MIHS grad’s movie dream comes true

Burnett's latest film, 'The Hills Run Red' is premiering at the Seattle International Film Festival on June 12.
— image credit: Contributed photo

Robert Burnett was one of the first teenagers on Mercer Island to own a VCR. A self-proclaimed movie fanatic at age 13, the Island resident had the neighborhood kids lining up to watch “Smokey and the Bandit,” “Star Wars,” “The Exorcist” — or any of the hard-to-come-by movies released on VHS in the early ’80s — on his South-end living room couch. Movies, the Hollywood producer asserts today, were his calling.

“I knew my whole life that I wanted to make movies, since I was five years old,” Burnett said, adding that his experience working in Seattle’s first video store, Video Space, as a teenager shaped his industry skills. “I’d sit around and talk movies with them all day. I began to understand film editing. I’d watch hours and hours of movies.”

On June 12, Burnett’s first self-produced film, “The Hills Run Red,” premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). The movie is directed by Dave Parker and stars a number of known Hollywood actors, including William Sadler (“Shawshank Redemption,” “The Green Mile,” “Eagle Eye”). Seeing his movie play on the big screen, at the same festival he attended as a teenager, Burnett said, is a dream come true.

“For me, it’s the total thrill of a lifetime,” the MIHS graduate, class of ’85, explained. “When I was in junior high, I used to think, ‘I’d love to make a horror movie and have it play the midnight showing at SIFF.’”

“The Hills Run Red” follows two film students who are obsessed with finding a lost slasher film. No copy of the film exists, only a grainy trailer on the Internet, and the director, Wilson Wyler Concannon, disappeared shortly after the movie’s sole public screening. The students set out to unravel the mystery and, ultimately, get pulled way in over their heads.

But “The Hills Run Red” is not your average slasher film, according to Burnett. It carries a deeper philosophical message.

“The whole thing is a commentary on horror movies in general. It’s more than just killing beautiful young people. The movie has a subtext,” the producer explained.

And he should know. Burnett has a long history with horror films and a longer history with the movie business.

After graduating from MIHS and attending Evergreen State College for three years, the Seattle native did what any aspiring moviemaker does: he moved to L.A.

In 1989, he finished up his collegiate career at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema Television. It was here that Burnett made his first break into Hollywood movies.

“I was in a two-credit course called ‘Visiting Artist Seminar.’ My professor would bring in these heavy-hitters who worked in the industry to talk to our class. Well, I did a lot of prep for this class and one day the producers of ‘Mystic Pizza’ — Scott Rosenfeld and Mark Levinson — came in and I did my schtick. The next day they called my professor and offered me a job,” he recounted.

One thing led to another and before the young moviemaker knew it, he was reading over screen plays and determining which films would make it to production.

Even when he lost his job under Rosenfeld and Levinson — due to a financial blow that hit the company — Burnett had other contacts to turn to.

“Once you’re in the industry and start meeting people, that’s how you get jobs. The motion picture business is a business of personalities,” he said.

In 1989, Burnett earned his first screen credit as the art department assistant on New Line Cinema’s 1990 release “Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Masacre III.” While working on the film, Burnett met writer David J. Schow, who he later hired to write “The Hills Run Red.”

Over the next decade, the Islander took up numerous jobs in Hollywood, from working as a story analyst to a makeup-effects coordinator to directing music videos. Then, in the spring of 1999, Burnett made his feature writing/directing debut with Regent Entertainment’s award winning movie, “Free Enterprise,” starring William Shatner. The movie hit U.S. theaters in June, 1999 after winning numerous awards at international film festivals.

Although he takes pride in his role as a writer/director for “Free Enterprise,” it wasn’t until “The Hills Run Red” that Burnett took on full production responsibilities. And this, he said, is what makes the movie such a personal feat.

“This is the first movie that I’m a full producer on. I developed it from scratch,” Burnett said, adding that he was surprisingly satisfied with the end product. “[German Director] Win Wenders said that his finished movies are usually 50 percent of what he dreamt of. Well, this movie is 70 percent of what I dreamt of. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s better than I thought it would be.”

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