Jon Paul Burkhart Talks About Producing Short Films

by Kathryn Graham

I’m back with multi-talented writer, actor, producer, and director  Jon Paul Burkhart. He has a ton of credits to his name in all of these arenas, and he’s played roles on many popular shows like This is Us, Castle, American Horror Story, Parks & Recreation, and most recently GLOW.

His latest role is as one of the villainous leads in Sick For Toys: a psychological thriller that he co-produced with his partner David Gunning.

In Part One, we talked about his new film Sick for Toys and his role in it as both an actor and producer. This time, I talk to Jon Paul about producing short films and how we writers can make our own too!

You write and produce short films. Would you be able to tell me how you do that? How others might do it? What would you do differently?

Jon Paul: I would not use my own money for one. But I did. Well, you know when you want to get something made, and no one wants to pay for it… I never intended to be a filmmaker. I didn’t call myself that until the short right before this movie, because I thought: “Oh, I guess I am.”

I made my first short film with my now partner David Gunning. It’s about a man who tests positive for HIV. It’s his first day with this knowledge. How he interacts with people that don’t know who he sees every day. It’s called Stigma.

I wrote it because I had a friend who tested positive for HIV. I was there when it happened, and as you can imagine, it really affected me. As an artist, I wanted to say something about it. I got pushed by several friends to write it as a short. They were like: “You can write it, sure!”

So my friend, who wanted to remain nameless, he read pages for authenticity, and then we made the film. I never expected to love making something so much.

Then the film did really really well in festivals. People just wanted to see it. We played Side by Side Festival in St. Petersburg, Russia in 2015, where people were getting fines like $15,000 for showing any LGBT film or being gay. It was kind of neat, so it was like: “Yeah, take that!”

That’s what started me making films. My partner, David Gunning, he is half-Asian, and he wrote a piece about racism. So our first two films are very socially conscious. We loved doing that. We have to get back to doing that at some point soon. But right now we’re having fun with the horror genre. We’ve made a few horror short films and made a couple for hire.

For making short films: Plan. Plan plan plan plan. And get favors if you can. Also plan on spending a lot on post production.

What takes up the most money in post?

Jon Paul: I can tell you what should: editing and audio. You could say color work too, but for my money, spend it on audio and a good editor.

In terms of fundraising to create your own content, we have a lot of writers who might want to produce their own content, but they don’t know how to start. Fundraising is a big part of that. What do you do for that?

Jon Paul: We have never utilized any of the crowd-funding. Our first two films we funded ourselves. Actually, that’s not true. The second film, David used Kickstarter. But since then we have not used any crowd-funding, we have just gone to friends we have who have a little more money than us and are willing to give 2-3,000 dollars. When you’re making short films, it’s not as much. You shouldn’t spend a lot on a short film, in my opinion.

As far as features, we went to private investors.  As an actor I hear ‘no’ all the time. It’s all I ever hear. So hearing ‘no’ over money is just more of the same. But you just need a couple ‘yeses’, and you can make a movie. You just have to not be afraid to ask people for money.

A lot of the time people want to know what their money is used for, and you should, as a filmmaker be able to tell them what it’ll be used for. We’re funding another project right now, and we just had a great meeting with a new investor. It helps that we’ve made and sold a feature already. I think we’re well on our way to funding our next film.

What do you do with shorts once they’re complete? There are festivals, but what’s the pinnacle of a short doing well? Getting awards?

Jon Paul: I don’t think we’ve made any money off of them. I know you can sell them online. You can put them on itunes and there’s all these aggregators who can do it now. We more or less were just making short films because we wanted to.

It was a learning experience. We knew we wanted to get into features. We kept pushing to get into features, and when one would fall through, we’d just make another short instead. It was film school for us. I was a theatre major, so I didn’t know anything about it. I learned a lot. David did too.

What would you say to a writer who wants to become a producer? Where would you start? How did you start?

Jon Paul: If you want to become a producer, find someone who’s done it before and pick their brain. Ask them anything you can think of. Just ask them to tell you about producing. I’ve had people do that to me before, and I’m like: “Okay, I’ll just start.”

When people ask me what producing is I tell them: It’s the ability to solve a lot of problems all at once really fast.

Don’t be afraid of work. If you’re a writer and you want to get into producing, have confidence in your work. Have a lot of confidence in your work. (laughs) Even if it’s misplaced.

That goes a long way. If you believe in yourself, then other people will believe in you and want to work with you. They’ll think: “Oh, he’s going to succeed!” And they want to succeed. Because they’re struggling cameramen or gaffers, etc.

Did you mostly find friends or people you knew already or did you hire folks you didn’t know?

Jon Paul: For the short films, we started off hiring people we knew, but then there’s always positions you have to fill with people you don’t know. But most of the people we worked with have become friends and they work with us on multiple projects. I guess that means we do pretty good.

On Sick for Toys, we had our main production crew from Los Angeles. I think there were six or seven of us. Then we hired the rest of the crew from Dallas, Texas and the surrounding areas. They were fantastic. Dallas is a big market for TV and commercials and the random film. Especially commercials. So their crews are fantastic. We lucked out getting a really good crew on Toys.

I love hiring people. It’s always a chance for me to meet new artists. The first AD we just worked with, he was first AD on Sick for Toys, we hired him to work on our next project because he’s great.

You mentioned you’re used to hearing ‘no’ a lot. That’s pretty much how the business is for all of us. How do you deal with it? A lot of writers and other artists can get down on themselves. Sounds like you don’t as much.

Jon Paul: Not as much as I used to. I think that’s just time.

