Edward Burns and Caitlin Fitzgerald talk 'Newlyweds'

Saturday, 24 December 2011 12:49 Written by  Rocio Anica
Rate this item
(5 votes)
Edward Burns and Caitlin Fitzgerald talk 'Newlyweds'

Like all New Yorkers, Edward Burns loves his corner of the world. Unlike most New Yorkers, however, Burns gets to share his love of the Empire State with hundreds of thousands of people around the world. His first movie, The Brothers McMullen (1995), which launched his career as actor, writer and director, was shot in Long Island on a minimal budget. Lauded by critics everywhere for his resourceful commitment and lucid take on working-class Irish-American lives, Burns went on to play a number of handsome nice-guys in compelling movies such as Saving Private Ryan (1998), Life or Something Like It (2002) and 27 Dresses (2008).

The filmmaker in Edward Burns, however, is still drawn to explore relationships from the other side of the lens. His latest movie, Newlyweds, will be released everywhere digitally on-demand December 26th, making it the triple-aesthete’s tenth feature-length film. In all ten of his movies, New York is the extra in the background, wordlessly pulling the characters to each other or away from each other. Sometimes, New York’s multi-faceted landscape simply exists seemingly to enchant the audience without them even knowing it. Newlyweds continues Burns’ charming formula of mixing romance and milieu, except for three major details. This time around, and quite unlike most movies in general, its mode of narrative is the mockumentary, it is being distributed digitally on-demand, and it was shot on a $9,000 budget in eighteen days. Those three details alone are enough to get tongues wagging, and for independent filmmakers, at the very least, it’s enough to start asking some bigger-picture questions.

He film centers on a hastily-married but devoted couple, Katie (Caitlin Fitzgerald) and Bizzy (Burns), the story hinges on the unexpected arrival of Bizzy’s half-sister, whose mere presence is aggravating enough for the newly-wed couple to wonder if perhaps their relationship will fail its first major test of endurance. The light-hearted mockumentary stars Caitlin Fitzgerald (It’s Complicated), Marsha Dietlein (TV's Gossip Girl), and the lovely Kerry Bishé (TV's Scrubs), while also containing moments of dark comedy to the credit of Max Baker (Revolutionary Road) and newcomer Daniella Pineda. I recently attended a roundtable discussion via teleconference to hear Caitlin Fitzgerald and Edward Burns speak about shooting Newlyweds, the importance of being shrewd when making story decisions, and the value of being open as a storyteller.

“When I was writing the script, I brought all the actors in early,” he began. “I had written sixty-five percent of the script, and I knew where the scenes were going; what the dynamics were.” Still, he felt that at that point he wanted the actors to help flesh-out their characters. Burns found himself sitting down with the actors for meetings during which they went through the script to discuss ideas, sometimes more than a couple of times. Burns found it interesting to allow that flow of information between actor and director. “I’d say, you know in this first scene where you and I are walking home from the restaurant, and we’re going to joke about this, savor this…any ideas? Every actor would give me a line of dialogue. 'Oh, she should say something along these lines.' So I would take all of that and then write the scenes accordingly.” Burns added that even while shooting, he was incredibly open. He called it a "style," and one that he adopted while filming recent movies. He said, “Lets shoot the scene as scripted one or two times and then, for the third take, let’s open it up.” He liked that style because by the end, they, as a collaborative team, will often know where the scene starts and where the scene ends, an impromptu, fluid way of editing and revising. He said that his approach for this would often find himself saying, “Forget about all the dialogue and lets just do a new version.”

He gave an example of what happens when you take this approach as a filmmaker. “There’s a scene where Caitlin and I are in bed. There’s a joke about a vasectomy. We probably did seven different versions of that and shot it on two different days. Well, one day we shot the original version of the script and then improvised. Based on those two versions, I went into the editing room, cut them together, and still dissatisfied with the scene, I wrote a new version of it. I shot that, and still dissatisfied with the process, started again improvising.” Only after all of that, he explained, did they fall upon it.

Burns took caution to make it clear that one must me mindful when working a script in that fashion. “Sometimes there are actors that are great at doing that. Caitlin is one of those actors.” But, he explained, there are other actors who prefer to operate differently, like Selma Blair, who once told him that she preferred to do the words on the page. He said that she was just more comfortable with that. “So, really, you have to be mindful about what the actor’s strengths are. Kerry Bishé is one who prefers to do that kind of work before shooting, as opposed to doing it on the fly.”

