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“[John Maclean] told me the idea, showed me the script, and then told me he wanted to shoot it on a mobile phone. I thought, ‘Hm, this guy, he’s an original.’ And so that experience went well, and then it was like okay, let’s shoot another short with the aim of getting financing for a feature film.”
Actor Michael Fassbender (X-Men, Inglourious Basterds) on making the short film Man on a Motorcycle (2009)

“I studied Drawing and Painting at Edinburgh Art School and The Royal College of Art in London. After graduating I formed The Beta Band with a couple of friends. I made many of the music videos, which were very DIY and tried to be short films in style and a great training ground for film making with little to no budget.”
Writer/director John Maclean
Indiewire/Meet the 2015 Sundance Filmmakers

Since my last post (Bob Dylan & Your Filmmaking Career) was a mixture of music, filmmaking, and being from places far outside the Hollywood system I thought I’d point out a great example of someone from Scotland who’s making a great go of it recently.

Scottish filmmaker John Maclean’s IMDB credits actually begin in 2000 for a song on the soundtrack of the well regarded film High Fidelity.  He made some videos with a couple of bands he was in through the 2000s (what he calls his film school), and in 2008/09 he wrote and directed a short film called Man on a Motorcycle using a smartphone to shoot with four actors. (One of those actors happened to be Michael Fassbender who gave Maclean one day of shooting.)

That went well enough that Maclean and Fassbender made a second short film, Pitch Black Heist, which won a BAFTA award.

That led to writing and directing his first feature film Slow West (again with Fassbender) which  was the Grand Jury World Cinema Prize winner at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Back when I started this blog, Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places, in ’08 who would have bet that there would be a filmmaker from Scotland that year who would make his first short film using a cell phone and just six years later end up a Sundance winner? (And to make those odds worse that that film would be a historical western set in Colorado and shot in New Zealand)

If you want to get a glimpse what shaped Maclean into a filmmaker beyond studying drawing and painting in college and being in bands for a decade here’s the answer when asked what filmmakers inspired him :

“The work of Carl Theodor Dreyer, Bresson, Brunuel, Carpenter, Allen , Spielberg, Scorsese, Bergman, Hughes, Kurosawa, Denis, Herzog, Wilder, Altman, Cassavetes, Hitchcock, Lynch , Polanski, Leone, Tarkovsky, Lumet.”

P.S. Since Maclean mentioned Bresson it trigger a memory that I think it was either an interview with screenwriter Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) or in his book Transcendental Style in Film where he mentioned watching Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest once a year. It’s not only where you’re from that gives you a unique voice, but the kinds of movies you ingest.

Scott W. Smith

“Try to disconnect the idea of cinema with the idea of making a living and money.”
Francis Ford Coppola 
Who said art has to cost money? 

“At this moment, anyone who dreams of becoming a filmmaker is lucky indeed. For the first time in the history of cinema, filmmaking does not need to be a capitalist enterprise. You no longer need millions of dollars or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. You are no longer beholden to someone writing a check. It no longer needs to be a business. it can be your artistic expression…Now you can buy a consumer-model digital camera and the image looks great…You can even shoot a pretty good-looking movie on your smartphone and then edit it on a laptop…You can post your film on YouTube, Vimeo, and any number of digital platforms and slowly build your audience.”
Edward Burns
Independent Ed

As I write this post both Mad Max: Fury Road and Avengers: Age of Ulton are currently in theaters so why have I spent two weeks writing posts about indie filmmaker Edward Burns? It’s because my focus has always been on the outsider. To use a well traveled line, it’s about those who’ve “taken the road less traveled.”

And if you succeed that road may take you to the larger production hubs of Los Angeles or New York City, but I’m really interested inspiring people anywhere in the world in telling their stories. As I’ve said before, that could be a filmmaker in West Des Moines, West Africa or someone just east of the Hollywood sign in West Covina.

I love reading blogs & books, and listening to podcasts, from those on the inside of Hollywood. There are many great insights from those people and over the years I’ve tried to find the most helpful ones and pass them on here.

If you dream of winning the spec script lottery by writing one of the under 200 spec scripts that will be sold in Hollywood this year—great. Dream of being a LA screenwriter on assignment—go for it. There are many talented writers doing that very thing and making a very good living. (Though fewer than you probably think.)

