BA alumnus Scott Z. Burns rocks Hollywood
Quick: what Hollywood director, screenwriter, and producer (of an Oscar-winning movie) was raised in a Minneapolis inner-ring suburb? Joel or Ethan Coen, right?
Not so fast. The suburb was Golden Valley, not St. Louis Park, and the man in question is a summa cum laude 1985 graduate of the Department of English. Meet Scott Z. Burns, co-writer of the action film The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), co-producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), and writer of Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! (2009) and current project Contagion (2011).
The latter, a multi-narrative story in the Traffic mold with a cast of Oscar-toting leads--Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard--is already being touted as an Oscar 2012 frontrunner. Part of it takes place in, yes, Minnesota. "I still very much define myself as a Minnesotan," says a cheerful Burns, phoning from his home in Venice, California. "My whole upbringing there really plays a big role in my work, I think."
The Minnesota work ethic was part of the takeaway, Burns claims. "To get better at writing you need to keep doing it. If you want to do this for a living, you just gotta put your butt in the chair every morning." He laughs. "And hang on for your life."
But there were more specific assists from his home state. "I'm going to shamelessly plug the U," he warns. A dropout of Golden Valley High School, he managed to satisfy requirements to get into the University without getting his GED. ("I hope they don't take my degree away.") Unlike Golden Valley at that time, the U provided opportunities to meet people from different countries, with different politics, and similar enthusiasm for music, theater, and the arts.
Burns commuted from the family home for awhile, imagining that he would eventually transfer elsewhere. He thought he would be a humanities or anthropology major. But the English credits kept piling up. "I think from the time I was in grade school in Golden Valley I always wanted to write," he confesses. "I didn't really believe that I would be allowed to. It seemed like the kind of job that existed in another century. It was like telling people you were going to be a silversmith."
But Burns' professors began to tease out that secret ambition. "Tom Clayton was my Shakespeare professor, and he had a picture of Shakespeare on one wall and of The Clash on the other," Burns describes. "I think it was the first time that I began to connect the things that people study to contemporary culture. Once he showed me that bridge I found that there was a way of integrating my fascination with [Minneapolis artists] The Replacements and Hüsker Dü or Prince--there was a way of beginning to see that you could connect that and literature."
Burns reflects for a moment. "Tom was the person who encouraged me and supported my candidacy as a Rhodes Scholar, and although that didn't get far, it was very valuable to me to be seen by someone who was a Rhodes Scholar and was such a respected academic. He had a huge influence on my life." Regents Professor Clayton remembers Burns as "bright, inventive, witty, and challenging, a stimulating presence in class."
Burns decided to enroll in the Literature in London Program that Professor Clayton administered. After his return, he wrote for the Minnesota Daily. He took a class from Professor of English Art Geffen on comedy, and Geffen became his summa adviser on a thesis consisting of a short story. "Again, he was someone who began to make literature more of a living experience for me," Burns notes. Burns finally asked the question out loud--can one profitably pursue a career in the arts?--and humanities professor Pauline Yu told him it was possible, if one worked at a very high level.
So he went into copywriting. "Advertising," he remembers, "was a baby step in the direction of having a career that was based on creativity and desire to make art." He did it at a high level. Burns was the copywriter in the initial 1993 California "Got Milk?" campaign, which won multiple industry awards for the agency Goodby Silverstein and Partners. He expanded into directing commercials. And, he says, "I got really lucky."
Through another Minnesotan, Burns met Peter Berg, who had gone to Macalaster College; they became friends. Berg was just beginning his directing career, after years as an actor on Chicago Hope. On a vacation, he stole Burns' journal and read it. "At one point he said to me, 'Are you going to write commercials all your life?'" Then Berg offered Burns a writing job on his TV series Wonderland. While the series was critically lauded, it didn't last. "We didn't until late in the game realize that maybe having a more consistent voice and a better sense of serialized shows would have helped us," Burns notes dryly. "Peter seems to have figured that out with Friday Night Lights."
It didn't much matter. Burns connected with producer Lawrence Bender and activist Laurie David, and they went on to make An Inconvenient Truth with director Davis Guggenheim. He met Soderbergh, who produced, along with Berg and George Clooney, Burns' first directing/writing effort PU-239, for HBO. He shared writing credits on Paul Greengrass' The Bourne Ultimatum, which grossed over $442 million worldwide. And he adapted The Informant! for Soderbergh, which earned a Golden Globe nomination for star Matt Damon.
Burns has several film scripts cooking besides Contagion. But he's also got another plan. "I haven't written a novel yet," he reports enthusiastically. "I would love to. There's now a file on my desktop that I can go to and add a page or a paragraph.
"I just met [novelist] Nick Hornby, and he's sort of demystifying it for me," Burns continues, "telling me that I won't find it to be such a foreign land if I just . . . go there." He takes a deep breath. "I think that's what I've been trying to work my way back to the whole time."