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How I got where I am today: Film producer

Whistle My Lad screenwriter, Richard Burke
Whistle My Lad screenwriter, Richard Burke

Richard Burke explains how his heart attacks paved a path for his film career


Name: Richard Burke

Age: 57

Job Title: Writer/executive producer, Tripswitch Productions – an independent film production company based in north-east Scotland

What did you want to be when you were young?
Originally I wanted to be an actor.

Why was that?
I’ve always liked to entertain. I’m happy standing up and talking in front of people.

Did you pursue that at all?
Well I did, but I have a terrible memory for learning lines. So writing became a big part of my life as well, I always wanted to write.

What are the main career stepping stones you have taken?
I went to Aberdeen University where I studied economics and economic history. Really, I decided I had to get into business. I moved away from acting and writing after university. My first job was down in Oxford. But eventually I wanted to get back to Scotland to get married, so I applied for a job in Business Planning with IBM in Greenock and I was with them from about 1986 to about 1989-90.

What then?
After that, I joint Motorola. At this point they were introducing the first of the GSM mobile phones. I was a new product introduction manager and was with them until about 1994. Then I joined Digital, a big American company with a base in Ayr. I was back in business planning.

At that time, my wife was involved in semi-conductor manufacturing software. I joined her and we had our own company called Upstream. We worked on that until about the early 2000s when we lost our company. I did everything morally, legally, ethically right but we just couldn’t survive.

I went back to electronics, to join another American company called Sanmina-SCI. There was a lot of travel involved and a lot of stress. I was in Mexico a lot, plus Israel, Europe, and the Middle-East. I was working more on the customer side. It was around about that time, in 2003, I was water skiing at Aboyne Loch, and I had a massive heart attack. It was a Saturday evening in August, I had an ambulance into ARI, they did emergency treatment and I survived it.

That’s awful. Do you remember much about the attack?
I knew I was dying. It was just crazy stuff. After that, I went back to work for SCI for a couple of years, still travelling, and still highly stressed. That was a big mistake, it really was. In 2006, I had again been travelling quite extensively and, at 50 years old, I had another heart attack. I’d just got home from France.

Luckily this one was a minor one. I stopped working with SCI at that point and had a break, and then went back to doing some consultancy. Then, in Christmas 2010, when there was lots of snow, I was in Banchory again and I had a massive heart attack – the biggest of the three. I really knew I was on the verge of death this time. I knew then that I really had to change my life.

Most people don’t get three warnings, and that was my last warning. I completely changed my diet to a pure vegetarian/vegan diet, then I lost a huge amount of weight, and I’ve stayed like that ever since. That was one component of my lifestyle change. The other was trying to go to work on a more creative side, which I’d always wanted to. We (Tripswitch Productions) started writing together in 2006-7 and we’ve been working on various film scripts.

Wow, what a life change. You were in Cannes recently with your latest film, weren’t you. What can you tell me about the movie?
Whistle My Lad is a calling card for a full feature film. It was funded, because it was a high budget short film. We have Ewan Stewart from Titanic in the cast, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra playing the music we had specifically written for us, and we had a BAFTA winning crew.

All together, it’s been a big success. We had a special screening at Cineworld Aberdeen with the first minister and 600 people. It’s a risk, because I’ve invested a huge amount of my money, and some other people’s money into producing a short film which has no commercial interest in its own right, but which will demonstrate to funders that they should fund this as a feature.

We were there (in Cannes) for a whole week and during that time we had multiple meetings every day, some with direct potential investors for the feature film and some with sales and distributor companies. Cannes is a very polarised week: There’s the glitz and the glamour, which is great, but there’s a lot of work done there too. It really is a business centre there.

So what’s the next step?
We’ve got some interested parties in investing in Whistle My Lad, but what we would like to do is see if there’s anyone else – maybe some high-networked individuals in the north-east – who might be interested in investing in the film. Of course, the majority of people believe that investing in a film is risky, and it is. However, if you’ve got the right film, the right people, the right genre and the right place with a good script then that risk doesn’t disappear, but it’s greatly reduced.

Now that you’re on this new path, what would you like to achieve with the rest of your career?
In a perfect world, what I’d like to do is to write. The problem is, with the growth of the company, because of my business experience as well, I have to do the business side of it.

Is that stressful?
It is positive stress, but it’s still stress. Just because you enjoy doing something doesn’t mean it can’t kill you, so I do have to watch. What I want to do is to get this thing launched on a big enough scale that I can step back. I never want to retire. We have four scripts in development, and I have a further script and two ideas ready to go. I am an idea-generating, script writing guy.

If you could go back in time, what career advice would you give yourself?
This is going to sound like a cliche, but if you do have a passion, go after it with everything. Maybe if I hadn’t had the financial success coming out of business, I wouldn’t be in a position to do what I’m doing now. I don’t believe that just because I’m 57, that I can’t learn anything new, and that I can’t be successful in this area.