Edward Burns On His New $25K Film and the 'Dogsh*t' Movies That Made It Possible

nice_guy_johnny_500.jpgIn the 15 years that have passed since he launched his career as a multi-hyphenate with the Sundance hit The Brothers McMullen, Edward Burns has continued to write, direct, act in and produce his own projects while appearing in other people's films. Some of those acting gigs have been great (Saving Private Ryan) and, let's face it, many have not, but they've all allowed Burns the luxury of making his own personal projects every few years (She's the One, No Looking Back, Sidewalks of New York, Ash Wednesday, Looking for Kitty, The Groomsmen, Purple Violets).

It's his love for personal filmmaking that led Burns to write and direct his latest film, Nice Guy Johnny, in which he also plays the rascally, womanizing uncle of a young man (Adventureland's Matt Bush) at a crossroads in life, stuck between pursuing his dreams and selling out. Like his young protagonist, Burns had spent a weekend pondering whether or not to take a director-for-hire gig on an unnamed mainstream rom-com; the indie spirit won out, and he and producing partner Aaron Lubin went on to produce Nice Guy Johnny with a cast of unknowns and a bare-minimum budget of $25,000. (They also opted to partner with Cinetic's FilmBuff to distribute Nice Guy Johnny as a multi-platform digital release; it's available now on iTunes, Amazon.com, VOD and DVD.)

Movieline caught up with Burns in Savannah, where Nice Guy Johnny screened as part of the Savannah Film Festival, to discuss why Burns revisited his Brothers McMullen production model on purpose, how independent filmmakers must be realistic about profits in the digital age, and why he doesn't mind having a few "dogsh*t" movies on his resume if it means he gets to keep making his films his way.

You're known to write screenplays constantly; what was it about Nice Guy Johnny that made you want to produce it next?

Sometimes when you're writing a script you kind of know in the middle of the process that it's going to be a long haul. You're still determined to finish it. Everything I write I think I'm going to eventually make into a film. Sometimes even in the middle you realize well, I'm not going to crack this one anytime soon, I'll see this screenplay through a couple of drafts but I know it might go up on the shelf. This was one that flowed out of me so quickly, given what it's about and given the experience that inspired the writing of it, that the minute it was done my producing partner and I decided that this was the film we wanted to make next.

So we went back into the screenplay and thought, how do we want to go about this? What size film do we want to make? Do we want to try and attract a couple of well-known actors and get them attached, then go out to the financiers? That's how we've made all of our films. We got into this conversation about The Brothers McMullen. Do we really want to go through that painful process again, which might take a year to get your film off the ground with no guarantee that you'll get the film made? When I made McMullen I had no money, had no connections, didn't know how to make movies, had no equipment... and somehow I got that thing done and went on to make a nice bit of money. So I said, "Why don't we just try that again? Is it crazy to think we can recreate the model?"

And now...?

One advantage now is that I have an editing system and my own camera, but we still sat down and said we're going to go with $25,000, shoot in 12 days, unknown actors who do all their own hair and makeup, wear their own clothes, no production designer, no location scouts, none of that stuff. Three guys and that is it. Once we dove into that, then we knew we were making a movie because there was nothing to stop us.

What was the real life incident that led to you writing Nice Guy Johnny?

Two years ago I had a conversation with my agents, and they asked if would be willing at all to look at an open directing assignment. Studios have these projects and there was some interest in [me] directing a romantic comedy. I said no; they said, "You're not going to believe how much money you'd make if you were to rethink that." They told me; I said, "Send the scripts." I spent six months reading a ton of screenplays -- not all of them were dogsh*t. There were some very funny, well-written scripts. One in particular I thought, OK. If I'm going to do it, it should be a hit. I thought that I could lend my voice to this. I think I can make it my own, it won't just feel like selling my soul for a paycheck. I said, "Yes, let's take the meeting." My agent said, "Great! We'll fly you out to L.A. next week." And I said, "Let me just take one more weekend; I want to read the script one more time."

And that weekend turned out to be the soul-searching weekend when my producing partner and I had a lot of conversations: "What's more important right now, taking the paycheck or sticking to the path we've been on -- pursuing the dream?" We love making these tiny, personal films. It's harder to get them made and much harder for them to reach an audience, but we prefer those to what we see at the multiplex. In the end we decided to pass on the easy money and follow the dream. [My partner] said, "You've got to write a screenplay about this; we've got to come up with a story that explores that." We had a lot of friends who at different places in their lives were kind of wrestling with the same thing. And that's how the script was born.

How does that really compare to how you got The Brothers McMullen made?

The first film was even tougher. We didn't have the money; it was a matter of raising $10,000, shooting a couple of days, trying to raise another $5,000, shooting another couple days, sneaking into the editing facility of the television show I was working on at the time at night, cutting the movie at night without them knowing...

You snuck into the Entertainment Tonight facility to edit Brothers McMullen?

Yeah. That was a much tougher feat to pull off. This one, if you embrace the compromises of that $25,000 that you know you're going to have -- people are going to do their own hair and makeup, you're going to shoot with mostly available light, you're not going to have a Steadicam, you're not going to have a track, you're going to have to beg and borrow for every location, you're going to have to rewrite your script if you can't get a location... Once we knew how to make movies, making those compromises was much easier. You realize you know you don't need as much as you think you do.

What are the benefits of making a film like that, under such limiting self-imposed constraints?

Total creative control. You don't have to make a single creative compromise. You don't have to change a line of dialogue, cast someone you don't want to cast, pick a piece of music that you don't want, lose a scene in the editing room, change the title of a movie. Sometimes when you're dealing with more famous or well-established actors there are things that go along with that, and that is not a part of the conversation.

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  • A refreshingly candid interview ... I only wish his personal projects were better, but I give him credit for following his muse.

  • Sam Donchess says:

    I am a student at the Savannah College of Art & Design, and I was lucky enough to see Ed Burns give a Q&A after the screening of Nice Guy Johnny. While the movie itself was pretty awful, I enjoy hearing Burns' distribution technique, which he so skillfully picked up from Soderbergh.

  • Senh says:

    Great interview! He was very honest about his resume. Good to see the indie spirit is alive and well with him. Jackie Chan said each Rush Hour movie allows him to produce 20 HK movies and support new talent. At least Burns didn't react with "I only watch movies that critics hate, and avoid ones they love."

  • Gideon says:

    OF COURSE Ed Burns would christen his new movie something like "Nice Guy Johnny". Of course.

  • Rob says:

    If only his writing, directing, acting and personal taste all didn't suck so much, this interview would've mattered.
    Hitler followed his muse, too. Doesn't mean what he did was any good.
    (Nor should he be credited for following his muse as if just doing that is a good thing. Serial killers and pedophiles follow their muse, no matter what the critics say, as well)

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