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Edward Burns

Books by Edward Burns

Books by Edward Burns published by Seven Stories Press

Author Q&A

Writer-director Ed Burns’s debut film, “The Brothers McMullen,” opened in theaters just over twenty years ago, as he was about to turn twenty-seven years old. Despite his incredibly modest ambitions for the film (and its tiny $25,000 budget), it won the grand jury prize at Sundance in 1995, and the canny filmmaker has since managed to make ten more movies — “Sidewalks of New York” (2001), “The Groomsmen” (2006), and, most recently, “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas” (2012) among them. That’s no easy feat. He recently distilled the practical knowledge gleaned during that time into his book Independent Ed: What I Learned From My Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life, which comes out in paperback Tuesday, November 10.

Burns’s book joins a canon of indie-film lit that includes classics such as John Sayles’s Thinking in Pictures (1987), Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew (1995), and Christine Vachon’s Shooting to Kill (1998, with David Edelstein), along with broader surveys of the scene such as John Pierson’s Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema (1996) and Peter Biskind’s Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (2004). The filmmaker’s latest writing-directing-acting project, the TNT period crime-drama series “Public Morals,” has pushed him in a fresh direction, and while waiting for news on a potential second season Burns spoke with Penguin Random House about his early aspirations, his inspirations and obsessions, and the kind of film he’d most love to make next (it will surprise you).

PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE: Back when you were first contemplating this path, did you read books about indie filmmaking that were helpful?

EDDIE BURNS: I really didn’t. For me, it was a guy named Jon Jost, who was an experimental filmmaker. His most mainstream film, “All the Vermeers in New York,” came out in 1990. One of these small, downtown, indie-film monthly publications did an interview with him, and Jost’s argument to young filmmakers was: “Do not listen to anyone in Hollywood and what they tell you. You need to make a film. They don’t want you to succeed, and they don’t want you to make a film. But I’ve done this and I’m going to tell you what you need. All you need is a camera …” It was an eye-opener to me because at that time there weren’t any stories about how folks were getting these movies made. And then Filmmaker magazine did a breakdown on the budgets of “Laws of Gravity,” Nick Gomez’s first movie [1992], which was made for about $38,000; one of the early Hal Hartley movies, maybe “The Unbelievable Truth” or “Trust”; and, I think, Gregg Araki’s movie “The Living End,” which had a budget of maybe $50,000. Those were two things that were available to anybody at that time. There was nothing else for us to get our hands on like, “Here’s a how-to guide.”

PRH: Looking back now, people point to “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” (1989) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994) as big breakthroughs for independent cinema. Did you feel part of that larger wave? And were you inspired by it?

EB: Certainly inspired. “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” — that’s the one that we all saw. If you wanted to make indie movies in the early ’90s, that was our “Citizen Kane.” The next film I see that blows my mind is “Reservoir Dogs.” I remember seeing that film at the Independent Feature Film Market, hearing about Tarantino, hearing about the budget, having my mind blown — and quite honestly instead of thinking, Oh, I could do that, I have to admit the reverse was true, I felt like, Oh, shit, I can’t do that. The movies that came right after that, like Hal Hartley’s movies, Linklater’s “Slacker,” the Araki movie, and Nick Gomez’s movie — these micro-budget indies didn’t have the profile of “Reservoir Dogs” or “Sex, Lies,” but they were playing at the Angelika and you would read about them in The Village Voice. And you were like, All right, that’s the goal. I never thought “McMullen” would turn into what it did. I thought I was going for the much smaller niche, the tiny indie that might play for a week at Angelika and a week at some theater in L.A.

PRH:Do you feel like your writing has changed over the last twenty years?

EB: Yeah, I think it has. If I look at “Public Morals” and what I’m writing about, it’s a much bigger canvas and different types of characters and involves a lot more research. That whole process is very different than making a small personal story that you’re drawing from your life, your experiences, your friends, that takes place in forty-eight hours with four characters. The bigger change came from: When I wrote “McMullen” and “She’s the One,” I was a big believer in story structure and outlining, and I did a lot of work before I allowed myself to write any dialogue. And then after “Sidewalks of New York” I thought that I knew enough about structure that I didn’t need to do that anymore, that it would just come naturally. When I look at the scripts that I wrote for probably the next four films I think: There’s some interesting characters there, there’s some interesting scenes, and there was potentially a much better movie had I just given more thought to what the story I really wanted to tell is and what’s the best way to tell that story. When I look at those films, they lack a strong central narrative. They go off on tangents, there are inconsistencies in the characters, and that’s all based on one thing: not doing the work before you sit down to write the script.

PRH: Do you read much? What’s really impacted you lately that you’ve read?

EB: For a long time I read no nonfiction, and I don’t know why this happened but about seven years ago I started reading nonfiction just for fun. Then, when I tried to pivot my career away from those smaller personal stories, I had this Hell’s Kitchen gangster story that I wanted to tell that took place at the turn of the century. I’ve always been a little bit of a New York history buff, but then my focus zeroed in on that neighborhood. Of course, you read one book about it and you want to go a little deeper. And then doing [“Public Morals”], it also had to do with cops in New York, in the ’60s, and I got my hands on a bunch of out-of-print memoirs written by cops over the years. There’s this book from the ’50s called The Kind of Guy I Am [by Robert McAllister, 1959] about a guy who was a cop in the ’20s. Right now I’m reading A Cop Remembers [by Cornelius William Willemse, 1933], which is a memoir about a turn-of-the-century cop in New York City. If I go on to Amazon, they clearly are paying attention to what I’m into: “Oh, if you liked On the Irish Waterfront then you would probably like My Father’s Gun and Duffy’s War…” So, like Scorsese said, “A filmmaker’s job is to make his obsessions the audience’s obsessions.” My obsession right now is Hell’s Kitchen and the history of the West Side.

PRH:What do you want to do as a filmmaker or a writer that you haven’t done yet?

EB: Hands down, my next dream project is a Western. One of the first film appreciation classes I took was called “Four Directors”: Wilder, Welles, Hitchcock, and John Ford. I didn’t watch Westerns as a kid. When I saw “Stagecoach” for the first time, I just fell in love with that genre. Those are my go-to films. I’ve written two or three Westerns that I couldn’t get made over the years. So that’s really what I would love to do.
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