Inspiration comes in a variety of forms for many different people. Some people have the ability to recognize an experience and turn it into inspiration. For screenwriter Matthew McDuffie, a Professor of Practice in The University of New Mexico’s Department of Cinematic Arts, inspiration came through a culmination of heart-wrenching events that led to his latest movie – the poignant and powerful upcoming film Burning Bodhi.
In Burning Bodhi, a film shot in New Mexico that premiered as The Centerpiece Film at the 2015 Austin Film Festival, lifelong friends return back home after high school when they start to discover on social media that the most popular among them, Bodhi, has died. In a mix of plots and subplots including old girlfriends, boyfriends, new lovers and parents, the reunion stirs up feelings of love, longing and regret, intertwined with the novelty of forgiveness, mortality and gratitude. It’s a Big Chill for a new generation. The film stars Kaley Cuoco, Cody Horn and Landon Liboiron.
McDuffie, who also directed the movie, along with Producer Marshall Bear, recently held a private screening followed by a question and answer session for Burning Bodhi for a group of UNM faculty, staff and students at the Interdisciplinary Film and Digital Media (IFDM) Theater at Mesa del Sol. The Guild Cinema, located at 3405 Central Ave., NE, in Albuquerque, will show the film for one night only on April 24 at 7 p.m. with a Q/A to follow. Tickets are available at, Guild Cinema.
Most everything McDuffie, a UNM alumnus, writes has an autobiographical element. His inspiration for Burning Bodhi came in part through his own life experiences.
“That said, autobiography is a pig to be butchered, so my life is not sacred, it’s just this thing that I experience or that I notice or things that tick me off and that’s usually what starts the story. Then I obviously expand off of that,” McDuffie said.
This particular life experience for McDuffie, which he described as “Death Karma,” involved the deaths of his parents, his two best friends, a favorite cousin, a couple of mentors and some other folks he knew all in a relatively short period of time.
“Every time I went back to L.A. it was for a funeral,” he said. “It was relentless. It seemed to me to be the meaning of life: you die or rather you live for a while, while others around you fall by the wayside. And then you die.”
“Writing is a very solitary craft, it’s just you, your head and the voices in your head. I just adore being able to exchange ideas with eager, young people. It always excites me and it is just the best part of my day, to teach students what I care about.” – Matthew McDuffie
Part of the inspiration for McDuffie’s Burning Bodhi also came from his son Ian, who went through the death experience of a friend while away in his first year at college. He noticed that his son was experiencing similar feelings about death, so the decision was made to write about the universality of experiencing loss for the first time and providing the inspiration for Burning Bodhi.
“For me,” said McDuffie, “and I think everybody goes through these phases where it is just like, ‘Holy Crap,’ is somebody else going to die? And you feel selfish about it because you’re like the only one that’s going through it. Then seeing your son going through it for the first time, it opened me up to it again – the universality of it. Everybody has to live this chapter.”
His son came home for Christmas during freshman year of college and experienced what this kid called a “FUNeral.”
“It was his first experience with death,” McDuffie said. “Your first experience with the death of someone close is a real wake-up call. It was a friend of his from high school who had passed away. He and his high school pals attended the memorial service in the school cafeteria.”
The dead boy had planned the “FUNeral” in the months before he died. There were speeches, a slideshow and a power point presentation on how it was okay that he was dead at 18 of testicular cancer McDuffie recalled. “I wasn’t there, but when I picked Ian up and we were heading back in the car, he told me that there were some deliberate laughs, and that the whole thing was like a pep rally.”
McDuffie, who has taught introductory, advanced and graduate levels of screenwriting at UNM for 15 years, has been a professional screenwriter for over 25 years. McDuffie has always been a film nut spending 4-5 days a week at the old Don Pancho’s on Central Avenue to get his fix. “I was the kid who ran home from wrestling practice to watch the million dollar movie,” he said.
He wrote his first screenplay at 19 and broke into the business a little over 20 years ago. It probably took another five years before somebody was interested in producing his work. Since then, he just kept writing. “When I think about when I started out, the people who made it didn’t give up and the people who didn’t, did. It’s been a struggle ever since, but everybody that does freelance work understands that.”
Burning Bodhi, from concept to completion was about five years in the making. The screenplay was the easy part. It was getting the flick onto the screen that took some time.
“It never takes me more than a month or two to write a screenplay,” McDuffie said. “But in trying to get it onto film, and jumping through different development hoops and developing it with the producer, it was probably a year and a half from the first draft to the one we decided on.”
Several impressive feats developed during the course of the project including the amount of time it took to shoot the film, the cost, the cost as well as the locations. The film itself was shot entirely in Albuquerque’s South Valley at or near Bear’s home.
“I think the thing that was remarkable for us was we shot it in eighteen days, which is quite short,” McDuffie said. “You are probably looking at twenty-eight days for most independent features, and we shot in eighteen. For a major motion picture or a studio picture, you are looking at sixty to a hundred days.
“We shot it on one block in the South Valley. We secured different locations up and down the block so we just turned the camera around. We never had to move except for two days. We actually never went over ten-hour days. They were pretty short. We were very efficient about it. We knew what we wanted and got it.”
In addition to writing, McDuffie, who earned his MA at UNM, enjoys teaching and interacting with young people.
“Writing is a very solitary craft, it’s just you, your head and the voices in your head,” he said. “I just adore being able to exchange ideas with eager young people. It always excites me and it is just the best part of my day, to teach students what I care about.”
He’s also contributing to the future of the movie industry here in New Mexico, not only with his passion for the state, where the sun shines 300 days out of the year (he used to live in Vancouver, B.C.), but also in terms of bringing California to New Mexico
“Marshall and I were really determined to create a film from the top down here in New Mexico – above the line – meaning the producer the writer, the director were New Mexicans,” McDuffie said. “We brought Los Angeles in as opposed to Los Angeles coming in and hiring our workers. We wanted the creative bed to be here so, I think that’s our goal from now on, is to try to create films from New Mexico.”