Documentarian Bruce Burgess has directed a series of conspiracy-oriented films over the past decades, from 1996’s “Dreamland: Area 51” to 2002’s “Bigfootville.” In his first foray into theatrically released documentaries, Burgess (who usually hosts the films as well) takes on the so-called “bloodline conspiracy” that suggests that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, and that she had his child. Taking over three years to complete, the film is the first investigation into this conspiracy to bring forth new evidence in the form of both a mummified corpse bearing a red cross and a buried chest with artifacts dating back to Christ’s days. indieWIRE talked to Burgess about his film, “Bloodline,” which opens in New York on Friday, May 9.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I started out in TV News and features in London back in 1993. This led to my first full, one-hour documentary in 1996 called “Dreamland” which was about the top secret Pentagon facility known as Area 51 out in the Nevada Desert. The amazing desert locations really turned me, in a very practical way, onto the joys of cinematography and filmmaking. This led me to film ever larger, more complicated recreations of events, in the films that were to follow; “The Lost Ark,” “The Uninvited,” “The Real Men in Black,” “Impact Earth.” By the time I made “In Search of the Holy Grail” in 2003 I had two full camera units filming recreations of the crusades with 100’s of extras on horseback in Morocco.
I followed this in 2004 with my first full 35mm shoot on a short film called “Rosbeef.” We shot for 14 days in the hills above St Tropez in France, with a fully French cast who spoke no English, a wholly English crew who spoke no French, and a Welsh 1st AD who no-one could understand. I learned so much from my DP, Tim Wooster, a brilliant cinematographer and camera operator who had just shot second unit on “Cold Mountain” for Anthony Minghella, and “Alexander” for Oliver Stone. I wrote “Rosbeef” as a period black comedy set in France at the end of WWll. Even though I’d filmed large recreations in past documentaries it was a huge leap for me to deal with actors and acting performances.
Strange at first, I grew to love the rehearsal process, and working with actors to discuss, tweak and then produce a performance on camera. Tim Wooster was great at giving me the room to concentrate on directing the acting, while he immersed himself in lights, lenses and all things technical. He said that’s how he worked with Minghella. And now after fifteen years of TV docs, and one 35mm short shown out of competition at Cannes, I am about to release the biggest, hardest, most daunting film I’ve ever made, “Bloodline,” which I think draws upon both the journalist, the adventurer and the filmmaker in me, to create a something of a hybrid feature documentary. Part investigation, part archaeology and part “The Bourne Identity“!
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I really like what I do. Writer, Exec Producer, Host and Director. I don’t always do them all, but I love each one of those roles. I am very hands on. I like to be on set, in the interviews, in the trenches, making it all happen. I could never work for a studio because I’m lousy at taking orders. As for editing, I just don’t have the patience to sit in front of screens pushing buttons all day, as my editors on “Bloodline,” Dan Brown, Paul Abelkis and Bart Burcham will attest. I’m better at giving firm direction and letting them get on with it. And then changing my mind of course and starting all over again. It drives Rene Barnett my producer and business partner mad, but you can just feel when an edit is right, or not. And I won’t leave it alone until it feels right. We spent nearly 2 years in post on “Bloodline.”
Please discuss how the idea for “Bloodline” came about.
Rene Barnett, my producing partner, was aware of the growing popularity of the “The Da Vinci Code” and had been interested in and had read up extensively on this idea of a marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene and their bloodline. I had just finished a documentary for Discovery Networks and Channel 5 in UK called “In Search of the Holy Grail” where I had gone around the world looking at cups that claimed to be the actual Holy Grail. She told me straight out that we should do a documentary based on the “Da Vinci Code.” I was less enthusiastic, but eventually we partnered up with an author called Michael Baigent. He was one of three authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” which first broke the “Bloodline” ideas to the world back in 1982. (Michael sued Dan Brown in 2006 claiming that Brown stole the basic concept of the “Da Vinci Code” from “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” but he lost).
Anyway, we signed a deal with Fox TV to do a big docu-drama series based o Baigent’s work and research into the bloodline, Jesus et al. It was to be called “The Jesus Papers.” But, as these things go, the top execs at Fox TV left, and the “Jesus Papers” never happened. (In fact Baigent brought out a book under the same title). Disillusioned by the Fox debacle, it was then that Rene and I decided to go ahead and make “Bloodline,” as a privately financed feature doc. And start the hardest journey of our lives.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, as well as your overall goals for the project?
I’m a total film junkie. I love it all. And I’m ashamed to say that I’m always influence by the last movie I’ve seen. I’m always furiously taking down notes in the theater, thinking about how I can incorporate something I’ve just seen on screen in whatever I’m working on. The goal of “Bloodline” was to make a documentary that tried to get to truth, had an unfussy rawness, and was still an entertaining adventure to watch in a cinema.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The hardest thing was raising the money to make it, which we did bit by bit. Hats off to Rene who raised over $1 million in cash from private individuals who believed in what we were doing. Some gave $2,000, some gave $250,000. The studios never gave us a penny. We started showing rough cuts to big distributors and major studios about six months before completion, but I don’t think anyone really got the film. We were told that the “Da Vinci Code” market was already saturated with DVD’s, not realizing at all that our material was entirely new. We had met the Priory of Sion. We had discovered and filmed parchments and relics and a tomb! Eventually, we were recommended to a small distributor called Cinema Libre Studio. We liked them, they liked us. They got what we’d set out to do and we signed.
What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
I love modern art. I love Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Damien Hirst. I love opera, especially Pucini. I love Mahler and Wagner. I love epic films like “Lawrence of Arabia,” “A Bridge Too Far” and “Gandhi,” but I also crave tight small, well scripted masterpieces like “Stage Beauty,” “The Libertine,” and recently “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” I work best smoking Cuban Epicure 2’s or Partagas D4’s.
What is your next project?
I want to do a film about a rough diamond chef who’s always on the verge of genius and madness. I have a script that I’m talking to a few actors about. I’m very particular about the lead role. Maybe Ray Winstone, maybe Gary Oldman. I also want to do a documentary on fountains – which I adore. Just great footage of fountains, the sound of the water, with an unobtrusive score, and maybe a few random thoughts from people who are around. Oh, and I want to film the ‘blue men’ of Morocco, a berber tribe, who lives in the hills outside Marrakesh. Plus we have to film the excavation of the Bloodline tomb, so plenty to be getting on with.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Everyone said it would be excruciatingly hard to make a feature documentary raising private finance, especially if this was your first feature. And they were absolutely right! I’d heard all the cliches and they turned out to be bang on! Both Rene and I put in all the money we had, have spent the best part of 3 years totally broke, none of the big studios wanted our film and yet here we are with our film premiering in two cities in May 2008.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Believe in what you are doing, and never give up.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
“Broken Dagger,” a documentary warning of the imminent threat of WMD terrorism and Al Quaeda which aired on Discovery Networks in May 2001, about four months before 9/11. “Rosbeef” which was shown out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, and of course, “Bloodline,” which has aged me beyond my 40 years.