Aurora Borealis Stands Out From the Pack
Director: James C.E. Burke (as James Burke)
Writer: Brent Boyd
Stars: Joshua Jackson, Donald Sutherland, Juliette Lewis
Music composed by: Mychael Danna
Editor: Richard Nord
USA 22 April 2005 (Tribeca Film Festival)
USA 18 March 2006 (RiverRun International Film Festival)
USA 26 April 2006 (Nashville Film Festival)
Nominations: Satellite Award for Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture, Satellite Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama
"Aurora Borealis will be remembered in these parts as
the most quintessentially Minnesotan movie since 'Fargo.'
The performances of Sutherland and Jackson, matched with Lewis,
are among the reasons that "Aurora Borealis" sparkles."
Jeff Strickler, Star Tribune, Minneapolis, St. Paul
ABOUT AURORA BOREALIS
Ever since the premature death of his father, 25-year-old Minneapolis slacker Duncan (Joshua Jackson) is content with shuffling aimlessly through life, hanging out with his lifelong friends, and ditching one dead-end job after another.
Duncan takes a job as a handyman in a high-rise that allows him to be near his gravely ill grandfather Ronald (Donald Sutherland), who's more than a handful for his grandmother Ruth (Louise Fletcher). That newfound sense of purpose, plus a budding romance with home healthcare provider Kate (Juliette Lewis), gives Duncan the motivation to take charge of his life. However, Kate isn't one to stay in the same place for too long, and Duncan is soon torn between following her to California and a new, more responsible life, and his feelings of familial obligation to an increasingly suicidal Ronald.
This funny and touching family drama from director James Burke, with a soundtrack featuring music by Minnesota natives Bob Dylan and Paul Westerberg, has something to say to audiences of all ages.
Written by Brent Boyd, Original Music by Mychael Danna
Produced by Scott Disharoon and Rick Bieber
Comments by James Burke Director
The day we shot the title sequence for Aurora Borealis, outside, overlooking the Mississippi river, it was 25 degrees below zero with a wind chill factor of 60 below zero. I felt great, that is whatever parts of my body I could still feel, because I knew that we needed to capture this kind of detail, and because one of the remarkable facets of this challenging script was its specificity of place. The small bits of behavior, the language, culture, and environment of the upper mid-west really set apart this coming-of-age story from the many others I had read.
I was also attracted to the unique, trans-generational nature of the story. Both main characters face major life transitions. A young man, Duncan, must move past his arrested adolescence into adulthood. An old man, his grandfather Ronald, must come to grips with the physical deterioration caused by illness and age and find meaning for the end of his days. Both lack the same person, Duncan’s father (Ronald’s son), who would normally play the transitional guide’s role in their journey. So they must reach out to form what becomes a complex and unique relationship that I had never seen played out in film before.
The title describes the Northern Lights, an atmospheric phenomenon common to the Upper Northern hemisphere, especially Canada and the Arctic Circle, where bright bands of red, green and yellow light shine in the winter sky. But it also describes a kind of strong belief. In the film, Ronald claims to see the lights from the balcony of his apartment in Minneapolis, a nearly unimaginable occurrence. Most of the extended family believes he is hallucinating. Only Duncan comes to his defense. Making an independent film is much the same experience, a belief that you can see something that most people assume will never be seen. This past December, a few months after finishing the film, it was reported that for the first time in anyone’s memory, the Aurora Borealis were seen over the city of Minneapolis, shining brightly in the night sky.
JAMES BURKE INTERVIEW
Q: First of all, tell us what Aurora Borealis is about.
A: It is about a character, Duncan, who's sort of in arrested development. He's about twenty-five, he keeps losing jobs, he doesn't have a girlfriend, he's sort of down on his luck. His grandparents move to Minneapolis, where he lives, and his family forces him to go and visit them, even though he doesn't really like to see his grandfather that much because his grandfather has Parkinson's disease. He goes and visits and he sort of rekindles a relationship with his grandfather and takes a job as handyman in the building that his grandparents live.
Meanwhile, there's a home healthcare worker that takes care of his grandfather, played by Juliette Lewis, and he falls in love with Juliette Lewis. So it's sort of a romance as well as this sort of intergenerational relationship. Eventually, there's some circumstances with his grandfather that sort of force him to grow up, as well as this relationship with the woman that he loves. Sort of a coming of age story, really.
Q: So that being said, what appealed to you about the story?
A: I love coming of age stories. It doesn't matter what coming of age the coming of age is, I just love those kinds of stories. It's just a beautiful, beautiful script. I also think that there aren't a lot of movies about—I haven't seen very many films about the elderly and the intergenerational relationship. This just rings so true. It seems so real and so sort of both heartwarming but difficult at the same time. I also loved the romance. I think it also sort of struck a chord for me.
Q: When you talk about loving coming of age films, I do, I think everyone probably does. Do you think it's because we're always sort of coming of age in one way or another?
