In 1995, Ed Burns screened his first film, "The Brothers McMullen," at the Sundance Film Festival. Made for just $250,000 and shot largely in his hometown of Valley Stream, the film won the festival's Grand Jury Prize and earned $10 million at the box-office. Burns became a hot commodity in Hollywood, commanding bigger budgets for his films and acting in Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." He married model Christy Turlington in 2003.
A few years later, Burns was struggling. The acting offers had dwindled, as had financing for his films. So, in 2009, Burns returned to the low-cost, no-frills ethos of his first movie. He shot "Nice Guy Johnny" (2010) for $25,000 and "Newlyweds" (2011) for $9,000, not counting postproduction costs. By 2012, he was at the Toronto International Film Festival with another small-scale film, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," which reinvigorated his career. Last month, Burns wrapped "Public Morals," a 10-episode crime drama he created for TNT that will premiere in June.
Burns chronicles the highs and lows of his career in "Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life" (Gotham, $26.95). It's partly an instruction manual on guerrilla filmmaking (Burns is a great believer in shooting without city permits) and partly a map of Hollywood pitfalls (he explains a "put" deal, and why he never should have demanded one). Mostly, "Independent Ed" is Burns' inspirational speech to filmmakers wondering how to begin, or how to keep going. Burns spoke to Newsday by phone.
How did this book come to be?
In the book I talk about "Nice Guy Johnny" and the whole "McMullen 2.0" experience -- going back to these guidelines that we set for ourselves to try and get another film made, and hopefully resurrect my career. We would make the film for $25,000, shoot in 12 days, all the actors wear their own clothes and do their own hair and makeup, and every location we have to get for free. My wife said, "You should keep a diary. It's pretty unique for someone at this stage in their career to be attempting this." And that's when I thought about maybe doing a book.
There's a photo in the book of five people standing on a sidewalk. It's the entire crew of "Newlyweds" -- and that's including the actors.
I have to admit, it was one of the best experiences I've ever had. The freedom to grab a camera and go out on any street -- nobody paid any attention to us. We didn't need anybody's permission, nobody had to cut us a check, no producer looking over our shoulders. And we had one of those magical, creative experiences. And the movie ended up making a good bit of money.
Don't you run the risk, though, of becoming known as the guy who can't pay his actors?
The cast and crew all have a piece of the movie, everyone has ownership. And everybody's more than happy to jump in. If you're not lucky enough to get a great TV show, you're going to be stuck in a dopey comedy or a horror film or some other schlocky project. Most of my actor friends who I call, they say, "I can play a real person? And speak real dialogue? I'm in." And we shoot 12 to 15 days usually, so the most I'm asking is five days out of their life.
You write that you've made 11 movies in 20 years, "and half were considered failures." What did you learn from those failures?
I made ["No Looking Back"] with a good chunk of money from a studio. They asked me to make some compromises, with both the title of the film and the end of the film, and I did. And to this day, I regret making those. Well, what's more important, to have a little more time and more toys to play with and more well-known actors? Or is it more important to have creative control? I think creative control.
Speaking at film festivals and colleges, you've met your share of aspiring filmmakers. What do you think stops them from achieving their dream?
It's very difficult not to get discouraged. Odds are, that first screenplay isn't going to sell. That fifth screenplay isn't going to sell. Your second movie comes out, and it doesn't work. Do you really have it in you to start from the beginning again? It takes a little bit of luck and a lot of tenacity.