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October 6, 2015

SCA Student Stories: Xavier Neal-Burgin

With roots in Alabama and Mississippi, Xavier Neal-Burgin ’16 hopes to utilize his work as an avenue of positive social impact. During his time at SCA, Neal-Burgin was selected out of 40 students to direct a film fully funded by SCA (Olde E). He recently discussed his experience directing Olde E, his creative and technical growth as a filmmaker, and also offered advice to fellow SCA students.

What in your past has given you inspiration or a unique point of view that you bring to SCA? I’ve spent the majority of my life in the Deep South, specifically Alabama and Mississippi. I’m cognizant of the deeply troubled, yet stubbornly proud history it holds for its citizens. It’s a place of oppression and triumph—a region where the worst of our nation’s faults and the many moments where progress has shone through can be found. I was raised within these parameters, so I bring an acutely aware representation of southern heritage and life into my films, however subtle it may be.

As a filmmaker, how do you hope your work impacts its audience? At all times, I want my films to have a socially positive impact that touches on issues in the communities represented in my work. My 508 film, One on One, focused on black athletes and their choice to pursue collegiate athletics and artistic endeavors. The 546 I directed, Olde E, spoke on child abuse and the choices kids from under-privileged backgrounds make to succeed. Flipping the script, a comedy project I worked on for Google centered on battling the stereotypes pushed upon people who work in computer sciences, and improving outreach to people of color.

What was your experience creating Portrait of the Storm: Tuscaloosa, AL, a 3D documentary that explored the devastation of the Tuscaloosa Tornado? When the tornado hit Alabama, I walked into a common room to look out the window and saw the mile-wide tornado barreling towards us. It was only by pure luck the tornado made a sharp turn and missed us. I realized there was nothing we could do. If it hit us, that would be it. For that moment, I was helpless. When it was over I needed a way to take back control of my destiny. Documenting the aftermath was how I felt it could be done. Once it was safe to go outside, I immediately asked Campus Moviefest/Ideas United, a production company I’ve worked with on numerous occasions, to send me a camera to document the devastation. They recommended I use their 3D camera. What the camera truly excels at is giving an in-depth experience of the devastation a 2D image is unable to procure.

Shooting the documentary on the tornado was tough. Out in the field, I was working as director, cinematographer, and producer. I lugged around the necessary equipment while going into broken down and nearly collapsed houses. It was dangerous, but rewarding. I knew I had to do this for myself, and for the people of Tuscaloosa.

While directing several short films at SCA, how have you been challenged as a filmmaker? I can use Olde E as the best example when it comes to challenges. We were told on several occasions that the Olde E script would be quite impossible to produce. Olde E has driving cars, basketball sequences, fight scenes, blood, makeup effects, gunshots, window-breaking, and was mostly composed of night scenes. Except for basketball sequences, I’d never done anything this extensive, with this many moving parts. I knew I had to push myself, and my crew to make everything come together. We did it though, and it came out wonderfully.

Having been selected out of a group of 40 directors to make a film fully funded by SCA, what was your experience directing Olde E? It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. Let me begin by saying the faculty was phenomenal. I’ve never had such strong support as a filmmaker, and it made all the difference. I have to especially point out Professors John Watson and Michael Uno, who were very instrumental in guiding me along the right path for Olde E. Additionally, our casting director, Valerie McCaffrey, put us in contact with amazing talent. Kent Faulcon from Selma, William Russ from American History X, Mike Wade from From Above, Trestin George from Fruitvale Station, Mack Miles from The Shawshank Redemption, and the rest of the actors I got to work with were amazing. It was intimidating. Many of the actors had far more time and experience in the industry than I’ve had being a filmmaker. But, all of them stood behind me and supported me in my vision for the film. That made it a truly special project for me.

Creatively, Olde E taught me what it means to be a director who collaborates, but never lets go of his vision. One of the mistakes I made during 508 was being indecisive. I was unsure of myself, and allowed creative choices in my film to fall to others. I knew I couldn’t do that during Olde E. Regardless of who made the decisions, the final judgment of the film’s creative merit would fall on my shoulders. So I made the decision to make decisions that, no matter how big or small, always had my artistic vision, while being open to ideas from my entire, amazing team.

I also learned how to manage my time. Directing isn’t just getting the best performances. It’s keeping the crew in check, charting out how much time you need for shots, understanding when to move on or keep pushing for what you need, making snap decisions on set, or changing blocking and shots when the actors give you a better idea. I understand how to control and oversee a large set while attaining my vision. That’s a huge learning curve I was able to master.

Overall, I matured immensely. Every director at USC needs this kind of moment where they’re placed in situations that challenge their creativity and ability to balance the duties of the director to their actors and crew. It’s made me a much stronger filmmaker.

What advice do you have for current SCA students? I advise every student to take 546 at least once. It is an experience you need to have under your belt. Few other classes will give you an opportunity to work with such a close model to the industry. Whether or not you want to produce, I recommend taking Tim Marx’s Intermediate Producing class. It’ll be an amazing guide for you once you exit SCA. Try to take classes with Professors John Watson, Michael Uno, or any of the faculty that runs the 546 class. They have invaluable knowledge you should retain.

Also, take as many writing classes as you can, even if you have to go outside of the production classes. It’s one of the areas we, as production students, don’t get to explore as much. Finally, find yourself a dedicated writing partner whose main goal is to be a writer. Hubris sometimes makes us feel like any type of creative endeavor must come solely from us. That’s not true; filmmaking is collaborative. You’ll also see a vast improvement in your own writing. Tiara, my writing partner, and the writer of Olde E, has been one of the most important people I’ve met during my time at SCA.

What’s next for you? I submitted a script to the 2nd round of the Sundance Writer’s Lab. I’m finishing a comedy project for Google, and I’ve pitched my feature project to a few production companies. Olde E has reached the semi-finalist stage for the UCFTI Expo, and the finalist stage for the Stage 32 competition. We haven’t submitted it to any festivals for a world premiere, since we want to save that for one specific festival, but we’ll begin submitting to them around December. Until then, I’m using my last semester at SCA to shoot a short film version of my feature, do final revisions on the feature, and start searching for job openings in January!