Bad Robot's Bryan Burk on His "Unhealthy Obsession With Tokyo"

Bad Robot producer Bryan Burk - H 2018
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival

The hit-making producer talks about his love for Japan, his hunt for a film by Palme d’Or winner Hirokazu Kore-eda and why he doesn’t know what he’ll be looking for as a juror of the Tokyo film festival competition.

Bryan Burk’s list of production credits includes some of the biggest hits of the 2000s from the big and small screen, many with longtime collaborator J.J. Abrams. Three Mission: Impossible films, two Star Trek movies and Star Wars: The Force Awakens line up next to Lost, Person of Interest and Westworld.

After working at Columbia, Sony and Fox, in 2001, Burk joined Abrams as co-producer on Alias, the two going on to launch hit factory Bad Robot the same year where they have been working together ever since.

Burk is on the main competition jury for the Tokyo International Film Festival alongside Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza, Iranian actress Taraneh Alidoosti, Hong Kong director and producer Stanley Kwan and local actress Kaho Minami.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter before he left for Tokyo, a city that he says he and Abrams have an “unhealthy obsession” with, Burk talked about his excitement at being on his first jury, what keeps him energized and why he’s thought about moving to the Japanese capital.

Have you ever been to Japan?

I tell you there is nowhere I like to travel to more outside of the U.S. than Tokyo. J.J. [Abrams] and I have an unhealthy obsession with Tokyo. There’s just nowhere else like it on the planet. Even though you might hear about what it’s like or have an idea, everything is a discovery. They’re literally the nicest people in the world, the best food, the best culture … I’ve been able to travel to some amazing places, but I have a crazy affection for Japan. So when the opportunity arose and they asked me to be a juror, it was the combination of my favorite city with my love of film; are you kidding? I’ll be on the next plane.

How did the jury invite come about?

I’d never met her before, but I had lunch in L.A. with Nicole Rocklin, one of the producers of Spotlight, about a year ago and she had just come back from being a juror in Tokyo. I said that sounds like the greatest thing of all time, and she said "if you’d be interested, I’ll let them know." Our entire lunch was spent talking about the movies and meeting everyone there. Sure enough, months later I got an email; I’ve never responded to an email so quickly in my life.

How long will you be in Tokyo?

I’m actually coming in a little early. My parents have never been to Japan, and on top of everything else, they’re big foodies. So I’m taking them with me. We’re arriving a week before so I can spend time with them and then they’ll travel down to Kyoto and Osaka the week of the festival as I’ll be working.

You really are a fan of Japan ...

Literally the reason that Cloverfield came into existence was when J.J. and I were over there, he was like, “Why don’t we have our own Godzilla movie?” Every time we go we start talking about “Could we move here? What if we moved here for a year?”

Have you served on festival juries before?

No. I’ve seen the list of films, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I’m heavily influenced by movies from around the world and some of my favorite filmmakers are Japanese. It runs the gamut from, obviously [Yasujiro] Ozu and [Akira] Kurosawa, to [Hirokazu] Kore-eda; I have an obsession with trying to find a Blu-ray of Nobody Knows [Kore-eda, 2004] with English subtitles — I don’t think it exists. There’s so much great cinema in the world now, so working on a festival in Asia is just exciting for me.

What will you will be looking for in the films in competition?

That is hard to answer because I have favorite films in every genre. They go from Jaws and The Exorcist to Nights of Cabiria, Tokyo Story and The King of Comedy, a real wide range of things. The idea of seeing something where the people who made it have an equal level of passion: I genuinely can’t wait to see what the Tokyo festival has brought together. I started to think about specific things that I love in movies, but it’s all dependent on the film. They’re all such a unique experience. The filmmaker makes you see something new or something you already knew, but through a whole new lens.

You did the Jane Goodall documentary Jane last year. Does something like that, which is so different from what you usually work on, re-energize you?

The director, Brett Morgen, and I had known each other since junior high school. When we were catching up I said I was going to take a little break because I hadn’t been home for a year and a half. He said he was shooting a documentary and asked me if I wanted to produce it. I said “No, I’m taking a break.” He said it’s about Jane Goodall, and I said, “Oh, I love Jane Goodall, but no.” He started telling me that National Geographic had found all this old footage in the archives, and I found myself getting chills, which I find is a good indicator of whether or not you should work on something. So I found myself saying yes a week after I decided I was going to take a break. It was a very different process: shooting was only a week because we had so much footage already. But I wouldn’t say re-energize is the word because I couldn’t be any more passionate about all the different projects I get to work on, mostly because of the talented people I get to work with. I feel blessed.

You work in both TV and films. Are there any major differences in your approach from your side of the business?

It’s significantly changed in the last few years because the antiquated stigma of “that’s TV and that’s film” has finally gone away. From a production standpoint, an editor in television and an editor in film are doing the exact same job. The power structure is a little different because in serialized television, the producers — the showrunners — and writers have all the control, versus in a feature film, where the director usually has control. Getting something made is difficult, and getting something made that people want to see, like and tell people about is incredibly difficult. I have so much respect for everyone who is working in the entertainment business because it’s always a challenge. If there’s anything that rejuvenates me it is the constant flow of incredible things that are coming out.