Interview: Sundance Fellow Xavier Burgin on Filmmaking, Perspective and the Power of Social Media

Your familiarity with indie filmmaker, Twitter-personality and Sundance Fellow Xavier Burgin is likely to depend upon how you first encounter him. For independent filmmakers, he’s best known for his award-winning short films Olde E and On Time. The latter was purchased by HBO, while Olde E was selected to be part of the prestigious Ryan Murphy Television Director’s Showcase. Both films approach race and socio-economic status with a similar, naturalistic lens that feels mildly reminiscent of Ryan Coogler’s early work – particularly Fig and Fruitvale Station. Coincidentally, the two filmmakers also share the same Alma mater.

You might also know Burgin from his Twitter account @XLNB. His hilarious “Twitter-Story” Tina & The Gucci Flip Flop went viral back in 2015,  doubling the filmmaker’s audience overnight (his account currently sits at over 65 thousand followers). Burgin is unique among indie filmmakers for the way in which he embraces the power of social media, not just as a platform for his own rapidly growing portfolio, but for advocating the importance of diversity and perspective in storytelling in general. We recently sat down with Xavier for an in-depth discussion on all things, from his past and present projects, to why social media is such an important and often-neglected tool for filmmakers. 

Let’s start with your background. Where did you grow up? Did your upbringing influence the kind of stories you wanted to tell?

I grew up between Columbus, Mississippi and Birmingham, Alabama. The sensibilities of the deep south, how we speak, talk, walk, and feel as black and brown people tends to seep into my stories. Interestingly, I grew up on a heavy dose of cartoons and anime (think Dragonball Z, Yu Yu Hakasho, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing) so somehow I’ve found myself mixing a Southern aesthetic with my love for the animated.

Was telling stories always something you were drawn to, or did you come to later in life?

I always had an affinity for writing since I was young, but I didn’t have anyone really pushing me to nurture it. When you’re from the depths of Mississippi, no one really tells you writing and directing is a route you can take. So it wasn’t until I went to The University of Alabama for undergrad that I found storytelling again, truly.

What about your inspirations? Are there any particular figures in your life – be they filmmakers or otherwise – that have had an influence on your craft?

So this is going to sound funny, but I honestly didn’t find filmmaking until later in life. So what really gave me inspiration were events and people. The memorable occasions I recollect from my childhood in both Mississippi and Alabama. Those figures, my father, mother, grandmother, and friends from down South, tend to most literally come out in my storytelling work on social media, specifically when I’m telling “twitter stories” (more on those later).

You recently participated in the Sundance Institute’s Youtube New Voices Lab. Tell us a bit about the experience.

We were the second class of people to come in to Sundance’s Youtube New Voices Lab. It’s by far one of the best experiences I’ve had in terms of education since graduating from USC Cinema. Before we even got to the program, we were working with the Sundance staff to hone our project before we got there. During the program we switched between writing exercises, directing, and finally meeting with mentors on the last day to get extensive notes. Even now, months later, we’re still working with Sundance to hone the project. I realize it’s not easy to get into a Sundance lab, but I can’t express enough how vital it can be to become a Sundance Fellow.

Before Sundance you studied film at USC. Was the film school experience beneficial?

USC is the best decision I chose as a filmmaker. Film school isn’t for everyone, but I needed more time to develop myself as a filmmaker. I still hadn’t found my voice. USC gave me the time necessary to find out the type of filmmaker I am. This isn’t to say I’m no longer learning, but film school allowed me to develop in a way that truly helped me find myself.

You’ve directed a number of award winning short films. Two in particular stand out – ‘Olde E’, which was chosen for the Ryan Murphy Showcase, and ‘On Time’, which was purchased by HBO. 

Olde E came about via USC’s advanced project class (known within the school as a ‘546’). Forty plus directors put in their names. Twelve to fourteen are chosen. They’re given twenty to thirty scripts and they pitch a script they chose to faculty and fellow students. Three directors (along with the script they chose) are chosen to be produced by USC. The class has produced filmmakers such as Ryan Coogler and Stephen Caples. It’s considered one of the gems of USC’s film school.

On Time, on the other hand, was conceived through Michael Uno’s Advanced Directing class at USC. During my time there, Uno was also the directing faculty for 546. So much of what I learned in 546 were techniques from his advanced directing class. So I decided to use his class to make one more film before I left. Honestly, what made On Time really special was I found myself with far more freedom to make the film based on my own vision.  The experience of making Olde E felt like a trial run for filmmaking at the studio level, while On Time gave me a better sense of the indie side of filmmaking.

Themes of race, and socio-economic status factor heavily into both Olde E and On Time. Are these themes you hope to continue exploring in your work?

Hell yes. Someone needs to. Someone has to.

