Ed Burns Comes Home With ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’

When The Brothers McMullen premiered at Sundance in 1995, Ed Burns was just an aspiring filmmaker fresh out of school—eager to succeed but adamant about preserving his vision and telling the kind of stories that he’d like to see. And now, seventeen years after his debut feature, Burns has built a name for himself and career that’s not only admirable but allows him to side-step between the worlds of Hollywood actor and micro-budget indie filmmaker. As the writer, director, and star, his first few films told the stories of tight-knit working-class Irish-American families in New York—dramas that always felt both intimate and familiar while having a unique edge that came from someone just on the cusp of success. And in the years since, between acting in films like Saving Private Ryan and (most recently) Alex Cross, Burns has taken his own films in a slightly different direction as his own life progresses. But with his latest effort, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, he takes us back to the world of his earlier films, reminding us what made us first fall in love with him as a filmmaker.

Set during the holidays, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas brings Burns back together with the wonderful Connie Britton and Mike McGlone, as part of an ensemble cast that weaves together the lives of adult siblings grappling with the relationship with their estranged father who has returned home for the first time since he walked out on the family 20 years ago. As the film unfolds, emotions are challenged, family dynamics are examined, and the possibility for forgiveness begins to show. For the characters, it’s a film about coming home; but for Burns, this film also feels as if he’s returned to his roots. It seems he’s traveled back to a place where he feels most at home as a filmmaker, delivering one of his best films in years. We sat down with Burns to talk about his cinematic gods, the amazing Connie Britton, and balancing his role as an actor and filmmaker.

Throughout all of your work as a filmmaker, it seems these intimate family dramas are what you’re most interested in working with. Where does that come from for you?
You know, there are those films that you saw in film school when you’re being exposed to all the greats, and for whatever reason there’s at thing sparks you, where you say, okay I want to do that. For me, one of the big films that really got me excited about storytelling was Last Picture Show—less about family, more about those two boys who were great friends, but there are family dynamics in it. It’s a big ensemble dealing with a lot of characters and great themes. There’s also the movie Tender Mercies, which is a small little movie about a tiny family but it has to do with forgiveness and redemption. And so those were two films I remember seeing and got excited about it. Being a Woody Allen fan—Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, etc. My stuff isn’t cool or hip or cutting edge, it’s honest. I guess, like a musician when they find their tone and people say you need to own your tone, for me it’s like, when you find your sweet spot. I think I’m most comfortable and I do a better job as a writer and a filmmaker when I stay in that honest place.

So did you always set out to make these kinds of films?
I can remember being at Sundance with the first film and after it turned out to be very successful, you’re at a place where it’s almost like, okay you can do whatever you want to do. And then people are coming at you with, hey you can do this and that, and I didn’t want to do any of it. I’ve never sat down to try and write a blockbuster or even something that’s remotely a money-maker. Speaking to my other influences, they were Woody and Truffaut, my two gods. And any moments I had moments of doubt of, oh should I be chasing that other thing, I would pop in a VHS of one of their films and that’s just what I love. I loved smaller, character studies, and for me, the best films are those that can balance the tone between what I feel most everyday life is like. There’s the real stuff—the heartbreak and disappointment—but also laughter and levity. So when you can balance those two well, then you’ve got the kind of film I love to see. And you know, I guess that’s all I’ve ever aspired to do and I’ve been lucky. Nice Guy Johnny kind of reembraced micro-budget filmmaking, I realized: well I can do this now forever; I don’t have to write a screenplay that needs to make X amount of dollars at the box office, I can just go and tell the small stories I want to make. And now with digital distribution, it’s like if I keep my budget here, I know I’ll make this so I make enough to make the next one and I guess I’m pretty fortunate right now.

This film really feels like are return to the kind of films you used to write. Would you say it’s much different than the last few you’ve made?
Yeah, I purposely wanted to go back to that milieu and these types of characters. I was doing a movie two summers ago with Tyler Perry who had re-watched Brothers McMullen and basically he said, “Look: Those first two movies you made about the Irish-American families were so success, why haven’t you ever gone back there? I think the people that like those two would appreciate that.”

