The Sundance Kid

Cynthia Joyce interviews actor/writer/director Edward Burns.

Published August 19, 1996 7:03PM (EDT)

a little more than two years ago, 28-year-old writer/director/actor Edward Burns was still working as a production lackey for "Entertainment Tonight" as he tried in his spare time to finish the filming of "The Brothers McMullen," his first feature film, about three Irish-American Catholic brothers living in New York. With its simple poignancy and often hilarious dialogue, "Brothers" went on to become the surprise low-budget success story of 1995, winning the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and thrusting Burns into the limelight.

Having just completed his third screenplay, "Long Time, Nothing New," about a group of angst-ridden Long Island twentysomethings, Burns spoke to Salon from his native New York, where he awaits the August 23 national opening of his first "big budget" studio film, "She's the One."

You initially had a hard time stirring up interest in your first film, "Brothers McMullen." Were you surprised by its eventual success?

Before "Brothers McMullen" even got to Sundance, it had been rejected not only from every distribution company and every agent, but from about seven film festivals who all said it wasn't edgy enough and that it had no place in the independent film community. Then, for whatever reason, Sundance accepted it, and it went on to win the Grand Jury Prize.

But even when we went to Sundance, we never thought it would get a theatrical distribution. So when it did, we just thought, terrific -- if it makes a million dollars out there, we'll be happy. And then it went on to make 10 times that. I know we were shocked, and I think Fox, who distributed the film, was shocked as well.

Despite those difficulties in gaining "indie credibility," you've now made another very sweet and earnest film with "She's the One." Did you ever feel any pressure to compete with your contemporaries who were making much grittier films?

Not really. I write about what I know, and what I love, and what's important to me. I don't know anyone who's blowing up people. My life isn't a gritty street life.

I've always known the kind of films I want to make, and the kind of stories I want to tell. When I look at my favorite films -- "Last Picture Show," "Hud," "The Graduate," "Raging Bull," "Manhattan" -- they are not necessarily edgy. They're smaller character pieces that are honest and about people you can relate to, or identify with. That's just what I'm interested in.

When I was doing ("Brothers") I wasn't interested in getting out to Hollywood and being rich and famous and sort of making it. Yes, I wanted to make it, I wanted a chance to make a living making films, but I didn't want to make films that other people said I should be making. I would get bored running around with guns and stuff like that.

Still, I do love some of those films. I love Quentin Tarantino -- he's really the big one who I like. But it's just something I'm not interested in doing myself.

Robert Redford was executive producer of "She's the One" -- has he been one of your big influences? Who are some others?

Oh yeah, he's been a major influence. Two other biggies would be Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese -- New York filmmakers who cover a lot of the same themes again, using an ensemble or a sort of acting troupe that they go to time and time again, making films about the people they know. Their films are constantly re-exploring those territories. It's the same way William Kennedy writes about Albany, and the way Scorsese looks at Italian-American New Yorkers -- whether it's "Mean Streets," or "Raging Bull" or even "Goodfellas."

With "She's the One," as with "Brothers McMullen," you cast Mike McGlone as your brother and Maxine Bahns as your girlfriend. You seem to be cultivating your own ensemble as well.

With this script I wrote the parts for Mike and Max and myself. Mike and I have a good schtick together. But I didn't write any of the other parts with anybody else in mind.

Cameron (Diaz) I had seen in "The Mask." I knew she was beautiful, I knew she was funny, but I didn't know if she had a more dramatic side. But right after meeting her, I decided to cast her.

I didn't really know Jennifer Aniston prior to meeting her; that was my casting director who brought her in. I had never even seen the show "Friends."

John Mahoney had read a very early draft of the script before we started casting, and I got a call from my agent saying, "I hope you don't mind, but John Mahoney read the script and wants to play Mr. Fitzpatrick, would you meet him." I said, "No. John Mahoney is Mr. Fitzpatrick. If he wants to play it, I don't need to meet him."
He's just terrific. Not taking anything away from anyone else in the film, he's my favorite. He walks away with the movie.

You play a similar character in both "Brothers" and "She's the One," a carefree guy who is a bit conflicted about his romantic relationships. Are you playing yourself?

Both films are definitely autobiographical in that the backdrop of both films is what I knew growing up and the characters are like people I grew up with. But I certainly don't draw from my own life -- there are few specifics in the film that are drawn from real-life situations.

But I will borrow some things and use them as a set-up. For instance, my brother and I used to go fishing with my father on a boat when we were children, so I lifted that because it's something that I'm familiar with. But I never went with my dad as an adult, and he didn't give me meaningless advice. That's all fiction. And Maxine was going to go to Paris to study, and so I borrowed that. But the similarity begins and ends there.

