CHICAGO — A couple of years ago, when Edward Burns had trouble pulling together financing for a film, his thoughts turned to this: “When I was 25 years old and had no money — and didn’t know how to make movies and had no experience — I was able to get $25,000 together, and that film was ‘The Brothers McMullen.’ So let’s just do that again.”
It’s unusual to see a filmmaker at his level — even an independent filmmaker — going back to his microbudget roots, let alone one who is comfortable with the idea of bypassing a theatrical release in favor of a model centered on streaming and video-on-demand (as Burns has done with his last two films). He heavily promotes his work through social media, including on Twitter, where he has been known to sign his messages with an affectionate, “thanks again, Burnsie.”
Digital-only distribution, though, can be a gamble. It rarely works unless there is some name recognition involved (Burns is married to model Christy Turlington, with whom he has two children) and an established fan base, and he admitted as much when we spoke by phone recently. He was in the car, on his way to the airport to fly from New York to LA, midway through the publicity push for his latest film, “Newlyweds,” which is available on sites such as Vudu, Amazon and iTunes (as well as through video on demand, depending on your cable provider).
The film, which is his 10th as a writer-director, cost just $9,000 to shoot on location in Manhattan, though the final budget, after postproduction costs, was closer to $125,000.
But for the first time since “The Groomsmen” in 2006, he is tentatively dipping his toe back into the theatrical waters with a one-week Chicago run of “Newlyweds” at the Siskel Film Center.
Burns continues to pick up acting jobs, including a role in this month’s thriller “Man on a Ledge,” as well as an adaptation of James Patterson’s “I, Alex Cross.”
Like the movies he makes, Burns is both talky and devoid of celebrity pretensions. “Thanks, man, sorry you had to listen to all of that,” he said to his driver when they reached his terminal, sounding somewhat sheepish about it when he got back on the phone: “The guy listened to me ramble for a half-hour.”
Q: Did you know at the outset that you would be able to make “Newlyweds” for such a small amount of money?
A: We did, but we didn’t really set any goals to what we would spend. Given that “Newlyweds” is shot as a pseudo-documentary (the story and characters are fictional, but the stylistic approach is that of a doc), we knew we could do it with a documentary-size film crew, so two or three people. The actors did their own hair and makeup and wore their own clothes, and we got locations for free.
We were shooting in “live” environments, so restaurants, bars, coffee shops that were open for business while we were shooting. No lights were used. And we didn’t have a sound person. The slate we used was basically the actor would clap in front of their face on camera, and that’s how the editor would sync up the sound.
And the other big change was the experiment with the consumer model camera, a Canon 5D.
Q: That’s pretty wild, because it’s a still camera that also shoots video.
A: My (director of photography) and I found out that people were using it to shoot commercials, so I went online and looked at some of those, and they looked incredible. So it was like, you know, let’s go play with it. We got on the subway, went to a photo shop, picked up the camera — I think for $2,800 — came back downtown, I put a sweatsuit on and called my friend who owns a gym and said, ‘Hey, we need to come in for a half-hour and do a camera test.’ And we shot one-half of my character’s phone conversation (which ended up in the film). I went back to my office where I have a desk for editing on a Mac, put the flash drive in, looked at the footage and it was great, and it was like, “I guess we’re making this movie.”
Any professional would tell you, “He’s full of (expletive). You can’t make a movie like that,” and anyone who tells you that doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
Q: Would you have thought five years ago this was possible?
A: I wouldn’t have thought it five months prior to shooting the film. ... I’m betting that in two years I’ll be talking to you about a film that I shot on an iPhone. It’s absolutely coming, I have no doubt in my mind.
Q: You mentioned using “live” locations, and it seems pretty clear during one scene that real life intruded onto your set when actor Dara Coleman (talking to the camera) interacts with people walking on the sidewalk who are trying to pass in front of him.
A: Yeah, that actually happened. A few times we had to cut some things out; some guy across the street at one point recognized me and was like, “Ed Burns, you’re a (expletive) a-hole!” Obviously that didn’t make the film. So you got the cool New Yorkers, and then there are the less-than-cool New Yorkers.
Q: Why did you pick Chicago as the first and possibly only city for the film’s theatrical release?
A: We go to Chicago quite a bit, so we thought it would be cool that if we did a theatrical release, we should do it in Chicago. A producer of the film, Aaron Lubin, was born and bred on the South Side of Chicago. The other thing is that I have a great relationship with the Tribeca Flashpoint Academy. I spoke to a graduating class last year. And my friend Adam Kempenaar, who does Filmspotting (the podcast and WBEZ radio show), he talks all the time about, “Why do New York and LA get all of the movies first, and we have to wait sometimes six weeks? We have as robust a film community.” And in talking to him, I was like, “Yeah, let’s open in Chicago.”
Q: Your films often focus on romantic relationships and marriages, and the strains therein. As someone who has kids yourself, is parenthood something you want to explore?
A: It’s funny, I haven’t written that kind of script for the simple reason that working with kids is so difficult, especially at this budget level. I think when I’m ready to go back to a more substantial budget, it’s probably something I’ll explore more. In fact, the script I’m writing now (“The Fitzgerald’s Family Christmas”), I keep trying to figure out ways to eliminate the children. Let’s just say there’s a lot of scenes during nap time.
Q: “The Fitzgerald’s Family Christmas” is a return to the Irish-American stories of your earlier films. I’ve heard you credit Tyler Perry for that.
A: While we were making “I, Alex Cross” (Perry stars in the title role), at lunch one day we were talking, and he had just watched “The Brothers McMullen,” and he said, “I’m curious, whatever happened to those characters? Why didn’t you make a sequel to that film?” And I didn’t have any idea, really. And he said, “It’s been 15 years since you’ve made a movie about an Irish-American family, what are you thinking? What is wrong with you? Look at what I’ve been doing. I’m always aware of who my core audiences are and I serve that niche. And you don’t have to do it every film, but I can tell you, you have an audience out there and there’s a real hunger for that, and if you give them that, they will come.” And I got up and walked into my trailer and started writing the “Fitzgerald’s” script.
Q: When you’re working on a film such as “I, Alex Cross” as an actor-for-hire, does it feel like a lighter load?
A: Tyler and I could not believe — this is the first thing he’s really acted in where he hasn’t been the director, where he’s on a set but not running it — and he was like, “Oh my God, all this time I have on my hands? I’m going out of my mind.” And that’s how we ended up the first week of shooting with this competition going about how much work we were getting done on our respective screenplays in our trailers. We both finished a screenplay during that film. I finished the script for “Fitzgerald’s” and he finished the movie that he just finished shooting, “The Marriage Counselor.”
Q: And there’s a “Brothers McMullen” sequel in the works?
A: Yeah. It’s funny, I actually saw Connie Britton today and talked to her about “Fitzgerald’s,” and then we started to talk about the “McMullen” sequel. I looked at Kevin Smith and “Clerks II,” and I was like, “That’s smart. It’s a recognizable brand.” It was the first time we both made films, with no resources. Why not explore those characters with the fun of a bigger budget? And I loved “Clerks II,” so it kind of paved the way to make that OK.
Q: Your publicist calls you Eddie. IMDb calls you Edward. And I’ve been calling you Ed. Which one is it?
A: (Laughs) According to my parents, my name is Edward. My friends call me Eddie and somehow professionally I’ve turned into Ed, so whatever you like. I respond to all.
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More