Jacob Tremblay as Wes

Gasparilla Film Fest: Interview With ‘Burn Your Maps’ Director Jordan Roberts

A conversation on "burning maps" during the creation process, racial and sexual identity, cultural appropriation, and of course, movies.

Burn Your Maps, the latest film by screenwriter/director, Jordan Roberts (March of the Penguins, Big Hero 6), was selected as the 2017 Gasparilla International Film Festival (GIFF) opening night movie. Burn Your Maps, starring Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) and Jacob Tremblay (Room), focuses on a married couple under duress and their youngest child’s existential crisis. Roberts was on hand for a post-film Q&A and the next day met with PopMatters for this interview.

Roberts has directed three films and written nearly 60 screenplays. His decades of experience, technical acuity, and political consciousness makes him a fascinating interviewee. During our conversation, we discussed racial and sexual identity, cultural appropriation, and of course, movies.

Please describe Burn Your Maps

It’s the story of an eight-year-old American boy, who realizes he’s born in the wrong place and is actually supposed to be a Mongolian goat herder and the effect that decision has on an already troubled marriage between his parents. That’s the plot. From a thematic perspective, it’s about grief, it’s about the spiritual prerequisite of brokenness and the admission of brokenness that’s required for restitution. So in that sense, it’s about vulnerability and imperfection and the absolutely essential importance of imperfection to evolve closer to perfection. It’s about family. It’s about immigration. It’s literally about the importance of open borders, it’s called Burn Your Maps for a reason. And it’s about the fluidity of identity.

I’ve seen the film twice now. The first time was at TIFF in September and the second time this week, and I had a completely different reading of the film. During my first screening, I noticed themes about healing and the second time the emphasis on identity stood out. We are amidst a period when people are fighting about who can use which bathroom, so last night, the film’s themes felt weighted toward inclusivity and empathy for people unlike ourselves. Did these issues affected your filmmaking process?

First off, I had the exact same experience last night. This is my first time watching the movie post travel-ban. At the center of this film, intentionally, is an Indian immigrant.

Who is great, by the way.

Suraj (Suraj Sharma, Li of Pi) is amazing. He plays a Hindu with a Muslim name. So already, I’m intentionally exploring that there are no clear boundaries about identity. He’s playing a Hindu with a Muslim name, he didn’t feel comfortable in India and it was in America that he dares to express that he’s not comfortable here, either. It was his vision of what he thought he wanted, but he’s still not satisfied, he’s an immigrant. It was my intention of exploring the absolute necessity of otherness, of strangers, of literally immigrants making America what America is. Because he exists in the narrative, he exists in the story, he exists in this family as a participant in the creation of a new identity.

I consider myself a completely American filmmaker and American person, and what I mean by that is, I’m participating collectively and individually in a 250-year old experiment of the mashup of culture and I’m happy to say that. It’s a very difficult time to consider that but… We can decide that the country should not be that country, but that’s who we are and always have been. There are people who would suggest that the melting pot that is America is only open to people of European ancestry, to which I say, that’s fucking absurd, and it’s arbitrary, and it’s not the truth. It was never that way. We have flaws that should and could be repeated, but let’s not. There’s no question that this country has failed in a million ways.

That being said, from the get-go, what we were, was a country that’s [sic] identity was created by the people who showed up to make it. That’s essential to being in America, from my perspective. The film intentionally explores identity and the way we find identity through the interface with other identities and other cultures.

Quite a few critics and writers have poked at the film, I don’t read them but I hear about this, for the danger of cultural appropriation which the film could tip toe up to, right? But there are a few reasons — and I was not blind to the possibility of stepping on toes — but the reason it works for me or the reason it’s acceptable or that discomfort of that cultural appropriation exists within an acceptable territory, is that it’s a boy. A young boy. He’s a white boy, he’s from America, fair enough, but it’s a young child. He’s literally viewing this culture from the point of view of a young child.

If he were an adult, and the movie was kind of romantic about this culture, I think I’d be in trouble. But he’s not. He’s a barely eight-year-old boy who’s trying to figure out where he belongs in the world and so his view of that world is probably a little two-dimensional, and it’s probably a little bit romantic, and you could say it’s even a little exploitative, but I don’t have a problem with that. If he was an adult I would.

At eight-years-old, I wanted to be Batman. I wore a cape. So Wes makes sense within the context of the film. As for Suraj’s character, Ismail, how did you decide that he had to be an Indian character and not from somewhere else?

