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Directors Kevin Smith and Ed Burns Cram on Moviemaking

Every year the indie film scene seems to produce one sleeper hit, a "came-from-nowhere" film that, through sincerity, lack of artifice, and genuine connection with its audience, makes a mark both aesthetically and commercially. Last year Kevin Smith’s raunchily trenchant Clerks was that film, reaping admiration, awards, and audience approval not just in the States but in scores of foreign markets as well. The Clerks phenomenon produced both a hit soundtrack album as well as a Fox sitcom (debuting this fall) and already Smith has completed a sophomore feature, the Alphaville-produced Mall Rats, starring Shannen Doherty, that Gramercy will release this fall.

This year’s nod for the Indie Sleeper award goes to Ed Burns’ The Brothers McMullen, a similarly no-budget comedy drawn from the director’s own suburban upbringing. The Grand Jury Prize-winner at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, the film is the first release from Fox Searchlight, Tom Rothman’s new specialty film division at Twentieth Century Fox. When it came time to ask someone to interview Burns for Filmmaker, we couldn’t help but think of Smith. And when scheduling conflicts seemed to make this interview impossible, Smith tenaciously pursued Burns, rescheduling a time and rooting out the similarities – and differences – between the first films of these two talented writer/directors.


Smith: I imagine the reason they set us up to do this is because there are so many similarities between our two [films]. Off the top of my head, brief list: Both made our first films for under $30,000. Your budget?

Burns: Got it in the can for approximately $16,000 to $17,000. Got all of our stock from the Raw Stock exchange. A lot of recanned stuff. We deferred everything. The only thing we paid for was processing and even DuArt deferred a lot of that. It’s been nice. We’ve been able to pay everyone back and pay them well.

Smith: We both started by showing our films at the IFFM.

Burns: Yeah.

Smith: Had a leap off point from the IFFM –

Burns: – with our man Bob Hawk.

Smith: Bob Hawk is the other connection. Bob Hawk was one of the first people to come on and give us that needed boost. As people know from Filmmaker, Bob Hawk is a really important guy in the independent arena, especially when it comes to the Sundance selection.

Burns: Yeah, Bob saw my first student film and had been helping me out, sort of giving me advice. After about 20 rejection letters, you need a guy like Bob Hawk to say, "Hey, you know why you’re doing this. It’s about the work."

Smith: It helps your integrity a lot.

Burns: Yeah it does.

Smith: Amy Taubin from the Village Voice. First journalist of note on board.

Burns: Yeah.

Smith: We both share a lawyer. [John Sloss.]

Burns: True.

Smith: We both quickly jumped onto the second film. You’re about ready to go into production. You were even quicker than us. Clerks came out in October, we started shooting in March. Brothers comes out in August. You’re going to start shooting in September, probably be ready by the spring?

Burns: Yep. I think they’re trying to do like a St. Patrick’s Day type opening. It’ll be cool. I wanted to get this one in the can before Brothers came out. I had the script done before Sundance.

Smith: There’s that urgency to build a body of work and to get as far away from the first [film] as possible. Not because of any rejection of the first, just cause I want to keep going. We’re both Catholic, I’d imagine. You practice?

Burns: Not since tenth grade.

Smith: I’m still practicing.

Burns: Are you? We were both altar boys apparently, cause I read about Dante.

Smith: Yeah, it’s bizarre. We’re both egocentric enough to not just write, direct, edit, produce, but to appear in [our films] as well. And the reason behind that for you?

Burns: Originally when I did my first student film, I was in it out of fear. I wrote a two-person piece and made a friend of mine, Chris McGovern, who’s now a fireman here in town, be in it. I was up at Hunter College. I was just terrified to go to the theater majors and have these guys with black turtlenecks bash my first script.

Smith: And it also has to be a question of logic. Being that you’re the writer, you know exactly how that character’s going to sound. Rather than dealing with the frustration of "Can you do it more like this? Can you put this inflection here?" Skip the middle man.

Burns: Well, I just read Woody Allen’s book, whatever it is, and someone asks him the question, "How is it directing yourself?" And he was saying because he also writes the screenplay, he doesn’t have to direct himself, because he knows exactly what he wants.

Smith: We both shot 16mm, that goes without saying. Both used the hometown locale. You actually live in Long Island?

Burns: No, I live here [in New York], for about five years now. [The set of Brothers is] the house I grew up in. My parents still live there.

