IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Edward Burns Talks 'Independent Ed' Memoir, 'The Brothers McMullen' Sequel, and 'Public Morals' TV Series

Tuesday, 10 February 2015 16:43 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Edward Burns Talks 'Independent Ed' Memoir, 'The Brothers McMullen' Sequel, and 'Public Morals' TV Series

There’s a wealth of important lessons that young filmmakers can learn from Edward Burns. That is exactly why the acclaimed writer, director, producer and actor recently published his memoir - Independent Ed, which was released on February 3rd and chronicles his 20-year journey as a filmmaker. 

Burns first gained attention from Hollywood in 1995 with his critically acclaimed independent film The Brothers McMullen, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in himself. As the legend goes, Burns had been working as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight and used his salary to help finance the film. After it was completed, Burns was able to use his connections at ET to give a copy to actor/director Robert Redford, which eventually led to its inclusion at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival. It would go on to win the Grand Jury Prize and was eventually bought for $10 million by 20th Century Fox. That’s not bad considering the film only cost around $28,000.00 to make. McMullen’s success made Burns the poster boy for DIY filmmaking and one of the forefathers of the independent film movement of the ‘1990s.

Hot on the heels of his first film, Burns made She’s the One, which he also wrote, directed, and starred in opposite (then little known actresses) Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz, and Amanda Peet. The film went on to be his most financially successful movie to date. While Burns would continue to write and direct films over the years including Sidewalks of New York, The Groomsman, Nice Guy Johnny, Newlyweds, and The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, it was his acting work that would make him a household name. Beginning with a starring role in Steven Spielberg’s now classic WWII film Saving Private Ryan, Burns became one of the most reliable actors of his generation continually giving daring performances in both studio and independent films. His acting resume includes several diverse projects opposite Oscar-winning talent such as 15 Minutes with Robert De Niro, Confidence with Dustin Hoffman, Life or Something Like It with Angelina Jolie, and A Sound of Thunder with Sir Ben Kingsley. While most recently Burns has appeared in films like Man on a Ledge, Friends with Kids, and Alex Cross, as well as the upcoming TNT series Public Morals, which he wrote, directed, produced and will also star in. 

I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the great Edward Burns about his new memoir Independent Ed. The accomplished actor and filmmaker discussed his new book, what he’s learned about filmmaking over the years, how acting in Saving Private Ryan changed his approach to directing, the importance of the Sundance Film Festival, if technology has helped or hurt filmmaking, what is an independent film today, if studios should be involved with independent films, the status of his long rumored sequel to The Brothers McMullen, his upcoming series Public Morals, and why TV is really the new independent film movement. 

Here is what Edward Burns had to say about Independent Ed, The Brothers McMullen sequel, and Public Morals:

IAR: To begin with, as one of the forefathers of modern independent film, what have you learned about making movies over the past 20 years that you wanted to share with young filmmakers in your new memoir Independent Ed

Edward Burns: Well first off, thank you very much. When I was still in film school I can remember walking through Greenwich Village and seeing Spike Lee. I followed him for about six blocks trying to muster up the courage to ask him about a hundred different questions about his first film. Like, how did you get it made? What did it cost? What size crew did you have? Did you go to film festivals? Did you have an agent? All those questions that any kid right out of film school would have. Back then there was no place to go for those answers. There was no road map. We didn’t have the Internet. There was no place to find out anything so you had to figure it out on your own a little bit. I’ve been lucky enough over the course of 20 years to get a bunch of advice from really great people like my dad, Redford Redford and Steven Spielberg. In the course of making eleven movies, no two experiences have been the same from a financing, production and distribution standpoint.  With all of those things going, for the last three movies - Nice Guy Johnny, Newlyweds and The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, we decided to not release them theatrically and embrace digital distribution. Because of that, we decided to use the film societies, film festivals and film schools to be our theatrical distribution. We went out and screened the movie at those places and any time we do that we would do a Q&A afterwards. It really was during those Q&A’s when the idea for a book started to come to me because I would talk to these young filmmakers. I was reminded of the Spike Lee story because they all had the same questions that I asked Spike. A number of the professors at different universities said, “Have you ever thought about teaching or doing a book? These are great stories that these kids would benefit from.” I had mentioned it to my wife and she had said for years, “I thought you should do a book based on these different experiences.” That was the genesis of how it all started. For aspiring filmmakers, or even if you wanted to be a novelist or a musician, I tried to create something of a road map for filmmakers. I also just tried to tell the stories of the things that have inspired me to keep fighting and pursuing the dream after I kept hitting roadblock after roadblock at different points in my career. 

