When he’s not lending his handsome mug to big-budget blockbusters (Saving Private Ryan), playing bit parts in fluffy romcoms (27 Dresses) or playing himself on HBO’s Entourage (within the context of the series), you will find Edward Burns behind the camera. He has ten directorial features to his name, including the critically lauded The Brothers McMullen, which picked up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1995. Even the biggest film snob could celebrate Burns’ desire to strike a balance between having commercial success as an actor in studio films and working on smaller passion projects in the independent film world. Quite simply, one feeds the other, financially speaking, and it’s been that way for as long as he can remember.
His latest film, Newlyweds, tells the story of Buzzy (Burns) and Katy (Caitlin Fitzgerlad). The newly married couple’s seemingly conflict-free life is suddenly upended when Buzzy’s emotionally unstable, alcoholic half-sister Linda (Kerry Bishé) moves into their home uninvited with more than a little baggage. Linda’s antics threaten to disrupt their commitment to maintaining an “easy” marriage. Meanwhile, with Katy’s meddlesome sister (Marsha Dietlein Bennett) projecting her own marital problems, Buzzy and Katy’s cynical bliss is shattered and they find themselves struggling to withstand the dysfunction of the people around them. Following an enjoyable ensemble of characters through a variety of conversations about the ups and downs of married life, Newlyweds is an ultralight excursion into the urban neuroses of the Woody Allen canon.
Newlyweds is now available On Demand. It hits select theaters on January 31.
It says on Wikipedia that Newlyweds was specifically filmed to celebrate Tribeca Film Festival’s tenth year anniversary. Is this true?
No. [laughs] This was a separate project that happened to coincide nicely with the festival. I was interested in making another pseudo-documentary after Sidewalks of New York—Newlyweds is very much a companion piece to that film. Given that I make micro-budgeted stuff, working in the pseudo-doc genre lends itself to that low budget landscape, or the low budget lends itself to making pseudo-documentaries. From there, the idea of looking at a bunch of married couples and what might make for a successful marriage came about. I knew that it would be an ensemble piece and it would be set in New York. When I was writing the screenplay, I was screening Nice Guy Johnny at Tribeca and we were talking about the tenth year anniversary. They were hoping that I would have another film to screen at the following year’s festival and that’s when I decided to set Newlyweds in Tribeca, sort of as a love letter to the neighborhood. We just made it into the festival—they accepted us while we were still in the editing room—and we had to rush through post-production to get it done on time.
I also read on Wikipedia—sorry—that the film was made for nine grand in two days, which seems implausible.
[laughs] Definitely not two days! It was filmed in twelve days. Nine grand is accurate in the sense that that’s how much we spent to get the film in the can. It was two thousand for insurance, two thousand for the actors and five thousand for food, transportation and miscellaneous costs. This is not including any of the equipment—I own all the equipment and I wasn’t about to charge for that obviously—and the crew worked for free, knowing that we owned the film collectively. That’s how you’re able to make a film for nine grand. That budget also didn’t include any of the post-production costs. At the end of the day, the movie probably cost close to 125,000 dollars.
What are some of the freedoms and limitations that come with working on a small indie feature such as this?
The freedom that’s afforded to you is complete creative control. You self-finance these films and you’re only collaborating with people that you choose to work with. It’s really exciting and liberating to work that way. There are also a lot of compromises you have to make. You’re not going to have a Steadicam or a crane, you won’t have access to all the locations you want to have, and you won’t be able to work with big movie stars. You have to ask the cast to do their own make-up and wear their own clothes. You’re going to have to do a lot of begging and pleading with people to shoot in their restaurant, store and apartment. But the great thing is that you don’t have to make other compromises that come with someone writing you a big check. The minute that someone finances your film—especially in the millions—they have a lot of say in who you’re allowed to work with. The thing they’re most interested in is the cast, so you don’t have control over that. They can change the title of your movie at any time. They can tell you to rewrite a certain scene or change the music on you at the last minute. They are involved in designing the poster and all that stuff. I choose to work on smaller budgets for the freedom.
Six of your films have screened at Tribeca so far and you’re very involved with the festival in general. Where do you think the festival is headed?
I got involved with the festival in its first year. I had just finished working with Robert DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal on 15 Minutes and I’ve lived in Tribeca for eleven years now. After 9/11, the festival was created as a way to try and get people to come back to Lower Manhattan. Since people weren’t coming downtown after that catastrophe, a lot of the shops and restaurants were obviously empty. This film is to remind people what’s great about the neighborhood. Since getting involved that first year, I’ve been everything from a juror to a spokesperson for the festival. Now, ten years later, they’re distributing my film. In terms of where the festival is going, with each passing year, it’s getting bigger in terms of attendees and getting more focused as to what it’s trying to accomplish. What I really like about Tribeca is that it’s slowly evolving and changing with the times to become what it needs to be.