When asked about how his work compares to that of Woody Allen’s, Burns was quick to defer to Woody Allen’s long and brilliant career. “I mean, Woody is the reason I make movies. My mom turned me on to him when I was in high school and even when I’m having those moments of self-doubt, like, oh, I make these small talky New York movies…” Caitlin Fitzgerald interjected to say that he goes and watches a couple of Woody Allen movies, implying Allen is a source of inspiration, to which Burns agreed. “Right. I don’t need to try and make the next Spider-Man; it’s not something I’m interested in. It’s reminding yourself why you do what you do. So the comparison is only in that I direct great actors who love New York, and write about the world that they know.” Tongue-in-cheek, he added, “Of course, I’m lucky that I’m not burdened with all of the Oscar nominations that he’s got. I don’t have to deal with any of that.”

When asked about reviewing the footage and being a part of the editing process, he admitted that one of the challenges of digital photography is being less conscious of how much you’re actually shooting. “Back when you used to shoot film you were always conscious of how much film you were shooting, because the film is very expensive and the processing is very expensive. When you’re recording onto a hard-drive, you don’t even call ‘action’ and ‘cut’ anymore. You just sort of just let the camera roll. You say, ok, take it back to the beginning. So, there’s a lot of stuff to go through.” He was clear about his diligence. While he does like to improvise some of the takes, he doesn’t like to be excessive about it. “We’ll do two takes, we’ll improvise two or three times, but traditionally, you know, I’ve worked on films where directors will do fifteen to twenty-five takes, and that’s a lot footage to go through. So even though we’re a little more free because of shooting digitally, I still don’t shoot that many takes and it’s still a decent amount of footage for the editor to sift through.” Which is important because Burns likes to be involved during post-production as well. “I know some filmmakers don’t like to be in the editing room until the scenes are cut or the first assemblies are done, but I’ve always viewed the editing as the last rewrite of the screenplay. I know I’m too in love with the words to let someone else make the final decisions about what’s going to stay and what’s going to go.”

Being involved in editing is also a byproduct of using his style of ad-libbing and collaborating about scenes as the camera rolls. The editor isn’t on set, and is therefore less familiar with what was considered a discovery. “When you’re working this way with all of this improv… there’s a lot of footage to go through, but I know when we found the scene, because a lot of it is experimental and exploration. I know when we actually found that thing we were looking for. I need to be in the editing room with the editor and say, no, no, no, I remember when we put the camera over here, it was in the middle of that take, that’s where we found the joke or the thing or the moment.”

When asked about the locations chosen for the movie, Burns took the moment to talk about choosing story points strategically, showing that one of the things that makes him a successful triple-aesthete is having the devotion of an artist with the insight of a businessman. “I knew that I wanted to make the film very inexpensively, so I stole this sort of method or approach from when doing The Brothers McMullen. Then, I was doing it out of necessity. I made a list of all the locations that I could get access to for free.” Burns then wrote his story around the locations, being careful to not sacrifice what he knew the story would be about. With Newlyweds, he did the same thing. “I knew I wanted this movie to be about this newly-wedded couple, and another couple that were going to be empty-nesters… So, I knew that my friend owns a gym. I said; could I use your gym to shoot for free?” His friend said absolutely, and by default, the main character, Bizzy, became a personal trainer accordingly. “I knew I had a married couple that lived together for eighteen years and were going to be empty-nesters. I have a friend that owns a recording studio and owns the apartment upstairs. I asked him if we could use his recording studio and apartment for free?” When the answer was yes, the older couple became people in the music business.

Burns finds meaning in being shrewd. “Yeah, it is about connections, but that’s fun, because the thing that happens is, all of a sudden, you’re bringing other things to the writing and to the characters that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise.” He found that very different approach to writing fun and worthwhile. “All the restaurants in the bar… I lived in Tribeca for eleven years. I eat lunch in some of those places, you know, every other day. So, I went to them and said, hey, I’m doing this low-budget movie, we just need a table in the corner, we’ll be here at lunchtime but it’s a two-man crew, we’re going to shoot available light, there’s no boom operator, and we’re not going to ask anyone to be quiet.”

Burns called his movie’s mockumentary-style ‘pseudo-documentary’. Opting for this narrative mode prompted him to prioritize the locations’ veracity. “I wanted the real atmosphere. I wanted the actors to play in a live environment. Caitlin’s got a scene in the restaurant that she owns, where she’s behind the bar and the people at the bar are real customers and the other people behind the bar are employees. They’re open for business.” Burns went on to explain that shooting was so realistic that a patron even ordered a drink from Caitlin right in the middle of the scene.

