Andrew Heckler has been spreading the same message for two decades. When the first-time filmmaker debuted his real-life drama “Burden” at Sundance in 2018, he teared up as he told a packed house what he hoped they would get out of it. “You can never turn an enemy into a friend through hate, you can only turn an enemy into a friend through love,” Heckler said, recalling the moment in a recent interview with IndieWire. “This is a real story about real people who had every reason not to do this, but they stuck through it, and the end is real love and real friendship and real understanding.”
The film was greeted with a five-minute standing ovation, but it would take two long years for “Burden” to find its way to theaters.
A fact-based drama about former KKK member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund), “Burden” follows the story of what happened after the former “grand dragon” fell in love with a woman (Andrea Riseborough) who inspired him to renounce the racism, white supremacy, and neo-Nazism that had dominated his life. The pair was assisted by an unlikely ally: local Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), a black civil rights leader and popular pastor that Burden and his brethren had, at one time, considered assassinating before moving on to other evil ideas.
More than 20 years after Heckler first decided to make the film and two years after it won Sundance’s Audience Award in the U.S. Dramatic section, “Burden” finally arrives in theaters care of fledgling outfit 101 Studios. (The theatrical cut is nearly 10 minutes shorter than the one shown at Sundance, which clocked in at 129 minutes, making it just a bit more palatable to theatrical audiences — and distributors, who saw more potential in the new version.)
Heckler has some theories about why it took so long for the movie to find a home. “Sundance 2018 was a perfect storm of horror for an independent movie like ‘Burden,'” he said. The filmmaker pointed to a variety of reasons why the market might have been slow to warm to a film like “Burden”: Amazon and Netflix weren’t buying films after going great guns in 2017 (by 2019, they were back at it). Necessary social movements like #MeToo and Time’s Up were taking root after a series of horrific exposes of powerful Hollywood men, and the conversations around the lack of diversity in Hollywood films (especially in films explicitly about race) were louder than ever.
Of course, there were other forces working against the film that went beyond a seemingly soft Sundance market or a changing entertainment landscape. The film might have been a hit with audiences, but critics were not as kind. And 101 Studios CEO David Glasser said it best: the film is polarizing. “Burden” currently sits at a 60 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, recently pushed into Fresh territory with the addition of a handful of new reviews.
“It almost feels personal, and you’re not really understanding how one review at a film festival is somehow going to completely kill your Rotten Tomatoes score and it’s going to dictate the sale of your movie,” producer Robbie Brenner said.
Plenty of movies did sell at the festival — including “Blindspotting,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “RBG,” “Assassination Nation,” and “Puzzle” — but “Burden” was not one of them. During and after the festival, the film’s producers entertained offers from a range of boutique to midsize independent distribution companies, though nothing panned out in those first days. When it didn’t sell in the immediate aftermath of its premiere, it entered a murky arena.
“Here’s this movie that is scaring everybody for so many reasons,” Heckler said. “Because of its subject matter, how do you market this film? How much money do you need to make it successful? What I kept hearing is that you can’t just throw a million bucks at it, and see if it’s going to happen. … Hollywood revolves around heat, and when we didn’t make a sale at Sundance, the heat started creeping away from the movie.”
Members of what would become the 101 Studios team had seen the film at Sundance, but the boutique distributor didn’t yet exist. Back then, Glasser was still employed at The Weinstein Company, which was in the midst of a slow implosion after a pair of exposes outed founder Harvey Weinstein. Glasser was ultimately pushed out by the TWC board just weeks after Sundance. Jobless, Glasser went in search of new opportunities. One year later, he took the top post at 101 Studios, bolstered by $300 million in backing from billionaire Ron Burkle.
Glasser was soon joined by another TWC veteran: acquisitions head James Allen, who had also seen the film at that first Sundance premiere and remained a fan of it. When 101 Studios was finally in existence and ready to buy the film, it was still available. “It’s such a polarizing, magnificent movie with an incredible message,” Glasser said. “It was a unanimous decision amongst the team.”
Glasser said he doesn’t buy the thinking that the heat might be off the project. “The reality is, if a movie is good enough and you believe you could find an audience with it, it doesn’t matter when you want to buy it,” he said.
The majority of the film’s Rotten reviews came out of its Sundance screenings. Phrases like “white savior complex” and plot descriptions like “KKK member finds a better way thanks to the love of a good white woman” appear throughout them. Others took the film to task for not being believable enough or the kind of feature the world needs now.
Heckler isn’t prickly about those labels, and is more invested in the conversations he hopes the film engenders. “I hear it in the labeling of the comments after they see the trailer, and I always want to jump into it, I want to say, ‘You’re right,'” Heckler said. “How many times do we have to ask you to reach out and forgive people? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know if you don’t, if someone doesn’t make the first step, if you don’t make a change, we’re going nowhere. We’re doing the same thing. We’re perpetuating this, and it’s getting worse and worse.”
In the two years since the film premiered at Sundance, Heckler has taken “Burden” to many other festivals, from Santa Fe to South Africa, Washington to the UK. And audiences have continued to respond to it: It’s picked up a number of audience awards, including at Nantucket, Kansas’ Free State Festival, and Albuquerque.
