’re my friends, to cue the moments that were, I guess — emotional.
Because they’re such lovely people, I wanted them to score the moments that were about that character and what she was going through before she went into the study. I’ll typically write the themes for all the dreams and the mood of the final act when I’m writing a movie. I’ll write all that stuff up ahead of it. [Electric Youth] worked on the opening moments and I worked on the scares and the dread building stuff. The opening sequence stuff, there’s one sound you hear throughout the film.
I don’t even know what to call it, but it’s my voice that I just did some weird processing on. I think the voice is a very powerful instrument for horror because you instantly recognize it as something living. [laughs] As opposed to an instrument, it’s a living thing that’s creating this mood. A lot of the sounds in the film are made with voice. To answer your question really long-windedly, I write a lot of the stuff ahead of time, I write the themes and that overarching mood.
I often will play them for the actors just to get them into the zone and just knowing where we’re headed, because ultimately, this is a bad thing to say, but movies do play like music videos for me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing as a filmmaker, but. I feel like music is so important to movies. If I could say one thing about modern filmmaking that really makes me sad is that the soundtrack has become secondary, and an afterthought, whereas I think a lot of the films that I grew up loving, and probably yourself included, the soundtrack was so key and so important to the theme.
Theme is so important, repeated theme. Let us know how to feel and things like that. I do write a lot of that stuff up ahead. I’ll get people like Electric Youth to collaborate. I think I worked on the remixes of their songs two years before I even wrote the script, but told them that this is for Come True. We always knew those remixes were for Come True. When I wrote the script, I knew exactly that the Modern Fears track was going to be playing over [Sarah] watching the video of Jeremy and creating some bizarro aha moments. [laughs]
NOFS: How do you approach creating that ambiguity with characters while also making them very compelling?
Burns: I’m glad that you found them compelling. Honestly, I think the secret to making good characters like that is just pulling from yourself, just your own experiences. Maybe that’s not the case for everyone else, but I don’t know. Trying to make situations as real as possible. A lot of people might say the relationship between Griffin and Sarah is just weird, but sometimes that happens. That’s the thing. There’s the Hollywood way and then there’s the way that happens to the rest of us. I practice making movies within a classical format. The films are classical in their presentation, but then the things that are happening are a little bit more in line with how you or I would go about our day.
I think that breaks in some people’s minds, and they won’t like it, but I like that because it makes it tricky and harder to– Someone else who did that is Brian De Palma. I grew up really loving his movies because of that. They have a track, a very traditional format. That they do wild and crazy things. I think that’s what drew me into them. That’s what I wanted to do for my own work is just make that distinction. For me, when De Palma’s aping on Hitchcock, I think I’d probably be aping on Fincher. I see those parallels in the style and what I’m trying to do, but I’m trying to make weird genre movies.
NOFS: You mentioned Lynch and Cronenberg and De Palma. What other influences do you draw from in your filmmaking process?
Burns: Sleepaway Camp [laughs]. Early cuts of my films always get producers going crazy because I love to hold things longer than necessary just because of Sleepaway Camp. Sleepaway Camp, for me, is a perfect movie, even though it’s so problematic in so many ways. What that movie taught me was the feeling you’re left with in a film is probably more important than the whole rest of the film. [laughs] The ineptitudes of filmmaking can sometimes create a perfect storm of emotional drive that is really powerful.
We, as filmmakers and as viewers, have tried to distill movies to their perfection. I think in doing so, we’ve lost a lot of humanity. I try to leave a lot of that in there. Sleepaway Camp is a great reminder to me that the perfection that we all as filmmakers want to achieve isn’t always the best result. Sleepaway Camp is a huge inspiration. Michael Mann is another. Manhunter, you’ll see it all over Come True, to be honest. [laughs] That movie changed me as a person when I first saw it.
I was living in Edmonton and I was poor. I traded a bunch of VHS tapes for that VHS and then I watched it four times in a row [laughs] because it was such an exciting piece of cinema. Michael Mann, I don’t always love his movies, but what I love is his sincerity to the material from his point of view. He taught me to be sincere to the material in a way that is true to you. While it’s not reality; Miami Vice is in no way how cops behave; it is sincere to the material from his point of view. I love that.
I try to do the same, even though someone might think it’s nonsense or bizarre. I would never act that way or people would never act that way. It’s not as interesting as Agent Cooper. There’s probably not too many people in the FBI who act the way Agent Cooper does, but that doesn’t matter. It’s more interesting to just be true to yourself when you’re writing that stuff.
“there’s a thread inside all of us that knows that maybe when you die, you just wake up and do it all over again. We don’t want to know, but there’s an idea there that it’s possible.”
