Art is the Answer to the Question We Didn’t Know to Ask

Come True's director and co-writer Anthony Scott Burns on how Michael Mann’s Manhunter saved him and changed the course of his life.

For me, a storyteller who lived more than half my life with undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, the scariest thing I can imagine is to be misunderstood. To be misunderstood is to be alone. This is horror. In the past, I’d felt so misunderstood and alone, until one day an old film somehow transformed me. Transformed my perception of myself. My salvation turned out to be sitting in the discount bin of a dingy pawn shop.

As a teen I felt truly isolated, and I had no clue what was going on inside my brain. On top of my rampant hormonal changes, my unchecked autism was ardently pushing me to hide my true personality … so that I wouldn’t feel hurt. My teenage years were the most intimidating time in my life to navigate, and yet my memories from that time are the reason why empathy is now the foundation of all my personal films – to connect.

For many years, it was thought that people with Asperger’s syndrome (now under the umbrella diagnosis of ASD) did not empathize the same way as those who are average, or neurotypical. Some doctors even thought those with Asperger’s were totally incapable of empathy. Through years of therapy, and self-reflection, I can tell you with certainty that my particular “brand” of autism is the exact opposite. I feel empathy so intensely that I have to build emotional walls of protection in order to not regularly break down. Depending on the severity of the emotion or incident, the walls I create can be so vast that I might sometimes resemble a sociopath. One summer in the mid-nineties, in my late teens, I was trapped and isolated behind the biggest of these protective walls, but I did not yet understand it – I just thought life sucked. It was then, at my lowest, that a VHS tape changed my life.

Anthony Scott Burns during his teenage years.

I had lost my mother when I was eight years old. My father had left us both when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor – he said that it was just too much for him to witness, a response that was very confusing for us both at the time (until I understood how similarly we experience and cope with conflict and grief). When she passed, I went to live with my dad. The soft, kind, unconditional type of love had always come from my mother, so my life became colder, more distant, and much more about survival. Survival takes a huge toll on the way love is delivered and received within families. The stress of making ends meet pulls at many people’s ability to be good to one another – without that love in your day-to-day relationships, it’s hard to take on the world. So … I was kicked out of multiple high schools for fighting, I barely graduated, and I labeled myself a loser. I didn’t have good grades (except in the arts), and I couldn’t afford college. I drifted for a long while. Filmmaking, in the pre-digital age, was a very different landscape, and it was one that required a lot of money to happen … and I was poor. My goals of being an artist and filmmaker seemed like a pipe-dream. Because of all this, I became increasingly withdrawn and aggressive. Music and short film projects always gave me brief bursts of hope or release, but the tension within eventually exploded. Then it began – some would call it laziness, a lack of motivation or direction, but to me it just felt normal – I was profoundly depressed. I gave up.

I would not be a film director. How could I be?

My father loved me to death – he just didn’t know how to express it at the time. He was grieving, mentally and emotionally stretched, and he had his own issues after growing up in a household filled with trauma (due to his own father’s experiences during World War II). He too was just trying to survive, and so for years I had no clue if he was merely putting up with my weirdnesses, or actually cared about me and my future. He was always supportive in his own way, but his way of rearing was primarily tough love (this was probably how his dad had treated him), and I think I just needed a little less toughness to get through my mother’s passing. I had always been a “softy” growing up (I cry in all sad movies), but by the time high school was done, I had hidden myself so far behind a wall of “manning up” that I was no longer me.

I moved out as soon as I could afford it.

Anthony Scott Burns and his beloved Blockbuster card.

I actually felt worse. I barely left my one-room apartment, and entered my “Brian Wilson” period, spending most of my time solitary, depressed, barely eating, sleeping on the floor, sedated by medications, working in kitchens or retail, and horrified that this would be my life until I died. My rent at the time was $275 a month, and I could barely muster it from my minimum-wage paychecks, often paying weeks overdue. This wasn’t where I imagined I’d be as an adult. All throughout my youth and up to this time, I had wanted to be a filmmaker-musician, and so every dollar that wasn’t earmarked for survival went towards this goal. Example: I never learned to drive, because it was pointless – I knew it was either a car, or a computer. A car, or a synthesizer. A car, or a camera.

