Speaking Truth to Power
Film pro Scott Burns took his sense of true north with him from Minnesota to Hollywood.
Urgent truth-seeking is often at the heart of writer and filmmaker Scott Z. Burns’ work. Screenwriter on The Informant, producer on An Inconvenient Truth, playwright of The Library—which examines a Columbine-style school shooting—and now director of the political thriller The Report, the Minnesota native and U grad (B.A. ’85) crafts fiction and nonfiction stories that explore themes of deception and reality when stakes are high.
This spring, Burns was a guest of honor at the 38th annual Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. In conversation with a roomful of movie buffs, he shared experiences from some of the dozen-plus films he’s worked on, devoting special attention to the forthcoming The Report, which confronts issues surrounding the CIA’s brutal “enhanced interrogation” program—which many, including Burns, consider state-sanctioned torture. (The film will be in theaters November 15 and on Amazon Prime November 29.) Burns also spoke about his Minnesota upbringing, how it informs his work, and some of the themes that pervade his diverse and wide-ranging filmography.
Burns grew up in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and spent his summers in the time-honored tradition of attending summer camp “up north.” His love for the natural world and ethic of environmental stewardship is embodied in both An Inconvenient Truth and its follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, as well as the new Sundance-winning eco-documentary Sea of Shadows, of which Burns is executive producer. That passion for nature stems directly from his early outdoor Minnesota experiences, he says.
“I was always fascinated by the wilderness … I loved nature and I loved the [Native] names of things,” Burns says. “When I was in second grade, my mom encouraged me to do a project to raise money for humpback whales. I guess it’s been a lifelong thing for me, our stewardship of the place we live.
“When I moved to LA, I became very involved with the NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council], and it was through them I heard Al Gore do his slideshow,” Burns recalls about the former vice president’s traveling presentation to raise awareness and alarm about global warming. “We were able to get a meeting with Al—me, [film producer] Lawrence Bender, and [environmental activist] Laurie David—and we said, ‘If you keep doing the slideshow, you’re going to be able to reach 100 people a day. But if you let us make a movie, we can reach millions of people.’” The subsequent film An Inconvenient Truth netted several Oscars and helped jump-start the international climate change mobilization effort.
Burns has done his share of popcorn fare—see The Bourne Ultimatum—but much of his work wrestles with heavy political and societal quandaries. His forthcoming investigative drama The Report is a hard, exhaustively researched look at the “enhanced interrogation” program (“We’ll just call it ‘torture’ from now on,” Burns says) implemented by the CIA in the wake of 9/11 and the fight to expose those practices. The CIA program included techniques such as sensory deprivation and use of detainee-specific phobias.
The film, which stars actors Adam Driver, Annette Bening, and Jon Hamm, shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as “political,” Burns says, but rather an exploration of right, wrong, and longstanding American values. “Torture is against the law. It’s against the Geneva convention; it’s against the uniform code of military conduct,” he says. He notes that torture has also proven wildly counterproductive, yielding false confessions and jeopardizing critical alliances.
Burns says he chose not to depict the methods described in the real-life report but rather to relay them to the audience through quoted excerpts. “I don’t want to do ‘torture porn,’” Burns says about his decision. “What I tried to do was use the language in the report; I think the words are going to stick with people as much as any images.”
The summa cum laude English major who started out in advertising—working on the “Got Milk?” campaign—counts U of M English Professor Emeritus Tom Clayton as one of his biggest influences. He recalls sitting rapt as Clayton lectured with “incredible abandon,” and of chatting with Clayton in his office “about what it’s like to be young and existentially lost like Hamlet—or Joe Strummer [vocalist and co-founder of the pivotal British punk rock band the Clash]. Professor Clayton showed me that storytelling is a continuum and that the tools of drama and comedy and storytelling can be found in plays that are ancient or in songs on the radio.”
Burns is grateful for his time in the College of Liberal Arts. “I think a liberal arts education teaches the student about how to live and think in the world, how to think critically, and what the role of art and expression are in society,” he says. “Studying English literature taught me the impact of stories on society—and the impact of society on the storyteller. That has been invaluable to me throughout my career.” Burns feels lucky to make a living telling stories that matter to him and, he hopes, to many others. “Being a writer allows you access to all these different worlds. Every day is sort of a field trip.”