But there is a tertium quid—just to drop what little Latin I know.  A third option if you will. And that’s where Edward Burns comes in to point the way for the outsiders out there—wherever you live. (Burns launched his filmmaking career by shooting parts of his first feature in parents house on Long Island—and he relaunched his career my making three micro budget features. )

“You can learn how to make movies and tell stories by making movies and telling stories. Please don’t listen to the naysayers who complain that we have a glut of movies, that there are too many people making movies and telling stories. Has anyone ever complained about too many poems, songs, or paintings? Because of these technological advances, you are now no different from the kids who keep writing songs on their guitars until they figure out what makes a good song, or the painters who keep throwing colors against a canvas until they realize their vision. Think about that kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, who picked up an acoustic guitar and changed the way we look at the world. Do you think this songs could have been written if Bob Dylan needed to please a money man? Not very likely. That could be you and your camera.”
Writer/director/actor Edward Burns
Independent Ed; Inside a Career of Big Dreams. Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
page 220

Burns’ TV program Public Morals is scheduled to debut Aug 25 on TNT. The executive producer is Steven Spielberg (can’t get much more inside Hollywood than that) and has been a dream project that Burns has had for at least 20 years. It takes a little time sometimes—even if your first film cleans up at Sundance as Burns did with The Brothers McMullen back in 1995.

P.S. I’m not the biggest gear head out there but when you have cameras like the Blackmagic URSA Mini camera hitting the market—a 4K camera for under $3k—it’s kind of astounding to think where production has come in just the last 10 years. If you don’t shoot or edit yourself, I’m sure with a little creativity you can meet some shooters and editors in your area to help get your short films, indie features, experimental films, and long and short form documentaries made. And remember what Austin-based filmmaker Robert Rodriguez said in a post about The Total Filmmaker;  “If you are technical and creative you will be unstoppable.”

Related Posts:

How to Shoot a Film in Ten Days
Off Screen Quote #22 (Bob Dylan)
‘Shelter from the Storm’ (Dylan)
Screenwriting from Duluth
The Outsider Advantage
The 10 Minute Film School
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood.”—Ed Burns
Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio (2.0)
A New Kind of Filmmaker   “One of the benefits of being outside of Hollywood…”
Revisiting ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (2.0) Which includes this passage:

Dylan spent most of his youth in the mining town of Hibbing in northern Minnesota. A group of close-knit Jewish people from Eastern Europe drawn to opportunities in the area known as the Mesabi Iron Range. (See David Mamet’s connection to storytelling and Eastern European Jews.) The ore from the area once made the small town of Hibbing very wealthy. But by the time Dylan (then known as Robert /Bobby Zimmerman) was a teenager in the 1950s the mining town’s heyday was over. But it was fertile ground to listen to blues and country on the radio and learn to play the piano and guitar. Dylan graduated from Hibbing High School in 1959.

Scott W. Smith

“In this screenplay, I imagined a deadbeat father who had bailed on his kids years earlier, looking to return home to make amends.”
Writer/director Edward Burns on The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

“It’s a good thing our father left—we needed the space.”
Sharon (Kerry Bishe) one of nine Fitzgerald children raised in a 3 bedroom house in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas 

One of the things most (all?) Catholic and Protestant theologians agree on in is that Jesus was not born on December 25. Some scholars even speculate that Christ’s birth account 2000 years ago wasn’t even during wintertime, but in the springtime because that’s when shepherds watch over their fields. (“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” Luke 2:8)

So it’s actually not that bizarre to talk about Christmas in May.  And I’ll do so by mentioning what I think is Edward Burns’ tightest script and best film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. (It’s currently on Netflix if you’d like to get in the Christmas spirit this spring day.)

“I knew I didn’t want to make the sappy, goofy, funny Christmas comedy. My favorite Christmas film has always been It’s a Wonderful Life, another film that has the perfect blend of light and dark, comedy and drama. George Baily has to cover a lot of tough ground to get that payoff. I also wanted my characters to go on a tough journey so that when the Fitzgerald family got together in the end, it felt earned. As I started to work on the screenplay, a theme of forgiveness started to present itself. Given that it’s one of the themes of Christmas, it tied together nicely. The script poured out of me and within four weeks, I had a first draft.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York)
Independent Ed; Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
page 212

If you just happen to be in the mood for Christmas music today, check out The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Album largely featuring the music of long-time Burns collaborator P.T. Walkley.

P.S. And if you want to add an indie companion Thanksgiving film to your May viewing watch Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April starring Katie Holmes. Fitzmas (2012) and Pieces (2003) cost less than $600,000 to produce—combined. And one connection between both films that I know of is John Sloss was an executive producer on Pieces and received a special thanks credit on Fitzmas (Sloss, a University of Michigan law school grad, also provided legal service on Burns’ first film The Brothers McMullen.)

P.P.S. Yes, that is the talented Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Crime Story) in the screen grab above. She fit in time between shooting the Nashville TV series for the small (but wonderful performance) in Fitzmas as nod/thank you to Burns for casting her in her debut movie The Brothers McMullen (1995).