And he’s someone who has kept his audience for so long because of that devotion to his audience.
And that was exactly the point he made. And it’s funny, you know, I never gave any thought to why I hadn’t gone back there until then. I think what it was was  I was afraid of: alright, how can I still write about that place when my life has become so far removed from it? And the other thing was, well, I have these really fun new chapters of my life to explore. But the minute I sat down to write this screenplay—and a good draft usually takes me a good six months— this took six weeks. I think the reason was, I had been sitting on these characters for fifteen years. It just poured out of me because I did not have to, quite honestly, I didn’t have to give any thought to it.

Were they people you knew?
Probably compilations. Some of them are loosely based on some people I know, but to that point, I didn’t have to think about where do they live, where do they drink, how do they think, what do they look like, where did they go to school? All those answers I already had and I think that’s why it came out so quickly.

And why did you choose to make a holiday film? 
I needed a device. I knew I wanted to tell a story of a big family. So I thought, well, how do I get seven adults all under one roof together? What would that device be? And the minute I thought, alright Christmas, then that opened me up to the idea that a lot of major events could be going on and it would remain plausible. Because during the holidays you announce to your family: hey we’re getting engaged, we’re having a baby, we’re getting divorced, or you have those three days when you’re gearing up for the holiday where, oh I’m finally going bring that thing up to my brother about that jerky thing he said. So all of it felt like a good device to make all of these dramatic things more plausible that could happen within a couple of days.

How long were you shooting for? You’re someone who usually shoots pretty quickly.
Sixteen days. We shot a couple days right during the holidays in order to capture as much of the free production value as we could get on any street and then January and then a little bit in February because of Connie’s schedule.

She’s one of my favorite actresses working on television now and I feel as though I don’t see enough of her on film. How was working with her again?
She’s just real. She’s an honest actress. In this film, she’s totally cool playing a woman her age. She is the most generous actress I’ve ever worked with. I have that one scene in the car where I’m kind of venting about the family and it was a tricky scene and since I’ve known Connie forever—longtime friends—I was like, look I might be a little off on this scene, I might need you to be directing me in this so if there’s anything you see where you think, take this down or you need to go a little deeper there. And she was great; she basically held my hand through that scene. And the other thing is just how generous she is, when I first gave her the script it was a smaller part.

Did you write the role with her in mind?
Not originally. Only afterwards when I said, "Hey I’ve got this thing. Take a look at it; if you like it, I promise you we’ll expand it." And she read it immediately and was like, "alright, I know you’re going to do the work to flesh it out but if we can work out the schedule, I’m in." We were very lucky to have her.

Is it hard to juggle having a hand in every aspect of the filmmaking process?
There are always scenes in any film that I’m going to need a couple extra sets of eyes on me, the actor. And fortunately, I have my producer, Aaron Lubin whose been with me since Sidewalks of New York and Will Rexer my DP for seven films now so those guys, before we start shooting we identify: okay, here are the five scenes where we can’t leave you on your own. But as far as the difficulty of it, when I’m a kid in film school, I make my very first short black and white silent film, I’m too intimidated by the kids in the theater department to ask one of them to be in the film because I don’t know how to direct and so I put me and my friends in the movie and I get the bug. So every little film I made and when I made McMullen, it’s kind of all I’ve ever know. So yeah, it’s hard but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.

As a filmmaker, you make these micro-budget films but as an actor you tend to be in these big Hollywood blockbusters or dramas—do you try to find a balance like that in your work?
It’s kind of a very fortunate position to be in. It’s like my passion is my filmmaking, I love making these small movies and will never give it up. But I’m very lucky that I can pay the bills by going and acting in these bigger films. The other thing is, by acting in these bigger films I not only get to learn from other filmmakers—both the good and the bad—but it also helps my profile, which helps me get press for my little movies but it gets me new relationships with actors. I love actors, I love to collaborate with them.

