For someone who has worked with the likes of Steven Spielberg and Robert De Niro, actor/filmmaker Edward Burns is a guy who’s never forgotten his roots. Continuing to match his big budget acting gigs with small passionate independent filmmaking fare, Burns has been busy ever since his debut smash "The Brothers McMullen" back in 1995. His latest foray into the low budget movie world is a romantic comedy called "Nice Guy Johnny" (on Special Edition DVD June 7 from FilmBuff – check out the review below!) and tells a tale of a young man about to get married who meets a gal that gives him second thoughts. Starpulse got a chance to talk to Burns one-on-one all about "Nice Guy Johnny," his thoughts on still working on smaller films after all these years and what’s next on the horizon. Here’s the very cool…
WRITER/DIRECTOR EDWARD BURNS!
You cast yourself in a great but smaller supporting role in "Nice Guy Johnny" – did you always feel it was a story you wanted to tell with other actors as leads?
Edward Burns: Given that the movie was about a guy who’s being asked to give up his dream in order to take a more fiscally responsible career path, I was sort of thinking back to who I was when I first wanted to try to make Brothers McMullen. How everybody thought I was crazy and they were like, ‘That’s nuts! You gotta go get a real job! You want to become a writer/director?!’ It was the thing I wanted to do and I didn't listen to the naysayers. I look at my life now and I’m just so thankful that I didn’t! And I didn’t want it to be a midlife crisis story, which if I had written the story about a guy my age that’s what it would have been. So I just thought what about a guy at the start of his journey and if he had made the left turn instead of the right he would have led a considerably different life and how important it is at that tender age. If you can’t gamble at twenty-three, when can you gamble on your dream - that’s why I wanted the lead character to be a younger guy. And then because I came up with this idea of him being nice to a fault, I knew that I wanted his mentor to be the antithesis of that – a guy who’s a complete sh*t heel and selfish to a fault. You could probably tell I had a blast playing him!
You cast two unknowns Matt Bush and Kerry Bishe as your leads and they have incredible chemistry. Was that something you had to work on them with or was there a natural connection between them?
EB: There was a pretty natural connection. I think the chemistry came from the fact that we shot it in a pretty intense, short shooting schedule. We shot the movie in twelve days, we all moved out to the Hamptons, we lived in a house together, so they had no choice but to hang out twenty-four seven with one another. But there’s a certain enthusiasm and excitement for the job that you have when you’re starting out and you’re just hungry and I think that’s what you see on screen with those kids and even Anna Wood who played the fiancée. I know for myself as an actor I had to really up my game in those scenes with Matt Bush because he came every day with his A game, with enthusiasm, excited to try new things. It sort of really invigorated me as actor because I’d fallen out of love with acting a little bit and working with these kids reminded me of why I got the bug in the first place.
As a guy who’s worked with the some of the most amazing actors and directors in Hollywood and could that alone, what is this wondrous desire that has you still going out there and making low-budget indies?
EB: To me it comes down to the one thing - I’ve always just been more attracted to smaller character stories. The first film I saw when I was a film studies minor – and I was not a film buff as a kid – I saw Billy Wilder’s "The Apartment." And then I fell in love with Woody Allen and again a similar approach to the storytelling and filmmaking - it’s kind of been the thing I’ve been attracted to as a writer/director my entire career. But the reason I stay in the low budget side of it is even when you make one of these films for let’s say three million dollars like a film I made "The Groomsmen." When somebody cuts you a check for three million dollars they fully expect to collaborate with you and you know what, it’s a lot of money and maybe they have a right to. But with that collaboration comes a world of compromises that you have to make. You have to consult with them about who you want to put in the film. I’ve had the titles of my movies changed. I’ve had the endings of my movies changed. I’ve been editing and they tell me they don’t like a piece of music I think is appropriate for a scene – there’s a list of compromises whether you’re making a hundred million dollar movie or a one million dollar movie. So given I’m a guy whose made a twenty-five thousand dollar film, I may have made it for twenty-five grand, but I didn’t have to answer to anybody.
Your commentaries, especially the one for "Nice Guy Johnny," are always king – from your candidness about possibly getting slightly lazy in the craft to your tell all facts and figures about budget and shooting days – in your opinion what makes a memorable commentary?
