Director/Actor Ed Burns got his start in the film industry immediately after graduating from Hunter College with a degree in English. He worked as a production assistant on the Oliver Stone film, “The Doors,” that starred Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. He also worked for “Entertainment Tonight,” and wrote, produced and financed his first film, “The Brothers McMullen,” in his hometown of Valley Stream in his spare time. He was able to get a copy of the film to Robert Redford after an “E.T.” junket interview for “Quiz Show,” held at the Rhiga Royal Hotel in Manhattan. The independent film took off. (Rent it, if you haven’t seen it).
In 1996, Burns wrote, directed and starred in the ensemble drama “She’s the One” with Jennifer Anniston, Cameron Diaz and Amanda Peet. He also appeared in “Sidewalks of New York” in 2001. His acting gig on “Saving Private Ryan” in 1998 was the first time he spoke dialogue that he had not written himself. Burns filmed 2004’s “Looking for Kitty” with a $3,000 hand-held Panasonic Ag-DVX100 camera with a Mini35 adapter on a budget of $200,000. The entire film was shot in New York City with a small crew and without standard permits. The quote on Wikipedia from Burns was, “If you are an aspiring filmmaker in this day of inflating budgets and runaway production costs, the truth is you can make a movie for no money in New York and have a blast.” (www.wikipedia.com).
Burns told me that he really became a film buff in his junior year of college. “It’s my passion. You have to make films. It’s just about making films and getting better.” He then went on to talk to several aspiring filmmakers present about the improvements from the days of 16-millimeter film to today’s digital filmmaking, marveling at the ease with which a filmmaker of today can shoot a low-budget film, thanks to the advances in technology.
“Nice Guy Johnny,” the film that Burns brought to Chicago and to the Tribeca Film Festival, is a sweet story about a young engaged guy (Johnny Rizzo), who has a job as a disc jockey discussing sports on the air in California. He loves his job, but it doesn’t pay much and he is engaged to an upwardly mobile girl with a rich father. Both his fiance and his future father-in-law want Johnny to give up his passion to take a job as a night watchman in a cardboard box factory, something that will pay him $50,000 a year, but will essentially kill his dreams.
Burns said, “I was 25 years old when I made my first film. I wanted to recapture who I was at 25 and to make the statement that the film’s nice guy should not let naysayers stop him. Filmmaking and directing is an extension of acting, but acting, for me, is more of a lark.” He noted that he had had no training in acting when he took on the role in “Saving Private Ryan” and said, “I’m gonna’ stay in my comfort zone.” He also commented that it seemed he “never had enough money or enough time.”
Burns was asked about making films that can be delivered to the public inexpensively. He commented that, “You need to figure out a way to get it to the public,” which seems true of so much of art. Novelists like J.A. Konrath are currently defecting from the traditional New York-based publishing model to try to get their work directly to the public via e-readers, so that author(s) can retain as much as 70% of the profits of their writing, (as opposed to the paltry 10% or so that some publishing firms offer writers.)
Burns said, “When I started out, my only goal was to get an agent.” He then remarked, “Now I can work with people of my own choosing. Theatrical is dead for me; then I lose control of the film.” When asked about his reputation as someone trying to subvert the established distribution system, Burns said, “For me, it is pages from hands, and then deliver it directly to the audience. Financially, it is a model that really works. You can make them (films) and distribute them responsibly — Action — SFX — that is not my thing. My stories are small character-driven stories. You can make these things so inexpensively today. You can be a solid singles hitter. The days of the kid hitting the home run out of the park may be over.”
In discussing the theme of “Nice Guy Johnny” Burns said, “I think what I was looking for was, what is your code? What does it mean to be a good guy? In Johnny’s case, being good is holding him back.” He commented on the character of Uncle Terry in the film (a part he also played), “The film is not consciously in reaction to the guys who are complete animals, but I did want to examine ‘How do men behave? How hard is it to be a nice guy?'” Burns said the character of Uncle Terry was “a combination of a couple of guys I knew in my thirties. I wanted to create the complete antithesis of Nice Guy Johnny.”
Burns really did seem to be a very nice and charming guy. Earlier, as he approached the print journalists waiting to speak to him, he commented, (as one flustered fellow dropped his notes), “No worries. I’m not a jerk.” This was good news, as the “handlers” for David Schwimmer and Alan Cumming would not allow them to talk to any of the print journalists who had waited patiently for hours to interview them as they walked the red carpet. Cumming and Schwimmer would only speak to television crews and walked by the rest of us as though we were invisible, while glad-handing a few fans who were trickling into the theater. The 5 or 6 of us who had waited patiently to interview Schwimmer and Cumming for a variety of blogs and newspapers (and, in my own case, had done research for hours beforehand to compose intelligent questions), talked amongst ourselves and all noted, ironically, that the biggest stars of the Festival (Guillermo Del Toro, Ron Perlman, Forest Whitaker, Ed Burns, Edward Norton, etc.) could not have been nicer or more accommodating, but the lesser-known lights (Schwimmer and Cumming) wouldn’t speak to the print journalists at all, although all of us had waited for at least an hour for them to appear. The young man from Examiner.com who stood next to me for that hour had also taken a train in from McHenry County, (3 hours round trip, daily), just to secure a few quotes from Cumming and Schwimmer. [Cumming was being honored with a gay/transgender/lesbian award; Schwimmer’s film “Trust,” reviewed here previously, was having a benefit showing.]
So, Burns’ comment, “No worries. I’m not a jerk,” serves as a fitting last thought for this piece. He posed for us graciously and answered all of our questions regarding this charming and entertaining new movie shot on a shoestring budget ($25,000).
It’s a good movie with an uplifting ending that says, “Follow your dreams. Don’t let the system force you to settle.” I asked Burns whether there might be a sequel to this film, if it proves financially successful, one that would take the young lovers further. He mentioned several sequels that have been pitched him recently.
I also found Burns’ remarks about getting the product (i.e., film) to the audience particularly apropos, as this hurdle is currently one that would-be writers (like Yours Truly) are grappling with as the advance of the world of e-books makes it possible. I remember that, at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008, Actress Charlize Theron and her then-boyfriend Stuart Townsend appeared in person, trying to solve the film-distribution hurdle by harnessing the power of unions in helping them spread the word about a film they had made about the NAFTA unrest in Seattle. The idea was for filmgoers to call their local theater to ask that the film be shown there. Whether this worked or not, all I can report is that, although the trailer looked good and it featured stars like Charlize and Ray Liotta, the movie never showed in my part of the world. Therefore, I’m wondering how “Nice Guy Johnny” will do, distribution-wise.
Burns, in real life, is married to model Christy Turlington. They have two children, Grace, age 7, and Finn, age 4.