Feb 28, 2020
David Burkman, director of ‘HAZE,’ which is available now on DVD, Blu-ray and various digital streaming platforms. Visit hazemovie.com to see a full list of where to watch. (Jayme Aronberg)

Q&A with David Burkman, director of ‘HAZE’

Q: Can you give me a brief summary of “HAZE” and why you think Fresno State students should see it?

A: “HAZE” started out just like any other movie: a movie that we hoped would be entertaining and thought-provoking and moving. And obviously it’s a departure from the way Hollywood usually treats the subject of Greek life, which ever since “Animal House” tends towards comedy… and treat the subject of hazing in particular as a kind of frivolous, innocuous kind of thing.

The origin of “HAZE” was based primarily on my own experience, but we spent a couple of years doing pretty exhaustive research talking to people about their experiences and we wanted to do a movie that was sort of [on] the darker side of things. More authentic, realistic pseudo-documentary approach to this subject matter as a departure from the way in which Hollywood tends to create the subjects.

So I think that it’s a particularly valuable movie for anyone to see, but especially I think college students and especially students who are involved in Greek life. We acknowledge that the experiences people have are incredibly diverse and not every fraternity or sorority does haze. But as evidenced by the media over this past year, particularly with four hazing-related deaths at prominent universities and from our own research, it’s pretty clear that hazing is on the rise and it’s getting harsher and deadlier.

And so I think the movie operates on a couple of different levels. First of all, it’s just, hopefully, an entertaining and thrilling ride for people who like this kind of movie. It hopefully illuminates a pretty serious issue that is facing a lot of people in college and in Greek life, in particular …

I think the movie is a great film just for anyone to see, and it deals with all kinds of themes relating to the nature of brotherhood, the nature of friendship. I think it’s the kind of thing that most people can relate to and identify with on some level. But in particular I think it’s become very apparent that it’s a useful film and an eye-opening film for people to start a kind of conversation about some of the darker aspects, and some of the not so productive aspects, of Greek life.

Q: From the research that you did, how similar were the stories in regards to hazing?

A: Well not only were they similar, but we used a lot of the stories we were told in developing the screenplay, even down to some fine-tuning that we did during the pre-production process. When we were scouting locations, we shot in an actual fraternity house, and so when we were given a tour of the fraternity house, members of the fraternity who were giving us that tour would tell us stories about the kinds of things that they had done in that house. And some of them were really shocking and similar to some of the stories we’ve been told by other people.

It’s really fascinating. We talked to people of all age groups ‒ people currently in college, all the way up to people in their 80s, and what we discovered was that a lot of the stories they would tell us not only were similar to each other from generation to generation, but down to extreme detail. People were experiencing things today that people like I said in their 80s were telling us about.

And in fact from my own self, it was really remarkable. I’ll give you an example. A gentleman in his 80s was telling me about his experiences during Hell Week, and this is decades ago. And he talked about how they were made to wear these burlap sacks. Well in my fraternity during my Hell Week, we were made to wear burlap sacks. So it was really remarkable and it was really telling how much the tradition of hazing has survived and passed from class to class, decade to decade, generation to generation. It’s really been preserved.

“HAZE” is, I think, I would probably mark it somewhere around the upper-middle in terms of some of the kinds of stories we were told. One of my co-producers was really sort of mortified by some of the stories we were told. So much so that we just couldn’t figure out how to depict those without being too upsetting.

Now that said, you having seen the film, I could imagine that you’re saying wow, because it’s pretty hardcore and pretty shocking a lot of what you see in “HAZE,” but I think that it is a really honest and genuine reflection of what a lot of people are experiencing and have experienced quite a bit. I don’t think there’s anything that happens in the movie that hasn’t happened to someone.

Q: When I was watching it, it seemed that about two-thirds of the way, in the pacing really changes and that’s when a lot of the more-graphic scenes come in. What was it like shooting those?

A: It was interesting. Just like any film, everything is constructed and is artificial. It’s staged, everything from the party scenes to the hazing scenes. We had an enormous amount of trust of course that we had to construct during the rehearsal process and during the production process with our cast.

The pledges, particularly the male pledges, they knew what they were in for because they had read the screenplay, and they were all pretty gung-ho and game. We had a safe word just in case anybody felt uncomfortable or thought that they were not in a safe situation, but it was a very controlled kind of thing.

Even though it seems like everything you see in the film is very real, which was our goal, none of it actually is. We had a stunt coordinator for things that involved a lot of the physical stuff. None of the bodily fluids you see in the film are real. It’s all corn chowder or various concoctions made. Even the beer was not real, it was non-alcoholic. So everything is staged and very carefully crafted.