Ed Burns, Busier Than Ever, Reflects on His Career & Making Movies With No Money

Ever since 1995, when Ed Burns broke into the movie industry with his surprise Sundance hit, The Brothers McMullen, the Long Island-born filmmaker has been a ubiquitous presence in front of and behind the camera. When he’s not, in his words, "busting balls" on camera as a gruff New Yorker, like he did in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Burns is writing and directing highly personal, nano-budget romances and dramas. 2012 looks to be a banner year for the 43 year old (who lives with his wife, model Christy Turlington, and two children in Tribeca), with no less than five projects hitting screens of all sizes.

First up for Burns is Newlyweds, his latest directorial effort that was made on a shoestring budget of less than $25,000. After that, Burns costars in two thrillers: As a pushy cop opposite Sam Worthington and Elizabeth Banks in Man on a Ledge, and opposite Tyler Perry in the James Patterson adaptation, I, Alex Cross. Burns also costars opposite Kristen Wiig and Jon Hamm in Jennifer Westfeldt’s buzzy romantic comedy, Friends with Kids, and to top it all off, he recently wrapped 40, a pilot for HBO about midlife malaise, from Entourage svengali Doug Ellin. We know, it’s a lot, but speaking to Mr. Burns, you get the sense that he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

This year has been busier than normal for you.
You know it’s funny, I have these years where the phone doesn’t ring, and you’re like what the fuck? I’ve been put in jail inexplicably, and then suddenly I’m going from gig to gig to gig, so this was one of those years. We shot Newlyweds for like 12 days over the course of 8 months, and then in those 8 months, I shot Man on a Ledge. And then we had to take about five weeks off shooting Newlyweds, because my DP shot Friends with Kids which I also acted in. And then I just did a pilot for HBO.

What can you tell me about Man on a Ledge?
I’ll tell you that was unbelievable, the ledge work that they did. They were up on the 24th floor of the Roosevelt Hotel, they built a set in the penthouse suite. When Sam Worthington steps out onto that ledge, he’s actually stepping out onto the roof, but they did it so that they could build this enormous crane and pulley system so that he is harnessed in and completely safe. He’s not only walking on that ledge, he’s running. My character is the first on the scene to negotiate with him. He doesn’t want to talk to me, he wants to talk to Elizabeth Banks, so my job is sort of to break Elizabeth’s balls over the course of 90 minutes.

Tell me about Newlyweds, this came together how?
The story came about at a tenth wedding anniversary dinner, and somebody makes a toast that after ten years, in this day in age, if it ended today, you’d call it a success. And there’s a bunch of married couples, and we all kind of laughed and said yeah, you kind of could. And after that, I went home and thought that was an interesting idea for a movie, to examine what makes for a successful marriage. For a while, I’d been trying to find a script that I could do as a companion piece to this film I made years ago called Sidewalks of New York, which was a pseudo-documentary, and the great thing about making a pseudo-doc is that it lends itself to micro-budget production. It can look a little crappy, your boom can get in the shot, you can play with jump cuts, you’re not dealing with real continuity. On that film, we didn’t hire a production designer; we were like, whatever the apartment is that we get, that’s a real environment. So I’d been looking to do something like that again since I went back to Nice Guy Johnny and made a movie for $25,000. I wanted to try more bare bones, like a two-man crew. The actors did their own hair and make-up, and wore their own clothes. When we go into a restaurant, let’s not close down the restaurant like we did on Sidewalks, let’s go into a live environment and let’s try no lights. And now shooting digitally, we didn’t even use a sound person because we wanted to be as unobtrusive as we could, so we just used a recording device with a wire mic hidden there. I live in Tribeca, and one of the things was I wanted the movie to be a love letter to Tribeca.

Your first film was a big hit at Sundance, and for a lot of filmmakers, that means the scale of their films will only get bigger and bigger. You seem to have gone in the opposite direction.
There’s no comparison between the amount of fun that I have on doing these micro-budget film versus when I have three million dollars.

