The request to review the Saturday premiere of Miles Away didn’t arrive until late Thursday afternoon. I’m never one to scramble, but there was something about the tone of the email and subsequent voicemail that compelled me to make the effort.
Sid Burston has been so busy working the past 18 years that when I began reciting his résumé, even he was impressed. The Vista resident and his wife are hot on the promotion trail of their latest independent production and want their neighbors to take notice of their hard work. The film should arrive at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15 sometime in May. By way of introduction — and because it was such a delight to speak with Sid and his golden-throated wife, Betty — here’s a sneak peek at what’s to come.
Scott Marks: Once you’ve made it to San Diego, you don’t want to leave.
Sid Burston: You can’t. Years ago I performed at the Spreckels Theatre. There is just so much life in San Diego. It’s like you’re in a different state when you’re in San Diego.
SM: You are also a jazz musician whom many people mistake for Miles Davis. I couldn’t tell, because every time I saw him perform he had his back to the audience. (Laughter.) What instrument do you play?
SB: Right now, keyboards. Every Sunday, my foster father played alto sax. I was very taken by it. The more I watched him, the more I wanted to hear more music. Saturday was our day to clean the house, and I would always open the window and play classical music. The first time I picked up a saxaphone and tried to play it...the wind. All I remember is trying to have the wind to get anything out of it. I collected everything Miles — I had his record collections, interviews, videos — and for some reason I found myself taken aback by him. It also introduced me to a uniquely American art form. Then came John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and the rest of the greats. Do you remember Buddy Rich?
SM: The world’s greatest drummer?
SB: He was my version of Sinatra on drums. I listened to Glenn Miller and...who was the guy with the bubbles?
SM: Not Lawrence Welk!?
SB: I’m sorry, yes.
SM: You had better apologize.
SB (Laughing): But, Scott, as a child, I thoroughly enjoyed his music. I explored as many different genres as I could find. My movies are a sort of vicarious approach to the arts.
SM: What is it about the combination of jazz and mobsters that attracts you?
SB (Laughing): I somewhat believe that the two go hand-in-hand. Many years ago, when I was a child, I can recall being in a club. I would sit and watch the guys play pool, and they had this unique jargon. I was fascinated by the way they would talk. They’d pay kids a quarter to run and get them cigarettes. We were in awe of them. Rather than popular music, these guys would play jazz that would leave audiences in a hypnotic state. I kept coming back, and a lot of it was just observing the gentlemen and their culture. They had an edge to them that both fascinated and attracted me.
SM: You were like a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
SB: Very much so. Their culture became entrenched in me in ways I really can’t explain. It didn’t deter me as it would another child. I was actually fascinated. It was really [like] Miles Davis and hearing him play in the improvisation. The way that the sounds and melodies were coming together...this didn’t sound like the music my mother listens to. I was very taken by it.
SM: From script to wrap party, how long did it take for the film to finally hit the screen?
SB: It took a year and three months.
SM: That’s not bad.
SB: For me it is. There so much fine-tuning of the script. And this particular time, I wanted to get different opinions. So there were a lot of phone conversations. My director was from Washington, D.C., and my lighting person and actors were from San Diego. The locations are here, because I just love...it almost has a Norman Rockwell feeling to it. I didn’t want the big city. I didn’t want it to feel like we were in the wrong place. And I had to stay focused on the characters because we wanted to stay within this environment and climate. That’s why it took a lot longer than usual for me.
SM: You’ve directed in the past. Why did you decide to turn the reins over to Jimmy Jenkins?
SB: Jimmy came as a recommendation from someone who knew that I would be performing in this particular piece. I was told that Jimmy is young and that he is very hot. I had him send over a clip of his work. It was more live stage work, which was fine because that’s pretty much where my stardom came from. I could see what he was doing. It felt like I didn’t have to say anything to him. He was answering the questions before I would finish. He and I had several conversations before we decided to do it. It’s very hard, when you’re a controlling person, to turn the reins over to someone — but I saw the future in this young man. He is way ahead of where I was at the same age.
SM: What was the film budgeted at?
SB: Oh, lord. I think we topped out at a little over $100,000. We had to fight a little over the look of the film. Jimmy and I sort of went at it because he wanted to shoot the film raw and I didn’t. I wanted to shoot straight DSLR [a digital single-lens reflex camera] but was outvoted. My wife jumped in and became the final decision-maker. You can’t be opposed to change. Though I was used to Red [a digital cinema camera] — I enjoyed the Red look — I had never really worked with it before, at least not on a feature. Getting me to agree to shoot it was something different, but they assured me that we could do so many different things with it in the end. Finally, I gave in, and to see the finished product...oh, my God! I absolutely loved it.
SM: There are some things that didn’t work for me. I had to laugh when a jazz musician scolded a colleague for firing up a joint before a show. That seemed a bit out of character.
SB (Laughing): It would have to be this way. Remember, the guy is crazy. C’mon! I need a little room here.
SM: You do a fine job of establishing his insanity; I’ll give you that. So, you’re standing in the back row of Cinepolis last weekend and looking over a theater without one empty seat in the house. Can you describe the feeling?
SB: I hate using clichés, but the only word to describe it is surreal. I made it a point to sit in the back and watch the reaction. I was actually becoming like you.
SM: My heart goes out to Betty.
SB (Laughing): I actually tried to sit there and critique the crowd. It was my first time viewing the film on a big screen. The moment was so intense for me that I stayed locked into the film. The people were laughing in the right places, and because I was sitting directly in the center, I was able to listen to the audience comments. I watched to see if it held people’s attention. It’s always been my belief that once the film is done, it belongs to the public. Whether their opinions are good or bad, it still belongs to them. I had my time with it and had fun making it, but in the end it belongs to the people.
SM: Tell me a mistake you made during the making of the picture that you will never again repeat.
SB: Oh, wow! I am a stickler and an advocate for pre-production meetings. Trying to bring together all these people with their varying schedule was one of the hardest parts about making the film. I always want to go over things. When everyone is exhausted after a long day of shooting, I’m not even close to being tired. I’m animated! Betty would remind me that actors need to sleep and eat. I don’t drink coffee or power drinks, so people always wonder where my energy comes from. I’m excited about the process. That’s where the excitement comes from. I need to learn how to turn over the reins. I kept trying to micromanage everyone. If you’re good at what you do, that’s why I hired you. It took time for me to get that in my consciousness, to let them go. I need to have a third eye, someone else who will go over everything and give it to you straight.
SM: The film opens May 8 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. I’ve heard talk that it’s going to make its way down to the Reading Cinemas Gaslamp 15. Has a date been set?
SB: I’m not sure of the exact date, but it’s our next stop after the Music Hall.