When you have a conversation about New York filmmakers, you normally throw out names like Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Woody Allen. But then there's Edward Burns, who over the course of almost 20 years has carved out his own little career as a quintessential New York filmmaker, and the time has now come for us to include him in that conversation too.
No one captures the highs and lows of blue-collar life in and around New York City the way Burns does. His upbringing as part of a working-class Irish-American family on Long Island is what inspired his first film, The Brothers McMullen, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. It's a film Burns will return to in 2015 when he reunites the cast for a sequel 20 years later, and it's a mood -- a place, a setting, an attitude -- that he returned to with his latest movie, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.
It's perhaps his best film since McMullen -- an intimate dramedy about a large Irish-American family all battling their own personal demons when their estranged father shows up on the scene looking to reunite with his kids for the holidays. For this film, Burns is back on Long Island -- back amongst the people he knows so well -- and it's this knowledge and history of a place and its community that brings out the very best of Burns as a filmmaker.
When we sat down with Burns to chat about his latest, a discussion about his decision to turn to his roots revealed a surprise in that Tyler Perry had a lot to do with it.
Movies.com: You had mentioned making a Brothers McMullen sequel before, but The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, like that film, feels very much in the same world. Did one inspire the other, and are you still doing that sequel?
Edward Burns: I'm going to still do the McMullen sequel after this. I had this notion of doing a sequel to McMullen, but I wanted to do it for the 20th anniversary and see where the characters were 20 years later. But I had this conversation with Tyler Perry when I was working with him, and he was the guy who gave me a little push to go back to this world. He basically said if McMullen and She's the One were so successful, why wouldn't you go back and do another film set in that world. He said, "Look at what I've been able to create. I super-serve my niche, and I know your audience who loved those first two movies would love another film like that from you."
So immediately I thought this guy is absolutely right, and I sat down not knowing what I was going to write. I had an idea of this big Irish family, but I didn't know if this was even a film I'd want to make. But the minute I started writing... you know screenplays, for me, take about three to six months for a first draft. This one took six weeks, and the thing flowed out of me. It's the most fun I've had writing, probably since McMullen. I just knew the people and the places so intimately that it just poured out of me. As soon as I was done with that first draft I knew I was making this movie.
Movies.com: Is it difficult for you to write a script with so many characters and know you won't have a lot of money to make the movie? What's the biggest challenge there?
Burns: You know, even though we had a large ensemble, we only shot one scene at a time. So it really wasn't that daunting. We had a little bit more money on this one, so we had a little bit more time to play. There were a couple scenes where the entire clan were together, and those were a little difficult, but this is my 11th film and my DP and I have been working together for so long that we kinda know enough tricks of the trade to get our work done and do it right no matter how much or how little money we have.
Movies.com: You're one of those quintessential New York filmmakers. You make all your movies in New York, and you obviously love the city. What's the first movie that made you fall in love with movies set in New York, and is it also the same movie that made you want to become a filmmaker?
Burns: It was probably Annie Hall. Soon after that, probably Mean Streets and Midnight Cowboy. Three very different pictures of New York, but all from almost the same era; the same time. Those are three films that I constantly revisit -- Annie Hall is probably the film -- or at least one of the films that made me want to be a filmmaker, and more specifically a writer, director, actor. And probably because there's such an authenticity to Scorsese's storytelling and Woody's storytelling. You felt like these are guys who are writing about a place that they know better than anyone else, and you felt like not only are the conversations real, but the rooms, the restaurants, the clothes -- and it was probably why when I was trying to figure out what kind of filmmaker I wanted to be, I looked to Woody and I looked to Scorsese's version of New York life. I hadn't seen mine represented, so I said I'd do that. I'd tackle the Irish-American, working-class Long Island niche.
Movies.com: What do you think it is about New York and the surrounding suburbs that inspire so many great movies?
Burns: Ya know, it's the island of Manhattan. It is the great pull that the city has on those of us who grew up as bridge-and-tunnel kids. I know for me, my folks were always taking us into Manhattan, to see plays or walk around the Village. To go and just get into Manhattan; to get excited about possibility. The minute I was old enough, me and my buddies were jumping on the Long Island Railroad and making sure we got into Manhattan to have our new experiences. And for a kid who started to dream about being a writer -- when you read Gatsby and Fitzgerald talks about coming over the Queensboro Bridge and seeing the skyline for the first time, there was no way you couldn't romanticize about your version of that. It's about being inspired by the characters. In New York... we're all a little bit nuts. And that's what makes us so much damn fun. I don't make movies that have big plots, but I have endless stories to tell because I make movies about characters. And every day I'm running into a new, interesting character.
Movies.com: You're on Twitter talking to your fans. How important has it become for you to communicate directly with your audience, and is this something more filmmakers should be doing?
Burns: It's become really important for me. I remember when I was in film school, I was walking down the street in the village 20 feet behind Spike Lee, and I was dying to run up to him and ask him a thousand questions about making films, and how do you get your first film made. I just didn't have the nerve. Then Twitter showed up, and a friend of mine who's a big indie producer suggested I get on there because it's important in this day to have a real meaningful dialogue with your fans because they're going to be the ones who are going to help you sell your movies when the time comes, and he was absolutely right. So I now use it as an opportunity that if you're the kid who's walking behind Spike Lee on the street, well now you can ask me that question.
Movies.com: What's your next film?
Burns: I have two features that I'm writing but I don't know if I'm going to do one of those next, but in January I am doing something called Winter Spring Summer Fall, and it's a series of 12 films shot over the course of 12 months. It's a look at a relationship between two middle-aged folks, and we'll put each episode up online as we go and shoot. It's a little bit of an experimental project, but it'll keep me busy until I decide the next feature I'm going to make.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas hits limited theaters on December 7, and is currently available nationwide on On Demand.