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 Smiths 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 years nod for the Indie Sleeper award goes to Ed Burns The Brothers McMullen, a similarly no-budget comedy drawn from the directors own suburban upbringing. The Grand Jury Prize-winner at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, the film is the first release from Fox Searchlight, Tom Rothmans new specialty film division at Twentieth Century Fox. When it came time to ask someone to interview Burns for Filmmaker, we couldnt 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. Its been nice. Weve been able to pay everyone back and pay them well.
Smith: We both started by showing our films at the IFFM.
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 youre doing this. Its 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.
Smith: We both share a lawyer. [John Sloss.]
Smith: We both quickly jumped onto the second film. Youre 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. Youre going to start shooting in September, probably be ready by the spring?
Burns: Yep. I think theyre trying to do like a St. Patricks Day type opening. Itll be cool. I wanted to get this one in the can before Brothers came out. I had the script done before Sundance.
Smith: Theres 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. Were both Catholic, Id imagine. You practice?
Burns: Not since tenth grade.
Smith: Im still practicing.
Burns: Are you? We were both altar boys apparently, cause I read about Dante.
Smith: Yeah, its bizarre. Were 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, whos 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 youre the writer, you know exactly how that characters 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 Allens 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 doesnt 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 hes remembered in really a malicious way a wife-beater, kid-beater kind of guy.
Burns: I didnt do it consciously, but we talked about it. He made sure that I said before every screening at Sundance that the father wasnt based on him. I really dont know where it came from. Maybe it had to do because my father and I are so close. Theres 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, Im gonna jump way ahead, lets talk about box office. Make a box office call, roughly.
Burns: You know, I was hoping, because of Reservoir Dogs, your film theres this new generation of independent filmmakers. Were not like the artsy, esoteric independent filmmakers. I think our stuff is more accessible and were 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 its got language and because its dealing with topics that put a lot of people on edge, it wasnt going to go beyond that 3-point-something figure. McMullen is a family piece. But its not sappy-sweet, like The Passage or something. So in the month of August when this movie comes out
Smith: Its so fucking bad. Desperados 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 dont know what its gonna do. Now all you need is one politician to turn around and be like, "Look, heres a healthy alternative to all of that kind of cinema. Heres a movie, its about family." And the audience will go "Ugh. Its about family." But its not that "family" family, you know? Its 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: Theres 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 its a romantic comedy that guys can get into cause the men in the film arent really like these wussy types. Theyre these big bullshit-for-brains...like, you know, you or me or anyone.
Smith: Thats what I wanted to do with Mall Rats. Its very hard. Its a romantic movie, but theres enough dick jokes and shit in there that will get me over with the guys. And thats already happened in the test screenings.
Burns: Romantic comedies are fun.
Smith: Yeah, done right. Except they havent been done right in about 10 or 20 years. Alright, lets 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 didnt happen. Howd 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 didnt 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 its very political, and Ive heard that there was them saying, "Well prove Sundance wrong. If this is Sundances winner, its not good enough for us."
Smith: Now, while were on festivals, lets 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. Its not stuffy. Its not myopic. Its not really limited to one audience. I mean, as great as Todd Haynes Poison is, there is always one audience for that film. Tom Noonans [What Happened Was...] is fantastic for the two-character genre, but there is always one audience.
Burns: I dont want to think about how the film is gonna perform at the box office. Its done. Im proud of it. I think we both make films that we want people to see. Im not making films for a small audience. I have something to say and Id like to reach as large an audience as I can, because I want them to see the film, not necessarily because Im so concerned with those figures. Id love the film to kick ass at the box office. Id be a happy guy. I could buy my convertible. Im looking at a 67 Starlight GS. Black, white top, white interior.
Smith: I bought a Dodge Neon when the film took off. Its 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, Im gonna buy my Skylark.
Smith: Even more reason for the box office success. Alright, now lets 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 doesnt it work?
Burns: For whatever reason, I didnt have anything to say. McMullen is really honest, and its important to me. That film, I tried to write something that I thought would get into festivals. It shouldnt have been a feature, and it was obvious when we did our first cut. It only came in at like 80 minutes, and it wasnt very good. As we cut it down to 70, it still wasnt very good. So now its 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 youre good in it. Youre 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 Ive dreamed Id make in my entire life. And you know, opposite some pretty decent looking gals. I want to act in other peoples films, but I dont want to act in any film that is close to the film that I will make one day.
Smith: Right now, youre more interested in establishing your directorial career.
