Director Gerard McMurray, Trevor Jackson Talk Netflix’s Frat Film ‘Burning Sands’

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Director Gerard McMurray, Trevor Jackson Talk Netflix’s Frat Film ‘Burning Sands’
Posted by Wilson Morales

March 13, 2017

Currently playing on Netflix is the dramatic frat film ‘Burning Sands,’  which is directed by Gerard McMurray from a script written by Christine Berg & Gerard McMurray. The film stars Trevor Jackson, Alfre Woodard, Steve Harris, Tosin Cole, DeRon Horton, Trevante Rhodes, Christian Robinson, Rotimi, Octavius Johnson, Malik Bazille, Mitchell Edwards, Imani A. Hakim, Serayah, and Nafessa Williams. The film had its World Premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

A student enduring harsh hazing while he pledges a fraternity at an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is torn by the physical and emotional mistreatment he receives from his peers, the hazing’s historical implications, and its questionable place in the modern world.

In his freshman year of college, it seems Zurich has everything going for him; he has the respect of his teachers and university administration, the love and devotion of a wonderful girlfriend, and he’s been selected for admission to a prestigious Black fraternity on campus. But as Zurich embarks on the Hell Week of pledging his fraternity, the harsh trials of entry into brotherhood begin to test the limits of his self-worth.

As the intensifying abuse begins to become untenable, Zurich struggles to honor the fraternity’s code of silence, and the scaffolding of his life outside the frat begins to dismantle.  Burning Sands constructs a deeply complex cross section of the fabled fraternity hazing culture and the vicious power of the desire for acceptance.

For Gerard McMurray, this is his first effort as a director since he worked as an associate producer of Ryan Coogler’s acclaimed 2013 drama ​Fruitvale Station. He attended USC’s School of Cinematic Arts MFA program and was awarded the Directors Guild of America African-American Student Filmmaker Award for his film Battle Buddy.. Gerard is currently an adjunct film professor at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, GA.

For Trevor Jackson, the gifted actor-singer continue to shine and grow following his acclaimed performance on ABC’s American Crime opposite Emmy winner Regina King. Prior to that, folks had seen in Disney Channel’s blockbuster hit Let It Shine or in his three-year stint as Young Simba in Disney’s Tony Award-winning Broadway National tour of The Lion King. When he’s not acting, his music has over 1.8 million streams combined on SoundCloud & YouTube. With his album debut EP, #NEWTHANG, videos from the songs has had over over 11 million views so far.

Blackfilm.com spoke to both McMurray and Jackson about doing this film and what the message is.

Can you talk about putting this project together?

Gerard McMurray: I started in 2013 with the script and then was shopping it around. The Sundance Institute helped out as well. After going back to the Sundance Institute Lab, I ended up meeting a guy named Jason Michael Berman (​The Birth of a Nation), and he helped me pushed the project along and get the right producers. The journey took quite a while with script revisions but it happened at the right time. When it was greenlit, it was the right time to make the film.

Comparisons will be made to Spike Lee’s School Daze. When you put this film together, did you want to do something different?

Gerard McMurray: I wanted to give a real portrayal. School Daze is one of Spike Lee’s coolest films, but this is a serious take on it regarding black men in fraternities at an HBCU. I wanted to make it real. Personally, I was seeking truth.

As a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity, how much of the culture of fraternity life did you want to exploit without offending anyone?

Gerard McMurray: Yes. I was definitely aware. I’m still an active member. I would never disrespect my fraternity because it made me the man I am today. The fraternity is not in the film but characteristics of what goes on in some fraternities are in the film and you have seen some of them in other films.

What made you decide to cast Trevor in the lead role?

Gerard McMurray: I had known Trevor since he was 15 and I always knew he would be in this film. He auditioned and I had seen his work on American Crime and I knew he was the one. I knew he was my Zurich and he really came through.

What attracted you to the film?

Trevor Jackson: What attracted me to the film was Gerard’s passion to the story and his vision. I tend to work with people that just loves the art and loves the work and he’s one of those people. It wasn’t about egos. It was getting the best product. I met Gerard about four years ago and then again two years later and I had auditioned for some other roles. With this film, I was offered the lead and it turned out amazing. I think it’s an important story that needs to be told.

