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“[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 

“For your first screenplay, what I’m going to ask all of you is to think about your favorite films and what genre they are. Whatever that genre is, I want you to write that kind of script. If you don’t like murder mysteries, don’t write murder mysteries.”
Robert McKee
(Words that inspired filmmaker Edward Burns before he launched his career)

“I thought about what films I loved the most, I instantly knew the answer: Woody Allen movies. So I said to myself, ‘All right, I’m going to write whatever that genre is; whatever Woody’s genre is, that’s what I’m going to write.'”
Edward Burns

Back in 1995 filmmaker Edward Burns won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival with his debut film The Brothers McMullen. In his new book Independent Ed he recounts what led to that success giving assists to various college classes, Syd Fields’ book Screenplay, The Foundations of Screenwriting, Robert McKee’s story structure seminar, and working as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight (ET) where he also found time to crank out “four or five screenplays” that didn’t get sold or produced.  After all that, he finally had an epiphany.

Then one day it hit me. What was it about The Last Picture Show and Marty and The 400 Blows that made me want to be a filmmaker in the first place? They were honest. They felt like they were written by people who had lived those stories. Then I thought about the story I had lived.

The Irish Americans were a big part of New York culture. They were an important in my New York City. And having grown up in a tight-knit Irish American family, surrounded by similar families, my world revolved around this community and culture.

I said to myself, “That’s what I’m going to write. These guys are going to be Irish. And they’re not going to be just passively Irish. I’m going to make them aggressively, nostalgically Irish.”

The sudden clarity I had was stunning. Woody Allen wrote and directed about the Jewish American New York experience; Martin Scorsese wrote and directed films about Italian American New York experience; and Spike Lee was writing and directing films about the African American New York experience. All these guys had carved their own niche. I had been asking what mine would be. Now I knew.
Director/Actor/Writer Edward Burns
Independent Ed: Inside My Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life
Page 17

Related Posts:

Shrimp, Giants & Tyler Perry
‘Super Serving Your Niche’
Finding Your Voice
Syd Fields (1935-2013)
Can Your Identify?
Telling Our Own Shadow Stories )”I see shadows all of the time in my work—things from my life.” Robin Swicord)
Emotional Autobiography (“My work is emotionally autobiographical.” Tennessee Williams)

Scott W. Smith

“My thing has always been—and I’m lucky—in that I like to write. Everyday, it’s not a problem. I do the same routine every morning; 9:30 I sit down and open the laptop until 1:30 I’m going.  Doesn’t matter if I think it’s sh*t. If I’m in a groove, or it’s like pushing the boulder up the hill. Even when it’s garbage, I don’t stop to re-read it. I don’t really stop to think about it. My dad always used to say, ‘Head down, ass up, and just keep moving forward’—and that was it. Then I’d discover—you do that for four hours you think it’s garbage, but I made a commitment to myself a long time ago—who cares if it’s garbage? I’m not going to share this with anyone. No one is ever going to see this if it’s garbage…So then the next day I’ll go back and I’ll re-read the garbage I wrote before, and let’s say it’s four pages of what I thought was garbage—somewhere in the middle when the story took over, it’s like, I’ve got two scenes in the middle that are pretty good. I can build off of that. And that’s the process everyday.
Filmmaker Edward Burns
The Moment with Brian Koppelman podcast interview

Related quote: “The best work that anybody ever writes is the work that is on the verge of embarrassing him, always.”—Arthur Miller

Related Posts:
The Ten Film Commandments of Edwards Burns
How to Shoot a Feature in Ten Days
It’s a Good Time to Be a Filmmaker
Don’t Try and Compete with Hollywood’

Scott W. Smith

May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation 
When the winds of changes shift
Forever Young lyrics by Bob Dylan

A few days ago The Wrap announced a deal between actor Michael Mosley and Brother’s Blood author Scott Cawelti that left out one screenwriter that was about as close as one can get to a project and still get legally left out of the loop. I know because that writer just happens to be me. (In 2011 Cawelti and I completed a script based on the events covered in his book—and I later sent the WGA registered script to Mosely on his request.)

But I’m fine with the deal, and hope there’s a lesson you can learn here. A few of my friends called and emailed me this week about the deal and I’ll pass on to you what I told them.

