Edward Burns on ‘Newlyweds’ and the Future of Indie Filmmaking

For this tenth film as a director, Edward Burns went small. Really small. The New York-born filmmaker behind ‘The Brothers McMullen,’ ‘She’s the One’ and ‘Sidewalks of New York’ purchased a Canon 5D camera from B&H electronics store for $3,000, used restaurants and street corners in his local Tribeca neighborhood as locations, and cast some frequent collaborators in key roles. An additional $6,000 later, ‘Newlyweds’ was born.

Directed by Burns, in part for the 10th anniversary of the Tribeca Film Festival, ‘Newlyweds’ focuses on a pair of New York couples: one at the start of what they hope will be wedded bliss (Burns and Caitlin Fitzgerald), and one in the death throes of marriage (Max Baker and Marsha Dietlein Bennett). Things get even more complicated when Burns’s half-sister (Kerry Bishe) shows up from out-of-town, looking to wreak havoc on his new relationship.

Out on VOD starting Dec. 26, ‘Newlyweds’ is one of Burns’s strongest films in years — a winning combination of sharp comedy and honest drama that, in its best moments, fondly recalls the type of New York-set relationship dramedies that Woody Allen used to make before heading to Europe. Burns, who will appear onscreen in ‘I, Alex Cross’ opposite Tyler Perry next year, sat down with us in New York to discuss his new film, why the camera equipment was so important to its success, and how the future of filmmaking could involve your couch.

I’ve heard you talk about how shooting with the Canon 5D camera gave you these natural performances — was that something you were expecting or was it pleasant surprise?
Somewhere in between. What we were trying to do was to go for that a little bit. We couldn’t afford to close the restaurants down. So we were like, “All right; a documentary film crew — if they were going to interview the bartender or sit down with a couple having dinner, they’d work with the ambient sound and the live environment.” So we thought, “Let’s do that with this pseudo-doc.” We did it on one scene on ‘Sidewalks of New York,’ in Katz’s Deli. First of all, you can’t recreate that kind of background action, and the ambient sound is fine. So we thought, “Let’s embrace that.”

The thing that happened that we did not anticipate is, because the crew is so tiny — but, in addition to that, the camera is so small — you’re not slating anything. What I’ve been trying to tell people is, for an actor, every time they’re about to do a take, a slate comes into their face. Then they start to act opposite someone. If it’s a close-up, there’s a camera over my shoulder. Obviously, you are trained, you learn not to see that stuff, but there’s a boom coming in, and a camera, an army behind it. The director calls cut. Then the hair person comes in. Make-up. Props. Clothes. All that stuff. Five to ten minutes later: “All right, take two.” In this style, it’s just this little camera. There’s nothing else around. You’re just wearing these lavalier mics. There’s no lights. You’re in a real environment. There’s no action. “You guys ready? Let’s go.” You just roll through the scene. Then, you roll through it again. It’s like, “Hey, back that up; maybe try a different line here.” Eventually, you kind of forgot … I don’t want to say that you’re in a movie, but it was definitely like you slipped into another space. That’s why we got this realistic or conversational scenes.

This certainly feels like a companion piece to ‘Sidewalks of New York,’ which came out 10 years ago. Why did it take you so long to return to this format?
My producing partner Aaron Lubin and I have been talking about this for years: what’s the next pseudo-doc? I probably have written two others. One of them was set on Long Island that was called ‘Blue Suburban Skies’ that we almost shot a couple of years ago. For whatever reason we just didn’t think the script was there. It was something that I wanted to do. Plus, given the fact that I make these low budget — and now micro budget — films, those budgets lend themselves to the pseudo-doc style. Now, I’ve fallen in love with this 5D. So, I think, every other film, I’ll probably want to go back, because there is something nice about just being able to go anywhere with that thing and get all this great production value.

Is ‘Sidewalks’ your favorite film that you’ve done?
I would say ‘Sidewalks’ and now this film, are my two favorites. This film was more fun to make. Prior to that, ‘Sidewalks’ was my favorite experience with actors; Stanley Tucci taught me a lot about having faith in your cast. When I worked with Steven Spielberg on ‘Private Ryan,’ for two weeks, we didn’t get any direction at all. We’re doing two, three takes tops, then moving on. Finally, two weeks into it, there’s a scene where he’s like, “Give me one more. Give me one more.” Then he started to give us direction. After seven takes, we got it done, and we finally asked him, “Why today?” He goes, “Well, today you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.” He explained his process: “I’ll let you guys figure it out on your own. I’m not going to tell you — I’m not going to give you direction after the first take. I don’t wanna put any of my thoughts in your head. I figure you’ve done you’re work, you’ve come prepared. If you don’t get it the first time, you’re going to hit what you intended to do by the third one. If you don’t, then I need to step in.”