A: Absolutely. Hopefully we are. Hopefully we're moving forward, and sometimes we take a few steps back and we have to keep moving forward. This script really addresses all of those kind of issues that we have. I think Duncan, even though he's sort of a screw-up, especially to all of his friends who are sort of sprinkled through, and they're sort of the humor in the movie. They make fun of him. He's still very lovable and we still can sort of relate to those places we've been in in our lives where we're not exactly feeling like we're moving forward. And he's forced to by circumstances to do that, and sometimes that's the way it happens. It isn't always because we took a seminar in self-help and we've got it all together. He's forced to through the circumstances of this film and the characters that press up against him.
Q: Duncan comes of age, but so does Kate. And so do Ronald and Ruth in their own way, too. Did you see that when you read it, or as it evolved, that it's such an important thing, first of all, to get to know these characters, which we do, but then to have the arc. Did you feel that as it evolved?
A: I did. I felt like they were very full and very fleshed out. But I also felt like their character arcs were not forced. We weren't trying to sort of resolve every single little moment in the film. But every single character, like you said, has a sort of a beginning and a middle and end. Some are better endings than others. Certainly for Kate and Duncan there's hope in the end, but also it's an unresolved ending. We never know what's going to happen to that romance. It's not particularly a Hollywood ending, but there is sort of hope for them in the future, that they're going to find each other.
Q: Do you think that's what draws an audience in, is sort of that kind of arc?
A: I think so. I think that we want to follow a story and be engaged and root for the—and without that sort of arc, you don't quite have that sense of I'm rooting on that character and hoping that that character will do well. And you need obstacles for the character, and that's the other thing that I loved about this is that all of the obstacles that the characters had seemed very real, very much from life, as opposed to out of context in some way.
Q: What have been the challenges then for you in directing the film? I imagine it must be amazing but daunting.
A: Yeah, it is very daunting, I have to say. (laughs) But it's been so exciting. The great thing, I think, about film—in theater you direct a play, and once it's on its feet it's not yours anymore. You've given it over. But you have all this rehearsal time and you have—the difficulty for me is that you don't have the rehearsal time. I'm blessed with wonderful, wonderful actors, so I take a certain amount of time, and everybody knows on the crew, and it seems to work, and there's a rhythm about it that I take time to work the beats of the acting moments, because that's what's so important. That's why I chose this script, because it's all about performance, it's all about character, it's all about making those moments as real and interesting as possible. It is certainly a very different medium.
Also, the director of photography, Alar Kivilo, is just brilliant with the camera. I've built a great trust with him, so when we've worked on shot lists and creating sort of the visuals and the looks of the film, we've done a lot of work to prepare, so that I'm sort of ready once we've gotten out here. A lot of times it changes, because I do like to work with my actors and see what comes organically from them. But he always seems ready. So we go and have a conference and say, what if we shot it like this as opposed to what the shot list says. Because I'm a new director—I imagine that happens on other films, but perhaps not. It's been a wonderful experience. I've loved it. I've really loved it.
One of my favorite departments that is so crucial to the film is the art & prop department. These are the people who create the strong visual sensibility of the film. They preform magic as far as I am concern. The art department is always the biggest department on any film, involving vast numbers of crew, equipment, material and most significantly, money. Of course within the department there are so many people including: production designer, art director, assistant art director, storyboard artist, concept artist, draftsman, art department coordinator, set decorator, set dresser, makeup artist, painter, property master, leadman, swing gang, production buyer, Film sculptor, and property assistant. I remember overhearing two of the art department fellows discussing buying various items from an online janitorial site one of them had recently discovered. It must have been where they bought all the paper products, trash bags, and cleaning eqipement that one doen't think too much about, but is absolutely necessary to have. What struck me about their conversation was how particular one fellow was about the best disinfecting wipes to buy. He wanted a particular scent, a particular brand, only Clorox would do, and an admonishment not to forget to also order inboth smaller canisters, but also the larger buckets and refills. At the time I though the emphasis was a bit of overkill, but you know, those little disinfecting wet wipes came in real handy throughout the shoot. It's funny how such seemingly non important interactions sticks in one's memory. Anyway, kudos to the art department.
And although not directly part of the film, our Magento developer, Michael Noe, is also a brilliant effects artist. Our website runs on Magento, so we needed Michael to manage our web presence. But it turns out that Magento is just a hobby and his real expertise is creating screen magic. Anyway mucho thanks to Mike for his contribution to making the fantastic look real. And our website rocks! We're big fans!
Q: I want to talk about the cast. Why was Josh right for Duncan?
A: Josh flew down from Vancouver to meet with me because he loved the script. And we were lucky because most of the actors that read the script seemed to really love it and have a passion for it. So we did have a lot of choices, but there was something about him when I first met him. Now, for one thing, the first thing he said to me was, "You're going to get a gushing actor." He said, "I love this script, I feel passionate about it." And in our first conversation, he seemed to sort of know who this character is, understand what the story's about, and I also knew that I could work with him. We seemed to have a rapport almost immediately. That's important, especially for me because, again, actors and performance is so important to me.
Q: Now let's talk about Kate and Juliette.