What was your biggest?
Five million.

For what?
No Looking BackShe’s the One was three. I love Woody Allen, and that’s all I want to do. I want to make small, talky movies. I never aspired to be Scorsese, let alone Peter Jackson or George Lucas. I like those movies, but that’s not what I’m passionate about. I’ve always wanted to stay here. I’ve acted in enough bigger movies to know, as a filmmaker, I don’t like the process that the guys I’m working with have to go through. Even on a five million dollar movie, the minute someone gives you cash—

It’s their movie too.
Yeah, and the things that have happened to me over the years—you can’t cast your first choice, you have your title of your movie changed. No Looking Back was changed by the studio.

What was it originally?
It was called Long Time Nothing New. I got to a point in my career where the best movie—not my favorite but the movie I’ve made that was the most successful, The Brothers McMullen—I made for 25 grand with a five-man crew. I had nobody talking over my shoulder, and since then, I’ve always had somebody talking over my shoulder. So on Nice Guy Johnny, the idea was to go back to the McMullen model as an experiment, to see if we can unlearn all the habits of what it’s like to have a couple million bucks in your pocket when you’re making a movie. Filmmaking is always about compromise. I’m sure Peter Jackson is making compromises because he doesn’t have time or enough money or the tech isn’t there, or the actor’s not coming out of the trailer. One advantage you get is absolute total creative control. You get to make the movie you want to make, and if it turns out great or if it sucks, it’s all on you. There’s nothing worse. No Looking Back got shitty reviews and the movie tanked at the box office, and now it lives on DVD or on Netflix. And I’m the only one who gives a shit. The executive that made me change that, he doesn’t even remember the title now.

Do you ever rewatch it?
I do. I think enough time has passed where some people seem to dig it. But I’m the only one who still cares, and I can’t go through that again, because at the end of the day, my name is on it.

Why do you continue to act, when your passion is obviously in filmmaking?
It’s a couple of things. You’re guaranteed to make a nice six-figure number, so it’s like a couple hundred thousand dollars that I’m real okay with. For big shots in Hollywood, that’s peanuts, but I’m down with that program. But the acting, to be perfectly honest, it affords me a certain financial freedom to be able to do this, especially in those years where it feels like you’re in director’s jail, and you can’t get anything made. When I look at my resume, I can tell by the quality of my acting work what was going on in my filmmaking career. It’s like, You couldn’t get this film made, and then I look at the acting and see I acted in that and that, and clearly those were money gigs and not a passion project. So it really depends. Sometimes you do it for the money, sometimes you do it even if you know it’s not a great project, but friends of yours are making the film.

Why did you do Saving Private Ryan?
That was a no-brainer. When I made McMullen I didn’t even want to act, I didn’t think I was going to be an actor, except for small parts in my ensemble movies. But when that movie came out, all of a sudden I got a couple of real offers for real movies.

Which were?
I can’t say because I passed on them. McMullen was a 12 day shoot and I acted in six of them. I had acted six days in my life, so I wasn’t going to show up on some guy’s set and not know how to do it. I knew what a fraud I was, essentially, so I was like, let me do a few more of my films and I can control the performance, I can manipulate it in the editing room, and cut around the dog shit. So after three films like that, finally my agents were like, “Offers keep coming in, you should consider if you’re going to put yourself in your movies, because if you become more of a star then it’s just that much easier to get money for your films,” which made a lot of sense. So one of the first scripts I get then was Saving Private Ryan. So I said, throw my hat into the ring and see what happens. I guess Spielberg watched McMullen and was like, he’s got the part.

So you didn’t even have to audition?
We were told two days before we started shooting, and as an actor it was like, Okay, I get to do real work here, but I really prepared, and asked Hanks about the project. It was an enormous learning experience for me as an actor, but more, it was like graduate film school. No other filmmakers get to hang out on someone else’s set, so to be able to sit back and watch a guy like that do his thing blew me away. That movie, we shot almost all available light, handheld outside and he was rockin’ and rollin’, two takes and moving on. And I’m watching him and I’m like, wait a second—handheld, available light? That’s how you make a low-budget movie. I’m looking at how fast he’s going. So while I’m on the set is when I start writing the script for Sidewalks of New York as a pseudo-doc.