NOFS: When you mention that, it reminds me about how I think a lot of people nowadays think that art needs to check off a certain amount of boxes and be solvable, if that would make sense to you. All pieces of art, a lot of people approach nowadays, it’s like a problem that needs to be solved. If they can’t solve it, then it’s not good. I think that by saying that, we’ve lost a lot of what it really is about which is so much more than just whether or not you can figure it out.
Burns: It’s the communication. As someone who’s lived a life with an autism spectrum disorder. I’m just super awkward. For me, I found that my best communication method was to place music and visuals together and tell stories that way. That’s how I choose to communicate with people and I love to do it this way. I’m thankful that I get to do it this way. That’s how I see films. When you sit down and watch A Nightmare on Elm Street, you’re talking to Wes Craven. That’s why it feels so good when a filmmaker gets it right or is just honest with themselves because you feel that.
That’s why there’s a connection there. “Wow, I get him. I get that person who’s telling me this story.” I think you’re right. I think you’re exactly right. It’s that by trying to figure it out, it’s like trying to figure out a person. They really have a life of their own with these movies and there’s nuance. It’s not just about what was the beginning, middle, and end. It’s like how did you feel about it? Did it give you a good feeling, a bad feeling? Maybe the bad feeling is a good thing from that movie.
When you watch Come and See, you don’t want a good feeling, you want a bad feeling, and that shows you’re a human being. It’s tough. The new sort of thing is there are new boxes being checked where it’s feeling that, let’s say, Come True, for an example. Jeremy is a creep, Riff is a kind of a creep. I think some people will watch the film and think that I condone men’s behavior when I really don’t. In fact, when they get to the ending, most see that no one in this story does but I play him like a traditional character
NOFS: I felt like it was really interesting, in your film, how even though characters were acting in ways that we could step back and say, that’s not okay, the film just had it happen. It wasn’t really passing judgment — either good or bad on it. Just saying, “Yes, this can be how things go.”
Burns: That’s another thing to movies that I grew up loving, whether it’s Blade Runner or Manhunter. The thing that I think I’ve responded to in Manhunter is that the villain is treated like a human being even though he’s a serial killer. The same can be said for Blade Runner where you have Roy Batty. He’s the villain but he’s not the villain. I think that’s important, to not pass judgment because as we live on this planet and we see things going further left and further right, I think it’s up to people to keep in mind that the more you pass judgment, the worse things get.
People are people and they’re just trying to survive and you have to– Yes, I’m a weirdo in that way I think. If I can even put a little bit of that in my movies — that I’m not going to pass judgment. You can feel how you feel about them but they’re human beings and they’re going through something. That’s how I approach it. I don’t pass judgment on my characters.
NOFS: I was really interested in how you achieved the dream world effects, it felt so immersive.
Burns: I have a background in visual effects. The basic idea is that I started making movies almost solo because I did not know how I would ever come up with the money to make movies because I grew up pretty poor. It was not something that I thought would ever happen. I started off just doing these things on my own and it just, over the years, led to me being able to fuel all the visual effects and the music element, all the rest of that stuff. For this film, I have some friends in the industry who helped me build some of the assets.
We would design. I have a friend named Ash Thorp. He actually designed the batmobile for the new Matt Reeves Batman. We worked on a number of things. We work on stuff all the time together. He and I just devised a bunch of visual styles that we would like to explore. We had some friends join the party and build some elements here and there. I took them all, animated them, and just go with them all in CG. It’s not really that fun. An explanation is that I basically touch around in CG a lot. It was like me playing with clay. That’s really what it was. It’s like, “I need a chair. I need this.” We would get design and stuff and put it in there. I just bust around and animate it until it was right and put it how I would like my scenes.
NOFS: It’s amazing that we can do that these days.
Burns: It is amazing. I know. That’s the thing. We talked about this. We made the movie with a five-person crew, which is bonkers. [laughs] The fact that we can do that now is good. The bad part about that is that people are starting to figure it out. The marketplace for movies is dwindling and shrinking to the point where it almost is we’re choking in genre movies now. I tried to make something that was ambitious. When we set out, it’s something as ambitious as Terminator. Terminator was made in the ’80s with probably around $9 million.
We made our movie in the 2010s with not even a 10th of that. [laughs] It’s getting to this place where it’s interesting that it’s so exciting that we can do it and the vision can be clear and concise. It’s also a scary thing for filmmakers because now we’re approaching this weird zone of, “Do I have a job? Because I don’t know.” [laughs] Like, “Is this even a job at this point?”
“As someone who’s lived a life with an autism spectrum disorder. I’m just super awkward. For me, I found that my best communication method was to place music and visuals together and tell stories that way“
NOFS: It seems like the only really original and creative films that are really made, at least in my opinion, or the most original and creative are in the independent genre films space. I think that is where some of the most rule-breaking films and concepts are coming up, which I think that it’s like a blessing and a curse.