There’s an Ismail in the short story [the film is based on a story of the same name by Robyn Joy Leff], but he’s a Pakistani. He’s just a 50-year-old man that’s one of her students. It’s a modest character, he doesn’t have any central meaning in the story, it’s just mentioned. I liked the idea of different cultures coming into telling the story as it widened, ’cause the short story doesn’t really do this, it’s only a very short piece [17 pages].

So I knew that he was going to be Pakistani, and to be honest with you, right before the film was shot, somebody read the story and said, “Just so you’re aware, you have a Muslim character whose coming to America to set aside Muhammad so he can have sex with American women. Are you sure you want to do that?” It’s not to suggest that I’m a coward. It just wasn’t a relevant enough narrative issue for me to risk insulting a faith. Which, in the epoch, we’re living in right now, was very possible so I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting.” That’s where I didn’t want to change his name, I wanted him to be an Indian, but with a Muslim name. It ended up serving the story but it was the result of my kind of dodging a potentially dangerous socio-political issue.

When do you know you’ve got a story you have to tell?

I’m sort of, a little bit of a dog with a bone, but before I pick up the bone I have to be emotionally provoked. The 17-page short story by Robyn Joy Leff provoked me emotionally for multiple reasons. One is that it was about the transformation of a broken marriage into a — not just into a healed marriage, and maybe “transformation” isn’t the right word. Restitution of the original marriage happens at the end of that 17-page story.

In other words, the couple that we meet bickering and at each other, somehow, during the course of 17-pages, find their way back to that moment when they said “I do” to each other. That was fascinating to me because I’m not only interested in stories about how people go from A to Z or at least from D to N. I want to tell stories about human evolution, human development. Ideally, every character in the film will move somewhere. Some will move backwards, but I want them to move.

So I recognized in the short story the possibility both for the emotional healing of an institution, in their case a marriage, I recognized that search for identity and there’s no way I can avoid the omnipresence of my family in the film because my sister used to be my brother. I have a transgender sister and there’s no question that as I was writing this story, consciously or otherwise… I recognized that I was writing the story, unlike the short story. You get the sense in the short story that it’s possible this boy will be dressing as Batman next week, right? I didn’t want to tell that story. I wanted to tell — and probably because of my sister — I wanted to tell the story of a deeper yearning to find his identity.

It’s hard to turn off the film critic part of my brain while I’m watching movies. As a screenwriter / filmmaker, do you consume entertainment hoping to find inspiration? or do creative sparks hit you out of nowhere?

If you’re asking about our critical capacity I would say that as a writer, I have 25-years of writing as a professional and most of those years were spent writing badly or at least writing ineffectively. What I mean by that is, I was writing with a critic on my shoulder. I have learned, the hard way, and I trained myself, and it is training, to not do that… So this film was written with a kind of freedom. It’s not to say that the judge and the critic didn’t come back towards the end of the process and I didn’t vet it, especially in the issues we’re discussing like political, cultural misappropriation and all of these other ideas. Obviously, I had to calm [it] and then view it from a judgemental perspective and polish it. But the creation of my work these days is done without critical interference.

That’s quite the epiphany after 20-plus years. How did you get to that point?

Any artist who lives with a critic, not every artist does, but the vast majority of us do, knows how excruciating it is. I think sobriety helps because in sobriety I was not able to dull the excruciating agony of coexisting with a critic as I try to create. It’s like a mother in a maternity ward giving birth while a toxic waste dump of a partner is screaming at her.

That’s quite poetic.

Well, it felt that way. That’s what writing was like for me. I think inebriation of any number of methods was helpful in quieting the agony of that and in sobriety it became a little more difficult so I reached, I would say the bottom with my critic … quickly. Still, to this day, I can’t brush the critic off my shoulder.

You muzzle it a little bit.

It’s the electric prod, or the chains you know, the gun. They don’t go peacefully but I win now. If I can’t get rid of the critic I stop working. But he comes back. Then I partner with him in the end. I’m also very scrupulous about making sure that I’m not casual about what I do. Once I finish the freedom (writing), I come back and I take the second and third and the fourth phase, which are various levels of discernment and criticism where I really try and go back at the work.

Many writers don’t love writing but they love having written. What’s your take on the process now?

I was that first person. I was the person who hated it until I started practicing what we’re talking about. Right now, writing is a blast. I teach writing and I’m also friends with lots of men and women who write, and nobody who writes this way doesn’t have. “Fun” isn’t even the right word. It’s deep and soulful work when you get out of your own way.

