[Editor’s Note: Edward Burns’ Newlyweds is available through VOD, on DVD and by digital download as of 12/26]

Since entering the world of independent film in the mid-nineties with The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One, Edward Burns has become a prolific writer, director, producer, and actor. After his initial success a filmmaker, Burns landed roles in projects as varied as Saving Private Ryan, TV’s “Will and Grace,” and 27 Dresses. As Burns continued to produce his own films independently, he found himself becoming an innovator in distribution, looking for new ways to bring his films to a changing marketplace, primarily by releasing them directly to iTunes and other digital formats. With his latest film Newlyweds, Burn’s got the crew and much of the cast of his last several films (including last year’s Nice Guy Johnny) back together to produce another micro-budgeted, insightful, and funny take on family and relationships. I recently spoke with Burns on the phone from New York, and he shared with me some insights into writing and producing his films, and how his fascinations as a filmmaker led to the familiar yet distinct Newlyweds.

Jackson Truax: How has independent film changed over the course of your career, and how did that lead you to your current model of making and releasing films?

Edward Burns: When I was coming up, the expectations for some of these smaller-budgeted films…was to do…a half-million dollars, maybe get to a million or two at the domestic box office. That would be considered an enormous success. And then [in] the mid-nineties…those expectations changed pretty dramatically. These movies were expected to do big, big numbers at the box office. They did for a while. Those were high times. But then around ’06, a guy named Mark Gill who ran Warner Independent, gave the famous “sky is falling” speech… Everybody has all sorts of different theories as to why the audience stopped showing up to the theaters… I personally think it had to do…with the fact that HBO and Showtime and other cable stations were providing well-written, well-acted alternatives to what was available in the theater. The Sopranos was better than any gangster movie that came out in the last ten years. Six Feet Under and Curb Your Enthusiasm were better than a lot of the quirky, indie films that came out. The Shield is as good as any cop movie… The audience…they used to only have one option or two options on a [weeknight]. Go down to the art-house theater…or stay in and watch network television. All of the sudden, the audience…had another option… I think the thing that I’ve been trying to play with, and a lot of other filmmakers have as well, is…[starting] to deliver the movies to them… Comcast saw a 75% uptick in the number of views that they’ve had On-Demand… The other big change…when I made my first film back then, [The Brothers McMullen], for $25,000, you got a very grainy, unprofessional looking, 16 millimeter movie. Now, $25,000 gets you a very professional…digital image. That really has leveled the playing field… With iTunes…we can make our films inexpensively…[then] distribute them digitally. [We’re] able to cut out the middleman, keep ownership of the copyright, and sell them directly to [our] consumers or to the fans.

JT: A lot of your films share a theme of disparate friends and family members coming back together, or the wayward person coming home, and that theme is on display again in Newlyweds. What draws you to those themes?

EB: I’m just interested in relationships. How they work. Why they work. The good ones; the dysfunctional ones. That’s always been…my obsession as a reader, as a moviegoer, and…as a writer and filmmaker… I like these slice-of-life stories. I like to see myself, or a version of myself, or a character that reminds me of myself reflected in the films that I go see or the books I read… I want the audience to say, “I am that guy.” Or, “I know that guy or that woman. I’ve made those same mistakes.” It hasn’t been a conscious decision on my part… I like small movies that are set in the real world…that have to do with the little things.

JT: When you’re writing and directing a movie that’s dealing with these themes you’re drawn too, how do you make sure the movies feel unique and fresh each time out?

EB: I try not to repeat the same dynamics. I’ve written about different types of siblings. Brothers, in the first two films. In [Newlyweds] I’ve got sisters… You end up falling in love with a new notion and a new idea and get excited about exploring that… With [Newlyweds], one of the themes that I fell upon that I got excited to play with was this notion of honesty and “How honest do you need to be in your relationships? When is it okay to lie? How many white lies or lies of omission, when they’re piled on top of one another, what’s the affect of that?  Does a series of little lies give way to the room or the excuse to tell the bigger lie? ” In this case…I wrote the scene when [Burns’ character] Buzzy covers for his sister about the coat, says that he gave her the coat that she took, that was kind of a key moment in the writing. [I said] “I want this movie to be about those little things.” Not only the little lies that we tell, but also the little things that people do that eat away at the strength of a relationship. One of the things that I wanted to explore was that relationships usually don’t fall apart because of a giant, cataclysmic event. It’s a series of small, little things that sort-of chip away at the foundation. That’s what’s in arguments about the towels on the floor and the stealing of the coat, forgetting to tell that you had this conversation or that conversation with someone.

JT: Since you wrote and shot the film entirely independently, what were some of the freedoms you had that you wouldn’t have had if this had been a studio project or the script had been in development?

