He didn’t vanish, he just got quietly busy. And now the ’90s leading man, screenwriter, director, actor, family man and guy’s-guy son of a Queens cop, has a new starring role in HBO’s wildly anticipated ‘40’ in the can. From the Smyth Tribeca, a stone’s throw from Ed Burns’ home, Lesley M.M. Blume reveals the man behind the frosted glass.
Burns’ love affair with New York City can be traced to his earliest days. The writer, actor, and director was born in Woodside, Queens, into one of those blue-blooded NYPD families that seem extinct nowadays. As a toddler, his father moved the family to Valley Stream, Long Island, where Burns was raised. Though he was now geographically farther, the specter of the city still loomed large. “We were so close to Manhattan, but so far,” he explains, echoing the paradoxical sense of unobtainable possibility, felt by millions born in the shadow of the naked city. “Our parents always told us that we were not allowed to look east; we could only look west at the skyline of Manhattan. The dream was getting over the 59th Street Bridge and starting your life in the city.”
To get there, Burns had to make a detour to Hollywood first. In the early ’90s, with dreams of the director’s chair, Burns toiled as a production assistant on the star-crazed news magazine show, “Entertainment Tonight.” In his spare time, he wrote The Brothers McMullen, a film that drew heavily on Burns’ upbringing on Long Island, about three Irish-Catholic brothers grappling with life’s Big Questions. Burns eventually made the movie—in which he also directed and starred—in his hometown of Valley Stream, on a reported budget of $26,000. Once he finished, it was up to him to get the iron-walled industry to take notice. Burns was up to the task.
One night, when Robert Redford appeared on the set of “ET” to promote his film, Quiz Show, Burns stood on the sidelines, clutching a VHS tape of his opus, waiting for the right moment to approach the legendary actor, who, with his Sundance Film Festival, happened to be one of independent film’s biggest backers. When the segment ended, he tailed Redford to the elevator, and handed him the tape. “I had rehearsed a forty-five second speech,” Burns says, recalling the breathless moment. “I knew I’d have under a minute.”
The risk paid off. Redford entered The Brothers McMullen into the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, which had just solidified itself as a beacon for discovering emerging cinematic voices with its premiere of Pulp Fiction a year earlier. After winning the Grand Jury Prize, McMullen was bought by 20th Century Fox, and went on to become one of the most profitable independent films of the year, raking in $10 million at the box office. Burns earned instant credibility as a rare, triple-threat talent—director, actor, writer—and learned an important lesson along the way. “I guess sometimes it pays to be a little ballsy,” he says smiling.
Today, at the Smyth Tribeca in Manhattan—near his Tribeca apartment, which he shares with his wife, supermodel Christy Turlington and their three children—Ed Burns doesn’t act like someone who just had one of the busiest years of his professional life. He’s here for his photo shoot, and compared to the rest of the crew, who seem lost in a pre-caffeine smog, Burns is wired. He’s engaged, shares ideas, and if you didn’t know any better, you might think it was him running the show. It’s the same enthusiasm that has made Burns one of the most likeable underdogs.
Most directors who score an unexpected hit on their first films are courted by studios to churn out inevitable schlock. That means big paychecks, and bigger budgets. Sixteen years and nine films after The Brothers McMullen, Ed Burns is still making personal work on shoestring budgets. For his next stint in front of and behind the camera, Newlyweds, about a young couple whose honeymoon period is upended by the arrival of needy sisters, Burns consulted his 26,000 Twitter fans on nearly every aspect of the production, from the film’s premise to its title. “All during the writing process, they helped me with character names, with different scenarios,” he says. “With Twitter and Facebook, you can access people who know and appreciate your work. So I thought, Why not access that?”
Despite his digital call-and-answer, Burns still gets inspiration the old-fashioned way. In the old days he used to ride the New York subway and eavesdrop on conversations for inspiration. His MTA days might be over, but the core idea for his next film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, came in part “from a great story from a driver in Detroit who took me to the airport.” How does Burns feel about raising his own eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son in Manhattan, when his own upbringing filled him with such a wealth of material? “Christy and I both grew up in the ’burbs, and we wondered, would they want a version of our childhood?” He smiles wryly. “But they don’t. They’re the happiest, most stimulated, excited kids. Sometimes I look over at them and Christy and I’m just floored.”
