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 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, 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.