Filmmaker Martyn Burke Talks New Novel, Shooting His Movie in Cuba

Music for Love or War Cover - Publicity - P 2017
Courtesy of Tyrus Books

A few years ago, Martyn Burke, who has been a screenwriter, director, novelist and documentarian in his career, stumbled into a ramshackle hotel in remote northern Pakistan. He had been in Afghanistan for the last few weeks working on his documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat (for which he won a Peabody Award in 2013). He had been sleeping in caves or outside during the filming. He was as grungy as grungy could be. And you would think about as far away from Hollywood as you could possibly be, but tacked on the door of his room was this note: “Call your agent Jon Levin at CAA, Hollywood.” Levin wanted to see if Burke, who had co-written the cult classic Top Secret! with Jim Abrahams and the Zucker brothers, was interested in writing another comedy screenplay. “At that moment, I said to myself, 'Something about these two worlds is never gonna let one go from the other,'" he recalled. And the idea of a book was born.

Music for Love or War is the story of two veterans of the Afghanistan war — Danny, a Canadian sharpshooter and Hank, an American soldier — who return to Los Angeles in search of a psychic they hope will show them where to find their lost loves — for Danny it's Ariana, who he loved in Toronto a decade ago, and for Hank it's Annie Boudreau, half of the Boo Two twins who were briefly part of Hugh Hefner’s posse. The novel moves from Afghanistan to Malibu to Toronto and back to Hollywood as the the search progresses. Burke says it is about “finding love, losing love and finding love again.”

Burke says fragments of his own experience — a “kaleidoscope of reality” — have found their way into the novel. He’s a native Canadian who still has a home in Toronto, haunted Hollywood’s clubs in his younger days, lived in Malibu and been under fire in Afghanistan. In fact, a scene in the book where soldiers drive Taliban fighters hidden in a valley crazy by playing Liberace songs over and over comes from a story he learned in Afghanistan. He says the tragicomic elements of the story were also influenced by how he saw combat journalists use humor to cope with the hardships of the battlefield and in particular a cameraman he knew who went mad after he lost his ability to laugh at the craziness of being in Afghanistan. “The fact that he wasn’t able to laugh, the only other outlet was madness,” observes Burke.

Carl Hiaasen called the novel “slash-and-burn funny” and Booklist praised it as “gripping and amusing.”

He says the story just seemed to work as a novel (this is his sixth) rather than as a screenplay. He admits to enjoying the “intensely personal experience” of novel writing as a change of pace from the team aspect of writing or directing a film or documentary. “It is one of the sublime experiences in the creative world. To be able to sit surrounded by your characters and basically, obviously in your imagination, and writing them as they unfold in front of you, as their character unfold in front of you. You don’t get the kind of quote-unquote notes that you get at a Hollywood studio or that.” But he’s not adverse to someone making an offer to turn Music For Love or War into a film, though he’s been in the business long enough to know the odds of any one project actually making it to the screen.

Burke is gearing up for another big adventure — filming a movie in Havana later this year. Dancing in the Dark is the story of a teenager who ends up in Cuba two months before the revolution in 1958 because his stepfather is running the casinos for mobster Meyer Lansky. The movie is being financed out of Toronto and will be filmed with two North American leads (the boy and his stepfather) and a cast of Cubans. The crew will also be Cuban. Given that the title is based on the old Sinatra song, music — both classic American music of the 50s and Cuban salsa — will be a big part of the movie. Even though the stereotypical image of Havana is that it hasn’t changed much since the 1950s, Burke says filming there presents its own challenges. For example, even though there are lots of 1950s cars in the city, none of them have the period specific whitewall tires so the production has to source those. And paint. They need a lot of paint to make the old buildings of Havana look 1950s news. As to any worries that the Trump administration will undo former President Obama’s thawing of relations with Cuba and make the movie untenable, Burke jokes, “Trump’s gonna wants a hotel there.” But in a more serious vein he admits there might be some “wrinkles” with the Trump Administration, but in the main the changes will be hard to undo.

Music For Love or War is out now