EB: The commentaries I’ve liked in the past were some kind of version of a how-to or what it would be like to sit in a film production class. Where they walk you through a scene and they tell you not only why they decided to do what they did with the camera and the actors, but the guys who make these low budget films are really looking for the tricks of the trade, the shortcuts, what’s really important on the day. I can remember I was in Greenwich Village as a kid right out of film school and I’m walking down the street and Spike Lee was walking right in front of me. I wanted to go up to him and ask him a thousand questions about "She’s Gotta Have It!" How did you make that movie, how did you do it on that budget, what camera did you use, what film stock did you use – all those things. And I just didn't have the nerve and I’ve always looked at commentaries as I’m sure some kid from film school would want to ask me those same questions. So I always think of that when I’m doing the commentary. They’re constantly telling you that you can't make a movie without X, Y or Z and I kind of think it’s my job to remind people that no, you actually don’t need any of that sh*t! You do need a camera and some actors and that’s really about it!
What was one thing that you learned from working with Steven Spielberg on "Saving Private Ryan" that has helped you in your filmmaking endeavors?
EB: I’ll tell you a story. So we are shooting Ryan and maybe about ten days in and would do about two takes, three takes tops and Steven gave us no direction whatsoever. And we’re all young guys a lot of us - I had never been on a film set other than my own little rinky dink movies before – so we all thought we were gonna get fired! We assumed that he must hate us. Why wasn’t he engaging with us at all? And then we had a scene one day and he asks for a fourth take...and then a fifth take…and then a sixth take. And now all of sudden he starts to pull us aside and give us direction and finally after twelve takes we get it done. So at lunch a group of us go over to him and say, ‘So, what happened today – why did you give us direction?’ He said, ‘Well, today you didn't know what the hell you were doing.’ And he went on to explain that his process at least on that film – I don't know if he does it on other films – was, ‘I’m not just stepping in after the first or second take before you gotta get warmed up, before you’ve made all the choices that you’ve thought about. I’ll not gonna step in and potentially either crush your confidence or have you second guess the things you wanna do.’ And it’s because he’s respectful of the actors as collaborators and other artists on his set. So I know when I making "She’s The One," I was the director who felt that directing meant I needed to, after I called cut, on every take step in and give a couple of notes to the actors. I assumed that was part of the job description. After that, the next one I made right after that was "Sidewalks of New York," I started to just let the actors do their thing and it’s been the approach I’ve used forever.
So what’s next from you?
EB: We’re about to announce that my new film, which premiered at Tribeca called "Newlyweds," what our release date is and who’s distributing it, which is pretty exciting. And I’m doing an HBO show with Doug Ellin who created Entourage and that show is called "40," so we’re doing that next year.
To check out Mr. Burns on the web just go to http://www.edwardburns.net/ and check out the review of "Nice Guy Johnny" below!
Title: "Nice Guy Johnny" (Special Edition)
Cast: Matt Bush, Kerry Bishe, Edward Burns
Director: Edward Burns
Runtime: 90 minutes
Release Company: FilmBuff
The Flick: If it’s one thing Ed Burns is good at writing at it’s witty banter between folks who secretly dig each other. So taking a backseat in the acting arena and letting two virtual unknowns take the romantic helm in "Nice Guy Johnny" not only infuses a refreshing feel but it’s Burns’ best work since "The Brothers McMullen." There’s a real fire and chemistry between young leads Matt Bush and Kerry Bishe that lingers over the flick with a slow pot boil. Not that Burns isn’t also good here as the aging lothario uncle (Burns is the master of crass and sass dialogue delivery!), but his simple examination of the real pros and cons of relationships is simple, sweet and stirring.
Best Feature: As with any low-budget Burns outing, it’s the Feature Commentary track that’s king. From amazing film facts (he shot this thing in 10 days for 25,000 with a five man crew!) to indie movie tips (he called in tons of favors, used his and his families various houses and even rented a car and put a sticker on the side to make it a cab!) this one is a MUST listen for fan and filmmaker alike!
Best Hidden Gem: Some Deleted and Extended scenes with more awesome dialogue riffing between Burns and Bush.
Worth the Moola: For the commentary alone, but I guess the film is worth watching too. (Kidding, it’s great!) Cheers!