Ed Burns Interview

07 January 2009

Ed Burns, working class Joe, writes what he knows for his first drama

Ed Burns, working class Joe, writes what he knows for his first drama

Ed Burns was the first big wonderkid to come out of theSundance Film Festival.

In 1995 his $25,000 "The Brothers McMullen" tookPark City, Utah by storm, getting picked up by Miramax for distributionand grossing more than $10 million upon it's U.S. release.

Three years later, Burns is touring to promote his firstdrama, "No Looking Back," another working-class tome about awaitress barely holding on to her dreams while two men compete for herheart.

A much more mature effort than "McMullen" or1996's "She's The One," this sad but uplifting, slice-of-lifepicture is surprisingly (for a guy who writes beer-swilling brother movies)from a female point of view. Lauren Holly stars in what could be the rolethat frees her from being cast as The Girl in comedies. Burns plays thedrifter ex-boyfriend who returns to her rundown home town to win her back.Her marriage-minded, nice guy fiance is played with unexpected sincerityand talent by former feather-haired rocker Jon Bon Jovi.

Contactmusic.com talked to Burns on a publicity stop in San Francisco.

Contactmusic.com: When I talked to you in 1996, you saidyou were working on a script, but you wouldn't tell me anything about it.Was this the one?

Ed Burns:This was the one, yeah. Did you get tosee it yet?

S: Yes. I saw it last night. I think it's yourbest picture yet.

EB: Oh, thanks!

S: I was really impressed. I knew exactly wherethe story was going the whole time, but I really enjoyed the journey.

EB: Oh, you knew that she was going to get out onher own? (sounds disappointed)

S: I guessed. But I enjoyed the journey, thesense of place, and Lauren Holly -- who I have always thought, from backall the way to "Dragon" (in which she played Bruce Lee's wife),had great potential. I mean, she's funny in the comedies that she did,but I knew that she did...

EB: She's got real chops!

S: I knew she could do really powerful stuff,and this was the opportunity.

EB: Yeah. With the film...I mean, just cinematically,it was a big thing. I mean with "McMullen" -- you can't count"McMullen" because that was just put the camera on the sticksand capture an image. You know? And the first two films were just so talkythat I knew I needed to take a step and a filmmaker and try to tell thestory cinematically, with images. I think we definitely did that. My DP(director of photography) and I sat down and the overall look of the film,the lighting -- that blue and dark look that we went with -- and then justvery subtle camera movements. I'm starting to move the camera more, andmontage. So it was definitely a big step for me as a filmmaker in thatway.

S: And as a writer?

EB: As a writer -- you know, comedy is fun, andit might be harder, but it's less satisfying. Writing comedy you can exaggeratesituations, and even if you have a scene that's not working, if it's funnyin the end, if you've got two funny lines in it, it works. In a way, youcan be dishonest. But in this film, there's no room for that. This hadto be completely authentic. You had to buy every moment that these charactersare going through, or you lose it. So...I don't want to say it's easier,but it's much more satisfying than writing a comedy.

S: Was is hard for Ed Burns to sell a drama?

EB: Nobody wanted to make this film. We originallywanted to make it for like 12 million, because we wanted shooting days.We made the film for five million and, damn, you know when I made "McMullen,"I thought if I had five million, I'd have all the money in the world andI could do whatever I want. Five million dollars gave us 35 days, whichis not enough time to make a movie. So you're running and gunning constantly.Constantly looking at how we could save money.

Like we couldn't afford to shoot in a supermarket. We couldn'tjustify what it would cost to rent out a supermarket for a day, so thatscene we had to pull out. But it turned out to be a blessing that we didn'thave the money, because it turned into the circular dolly scene where BonJovi and Lauren are in the ball field, with those great clouds.

S: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

EB: So sometimes not having the money is a blessing.I mean, (only $5 million), and it's the most personal film I've ever made.The one that's closest to my heart.

S: I got that. I knew from interviewing you beforethat you'd grown up in a real blue collar neighborhood and it really feltlike each of the three main characters felt frustrated with where theywere stuck...and they were stuck.

EB: That's the think I was trying to look at --dreams. They all have these different kinds of dreams. Bon Jovi's dreamis a simple dream. I took this from one of my friends. He'd just gottena job with benefits and now that he's got the benefits was ready to askhis girlfriend to get married, and couldn't wait to buy a house and havea family -- and the guy couldn't be happier. And I thought, wow. I mean,if you're sort of a careerist you might think that's simple, but the guyis happy. That's an honorable, good life. So I wanted that character.

But at the same point, he's trying to force that dreamon Claudia. But when she looks at her mom, when she looks at her sister,when she looks at him, she knows that's not the life she wants.

I didn't want to give her the Hollywood dream. She wasn'tgoing to off to L.A. to be a model or an actress. She wasn't up at nightwriting the great American novel. She wasn't a painter or poet. She didn'teven want to go and open up her own diner.

So I guess that coupled with my being a huge Springsteinfan, and years of listening to songs about getting in your car and takingoff out of town, I thought, you know, that can be the dream.

S: What had you seen in Holly that made you thinkshe could do something this serious?

EB: Well, I had only seen her in "Sabrina"and "Beautiful Girls." I liked what I had seen in those two films,and a friend of mine had told me almost what you said, that he'd workedwith her and she's got the stuff but she hasn't been given the opportunityto sink her teeth into a real role.

Also what I was looking for with all of the actors wasI wanted people who came from the East Coast. I didn't want to hire anybodyfrom Los Angeles, because there are just certain inflections in the cadenceof the speech and mannerisms that are just a little different. It was somethingI didn't want to have to teach.

