Thanks to The Brothers McMullen, a comedy he wrote, directed and starred in, Edward Burns became part of the same mid-1990s independent film scene that blew up Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, James Gray, Jon Favreau and Robert Rodriguez all at roughly the same time. In Toronto for his third trip with his 13th picture, Beneath a Blue Suburban Sky, Burns sat down for a Guinness at McVeigh’s Irish Pub and reflected on a film industry that’s imploded since he commissioned Tom Petty to record a soundtrack and cast Jennifer Aniston in her first major film role.
“It wasn’t a good business to make indie films in the late eighties and early nineties. It had a nice little boom in the mid-nineties through the early aughts and then it’s been kind of a crappy business to be in since then,” says Burns, a father of two teenagers, in his distinct high-pitched New York drawl that would be immediately recognizable to anyone who saw him play the smart aleck in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan alongside Matt Damon and Tom Hanks.
“Obviously, there’s indie movies every year that do really well, but the vast majority struggle to find an audience, lose money or just make peanuts. So anyone making independent films now isn’t sweating a huge sale and big box office opening weekend. … It’s not supposed to make money. You’re supposed to just make another film.”
In 2015, Burns made the 10-episode crime drama Public Morals for TNT and he currently has television projects on the go at AMC, Apple TV, Netflix and MGM’s Epix. He says making episodic TV for streaming services affords him the luxury of making films such as Beneath a Blue Suburban Sky, which is a bittersweet portrait of a family shot in black and white about, as cliché as it sounds, the death of the American dream. Burns wrote the film after aborting a Brothers McMullen sequel for his film’s 20th anniversary. He says he couldn’t honestly recreate the hope of working-class America of an earlier time.
“When I wrote McMullen in ’92, all of those characters absolutely believed that they would do better than their parents did,” he says, adding he got 45 pages into his script, inspired, in part, by Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2, until he realized the story rang false. “It just didn’t feel like an honest reflection of what young, working-class kids are going through today … and I put it down. But what it did do was inspire the telling of this story.”
There’s elements of The Last Picture Show and the plays of Arthur Miller in this new story, but it’s told with restraint and empathy for its struggling characters. These characters include Tina, the mom played by Jennifer Ehle, and the son Frankie, played by Brian Wiles, whose worst moments occur off-screen. Instead of overdoses and drunken theatrics, we see the characters waking up together ashamed in the morning, still a family, still broken and confused about how to live.
“If I got the rights to an Edith Wharton novel, you would treat those characters and those rooms with a certain level of respect and that was what we wanted to do here,” says Burns, who worked as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight before Brothers McMullen, but also pumped gas and worked on a garbage truck.
The son of a police officer, Burns’s best friends are still the people he grew up with in Queens. “I didn’t want to fall victim to a certain depiction of working-class people that we’ve probably seen enough of – the screaming and yelling and the kid shooting up, you’ve seen those scenes a hundred times,” he says. “I wanted to portray this family with dignity, so that the audience is invested is key.”
At the Toronto International Film Festival, Burns has modest goals. After his Guinness, he’s going to order room service and watch the Philadelphia Phillies play a big series against his New York Mets. He’s looking forward to seeing his film with an audience and excited for Ehle to receive what’s sure to be a rousing ovation. He no longer dreams of selling out Madison Square Garden. Burns at 51 says he’s good making people happy at places such as McVeigh’s.
“I don’t know how many people will eventually see this movie wherever it shows up and whatever streaming service it will show up on, but as far as my expectations and wishes, I’ve checked my boxes,” he says. “We made a tough little movie and we’re playing Toronto. Tonight, I’m going back up to my room to work on my next script.”