When asked about where his ideas come from and what he’s learned about human nature, Burns made sure to speak kindly about everyone who helped him make his films. He said, “What I learned about human nature is that people are far more generous with their time and their locations than I ever would have thought.” He credits it to people wanting to be a part of something bigger, something driven by passion. “It’s like if you’re doing something creative and you care about it, people want to be a part of that… people just want to be around that energy.”

Burns then shared from where the nugget of inspiration for Newlyweds came: an anniversary toast. “I was at a friend’s 10th wedding anniversary and… I basically stole the line for the movie. They said, 'You know, if this ended today after ten years, in this day and age, you could call it a success.' We all sort of laughed about how true that is and how tragic that is.”

The toast inspired Burns to ask himself what makes for a successful marriage. He also did what he normally does as a writer open to collaboration and fluid story development. He turned to others. “The way I tend to write is that once I fall upon the initial idea then when I’m out to dinner or at a party or some thing, I’ll ask people, you know, how long they’ve been married? 'Oh, we’ve been together, like, ten years'.” Burns would then ask about the greatest challenges faced in the early stages of their relationship. Similarly, he turned to Twitter for insight. “I went to my Twitter followers and I said, I got this idea…Tell me the toughest things that you went through in the first couple of months of marriage. Nine out of ten people all said something connected to their family.” That’s when, he said, that he fell upon the idea that when you marry somebody, marry the whole universe of people that surrounds them. “You marry their family, ex-husbands, ex-girlfriends.”

Another line he lifted from real life came from another couple that Burns spoke to. “They didn’t have that exact dynamic (as Bizzy and Katie), but it was their second marriage and he joked, good thing; we never see one another, so this one’s going to work. He traveled a lot in that relationship, but I thought, that’s great, I have to build a relationship around that.”

He added, “I think that being a writer is kind of about keeping your ears open, and I’m kind of just interested in people and how we relate to one another.”

The following question was directed at Fitzgerald who was sitting next to Burns, animated by his opinions and recollection of the process. She was asked about which of the lines in the script rang truest to her, and she responded by saying that even though she’s never been married, something her character said in the opening scene seemed true of all relationships. “My character says, somebody told me that if you don’t wake up at least once a week and think, I’ve made a mistake, or who am I married to, then something’s wrong. I think that is a really honest thing about relationships. We never fully know the person we’re with, so the more we can allow for that continual discovery I think the healthier it can be.”

Burns was then asked about Kerry Bishé. Having worked with Bishé on Nice Guy Johnny, he recalls knowing that he wanted to work with her again in the middle of shooting it. “In the same way that halfway through this film I knew that I wanted to work with Caitlin again. They’re both working with me on my next film, Marsha (Dietiein) who plays the older sister, and Dara Coleman who plays Dara. As is Johnny Solo who played Miles.”

The Tribeca Film Festival has been a pivotal accessory to Edward Burns’ journey as a filmmaker. He said, “I’ve been involved with the festival since its first year and it was originally (Robert De Niro) and Jane (Rosenthal)’s idea. Post-9/11, people weren’t coming to downtown New York.” The festival, Burns went on, was a way to get people to visit and spend money in the downtown shops and restaurants. He finds it amazing that in just a mere ten years it became a massive international film festival that unfailingly attracts the best in the business. More remarkably, Tribeca is the one who is distributing Newlyweds. “They started this new thing, and it’s great; now Sundance is following suit.” What Burns is referring to is Tribeca’s revolutionary endeavor to use popular streaming technology to bring festival favorites and Indies beyond big-cities-only runs and festival schedules.

He posits, “It’s because they recognize they’re seeing these films before anyone else is, they have longstanding relationships with a lot of the filmmakers, and their business is serving a hungry audience that appreciates specialized movies or independent movies and foreign films…they’re well-suited to take it beyond the screens of New York and spread it out across the country.”

The last several questions were directed at Fitzgerald and were the perfect way to end the interview. When asked if she came to this project as a fan of Ed Burns movies, she answered, “Yeah, definitely. If you love New York filmmakers, if you love Woody Allen, and you love New York in general and want to be in New York as an actor, then you know Ed’s movies. So, it’s one of the great things about this. I wanted to be an actor my whole life, and as you learn about filmmakers and appreciate their work then suddenly find your self in the same room with them, talking about working together, it’s really exciting. It’s a great payoff.” Asked which movie of his was her favorite, she thought about it for a second before interrupting herself, laughing, “Obviously! This one!”

Newlyweds will be released digitally on-demand December 26th.

More in this category

Follow ROGUE

Latest Trailers

view more »