Did you do any research for the role?

Trevor Jackson: I did a lot of YouTube research and even when I was traveling because I do music as well. When I was in the studio recording I would go to colleges out there and visit HBCUs and communicate with the fraternities and get some insights on what’s it like pledging and what do they gain from it. I actually got a lot of insight from Gerard, who lived that life and he invited a lot of his big brothers and deans to come on set, who gave me the inside scoop of what it meant to be part of a fraternity.

Can you talk about working with the other guys in the pledge line with you? Did you guys bond while filming?

Trevor Jackson: I became really close with everyone on set, especially with the guys and Gerard because we shot this in 18 days and we got a lot done in a short amount of time. We had to do it together and it brought us closer. We felt that brotherhood and we felt that bond. Gerard had some scenes go longer just so we went through the pain and suffering to understand what it meant and be a part of it.

Gerard, how did you keep your composure when you have 18 days to shoot?

Gerard McMurray: It was like pledging to be honest with you. If I hadn’t experienced that, I’m not sure if I could have done the film in 18 days. Everything goes so fast, but I really had a good cast and when you have that, all else falls in line. The actors showed up and after one or two takes, they had it. It was tough but I got through it.

Having worked with Ryan Cooler on Fruitvale Station, you were familiar with the grueling shooting schedule. Did that help out with this film?

Gerard McMurray: Yeah. We shot that film in 20 days but it really was that much time we had 4 or 5 hours to shoot at Bart. That experience was definitely instrumental with this film. I was there with Ryan the whole time and so I know how the process goes and how efficient you have to be with time.

Trevor, when you got the haircut in the film, was that real?

Trevor Jackson: Yes, it was all in one take. That was a hard day. I’m appreciating it now but at that time I didn’t want my hair to be gone but I understand and it really made the film that much powerful and you see that transformation and you see that we went through it together. At that point, it’s not about style, it’s about being a unit.

What’s the message behind Burning Sands?

Trevor Jackson: The message behind the film is that it’s a coming of age film, becoming a man and making the right decisions. Zurich goes through so much physically and mentally and at the end of the day, all he wants to be is a good person. He wants to stick up for what he believes in. For anybody in any situation in life, you have to do what is right for you. The overall message is unity, togetherness and also individuality. It’s so complexed and so many things within the story, that’s why I feel it’s amazing.

Between this film and the work you did on American Crime, what goes into deciding what roles you take?

Trevor Jackson: I want to do roles that show a black man in a different light. That’s why I like roles like this and American Crime. I’m not playing a gangster, or an athlete. I want to explore this roles and different stories. I appreciate the stories of history and things of that nature but I think there are more and different stories. I want roles that shows a person, a human that goes through the struggles that we go through as Black, White, Latino and Asian. I want to go for roles that are typically written for a white person. That’s what I want tell filmmakers. Pick the person who does the best work and not the person you think should be seen. If the story is about a human being, then a human being will relate to it. Being in Hollywood and in this industry, I have heard plenty of feedback in which we can’t more than one black lead, and that’s the type of talk I want to change. I want to be one of those people where it doesn’t matter what color you are, you can do great work.

Gerard, was it a challenge to find funding to get this film off the ground?

Gerard McMurray: Yeah, it was definitely a challenge. It’s hard asking folks for a million dollars to do a job that they know. People don’t understand the story. It was definitely a challenge trying to get this made, but luckily I had the right producers and the right people at Netflix, who had eyes on it and believe in me and the project.

After it airs, what’s next for you? Are you better as a producer or director?

Gerard McMurray: I think I’m great at both. It depends on finding the right story. I like to develop stuff from the ground up. If the right script comes along, you never know what the possibilities are, so I’m pretty open.

And for you, Trevor:

Trevor Jackson: I’ve been working on a lot of music. Whenever I’m not set, I’m always recording. I’m open to whatever comes next. I’m probably going on tour in the middle of this year. Whatever God has planned for me, I just want to execute it to the best of my ability and just continue to grow.

What’s more important, music or acting?

Trevor Jackson: I can’t choose. Both have saved my life many times. Whenever I wasn’t acting, I needed music and whenever I didn’t have music, I needed acting.

Clip – Lead Your Brothers


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