His Path: From Jewish Camp to the Oscars

By Aimee Berg

Published February 28, 2008, issue of March 07, 2008.
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Often, the biggest question at the Oscars besides “Who’s going to win?” is “Who is that?” followed by the thought: “Wonder what he’ll be doing next year.”

Turns out, one of the men who stood with Al Gore to accept the 2007 Oscar for best documentary had already been the key creative force behind several well-known projects.

If you were amused by the “Got milk?” television ads of the early 1990s, thrilled by the movie “The Bourne Ultimatum,” rocked by Van Halen’s music video “Right Now” or moved by the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” you can thank Scott Burns, who worked as copywriter, co-writer, co-director and co-producer on these projects, respectively.

Now, Burns, 45, is writing an HBO drama series, produced by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, about the travails of international aid workers.

And in April, Steven Soderbergh will begin directing Burns’s screenplay, “The Informant,” about the Archer Daniels Midland Company antitrust case.

Just don’t ask Burns the particulars about his Clio advertising awards, his MTV Video of the Year trophy, the Oscar statue that may have contributed to a Nobel Peace Prize or what it’s like to have Brangelina on speed dial.

“It’s not fair for me to define what is famous… the point of the movie was the message, not the hardware… it is inappropriate for me to take credit above and beyond my fellow writers,” he will reply.

Still, not a bad run for a former Talmud Torah student from Golden Valley, Minn.

Burns’s eclectic career, like his scripts, features several plot twists.

Synopsis: He grew up in a kosher and Conservative Jewish household, dropped out of high school, became Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Minnesota, followed his father into advertising, started writing films, then worked as a producer, and recently made his directing debut with “PU-239,” a film about a nuclear power plant worker in post-Soviet Russia. The fictional drama aired on HBO last November, to critical acclaim.

Explaining his circuitous career path, Burns said, “I was trying hard not to be a lawyer.”

If anything, Burns had always been a naturalist, and he honed his outdoor sensibilities during nine summers at a Jewish camp in Aitkin County, 125 miles northwest of Minneapolis.

At first he was a camper, participating in daily prayer services by the lake and baking the Sabbath challah. Later he became a boating instructor.

“Going to Camp Tikvah and seeing the northern lights in late August was a huge part of my environmental upbringing,” he said. “And watching the shoreline slowly fill with houses was really sad.”

The camp also forged Burns’s cinematic outlook, although he said that, at the time, “there was not a lot in Minnesota that would be suggestive of a film career.” Then, during his final summer at Tikvah, a friend who worked in the kitchen urged him to invest in a friend-of-a-friend’s first film. Burns declined because he didn’t have enough money, but the film eventually propelled two of his older Talmud Torah comrades to fame. The boys were Joel and Ethan Coen, and their 1984 movie was “Blood Simple.”

“It was the first time I’d seen a movie that was made in a place I knew,” Burns said. “Somewhere in my mind, I thought maybe it’s possible to make movies.”

Through his subsequent connections with such activists as Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes, Burns’s creative messages also took a political turn.

After September 11, 2001, he worked with pundit Arianna Huffington on a guerilla ad campaign called The Detroit Project. Taking aim at the American government ads implying that drugs were funding terrorism, Burns’s ads linked gas-guzzling SUV drivers to the Iraq War. The ads drew such controversy that some media outlets banned them.

“He’s one of these great thinkers that you want around when discussing, ‘How can we do something to change policy through media?’” said producer Lawrence Bender, a Detroit Project colleague and co-producer of “An Inconvenient Truth.”

So when Burns and Bender attended one of Gore’s global warming slideshows together, their next mission was clear. Little did they know they’d reconvene in Oslo to watch Gore accept the Nobel Peace Prize.

“In a way, it was the ultimate Hollywood ending to our movie,” Burns said.

So even if you don’t remember the bald guy on the 2007 Oscar stage, Bender said, “[Scott] deserves an enormous amount of credit for the movie’s success.”

Burns, however, would be the last person to congratulate himself.

Aimee Berg attended Camp Tikvah and recognized her counselor’s name in the credits of “An Inconvenient Truth.” She is a writer who lives in New York.

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