Sixteen years after winning the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for the Brothers McMullen, writer, actor and director Ed Burns is now proving how films can remain successfully independent in the era of the bloated blockbuster. For his newest film, Newlyweds, Burns was able to create a full-length feature film with just twelve days of shooting and a budget estimated to be below $10,000. Rather than bemoan his lack of resources, Burns thrives on this ultra low budget filmmaking and has churned out one film nearly ever year for the last seven years. “The [new] technology has allowed me to make great looking films so much more inexpensively than we ever imagined,” said Burns. “For half of that cost [of McMullen] you can make a film where the look is absolutely professional.”
In Newlyweds, which he also wrote and directed, Burns stars as Buzzy one of the titular newlyweds along with Caitlin Fitzgerald, as Katie. The film explores the couple’s relationship as it comes under fire from a few difficult family members mainly Buzzy’s troublemaking sister Linda, played by Kerry Bishé. Filmed in what appears to be a five-block radius centered around Burns’ own neighborhood in Tribeca, Newlyweds was shot “pseudo-doc” style on hand held digital cameras. While in his early years of filmmaking, Burns was forced to rent a location and hire extras along with bringing in lighting rigs and other equipment to shoot a dinner scene, now he simply asked a few favors from his neighborhood haunts. “I ‘ve been down here 11 years and basically eat at these places twice a week, everyone was pretty agreeable to let us steal an hour during a non-peak hour,” said Burns. “It was pretty great.”
For a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, Burns says filming in New York is an asset for low budget filmmaking and an essential component for his films. “I’ve said for years, New York is the best costar an actor can have,” said Burns. “There’s no bad locations, no matter where you go, high end or low end.” As a result, Newlyweds, is not just a love letter to New York, but specifically to the cobble stone lined streets of Tribeca.
One unexpected benefit for Burns in making these independent films is his ability to redefine what a film schedule can look like. While most directors are forced by budgetary constraints to adhere to a rigorous blocked out shooting calendar, by using hand held cameras and skeleton crew Burns has been able to keep his shooting schedule open ended. Rather than blocking out weeks of time, Burns simply uses his actors and his sets when he can, meaning 12 days of shooting is stretched out over three months. For Newlyweds, after shooting a few scenes, Burns retreated to the editing bay to see what he had to work with and figure out how to progress from there.
“I keep equating it to the painter that throws up those first couple of coats and then he sits in his studio and stares at it. He can take a month deciding, what’s next?” said Burns. “This wasn’t a strategy, we kind of fell into [it] just because you’re asking actors to work for nothing and you’re begging favors from everyone you know.”
With his unorthodox schedule, Burns has been able to take on other projects and even acted in two movies while working on Newlyweds. While other actor-directors might have a hard time giving up the reins, Burns says he enjoys sitting back in the acting camp from time to time. “It’s an advantage to be on the other side and be able to peek behind the curtain a little bit,” said Burns.
Surprisingly he says working with Tyler Perry, while making the film I Alex Cross, indirectly led him to his next movie, a return to the family dramas he started out making: The Fitzgerald’s Family Christmas.
“Tyler gave me game changing advice. He asked me quite honestly, why has it been 15 years since you made another movie about an Irish Catholic family?,” recalled Burns. “It was after that conversation that [I] walked into my trailer and wrote INTERIOR: The Fitzgerald Kitchen DAY and started writing this new film.”
While in the past decade Burns’ films have often focused more on romantic entanglements over familial ones, he says this new film will again explore the complicated relationships between siblings. “I like the dynamic, because I think you get a little nastier [than] you get with your friends,” said Burns, who says he also plans on revisiting the McMullen family for a sequel that coincides with that film’s 20th anniversary.
For Burns’ briskly realistic films, if scenes like the brotherly spat in She’s the One or the marital fights in Newlyweds can appear painfully true to life, it’s due to a large amount of careful “research.” “I’m constantly digging while I’m writing,” said Burns. “I’m just calling up all my friends and asking ‘What’s the worst thing that ever happened at Christmas?” I’m constantly picking their brains.”
However, there is one subject that remains off limits for films. “I very rarely pull from my own life. I’m too smart for that,” said Burns.