So, coming off of ‘Ryan,’ I was like, “OK, that’s how I’m going to direct my actors.” And it was liberating. The other thing was I cast to types. So, it’s like, “I’m bringing you in because I like what you do. I want you do to your thing in my movie.” On that film, I didn’t have to direct anybody. And then Stanley, was the first actor really — other than Mike McGlone, who I’d worked with in early films — who is so good at inhabiting the character and improvising within the scene. On this film, we did a lot of improvising, but we didn’t show up without a scene and say, “OK, guys: talk!” It’s like, “All right, the scene starts here and ends here; let’s run the lines, but within that, look for the moments that aren’t there. Or, when the scene looks like it’s going to end, push it a couple of beats later and see what you’re going to get.”

You have been a champion of VOD in recent years — do you really think that’s the future of independent film?
Two things that I just heard. Comcast is about to release something that says in the last 12 months, indie film viewership on VOD has jumped 75 percent. So, that tells me the message we’ve been preaching for the last couple of the years … people get it. That the audience is there. They are in their living room. They used to go to the art-house theater. It isn’t that they’re not interested in these stories anymore, they just aren’t interested in shlepping out and paying the extra bucks when they have a nice system at home. I absolutely think it’s the future — especially for the smaller independents. Because you can get out there and with a very small marketing budget. Depending on how much money you’re going to spend on your film, you can now create a business model where you’re not losing money. I don’t wanna say you’re going to get rich. Some films aren’t going to make money. But if your’e smart about it and tenacious, there’s a chance to break even. It costs so much to release a film theatrically just by P&A costs that you’re always behind the 8-ball financially. You’re almost guaranteed to lose money.

The other thing is, by going out on VOD and iTunes, especially, you can go out with an aggregator as opposed to a distributor. There’s now a way for you to retain your copyright — or just lease it to them for a couple of years — and actually participate in the money that’s coming in. Theatrically, I can tell you, we’ve had films where we should have seen some backend, and however they do their accounting, I guarantee you don’t get it.

What about bigger indies — something like ‘The Descendants,’ let’s say. Can you envision a scenario where that ever winds up on VOD first?
‘Margin Call’ is a very interesting case this year. Because you’ve got a movie filled with movie stars. Like, movie stars that traditionally would open up in a theater. That did VOD and theatrical day and date, which most of them don’t do. And it worked great. So now people are saying, “All right, so the VOD is not going to cannibalize theatrical. They are two separate audiences. There are people who just don’t go to the theater, and there are people who go to the theater. So don’t be afraid of both of them.” So, to answer the question about will the bigger indies — I look at what the theatrical box office results for the majority of these indie films that come out. Now, granted, ‘The Descendants’: it’s Alexander Payne. It’s Clooney…

Huge indie.
Huge indie. The vast majority of them, if you go on The Numbers or Variety, it’s very tough for these movies to make even $1 million or $2 million. And you know what they need to spend to get them out there. So, I know some filmmakers will say, “Hey, it’s not a movie unless it’s released theatrically. I’m a moviemaker. I want the thrill of that.” I certainly get that. I think early in my career I would have been devastated to think my movie was going straight onto VOD. But, what we’ve done, is you can take them out to festivals. And you get the thrill of seeing it played in front of the audience on a massive screen. And usually, if you’re doing festivals, you’re in much better theaters than the Angelika.

Have you ever wanted to make a big studio film?
Years ago, they came to me with mainstream romcoms, which — and I have to admit — I was very tempted to do one. And then I just had to have that soul-searching moment, where I’m like, “All right, if I’m going to sellout, I’d rather sell out as an actor than a filmmaker.” And I’m lucky in that I have that other career where I can sell myself.

I was gonna say that. Do you view your acting career as a means to an end?
Absolutely. The acting career is always — and I love it, and sometimes you get lucky and you get to be in a great movie. But, for the most part, it’s fun to work with other actors. It’s fun for me to exercise those muscles. It’s also great to show up on anybody’s set. Like, ‘Alex Cross,’ I got to work with Rob Cohen, who’s a great action filmmaker. And he wasn’t working with the size or budget he was used to — this was not a $100 million movie — so I was able to go to school on an action director. For me, as a filmmaker, that was interesting. I have no interest in ever directing anything like a traditional blockbuster. Sci-fi movie. Superhero movie. Not really my thing. I have a couple of scripts that are bigger canvases, where I would need — let’s say — $15 to $25 million, but that’s where I would be most comfortable.

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