I first met writer-director-actor Edward Burns back at the start of his career at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. Yes, I was at the first screening of "The Brothers McMullen," which vaulted him into a career in the movie business. But that story arc did not unfold as anticipated.
It’s no surprise that Burns is capable of writing a good book. For better or worse, this New York charmer has always had his own distinct voice. The reason "Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies and the Twelve Best Days of My Life" (Gotham Books) is a must-read for any would-be filmmaker –and for many who are in the slough of despond as things don’t go their way–is that Burns is a tough cookie who would not take no for an answer. One minute he was ebullient, showered with praise and promise, the next he was in the dumps, disappointed and depressed. But then he picked himself up, dusted off and started all over again.
Reading the book, I was reminded of how much I liked that first film, and how Burns provided an early model of the DIY indie who didn’t need permission to do his thing. As long as the movie was cheap enough, he could do what he wanted (13 films to date). The guy is smart. He figured out how to make "The Brothers McMullen" and managed to pursue a modest acting career (31 films, starting with Steven Spielberg’s "Saving Private Ryan") by playing characters loosely related to himself: working class Irish New Yorkers.
That gave Burns a financial cushion. So when producing more expensive movies inside the system was no longer possible–after a series of badly reviewed flops he couldn’t raise financing–he returned to his original "Brothers McMullen" model: Shoot on the streets and at your parents’ house, for very few dollars, without name stars. And thanks to the rise of iTunes, he was able to reach out via his fans, followers and friends. It worked.
We talked on the phone about how he kept making movies his way and came to write "Independent Ed."
Anne Thompson: I like the advice that your father gave you at your lowest point.
Edward Burns: I was feeling sorry for myself. I thought I had done everything I was supposed to do. I got a movie made that I thought was pretty good. In 1998 I had no representation, no distributor. My dad took me out for a drink, I started to piss and moan about my state. He basically said, "Did you make this movie because you wanted to be rich and famous and move to LA?"
"I thought you told me you had something to say, you told me those were the twelve best days of your life. If that’s true, what are you complaining about? Sit down and write another script, find the money, and go get another 12 days."
That’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten, and still serves me today. There’s any number of details you sweat over in the movie business: getting money, a bad review, finding a distributor. None of that matters. If you love making movies, now especially, it doesn’t cost you anything to go grab a camera and go make a feature."
You figured out what is now the working model for indie filmmakers.
None of it was intentional. I was 25 at the time. I didn’t know the rules. I didn’t realize I was breaking them. I was just desperate to make a movie. I figured it out as I went along. The great thing that happened: after the film was so successful, I always knew that how ever bad things went in my career, at the low points, I always knew how to make a movie for $25000 and they can’t take that away from me. I can always find $25,000 to make another movie, and never be out of the game. At times it felt like the business was conspiring against you and wanted you out. That’s not the case. They can’t help but do business.
It should be tough, because the rewards are so great. Getting to do this thing you love to do every year– there are thousands of kids coming out of film schools and they all want your job so you’d better not be complacent and take the gift too lightly. There’s always a kid coming up behind you who wants his shot.
So the acting career supported your directing?
Thank God for the acting career because it is very difficult to make a living as an indie filmmaker. If you’re lucky enough to get a piece of your film and it does well, you can make real money, and might be able to live for a while. I had a nice piece of "The Brothers McMullen," but other films that were more successful, I didn’t have a piece. I see a lot of indie filmmakers directing TV episodes or commercials which is something I never wanted to do. A lot of great voices never made second or third personal films. It’s hard to say no to studios offering you a franchise, you take that directing gig.
That was the economics, until 2009-2010 when I decided to re-embrace the micro-budget with "Nice Guy Johnny," "Newlyweds" and "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas." I hadn’t made any money on 7 or 8 films except for my salary. I was happy for the check, but I was not going to become rich on an indie film director’s salary.
We didn’t get rich on "Newlyweds" or "Nice Guy Johnny" either but ironically we did earn a 6 figure profit which we distributed to cast and crew.
How did you come to write this book?
With "Nice Guy Johnny," "Newlyweds" and "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" we did not forgo a theatrical release. We took the films to every film school, festival and society that would have us for a screening and would do a talk afterwards, I would find myself on stage hour a half sharing with students and aspiring filmmakers, all the tricks of the trade, things I had learned over the years, being candid where I made mistakes. I shared with them cautionary tales. My wife was the first one to suggest it, along with the professors: "You ought to put this down in a book, the students love this."
It was tough, but I was lucky. My good friend Todd Gold, a journalist, came up with an approach. Over the course of a few years in LA or NY we’d talk for a couple of hours, he was digging out old articles, had great questions to ask about every film I made, teasing out anecdotes I had forgotten. He’d ask the right question and jar a memory loose. He put together a manuscript from start to finish, and I went in and put that into my voice.
What did you learn from this process? Did it give you perspective?
