Writer/director/actor/producer Edward Burns discusses his latest project Nice Guy Johnny, and his unique indie model for making movies.
The term "auteur" gets thrown around a lot in filmdom, but few truly fit the definition of the term like Edward Burns. After working a day job at Entertainment Tonight in the early 1990s, Edward Burns scraped together $25,000 for his first feature, The Brothers Mcmullen, which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. This launched his career as a filmmaker, and a burgeoning acting career (in other directors' movies) followed with roles in Saving Private Ryan, 15 Minutes, Life or Something Like It, and the criminally unnoticed con man drama Confidence. Despite his success as an actor, Edward Burns is still a filmmaker at heart, with nine films under his belt as a director. He decided to go back to his barebones budget roots with his latest drama, Nice Guy Johnny, which was released on DVD last week.
I recently had the chance to speak with the talented multi-hyphenate Edward Burns over the phone. Here's what he had to say.
I saw on the bonus features that you wanted to go back to The Brothers Mcmullen model with this movie. Was this a concept that has been kicking around for awhile, or is it fairly new?
Edward Burns: It was pretty new. What happened was, I made this film called Purple Violets, and it didn't quite perform the way I think we all had hoped. Then I spent another two years trying to get another film of mine made, and couldn't get that financed. My agent came to me and said, 'Maybe it's time to think about putting yourself up for open director assignments.' I said, 'Guys, for 15 years, I've said no to that. I'm really not interested.' They said, 'Well, you should think about the kind of paycheck we could potentially get you.' So I said, why not take a look at some of these scripts. I read a bunch of scripts and I find one that I could probably lend my voice to, or take some ownership of. I tell the agents, they're very excited, but I said, 'Give me the weekend to re-read it and think it through, and we'll set up the meeting on Monday and I'll come out to L.A.' That weekend of me re-reading the script is Johnny's weekend, basically. I call on Monday and said, 'Guys, this isn't for me.' The decision was that I love what I do. I like writing more than anything. I like my smaller, dialogue-driven character stories. On Monday, after I passed, that's kind of when I started to think about making a film about a guy who's being asked to make a similar decision. To give up your dream to take a more financially responsible career path. As I started to shape the screenplay, and think about who this guy would be, I didn't want it to be a guy who's my age, going through some form of a mid-life crisis. I wanted it to be a guy like I was, when I was trying to get The Brothers Mcmullen made, and I had a ton of naysayers in my life, but I just had to go and do this thing. I thought it should be a young guy, who is willing to gamble because his dream means that much to him, and that's why I made it a young guy. In thinking about The Brothers Mcmullen when writing the script, when I finished, my producer and I sat down and I said, 'Wait a minute. Why should we go out and try to raise a couple million dollars to make this movie?' Mcmullen is my most successful film, financially and critically. Why not go and do another Mcmullen? When I was 24 and had no connections, didn't know how to make a movie, and had no money, we still were able to find 25 grand and shoot it in 12 days. We said, let's do the same thing here. I took $25,000 and put it in the bank. I said, 'This is the budget. We've got to get this thing done for this amount of money.' And that's what we ended up doing.
That's awesome. I also saw the audition reel of Matt (Bush) and Kerry (Bishé). Can you talk about when they came along in the casting process? Were they fairly early, or fairly late?
Edward Burns: The script was pretty much done and I have a great casting director in New York, going back to She's the One. Her name is Maribeth Fox. I gave her a Mcmullen assignment. We wanted to work with these young kids, because we didn't have any money to pay them. On Mcmullen, we were all so enthusiastic and excited and couldn't believe that we were actually making a movie. I wanted to recapture that kind of enthusiasm, given the production. We were only going to shoot in 12 days, we were all going to live together in a house in the Hamptons. We're going to try and shoot all day long, and wake them up at sunrise if the light is right. The great thing about living in New York is there is an abundance of talented actors who are just dying for an opportunity. We auditioned a bunch of kids and, the minute we saw Matt, we kind of knew he was going to be our Johnny. The character is described as being nice to a fault, and we needed a kid who, the minute you saw him, you would have nothing but empathy for him. Finding Brooke was a little more difficult. There were a couple of girls we liked, but when we saw Kerry, we thought she was fantastic, but she's about a head taller than Matt. So, we had to see what the chemistry was going to be like, so we brought them in to read together. I think you can tell from that audition, you can tell that early on. They didn't rehearse together or anything. There was something there that was pretty special. It was very exciting.