“It’s not a political movie. It’s not a reaction to what’s going on today,” Heckler said. “I wrote it through the Obama era, where people were calling me with condolences, saying, ‘Too bad, it’s dead. We have an African-American president. It’s over.’ And now here we are. Unfortunately, stories like this were relevant in year one, in 1900, the 1960s, 1997 when it happened, and now 2020. At some point, hopefully, they won’t be.”
Heckler has been living with “Burden” since 1996, when the then-actor first saw an article about a Klansman opening up a KKK museum and shop in a small Georgia town. A year later, another article emerged, this one detailing Burden’s sale of the shop to Kennedy (who purchased the property to help Burden stave off abject poverty, letting the Shop continue to operate).
Heckler said it was Billy Bob Thornton —”on his way to ‘Sling Blade’ fame” — who pushed him to look into the story as a possible first film for Heckler, who had long hoped to make the jump behind the camera. “He used to always say to me the reason Hollywood movies are toff and not that great, is because no one gets out of their little offices in Burbank and goes out to see what’s going on,” he said. Heckler called Reverend Kennedy, and told him he wanted to visit him.
He spent two weeks in tiny Laurens, Georgia getting to know it and its inhabitants. He didn’t go into the so-called Redneck Shop, but he realized he couldn’t avoid it. “I called the Redneck Shop, and said, ‘I’ve heard all about your place, I’d love to stop in and see it,'” he said. “They welcomed me in. It was very disturbing, and the stuff in the store was absolutely horrific. But I wanted to know is who these guys were, how they could believe what they believe, what it felt like to be near them and with them.”
By 2004, Heckler had written the script and committed to directing the film himself. Within two years, he had set up a cast that included Channing Tatum, Woody Harrelson, and Whitaker. That production fell apart. (Brenner said that subsequent failed iterations also drew big potential stars, including Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, and Heath Ledger.)
A decade later, Whitaker was still interested in playing Reverend Kennedy, and Brenner had identified a three-week period in which the actor could make the film between shooting “Finding Steve McQueen” and “The Forgiven.” By then, Heckler had nearly given up on his dream to make the film, but Brenner refused to make it without him. Heckler couldn’t say no.
The film was ultimately made for about $2 million and includes over two dozen producers, though casting continued to be a problem. They lost Sienna Miller, who was set to play Mike Burden’s wife Judy. Nicholas Hoult dropped out just two weeks before shooting was set to begin. They couldn’t find an American actor to play Tom Griffin, Mike Burden’s racist surrogate father, during the fraught lead-up time to the 2016 election (Tom Wilkinson eventually stepped in). They were out of options.
The film was less than two months from shooting, and Heckler had grown desperate, begging Brenner to pull the plug on a production that, once again, did not have a leading man. He eventually thought of Hedlund as a possibility for the role, but said the actor’s team was nervous about setting him up for another racially charged drama so soon after starring in Dee Rees’ “Mudbound.” Hedlund just wanted to know if the script was good, and after he read it, he wanted to talk to Heckler.
Hedlund, however, was about to take off on a 10-day motorcycle trip across Italy with future James Bond filmmaker Cary Fukunaga. The actor promised to call before his flight, just as Heckler himself was waiting to get on a flight after scouting locations in Georgia. Heckler kept waiting for Hedlund, missing flight after flight, before finally getting on one, during which he fired off a five-page letter to the actor, pitching his vision.
“We were spending money on the ground scouting, and as a producer, you’re going, ‘We’re on a suicide mission,'” Brenner said. “I have all these investors. This is borderline irresponsible because I don’t know if he’s going to do the movie. And if he doesn’t do the movie, then what? Who’s going to play Mike Burden?”
A few days later, Hedlund called. “I’m interviewing someone in this crazy little production weird office, and my cell phone rings,” Heckler said. “He said, ‘Sorry, I’ve been on this motorcycle ride through the hills of Tuscany, I’m finally sitting under an olive tree with a glass of Chianti.’ And I said, ‘I’m having a very different experience.'”
By the end of the call, he was on board. “I always thought with Garrett, he’s underestimated,” he said. “In a day and age where everybody wants to play it safe, he came in here and did some crazy stuff. There are moments in the movie, I swear to God, that aren’t Garrett at all, it’s Mike Burden.”
Both Heckler and Brenner said they’ve been heartened by the response to the film. “It’s inexplicable why this movie isn’t out there,” Heckler said. “I’ve traveled the country [with it], I’ve seen different people watch the movie. I’ve been in the room. We screened it the other day for the Reverend Kennedy and his congregation, and this young girl came out and she was crying, and the Reverend Kennedy said, ‘Why are you crying?’ And she said, ‘I had no idea you had to go through this.'”
Heckler’s professional aspirations remains intertwined with the fallout of “Burden.” He’s currently working on a handful of new projects, including “Damage Done,” a film about the opioid crisis that was partially inspired by a conversation he had with a local sheriff while scouting “Burden” locations in Georgia. He’s hacking away at another “more mainstream” feature with fellow actor-director Peter Berg.
“I’m old enough now to know that I don’t have that many bullets in the gun, and if I’m going to stay in the movie business and do movies, I want to affect change,” he said. “I want to make movies about things that matter, and that is a difficult road these days in cinema. It can be done, but it ain’t easy.”
101 Studios will release “Burden” in limited release on Friday, February 28.