Smith: The relationship between you and your father in real life I understand is really tight. Your dad was once a spokesman for the police on its facilities?

Burns: Retired two years ago.

Smith: You have a really tight relationship with him. The father in McMullen, well, of course is not there, but he’s remembered in really a malicious way – a wife-beater, kid-beater kind of guy.

Burns: I didn’t do it consciously, but we talked about it. He made sure that I said before every screening at Sundance that the father wasn’t based on him. I really don’t know where it came from. Maybe it had to do because my father and I are so close. There’s fear of writing a father that might be close to him. I kinda wanted to go the opposite way. I come up with a basic outline of some of the characters and then I just sit down and go wherever it takes me.

Smith: You know, I’m gonna jump way ahead, let’s talk about box office. Make a box office call, roughly.

Burns: You know, I was hoping, because of Reservoir Dogs, your film – there’s this new generation of independent filmmakers. We’re not like the artsy, esoteric independent filmmakers. I think our stuff is more accessible and we’re writing for the guys that we know who would never have gone into the Angelika theater.

Smith: One might argue that more than anyone, we make these films for ourselves. These are things we would like to see on screen. I think [Brothers McMullen] has the potential to go above and beyond [the Clerks] audience, because our audience, or the movie itself, skews to a very specific population. Because it’s got language and because it’s dealing with topics that put a lot of people on edge, it wasn’t going to go beyond that 3-point-something figure. McMullen is a family piece. But it’s not sappy-sweet, like The Passage or something. So in the month of August when this movie comes out –

Burns: Terrifying.

Smith: It’s so fucking bad. Desperado’s going to be out. Now that violence and the Quentin backlash is starting to begin and Desperado comes on the heels of that, people are gonna – I don’t know what it’s gonna do. Now all you need is one politician to turn around and be like, "Look, here’s a healthy alternative to all of that kind of cinema. Here’s a movie, it’s about family." And the audience will go "Ugh. It’s about family." But it’s not that "family" family, you know? It’s the approachable family film. So if you could catch a wave like that? You definitely could ride it out for 10 million in the independent film industry.

Burns: There’s this one metalhead guy, someone who I would never have expected to like this kind of romantic film. But he loved it because he said it’s a romantic comedy that guys can get into cause the men in the film aren’t really like these wussy types. They’re these big, you know, you or me or anyone.

Smith: That’s what I wanted to do with Mall Rats. It’s very hard. It’s a romantic movie, but there’s enough dick jokes and shit in there that will get me over with the guys. And that’s already happened in the test screenings.

Burns: Romantic comedies are fun.

Smith: Yeah, done right. Except they haven’t been done right in about 10 or 20 years. Alright, let’s go to the place where we split. There was a window where it looked like you were going to go to Cannes, and then, boom, it didn’t happen. How’d that feel?

Burns: I was a little upset about it. One, because nobody likes rejection, and because we sort of put off the filming of the next film. We were gonna shoot it this summer before Brothers came out, and we didn’t do it because of anticipating getting into Cannes. It would have fallen right at the end of pre-production, and so I held off until September. So that upset me. They say it’s very political, and I’ve heard that there was them saying, "We’ll prove Sundance wrong. If this is Sundance’s winner, it’s not good enough for us."

Smith: Now, while we’re on festivals, let’s touch on two things: you won the Sundance Grand Jury, which as everyone knows is the top prize. What comes along with the Grand Jury Prize is the Grand Jury curse. If you look back at the last five, seven, maybe ten years, every Grand Jury Prize winner goes right in the toilet. My take on it is this is the first Grand Jury Prize winner in years that actually has a shot at being commercial. It’s not stuffy. It’s not myopic. It’s not really limited to one audience. I mean, as great as Todd Haynes’ Poison is, there is always one audience for that film. Tom Noonan’s [What Happened Was...] is fantastic for the two-character genre, but there is always one audience.

Burns: I don’t want to think about how the film is gonna perform at the box office. It’s done. I’m proud of it. I think we both make films that we want people to see. I’m not making films for a small audience. I have something to say and I’d like to reach as large an audience as I can, because I want them to see the film, not necessarily because I’m so concerned with those figures. I’d love the film to kick ass at the box office. I’d be a happy guy. I could buy my convertible. I’m looking at a ’67 Starlight GS. Black, white top, white interior.

Smith: I bought a Dodge Neon when the film took off. It’s cheap.