Burns: I came into this one as a writer. Thats 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 didnt 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. Its not your average independent film year. You have the Brothers, which is like a family film. In the independent arena, thats 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, its like lesbian lite. Its not like the harshness of Go Fish. And then you look at the films of Ang Lee. If you take away the fact that its 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 theyre 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 Id be interested in one. [Actually, Ang Lee is Taiwanese. Ed.]
Smith: Do we think thats because theres an American writer [Good Machines James Schamus] involved, somebody to kind of make it more palatable to the American audience who maybe wont see Raise the Red Lantern?
Burns: Could be.
Smith: Theres 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. Youre making a family film. The first ones 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. Its a retired New York City fireman, now just lives out on the Island. Hes having some problems with his wife, because he spends too much time on his boat. All he does is fish. And hes got two sons. One son Im gonna play, the cab driver, who picks up some chick in his cab, first scene. Shes going to JFK, afraid to fly. She says, "You know what? Why dont you drive me to New Orleans?" Shes a hot looking babe, so hes like, "Sure. Ill drive you anywhere you wanna go." They fall in love, hes getting married. The other one, the younger brother, is a guy whos like a real Wall Street prick. Making a lot of dough. Hes 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 its funny, I dont know how Id 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 hes going in there to break up with her, and she beats him to the punch. And hes got that funny line: "I dont need any more ideas. Im conceited enough already." I just think that its sort of Woodyish. Its 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 youre how old now?
Smith: Oh, youre older. Burns is older than Smith! So you guys have been dating five years. Its not a high school sweetheart, but its 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 Id 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? "Whys my son living in his car and showering on the beach?"
Burns: Hes always pushed me towards adventure. In high school, he was like, "Dont go to college immediately. Jump in your car and drive cross-country." Or when I graduated college, hes like, "Hey, you sure you wanna go to work? Why dont you go to Europe and backpack around for two years?"
Smith: So, your girlfriend. Everyones take is that shes a fine, fine, fine woman, but shes 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 dont 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 shell be able to nail this easily. I think she has a good natural ability and I didnt 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 hes dating his real-life girlfriend. This is kind of like a Teen Magazine interview.
Burns: We always knew wed be together. Weve been living together since that night she slept in the back of the Honda Civic. [Laughs.] Were in no hurry. We kind of wanted to have some money. If you get married, maybe its 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, thats depressing. Probably in the next year.
Smith: And then the babyll come.
Burns: No, Ive been poor for too long. I want some cash. I want to go see some of the world.
Smith: OK, lets get off the girlfriend. I know you cant, 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. Whats your take there?
Burns: John actually saw Brandy and he called. He was like, you know, "This thing just aint there. Youve got a knack for dialogue. In this particular film, thats about it." He said, you know, "Good luck and if you make another film, Id like to take a look at it." Hes 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: Hes 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? Hes our boy. If you were to stretch the triumvirate or the troika into four people then it wouldnt be a triumvirate or a troika Mark would be the other guy. Marks 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 didnt really get to speak to Mark about it, but John, again, called me immediately, told me "Im sorry. I dont think theres an audience for this film."
Smith: This was the 110 minute cut?
Burns: Yeah, now its down to 92 or 93.
Smith: Which is what a comedy should be.
Burns: Well, it was a rough cut. We didnt 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 dont know people with a million dollars, so lets 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. Shes like "Be a filmmaker." And I was like oh, yeah, right. And she was like "No. In your mind become a filmmaker. Youre a filmmaker from this day forward. Do everything as a filmmaker would do." And its true. It works.
Burns: Thats exactly what he said, and the other good, important advice he gave me, which helped with rejection letter after rejection letter, was if youre interested in the end result, youre in it for the wrong reason. You enjoy the process. Youre 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
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: Whats 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. Thats exactly what it reminded me of. And I liked the youngest brother. Every time he played anxiety, it was dead-on perfect. Youre the first Fox Searchlight film. Youre going to be it, the debut. Any reservations?
Burns: None at all. You know, you hear these monster stories about studios, and every decision thats been made from the trailer to the poster, Ive 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 Im excited that we were their first film, because they want to make a big splash as much as I do. So this certainly wasnt going to be a film that they were going to drop.
Smith: Its 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 its the studio hiding behind another name, Gramercy, which is really Universal. Its like you said, its very true, you hear horror stories about them fucking with your work, about then telling you its got to be this, got to be that. [I was] untouched. Unscathed. Involvement to the point where theyre 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: Theres 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 theres 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: Thats 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 hadnt heard it. Now, I get that occasionally. Ive 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.