You always write a role for yourself in your films, and I think Uncle Terry is one of your best characters and performances. I was wondering if you could talk about the process of writing for yourself. Do you have a role picked out beforehand, or does it just come to you while you're writing?
Edward Burns: You know, it's a little bit of both. Sometimes, like the thing I'm writing now, I'm definitely writing a part for myself, trying to do something a little different for myself as an actor. In Nice Guy Johnny, he's this guy who is nice to a fault, he wants to make everyone happy. He is going to end up hurting himself because he wants to please everyone else. I thought it would be interesting to play the mentor character who is the complete antithesis of that. He's a character who is so selfish, and seems to be giving him terrible, terrible advice throughout the course of the story, but, only in the end, you see that terrible advice, is just what this kid needed. Once I knew I wanted this character to be that kind of guy, I didn't know exactly how I would color him. I know a couple of guys who are Uncle Terry-esque, and I pulled a bunch of their classic lines. Once I started to play with that, it really came to life.
You also said on the bonus features that, once you started to act alongside Matt, he really forced you to step up with your own acting. Can you talk about that dynamic on screen with Matt?
Edward Burns: What can happen to a lot of actors, and it happened to me, is I think I kind of fell out of love with it, for a little while. I had done a couple of studio films, and I just started to, I don't know, get a little jaded. I got lucky because finding these kids who were going to show up and give it their all, the unexpected surprise I got was, on that first day, Matt showed up and he came to play. He destroyed me. When I looked at the scene in the editing room, I said, 'We have to reshoot this.' He is not holding back. It wasn't a big, dramatic scene, but there is a level of intensity that he brought, which showed I had gotten a little lazy. Working with him, I really started to fall in love with acting again. That was exciting.
Can you talk about embracing the whole budget situation? Were there aspects of the movie where you wished you did have a bigger budget?
Edward Burns: I look at it like this. There are two lists of compromises where I have had to choose from. On one side, when I make my films at this budget level, which I am so happy at now, I don't know if I'll ever go back. The compromises I have to make are like I don't have a Steadicam, or I don't have a crane, or I might have to write a scene out of a location because I can't afford all those extras. I might not afford to relocate either, so I might have to consolidate three scenes into one locations. I'm not going to be able to work with movie stars. I'll have to work with unknowns. I'm OK with all of that. The other list of compromises, whether someone gives you $1 million or $100 million, is that person that cuts the check, expects to be a part of the creative process and expects to fully collaborate with you. After making nine movies, prior to Johnny, I've had my title changed, I've had music changed, I've had endings changed, I've had to cast certain people. I look at that list of compromises, and I'm just unwilling to make those. When I look at the two lists of compromises I have to make, I'm taking the compromises I have to make for a lower budget. I don't really look back and say, 'You know, it would have been so much cooler if we had done this.'
You have a few really interesting projects coming up with Man on a Ledge and 40, your TV pilot with (Entourage creator) Doug Ellin. Is there anything you can say about your characters in those projects?
Edward Burns: Yeah. 40 is going to be incredible. The pilot script, it's like the best stuff in Entourage. It's funny, it's real, and it's four real guys. It's a great part. I never wanted to do television. Doug sat me down and tried to convince me. He said, 'Read the script. If you read the script, you might reconsider.' I started reading it and, by page 10, I was in. We shoot the pilot in October, here in New York, and I'm really excited about it. Man on a Ledge, we shot that last winter and it comes out in January. I play a hostage negotiator. Sam Worthington is the guy on the ledge who's going to jump, I'm there to negotiate but he doesn't want to talk to me. He wants to speak to Elizabeth Banks' character, so I have to step aside and deal with Elizabeth, while she's dealing with him. It's sort of a thriller in the Inside Man vein.
Is there anything you can say about the project you're currently writing right now? About the story or who you will play in that?
Edward Burns: Yeah. It has to do with retired cops. I'll just leave it at that.
How far along in the process are you?
Edward Burns: I have my outline pretty well structured, and I'm almost done with the first act.
Finally, what would you like to say to anyone who's curious about Nice Guy Johnny or who didn't get to see it in theaters, about why they should pick up the DVD?
Edward Burns: First of all, I think it's very funny, but more so than that, it's actually about something. If you are a dreamer, and you've been told to give those dreams up, this movie might be just the thing you need.
Excellent. I really enjoyed the film, and it was a pleasure talking to you.
Edward Burns: Hey man, thank you very much. Take care, Brian.