Fearlessly and determinedly fighting for your beliefs, both physically and emotionally, can be a powerful advantage to achieving your goals, especially in a world that’s dominated by ruthless competitors. But that process is even more gratifying when a courageous woman daringly combats the influential men who stand in her way of obtaining her ambitions. Actress Natalie Burn enthrallingly captured that objective when not only starred in, but also made her feature film writing and producing debuts with, the action thriller, ‘Awaken.’ The drama, which will be released this Tuesday on DVD, is also thematically satisfying, as she performed her own stunts while portraying her protagonist’s drive to safe her sister.
‘Awaken,’ which was was co-written and directed by Mark Atkins, follows Billie Kope (Burn), a skilled martial arts expert who mysteriously wakes up on a deserted tropical island. The last thing she remembers before she was brought to the island was that she was attacked while searching for her sister, Rina, who disappeared five years ago while she was in prison. But Billie is still determined to find her missing sibling, after she receives a lead that a corrupt businessman, Rich (Jason London), may somehow be involved in her vanishing.
Unbeknownst to Billie, Rich has set up an expensive and illegal clinic on the island, where he brings the unwilling donors he has kidnapped for his business venture. While most of the people he brings to the island match the bloodtypes required for the wealthy patients he works for, who require new organs, Rich has captured Billie because she has asked too many questions about him. While the victims have no idea why they’ve been brought to the island, Rich’s employees, who are led by Sarge (Vinnie Jones), make sure they detox their systems there before they hunt them to harvest their organs.
After meeting the other victims on the island, including Nick (Michael Copon), Berto (Edward Furlong) and their leader, Quentin (Robert Davi), Billie searches for a way off the island, as well as the answers to some of her questions. Along the way, they receive help from another victim they find on the island, Stitch (Daz Crawford). The group does whatever it takes to protect themselves, including fighting Rich’s latest client, Mao (Daryl Hannah), who’s desperately trying to save her the life of her young daughter, Violet (Mykayla Sohn). While searching for answers and a way to save their lives, Billie relies on the fighting and skills her father (Benny Urquidez) once taught her, as she and her new cohorts discover the extreme measures they’re all forced to take to protect themselves and each other.
Burn generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Awaken’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the actress, writer and producer discussed how she was driven to create the film’s story about Billie fighting back against Rich over selling organs on the black market, after she read an article about the subject, and felt it was necessary to raise an awareness about the situation; how beneficial it was to work with Atkins as the film’s director, as he’s very collaborative with the cast, and allows them to freely develop their characters; and how she wanted to avoid using a stunt double as much as possible while she was filming the action sequences, because she wanted to make the film feel as real as it could be, and allow the audience to connect with her character.
ShockYa (SY): You made your feature film writing debut by co-scribing the upcoming action horror film, ‘Awaken.’ Why did you decide to start penning screenplays after acting for the past decade, and how did you transition into writing?
Natalie Burn (NB): Well, the idea for the story came from an article I read in the newspaper. It was about a boy in China, whose eyes were missing when he woke up in the middle of the street. I then did some research, and found out how many people go missing around the world every year. I also discovered more information about people stealing organs, and selling them on the black market.
So I realized how important it is to raise an awareness about this situation, which is why I started developing a story around that. But I knew that the story had to revolve around the market itself, and it couldn’t just be a straight drama. I know that action thrillers hold more of an interest, especially in the international market.
So I decided to co-write this story in that genre with a couple of the movie’s other producers, as well as the film’s director, Mark Atkins, and writer Ryan Priest. We put together a story that has the heart of the topic, but still has action and thriller elements to it.
SY: Speaking of co-writing the script with the film’s director, Mark Atkins, what was your collaboration process like with him, as both co-scribes and as the helmer and lead actress?
NB: Mark was actually also the cinematographer on the movie, and he’s an overall talented guy. He took on a lot of hats on the set, like I also did, as I was also one of the producers. But that’s what you have to do on a low-budget movie.
He was great to work with, as he was very collaborative. He’s great with the cast, which was helpful because there were a bunch of different actors who came onto the set. Thankfully we didn’t have any problems, and it was very friendly, so there was a family-oriented feeling on the set.
Mark’s definitely one of those directors who let the actors do their job. He looks at the performances from the side, and if he doesn’t like something we did, he’ll come up to after the first take. He’ll say, “How about you try this differently?” That’s how you’ll know that he didn’t like something you did. (laughs) He’ll never actually say, “I hated that. Let’s do it my way.” He never directs actors-he just lets them be. He gives them permission to develop the characters the way they see them after they read the script.