Burns: I had to sell mine. I had a ’70 Skylark Chrysler convertible. Got it for $650. Had to sell it my sophomore year in college to get drinking money cause I had none at the start of the semester. One thing I decided, I said if I ever make any money, I’m gonna buy my Skylark.

Smith: Even more reason for the box office success. Alright, now let’s go into the first film thing. Brothers McMullen is not the first film. The first film was?

Burns: The first film was Brandy. I intended it to be a feature. It was a three-character piece, no lights. Basically just characters talking on street corners.

Smith: That sounds interesting. Why doesn’t it work?

Burns: For whatever reason, I didn’t have anything to say. McMullen is really honest, and it’s important to me. That film, I tried to write something that I thought would get into festivals. It shouldn’t have been a feature, and it was obvious when we did our first cut. It only came in at like 80 minutes, and it wasn’t very good. As we cut it down to 70, it still wasn’t very good. So now it’s down to like 45. It was a great learning experience. Cinematically not interesting. The dialogue was forced. The acting is bad, myself included.

Smith: One of the biggest things about [Brothers McMullen] that people call attention to is that you’re good in it. You’re very charismatic. You got a great fucking voice. I remember there was talk afterwards of, "Is Burns gonna go on and direct or is he gonna act?"

Burns: Well, yeah, I got a couple of offers. Studio things with, you know, more money than I’ve dreamed I’d make in my entire life. And you know, opposite some pretty decent looking gals. I want to act in other people’s films, but I don’t want to act in any film that is close to the film that I will make one day.

Smith: Right now, you’re more interested in establishing your directorial career.

Burns: I came into this one as a writer. That’s been the nicest thing about all this – I can get up in the morning, go into my room, and sit at my computer and just escape. The acting is fun to do, but I love the writing. I wanted to be a director because of my ego. I didn’t want anyone to touch a single, goddamn line.

Smith: To me 1995 seems like the year of – and this is not a slam – but it seems to me to be the year of the fluffy independent. There are a lot of independent films out this year that are very commercial, very mainstream. It’s not your average independent film year. You have the Brothers, which is like a family film. In the independent arena, that’s rare. You have Party Girl, which is, you know, real fluff. And you have The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love, which is a fine film, but again, it’s like lesbian lite. It’s not like the harshness of Go Fish. And then you look at the films of Ang Lee. If you take away the fact that it’s Chinese, again you have this very light, commercial independent film.

Burns: But take a look at Wedding Banquet. That is certainly not a film that anyone in Hollywood today would make.

Smith: Are you sure? In a world where they’re making To Wong Foo with Love, Julie Newmar?

Burns: Putting guys in dresses and having an openly gay relationship are two very different things, I think.

Smith: An openly gay relationship, you can go all the way back to Making Love and that was like in the early ’80s.

Burns: But the fact of the matter is Ang is Chinese, and I had never seen a Chinese film prior to that, and really had never thought I’d be interested in one. [Actually, Ang Lee is Taiwanese. Ed.]

Smith: Do we think that’s because there’s an American writer [Good Machine’s James Schamus] involved, somebody to kind of make it more palatable to the American audience who maybe won’t see Raise the Red Lantern?

Burns: Could be.

Smith: There’s a Chinese movie for you. So, in that same area, Good Machine latched onto you very quickly. Are you the Irish Ang Lee?

Burns: Not as far as I know. [Laughs.]

Smith: There are parallels though. You’re making a family film. The first one’s a family film. The second film is, from what I understand this lost guy, taxi driver, takes this chick all the way somewhere...

Burns: [Laughs.] No, no. It’s a retired New York City fireman, now just lives out on the Island. He’s having some problems with his wife, because he spends too much time on his boat. All he does is fish. And he’s got two sons. One son I’m gonna play, the cab driver, who picks up some chick in his cab, first scene. She’s going to JFK, afraid to fly. She says, "You know what? Why don’t you drive me to New Orleans?" She’s a hot looking babe, so he’s like, "Sure. I’ll drive you anywhere you wanna go." They fall in love, he’s getting married. The other one, the younger brother, is a guy who’s like a real Wall Street prick. Making a lot of dough. He’s swinging his dick around town, and he wants to dump his college-sweetheart wife.

Smith: Is this guy gonna be like the young guy from Brothers?

