Ed Burns is the poster child of the guy that guys want to be. Talented, down-to-earth, handsome, and the kind of man who seems as comfortable being the shoulder to cry on as he is swilling beers with buddies at a dive. If that description sounds like someone from a movie, it probably is: Ed has written many of the compelling characters he has played on the big screen and they often possess some of those coveted qualities (and sometimes a few not-so-coveted qualities, but we’ll get to Uncle Terry in the q&a….)
I had a chance to talk to Ed about his new film, Nice Guy Johnny, as well as who he is as an artist. I’ve long admired Ed’s ability to bring characters to life who are flawed, but endearing. You might know him from his award-winning debut feature, The Brothers McMullen, which he wrote, directed and starred in; or alongside Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan; or from She’s The One in which he wrote this line for a character: “I’m not miserable, I’m dis-satisfied; that’s what makes me a success.” Though my first reaction to that great line is “good luck with that,” it takes just another second for me to realize that I have certainly had moments where I’ve tried to justify a bad situation, too. That is the beauty of an Ed Burns film: simultaneously witty enough to entertain and astute enough to hold a mirror to us.
His newest film, Nice Guy Johnny, is about following your bliss. As we parents know, following bliss may be more daunting now than back in the days when the only thing we were responsible for nurturing was our hangover, but this film is a great reminder that dreams are a noble pursuit. The theme in Nice Guy Johnny is nestled into a sweet love story involving twenty-somethings, whose terrific acting will bring you right back to your own awkward moments and carefree days.
Ed is not only putting out a great movie, but with Nice Guy Johnny’s distribution model he’s helping to revolutionize the independent film industry, as you’ll read in the q&a. The essence of the new model is access, so as soon as tonight you can jump into your coziest pajamas and screen Nice Guy Johnny by downloading it from iTunes; watching on Video on Demand or Comcast’s new Indie Film Club (Ed is the first guest editor for the new service); or, getting the DVD.
The thing I find most inspiring about Ed Burns? He seems to have this charmed life – a successful artist, husband, father of two – but he is fully engaged in creating that life through the choices he makes and by practicing what he’s preaching. Maybe Ed Burns is the poster child of the guy that women want to be, too!
Talk about what it was like to make Nice Guy Johnny on a $25,000 budget (same as The Brothers McMullen) – was it a conscious decision? What concessions did you have to make?
It was a conscious choice to make it on that budget. This film is about dreams and I was following mine when I chose to make Nice Guy Johnny over directing a big studio film a few years ago. I was really interested in making a film that could recapture the magic of The Brothers McMullen, which was made on a small budget with a group of friends. So I decided to do this film the same way.
There were just three people on the crew and I asked people for favors to get free locations for the shoot; I also had to rewrite certain scenes to accommodate the locations we got. I asked the actors to do their own hair and makeup, and wear their own clothes.
The biggest concession was that I had to tell a smaller story, but none of these things outweighed the great experience. It was the best film making experience I’ve had since The Brothers McMullen.
How did you find the actors for the film?
I’ve worked with the same casting director for a while and I wanted her to find unknown actors for Nice Guy Johnny…the actors who are really talented but are losing parts to bigger names.
Working with these excellent young actors like Kerry Bishe (Brooke), Matt Bush (Johnny) and Anna Wood (Claire) was really fun and since I wrote the part for 20-something characters and I’m in my early 40s, I relied on them to give me feedback about vernacular language. They would suggest ways to say something a certain way or make references that 20-somethings would make. It’s why the dialogue sounds so natural.
The actors really knew their characters and an actor should know their character best. The director is thinking of all the different characters in the film, but they are living with just the one they’re playing.
In Nice Guy Johnny, Uncle Terry (played by Ed) has questionable character, but he’s also the person who acts like Johnny’s subconscious, pushing him into uncomfortable places in order to find the truth. Do you have an Uncle Terry; do we all need an Uncle Terry?
I don’t have an Uncle Terry, but Johnny needed an Uncle Terry because Johnny is nice to a fault and it’s detrimental. Terry, a liar and a cheat, is the opposite of Johnny, but he also serves the purpose of giving Johnny permission to be something other than a too-nice rule follower.
Is this film based on anyone you know?