And I wanted people who had come from -- hopefully -- smalltowns, who kind of knew this experience and knew these characters. Youknow Jon is from Sayerville, New Jersey, and Lauren is from this tiny townin upstate New York and had actually worked as a waitress in a shit bagdiner.

S: By the way, simple thing, but that shot ofher filing her nails, looking over at the aged waitress also filing hernails -- that was beautiful. That was the whole story in a nutshell.

EB: Well, I can't take credit for that. I had writtena scene that was similar to that -- I can't even remember what I had --and Lauren actually said, "Why don't you have me filing my nails?Because that's something a woman would do if she has some down time. Ican look over at the other waitress and she's doing the same thing?"And I said, "Brilliant."

I had asked her and (co-star) Connie Britton to give mestuff like that. People are people, and I think I can write emotionallywhat a woman is going through, but it's those sort of little subtletiesthat there's not way I would know.

S: And what about Jon Bon Jovi? I was kind ofsurprised to see him in somthing dramatic. I was surprised to see him actso well, quite frankly. What did you see that made you think he could doit?

EB: I was having such a tough time casting the part,and his acting coach, who is a friend of mine, kept telling me, "Look,Jon's good. Give him a shot." And the fact that he was from Jersey,you know, he grew up in a town identical (to the one in the film). So Isaid, alright, let's meet.

He came in to audition, and the one great thing about Jonis that he doesn't try to act. He doesn't feel the need to do stuff,which was perfect for the character. He's very slight and there's a nicesubtlety, not too agressive, which is what I needed for the character.Like that breakup scene at the end, where he can't even look at her.

S: So what do you think is the deal with allthese working class Joe movies? I mean, we got "GoodWill Hunting," we got those three"doesn't it suck to be working class in England" movies -- "TheVan," "BrassedOff" and "FullMonty" -- suppose that has anythingto do with "McMullen" or did it start before that?

EB: Hmm. The "McMullen" influence. I hadn'tthought of that. (laughs)

I don't know. I dug "Good Will." I mean, I reallyliked that. But I don't know. Maybe everything just sort of comes in cycles.During the '80s nobody seemed to give a crap about ever telling the story-- or even until the mid-'90s -- working class America had just sort ofbeen forgotten about. The white working poor, if you will, is just a groupthat nobody was telling stories about. For me, it's just this is what Iknow, so this is what I write about.

S: Do you think it could be in part the surgeof independent film, with struggling filmmakers telling their own stories?

EB: Well, I get beaten up by the independent filmcommunity for my films. I forget the guy's name, but somebody said my charactersaren't worthy of the independent spirit. That they're too regular. Thatthe independent films should cover people on the outskirts of society.So I don't know if it's an independent thing.

S: Well, independent film should have a muchbroader definition than that.

EB: I have no idea what it means. I could care lessabout being a part of the independent film community.

S: You're just making movies.

EB: Exactly. I look at Spike Lee, Woody Allen, Scorsese,all guys that make films for studios and are the three most independentfilm makers out there. I guess the Coen brothers are in there, too. Youknow, guys that write their own stuff, have a singular voice and vision,final cut, make their films uncompromising. Who give you your money, whodistributes -- I mean, come on. Miramax? Is that independent film? They'reowned by Disney! I'm sure Harvey Feinstein has more input that any studiohead on somebody's film.

S: Now, about the characters you play in yourfilms. Do you just like playing the bastard?

EB: Well, I don't think...The "McMullen"guy was definitely a bit of a bastard. But I think Mickey (in "She'sthe One") was a decent enough guy.

S: But they're guys you wouldn't trust that much.

EB: Yeah, yeah. Well, certainly Charlie was themost fun to write and even more fun to play. When I gave my friends thescript, people just assumed I'd play Michael, the nicer guy that has thegirl. But I wanted to...Charlie came from...he's sort of a composite oftwo guys in my neighborhood.

When I was in high school, I pumped gas at the Exxon stationin my neighborhood. There was a guy who was probably about 28 years old,he drove a beat up hot rod, he had girls all the time, drank beer all daylong, getting into fights.

But you know, when you're 17, you look up that this guylike "Man, he's cool!" I thought he was the man. But lookingback, the guy's 28 years old and he's still pumping gas, he's still chasingafter high school girls, but he still thinks he's cool. And that's sortof sad. And that's sort of where I came up with Charlie. Those guys thatare sort of living that bizarre, extended adolescence.

S: Quickly on another topic: "Saving Pvt.Ryan." How did you like working for somebody else for a change?

EB: I loved it.

Well, first, you're working with Spielberg. I spent threemonths looking over his shoulder. I'm at the ultimate graduate film school.At lunch I got to listen to him talk about why "The Godfather"is great. You know, these ultimate film seminars every day at lunch.

But as far as the process, it was great. It was nice tohave less responsibility, to only have to worry about my lines. I mean,we had weeks where we were shooting these battle sequences. We'd have oneline a day, like "Charlie, pull up the rear!" or "Coverthe left flank!," you know? So basically you're just kind of hangingout in a World War II uniform, shooting a machine gun, running around.

S: I can totally see you geared out for WorldWar II.

EB: Oh, yeah.

S: I can see you smoking the Camel backwardsto burn off the logo and the helmet...

EB: I was the cigar guy.

S: Oh, there you go.

EB: Everyone else had cigarettes and they wantedto have different props, so I volunteered for cigar duty.

S: You a cigar kind of guy?

EB: Well, not really. I don't smoke cigarettes,so I figured I'd do the cigar since everyone else smoked butts. The problemwith the cigar is, you know, you do 20 takes of a scene, you're smoking20 cigars. By the end of the day, your mouth tastes like ass.


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