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Q&A: Actor-director Ed Burns on celebrities, Irish Americans, Irish bars and happy endings
Ed Burns' new movie, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, about an Irish-American family on Long Island, opens in NYC on Dec. 7. Burns lives in TriBeCa, with his wife, the model, philanthropist and entrepreneur Christy Turlington, and their children, Grace, 9, and Finn, 6.
Q What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
A I would love to see a foot bridge over the West Side Highway in TriBeCa, somewhere between Canal and Chambers Street. There is a constant flow of toddlers and teenagers trying to get across that highway to the now beautiful Hudson River Park and it can be dangerous. A foot bridge would be really useful.
Q How do you rate Mayor Bloomberg's Office of Film, Theatre & Broadcasting?
A Extremely high. They have done truly fantastic work and make everything easier, working really closely with film makers and producers. They recognize how much money gets poured into the city by this industry and how many jobs it provides. We all know it's a pain to have the movie trucks take over your block, but they really work with us to make the footprint as small as possible.
Q You've filmed for years in NYC. How has it changed as a movie backdrop?
A The most dramatic difference is the city has lost its grit and grime. It's hard to imagine a film like "Midnight Cowboy," being filmed anywhere in Manhattan today. As a film maker, you almost have to tell a different kind of story. NYC has no shortage of artists and the best of the best in every field, but this is now a wealthy international town. There's still energy here, but it's a very different kind of energy.
Q What do you miss most about old New York? What landmarks?
A When I moved to TriBeCa in 2000, it was quiet and sleepy after 6:30 at night. Quiet: Honestly, that's what I miss the most. There used to be a bar on Eighth Ave. in the 40s called McHale's. It was one of those great old Irish bars and we shot a scene from "She's the One," there. Now it's some modern condo. I miss that, too.
Q Is there something that distinguishes holiday dramas in Irish families, and distinguishes Irish families?
A Quite honestly, no. The great thing about the holidays is that regardless of where you came from or your ethnicity, it's all about families getting together, enjoying each other and opening up gifts.
Q And old wounds.
A Yes! People who are not Irish or Catholic who saw The Fitzgerald Family Christmas told me, 'I felt you were peering into my own family's window.' We're not Irish. We're Irish Americans. We all grew up on the same stuff. Maybe it's more of a New York thing, or a Northeast thing.
Q What's you favorite holiday movie?
A "It's a Wonderful Life" -- hands down. Like all my favorite films it's a great blend of comedy and drama. Then there's the redemption. It has a happy ending, but it's earned.
Q Do you have any New Yorky Christmas rituals you do with your kids -- the tree lighting ceremony, viewing the windows?
A We really don't. We have done that stuff, but for us it's all about our families getting together. We drive out to Long Island and see my brother and sister and nieces and nephews.
Q Have you ever had an awkward celebrity moment encountering someone famous?
A I was in an elevator with Woody Allen at Madison Square Garden and did not have the courage to introduce myself. We were only going up three flights and then the moment passed and he was gone.
Q Why the modesty attack? Maybe that was his awkward celebrity moment, too, and he was thinking, "I'm in the elevator with Ed Burns!"
A I have no idea!
Q So what are your favorite places in NYC?
A There's this bar called Walker's in TriBeCa that hasn't changed in years. And of course, The White Horse Tavern.
Q You say there's nothing different about being Irish, but all your favorite places are bars. You're not gushing about the marvels at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A I spend a lot more time at Walker's than I do at The Met.
Q What's the most difficult challenge you ever faced filming in NYC?
A Years ago, I was working without any permits, filming a scene in "The Brothers McMullen" in Washington Square Park, This cop came over and told us to stop. When you're filming with no money and everyone is working for free -- well, if I didn't get that scene that day I would have had to cut it from the movie. And I was just about to lose this actor so I couldn't stop. I finally dropped the "Sgt. Ed" card on the cop. (Burns' father, Sgt. Edward Burns, was a much-loved spokesman for the NYPD before retiring.) The officer said, 'OK. I'm going to walk to the other side of the park right now. But when I come back, I want you to be done.' We got the scene.
Q That's a New York story with a New York moral: You gotta have juice to get stuff done in this town.
A People without juice get things done, too. But juice always helps.
Q Your latest movie is set in Long Island. Do the working class families you traditionally depict in your films have a future in NYC?
A The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is a love letter to Irish American working class families. Queens is pretty much the same. But there's no room for working class folks anymore in Manhattan unless they're in rent-controlled apartments. And they'll probably be gone in the next decade.