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Posts Tagged ‘The Brothers McMullen’

“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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“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment.”
President Obama
State of the Union Address 1/25/11
(Referencing the Soviet’s rocket launch in 1957 which fueled the USA in the space race.)

“The piece of advice that Walter Gretzky gave (his son) Wayne Gretzky was this…’don’t go where the puck’s been, go where it’s gonna to be.’ The philosophy was simple, if you puck chase you’re always going to be behind the game…You want to be the person that’s where the puck’s going to be.”
Filmmaker Kevin Smith
Sundance 2011

Back in the good old days of 1994 filmmaker Kevin Smith sold his $27,000 film Clerks at Sundance. A year later Edward Burns’ $25,000 film The Brothers McMullen was sold. Both Smith and Burns have continued carving out careers since that time and if you want to see which way the wind is blowing take a look at the direction they are heading as independent filmmakers.

A few months ago Burns’ self-produced Nice Guy Johnny (for again $25,000) and released it on iTunes. And earlier this week Kevin Smith announced that for his latest film, The Red State, he will not be selling the film at Sundance, but instead self-distributing the film first taking it on the road to large venues across the county where he will be speaking after showing the film.

His rational is he has a large fan base that follow his podcasts, Twitter feeds, etc. and he (or a studio) doesn’t need to spend $20 million advertising the film. We’ll see how it plays out. But it’s a good indicator of where the puck is heading for one group of filmmakers.

If you wanted to pinpoint indie film’s modern Sputnik moment I think it’s fitting to point to 1999 when The Blair Witch Project showed Hollywood the power of the internet. More than 10 years later we live in a digital world that has altered the music industry and now well into altering the film and Tv industry.

Five years ago we were watching poor quality short videos on You Tube and today you can stream feature films in high quality directly to your computer or TV via Netflix or the like. It’s no surprise that the last Blockbuster video store in my area announced this month that it was going out of business (following Hollywood Video stores that are long gone).

If independent filmmakers can raise their own money, make their own films AND can control the distribution—that is truly independent filmmaking. It’s a new game for filmmakers everywhere—from LA, to Iowa, and even the former Soviet Union. Heck, I can even see hockey great Walter Gretzky making his own films with his actress wife Janet Jones. (Still remember her role in The Flamingo Kid.)

The old Hollywood expression was it takes an army to make a film, these days you just need a camera—and an army of Twitter/Facebook/You Tube followers interested in the stories you tell. (Some of them won’t just be watching your films, but helping you raise funds as well.)

P.S. Speaking of Sundance & the Internet, I received a form email today from Oscar-winning director Kevin MacDonald saying, “Today we are unveiling Life in a Day at Sundance for the film’s World Premiere. I wanted to take this opportunity to thank all of you for participating in this extraordinary experience….” I was part of the You Tube community who on July 21, 2010 submitted one of the 80,000 clips that they were gathering for a 90 minute film. (Edited down from 4,500 hours of footage. So close. I can always say, “I was this close to having a film in Sundance this year”.)  It will be interesting to see the final film.  Here’s a teaser:

Scott W. Smith

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I have written previously about screenwriters who wrote 10-15-20 screenplays before they saw their first one produced. Here’s the second part of that equation:

“If you want to make independent films, it’s so competitive, and it’s so hard. You’ve got to keep at it. Times in my career where I’ve become lazy or distracted, not only did I feel dissatisfied, like when I go two or three years without a film. But there is a definite ‘Out of Sight Out of Mind’, ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately?’ thing that happens. So I think it’s important to keep working for the more practical and financial reasons and it helps to keep you fresh. I throw out a lot of what I write. Since The Brothers McMullen, I probably have 25 un-produced screenplays that I will probably never do anything with. But they had to be written in order to write the one that followed it.”
Writer/ Director Edward Burns  (She’s the One)
Interview with Cynthina Ellis

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I wanted to find a quote for St. Patrick’s Day from a screenwriter with Irish roots. The quote I found isn’t about screenwriting but I got a kick out of it and I did find a way to tie it into what this blog is all about. It’s from actor/writer/director Edward Burns (Saving Private Ryan, The Brothers McMullen). I’m not 100% sure of the context but it appears to be in a reference to actors who are bothered by paparazzi popping up around every corner.

“If that stuff really bothers you so much, you should go do regional theatre. Go do Chekhov in Iowa. No paparazzi will be following you.”
Edward Burns

See Iowa is always the bench mark for obscurity. (Hence, the title Screenwriting from Iowa.) And speaking of theater in Iowa, congrats to Theatre Cedar Rapids for the renovations they just completed on their historic theater following the flood of ’08 that had the water as high as seven feet inside. It took a lot of time and money to restore it to its original state.

Fans of the movie Office Space may be interested that Ron Livingston was born in Cedar Rapids and has performed on the stage at Theatre Cedar Rapids.  A visit there as a teenager helped give him inspiration to become an actor.

