For his eleventh feature, the heartwarming family drama “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” filmmaker-actor Edwards Burns returns to the working-class, Irish-American roots that defined “The Brothers McMullen,” his phenomenally successful debut that netted him the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and made him an instant star on the indie circuit.
In “Christmas,” Burns heads a large ensemble (stocked mostly with actors he’s worked with before, including Connie Britton who made her acting debut in “The Brothers McMullen”) as Gerry, a bar owner struggling to reunite his entire family — estranged father included — for Christmas dinner.
Indiewire sat down with Burns in his native New York to discuss his reasons for taking inspiration from the past, the progress of his in-the-works sequel to “The Brothers McMullen,” and whether he’d ever take the plunge and write for TV — a medium that would no doubt suit him well. [Tribeca Film opens “Christmas” in select theaters December 7. It’s also currently available on VOD.]
A lot has been said about how this film marks a return to your roots — not only because it features a lot of the stars from “Brothers McMullen,” but because it also deals with similar themes and boasts a huge ensemble cast. Was it deliberate on your part to do that?
Yeah, I’d worked a couple years ago—or a year and a half ago, I guess—with Tyler Perry on “Alex Cross.” He’d just re-watched “Brothers McMullen,” and said to me the next day, “Alright, ‘McMullen,’ ‘She’s the One,’ were both very successful and in 15 years, you’ve never gone back to exploring these Irish-American working class families. Take it from me: you’ve got to be thinking about super-serving your niche. I guarantee you that audiences that loved those first two films, that the minute you give them another film like that, they’re going to thank you for it.” And as soon as he said that, I knew that he was right.
I think the reason I hadn’t gone back there was that my life had changed so dramatically, that I probably thought, “I can’t write about those people with any authenticity anymore.” Since I don’t live that life anymore. But, I was wrong. Because that day, after I had the conversation with him, I opened up my laptop — I knew — I had an idea for wanting to make a film about a big Irish-American family.
I have a friend who’s one of nine; I have another friend who’s one of twelve. And just hearing their stories about the inter-dynamics within those families — the different relationships the older siblings had with the younger siblings, sometimes not even knowing one another, how they had very different opinions about what kind of parents they had, and different relationships with those parents. All of those things were kind of in my head as I sat down to write, and this thing poured out of me in no time. I mean, it takes me six months to write a script — a first draft. This was six weeks. And it’s because I did not have to give any thought to who are they? How do they dress? Where do they go to school? How do they drink? What do they like? What do they dislike? I just — I knew it. And it was a blast to write.
When I was done with that script, I started to think about — sometimes I’m writing and actors I’ve worked with before just pop into my head: “Oh, she would be right for this, and he would right for that.” I started to think about Caitlin Fitzgerald and Kerry Bishe, who were in my last film. And Mike McGlone, who was in “Brothers McMullen” and “She’s the One.” So I reached out to them. The minute I got those guys on board, I started to pepper the cast with people who’ve been in my other films — I think every actor I’ve worked with before with the exception of two.
The one part I still had to cast was the part of Nora, my character’s love interest. My producer and I were tossing around some names, and then I said, “Well, what about Connie Britton?” And then the minute I said it, he’s like, “Fuck, that’s a great idea.” He’s like, “But the part is probably a little too small for her.” And at that point, it was a pretty small part. But I called her up and I said, “Look, I’m going to send you this screenplay. If you respond to it at all — trust me, I will flesh out the part; I will add more scenes — but if you’re into it, let’s do it.” And she read the script. And she’s like, “Oh, I like the part of the big sister.” And I was like, “Well, you know, but I already cast someone.” And she says, “Well, also, I don’t think I can do it schedule-wise. I probably can give you, I think, five days.” And I said, “Well, trust me, I will get that part into great shape.” And, you know, Connie and I are long-time friends. And we laughed on set — it was the first time really that we had to be romantic.
Yeah, she was saying…
Yeah, and it felt, like, incestuous.
She told me she got the okay from your wife.
Yeah. She’s friends with my wife. And then when I told Christy [Turlington], she was like, “Who’s playing that part.” And I was like, “Well I think Connie.” She was like, “Alright, that’s good.” So anyhow, that’s how it came to be.
Did it kind of kill you that this script came so easily?
I sat there wondering, “Why the hell did I wait so long?” You know? And more importantly than that — there was the ease — but it was so much fun. Really I just enjoy being in that space, in that world. Revisiting those bars and kitchens and living rooms. I really just enjoy being there. So I absolutely will not wait another 15 years before going back. I don’t know if Connie mentioned — I’ve started to outline a sequel to “The Brothers McMullen.”
What can you tell me about it?
It’s very early in the process, but even before “Fitzgerald” I had sat down with Connie to pick her brain about it. To see a) would she be interested and b) I’m such good friend with her and Mike now, to see, what do you want to do? What should we do with Molly? She had an idea I never would have thought of on my own, and it was great, and it’s absolutely the direction I’m going in with it. And I did the same with Mike, so now — I’m writing the script now — hopefully I’ll make the film in the spring. And after that it’ll be “McMullen” time.
