by Samantha Thompson Hatem
photography by Nick Pironio
Everyone should have Raleigh native David Burris’ knack for remaking his career every decade or so and landing a new dream job.
This time, Burris, a former executive producer of TV reality show Survivor and guitarist in North Carolina bands The Veldt and Jolene, can now add movie director to what’s become a storied career of telling stories.
In January, Burris makes his directorial debut with the release of the movie The World Made Straight, an independent film based on the novel by New York Times best-selling author Ron Rash.
The movie tells the story of a rural western North Carolina community in the 1970s. It’s a place with a disturbing Civil War past, and the setting for a story about a conflicted, rebellious young man, played by Jeremy Irvine, struggling to change his troubled life. The movie also stars Noah Wyle, Haley Joel Osment, Minka Kelly, and Adelaide Clemens.
All the way down to the hound dog used on set, the movie pays homage to North Carolina. It’s set here, filmed here, and made by North Carolinians – all intentional, says Burris, who teamed up with fellow North Carolinians Michael Wrenn and Todd Labarowski to make the film.
“For Michael, Todd and me, it was a story that was close to our hearts,” Burris says. “We knew the story. We were highly motivated from a practical perspective and from an emotional perspective to get this thing done.”
Anyone who grew up in Raleigh in the late ’70s and early ’80s will appreciate the movie’s Raleigh connections, starting with Burris and Wrenn. Burris, who grew up near Canterbury Road, was pals at Broughton High School with Wrenn, who grew up in Raleigh’s Cameron Park. The movie features the song ’74-‘75 by Raleigh band The Connells, whose members who also grew up near Cameron Park. And if you look closely in the film, you might just spot Connells band members Doug MacMillan and Mike Ayers, Burris says.
There are other North Carolina connections, too. Labarowski, of Dreambridge Films, who co-produced the movie, grew up in High Point, lived in Wilmington, and now lives near Charlotte. The movie’s score was composed by Durham-based band Megafaun. Other songs in the movie are by Mark and Michael Holland (Jennyanykind) of Carrboro and Algia Mae Hinton, the 85-year-old blues guitarist and vocalist from Johnston County.
Visually, the movie is all North Carolina. The entire film was shot in Buncombe and Madison counties. In some cases, scenes were filmed in the same location as the book.
“One thing that really impressed me is how perfect the actors got the western North Carolina accent, and almost invariably actors get it wrong every time,” Rash says. “That’s the kind of care that David brings to the movie as a native, going so far as to even bring in the right kind of hound dog.”
For years, Burris and Wrenn had hoped to work on together on a project. The two early on took different paths in the film industry: Burris behind the camera; Wrenn through distribution.
Five years ago, the two pinkie-swore over glasses of wine in New Zealand that they’d make a movie together. Burris was still working on Survivor and Wrenn was working in economic development for the New Zealand Film Commission.
“We said, let’s make a pact that in the next four years that we find a great North Carolina story and shoot it in North Carolina as a way to get back to what started us as story tellers and film makers,” Burris says. “It was a little bit of acknowledging where we came from and why we came.”
It was Burris’ mom Jane who found The World Made Straight. “She said. ‘This is the kind of book you make a movie out of,’” Burris recalls. “I read the book, and it’s not the first time she’s steered me in the direction of a great book. I said ‘You are right, this would be an amazing movie.’”
As it turns out, the Burris family knew Ron Rash’s family. Burris’ parents and Rash’s dad went to Wingate College together, and their fathers were professors together at Gardner Webb College.
Burris sent the book to Wrenn, who agreed, and they immediately started working on getting the movie option. Nancy Olson, the former owner of Quail Ridge Books, helped Burris track down Rash. And by Christmas of 2010, the project was on.
Shane Danielsen was hired to adapt the book. Labarowski got on board as a producer. And in March 2012, the movie started filming in Weaverville, Arden, Black Mountain, and Marshall.
“It was this great thing of all these North Carolina guys coming together getting to make a movie about North Carolina,” Burris says.
A huge incentive to film in North Carolina was the tax incentive, which state legislators eliminated last year. “We would not have been able to do this film in North Carolina had it not been for the tax incentive,” Burris says. “It’s a North Carolina novel. It’s a North Carolina story, and it needed to be told in North Carolina.”
The movie will premiere Jan. 9, and Burris is working on setting up a screening in Raleigh.
“There was a lot of hard work that went into it,” Burris says. “Every process takes a lot of time and a lot of effort and you feel fortunate after each one happens. There were many points where it could have gone pear shaped, and everything just happened at every point.”
Burris has come a long way from the Super 8 films he used to make as a kid in Raleigh. He says storytelling, writing, and creating have always been a part of his life, beginning with a childhood surrounded by academics. His father, Allen, was dean of Meredith College. His grandfather was president at Wingate College. And his mother was a teacher at Cary High School.
“Books and communicating ideas and teaching was how I grew up,” he says.
As a student studying history and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill and later at Edinburgh University in Scotland, he dabbled in short stories, and did some work with UNC’s student television.
After a master’s in English and education from Wake Forest University, Burris moved to New York in 1990. He quickly landed jobs on film sets as a second assistant or assistant director. Between movies, he would tour with the Raleigh band The Veldt as guitarist. (He still plays with The Veldt when they reunite. He also plays guitar with Jolene and Light In August.)
“I always juggled the film stuff and the music stuff,” he said. “They’re both great ways to communicate and both great ways to tell stories. And great ways to entertain and enlighten.”
He moved to Los Angeles in 1999, writing and producing for TV shows, including Good vs. Evil on the USA Network and later SyFy Channel, Monster House on the Discovery Channel and Lover’s Lounge on GSN.
“I remember hearing about Survivor and thought to myself, ‘That is a brilliant concept,’ ” he says.
A few friends already working on the show helped him get an interview as a story producer, and when he walked into the room, he said “I’m made to do this. You want me to work on this show.”
It worked. Burris started as a Survivor producer in Season 9. His last season, Season 26, was last year.
“There’s no question that my experience on Survivor has helped me as a director and a writer in terms of just understanding human behavior,” he said. “Just the practical element of being able to boil down all that happens on the island with these people competitively and psychologically into a cogent, structured story week after week after week. It’s held me in good stead with these new features.”
You can expect to see even more of Burris around Raleigh. He’s getting ready buy his parent’s house, making Raleigh one of several home bases. He also has apartments in Los Angeles and Bangkok, where he is working on a project.
And he has another movie in the works with Wrenn, who lives in Sydney. The two optioned a second North Carolina movie, this one based on the novel Doubles, written by Burris’ friend Nic Brown, who grew up
“I love the whole directing process,” Burris said. “I really like that kind of storytelling. Whether it’s playing in a band or making a movie or working on Survivor, for me it has always been about telling a story.”