As you mentioned, you live in Tribeca. You’re married with children. How much of your personal life informed Newlyweds?
Not much, quite honestly. I very rarely dip into my personal life when it comes to movies. I love picking other people’s brains. The minute I fall upon an idea, I spend a good deal of time talking to family, friends, friends of friends, as well as strangers about whatever it is I’m writing about. In the case of Newlyweds, I asked everyone—even on Twitter—“What was the toughest thing that happened to you on your Honeymoon?” Nine out of ten people told me a story about a relative. It was either a crazy brother who crashed on the couch or they had to move in with a mother-in-law who kept giving them bad advice. With this film, I definitely wanted a newlywed couple to deal with each others’ families. When you marry someone, you don’t just marry the person, you marry into their family and all that comes with it. Everything I’ve ever written has been like this: going out and asking people questions based on my initial idea.
Is that why you decided to break the fourth wall where the characters address the audience directly? I thought it was a cool narrative device.
Glad to hear that! I did that more to get the pseudo-documentary style that I love. At one point during filming, we imagined that the folks in the film would sit down and do some interviews. Before the cameras started rolling, we asked them some questions, and after the story of the film was done, we gave them some follow-up questions. Periodically throughout the filming, we turned the camera on them and asked a question as well. In the very first cut of the film, we actually had a narrator asking the questions, but we ultimately decided against doing that. We decided to have the characters speak to an anonymous source.
How much room for improv were the actors given during these in-camera interviews?
A lot. There was a lot of improv during the writing stage as well. I knew a lot of the actors prior to filming—with the exception being Caitlin [Fitzgerald]—so I brought them in while I was writing and we would go through each scene together. I asked them questions about their characters to see what would naturally come up in conversation. On the day of the shoots, I always encouraged the actors to come up with a scene about this or that. It was more like: here’s the scene, this is where it starts, this where it finishes, and this is where I need this particular line of dialogue. After shooting two versions of each scripted scene, we would play around with it a little bit. It was very much about seeing what else we can find in certain situations on the spot. I’d say that a third of the interviews were things that were scripted based on improv. I would ask a bunch of questions and just fish out some answers, and based on what I liked, I would write a more succinct version of that answer.
What are some of the challenges of directing a film and starring in the lead role at the same time?
For the very first film I made in film school—a silent black and white film—I wrote, directed and cast myself in it, simply because I didn’t know any other actors at the time. It’s what I’ve been doing for the past twenty years, so I can’t really say whether it’s hard or not. It’s all that I know. But there were certain scenes on this film where, more as an actor, I wasn’t sure what I had gotten after shooting them. Thankfully, I have an amazing producing partner, Aaron Lubin, who has been with me for the past eleven years on seven movies. When I’m acting, he sort of becomes my director.
People still recognize you more from your acting work. Was that your first passion?
I went to school to become a filmmaker. In the first directing class that I took, the professor gave us these assignments where some of us were asked to direct and others to act. On the first assignment, I got chosen to be an actor and that’s how I started acting in my films. I had no intention of ever being an actor. I wrote, directed and acted in three of my first movies before I felt confident enough to act for other people’s projects. All in all, it has been such a great gift because it gives me, quite honestly, a financial freedom to go make my own movies. Also, the movies that I act in—studio films—are much more successful box office-wise and that helps with my profile. Acting helps my filmmaking career in that way.
I’m sure all actors and filmmakers think about living in Los Angeles at one point or another. What continues to keep you anchored here in New York?
I tried living in Los Angeles in ’99. I was there for about a year and liked it, but New York will always be home to me. Given what I write about, I prefer to be here. I find New York to be stimulating and the people here always surprise me. I write these slice-of-life movies that come from my world and experiences living in New York. I guess I’m just more comfortable here. If I don’t have to leave home to do what I need to do, why should I?
I love the ensemble cast that you put together for this film, especially Kerry [Bishé]. Where did you first meet her?
Last year, I made a film called Nice Guy Johnny—that was sort of my return to micro-budgeted filmmaking—and I wanted to use a completely unknown cast. When I proposed that to my casting director, Kerry came into audition and we wound up hiring her. Halfway into the scene during the audition, we knew she was special. She really has this gift for acting. After that, I gave her a bigger part in the script and we just hit it off. When I sat down to write Newlyweds, I wrote a part for her specifically. I just finished writing another script for her, so she’ll be in my next film as well.
What can you tell us about Man on a Ledge, which you’ll soon star in?
Man on a Ledge is a big action thriller. Sam Worthington plays someone who just broke out of jail and jumps out onto the ledge of a hotel. You think he’s there to commit suicide, but he’s really creating a diversion while his brother breaks into a jewelry store across the street. I play a hostage negotiator who goes up there, but Sam doesn’t want to talk to me, he wants to talk to Elizabeth Banks. That’s essentially the story.