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.