Once upon a time (2008 to be exact) I was living in Cedar Falls, Iowa and I started writing the Screenwriting from Iowa blog that went on to win a Upper Midwest Emmy that year. In 2009, I read a newspaper article about a 1975 quadruple homicide in Cedar Falls and that Cawelti was giving a talk about a book he was working on about the murders. I went to the talk and met Cawelti afterwards and asked him if he was interested in writing a screenplay together and he liked the idea.

At that point he had already been working on the non-fiction book for over five years and it didn’t sound to me that it was going to be completed or published anytime soon so what I proposed was we do is write a fictitious story that has the bones of the actual story. So that’s what we set out to do. The main reason I chose the fictitious angle was because the convicted murderer in the case (Jerry Mark) to this day professes his innocence. Many have said that if the trial was held today he would not be convicted based on the circumstantial evidence presented in the 1976 trial.

I was very interested in the facts as we knew them, but believed the story could be better served by exploring what could of happened if Jerry Mark (a trained lawyer himself) was just a little more clever. Could he get away with murder?(Mark, now in his early 70s, is serving his four life sentences at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison where he uses his law expertise to help other inmates.)

I did not option Cawelti’s unpublished story—a mistake on my part—nor had I read anything he’d written on his work in progress book. What Cawelti and I did was meet at his house, a restaurant, or coffee house,  and discuss as many things we could about the case. Then I would go home and continue writing the screenplay. It was agreed that we would spilt the screenplay credit. I never imagined the screenplay would take us three years to complete, but I was running my own production company at the time in Cedar Falls—and three years is just how long it took to complete the script Shadows in the Dark.

The single biggest decision I made was not to make it a story about the murderer, but about a young, small town cop who was investigating his first homicide. The unproven Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs was my main reference protagonist. Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en was another reference point.

Long time readers of this blog may recall on March 20, 2011 in a post called Marketing Your Script (Part 1) I actually asked readers to help me put together a longline for Shadows in the Dark. (Still to date the most comments I’ve ever received from a post here.) In June of 2011 in my post Query Letter Strikeout I walked readers though the process of WME Story editor Christopher Lockhart shredding my query letter. (All in the name of screenwriting science to help you in your own writing and marketing.)

I knew a period piece screenplay set in a small town in Iowa about a murder was not the most mainstream, Hollywood friendly, commercial concept, but had hopes that someone like actor Ben Foster (who got his start doing theater in small town Iowa) could get attached and help the screenplay get made.

In September of 2011, Cawelti’s book Brother’s Blood, finally got published and as a nice bit of trivia Cedar Falls-based artist Gary Kelley (who knew I wrote the screenplay with Cawelti) asked me to pose for the cover of Brother’s Blood—and I did (See the post. Do I look Like Ethan Hunt?)  

Cawelti got a call from the actor Mosley (who was originally from Cedar Falls, Iowa) asking about doing a screenplay on Blood Brother.  Cawelti told him there already was a screenplay based on the events in the book and Mosely contacted me and I sent him Shadows in the Dark. Mosley read the script and told me that it felt like a big budget Jeremy Renner-type script–and what he actually wanted to do was a small indie film where he played the convicted murderer. I believe his intent was to do more of a character-study movie.

In 2013 I moved back to my hometown of Orlando and have limited contact with Cawelti since that time. Fast forward to today and Mosely’s career is hotter than it was in 2011 with the success of USA program Sirens. This positioned Mosley to pick back up on his personal project on Brother’s Blood giving himself a a feature project to star in. And so the deal was made with Cawalti, and in the recent announcement it mentions that the script is being written my Cal Roberston.

Again, the intent is to use Cawelti’s book for the script, anything from the script I wrote with Cawelti would be an infringement. We’ll see if Mosely’s version makes it to the big screen, but I’d personally love to see how they tell the story from a convicted killers perspective—especially since, as I said, Mark has professed his innocence for almost 40 years. Meaning unless he  makes a sudden confession and tells all, their script will also be largely fictitious.

