“[The Brothers McMullen] won the Grand Prize at Sundance, scored at the box office, and got me labeled as one of Hollywood’s hottest young independent filmmakers. A few years later, I couldn’t get a movie made.”
Introduction to Independent Ed, Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
Though writer/director/actor Edward Burns fell a few credits shy of earning his degree at Hunter College, his career has been a master class in the ups and downs—and survival—of being an independent filmmaker.
Fortunately Burns has written a super book, Independent Ed, concisely re-telling his journey. Between that book and his interview with screenwriter Brian Koppelman (first podcast interview I’ve ever listened to three times), and toss in the 2011 podcast interview with Jeff Goldsmith, and you have enough filmmaking insights that I’d put up against any college class on the subject.
The initital success of Burns was textbook indie filmmaking. He spent three years writing the script for The Brother’s McMullen, borrowed $10,000 from his dad, got credit from a film lab, put together a three person crew, endured the director of photography wanting to quit (over not making money), and finally got the film shot, developed, and edited, only to be rejected by every film festival where he applied. Undeterred and working as a production assistant at Entertainment Tonight he personally handed a video copy of The Brothers McMullen to Robert Redford who was then doing press interviews for Quiz Show.
Redford liked The Brothers McMullen and after all of those film festival rejections, he was not only accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, but ended up winning the Grand Prize.
By the time he left Sundance, he sold McMullen and also had a deal on his next screenplay.
He went on to have a string of films where as a director or actor he was able to work with some giant talent including Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, Connie Britton, Cameron Diaz, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Kingsley, Angelina Jolie, and Steven Spielberg.
He tells the story in his book that after he shot his second film he found himself at Tom Petty’s home who played him songs he wanted Burns to consider putting in his newest movie—he was 27-years-old and just two years removed from being a production assistant. A few years later he married supermodel Christy Turlington.
But after three of his films weren’t moneymakers he said he was put in “Director’s Jail.” Acting jobs were few. At around age 40 he had what amounted to a three year professional downfall. After a meeting went south with a potential investor who was at the bottom of the barrel, Burns felt the prospects of making another film weren’t looking good.
“Now I’m scared…Now I have been knocked back down. I said (to producing partner Aaron Lubin), ‘I don’t understand this—1995, I’m ‘Brothers McMullen,’ now we’re dead.’ Like, the career is over. So we gotta to rethink this whole thing. It’s scary—kids, mortgages and the whole deal—you still have to earn. And I’m probably on year three now of no work. You lose all your heat. If you go look at my IMDB page and you see that movie I made in Bulgaria— it probably happened right about this time. Nice people, I was happy for the paycheck, but not what you dream of when you were a kid in film school.
“So the first thought is over the years why don’t you just forget about the indie thing, just be a director for hire. Go direct a Hollywood romantic comedy, for years the agents have been saying that’s a no-brainer. You’re a nice guy, you know how to make movies, you’ll make yourself a nice paycheck, so just do some schlocky rom-com for the studios. So I called up my agents and said maybe I should consider that. And I had looked at some scripts and there was one where maybe I could get my head around making this. I was kind of on the fence. I’m thinking mortgages. And I think, well if I do this once, who’s really keeping score? If the movie works maybe I can parlay that back into getting one of my films made. But rather than do that we sit down and we’re talking Brothers McMullen and the absurdity of 12-years later here it is and it’s over.
“I said, you know what’s nuts about [when I was making] McMullen? At that time I don’t know anyone in Hollywood, I don’t know how to make a movie, I have no money, my dad has no money, I don’t know a single person who owns a camera, I went to Hunter College which had no film department—they had on old CP-16, that was the one camera they had, but somehow I was able to make that movie and to this day it’s still my most successful film. So I said, ‘Why don’t we just go and do that again?’ So on a napkin there at the bar we wrote down—we called it McMullen 2.0— and wrote down what we were going to do. It had to be $25,000 to get the can. Twelve days of shooting , actors had to do their own hair and make-up, wear their own clothes, three-man crew, all the locations for free, we had to shoot one scene on my parents house, so we wrote down all of these things.”
So Burns ended up making three micro-budget, and low-budget films (Nice Guy Johnny, Newlyweds, and The Fitzgeralds Family Christmas) and he was not only back on the set directing scripts he wrote, but his acting gigs picked up including an opportunity to play Bugsy Segel in the Frank Darabont created TV show Mob City. That connected him with executives at TNT eventually leading him to create Public Morals that will debut this summer on TNT.
A lesson in talent, persistence (including writing a bunch of scripts that never sold or were produced) and risk taking.
P.S. I was inspired enough by Burns’ book that over the weekend, before I even finished reading Independent Ed, I wrote 15 pages of a new script centered around two 18-year-olds that I could shoot the majority of with a 1-3 person crew.
Edward Burns ‘Newyweds’ (Part 1)
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
‘Don’t try and complete with Hollywood.’— Ed Burns
Scott W. Smith