The following is the second in a series of interviews that Moviegoers’ Mack Bates conducted with alumni of the Milwaukee Film Festival (or MFF, for short) program entitled “The Milwaukee Show,” an annual competitive showcase of the best new work from local filmmakers that is part of the festival’s Cream City Cinema program. Every year since 2009, the year of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s inception, the Filmmaker-in-Residence prize has been awarded to the local filmmaker who wins the juried Cream City Cinema Award.
In 2009, UWM Film alum John Roberts won for his work on Mary’s Friend, a Tim Burton-esque mix of hand-drawn and stop-motion animation. His residency project, The Wheel, a whimsical, expertly made tale about one man’s hope to maintain order despite sibling rivalry rearing its ugly head, won the Allan H. (Bud) and Suzanne L. Selig Audience Award for best short. The Wheel has since go onto play various film festivals around the country picking up several honors along the way.
In 2010, former UWM Film Lecturer Tate Bunker won for his work on Mickey Burgermeister, and his residency project, Studies in Space, a beautifully composed love letter to dance, made its worldwide debut this past fall at MFF 2012 to a receptive crowd.
This year, Chris James Thompson won for his work on The Jeffrey Dahmer Files, a shrewd and perceptive feature-length documentary that offers viewers a glimpse into the life and lingering legacy of the infamous Milwaukee-based serial killer told through a series of firsthand accounts and reenactments. The film has been acquired by IFC Midnight (a subsidiary of IFC Films) and will receive a theatrical release in early 2013.
In 2011, Michael Hawkins-Burgos won for Don’t Go, a charming, inventive, and nearly-silent 8-minute short film about an introverted young woman named Rose (played by Jamie Ansley, Hawkins-Burgos’ wife) who gets a welcome assist while moving into a new apartment from the most mysterious of neighbors.
Hawkins-Burgos says when he heard his name announced as the winner at an invite-only awards brunch, he pretty much choked on his orange juice. “I was really impressed with the other films that screened alongside mine,” he says. “I didn’t think I had a chance. I was stunned and felt super lucky to be in that company. It was the first time something of mine received that sort of public recognition. Winning was a huge pat on the back. It gave me the confidence to move on to my next film.”
For the past 13 years, Hawkins-Burgos has worked in commercial production and has done everything from writing and directing to motion graphics and editing. He got his start at CBS 58, and his uncle brought him into the mix at Telemundo for a time. “I wasn’t being paid anything, but that’s where I started learning about the business, that side of the business, commercial and TV [production].” Currently, he’s an interactive video producer for a sister company to Microsoft where he produces marketing and web videos.
A graduate of the Milwaukee High School of the Arts where he majored in theater arts, Hawkins-Burgos is also an accomplished artist. (Examples of his work can be seen at his website.) Artwork he’s created has been shown – and in a number of instances sold – at local galleries. He credits his love of art and music as having played a significant role in his film work. “They both influence how I approach something or design things,” he says. “I’m always listening to music when I’m doing anything, even on set. I like to put music on when we’re in-between set-ups. I tend to make music folders for each project; [it] helps put me in that world.”
Hawkins-Burgos envisions many of his projects as series of stills. “That’s kind of what happens in the end with my film work since I tend not to be into a lot of movement,” he says. “I’ve been told that most everything I make resembles a bunch of stills, that each shot is composed like a still image.” Storyboarding – sketching out scenes and shots in a film – is a common practice in filmmaking and one Hawkins-Burgos says is essential to his process. “First, I break the script down, then I create the shot list,” he says. “From the shot list, I go into storyboarding, and usually things change at that point, which is why I think it’s important to do because it gives you all sorts of other options. Plus, I’d be terrified to show up on a shooting day that I have scheduled, and not be prepared.”
He used storyboards for Don’t Go, which was shot inside an East Side Milwaukee apartment building that Hawkins-Burgos and his wife Jamie managed. “We had a very small budget. Don’t Go was planned to a T.” He shot the film using a Canon 7D, a digital SLR. “A big part of filming was discovering all the things the camera was capable of doing,” he says. “I’m still learning new things about it.”
Like good ‘ol Hitch did on his projects, Hawkins-Burgos worked closely with his wife. “When I first thought of Rose, I wondered how she would look and how she would react to life and everything,” he says. “It helped that I always pictured Jamie as Rose. There are some parallels between them.” Jamie often pulled double duty as both an actor and as a crew member. “She is the movie, really,” he says.
Before the story came an original piece of music Hawkins-Burgos composed for the film and the idea of Rose’s character. As he continued to workshop the film and discover the story, he realized while designing the look of Rose’s mysterious neighbor, that he was modeling the neighbor after his beloved cat, Matthew, to whom the film is dedicated. “If you knew me back then, you would have known how crazy I was about my cat,” he says. “He was my buddy.”
He sees the film as a commentary of sorts on what it means to have a pet. “These loving animals come into your life, do all these good things for you, they make your life better in little ways, and then, they leave,” he says. “So this project evolved into a little love letter to my cat, Matthew, who I actually lost during post-production of this short. He was 14.”
Hawkins-Burgos counts Wes Anderson (“I think Moonrise Kingdom is my favorite film this year!“), Hal Ashby, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder among his filmmaking influences. He’s particularly enamored with the work of Hitchcock whom he considers a true pioneer, “My favorite movie is Rear Window,” he says. “I really started learning about film through watching his work. I started to see things in modern-day films that he was the first to pioneer, and I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s where that came from!’ That made me even more interested in his work than I already was.”
A fan of film in general, especially slower-paced, serious fare that his friends consider “boring,” Hawkins-Burgos’ next project is set to debut at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival next fall as part of “The Milwaukee Show“. He’s staying mum on the particulars but is looking forward to getting started sometime after the new year.