SY: Besides co-writing the script, you also starred as the main character, Billie Kope, in ‘Awaken.’ Having taken a part in creating the character and her story, what convinced you to also portray Billie in the film? How did co-scribing the script influence the way you approached playing the protagonist?
NB: Funnily enough, when I originally began writing the script, I didn’t write Billie as the lead character-she was written as a supporting character. As a producer, I began finding out things about the market, and I knew it would be hard to sell the movie with me as the lead.
But when I then gave the script to Mark, he somehow re-wrote it. I went on holiday for a week after I gave him the screenplay, and when I got back, I read his new version of the script. I said, “Mark, I’m the lead now.” He told me, “I think it’s time for more female lead characters.”
I then pointed out, “I don’t know how we’re going to sell the movie with this kind of role.” He said we would have to find a way to sell the film in other way, so I came up with the idea to surround myself with great names in the cast. I knew that however bad I was going to do, (laughs) the other actors could pull the story off.
Then I started my preparation for the character, I trained in kickboxing and mixed martial arts with Benny Urquidez (a kickboxer, martial arts choreographer, wrestler, boxer and actor who’s nicknamed The Jet), who played Billie’s dad. We worked together everyday for about two-and-a-half months.
I wanted to get that physical training in me, so that people could actually believe that I could kick ass on screen. I didn’t want people to second-guess what I was doing, and say, “She can’t actually do that.” It was very important to me to pull it off, and show the audience that I could truly fight. I wanted the fighting to be more natural, and not seem choreographed.
SY: While the movie is being referred to as a throwback to 1980s action films, ‘Awaken’s distinct in the fact that it has a female protagonist in Billie. Why do you feel it’s important for movies, especially ones in the thriller genre, to feature strong female leads?
NB: I actually don’t mind that our movie has the ’80s and ’90s feel to it. Those are the great films in the genre, and they’re my favorite ones. So the comparison of our film to those earlier movies is a compliment.
Our film isn’t over-the-top, and doesn’t have crazy computer graphics and CGI effects. I tried to make it as real as possible, so that people could try to relate to it. All the fighting that we did was very pure and down-to-earth.
As far as my character being the lead girl, that was a great honor. With other films that are currently coming out with great female leads, like (‘The Hunger Games:) Mockingjay,’ it’s a great time for actresses to showcase themselves, and prove we’re almost as good as men in this genre. We can develop a new era of female performers, which was my approach to making this film. We can create a time that will welcome the return of female roles in this genre, like the one Sigourney Weaver had in ‘Alien.’
SY: With ‘Awaken’ being an action-driven thriller, and you having previous acting experience in the genre, including appearing in such films as ‘The Expendables 3’ and ‘In the Name of the King 2: Two Worlds,’ what was the process of performing your own stunts for this movie?
NB: Like I mentioned earlier, I trained everyday for about two-and-a-half months, because I wanted to perform my own stunts. Since it’s an independent movie, and we didn’t have the CGI of bigger studio films, I wanted the camera to be closely focused on me, so that the audience can see I was actually doing the stunts. I wanted to avoid using a stunt double as much as possible, because I wanted to make the film as real as it could be, and so that the audience could connect with the character.
I wanted to focus on how real the fighting could be, and not on the choreography, so it was important to me to train in kick-boxing. At first, I also wanted to do wire work, so that I could do back-flips and other crazy stunts. But then we decided to keep the stunts real, to show that this is something that could actually happen.
SY: Speaking of making the film independently, like you mentioned, did that add to, or hinder, the creativity and development of the story, characters and stunts?
NB: Everything about making films is challenging, which I found out the hard way making an action film. Everything’s difficult, from writing the script to then going into pre-production, filming and post (production). But the hardest thing is selling a movie. It’s unbelievable how much work you put into making a film, and it doesn’t matter if a big or small budget movie-you put the same amount of work into it. I thought, wow, this takes a lot of time-it takes almost a year to do everything.
You find yourself being challenged by everything. Since I was acting in, and producing, the film, I had to be on the set everyday. I was always the first person on the set, and the last one to leave. In between takes, I’d think, my close-up shot’s next; let me do that, and then run off to do something else.
As far as me doing my own stunts, the movie didn’t go smoothly without me getting hurt, which is normal on every set when an actor is doing their own stunts. I had an accident while we were choreographing a stunt. The stunt double I was fighting with didn’t hear the director when he said, “Don’t continue the whole choreography; cut it in the middle.” So the stunt double fell on my leg, and I actually tore a ligament in my ankle, and it swelled up.