“I remember being in 10th grade and being a part of Marion High School’s job shadowing program and being asked to pick something that I might want to do for a living. I told them I was thinking about being an actor—and in a lot of parts of the country they would have looked at me and laughed and told me to pick something else—but my guidance counselor was able to pick up the telephone, and a week or so later I was able to follow Richard Barker around as he held auditions and gave me a tour of the theater and told me what it would be like to be a professional actor…I’ve very proud to be a part of Theatre Cedar Rapid’s history.”
Actor Ron Livingston

While  paparazzi may not be following you while you’re writing or performing for regional or community theaters in Iowa (or wherever you live in fly-over country) but it sure could lead to bigger things. In fact, just to tie this back into St. Patrick’s Day, the Provincetown Playhouse (on Cape Cod in Massachusetts) not only had a part in the spread of the “Little Theater” movement 100 years ago, but they helped launch the career of  the great playwright Eugene O’Neill.

It would be fun someday to do a screenwriting seminar at the Provincetown Playhouse or Theatre Cedar Rapids and to tap into some of that history and hopefully inspire the next generation of writers and actors rising up from seemingly obscure places.


Scott W. Smith


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When Ed Burns came on the scene in 1995 with his film The Brothers McMullen he was the independent hero of the year. That film was made in the $25,000. range with a loan from his father who was tired of hearing Burns complain about his screenplays not getting made.

The Brothers McMullen won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in ’95 and went on to make over $10 million, which was very impressive until 1997 when The Blair Witch Project with an original budget around $35,ooo grossed well over $100 million.

But Burns has outlasted The Blair Witch gang in the long run. He’s not only directed nine features but he’s picked up work acting in movies and TV shows including Saving Private Ryan. Because his style of writing is more in the style of Woody Allen he’s a little off the radar because his films tend to be dialogue driven films.

But he continues to build his career brick by brick and find innovative ways to distribute his films. In 2007 he became the first filmmaker maker make a feature straight-to-iTunes release. You can hear an interview with Burns speaking about that film, Purple Violets, on NPR. In that interview he talks about the drop in art house audiences over the years due to TiVo, My Space, You Tube and the other ways that people are finding entertainment these days.

So I thought it would be good to go back and look at a quote from Burns about his life before The Brothers McMullen found its way to Sundance and before he found himself acting in a Steven Spielberg movie.

“I wrote seven screenplays that nobody wanted. I’d turn on the light, and there would be thousands of cockroaches. But that was the least of my concerns, because we also had mice and rats.”

Echoing again the process it often takes finding your voice and for your words to make it to the screen. Finding the audience to watch those words on the screen is a whole different process altogether. The good thing about Burns’ commitment to his style of writing and filmmaking is I think his best work is yet to come and he’ll probably be making films into his 60s & 70s.

Scott W. Smith

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once250.jpg
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

I recommend that along with your pint of Guinness or green beer as you celebrate today that you add watching the movie Once if you haven’t seen it (or again if you have seen it). This independent film made in Ireland won the recent Academy Award for Best Song “Falling Slowly.”

It also won the Best Foreign Film at Film Independents Spirit Awards. Shot mostly handheld with a couple Sony HDV cameras for a little over $100,000., this little film has gathered quite a following.

It made many Top 10 film lists for 2007 including the LA Times and USA Today.  Steven Spielberg was quoted as saying “A little movie called Once gave me enough inspiration to last the rest of the year.”

I think it exemplifies the ideals I write about in Screenwriting from Iowa.  And that is people hunger for stories told outside of LA and you can make these films anywhere without spending a lot of money.

Here’s the story in a nutshell from the Fox Searchlight website;

A modern-day musical set on the streets of Dublin featuring Glen Hansard from the Irish band “The Frames.” The film tells the story of a street musician and a Czech immigrant (played by Marketa Irglova) during an eventful week as they write, rehearse and record songs that reveal their unique love story.

Writer/director Jim Carney said that he didn’t want to spend a year and a half writing the script so he wrote 60 pages and shot the film with a mix of the script and improv. (One of the funniest lines in the film “I’m a broken-hearted-Hoover-fixer-sucker guy” was an improv line.) The film is made up of approximately 60% of music.

“Camcorders are a small thing. You don’t need huge arc lights and 35 mill. If you have some way of getting a bit of sound on your picture and syncing them up — go off and make you bleeding movie. It doesn’t matter where it’s made or how it’s made. At the end of the day an audience just wants to see a director’s vision.”

Carney says he was inspired by the John Cassavetes’ film Faces. In that you could make a film “with four characters in your parents home.” Once was shot in 17 days.

If you want to make it an independent Irish double feature night throw in The Brothers McMullen. A film made for $25,000 in 1995 and which launched writer/director Edwards Burns’ career.

Finish the night with a little U2, Van Morrison and Enya and you’ve had quite a proper St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

And let’s not forget Ireland’s great literary past that includes Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats.

In closing let me mention that Carney says on the DVD that he titled his film Once because people always have an excuse and say “Once….”

As in “”Once I get some money saved…”

“Once I get a camera…”

“Once I move to LA…”

…then we’re going to do something special. We miss many opportunities.

As the old saying goes, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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