EB: First and foremost would be the cast. I’ve worked primarily with unknowns. I would have been forced to work with a different cast. These are all actors that I’ve worked with before. People like Max [Baker], Marsha [Dietlein], and Dara [Coleman] have been working in New York for 10-20 years doing theater. None of them are famous. But they’re great, accomplished actors… I work in a way now where I like to improvise a lot on-set. I like to re-write constantly while I’m working… I don’t shoot consecutive days. I’ll shoot for 2-3 days. Then take 3 weeks off, and take that footage into the editing room and play with it, and let the footage that I’ve shot and the choices that the actors have made and the improv that they’ve done start to shape the film. Then I re-write accordingly… I’ve had everything from the title of my movie changed to the ending changed… If there was one thing you had to compromise creatively, it wouldn’t be worth it.

JT: In the past your films have been filled with well-known songs that have really helped drive the narrative. How has micro-budget filmmaking impacted how you choose or use music?

EB: I’ve been collaborating…on the last four films with a singer/songwriter and film composer named P.T. Walkley. [Walkley] and I have worked out a great collaboration. This film didn’t have a lot of music. But it’s all [Walkley], with the exception of one song. He’s become my go-to-guy. My John Williams, if you will. I give him the script early on in the process. Well before we start shooting, And he and I will talk about what we want to music to accomplish in the film. He’ll then start writing and giving me things while I’m shooting.

JT: You’ve talked about your next film being a return to the world of The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One. Do you think the production and distribution models will be similar to your last several films?

EB: The production model absolutely will be. We’re going to try and do this one for $25,000 again. The same 2-man crew, and a bunch of actors that have worked with me on these micro-budgeted films. They’re down with the program. As far as the distribution, that I don’t know. I’m guessing that we would probably go about it the same way… Let’s say the film is done a year from now, looking at how dramatically the landscape has changed from when I first attempted this with Purple Violets back in ’07, and journalists were telling me, “No one’s ever going to watch a movie on their computer, let alone their phone.” Here we are four years later, I watch almost everything on my iPad. Who knows what the next shift will be in the next eighteen months?

JT: Nice Guy Johnny came out just over a year ago. Do you think your latest approach to filmmaking will make it possible to continue to release a film a year? Is that something you’d aspire to?

EB: That was always the dream. I always looked to Woody Allen for a number of inspirations. One of them was the notion of getting to do this once a year… We stumbled onto this approach. It was out of necessity with [The Brothers McMullen] and an experiment with Nice Guy Johnny… We fell in love with it. So the answer is yes. I would like to be able to do it at minimum one a year.

5 Responses to “Edward Burns on his new $9000 indie “Newlyweds””

  1. I cringe whenever I see an actual film maker brag about watching “almost everything” on his iPad, but I get that he’s like most people out there these days.

    I can’t believe he shoots features for $25,000 but with a two-man crew, I guess that’s possible. Interesting take on the other side of indie. Thanks Jackson.

  2. Thanks Joel. Even though Edward Burns has been criticized for his films not being “independent” enough in story, style, or spirit, it’s always great to see films and talk to filmmakers who are really working with no name actors, small budgets, and no financial tightrope. The essence of independence if you ask me.

  3. The criticism is really silly, but typical. There was a time not that long ago where “indie” was not a marketing term connoting a quirky or serious style but simply a designation for film makers working outside the big studio system. I doubt Roger Corman would have many entries at Sundance or Telluride, and it’s good to see people making low budget, no-strings-attached fare aimed at a more mainstream audience.

    I’m happy to see him leveraging iTunes too. Indie film makers need to utilize every avenue possible to find an audience these days. Frankly, theatrical distribution is a model that is almost solely open to the studios, major and minor. And theatrical distribution is slowly dying the death of a thousand cuts anyway.

  4. I read an interesting piece recently, not only on the death of the theatrical window, but how much traffic Netflix Instant is getting, and how the most-watched films are foreign and/or indie titles (including the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). I immediately thought of Edward Burns when I read that. He’s right, the audience didn’t fall out of love with that type of storytelling, they just got tired of paying $20 to spend two hours telling the people around them to turn their phones off. Not that I’m bitter or anything… But I am hoping that more foreign, indie, and documentary films will become more available digitally, though it already seems to be happening more every year. It’s great to have access to these excellent films if you don’t live down the street from an arthouse.

  5. It’s OK to be bitter. Rising ticket prices and $8 for a bag of popcorn are bad, but the actual theater experience is damaged more by the douchey behavior of fellow movie-goers than it is by the profiteering of Hollywood and theater owners. Every conversation I have with folks about the theater experience always ends on that note: we have no one but ourselves to blame in the end.

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