We have a problem in Hollywood. Despite what the mainstream side of Hollywood makes it seem, we are still missing so many stories dealing with the oppressive nature wielded upon people of color. More importantly, we need so many more films dealing with these themes specifically from people of color telling stories about themselves and their community.

We cannot escape the intersectional issues of race, gender, wealth and its domineering socio-economic effect on people of color, especially black people. So as long I’m making films, I’ll always speak on these issues in my work.

In terms of process, do you have any rituals, techniques, or routines that you tend to stick to from script to script?

Honestly, I really enjoy writing in bulk, which is completely the opposite of what most people recommend. For me, when I’m in the groove, I’m in the groove. The most important thing to me is silence and time. I can’t have a TV blaring, people talking, or music pumping as a write. I need complete silence to be completely in my head as I’m figuring out the story.

Do you find commercial considerations factor heavily into your process?

I’ll answer this in two pieces. If you’re asking do I consider commercial work, yes. I shot a film commissioned by Blavity called “A Black Twitter Date” that went viral on facebook and twitter. I also made a commercial for Peet’s Coffee called “The Get Down” that won Project Greenlight’s Ode To Coffee competition. So most definitely, I can’t deny commercial work has been good to me and I’ll keep on doing it.

If you mean commercial considerations in the sense of trying to get a feature film off on a large scale level, I’m working on a feature script right now. Granted, it’s not the number one priority. The reason isn’t stagnation, but instead, I know how important that first feature means for filmmakers. So when I’m ready to make it, I want to make sure I’m truly in love with the project.

You recently had the opportunity to shadow on American Horror Story as part of the Ryan Murphy Showcase. What was the experience like jumping from short films to a major Hollywood production?

It was absolutely amazing. One of the things you don’t get in film school, or most of the time in real life, is the opportunity to see how big budget films and TV series are made. Shadowing on the set of American Horror Story helped me understand how massive the effort was behind making quality work. At the same time, it made me confident to know I have the ability to work at this level. It’s just about when I’ll be given the chance.

You’ve cultivated a major following on Twitter under your username XLNB. How important is social media as a tool for emerging filmmakers? 

It’s probably one of the most important things a filmmaker can do outside of honing your directorial abilities and writing. A lot of filmmakers want to focus solely on the art. I can’t be mad about it, but the idea if you make good work the right people will notice is not necessarily true. There’s a lot of great films and filmmakers that get overlooked because they didn’t cultivate a base who not only cares about their work, but them as an individual.

I can’t express how important it is for filmmakers to build a social media following. It opens more doors than you can imagine. I especially implore filmmakers of color to do this because the odds are already stacked against us. You need to do everything possible to make your voice heard.

You’re in active development on several projects under the banner of your production company, QUE THE LIGHTS. Tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now. 

I recently pitched an animated series to Cartoon Network. I’m also in talks with Gunpowder & Sky about a possible series team up. At the same time I’ve also moved into making comic books for my audience. The people who backed my last Kickstarter campaign received a digital copy of the comic, Tina & The Gucci Flip Flop. Everyone who donated $100 or more received a physical copy of the book. It’s important to cultivate yourself not only as a filmmaker, but as a storyteller.

We should talk a bit about Tina & The Gucci Flip Flop. The audience you were able to reach was incredibly impressive. Why was Twitter the right place to tell Tina’s story?

Tina happened in a firestorm really. I saw another person named Zola tell this amazing story on twitter (which was later purchased by James Franco’s company) and I decided to try storytelling via twitter since storytelling is what I’d been learning all these years.

I did the story, 88 or 89 tweets altogether, and when I woke up the next day I’d jumped from less than 9,000 followers to over 20k+. It taught me not to discount the necessity of social media. I needed a way to brand myself as a storyteller without breaking the bank to make a film or project all the time. Twitter’s become my vessel to solidify myself as a storyteller to those who will listen.

After the story went viral, we launched a successful Kickstarter Campaign to adapt Tina & The Gucci Flip Flop into a live action short (we’ve since pivoted and are currently developing the project as an animated film).

 

Try to picture yourself ten years down the road. Where will you be?

I hope to have directed my first feature film. I also hope to have developed and/or completed my first cartoon series. Right now, those are my two biggest goals. Beyond that, I also hope to have reached a point where I can give more back to the black and brown communities that raised me. I want to be able to back or support a film school program at the high school level based in either Mississippi or Alabama.

Keeping in mind all of your experiences both good and bad, what’s the single-most important piece of advice you’d give to aspiring writers and directors?

The timeline for you career in Hollywood will not go as you plan. Do not let that discourage. Don’t give up, but at the same time, find something else you love outside of film to sustain you. You need a life outside the framework of filmmaking so your film have weight to them. Live a life so you can make strong films.


To keep up with Xavier, follow him on Twitter @XLNB, or hit up the official Que The Lights website. 

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