But domestic bliss hasn’t stilted Burns’ flair for dramatics. Familial strife and romantic agony are often front-and-center in his films. Like one of his all-time heroes, Woody Allen, the actor’s work often explores the same themes in different guises: love before and after matrimony, coming of age, and selling out. He insists that “romantic comedy” is not a dirty term, but admits “It’s tough to make one that isn’t cheesy in this day and age.”
Despite Burns’ success as a filmmaker, in an age of shrinking box-office receipts and video on demand, his method of DIY filmmaking, however wily, can’t pay all the bills. Not in New York City. So Burns relies on his rugby star good looks and neighborhood charm to book roles in an expanding portfolio of movies, from tentpoles to Indies.
His most famous role was as Private Richard Reiben, in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning WWII odyssey, Saving Private Ryan. Next, Burns will appear in two very different films. First, he’ll play a detective opposite Sam Worthington and Ed Harris in the high-wire thriller, Man on a Ledge, and then, as a love interest in Jennifer Westfeltd’s sly comedy, Friends with Kids. The film, which costars Jon Hamm, Kristen Wiig, and Megan Fox, caused a sensation at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, and resembles, well, an Ed Burns movie.
But it’s his role in next year’s detective yarn I, Alex Cross, that proved the most fruitful. Based on the James Patterson novel, Cross-stars Tyler Perry in the title role, another auteur who makes films on his own terms. Perry, who is one of the most successful filmmakers in the country, had some advice for his costar. “He talked about knowing your audience as writer and director,” Burns recalls. “Super-serve your niche, he said. We talked about The Brothers McMullan—one of my most successful films—and he said, ‘Go back and make a film about an Irish-American family again. Everyone wants to know what happened to those guys.’” The result of that conversation was The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, once again set in Burns’ Long Island hometown, and this time centered around seven adult siblings who argue over whether or not to allow their estranged father to join them for Christmas. The project was a “big-time homecoming” for Burns, who wrote it in under four weeks. “It just poured out of me,” he says.
Then there’s Burns’ buzzy new television gig: a lead role in HBO’s middle-aged malaise series, “40,” from the snappy mind of “Entourage” svengali Doug Ellin. The series, set in New York, will find Burns playing a former master-of-the-universe Bear Stearns banker, now out of work and grappling with his new reality. Burns assures us it’s funny as hell. “That’s the great thing about Doug’s writing,” Burns says. “He’s finding the humor in these struggles.”
And somehow, in the sliver of downtime he has left, Burns says that he is currently working on no fewer than four more scripts of his own. This sort of project overload might drive other writers insane, but Burns has creative multi-tasking down to a fine art. “Two of the scripts are basically done,” he says. “When I have the inspiration, I force myself to bang out a first draft. It will be crap, but I won’t lose the idea. It’s my chunk of marble: I can go back to that and chisel it down to the film I want to make.”
Miraculously, Burns shows no signs of fatigue. Not only has he accelerated his creative output, but he’s helping to pioneer a new era of digital distribution for independent films. As the economy worsened, most major studios shut down their independent arms, making distribution of art house fare a dicey proposition. But as a grand experiment in alternative distribution, Burns released his 2007 film Purple Violets—which features characters vying for literary greatness—exclusively online; it was the first feature film to premiere on iTunes. Burns was so pleased with the film’s performance that he released his next feature, Nice Guy Johnny, as an online exclusive as well. He admits that the indie film scene is no longer as profitable as it once was: “That golden age is over forever, I think.” But he maintains that if production budgets are kept to a minimum, digital distribution can carry indie culture into the future.
Not uncoincidentally, Nice Guy Johnny showcases a main character struggling to decide between an unprofitable dream job and a secure but uninspiring manufacturing gig. This central dilemma closely paralleled Burns’ complex relations with the studio system at the time. In a brief moment of despair about the state of the independent film market, Burns’ agents suggested that he make himself available to direct a studio project. After considering a variety of options, Burns says that he found one studio project that he “thought I could lend my voice to.”
“But then I said, ‘Just give me the weekend [before committing to the meeting],” he recalls. “I did some soul searching, and I thought, ‘I am one of the lucky ones.’ I had been able to make eight independent movies—why should I abandon the dream now? So I called my agents and said that my heart wasn’t in it.” The project showed that while Burns might indeed be among “the chosen,” the truly lucky make their own luck, and always will.
Story by Lesley M.M. Blume PHOTOGRAPHY Danny Clinch