Related Posts:
The Making of It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Prison “Shawshank is basically It’s a Wonderful Life in a prison.”—Frank Darabont
Merry Silver Linings Christmas
Christmas & Cancer (Connected because the father in Fitzmas has cancer.)
Bedford Falls vs. Pottersville
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
Merry Christmas (2012) Same year as Fitzmas release and my last Christmas in Iowa.
Writing from Theme
Hope & Redemption
Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra)
Filmmaking Quote # 15 (Edward Burns)

Scott W. Smith

“I decided to go back and look at movies that had turned me on to filmmaking back in film school. I wanted to revisit the films and stories that inspired my dreams in the first place. Here’s a few: Antonini’s L’Avventura, De Sica’s Terminal Station [Also known as  Indiscretion of an American Wife], Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women, Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, Godard’s Contempt, Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Cassavette’s Husbands, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, and a lot of Woody [Allen].

“I had forgotten what small and personal films these giants had made. These were intimate character studies told with humor, honesty, compassion, and pathos. I was looking for inspiration and I found it. I was recommitted to telling smaller stories and making personal films. Fortunately for me, and any of you who want to make your own movies, these types of films don’t require a big budget. Right now, with the camera available to us, the technology, the fact that everything is better, easier, and cheaper today than it was fifteen years ago, the resources are available for virtually any budding filmmaker to go out and make a movie.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life

Below are clips, trailers, and related interviews to the movies that Burns referenced—as well as the 2010 movie Burns made (Nice Guy Johnny) to return to his early filmmaking roots :

Scott W. Smith

“[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.”
Edward Burns
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.

Home run.

By the time he left Sundance, he sold McMullen and also had a deal on his next screenplay.

Grand Slam.

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.

Related posts:
Edward Burns ‘Newyweds’ (Part 1)
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
‘Don’t try and complete with Hollywood.’— Ed Burns

Scott W. Smith 

“Prior to creating my first television show, Public Morals, I made eleven movies in twenty years, and half were considered failures…If you allow yourself to get crippled by the possibility of failure, you’re going to rob yourself of a lot of great experiences. There are very few great films, but something great, be it a new relationship or learning a new technology, has always come from my experiences making films even if the film itself was disappointing.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns (Sidewalks of New York)
Independent Ed, Inside a career of big dreams, little movies, and the twelve best says of my life

In his book (which I highly recommend), Burns points out that several of his key filmmaking partners to this day came from his less than successful movie Looking for Kitty (2004).

P.S. Burns’ first Tv show, Public Morals, debuts in August on TNT. Steven Spielberg (who directed Burns in Saving Private Ryan) is the executive producer.

Related posts:
Tennessee Williams on ‘Apparent Failure’
Who to Blame for Your Failures
‘Failure is an option.’
Commitment in the Face of Failure
Failing—Learning—Succeeding
Hollywood Failure—Robert Altman
Susannah Grant on Failure
Aaron Sorkin on Failure
Spectacular Failures
J.K. Rowling on the Benefits of Failure

Scott W. Smith

“I remember when we were doing the press for The Brothers McMullen somebody in Fox Searchlight’s press department kept talking about the thing that’s going to help this movie—it’s the movie, but it’s [also] the story of the movie. They said any time you make a movie you should think about that—the other story you can tell. That way you can get two articles in the New York Times. You can get the review of the film, but then the ‘oh, Brothers McMullen—he made it for $25,000.’ There the other story so you can maybe end up in the business section, or the fashion section, or the sports section.”
Filmmaker Edward Burns
Podcast interview on The Moment with Brian Koppelman 3/17/15

Example of indie movies over the years with other stories include:

Hollywood Shuffle (1987) where Robert Townsend said he used credit cards to fund his movie.
El mariachi (1992) where Robert Rodriguez was said to sell his blood and/or undergo medical experiments to fund his film.
Clerks (1994) Kevin Smith sold a chunk of his comic book collection to fund his first film.
The Blair Witch Project (1999) Here the filmmakers had story after story that helped the movie become the biggest box office hit to date for what it cost to make.
Purple Violets (2007) The first film to be released exclusively on iTunes.
Paranormal Activity (2007) The story of Oren Peli’s self-funded almost no-budget thriller was the film that dethroned Blair Witch at the top movie in the ratio of cost to make and profits.

Oscar-winning screenwriters Quentin Tarantino and Diablo Cody both brought interesting personal backstories to their debut films.

I’m sure there are many other examples, but keep in mind your story’s story as you work on your movie. And you can work on your story’s story before you finish making your film.  While it worked out for him, Burns made the mistake of not arranging any still photos during the filming of The Brothers McMullen. (Maybe because he was acting and directing and the 3 to 5 person crew had their hands full.)

Related links:
The 10 Film Commandments of Edward Burns
“Don’t try and compete with Hollywood”—Ed Burns
Earn Your Ending (Tip #76)
A New Kind of Filmmaker 

Scott W. Smith 

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