Is it difficult working with your real-life girlfriend?

Max and I have lived together for so long, and we worked together before, so we kind of have an unspoken dialogue. I really know how to get out of her what I want, and she knows how to work with me.

But I know she's dying to work with another director. I think I am a little unfair with her, because a lot of times actors occasionally need to be pampered a little bit and given a pat on the back. With Max, she doesn't get any of that. It's "O.K., Max, here we go, the sun's coming down. You got two takes, let's get it done." So I think she's ready to be coddled a little bit.

What was it like making the leap to a relatively big-budget production with "She's the One"?

It was the greatest thing in the world. McMullen was made with $25,000 that my father loaned to me, and this one was made with $3.5 million, which comparatively was just a mountain of money. We never thought we'd be able to spend that much money. But compared to Hollywood, you know, $3.5 million is still a really low-budget film. That kind of worked for us, because they really left us alone. I was able to get final cut, approval over cast and crew, and never had to deal with the studio. So I got to make my film the way I wanted to make it.

But with the money, it just gives you more creative freedom. From a script standpoint, I was really able to open up the lives of the characters, much more so than I could even think about doing in "McMullen." For instance, with Heather, Cameron wanted to see the character be a little bit more human, to have one scene where she's slightly vulnerable and where we see a little bit of her pain. So the scene that came out of this conversation Cameron and I had was where Heather and Mickey are at a bar and she tries to apologize, in her way, and to see if there's any hope for them getting back together. Maybe she does have something for Mick, after all, but also here's a woman who had to prostitute her way through college. That's a person who's going to be hurting a little bit.

Also, this time we could think about using lighting and camera movement and production design to help us tell the story, whereas with "McMullen" it was, "Here's the script, I got a good cast, let's just capture an image on film." We shot with available light, we didn't have a dolly, we couldn't pay for locations so we had to shoot in parks and on street-corners.

But as much as I didn't have any of those sort of toys to play with on "McMullen," I loved that film and that experience. I wanted "She's the One" to have -- and I want all my films to have -- that sort of honesty that "McMullen" had. I think that comes from the script and doesn't come from production value.

You seem to really enjoy poking fun at Catholics and exposing some of their more idiosyncratic beliefs -- like the fact that Francis doesn't think he should sleep with his wife because he doesn't want to cheat on his mistress.

Well, I think it's healthy to laugh at yourself. I'm not a practicing Catholic anymore, but certainly the neighborhood I grew up in was Italian/Irish Catholic, and they are still the people I know and the people I hang out with.

Is the casually accepted homophobia of the Fitzpatrick men something you find to be prevalent in that community?

Well, I think the only homophobic in the film is Fran. Granted the father calls his sons Dorothy and Deirdre, it's just that sort of chop-busting that we do. He could just as easily call them "wimp" or "coward," you know, but that isn't necessarily funny.

With Fran, I wanted to create that Sherman McCoy character from "Bonfire of the Vanities," that guy who really sees himself as the master of the universe, the man's man. And in trying to think of what would be the worst thing for this guy to be accused of, what would upset him more than anything, I thought it would be to be accused of being a homosexual. I was hoping that it would be fun to watch him squirm with that. His father's OK with it, and his brother's OK with it, and even his wife is OK with him being gay. He's the only one who can't even deal with it being mentioned. He's definitely homophobic, but he's got worse problems than that.

A big part of "She's the One" deals with issues of morality in relationships. Were you making a conscious choice to address those issues?

No, it's more like holding up a mirror to the world that I see. These are the things that people I know are talking about and thinking about. When I hang out with my friends, or even just with people I work with, especially people my age, that seems to be the pressing issue. Whether it's, "Hey, I met some woman last night, and I kinda dig her and I don't know what's going to happen," or, "I've been married for seven years and I'm going nuts and there's this guy at the office..."

I think people's sexual relationships and their relationships with their family and friends are the things that they obsess over. I mean, I know my friends don't sit around talking politics too often. What else do you have?

In the two years you spent filming "Brothers McMullen," you were working as a production assistant for "Entertainment Tonight." Did that provide a unique window through which you saw the film industry?

Yes, on the film industry, but more so on celebrities in general. We covered premieres of Broadway shows, TV stars and dealt with the music industry as much as film. You saw fame and every aspect of it. It was interesting, but there were certainly plenty of examples of who you don't want to be and how you shouldn't behave.

But I think the other thing I got from it is knowing that doing publicity is part of the job. I met a lot of people who would bitch about it. But there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than talking about yourself and your film.

Back to The truth about Catholic boys

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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