I figured out what I always knew. The thing that has saved me, kept me sane, is the fact that I really do love writing. I noticed as I was rereading the book–that kept coming up. When things didn’t go well or I was in a panic, I turned to new screenplay. The great thing about writing fiction is it’s a great escape. I never found it to be a painful or laborious process. I also approached it so that I never expected it to be brilliant. I was fine writing for four hours, I’d never show it to anyone. If I got a couple good pages out of four hours, I was never too self critical. I speak to friends who are screenwriters, and they’re paralyzed waiting for inspiration to strike, for that great line of dialogue. I’ve taken a more workmanlike approach, just sit down and force yourself.
Are you telling young filmmakers not to believe the hype when they first hit big?
Absolutely they should enjoy it, but don’t believe a goddam word anyone is telling you. I’ll meet young filmmakers who are the flavor of the month who don’t believe that it is fleeting. The day will come, it may not be that second or third film. But one will come out and be a disappointment and the phone will stop ringing and you’ll cool off as quickly as you got hot.
It was tough to muster it up again, to start from the beginning and restart my career! I was interested in exploring that. If you enjoy the process and don’t sweat the outcome, and are not obsessed with commercial success or reviews, it isn’t difficult. The whole point is that the 12 days making the movie is the dream, even if you never get a great review and it’s not a box office smash.
You were one of the first to release a film on iTunes.
After my film "The Groomsman" went the traditional NY/LA and five markets, I hoped it would do well in theaters and then the distributor would invest more in an expansion—my last three films "Sidewalks of New York," "Ash Wednesday," none of them had done well theatrically, they underperformed. When I made "Purple Violets" and there was no great demand to pick it up for distribution—one independent offered a no advance partnership buy for nothing, to split profits 50-50. Not a single filmmaker ever saw a red cent.
I knew we weren’t going to do that with "Purple Violets." I started to hear from fans when I’d go out and do PR that no one was seeing my movies in theaters, they lived in the suburbs where there are no art house theaters, or a major city that doesn’t have art houses, and discovered them on VOD or HBO or Showtime. They didn’t know when it came out on DVD, because we don’t do PR for DVD releases.
I had an idea. My fans, they’re getting older, they don’t go to theaters, and they’ve started watching movies on iTunes. Why don’t we approach this release exclusively with iTunes, no theatrical, no DVD, no cable? Just iTunes, the site that plays movies yearly at time. So they jumped on it, it was a great success for them and for us. But the funny thing, when I did PR for that film, 7 out of 10 journalists said, "Are you crazy? No one is ever going to watch on a film on a computer. That was in 2007.
You gave up a theatrical release?
We added cable VOD to the digital distribution platform. The big thing we did first was to forgo theatrical. We did not make excuses but embraced it. We couldn’t afford a marketing budget to release theatrically. It’s just a loss leader. We liked to publicize other revenue streams. We’re not doing theater but were going to do all the publicity to fire up the digital release. Now how many do you see doing just that? The numbers proved we were right.
What was your lowest ebb?
I was lowest after "Purple Violets" in 2007. I thought, "All right maybe it is time to rethink doing a smaller personal-driven lower-budget indie at $4 million. There are other stories I want to tell." I was sitting on an epic New York City Irish cop movie. I went in to write it and try and get the film made. The idea was a Hell’s Kitchen Irish gangster film about a stoolie. Rather than go big-budget, I’d go low-budget and mix up the genre. It was an attempt at doing something more muscular, in this case, with a nice cast, but again I could not raise any money.
I got it down to all right, $2 million, and still I couldn’t do it. I was in a meeting with a B movie producer. This guy was telling me how I needed to make my movie. I told my producer Aaron Lubin, "I don’t understand how this happened. "McMullen" was the toast of the town and here I can’t raise $2 million for a gangster film, not some tough esoteric set movie. That’s when we went out for drink: "I got to do something, it’s time to go abandon the personal filmmaker dream, throw my hat in the ring and direct the rom-com the studio suits keep mentioning over years." That I didn’t want to do. I had contemplated it, wrote a couple of scripts that were not what I wanted. I was 35, it was like I had no connections, had never made a movie.
I did know how to make a movie for $25,000, it was still my most successful film. I decided to try and do that again, and I wrote down on a napkin at the bar a list of things we would limit ourselves to on next film. It would be "Brothers McMullen 2.0." 12 days, $25,000, an unknown cast who had to do their own hair and makeup and wear their own clothes, on locations for free with a three man crew with one scene in my parents house.
It sounds like the Dogma experiment.
We talked about Dogma, exactly—the whole idea is that at $25,000 it doesn’t matter if the thing is terrible. Who gives a shit? At least we won’t go another year without making a movie. After three years, "Nice Guy Johnny" was the movie that got people to pay attention again.
Did you find yourself leaving out some things in the book?
Maybe some names of folks that we met with during the lean years. I couldn’t believe what it had come to—for the most part I tried to be as honest as I could where I screwed up. I left out some moments where I felt people didn’t do the right thing by one of my movies, but for the most part, where I failed it was on me.
What’s up next?
I’m working on the TV series "Mob City" now (playing Bugsy Siegel).
Your wife Christy Turlington has been helpful to you?
She’s still the one who looks at every one of my cuts, and says, "a woman would never say that." In that situation where she says "You’re full of shit," she’s always been with me on that. She’s very valuable.