You wrote, directed, and starred in your first two films – The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One. Then you were cast as an actor only in Saving Private Ryan. How did the experience of being directed by the legendary Steven Spielberg in arguably one of his greatest films, change your approach to filmmaking?

Burns: The biggest change, and there were a number of things, but the biggest one came with my approach to working with actors. What I saw pretty quickly was Steven did not give us any direction until after the third take. He would let us find the scenes, play, and try things. He would give us three takes for free. A lot of times he would be very happy with that and just move on, and you would get no direction. It wasn’t until maybe the second or third week that he finally stopped and said, “Okay, why don’t you try this.” Afterwards we all kind of asked him, so what happened today? Why do we get direction? He said, “Well, today you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.” Then he went on to explain his approach. “I assume you guys came prepared. I don’t expect anyone to hit it out of the park on the first take. So I’m going to give you a couple of takes to find it. Especially when you have an ensemble, and you’ve got three or four actors in a scene hoping that they will gel, find one another, and play well together.” I’ve always thought of it a lot like team sports. When you get that team out on the floor, give them a couple minutes to figure out what the other guys’ games are like. That was a big thing that I took from that experience. The other big thing, and I haven’t really had to apply it until this year when I was shooting my new show - Public Morals, but we were talking about the D-Day sequence. I just couldn’t get my head around how Steven would even approach something like that. He said something to the effect of, “Look, it is no different than any other film that I’ve made. All you focus on is what is in front of the lens at that time.” So we didn’t shoot the entire D-Day sequence at once. First it’s a shot of Tom (Hanks) coming off of the boat. Then it’s a shot of Tom walking through the water, and then it’s a shot of an explosion going off. Remember that you’re going to put it together the same way you would put together any dialogue scene, granted you’re going to have five cameras going instead of one and it’s a little bit more complicated. But Steven said, “If you just think about it that way it will become less daunting,” and that’s very true. 

Can you talk about the importance of the Sundance Film Festival to your career, and to the boom of independent movies in the ‘1990s?

Burns: I don’t have a career if not for the Sundance Film Festival. Sundance still to this day is a place where if you get accepted into that festival, it’s the equivalent of hitting the lottery or making the Olympic team. You are going to get your shot. There is no better place for a first time filmmaker to showcase their work because the most important decision makers in the business are there. The other thing is it’s a festival audience. The bulk of festival audiences are people who really love movies and they’re there to fall in love with movies. It’s a little less snarky than maybe some other places. They are there to find the next new exciting voice and then they embrace those talents. I was very lucky that I got in and that everything that happened at the festival gave me my career. That festival is still doing that to this day. There is no better place for anyone to premiere their indie film, especially at the start of his or her careers.

When you wrote The Brothers McMullen, as a first time filmmaker you really had to scratch and claw to find financing and get that movie made. However, with technology the way it is today, everyone has a camera in their phone and editing equipment on their computer. Potentially, someone could now write a script on a Monday morning, shoot and edit it Monday afternoon, and post it on YouTube by Monday night. My question to you is; do you think that technology has helped or hurt independent filmmaking? 