What can you tell me about 40?
It’s a little bit like Entourage in New York, because you got these four best friends. I play a guy who worked at Bear Stearns, lost my gig, and a year and change later, I’m not back to work. I live up in Westchester, three kids, my wife is like, “You seem miserable, go get a job.” And then I’ve got my best friends. Michael Rapaport plays a guy who’s a contractor, he’s having his fourth kid, they’re having some financial troubles. So you got the two married guys with kids, and then you got Michael Imperioli, who’s the twice-divorced guy going through an ugly custody battle who lives in Manhattan, and is now going to have to deal with being single for the first time. And then you got Nathan Pasdar, who’s like too old to be out in the club picking up young girls, but he is. It’s less New York City and more like Tri-State, in that it’s about Manhattan, but it’s also about the commute and the ‘burbs and that sort of thing. It works the whole experience. It’s a 28 minute show and the script is like 45 pages long because it’s all just like short, terse lines of dialogue. I’m the first to admit, I’m not the most versatile actor. I’m good at playing Irish guys from Long Island who like to break your balls.

You admit to being typecast.
I’m totally fine with it. So I was like, I’m in, let’s do this. I have to admit, I’ve never had that much fun acting in anything I’ve ever done. It’s probably the closest to some version of myself that I’ve played that I didn’t write.

Do you play the same kind of character in I, Alex Cross?
I play Tyler Perry’s partner, his childhood best friend. He’s sort of the pain in the ass. Tyler is more the brains of the operation.

I’m surprised to see him in that kind of a role.
He’s going to shock the hell out of people. I was blown away. I didn’t realize how big he is, he’s a huge formable dude who’s obviously very very bright, because he’s built an empire. Everybody on set was like, “That’s not Madia.”

Are you happy where you are in your career?
I have to admit, never been happier. I finally figured it out. When I was a kid coming out of film school, I wrote seven screenplays before McMullen, and I used to just sit there. I couldn’t get them read. You send them out to Hollywood, and you can’t get them read unless you have an agent. I remember being so fucking pissed off at the world. I just wanted someone to read what I’ve written, I didn’t even need to get paid. Then you get into the business and your dreams change, and your expectations change, but the thing that never went away was how hard it was to get any movie made. You know, She’s the One was easy because you’re coming off the heat of McMullen, but after that every one was a painful process—never easy, never fun. And now, I’m happiest. I stumbled upon this approach where if I’m willing to continue to tell smaller stories, then I can always make a movie. Let’s say you’re a musician. If you’re cool with just picking up your acoustic guitar and recording in your basement on your Garage Band, you can always make an album. If you need to have the full recording studio and all the bells and whistles and the giant band, well shit, you might be sitting around for ten years waiting for that record deal. There’s plenty of stuff that’s recorded with just a guitar that’s blows you away just as much as the biggest production. So I’m okay in this space, you know, I don’t have the desire to compete on that level.

Filmmaker Ed Burns on His New Film ‘Nice Guy Johnny’

When you think of your classic New York filmmakers, the names Scorsese, Allen, and Lumet pop up. Think a little harder, and you might come up with Ed Burns. Ever since his first feature The Brothers McMullen wowed audiences and won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance ’95, Burns has been telling stories of urban malaise and modern relationships with budgets most Hollywood films spend on catering. A veteran at the Tribeca Film Festival, Burns is back with the premiere of Nice Guy Johnny, a likeable comedy set in the Hamptons. We caught up with Burns at the Apple Store SoHo, where they are hosting the “Meet the Filmmaker” series––sit-downs with leading writers, directors and actors, in conjunction with the festival. Here he is discussing his new film, the current state of independent cinema, and his Quentin Tarantino man-crush

