Alumni profile: Jim Burke
Producer of Cedar Rapids, The Savages, Election, and other films
"Film producer and speech-communication alum Jim Burke met with CLA students to talk about how a liberal arts degree prepares students for the future. Photo by Kelly MacWilliams."
Alumnus Jim Burke visited the University of Minnesota campus in early February for a screening of his film Cedar Rapids. He met with CLA students to talk about what a liberal arts education can do to shape and prepare them for the future. Burke also took some time to answer some questions for Alma Matters.
It was great fun to learn about his unique profession. In CLA we always appreciate having our alumni come back to campus to share their stories and what they've learned. And our current students appreciate it, too.
Do you think having a liberal arts degree gives you a big picture approach to your life and work?
I tend to have a big picture look at life and my profession. When I was at the U of M, I had to take a class for Spanish on Don Quixote so that whole quarter all I did was read and talk about just that, which sort of mimics my every day life now.
It's one of the first classes I remember, because something about me must lend itself to getting really interested in something. Because if you're going to make a movie, boy, you'd better strap in. It's a long ride. You have to keep it fresh and keep finding ways to keep yourself interested.
Were you ever asked what you are you going to do with that degree?
No, I don't know if I paid any attention to that.
Dealing with the University, which was this massive bureaucracy, was a frustrating event. And I was kind of a baby about it after I graduated. I thought, "Why didn't they take care of me?" But then I realized: "What do you mean they didn't take care of you?" Of course they didn't and neither does the real world.
The lesson I learned that was so valuable is you've got to figure out a way. And it's totally like that in show business. If you want to be an actor you need to be in the Screen Actors Guild, and the only way you can get in the Screen Actors Guild is if you're an actor. There's no way that can happen, but it does. And it's the same with all of the other guilds.
I whined about that then, but now my heart bursts with pride about the University of Minnesota. I really, truly love it. When I was driving down here today on 35W and I saw the U of M exit sign, it was awesome.
Now I really do see what a value this place had for me. It really did. I made so many friends that I still have today.
About his approach as a filmmaker
As I began making films, I saw a pattern. If I like the movie then other people will like it. It just worked out that way. And now I only make movies that I love.
I make human films. Nobody is going to land on Mars or blow up a space station. That's just not going to happen, because I need to be able to feel it. I need to know that at one point or another in my life I could relate to what the characters are going through. I want to see myself in them. And I think if I can--and I'm not that unique a person--then a lot of other people will be able to relate, too.
Is it difficult to ignore the norms and stay true to your way of making films?
You get tempted to leave the island, but we're on a little island, and we're impervious to market forces. We're going to make these kinds of movies over here, and they will pop because they're good.
I know how to make a movie that changes in tone, and that's not something most people can do. By changing tone, I mean, it's like life. You can be laughing at one point in the day and heartbroken at another. And that's not an easy rhythm to create in a movie. Sometimes if you do it wrong an audience will get [angry with] you. You tricked me. You made me think this was funny and now I'm crying.
Will you keep doing filmmaking, or do you see other projects in your future?
If I ever do anything else it will be --and I'm being totally sincere about this--it would be some job like a bag boy at a grocery store or something just real, connecting with other people and a something-to-do job. Like, what am I going to do today? Well, I've got to work from 10 to 4.
But I try to be present and I've got some great pictures in the pipeline. We've got The Descendants coming up and then we've got just an amazing movie that's set here in Minneapolis. It's just the most original picture.
It sounds like you have time to take in a lot of films.
Sure, I watch everything. I don't need to create spare time for it. That's what I do. That's why I make movies, so I can watch them. I also watch the movies I make hundreds of times. I'm in the dark a lot. [laughs]
Films Jim recommends
• Exit Through the Gift Shop
• Let Me In
• Hear Jim Burke's and Cedar Rapids screenwriter Phil Johnston's interview with Minnesota Public Radio
• Learn more about Burke's currently released film Cedar Rapids