A: She was shooting a film. She flew down to meet with me. She said she didn't want to audition. But I loved her work. I think this film, to me, I hope, has a certain kind of quirkiness and a quality like What's Eating Gilbert Grape?, which was the film she starred in. So she was definitely top of the list. But she said, "I don't really audition very well," so I talked to her. I said, "Please come in and audition, because I have a feeling you're really going to convince all of us that you're the right one." She came in and she read, and we were blown out of our seats, and we knew immediately and said she's the right one. She gets it.
Q: Then let's talk about Louise and Donald. Like you said, all great roles. These two are really great roles as well.
A: Yeah. I just again feel so blessed by—Donald has done so much work and has such a body of work that the first time I met with him I was like, first time director, he's going to chew me apart. He asked very difficult questions about the role and about the character and how I saw it, and he seemed to respect the answers that I had for him, which made me feel much more at ease. Once he started working, it was a joy.
He calls me on a weekly basis since we've wrapped him. We talk, he asks about dailies. He called me the other morning. He calls me Governor. "Governor? It's Donald." I said, "Good morning, Donald. How are you?" He said, "I miss you, Governor." And I said, "Oh, I miss you, too." He said, "I don't miss many people, but I miss you." (chuckles) So we've just had a—it's been a love affair.
He just brought so much to this role. It's just been a beautiful performance. And his own performance also. I mean, he chose sort of where the Parkinson's was and where his disease was and at what level, and we worked together in that way and I feel, I hope, it just reads as well as I've seen in dailies. It's just a great performance, very moving.
Q: Tell me about Louise.
A: Well, we talked about a lot of women for that character, because there were a lot of ways we could go with that character. Then we made a short list. Most people remember her, of course, from Cuckoo's Nest, when she won an Academy Award, and I knew that she had the chops as an actor. Of course, in my head was Nurse Ratched, which is a very tough, tough role. At first I had concerns. I said, "I'm going to get absolutely one of the great actresses out there, but is she going to be able to play sort of the softer side?" The minute she opened her mouth, it was very clear that she could play it. I was extraordinarily impressed with what she brought because she brings both a toughness on her husband, Donald Sutherland, and she brings a warmth and a love and a sense of deep caring for him, which both those things is exactly what I wanted.
Q: Just listening to you talk about these great actors and about your background, have these meshed together? I think as a first-time director, like you said, having the acting knowledge you have and having these actors, did they really just mesh well once you got here kind of thing?
A: Yeah. I mean, a lot of it is luck because you're casting sort of—you're not putting them all into a room and letting them read opposite each other and see how all the sort of chemistry goes together. But I absolutely feel like I just got lucky. It worked really, really well. I think they like each other and respect each other's work, and that helps. But I think they are not only really great, great actors, but just something meshed. Everybody seemed to love the material and loved the characters they were playing, and I think that reads on screen.
Q: Tell us the significance of Aurora Borealis, about the spirituality about it. Maybe you could explain to us.
A: Well, one of the things that is—it's difficult to talk about in this script, as you know by reading it. It's not a particularly tangible thing, which is also one of the things that drew me to this, is that there is a sort of underlying spiritual quality to the film, to the relationships, to the characters. But we're not hitting anybody on the head with it at all. The main character, Donald Sutherland's character, he believes that he sees the Aurora Borealis on the balcony of his apartment building in Minneapolis. Does he really see them? We never answer that question. And it's not an important question to answer in my mind because there is something about the spirituality of it and what it does for him, and it becomes a bone of contention between a lot of the characters throughout the movie, about whether or not he really sees this, or is this because he's got some kind of dementia that is leading him to see it.
But yes, it does. There's an underlying sort of spirituality that exists, and at the end the lead character, Duncan, played by Josh, understands something about his grandfather, at the very end of the movie. Once his grandfather has passed, he recognizes something about the Aurora Borealis, about the Northern Lights and what it meant to his grandfather to see that. I think it's a wonderful image and a wonderful metaphor for the movie.
Q: When I was talking to Rick earlier and he was talking about the story, somehow it came into my head that it's interesting that the three of you as men chose to do this script. You know, you could look at it on the surface and think it's a chick flick, but do you think maybe all of your sensibilities to the project show that it's a broader base? I mean, when you look at it on the surface, you go chick flick, but it's a lot more than that?
A: I hope so, certainly. First of all, both Donald Sutherland and Josh Jackson are playing the two main roles, so they are men, and there are male issues that are going on in the movie. I think as long as we tell the truth and we don't get sentimental that there will be something for the male audience that will move them. And certainly I think also for women, there's a lot of things in the film for women. But, you know, guys go through stuff, too. (chuckles) And these are particular in this script, the kind of things that men actually go through, and I like addressing those kinds of things, again, in a way that is hopefully moving and funny and sometimes quirky, but not sentimental at the same time, because we'll turn off our male audience by making it sentimental.
Q: Maybe it's because you like these men, too. Or as a woman, I thought it was just very touching.
A: And they seem real. They seem like they're going through those things that men go through.