Edward Burns became an overnight success after his 1995 indie film The Brothers McMullen – which he made for $25,000 – became the toast of the Sundance Film Festival. Since then, he's gone a few rounds with the Hollywood machine (as both filmmaker and actor), but has shined brightest when making more personal, character-driven movies. In his new book Independent Ed, Burns discusses the highs and lows of his unique career. Here, he shares some of the secrets to his success, including why an itty-bitty budget can be a blessing.
Poverty is the mother of invention
If you're working with a lower budget and you're setting out to make a film that looks like a Hollywood film, you're going to fail. If you want to do an action sequence, don't try to compete with their action sequences. Again, you're going to fail. Instead, you embrace the lack of resources and budget and figure out a different way to tell a story. There are so many examples over the years of filmmakers who have figured out how to use the lower-budget aesthetic to their advantage. When I was coming up there was Slacker and El Mariachi, which had a lot of action in it and which was made for something like $7,000. Robert Rodriguez came up with his own way of shooting action on his budget and it ended up being something we hadn't seen before and just amazing. Or look at Kevin Smith's first movie, Clerks – there's something about the grainy, black-and-white photography style that pulls you into that story. Another great one is Blair Witch. They said, "Okay, we don't have money, but wouldn't it be cool if being a gritty, grainy little movie was our hook?"
There's no such thing as a silent partner
The minute you sign on and take someone else's money, you are inviting them into the creative process – you now have a partner and collaborator. Very few people who write cheques for indie films don't want their voice heard and to have their stamp on the film. Maybe they have their own ideas about the script, or the casting. Maybe they want to cast a girlfriend or a brother, and as the person who accepted the money, you might not be in a position to say no. Making movies is almost always about compromising. In my career I have two lists of compromises: The first is the list of compromises you have to make when you accept money from somebody else. The second is the list of compromises that come along with making a film on a micro-budget: I'm not going to be able to hire a movie star, I'm not going to have a Steadicam and a crane, and the actors are going to have to wear their own clothing. Based on the kind of film you want to make, you have to choose one list or the other. In my career it's the second list that has more often been part of the creative vision.
Advice from Big Mama's House
I met Tyler Perry a few years ago while we were both working together as actors on that movie Alex Cross. He is also a successful filmmaker, of course, and one day he said to me, "Your first films were so successful and everybody loved that whole Irish family thing, so how come you never went back to that?" I didn't really have an explanation. Your life changes, you're interested in writing about different things. I think also, when you first get success you feel like you should be trying new things and moving out of your comfort zone. And then your comfort zone changes. For my first two movies, I'm writing about what it's like to be a working-class kid in Long Island, but after Brothers McMullen came out I was a guy living in New York City with some money in his pocket, travelling around the word, going to film festivals. I didn't really think about going back to that working-class experience in my writing, but then Tyler Perry gave me this great advice. He said you should think about super-serving your niche – that original audience that loved your stuff, if you serve up something else like that they're going to love it. And he was absolutely right.
Advice from a supermodel
My wife [model Christy Turlington] is a great resource, especially when I'm writing female characters. I was just watching a cut of one of the episodes of the new show that I'm working on and she told me, "You've got to cut that line – that woman would never say that." It can be a challenge for me to write women. I've always enjoyed it, though. The other resource I like to use is the actresses I work with. I'll say, "Look, this is where the scene is going, this is where we're starting and here's where we need to get, but I don't care if you change any of the dialogue and put it into a more honest voice." A lot of the actresses I've worked with love that opportunity and it can make your movie better.
Sometimes it's better to sit back
On the set of Saving Private Ryan [the first movie Burns acted in where he wasn't the writer-director], the whole gang of us were these young actors and filmmakers from the independent film world. We were constantly bugging [Steven] Spielberg with questions and he was really great about it. One of the things I took away from that experience is his approach to working with actors. He would allow us three takes before he really gave any direction. Those first takes, I was so nervous and not very good, but he didn't step in and say, no, I think you should do that or try a little bit this way. As an actor that kind of thing can crush your confidence and make you question your choices, and that's hard to come back from. Ever since then, that's how I work with my actors. If you cast the right people, you don't have to do a lot of work with your actors. Giving them space can lead to some great moments that you didn't anticipate.
De Niro is no divo
As an actor I have been incredibly lucky to have worked with three of the giants: Hanks, Hoffman and De Niro. They all have a different approach, but there's one thing they all have in common, which is a real dedication and focus to the work. That's not to say they don't have a good time on set – there was plenty of that too, but these are people who have accomplished everything you can accomplish in this business, and they still care. They show up on time every day, they know their lines, there are no ego trips or b.s. For me, getting to work with those three guys as I was coming up gave me a great example of how to conduct myself as an actor. As a director, I've been lucky. I haven't had to deal with any of the head cases yet. I haven't had the weirdo movie star who holds up the production. We've all heard those stories, but so far, so good. Knock on wood.
This interview was condensed and edited by Courtney Shea.