Five Things About Burning Bright, With Director Carlos Brooks

Burning Bright is a film about a "hot girl", played by Briana Evigan, and her younger, autistic brother trapped in their home with a tiger in the middle of a hurricane. It's successful in transcending the kitsch you might think implicit in the premise to become an interesting, and rather unexpected little gem of direct-to-DVD genre cinema. The fact that the filmmakers have worked with real tigers throughout, and never fallen back on a CG stand-in, is a good part of what lends the film its genuine atmosphere of tension and, for want of a better term, animal unpredictability.

I spoke to director Carlos Brooks and will share his commentary on some of the more interesting elements of the film as we look at Five Things that particularly caught my attention when watching Burning Bright.

1. Start How You Mean To Go On.

An atmospheric title sequence is always a plus, and is definitely a good way to set the tone for the audience. The one in Burning Bright is a slow, moody build up that ends on a great reveal – suddenly we see that we're in the eye of a hurricane. Director Carlos Brooks told me that he used a tiger's roar in the mix to create the audio for the hurricane sounds.

That connection between the tiger and the hurricane will become more obvious as the film goes on. On the most basic level, they represent all of the threat in the film, and secondarily, they are both dangerous elements of nature. But this relationship is established viscerally right here at the beginning. It's also important for the opening titles to establish the hurricane as later on, in the boarded up house, it will be very often heard but hardly seen.

2. Before The Storm

One of the early set-up scenes sees our heroine at her little brother's school. During one conversation they have there, I noticed that Brooks had cleverly tweaked convention with his coverage to create a subtle, but powerful effect. I asked him about it, and he explained:

If I'm not mistaken, I shot both character from the same side of the stage line. It gave us the disjoint that I think emotionally worked for his autism. The audience would feel some disconnect.

It wouldn't have worked without some other fine details being in place – the kid's 100 yard stare for one thing.

Another scene between the siblings was altered drastically in the edit to keep the audience on side. Carlos told me just how he changed the sister's characterization to ensure the right relationship was being fostered between her and the audience:

Originally, she was very angry, very dismissive, much harder. In the scene with the sandwich, I took out all the dialogue. The scene as it originally was had diminished the audience's ability to care about her. Showing her smile and having her simply care about [her younger brother] allowed the audience to care about her.

It pretty much goes without saying that if the audience did not care about this character, they would hardly care about her attempts to evade the tiger and several set-pieces would have been handicapped severely.

3. Trapped In A House With A Tiger, During A Hurricane. Surely That's Some Kind Of Metaphor?

Where did this outrageous idea come from? It's definitely one heck of a hook. I asked Carlos where it had originated, and what his first reaction to it had been:

David [Higgins, one of the film's producers] came up with the idea. To me, who came on to the project last, the idea meant I could do something visually stunning. The press had a bad reaction as we started shooting saying things like "This is the dumbest idea for a movie we've ever heard". I saw how film bloggers were looking at it, but I knew we were going for a more guttural, less literal level.

It's those dismissive bloggers I was quoting with "hot girl" in my opening paragraph. It should go without saying that there's a lot more to the character than that.

I was sure that Brooks was not just aiming for spectacle and thrills so I also pushed him on quite what the tiger and hurricane were really about:

I really loved the book The Life of Pi and I could have pushed this further, the tiger as a metaphor not just for nature but for human nature. The dark, unbridled side to all of us.

When I asked Carlos about the film's reception, it sounded like at least some of those cynics had changed their position:

I hope all of the reviews are as good as I've seen. I've only seen positive reviews. I've been gratified. They see that horrible clichés were not succumbed to.

I can second that – the horrible clichés you'd most likely expect are pretty much out of the picture entirely.

4. You Know Who Dunnit

One of the most important scenes in the film is a single shot. It's a POV image from inside the tiger's cage as it is rolled up to the house and opened, and then once the tiger is inside, the door to the house is boarded up and nailed shut behind it. We do not see which character it is letting the tiger in.

Remarkably, this was not in the script or storyboards but added later, after Brooks had looked at his rough cut. I asked him about the purpose and origins of what ended up being one of the most memorable moments in the film:

It's not a Who Dunnit but a You Know Who Dunnit. Just from the economy of characters you know "It must be that guy". Not showing how the tiger was put into the house left a question in the audience's minds. The shot was added late. I drew the frames and the movement of the camera and told them "You're going to take an X-unit and shoot exactly this". The shot immediately following, which I call prowl cam, played differently once you knew how the tiger got in.

No longer would the audience be distracted by the question of how the tiger got there, and they could now just move on and accept that it had. Of course, the very first scene of the film provides prior set-up to this, showing just where the tiger came from in the first place. It also can't hurt your enjoyment to know that there's an awful lot of tigers in private captivity in the US. Why on earth is it legal? Surely it goes wrong an awful lot of the time, for the tiger as well as the humans?

5. Lights, Camera, Tiger

How do you even make a film in which one of the main characters is a tiger – and always a real tiger, never a CG simulation? You have to start by casting the right tigers to play the role, of course:

In casting the tigers I wanted real "tiger charisma" and constant "tiger ambition". There was no casting call as such, we just got the best trainer in the business and explained what I needed.

And then, you cross your fingers. The tiger will certainly tend towards wild improvisation and have no respect for the script or storyboards. But it can go to plan, sometimes:

The tiger only gave me exactly what I wanted once, when it came around the corner chasing her under the table. I couldn't believe my luck. With the tiger I had to shoot on the fly and re-envision the scene in the room. A tiger is a cat and if you ever watch a cat you'll see how they behave.

One of the most remarkable sequences sees our heroine hiding in a laundry chute, straining to hold herself up and not fall into reach of the tiger below. There are several close ups of the tiger in this scene that show real hunger, the tiger desperately trying to push himself into the pipe and eat his prey.

Thankfully, what he was going for was not Briana Evigan, but a stand-in purchased specially from the deli counter:

Chicken was the Tiger's favourite meal, sometimes beef. But if ever the tiger got a whole chicken, that was us done. He wouldn't work any more.

A close-up of a real tiger doing everything in its power to eat something just outside of its reach is a brilliant image of just how ferocious these animals can be. There's rarely anything so genuinely, primally dangerous caught on film, outside of natural history documentaries. It's definitely a rarity in thrillers like this.

Above all else, and even in view of Carlos' smart and inventive filmmaking choices, I'm sure that the most important decision in the production in Burning Bright was to bring in real tigers.

Burning Bright is available on DVD right now from Metrodome. It has already been released in the US.