Burns: I’ll say this, without people like yourself and without websites and podcasts like yours and the ones that are supporting these movies, I don’t even know where these movies would be. It’s so funny that we’re all fighting for these things to stay alive. As a filmmaker, that’s scary. I grew up with movies being the most dominant art form. I always say to people, it feels like I trained for the Olympics my entire life, and then they got canceled.
Because now you really do have to push these things and have a community and really support each other or else these movies won’t get up because there is a huge divide between what people want to watch like yourself, and what people are making at the studios and in the traditional media. It’s weird. It’s definitely a weird time. I’m excited, but I’m not gonna lie, I’m scared to death because I love doing this job. I see that it’s getting to the breaking point of, “Is it economically possible to make the kinds [of movies]?”
We want movies to be bigger and better and more exciting, but the budgets aren’t there. What you end up squeezing is your own capacity. Like, on this movie, I can say I harmed myself mentally to make it because it was just too much work for a small group of people to do in this way, but I needed to get this done this way because I wouldn’t have been able to do it in this– I can tell you right now that the amount of studio notes that I would have gotten on a picture like this having gone through what I did on Our House.
There would be a jump-scare every two seconds and the cast wouldn’t have looked like human beings, they would have been dolled-up. It wouldn’t be the same movie and that’s not the vision we wanted to put out there. It’s an exhilarating and frightening time at the same time because we can create our visions, but we also don’t know where the money’s going to come from. That’s everyone right now.
NOFS: Most of the films today that do get major Hollywood financing are usually not original concepts.
Burns: Yes, exactly. That’s the thing. If I want to make a sequel, great. There won’t be a problem in mustering the finances or funds but if you want to do your own original weird movies which I do, it’s going to be on us to make sure that it’s always economically feasible and at this stage of the game, the only thing that makes it that way is us doing 25 jobs per day.
NOFS: If we didn’t have a generation of filmmakers 40 to 30 years ago, making weird original films, we wouldn’t have anything to remake or make sequels out of these days. What are we going to do in the next 30 years?
Burns: I actually have been saying this a lot. Every day in the ’80s, there was a new wild movie coming out, and now, those are the spawn of all the sequels and remakes, but where are all the things that are going to cut deep for this generation and last the test of time? I honestly don’t have an answer other than– What it is, is the moderately budgeted films that can be made in the current market place because it’s too risky, it’s just too risky, they won’t make their money back.
You make Highlander today, you’re going to be broke, you will be broke, you will not make your money back from something like Highlander, even something like American Psycho. If I made American Psycho tomorrow, it would tank. It’s a weird place to be.
NOFS: Maybe that’s why our generation is so nostalgic because we don’t have much going on in terms of new things to inspire us.
Burns: I use the drug addict analogy, which is that we all want our heroin and no one’s making it. I’m trying to make heroin in my basement. I think a lot of us are. When you look at a lot of filmmakers now, we’re trying to make heroin in our basement for everybody to still get their fix, but it’s tough making heroin in your basement.
NOFS: We’re just looking for wherever we can get it, but thank you. I think that’s about all I have to ask. Is there anything that you want more of our readers to know, anything to look out for next?
Burns: I’m out west right now writing a new film and we have financing pretty much in place for it. Without telling anyone what it is, it’s a Western. Alberta is one of the most beautiful places to shoot. I shot Come True up here as well, even though I live in Toronto. The lighting here is like Sweden. You get this beautiful nordic, soft light from the sky. It’s gorgeous. I’m excited to make a Western out here, but it will be — I’m saying the words, John Carpenter. […] I’m going to make something that gives you Tremors vibes. I want to make something fun. I think it’s time to bring entertainment back, in a way. Everything is the dark version now. Listen, I’m excited for the new Batman movie, but I think there’s a place in the market and in people’s minds for fun. COVID has exasperated that and made it so that something clicked in my head and now I want to make something fun for everybody too. Something you want to rewatch. Something that you’re not just like, “That’s good,” but something that you want to rewatch multiple times.
NOFS: Well, awesome. Can’t wait to keep an eye out for your next project. Thank you for talking with us!
Burns: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat. Like I said, without the support of people like yourself and the podcasts, the horror community in general, I’m not a big part of it, because I tend to stick to myself. But it matters to me that I’m making art that is exciting to people who love this stuff. It really means a lot that people support these movies because we make them for you guys to watch.
“When you look at a lot of filmmakers now, [it’s like] we’re trying to make heroin in our basement for everybody to still get their fix, but it’s tough making heroin in your basement.”
Come True celebrated its world premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. Read all of our coverage of the fest here, and join the conversation with the Nightmare on Film Street community over on Twitter, Reddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!