When The Brothers McMullen premiered at Sundance in 1995, Ed Burns was just an aspiring filmmaker fresh out of school—eager to succeed but adamant about preserving his vision and telling the kind of stories that he’d like to see. And now, seventeen years after his debut feature, Burns has built a name for himself and career that’s not only admirable but allows him to side-step between the worlds of Hollywood actor and micro-budget indie filmmaker. As the writer, director, and star, his first few films told the stories of tight-knit working-class Irish-American families in New York—dramas that always felt both intimate and familiar while having a unique edge that came from someone just on the cusp of success. And in the years since, between acting in films like Saving Private Ryan and (most recently) Alex Cross, Burns has taken his own films in a slightly different direction as his own life progresses. But with his latest effort, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, he takes us back to the world of his earlier films, reminding us what made us first fall in love with him as a filmmaker.
Set during the holidays, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas brings Burns back together with the wonderful Connie Britton and Mike McGlone, as part of an ensemble cast that weaves together the lives of adult siblings grappling with the relationship with their estranged father who has returned home for the first time since he walked out on the family 20 years ago. As the film unfolds, emotions are challenged, family dynamics are examined, and the possibility for forgiveness begins to show. For the characters, it’s a film about coming home; but for Burns, this film also feels as if he’s returned to his roots. It seems he’s traveled back to a place where he feels most at home as a filmmaker, delivering one of his best films in years. We sat down with Burns to talk about his cinematic gods, the amazing Connie Britton, and balancing his role as an actor and filmmaker.
Throughout all of your work as a filmmaker, it seems these intimate family dramas are what you’re most interested in working with. Where does that come from for you?
You know, there are those films that you saw in film school when you’re being exposed to all the greats, and for whatever reason there’s at thing sparks you, where you say, okay I want to do that. For me, one of the big films that really got me excited about storytelling was Last Picture Show—less about family, more about those two boys who were great friends, but there are family dynamics in it. It’s a big ensemble dealing with a lot of characters and great themes. There’s also the movie Tender Mercies, which is a small little movie about a tiny family but it has to do with forgiveness and redemption. And so those were two films I remember seeing and got excited about it. Being a Woody Allen fan—Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, etc. My stuff isn’t cool or hip or cutting edge, it’s honest. I guess, like a musician when they find their tone and people say you need to own your tone, for me it’s like, when you find your sweet spot. I think I’m most comfortable and I do a better job as a writer and a filmmaker when I stay in that honest place.
So did you always set out to make these kinds of films?
I can remember being at Sundance with the first film and after it turned out to be very successful, you’re at a place where it’s almost like, okay you can do whatever you want to do. And then people are coming at you with, hey you can do this and that, and I didn’t want to do any of it. I’ve never sat down to try and write a blockbuster or even something that’s remotely a money-maker. Speaking to my other influences, they were Woody and Truffaut, my two gods. And any moments I had moments of doubt of, oh should I be chasing that other thing, I would pop in a VHS of one of their films and that’s just what I love. I loved smaller, character studies, and for me, the best films are those that can balance the tone between what I feel most everyday life is like. There’s the real stuff—the heartbreak and disappointment—but also laughter and levity. So when you can balance those two well, then you’ve got the kind of film I love to see. And you know, I guess that’s all I’ve ever aspired to do and I’ve been lucky. Nice Guy Johnny kind of reembraced micro-budget filmmaking, I realized: well I can do this now forever; I don’t have to write a screenplay that needs to make X amount of dollars at the box office, I can just go and tell the small stories I want to make. And now with digital distribution, it’s like if I keep my budget here, I know I’ll make this so I make enough to make the next one and I guess I’m pretty fortunate right now.
This film really feels like are return to the kind of films you used to write. Would you say it’s much different than the last few you’ve made?
Yeah, I purposely wanted to go back to that milieu and these types of characters. I was doing a movie two summers ago with Tyler Perry who had re-watched Brothers McMullen and basically he said, “Look: Those first two movies you made about the Irish-American families were so success, why haven’t you ever gone back there? I think the people that like those two would appreciate that.”