Burns: I wrote it with him in mind. You can sort of picture him as a little kickass. But it’s funny, I don’t know how I’d compare it. Brothers sort of gets melodramatic maybe at times, especially with the older brother and his wife. I tried to keep away from that. My biggest scene in Brothers was the scene in the stone room where he thinks he’s going in there to break up with her, and she beats him to the punch. And he’s got that funny line: "I don’t need any more ideas. I’m conceited enough already." I just think that it’s sort of Woodyish. It’s my favorite scene, because of that line. I tried to stay away from the melodrama and have some fun with this one.

Smith: Your girlfriend in the movie is your girlfriend in real life. Now was that a romance before Brothers?

Burns: Oh yeah, we were bussing tables together out in East Hampton about five years ago.

Smith: And you’re how old now?

Burns: Twenty-seven.

Smith: Oh, you’re older. Burns is older than Smith! So you guys have been dating five years. It’s not a high school sweetheart, but it’s pretty damn close.

Burns: Yeah, she was like 19, so she was still in college. And I was still at Hunter, but not really in school anymore, just kind of taking a couple classes at night and working. I had lost my job at the 7:00 News where I was a $5-an- hour photo copier. And I drove my car out to the Hamptons to look for a job. I had never waited tables, so I got a job as a busboy. I was living in my car.

Smith: Where did you shower?

Burns: There were two spots. Two beaches down there had sort of like public showers. So I’d sleep on the beach, go over to the shower, take a shower, had my toothbrush and shit –

Smith: And what does your father, the New York cop, think about all this? "Why’s my son living in his car and showering on the beach?"

Burns: He’s always pushed me towards adventure. In high school, he was like, "Don’t go to college immediately. Jump in your car and drive cross-country." Or when I graduated college, he’s like, "Hey, you sure you wanna go to work? Why don’t you go to Europe and backpack around for two years?"

Smith: So, your girlfriend. Everyone’s take is that she’s a fine, fine, fine woman, but she’s gonna be in the second film and again going to play your girlfriend. Is there a pattern emerging here?

Burns: [Laughs.] She had no experience before. We sort of did it out of necessity.

Smith: Is she taking lessons now?

Burns: I don’t want her to before this film, because I wrote this part...

Smith: To her limitations.

Burns: Sort of. I wrote it for her, and I know that she’ll be able to nail this easily. I think she has a good natural ability and I didn’t want her to go into this thinking about some bullshit acting classes. After that, I think she should go and take some classes and do whatever she wants.

Smith: So when does Burns take the trip to the altar? Twice in the movies now he’s dating his real-life girlfriend. This is kind of like a Teen Magazine interview.

Burns: We always knew we’d be together. We’ve been living together since that night she slept in the back of the Honda Civic. [Laughs.] We’re in no hurry. We kind of wanted to have some money. If you get married, maybe it’s the suburban kid in me, you got to have some space. If we go on our honeymoon and come back to our rat-infested studio apartment, that’s depressing. Probably in the next year.

Smith: And then the baby’ll come.

Burns: No, I’ve been poor for too long. I want some cash. I want to go see some of the world.

Smith: OK, let’s get off the girlfriend. I know you can’t, but we can.

Burns: She actually wanted to come down and meet you. She loved Clerks.

Smith: Really? Well, we loved her. So the one thing that we almost have in common, but it does fall short is the troika, the very crucial troika in independent film. Bob Hawk, John Sloss, and John Pierson, in no particular order. Now we fall short on John Pierson. What’s your take there?

Burns: John actually saw Brandy and he called. He was like, you know, "This thing just ain’t there. You’ve got a knack for dialogue. In this particular film, that’s about it." He said, you know, "Good luck and if you make another film, I’d like to take a look at it." He’s great, friendly. The one great thing about John [is that] I gave him my film at the IFFM on video. A week later, he screened it and called me.

Smith: He’s like that.

Burns: So there were two people I gave McMullen to that I had met from the market: Mark Tusk from Miramax and John Pierson.

Smith: Mark? He’s our boy. If you were to stretch the triumvirate or the troika into four people – then it wouldn’t be a triumvirate or a troika – Mark would be the other guy. Mark’s incredible.

Burns: Those were my first two guys that I had something of a relationship with, and unfortunately neither of them liked the film. I didn’t really get to speak to Mark about it, but John, again, called me immediately, told me "I’m sorry. I don’t think there’s an audience for this film."

Smith: This was the 110 minute cut?

