An Exclusive Interview With Robert Burns

Art Director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, Re-Animator and Others

Interview Conducted by Jason Stewart


There are many aspects to making an effective horror film. Perhaps the most important and most underrated factor has to be atmosphere. The sets must convey a sense of realism in order to create genuine scares. This is where Robert Burns comes in. Without his art direction, such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Howling might not have earned the legendary status that they have today. Robert Burns is a multi-talented individual who also writes, directs and occasionally acts. Mr. Burns was kind enough to answer a number of questions, exclusively for XYZed Magazine.


Question 1. How did you first get involved in the film industry?

(Mr. Burns): I've always enjoyed film and also putting things together arts and crafts wise. I have a drama degree and have done freelance commercial art for years, including set and prop work for commercials and small pictures. I had known Tobe (Hooper) for years and worked with him on some other projects, so when it came time to make TCM I was just the person to do the design work.

2. In your career you must have crossed paths with a number of big names in the motion picture industry. Can you name a few of them?

Well, of course I was production designer for Wes Craven (Hills Have Eyes), Tobe (TCM), Joe Dante (The Howling), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator). I wrote and directed Mongrel which was the film debut of Mitch Pileggi who went on to Wes Craven's Shocker and Skinner on X-Files. I've acted with Robert Duval (in Stars Fell on Henrietta), Sally Field (in Woman of Independent Means), and Chuck Norris (in Walker: Texas Ranger).

3. Who have been your biggest influences in your career?

I don't know that any one person has had that much influence in my career. I guess I always think of how Alfred Hitchock made pictures. Actually, he was also an art director early in his career.


4. You have long been known for helping to create the eerie atmosphere of the classic horror film, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Can explain how you accomplished this?

As with any film, the first priority is the script and the characters. The whole point is to make a living environment that these characters made themselves. I don't think the designer (or any other person involved, actor or crew) should try to make the viewer recognize their own work as seperate from the ideas and actions of the characters. These people live in a home-made slaughter house they decorated themselves with animal and people parts, so it should convingly look that way, including masks made from dried human fleash rather than rubber.

5. Do you still have any of the props or set pieces that were used in the film?

All the stuff I kept thirty years ago has been either recycled or sold off through the years.


6. Out of all the productions that you have been involved with, do you have a favorite?

Each film has its own ups and downs, so there is no favorite. I think Hills Have Eyes is the best all-round drama, The Howling was an enormous amount of work for very little money but was very satisfying for the support that Joe Dante and Mike Finnell gave. The same could be said about Re-Animator. Microwave Massacre was a lot of fun because everyone was doing it for fun. Tourist Trap was difficult, but has turned out to be surprisingly durable.


7. You’ve even done some acting over the years. How did you get involved with that?

I have a genuine college degree in acting, but never followed it. When I was hired to be production designer of Confessions of a Serial Killer I was working on the picture while they were holding auditions. They were looking all over for the right person to play the psycho killer. After a while they all started eyeing me, and they finally decided I was the psycho for the part without any idea I had ever done any acting at all. I had forgotten how much fun it can be, so I've done other parts when they come my way.

8. Do you have any thoughts on the recent TCM remake?

It has been terrific advertising for the original. Although it made a lot of money, it was nothing but tired cliches. It took no chances and broke no ground as the original did.

9. What do you think about the industries’ switch to computer-generated special effects? Has this helped or harmed the way movies are being made?

Just like any other tool of film making, it is only as good as the uses it is put to. Some people use the new technology well and others just use it as a crutch. No matter how you make a film, it still comes down to the story you have to tell and connecting with the audience.

10. What’s next for Robert Burns?

I've written several scripts lately (working on another now) that different folks in LA are trying to put together, some for me to direct and some not. Of course this means nothing at all if they don't get put together. The most likely prospect right now is a true-crime thriller I wrote that Stuart Gordon is trying to put together for him to executive produce and me to direct.


11. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Howling are three of the greatest horror films of all time. How do you feel about fans who are still passionate about these films even after all these years?

Well, it's always great to have people appreciate your work all these years later. It's a testament to all the folks involved in all those films that they came together and still can connect to audiences today.

12. From all the aspects of your career, how would you most like to be remembered?

Until my career is actually over I can't say how I would like to be remembered.