Burns: I’m under the belief that all of this is a good thing. The barriers to entry were so tough when I was coming up for any number of reasons. It was so expensive. It was so tough to get your hands on a 16mm camera. You had to find someone who knew how to shoot film and then you had to have more money to bring it to the lab and get it processed. Then once you got it processed, what format do you put it on and what are you going to edit on? Are you going to cut on film? That was a crazy long, laborious process, so it made it very difficult back then to break in. As you just said, with all this digital technology it’s easier than ever and there is no barrier to entry. People are complaining that there is now a glut of films in the marketplace whether it’s YouTube, Vimeo or any other digital platform. It is so easy for people to make films. My thinking is why should we discourage that? It’s always been that easy to sit down and write a novel. There are thousands and thousands of novels that get written every year that never get published. There are millions of songs that get written whether it’s poets or singers. None of the other arts ever had that obstacle where you needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to experiment, to play, and to try your hand at that thing. Now for the first time in history filmmakers are forwarded that same creative freedom. That can only be a good thing for people who love movies. It’s going to be tougher to weed through all of these films now and find those gems, but there is going to be the equivalent of Bob Dylan. There’s going to be the kid from Minnesota who on his iPhone makes the film that’s the equivalent of that first great Dylan album. We’re all going to be thrilled that in the same way somebody put a guitar in Bob Dylan’s hands, somebody put an iPhone in that kid’s hands. 

Is there still such a thing as an independent film? If you look at the movies nominated for Independent Spirit Awards this year, Selma was distributed by Paramount, Fox Searchlight distributed Birdman, and Sony Classics distributed Whiplash. Those are not independent studios, but rather they are small companies within huge international corporations. Do you think it’s unfair to still call those films independent movies? 

Burns: I think it depends what your definition of an independent film is. A lot of people over the years have had very different definitions. Some people talk about the stories. Does it have an independent spirit? Whatever the hell that means. Some people think it has to do with the financing. The money didn’t come from a studio so then it’s independent. Then some people think it has to be small, gritty and that kind of thing. My thinking has always been that it has to be independent of outside interference. Whether the studio financed it, or you did it through Kickstarter, or through some hedge fund guy who got the check, if they left you alone then it’s an independent film. Nobody ever talks about Woody Allen being an independent filmmaker, but nobody gives Woody notes on his scripts. Nobody tells Woody whom he should cast, and Woody’s always had final cut. Can you be any more independent than that? That said, I think the difference now with the Spirit Awards is that they’re embracing the bigger indie films. The thing that’s still nice about Sundance and other film festivals is that they’re still giving a voice to those other types of indie movies that are getting made by the scrappy young kids who figure out how to make a movie for $25,000.00 and shoot it on a small digital camera.

Do you feel that there is room for studio involvement in independent films?

Burns: I do. I got my start at Fox Searchlight. Nobody questioned then whether or not Searchlight was an indie film company. Really Fox Searchlight is no different than Paramount. Searchlight calls themselves an indie division, but they’re financed by Twentieth Century Fox. People get bogged down in that definition, but 20 years ago those movies that you just mentioned wouldn’t have been thought of as independent films. It just depends on how you’re going to choose to define what you think an indie movie is. 

You mentioned in a past interview that you were hoping to make a sequel to The Brothers McMullen in time to be released this year so it will coincide with the 20th anniversary of the original film. Is that plan still on track, or have you decided to postpone it for a while?

Burns: It’s probably not happening any time soon. I just finished writing and directing ten episodes of a new show that I created, so if all goes well that show is what I’ll be doing for the next couple of years. That said, when the show ends I would love nothing more than to go to that McMullen idea. 

What can you say about your upcoming series Public Morals?

Burns: Public Morals is going to be on TNT and it’s my dream project. It’s a look at two big Irish-American families in the 1960’s in Hell’s Kitchen, one of which is a family of cops and the other is a family of gangsters. It’s a lot of fun and it’s original. It’s funny because we’ve been talking about independent films. I got to basically make five indie movies. Ten episodes are my voice, my singular vision, and I had almost no interference. I got to cast whoever I wanted, I got to write whatever I wanted, and I was given complete freedom on set. Granted it’s for a cable television network, but I would argue that I had more independence than the vast majority of people who made independent movies this year. 

Finally, a lot of filmmakers have said that TV has become the new medium for storytellers, much like independent film was in the ‘90s. From your recent experience, do you agree with that?

Burns: Yeah. Well it proves to be just an incredible experience for me. There is so much more freedom than I ever could have imagined.

Independent Ed will be available beginning February 3rd. 

Public Morals is scheduled to premiere on TNT later this year. 

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