Widgets Magazine

Filmmaker, author Martyn Burke talks his latest book

Martyn Burke – novelist, documentarian, director, writer – has been around the block once or twice. His list of successful literary and cinematic achievements continues to fill his pocket full. Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, traveling to various war zones in Afghanistan and working in Los Angeles (where he now lives), Mr. Burke has created numerous films such as “Power Play” (1978), “Pirates of Silicon Valley” (1999) and “Avenging Angelo” (2002), along with awarding-winning documentaries like “Under Fire: Journalists in Combat” (2012), a film that won a Peabody and was short-listed for an Academy Award. Some of his novels include “Laughing War” (1980), “The Truth About the Night” (2006), “Commissar’s Report” (1984) and “The Shelling of Beverly Hills” (2000). From his six published novels, documentaries and films, “Music for Love or War” is claimed to be the next hit on the list.

“Music for Love or War” follows the lives of two men, Danny and Hank, who meet in the U.S. Army while both stationed in the city of Kandahar. We track Danny and Hank’s experiences as they try to survive the active battlegrounds in Afghanistan while battling heartbreak over the women they lost. Switching back and forth from the scenes of Afghanistan and Hollywood, Danny and Hank seek a psychic who they hope can lead them to their lost loves.

The Daily recently chatted with Mr. Burke by phone, asking him how his career started,  his creative process and what’s coming next for him.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): How did you first get into making films and documentaries?

Martyn Burke (MB): Well, I’m Canadian and grew up in Toronto. I’ve always loved cameras and writing. And when I was 17, I went to the Toronto Camera Club. I was very excited and went on a Thursday night for two hours. I was nervous, though, since most of the people in there had regular jobs and only did this for two hours a week whereas I was making my hobbies my work, since it was my passion. After school, I worked for CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and would do freelance journalism in war zones at the time. I like to think I live three lives through my three passions of documentaries, movies and novels.


TSD: What’s your process of writing a novel, and how is it similar or different from writing a film or documentary?

MB: Hm, that’s a tricky one. For me, the subject matter comes how they want to be told. The ideas I have come to me in some form already whether it be a novel, a film or documentary. In a way, they select themselves. There’s really no rational answer, the ideas merge in the form as they do. When I was over in Afghanistan, I was filming a documentary for PBS (Public Broadcasting System) about the Islamic Warman in Europe and met with some of the young women fleeing from their families since the men were trying to marry them off to Afghan terrorist groups. That experience fed into “Music for Love or War” and came to me as a story for a novel. When I was in Hollywood, I was asked to do a reality T.V. show about psychics and originally said no but then said yes since it would be good material for “Music for Love or War.” All of my experiences influence my ideas – like the saying “art imitating life”. For the difference … I once had to adapt two novels into screenplays, which was strange and hard since you have to leave out most of the book for time. It’s like trying to do an imitation of the book while keeping the original storyline, but telling the story in a different medium while still hinting at the book. It’s hard to transfer, especially with interior monologues.


TSD: What’s the craziest thing or most memorable event that has ever happened on set?

MB: One answer is discovering what I call “the charm of evil.” Years ago, I got to the legendarily murderous Ugandan dictator Idi Amin at a time when he was wiping out thousands of his opponents. Anyone from judges who displeased him to academics or even those he merely imagined were against him would routinely end up murdered, their bodies floating in the Nile. At that time, he was not talking to the western media, whom he hated. 

But when I came to him for a documentary, with the cameras rolling I asked him about the security needed to protect him from attempts on his life. He answered that there no such attempts, that he had no real need of security (which was not true). So I dared him to drive me all over the capital, Kampala, with no bodyguards. He was crazy enough to love the idea – so off we went, just him and me, with him driving his Citroen-Maserati going wherever I told him to go. Several minutes into this bizarre drive, he was laughing and chuckling like he was just a funny friend. He was incredibly charming.  I constantly had to remind myself that the man next to me had carried out some of the most evil acts imaginable.


TSD: Seeing the positive reactions from audiences to your 1999 film “Pirates of Silicon Valley” – which has become somewhat of a cult film – what made you want to take on the project?

MB: I was brought a book about the technical aspects of Microsoft and Apple software, which personally was too boring of a read, but when I started reading about Bill Gates and Steve Jobs I knew I had more free reign and could see a story forming. I loved their crazy, eccentric young characters and personalities. Steve Jobs specifically reminded me of a Shakespearian character: He was inspired, went through fears, betrayals, trusts, loyalties and just the way he looked at the world. It made me want to make a movie and tell the story. 


TSD: Do you have a favorite book or author?

MB: I remember in 10th grade, our English teacher assigned “Wuthering Heights” and I was fascinated by Catherine and Heathcliff’s love story. I also enjoy Albert Camus, Hemingway, Fitzgerald … I can’t say I really have one. I do have a “Fire-Shelf” in my office library here. It’s the one shelf that I would save in a fire – there’s George Orwell, Tom Wolfe and others.  


TSD: What’s your next step or plan?

MB: Right now, I’ve traveled to Cuba five times in the last six months for a film this year in 2017. I’m working mostly with Cuban crews and some American actors. The plot is about a 19-year-old U.S. kid whose mom marries a mob casino boss before the Cuban Revolution.


TSD: Any advice for us aspiring filmmakers and novelists?

MB: Make your hobbies your work and follow your passions. It sounds insultingly stupid, but the Nike logo: Just do it. It’s scary but I would pound on doors and they would get closed, but there’s always someone out there who will listen and give you a shot. Some of the best advice I got was from a friend who told me, “Every film I’ve done has been turned down by everyone in town except for one – and my job is to find that one who will say yes.”  I believe an important rule in life is anything you do, it has to scare you a little and keep you on edge because if it doesn’t, you’ve done it before.

Burke will be in Palo Alto for a book signing of “Music for Love or War,” at Books Inc., Tuesday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m., at Town and Country Village.


Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article erroneously listed the author as Carlos Valladares. The date of the book signing is Tuesday, Feb. 21, not Wednesday.


Contact Chelsea Red-Horse Mohl at cmohl2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.