What inspired you to make this movie? Two years ago I had a meeting with my agents and they talked about how my last movie, Purple Violets, didn’t get a theatrical release, and how it was time to give up the personal filmmaking career and direct a studio romantic comedy. So I went on a bunch of meetings, read a bunch of scripts, and almost did it. Then I realized couldn’t do it. To me, that would be admitting failure and giving up the dream of doing what I wanted to do since I was in film school, which was to make small, personal films. So after a long process and having said no to a much greater paycheck, I sat down and decided to write a script about how tough this experience is, to hold fast and forgo the easier money. I’ve always wanted to try and fulfill that Woody Allen or Truffaut dream, and this is a story about how hard that dream is.

Did you always know you wanted to play the role of Uncle Terry? I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of a guy who has someone in his life that appears to be giving him the wrong advice, but the challenge was that I knew somehow in the end even the dumbest guy in the room has some information for you that’s valuable. I know a couple guys like him, so I knew there was good room for some humor with how those guys view the world and relationships, so I knew that would be a lot of fun.

Of writing, directing, and acting, which do you enjoy most? I love writing more than anything I do. It’s the only part of the process that isn’t collaborative, and it’s the only part of the process where you don’t need someone else’s money to get it done. As far as doing all three, when I did my first film, I never thought it would be a real movie and that it would just be an experiment that got me an agent. So I can’t speak to whether or not it’s difficult. It’s more just what I do.

How do you think this film compares to your earlier work? This is certainly my most personal work since The Brother’s McMullen. There’s an honesty, a warmness, and freshness that I don’t think I’ve had since then. With this film, I just wanted to get back to writing conversational humor. In that respect it’s my best success.

How do you think the independent film world is different from when you released The Brothers McMullen? There’s a lot of great opportunities for indie filmmakers now that didn’t exist then that have to do with the technology that’s available for us to shoot film. When I started we were filming on re-canned film stock. I even re-enrolled in Hunter College for one class just to get the student discount. The immediate disadvantage is that distribution has gone out of business in the last couple of years. But there’s a lot happening with these new digital platforms and we’re all trying to figure out how we can monetize it enough so that we can keep making these films.

How do you feel about films that have simultaneous release On Demand and theatrically? Filmmakers need to fall out of love with the traditional theatrical release, that’s disappearing. Maybe there’s an evolution that now you take a film through the festival circuit and you have to think that that’s where your film is going to be seen in a theatre.

Is something lost when you’re not watching a movie in the cinema? Certainly, but there are those people that when we went from the LP to the CD said something was lost. It’s like whether you read a book in hard cover or on a kindle. I think a good story can find it’s way into your soul in a number of different ways.

Explain your love affair with New York? In film school I fell in love with Woody Allen and Spike Lee, and I love Scorsese. Their specific slices of the New York experience is why they are some of my favorite filmmakers. I always wanted to carve out my slice of the New York experience.

What people in your varied career have you worked with that have shaped you creatively? I think my biggest influence was working with Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. I think the biggest lesson I learned from him was that he hires actors where he knows what he’s going to get from them and then he gives them the opportunity to find it. For me that changed the way I worked with actors.

Plans for the future? I tried for the last couple of the years to get bigger films off the ground, and the level of interference and operation that’s required, I don’t think it’s for me. I have fallen back in love with the process, with the small story. I think I’m just more comfortable there.

Is there anyone you would love to work with in the future? I’m a huge Tarantino fan. I don’t think we could be more different, but if there’s one filmmaker that anytime I see one of his films I’m jealous not only of the filmmaking talen,t but of the writing talent, it’s him. It’s like, “Oh man, I want to speak those words.”

As someone who has lived in New York their whole life, what are some of your favorite places to eat or drink here? We just ate at Pulino’s today, fantastic. There’s another great place called The Smile, over on Bond Street that we love. There’s a bar in Tribeca called Puffy’s Tavern that’s one of the last drinker’s bar in Tribeca.