But I couldn’t say, “We’re going to stop shooting for a bit, so that my ankle could heal.” It was my movie, and I was the producer, so I knew we had to continue shooting. So I had to wrap my ankle up, and it was only the third day of shooting. I knew I had to film the final fight in the film in three days. So I only had those few days to heal, but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I couldn’t walk for the first day, so we filmed all the close ups. On the third day, I had my ankle wrapped, and started to feel like myself again.
SY: You also made your feature film producing debut with ‘Awaken.’ What convinced you to produce the thriller, in addition to writing and starring in it? How did scribing and acting in the action film influence the way you produced it?
NB: I felt like the two jobs did influence each other, and I was so happy that I decided to produce the film. I learned so much by being a producer on this movie; it was like going through a university and having a degree.
I only used to see myself as an actress. As I look at my takes now, I also see other aspects of filmmaking, such as producing, editing and directing. So I have stopped judging myself, and I think that’s a very important thing to do. You start to ask if all aspects of the film, and not just your acting, are good enough . So I’m grateful to pick up that way of thinking.
As for why I began producing, you find yourself being challenged as a young actress when you go to auditions, and you’re only being perceived as a sexy girl. That’s not the only thing I wanted to be perceived as, and the only way for me to prove that was to write, produce and film a movie. That way people can see that I have the capacity to fight, and do something besides being pretty.
I think it’s overrated when people put you in one box. That’s why after after this film, I made a comedy, and now I’m working on a horror movie. After that film, I’m going to work on a drama. I see professional actors as being versatile, and having the ability to do anything.
SY: The horror thriller features a diverse cast, including Daryl Hannah, Vinnie Jones, Edward Furlong, Robert Davi and Jason London. What was the process of working with the rest of the cast, and building your on-screen relationships together?
NB: The process was really great, and I’m grateful that we got this amazing cast. It was very important for me, especially as a young actress, to learn from, and collaborate with, the rest of the cast. The process made me stronger as an actress, and the movie obviously looks stronger with all of those professional people. I knew that no matter what happened, the cast wouldn’t do a bad job or let me down.
First I got Michael Copon, who’s been a friend of mine for many years, attached. Then Robert Davi, who’s a great guy I met while we were filming ‘The Expendables 3,’ signed on. Vinnie Jones, Daryl Hannah, Michael Paré, Jason London, Edward Furlong and my good friend David Keith all followed. Thankfully, as I was putting the cast together, they all knew, and wanted to work with, each other. In the end, they were all happy to be sharing the screen together.
SY: ‘Awaken’ has won awards, at several international film festivals, including earning the Award of Excellence in the Feature Film Competition at the Canada International Film Festival. What does it mean to you that the thriller is being embraced by audiences?
NB: I’m grateful that the movie has been accepted. I didn’t think people would want to see a movie like this in festivals, but I appreciate that it’s being well received. The ultimate goal for me is to have the audience like the film. In the end, it’s all about people liking the final product. That way, I know that I did something good, and then I can move on and continue doing something I love.
I can also encourage other women to not be scared, and write things down so that they can start filming. It doesn’t matter who’s in their movie; it’s important for them to just go out and showcase themselves. We can do that now, because the independent market is huge. There are so many movies being made, and as long as you know what your target audience is, you can’t go wrong. You’re still learning, even if you don’t sell your film.
SY: Now that you have written and produced this film, in addition to starring in it, are you interested in trying directing next?
NB: I’m definitely going to continue producing and writing for now, and hopefully when I’m older and more experienced, I’ll direct. It’s definitely something I’m interested in, but I don’t have enough experience to stick a camera in other people’s faces yet. I’m the type of person who likes to watch and get as much information as possible first. That way, when I do direct a movie, it’s going to be a good one.
But I actually produced three other films after ‘Awaken.’ (At the time of this interview, Burn was on the set of another action thriller, ‘Downhill,’ which she produced and starred in.) We (were filming) in Chile with my co-star, Bryce Draper. It’s a horror film that’s similiar to ‘Cabin Fever’ and Rob Zombie’s movies, and it’s very unique, and has a great story.
SY: Besides ‘Awaken’ and ‘Downhill,’ do you have any other upcoming projects lined up that you ca discuss? Now that you’ve acted in, written and produced films, are you also interested in directing a movie, as well as expanding into television?
NB: I’m definitely interested in doing something in television, as it’s a completely different market. It’s growing so much that it’s becoming even bigger than films. Many actors now are more interested in working on TV, because it’s a job that can last for awhile. If I get offered a television role, I definitely won’t decline it. But in the meantime, I’m making my own films, as well as starring in other people’s movies. I’m grateful that I’ve been getting more opportunities after ‘Awaken.’
Written by: Karen Benardello