Burns: Yeah, now it’s down to 92 or 93.

Smith: Which is what a comedy should be.

Burns: Well, it was a rough cut. We didn’t send it out saying that this was the finished film. We basically had no more money and we were like, "We need some help here." But for whatever reason John passed.

Smith: How did that make you feel at the time? Was all hope lost or was it like, "We can carry on?"

Burns: Totally carry on. I knew I wanted to make films. I had written about seven screenplays, sending them out. Getting rejection letter after rejection letter. My dad was like, "You wanna be a filmmaker? Go out and make a fucking film. We don’t know people with a million dollars, so let’s figure out a way to make a low-budget one."

Smith: And this was who?

Burns: My dad.

Smith: See, I had this little experience with my sister. She was like, "What do you want to be?" I want to be a filmmaker. She’s like "Be a filmmaker." And I was like oh, yeah, right. And she was like "No. In your mind become a filmmaker. You’re a filmmaker from this day forward. Do everything as a filmmaker would do." And it’s true. It works.

Burns: That’s exactly what he said, and the other good, important advice he gave me, which helped with rejection letter after rejection letter, was if you’re interested in the end result, you’re in it for the wrong reason. You enjoy the process. You’re doing this for you. You make the film you make. Who gives a crap what anyone else thinks? Does it hurt to be rejected? Hell yeah, it stings. I actually have all of my rejection letters –

Smith: Framed?

Burns: I took them all and stuck them on some thing and framed them. I actually have a rejection letter for McMullen from Fox.

Smith: Fox? Fox Searchlight?

Burns: No the big Fox and that one is on the frame.

Smith: Thank God for Searchlight.

Burns: What did you think of the film by the way? Did you like it?

Smith: What’s he gonna say? [Laughs.]

Burns: "It fucking sucked!" [Laughs.]

Smith: Uh, chick was nice, but they talk too much. [Laughs.] Hands down, my favorite parts of the film were definitely anything you did. You were real charismatic. You came off really well. You came off like a young, slim, hip Archie Bunker without the racist overtones. That’s exactly what it reminded me of. And I liked the youngest brother. Every time he played anxiety, it was dead-on perfect. You’re the first Fox Searchlight film. You’re going to be it, the debut. Any reservations?

Burns: None at all. You know, you hear these monster stories about studios, and every decision that’s been made from the trailer to the poster, I’ve been involved with. Tom Rothman, who runs Searchlight, has been –

Smith: – Used to be at Goldwyn.

Burns: Yeah. He has been not only the guy who bought my film and everything, but he has been a friend. And I’m excited that we were their first film, because they want to make a big splash as much as I do. So this certainly wasn’t going to be a film that they were going to drop.

Smith: It’s a milestone. It marks the beginning. Fox Searchlight is basically an offshoot of the studio. I just worked with an offshoot of a studio, but really it’s the studio hiding behind another name, Gramercy, which is really Universal. It’s like you said, it’s very true, you hear horror stories about them fucking with your work, about then telling you it’s got to be this, got to be that. [I was] untouched. Unscathed. Involvement to the point where they’re like "Yeah, we want to see you do this movie," but uninvolvement in terms of how to shoot it, what to do, can you say this, can you not say this. They were really good.

Burns: Yeah, and the next film, final cut, cast, crew approval, anything I want.

Smith: There’s no pressure to pack it full of names. OK, the last independent major to start up, I remember, I think was Fine Line. Their inaugural release – it was kind of neck and neck, some say it was My Own Private Idaho, some say it was The Rapture. Now, My Own Private Idaho went on to make $6 or $7 million. It did really well. The Rapture – which I consider to be their first film, and I consider it to be a great movie, I liked it – tanked. So there’s the curse of the first film. You got the two curses riding your back.

Burns: The Grand Jury curse...

Smith: And the curse of the inaugural film. Is Burns going to beat the curse?

Burns: Shit, I hope so. [Laughs.]

Smith: That’s why you got to get your ass to church. Last question. It has been so fucking difficult to sit here and say Burns without saying Ed "Kooky" Burns. How often have you had to deal with that in life?

Burns: Years ago I used to get "Kooky" a lot, and then for years I hadn’t heard it. Now, I get that occasionally. I’ve never seen the show. Just seen pictures of Kooky. So, who knows? Maybe that would be an interesting bit of casting.

Smith: Ed "Kooky" Burns in a film by Ed "Kooky" Burns.


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