It’s exciting, you don’t know where you’re going because that critical discerning capacity that we have is frequently also the map builder. So I burn my maps when I’m creating because I don’t want to know where I’m going and I don’t want to know who I’ll become, and I don’t want to know what it will become. So no, I don’t have writer’s block. I think writer’s block for me was… literally a by-product of this judge, this critic, sitting on the shoulder.

Directing versus writing. Do you have a preference between the two?

I guess I like both. I think I prefer, right now, directing because I’ve done so much less of it. I’ve written for a long time. I’m a verbal person, which is probably becoming clear as we sit here. What that means is I’m a communicating person and I like to be communicated to and I like to communicate with and that’s really all a director does. Some directors are put out when I say this, but it’s my experience that directors don’t do anything. We literally communicate with others to help us manifest something in our heads, and that’s amazing… So if you’re a communicator and a social animal, then directing is a great job if you don’t want to be a bully, or a…

A micromanager?

Yeah, a micromanager. I don’t do that and I bear the great fruit of not doing that. I pick people to work with who will inspire me, who will challenge me, and who will help me both fulfill the vision in my head but also elevate it and alter it.

From the outside looking in, you have one of the most glamorous jobs in the world. Would you say it’s a fun job?

Is it fun? Well, yeah it’s satisfying. It can be fun. The stuff that, the glamorous stuff is, and I don’t mean this in a glib way, it’s kind of invisible to me. It’s like it doesn’t feel glamorous to me. Maybe that’s because I’m usually upstaged by actors for whom it is glamorous. Especially Jacob Tremblay. At TIFF it was hysterical. I was invisible at TIFF because Jacob Tremblay is a little rock star in Canada. But yeah, certainly it’s fun. But more than fun, it’s deeply satisfying, especially as I get them made.

I’ve written 58 screenplays for hire in Hollywood, which means I’ve built the architectural drawings and the architectural models for 57 pieces of art that didn’t get made or of those 57, I think three or four got made. So it can be a very frustrating endeavor to create models for works of art that don’t happen. A screenplay is not a work of art, a screenplay is a promise of a coming work of art and most screenplays don’t actually take that final step. When they do, it’s deeply gratifying.

Does any sort of cynicism seep into the process, knowing that studios are going to hack your work up or not make it at all?

I suspect it should. I guess I’m lucky enough that, I’m Gemini enough or I wake up fresh every day enough, I don’t feel burdened by that. The track record is pretty daunting and when I think about the fact that I wrote 57 screenplays, only three of which were made, it kind of makes me not want to do it, but that’s only intellectually. The truth is, I love telling stories. I want to tell stories. I think telling stories is the most essential thing for me to do. And we need them.

How do you balance telling a fulfilling story with telling stories that have the highest chance of getting made?

That’s an ongoing experiment for me. Most of what I write, I write for hire for studios and I’ve never written anything, well I’ve written one thing of the 57 things I’ve been hired to write, that I actively never fell in love with. It’s not that I’m some altruistic person with enormous integrity, I just can’t write if I don’t fall in love, it’s not that I don’t want to sully my creative talents.

It’s self-preservation that I say no to jobs I don’t love. So I end up finding a way into the story by finding a way into the characters in the story. Every story, if it involves human beings, involves humanity, and that’s how I’ll find my way in. But there’s clearly a difference between a film like this and a more overtly commercial film like Hot Wheels, which I wrote or any number of other big movies. But even Big Hero 6, which was clearly a commercially successful film, was informed by a very basic idea which I had, which we had, at the very start. That is: a robot with two chips, one to love and one to kill. That’s what that movie was about. Once I recognized that, it ceased to be a big Disney tent pole and just became a movie like any other story I want to tell.

Do you get any of sense of, “this is the one?”

Nobody knows anything and that’s really true, including artists themselves. We never know when it’s gonna be the one when we’re going to hit it. My first movie was a film called Around the Bend and I spent years trying to make a perfect film about family reconciliation. It’s a fine film, but it didn’t connect with critics at all, it didn’t connect with audiences at all, then. Now it’s doing quite well. I spent years doing it and then I spent three weeks writing the narration for March of the Penguins and recording Morgan Freeman and something that I thought was going to be like a straight to video. Who knew? It becomes a national phenomenon.

So that taught me that we don’t know anything. We just try to do our best work.

Jordan Roberts at an event for Burn Your Maps from IMDB