The female lead, Brooke, is actually based on a line in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Jungleland:”
Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a dodge
Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain
She’s the dream girl.
Nice Guy Johnny’s soundtrack sets a perfect tone – is it original music for this film?
It is original. This is my fourth collaboration with singer-songwriter PT Walkley. In the past I’ve presented him with a completed script and asked him for music, but this time I let him in on the film as we were making it. He played with themes rather than playing to specific scenes in the film.
(The soundtrack made iTunes Indie Spotlight and the front page of the Soundtrack section. Below PT Walkley’s theme song for Nice Guy Johnny, “Save the World,” plays over a second trailer for the film:)
You are pioneering a new model for releasing independent film. Instead of being released in movie theaters, Nice Guy Johnny is being released via Video on Demand, iTunes, DVD and Comcast’s new Indie Film Club. Will we see more and more of this kind of thing?
It is the future of smaller indie titles. The theatrical release model for indie films is broken – many times if the indie film is released in a theater, it comes and goes quickly, it disappears and only a small group of people get to see it. Add to that the fact that a lot of people don’t live near art house theaters so seeing an indie film is not even an option.
Using this model of releasing on Video on Demand, iTunes and DVD, the film is available everywhere and everyone has access to it. The system is working: with no marketing budget Nice Guy Johnny was the 7th most downloaded film on iTunes just two days after release.
(Ed offers more thoughts about this distribution model in a q&a with Comcast here)
Let’s talk about you as an artist. You are not just a “triple threat,” you are a quadruple threat…a highly successful screenwriter, director, actor and producer. How does that happen?
Some of it just happened and some of it was intended. When I was in college, I thought about journalism, but I was also a good storyteller. An adviser told me to take a film appreciation class. After that I wrote my first screenplay, but also decided I wanted to direct so I transferred to Hunter College’s film program.
When it came time to shoot my screenplay, The Brothers McMullen, I didn’t know actors so I cast my friends and myself in it. I got good feedback on my acting and started to get more roles. The film also got good feedback so that helped my writing and directing career.
How did The Brothers McMullen get noticed…is it true that you slipped a copy to Robert Redford while you were working on Entertainment Tonight?
Yes, it’s true. I asked Robert Redford to consider my film for Sundance and gave him my film. He handed it to someone who worked with him who probably screened it and sent it through the system to be accepted into Sundance. When the film screened at Sundance, I was seated next to Redford which was bizarre and surreal, but he told me how much he liked it.
Now you are probably on the receiving end of work from aspiring film makers. How do you handle it?
I am happy to try to watch everything that comes my way and I try to help when I can, but the truth is that it’s challenging to get our own films made let alone others’ films.
Where do you draw your inspiration for your stories?
I try to keep myself open. Sometimes it’s personal, sometimes it’s the lives of other people and their stories. When I have a an idea I want to research, I might throw it out to a group of friends – for example, I’ll ask them to give me a line about giving up a dream.
Nice Guy Johnny’s theme about following your dreams came from a personal incident. Two years ago my agent asked me if I wanted to direct a big studio film, but my bliss is telling my stories and directing my own screenplays so I passed on the directing job. As I talked it over with my producing partner, Aaron Lubin, I realized I wanted to use this experience as a bouncing off point to tell a story.
Are you a disciplined writer? And do you have advice for aspiring writers?
I am disciplined. I try to write daily from 9:30-1:30, break for lunch, and then write again from 2:30-5:30.
My advice is to always be writing and get feedback. Also, don’t fall so madly in love with an idea that you spend 8 years trying to finish it…there are more opportunities than that. I have a lot of scripts I’ve written but never used, and I have no regrets because the process makes me a better writer.
Did you have good creative role models?
I don’t know that I had creative role models, but my parents exposed me to the arts. They were big readers and my mom was into theater and loved Woody Allen. When I started to show some talent for writing, my dad encouraged it.
Has your work changed at all since becoming a father?
Not really. I haven’t really explored fatherhood in my writing yet. Part of that might be because I make lower budget films and working with kids is expensive.
Don’t Ask Me To: Show up on time
I would put into a time capsule my: Childhood home (the home was used in The Brothers McMullen)
My favorite place is: East end of Long Island
When I have a creative block I: Go for a walk