There’s a role I went out for a couple weeks ago. I’m assuming I didn’t get it at this point. I really wanted it. I really did. I thought it was a great role for me. There are still roles that I feel connected to that I don’t get. It upsets me, but I just try to remember that there’s always going to be another great role out there that’s perfect for me. I just have to wait. It does get frustrating. I’m sure you, as a writer, understand. It’s frustrating putting yourself out there so much and most of the time just getting a: “No. No, thank you.”

I guess no matter where you are in your career, you’re still going to hear no, huh?

Jon Paul: I worked on GLOW season two a few months ago, which comes out soon. I got to talk to Alison Brie for a short second. My call time got pushed to the afternoon. I said I was happy that happened because I got to go to an audition, and I didn’t have to put it on tape. She said: “Oh, I love going in. I hate putting things on tape.”

I looked at her and I said: ”Oh, you audition?” Her eyes got really big, and she said: “For everything.”

That made me feel really good! I just assumed she’s Alison Brie. She just gets offers. But no, she reads. It’s a struggle at every level. Maybe easier the higher you get, but still a struggle.

That is comforting. Everybody’s going through the same thing.

Jon Paul: The grass is always greener.

Jon Paul Burkhart Talks About ‘Sick For Toys’ – His Upcoming Psychological Thriller

by Kathryn Graham

Jon Paul Burkhart is a multi-talented writer, actor, producer, and director. He has a ton of credits to his name in all of these arenas, and he’s played roles on many popular shows like This is Us, Castle, American Horror Story, and Parks & Recreation. 

You can look for him on the upcoming season of GLOW coming June 29th, 2018. The important thing for now, though, is that Jon Paul and I had a chat about his latest role as one of the villainous leads in Sick For Toys, a psychological thriller that he co-produced with his partner David Gunning, he said a lot of things well worth listening to.

So, now that the preamble is over:

Sick for Toys comes out in 2018. Can you tell me a little bit more about the film?

Jon Paul: Sick for Toys is a Christmas psychological thriller. It’s also a horror film. It’s about a brother and sister who live together alone and have for years. This year, Emelia invites Roy, who she randomly meets, to have Christmas dinner with her. It turns out that every year what she wants for Christmas is a toy: a man. Her brother goes and gets that man for her. This year she chooses Roy.

It’s a very twisted thriller that flips normal horror and film tropes on their head. We enjoy that about it.

Is it a dark movie or does it have a dark comedic tone? What is the tone?

Jon Paul: It’s funny you ask that. It’s dark. It’s a disturbing, creepy film. Of course, it has moments of air, where you can giggle, but we just see it as a very dark film. However, when we screened it in Dallas and in Los Angeles, we were surprised and unnerved at first how much laughter we were getting at certain points which I never found funny.

Now that we’ve seen it with another audience, I thought: “I guess that is a funny line, huh?”

It helps because it is a dark tale. It helps to have more humor in it. Also, there are moments where you laugh because you don’t know what else to do, I think. (laughs)

Like that nervous laughter?

Jon Paul: Yeah, there were a couple of those where audiences were just like: “Oh god, what am I watching?” There is some gore in the film, but all of the creepiest moments are done without gore. It’s done with music, acting, and building tension in the film-making. Which is neat. I love gore, but…

From what I’ve gathered this film fits into the current zeitgeist of what people are talking about in terms of sexual harassment and the #metoo movement. I was wondering what you’d want people to take away from it.

Jon Paul: We’ve talked a lot about that because we’ve been very curious to see how people are going to respond. There’s rape in the film.  It’s a man who’s being raped. The writer wanted to point out what it’s like when the victim is told: “You’re not the victim here. You were asking for this.” This time it’s about a man being told this, what that feels like, and how horrible that is.

We made an entertaining movie, and we want to entertain people. But if people walk away with a better viewpoint on that subject or a different viewpoint on that subject, that’s good too. But it’s not necessarily a political movie at all.

So what is it like to be an executive producer? What did you do for the film in that capacity?

Jon Paul: For starters, we found the money. Actually, we were funding a different project, a more expensive project, and this script fell in our laps. We read it, and we realized we could do it for the budget we already had. There were roles I could play, as well as my partner, David Gunning. So we decided to make the film.

As far as what goes into it: We are technically the executive producers, but I also worked as the line producer and several other kinds of producers, because we only had four producers on the project. So we did everything from getting the permits to hiring the actors and crew, vetting all the crew, etc. Basically, we put it all together. It was a lot of work, but it was really fun work.

Is there a lot of overlap as a writer and producer? Or do you find that once the writer is done with the script, it’s everyone else’s project after that?

Jon Paul: I can’t speak too much. On TV shows, there’s always a writer hanging around in case they need to rewrite something. On Sick for Toys, we were fortunate to have the writer playing a role in the film. So whenever we needed to add or change dialogue, which we did several times, he was there.

At one point I have to spout out all of these names of drugs. The writer used all of the trademarked names, and I had to learn all of these really long medical names just before we shot (laughs) – wasn’t too happy about that – but it turned out great!

Silly question: What was it like to be the pantomime horse on Parks & Rec?

Jon Paul: (laughs) Really fun. It was a really fun day. Like any job, I didn’t expect to get it. They called me three hours after I auditioned, I wasn’t even home yet, and I booked the role. I was really excited.

It was difficult in the costume. I couldn’t turn. I had to have someone behind me to carry the legs around. It was odd, but it was great working with Amy Poehler. She’s really fun and improvs. She’s sweet. It was a such fun show. Such nice people.

How can we see Sick for Toys? When is it coming out and how can we see it?

Jon Paul: It comes out to buy or to rent in September.

It was going to release in October, but we’ve had such good buzz we’re releasing earlier. It’ll be released oversees October 1st. We sold to Germany and several Asian countries.

Then it’ll be out on all streaming sites (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon) in December. We are excited to have it out.

In the meantime, check out the trailer!