In his new memoir, “Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life,” Edward Burns recounts how he got his foot into the door of Hollywood. It sounds like a fairytale.
In 1994, he was working as a production assistant on “Entertainment Tonight” and had shot his first feature film, “The Brothers McMullen,” in his spare time. He had been trying to get people to look at it for a year – distributors, producers, agents, film festivals, anyone. That’s when he risked his job for his future.
Redford was doing a junket for “Quiz Show” and knowing that I was going to see him that afternoon for the [Entertainment Tonight] interview, I brought my copy of “McMullen,” a rough cut on VHS. I sat through his interview, and while he spoke I went through my 30-second spiel about a hundred times. The minute the interview ended he went to the elevator, I cut around the other door, met him there, gave him the spiel, handed him the VHS. I basically said, “I’m an indie filmmaker, I made this movie, I just need a little help. Would you please look at it or have someone in your office look at it?” He took it and said, ‘Sure, we’ll be in touch.’ And that was it. Six months later or so we get the phone call from the Sundance festival itself saying the film had been accepted into competition. And then a few months after that when I finally get up to Park City and the film screens, I meet Redford afterwards and that’s when he comes up to me and says, “Hey, it took a lot of balls doing what you did.”
“The Brothers McMullen” went on to win Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize, the festival’s highest accolade. Burns sold it to 20th Century Fox and the film raked in a cool $10 million. Suddenly, he was labeled Hollywood’s hottest young independent filmmaker.
But Burns’ book is less about that meteoric rise and more about what happened next. The 20 years that followed were a roller coaster ride that eventually slammed Burns’ foot so hard in that door of Hollywood that he couldn’t get a movie made.
I’ve written and directed 11 movies. Six of which no one has ever heard of for the most part. And those movies didn’t just get bad reviews and bomb at the box office, some were even met with just complete apathy, which is worse. So it was tough to muster it up yet again to say, “You know what? I know that I have something to say.”
What followed was some self-reflection and a realization that to get back to where he started, he needed to work like he did at the start. So he sat down and hashed out a plan with his producer.
We were at a bar. and we started to write down the sort of “McMullen” guidelines: $25,000, I can self-finance that, we’ll start there. But then we thought we’ll shoot it in 12 days like “McMullen,” only use unknown actors. They’re all going to do their own hair and makeup, they’ve got to wear their own clothes, we’re not going to pay for a single location, which means we’ve got to call in favors or just use city streets. And we’re going to go back and use a three-man crew. Let’s just see if we can do that again.
Burns released “Nice Guy Johnny” in 2010, skipping the art houses in lieu of premiering the film on iTunes. Because the film was so cheap to make, it couldn’t help but turn a profit, and the digital-first strategy put Burns back in the spotlight.
Burns has now teamed up with Stephen Spielberg on a television series Burns is writing and directing for TNT. The show is called “Public Morals” and is set to debut next fall. Burns says shows like “The Sopranos,” “The Wire” and “Mad Men” have slowly proven that cable television is the new playground for independent filmmakers.
You look at what makes those shows great. At the helm is someone who was left alone. One artist at the center and it’s their vision and they’re given the freedom to see that vision through.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s the small screen or the silver screen, to Burns that’s what the term “independent” has always meant.
If there is a singular voice, and that person is able to make the movie without any interference, to me that’s what independent film is.
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