It was purely coincidental that I was talking to Edward Burns at the same time the first wave of the Sundance Film Festival selections were announced, but if the incoming class of 2013 filmmakers who are headed to Park City with their first films were picking a filmmaker to emulate their careers after, they might want to consider what Burns has achieved in 17 years since he first climbed those same mountains in Utah.
While his filmography isn’t as sexy as other alums such as Steven Soderbergh and David O. Russell, despite the fact he did leverage his wry smile and smoldering charm into one of the festival’s most legendary success stories with his 1995 debut “The Brothers McMullen,” Burns has constantly found new ways to tell personal stories. Whether it was once cobbling together $28,000 for his feature debut while working a PA job on “Entertainment Tonight” or remaking himself into a pioneer of sustainable filmmaking in the digital era, the writer/director has achieved the kind of creative independence that only a few like his hero Woody Allen have enjoyed over an extensive amount of time, though calling him an innovator is a description Burns is quick to shrug off.
“More as a survivalist,” Burns insists. “It’s less to do with being forward thinking and more to do with I want to keep working.”
Burns’ persistence has paid off in creating a viable model for other filmmakers to follow, but it has also resulted in perhaps his most accomplished film to date, “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” which will be hitting theaters this week concurrent with a VOD release. As the title suggests, the sprawling feature slips on like a comfortable sweater during the holiday season, albeit at the discomfort of its central family, comprised of two brothers (Burns, Tom Guiry, and “McMullen” star Mike McGlone), four sisters (Heather Burns, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Marsha Dietlein and Kerry Bishé), their strong-willed mother (Anita Gillette) and the father (Ed Lauter) who walked out on them years ago to pursue his business interests and wants back in before they congregate for the matriarch’s holiday-adjacent 70th birthday dinner.
Like Gerry, the dutiful son he plays who decides its up to him to reunite the disjointed family, Burns brings in various cast members from his past films, many of whom such as “Nashville” star Connie Britton have gone onto greater success in the intervening years, to appear, making the resonance of a filmmaker who’s finally pulled it all together as rewarding as the possibility of seeing the Fitzgeralds sit across from each other to break bread once more. Burns spoke of the satisfaction of returning to his roots as well as the unlikely influences of Tyler Perry and Sidney Lumet on his latest and how he made it far easier for himself to do what he loves.
This is like “The Avengers” of the Ed Burns universe. Was it interesting to see the mix of actors from your first generation of films and your second generation interacting?
It really was and done intentionally for a couple different reasons. One was the fact that this film is about a family reunion and homecoming. We thought why don’t we do that in the casting as well and make it a filmmaking family reunion. So we went through all 10 films and made sure we pulled at least one actor from each film and the great thing that that gave us was that these guys have known one another for a long time, they’ve worked together before, so you bought them as a family. But you did have this thing [with] the older generation and the new generation and the family was divided that way and that helped with buying into the divide within the different subsets of kids, so it worked out well.
It’s become somewhat famous that it was Tyler Perry who nudged you back in this direction on the set of “Alex Cross.” Was there actually a reason you got away from telling family stories, specifically with Irish-American families, after your first two movies?
I’ve only recently given it some thought because it’s come up and there are two things. One, you get excited about writing about new chapters in your life, but I also think there was a little bit of well, my life has changed so dramatically and I’m not from that place anymore, can I still write about it honestly? I was happily surprised to discover that yes I could because normally a first draft of a screenplay takes me a good three to six months and this took six weeks. It’s the most fun I’ve had writing probably since “McMullen” and normally you think a comedy would be a lot of fun to write and this is more dramatic, but I loved being back home. And I can tell you, I’m definitely not going to wait another 15 years to go back to that space.
What was it like being physically back in your old neighborhood?
As I wrote the screenplay, I imagined the Fitzgeralds living in the house I grew up in. Now, my parents have now since moved, so I called my mom and I said, “Look, who do you think back in the neighborhood would let us shoot in their home?” And she called up her friend Tina Costello, Mrs. Costello said absolutely and opened her door to the Fitzgeralds and I ended up shooting this film six doors down from where I grew up. That scene that takes place in the kitchen where they’re all in their pajamas, I can remember having lunch in that kitchen when I’m in the third grade. So [it was] surreal, but also what it was doing was lending an authenticity to the storytelling. Going to my train station, my church, a bar I used to hang out in — I just knew by doing that, I never had to wonder about whether or not it was the right choice. I knew it was going to be true to these characters.
This film felt also like it was back to basics in terms of technique, both relaxed and classic, and it comes after your last films “Newlyweds” and “Nice Guy Johnny” seemed to mark a real exploratory period of what you could do. Did any of that come back into how you shaped the look for this one?
We made a real point that we did not want the technique to get in the way of the storytelling. This is an old fashioned movie in that it’s about a family, there’s nothing cool or hip about it. The themes of forgiveness, redemption, family love are more traditional, so when we were thinking of the visual style, we wanted it to be understated. We looked at a lot of Sidney Lumet movies and in particular, when we found “Prince of the City,” we just thought alright, the camerawork never gets in the way of the storytelling. Even the performances are low-key. The storytelling is even…what’s the word…
You give it room to breathe.
Yeah, and when we looked at those Lumet films, it was like classic compositions, very little camera movement and allowing the actors to live within the spaces. The big thing was those rooms and those bars and those kitchens and bathrooms, that had to do as much storytelling as the characters.
You’ve always cited Woody Allen as an influence, but now you seem to be taking after his schedule of producing films at a rapid clip. Do you only get going on your next film when inspiration strikes or is it actually a goal to get something new out every year?
I wouldn’t even say a goal. Because I’ve been able to make money making independent films for the first time since “Brothers McMullen” — and that’s only due to making these lower-budgeted movies and now the introduction of digital distribution, VOD and iTunes — that has given me the freedom to say well, alright, forget about writing a blockbuster. I don’t need to try and write the movie that will attract the big star, which then means I can get my $8 million or $12 million to go make that movie. That whole process of attracting the star and then getting the money can take two years. Now I don’t need to worry about that.
It’s like I have the story I want to tell. If I’m smart in the writing and recognize there are going to be certain things I can’t do from a production standpoint because it’ll be too expensive, then I know I can make a film this year. I’m happiest when I’m making films, so what’s great is I tell these smaller character pieces, so it’s like once I land on the idea, it’s just a matter of sitting down, finishing that screenplay and I know if I finish the screenplay, I’m making the movie as opposed to three years prior, I have easily ten screenplays that I thought I was going to make and that we just couldn’t get made.
Do the same things excite you now as a filmmaker as they once did or have they changed?
I think I’m more excited now about being a filmmaker because I’m no longer trying to chase a certain type of success. Every time that I did do that, I felt like I compromised the work or then I tried to write the bigger budgeted screenplay that I couldn’t get made. Now, I’ve gotten to the place where it’s like, you know what? I’m the guy that makes the small movies. That said, five years down the road, I may have a conversation with you and say I’m bored and want to try something bigger and different, but right now I’ve got plenty of small stories to tell.