So here I was living alone, isolated and alien, with my dream nowhere in sight, and I was about to pawn off more of my hard-earned, treasured film and music equipment to pay for my mere existence.

A four-track recorder and Danelectro guitar later, I had exchanged enough collateral to pay for my rent, but I felt like dying. I had lost vital tools for creating my art, and I knew I’d never see them again. On the way out of the shop, I noticed a beat-up VHS in the discount bin – the cover caught my eye. For whatever reason, it just jumped out at me (probably the typeface). Even though I needed the cash a lot more than a movie, I bought it, and went home.

That evening I watched it. As soon as it finished, I watched it again. Then … as if hypnotized, I threw it on one last time … and passed out on the couch that doubled as my bed.

Something changed within me that night.

The next day, I was a new person. I felt understood. The film had connected with me in a primal way, and the underlying themes of empathy had hit me hard. On the surface, it should not have touched me the way it did, but underneath the narrative there was a message I heard running through every frame: We are all humans, and deserve understanding. There are no bad people … just misunderstood people. I had lived my life haunted by who I was for so long, feeling like a “bad” person for the way my brain worked. … And here was a haunted main character, a haunted “villain,” and a film that suddenly made empathy for them both look so cool. I now surged with the need to make art, and I would find any way possible to do it. Somehow my soul had been reinvigorated, whatever that means – a freshness of perspective had been bestowed upon me. The movie had made me feel, for the first time, OK to be an alien – and with this newfound knowledge, I began to finally seek happiness outside of the wall.

Through some art alchemy, I had been given a revelation. Whether the filmmakers intended it or not, there was a simple message hidden in that ’80s thriller for me to find: You are not alone.

The fucking movie saved me.

Joan Allen and Tom Noonan (rear) in Manhunter.

I didn’t know if I should share the title of the film, as I think the idea of art inciting revelation can be universal to any human expressions, but for those that want to see a great movie, watch Michael Mann’s 1986 neo noir, Manhunter, a neon, synth-soaked thriller where we follow FBI agent Will Graham, played by William Petersen, as he tries to reconnect with his ability to profile a serial killer. He must regain the “scent” – allow himself to empathize and think like a killer – in order to save the next set of victims from the murderous “Tooth Fairy.” The film is also the first on-screen appearance of Hannibal Lecktor (the spelling in the film), portrayed effortlessly – a predator-in-waiting – by a young Brian Cox.

Looking back on the experience, it’s the relationships throughout the movie that unlocked my young mind, allowed me to see another path. The tenderness portrayed between the lines, and the subtle softness of the film’s interactions and perspectives showed me a way of living amongst others that I understood. Being in touch with your emotions was something that didn’t exist in the houses I saw and grew up around. Living in communities where survival came first, softness was something that came after the bills were paid, and food was bought. Sometimes it never came, and many of my friends from childhood lost their way – drowned by the weight of being a “man’s man.” I always think about how lucky I am, about how I dodged a bullet. I’m so thankful that fate intervened and made me pick up and watch Manhunter that day, because at that precise moment I needed to see a world outside my own – and to empathize with myself.

A behind-the-scenes still from Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True.

Now many years later – diagnosed with Asperger’s, happily married, and living my dream of making movies – I try to be as honest in my creations as I can, so that hopefully those films will connect with people in that same primal way. I like to think I make films for those out there who still feel like aliens, so that maybe they won’t have to anymore.

If a piece of art connects with you … it’s for you.

Thank you M.M. Thank you S.H.

Anthony Scott Burns is a filmmaker from the new school, an autodidactic artist that derives inspiration from the simplest motivation: to create art on his own terms. He shoots, edits, scores, writes, designs, and completes the brunt of the post-work on his projects. Born in Kitchener, Ontario, and based in Toronto, he first made his name known with the self-release of the viral fan short film Tron: Destiny in 2011 and followed it up with the 2013 short Manifold, which world premiered at Fantastic Fest. In 2014, he directed an episode of Vincenzo Natali’s show Darknet and in 2016 contributed to Kevin Smith’s horror anthology Holidays. Burns’ feature debut, Our House, world premiered at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival and was released later that year by IFC Midnight. Burns’ sophomore feature, Come True, a sci-fi horror starring Julia Sarah Stone and Landon Liboiron, had its world premiere at the digital edition of Fantasia and is now in theaters and on demand through IFC Midnight.