This one film’s inspired a new wave.
You know what it is? The films that I love are small character studies that feel authentic. And I just feel like when I’m back in that world, I’m authentic. And that feels good, you know? And the best responses I’ve gotten from my films have been my first two films and now this. Except maybe “Sidewalks of New York.” So, there’s something to that.“Christmas” is getting a theatrical release unlike your last few features, granted its already available on VOD. Why did you choose a different release model for your latest?
I think VOD is absolutely the savior for indie film. You know, those last two, “Nice Guy Johnny,” “Newlyweds,” granted they were micro-budgeted movies, but they did so well on those digital platforms. On VOD and also iTunes, and now Amazon is becoming a bigger player. There’s no way we could have done a similar number had we gone theatrical. The other thing with theatrical is: it’s just so expensive to market those films for that kind of release. I mean Tribeca has been very smart, and the reason we went with them is that we’ve been working closely to be like, “Hey, we have to keep these expenses at the bare minimum.”
So that’s why you do VOD first?
Right. VOD first. We’re not going to risk losing money on theatrical. Worst-case scenario, we break even. Hopefully we do better than that. We’re expecting to, which is why we’re going for it. So, VOD is absolutely the future of indie film, especially when you look at how many really good bigger budgeted indie films came out this year and had big marketing campaigns, and nobody showed up at the theater. And these were good movies.
I think it’s just our viewing habits have changed. You know, that’s a small flat screen for some people. People are used to sitting at home and watching “Homeland” on demand, all 12 episodes over the course of a weekend. Watching it when they want to watch it. Great programming. In their living room. How do you get that same crowd to say: “I’m going to get the babysitter. I’ll pay for the cab. I’ll pay for the movie. I’ll pay for the popcorn. I’ll sit through the commercials and previews and have to deal with the guy on his cell phone, when it’s freezing cold out”? So I think it’s here and it’s just going to become bigger and bigger.
You’ve always gravitated towards working with larger ensembles for the most part. Why has that been? And what kind of energy do you feed off when you’re directing these big casts?
A lot of people have asked that, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why.
Are you afraid of hogging the spotlight?
You know, it might have to do with the fact that I act in my own films and I don’t like to carry that big a load. But I think it has more to do with that, when I think about the films that I get most excited about watching over and over again. Like one of my favorite films is “Last Picture Show.” And I love that an ensemble allows you to get maybe deeper into a world. In that case, we’re getting into all aspects of small town life in Texas. And when I write, I tend to think about environment first.
You know, when I start to think about a screenplay, I’m thinking about the world that these characters will inhabit. And there were different parts of that world that I was going to want to explore, and that sort of called for an ensemble. It’s also, when I made “Sidewalk of New York,” someone said to me, “The great thing about that movie” — because we had so many characters — “every scene was pulp.” You know there was no time for any setup. You had to be in the action in every scene. There had to be a dramatic turn. And that’s the key, I think, to good screenwriting.
When you’ve got an ensemble like this, there’s no time to waste introducing the audience to the world and the characters. You kind of have to get to the conflict early on. And I guess because I don’t write plot-heavy movies, you know, there isn’t a major event that really happens — I need a number of smaller events. Maybe that, actually, is the reason. Yeah. I bet you that’s it. Because I never write a plot driven story, so it isn’t a hero who’s called to action who then has to go save the princess. It’s a bunch of little incidents. And with one protagonist, it would be hard to tell a story with just a number of little moments.
You’d clearly thrive in the TV medium. Why have you never gone down that route and explored it as an option? I’m sure you’ve been approached many times.
You know, I’m starting to think about it. The reason, quite honestly, is that I was never a TV buff. As much as I love certain shows, you know, I fell in love with movies. And even though — it’s funny — my movies are very rarely seen on the big screen, they’re still movies. And I just wonder: “Could I fall in love with any handful of characters enough that I’d want to revisit them every year for five years?” That might be tricky. But never say, never. I have a feeling it’s in my future.
Did Connie ever try to talk you into it?
No, we never did. We never did. But I do like the fact that by making these films I get to stay at home and not have to leave New York. So that if I were able to create a show that kept me in New York, that could be a good thing for me, my family. I would guess that in the next five years, I’m going to experiment there. I mean this next project I have is sort of maybe dipping my toe in the water a little bit.
The “Brothers McMullen” sequel?
No. I have this thing that’s going to start in January. It’s called “Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall.” It looks at a couple in their 40s. And my idea was I wanted to write a screenplay that charted the relationship of these middle-aged folks over the course of a year. And I thought, rather than try to do that as a screenplay and a film. Why don’t I do it as twelve short films over the course of 12 months? And I’ll shoot one film a month moving forward. And that’s one that’s a little more episodic, so a little bit more like television in that respect. So who knows? If I enjoy that process, that might be the thing that sends me over.