I have talked to writer friends about my situation, and have been told that this stuff happens all the time. Though the Shadows in the Dark and Blood Brothers share DNA, and even a writer, they are different entities. If Brother’s Blood gets produced it’s because Mosely stuck with his passion and vision. Mosley both went to cedar Falls High School and was the class president as was the convicted murderer Jerry Marks (though decades a part).

The biggest lesson I learned all of this is to secure what rights you can and write an agreement between the others writers because, you know, stuff happens.  I’m in the pre-production process  of producing a feature documentary and along with writing a business plan I have talked with an entertainment lawyer about securing the rights to the story which ideally would include ancillary rights. That means if my work in launching the doc brings in additional revenue such as a book, feature film, TV program, clothing that I would get a piece of those deals. A happy ending to the Cedar Falls story—and a great bookend to the regional Emmy I received as well, as my time in Cedar Falls—would resulted in Shadows in the Dark being produced. But as you know, not all stories have happy endings.

Related links from this blog:
Marketing Your Script (Part 1) Query Letter Strikeout
‘I can’t keep handling this rejection.’ On the road to becoming an Oscar-winning screenwriter.

Related books: The Writer Got Screwed (but didn’t have to) by Brooke Wharton Related

Podcasts: The Moment interview of filmmaker Edward Burns by screenwriter Brian Koppelman where Burns talks about lessons he learned about getting burned on the distribution deal he made on his film Purple Violets. In fact. starting Monday I’ll be doing several posts based on that interview with Burns.

Scriptnotes episode 193 where screenwriter John August and Craig main discuss How writing credits work. On another podcast they handled a Q&A where they answered the question, what happens to a script when c0-screenwriters break-up. (If you know what episode that was shoot me an email at info@scottwsmith.com so I can add the link here.)

P.S. Missed opportunities, like rejection, and highs and lows are a part of the film, video, and TV business. I’ve been fortunate enough over the years that working in production has allowed me to pay some bills, win some awards, work with many talented people, and to travel to all fifty states in the US and to five continents for which I’m thankful.

But here’s an actual email that I received last September that didn’t pan out: Are u available Sept 19-Oct 4 (ish)? I am DPing a new Nat Geo show and we need someone who can shoot/produce a segment w/ an Alaska bush pilot. You would be a one-man-band.  That show, Dead End Express, debuts on TV May 7. And here’s a text message I received back in December: Wanted to to check and see if u were interested/available for a shoot the end of the month Tenative Dates: fly 12/27 Shoot  12/28-1/9 I know over New Years…it is in the Bahamas LMK. That opportunity didn’t pan out either because I was going through cancer treatment. So instead of shooting in Alaska and the Bahamas in 2014 I got to experience chemo and radiation. (Even spent Christmas Day in the hospital.) Like the country song states, “Sounds like life to me.”

I’m grateful to be healthy again and back on my feet and working again on projects. So hang in there and don’t let set-backs drag you down. Starting Monday we’ll hear from filmmaker Edward Burns on the importance of resilience in a lasting career.

Scott W. Smith

‘Move Me’

WME story editor Christopher Lockhart estimates that over his career he’s read more than 50,000 scripts. No typo—50,000 scripts. So when he tosses out a piece of advice consider taking it to heart:

“Writing scripts is really, really, really hard. Get that right first. Do that right first before you start thinking about everything else. Because the truth is your script probably sucks, so all this other stuff that you’re dreaming about is a pipe dream …I’m always about just do the work. Find a great idea that’s a movie. Write it dramatically, write it cinematically, make it intriguing. Make it emotional. Move me. Make me feel differently at the end of the script than I did at the beginning of the script. Try to do that. Try to do that. If you can really, really do that then all of those other things will eventually come your way.”
Christopher Lockhart
Scripts and Scribes podcast #77

P.S. Lockhart has his own podcast The Inside Pitch, and heads up the Facebook group also called The Inside Pitch.

Related posts: 
The 99% Rule 
Insights from an Oscar-winning writer
40 Days of Emotions
Your Screenplay Sucks!
Christopher Lockhart Q & A An interview I did with Lockhart a few years ago where he talked about writing not a great script, but “the right script.”
“I can’t keep handling this rejection” Screenwriter Graham Moore before he won an Oscar for writing The Imitation Game.
The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously)

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

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