And he’s someone who has kept his audience for so long because of that devotion to his audience.
And that was exactly the point he made. And it’s funny, you know, I never gave any thought to why I hadn’t gone back there until then. I think what it was was I was afraid of: alright, how can I still write about that place when my life has become so far removed from it? And the other thing was, well, I have these really fun new chapters of my life to explore. But the minute I sat down to write this screenplay—and a good draft usually takes me a good six months— this took six weeks. I think the reason was, I had been sitting on these characters for fifteen years. It just poured out of me because I did not have to, quite honestly, I didn’t have to give any thought to it.
Were they people you knew?
Probably compilations. Some of them are loosely based on some people I know, but to that point, I didn’t have to think about where do they live, where do they drink, how do they think, what do they look like, where did they go to school? All those answers I already had and I think that’s why it came out so quickly.
And why did you choose to make a holiday film?
I needed a device. I knew I wanted to tell a story of a big family. So I thought, well, how do I get seven adults all under one roof together? What would that device be? And the minute I thought, alright Christmas, then that opened me up to the idea that a lot of major events could be going on and it would remain plausible. Because during the holidays you announce to your family: hey we’re getting engaged, we’re having a baby, we’re getting divorced, or you have those three days when you’re gearing up for the holiday where, oh I’m finally going bring that thing up to my brother about that jerky thing he said. So all of it felt like a good device to make all of these dramatic things more plausible that could happen within a couple of days.
How long were you shooting for? You’re someone who usually shoots pretty quickly.
Sixteen days. We shot a couple days right during the holidays in order to capture as much of the free production value as we could get on any street and then January and then a little bit in February because of Connie’s schedule.
She’s one of my favorite actresses working on television now and I feel as though I don’t see enough of her on film. How was working with her again?
She’s just real. She’s an honest actress. In this film, she’s totally cool playing a woman her age. She is the most generous actress I’ve ever worked with. I have that one scene in the car where I’m kind of venting about the family and it was a tricky scene and since I’ve known Connie forever—longtime friends—I was like, look I might be a little off on this scene, I might need you to be directing me in this so if there’s anything you see where you think, take this down or you need to go a little deeper there. And she was great; she basically held my hand through that scene. And the other thing is just how generous she is, when I first gave her the script it was a smaller part.
Did you write the role with her in mind?
Not originally. Only afterwards when I said, "Hey I’ve got this thing. Take a look at it; if you like it, I promise you we’ll expand it." And she read it immediately and was like, "alright, I know you’re going to do the work to flesh it out but if we can work out the schedule, I’m in." We were very lucky to have her.
Is it hard to juggle having a hand in every aspect of the filmmaking process?
There are always scenes in any film that I’m going to need a couple extra sets of eyes on me, the actor. And fortunately, I have my producer, Aaron Lubin whose been with me since Sidewalks of New York and Will Rexer my DP for seven films now so those guys, before we start shooting we identify: okay, here are the five scenes where we can’t leave you on your own. But as far as the difficulty of it, when I’m a kid in film school, I make my very first short black and white silent film, I’m too intimidated by the kids in the theater department to ask one of them to be in the film because I don’t know how to direct and so I put me and my friends in the movie and I get the bug. So every little film I made and when I made McMullen, it’s kind of all I’ve ever know. So yeah, it’s hard but I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.
As a filmmaker, you make these micro-budget films but as an actor you tend to be in these big Hollywood blockbusters or dramas—do you try to find a balance like that in your work?
It’s kind of a very fortunate position to be in. It’s like my passion is my filmmaking, I love making these small movies and will never give it up. But I’m very lucky that I can pay the bills by going and acting in these bigger films. The other thing is, by acting in these bigger films I not only get to learn from other filmmakers—both the good and the bad—but it also helps my profile, which helps me get press for my little movies but it gets me new relationships with actors. I love actors, I love to collaborate with them.