But the other thing I guess that’s kind of interesting is that one of the things that pledgeship in a fraternity is supposed to do is [it is] supposed to build these incredible bonds, build brotherhood and connect the pledge brothers to one another by going through these trials. And I think the byproduct of making a movie … is that our cast really bonded. So it’s sort of ironic that we kind of formed a brotherhood of our own, a fraternity and sorority of our own, just in the making of the movie.

Q: One thing that also stood out to me was the inclusion of “The Bacchae” by Euripides. Was that always in the initial idea for the movie or was that added on later?

A: It came very early on. When I was developing this screenplay and the story, and knew that I wanted, like I said, to tell a more authentic, sort of realistic and darker version of what goes on behind fraternity and sorority house walls. But I didn’t really have a framing structure for the narrative, and I did a little bit of homework and some reading. I found Euripides’ “The Bacchae” to be a terrific tool for framing the story because it tells the story of Dionysus, the god of wine, revelry and ecstasy and Pentheus, who’s this king who sort of opposes what he perceives to be a sort of dangerous deity, and his behaviors are sort of safe or good for society.

And I thought, this all feels very much like a good framing tool for the story in “HAZE.” So that became the skeleton that I used to shape and craft the story. I also thought it would be really fun to base a story about Greek life on Greek myth and use those iconic figures to tell that story.

Q: Although I’m not a part of Greek life or have ever been to a frat party, the stuff that I still saw was very similar to stuff I would still see going to college parties. There’s a lot of drug use. There’s binge drinking. Was it important to show those other aspects of college life?

A: Oh definitely, because obviously those things I think as you point out extend beyond just Greek life. I think that, as you point out, [there is] sort of a culture in college where drinking to excess and experimenting with drugs and a lot of the sexuality we see in the film, these are things that people are experimenting with and doing quite a bit in college. Any movie that purports to be an honest, realistic depiction of that world has got to include those things. It’s as much a part of college life as anything.

Q: What were some of your favorite scenes to shoot?

A: I mean, I think there were a lot of different scenes that were a lot of fun for different reasons. There’s sort of two ends of the spectrum. On one hand, it was very exciting to stage some of these party scenes … we tried to set up an environment where it felt like an actual party. Even though we didn’t have real alcohol or real drugs or any of those kinds of things, we had the props to make it feel that way, and we just let people do what they would do at a party. And they really committed and that was really exciting ‒ to see what people would do and just sort of film this sort of vérité style where we were just capturing what was happening. It was like we were staging each and every shot individually. Sometimes we did that, but it was mostly just a free-for-all.

We had three cameras for those scenes, and we would just roam around. It was sometimes challenging because we’d sometimes find that we were shooting and we’d get one of the other cameras in the shot and, obviously, we couldn’t use that, but we shot enough stuff that we could piece together what we did.

But to be honest with you, after months of shooting with massive crowds, huge hazing scenes, all that kind of thing, when we got down to the opportunity to shoot with just a couple of people ‒ and I remember in particular … where Mimi is sort of repeating back to Nick in the dorm room ‒ that stands out to me as one of the more challenging scenes.

It really depended on terrific performances from the actors, but at that point it was really late in the shoot and everybody was really close at that point, and we were all really connected to each other … I think the comfort level was really strong and they had practiced this and rehearsed this so much that they just really felt confident. It was great to, finally after so much noise and so much chaos and so many moving parts, just [have] a very limited cast in a small room, two people, and just shoot this very intimate dialog scene. It was refreshing and powerful.

Q: Which character do you identify with the most?

A: I think that, if I’m honest, I really identify with all of these characters on some level, particularly the five principals, Nick, Pete, Mimi, Sophie and Taylor. Though if I were to really boil it down, I think that Nick and Pete are sort of the two sides of me … I was in a fraternity in college, I pledged a fraternity in college and I went through a lot of the things you see in the movie. I really enjoyed it. In that sense I was Nick, you know I wanted to do this. I was excited to do it and I have a lot of fondness for the experiences I had in college and particularly in my fraternity, but then there’s another side to me that thinks it’s all a bunch of bull***t, and really dangerous and stupid. I have these competing voices in my head. I am Nick and Pete, truly. I have both of those characters in me and that’s, I think, obviously why I made this movie. Because it’s a reflection of who I am and the way in which I wrestle with myself internally.

Q: What are you hoping that Fresno State students get out of watching “HAZE”?

A: I think that as with any film that I will ever make and ever have made, my hope for anyone who watches my movies is that they get three things. That they’re entertained, that they feel something, and that that makes them think. And you know, the movies that I always love the best are movies that linger and stay with me, and they’re the kind of movies that I want to have conversations with people about. Sometimes debate about. Movies that are challenging and layered, and I hope that Fresno State students, students all over the country and audiences all over the country who get a chance to see the film are impacted in all those ways.

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