I'd Call That a Success: Ed Burns on Newlyweds
Our neighbor Edward Burns has been making independent films for over 16 years, and six of his 10 feature films have premiered right here at the Tribeca Film Festival. Since his latest picture—Newlyweds—closed TFF 2011, Tribeca Film has acquired the film for distribution, and we’ve now made it available in over 40 million homes across the country via nationwide VOD.
Burns is someone who writes what he knows, and what he knows are smart, talky New Yorkers who seem like real people, and Newlyweds is no exception. Both on their second marriages, Buzzy (Burns) and Katie (Caitlin FitzGerald) are a just-married couple who have gone in with their eyes open, or so they thought. What they have yet to discover is just how pervasive your spouse’s family (and ex) can be: when Buzzy’s sister Linda (Kerry Bishé) unexpectedly lands on their couch, and Katie’s sister Marsha (Marsha Dietlein) and her husband’s (Max Baker) marriage starts to disintegrate, the pair find themselves entangled in unwelcome family drama.
The setup is quintessentially Burnsian, if you will, and the cast is a delight. At TFF, many said it was their favorite Burns picture since Brothers McMullen, and I can’t say I disagree. With its memorable lines, homey New York feel, and sparklingly witty cast, we’re so happy to finally share Newlyweds with the masses. We sat down last week with Burns to learn more about his embrace of new technologies and collaborative filmmaking, both of which conspired to help him make a (radically) low-budget delight.
Tribeca: How do you describe Newlyweds?
Ed Burns: Newlyweds is a comedy/drama that takes a look at marriage: what it takes to make it work, and how easy it is for it to potentially fall apart.
Tribeca: What inspired you this time around? Why this story?
Ed Burns: I had been looking for something to do as sort of a companion piece to Sidewalks of New York; I wanted to make another pseudo-doc set in NYC. And I was at a dinner party for someone’s 10th wedding anniversary, and somebody made a toast, and said, “You know what? If this ended today, in this day and age, I think you could call it a success.” All of us at the dinner that night laughed and talked about how true that is, but also how tragic it was, and that line ended up in the film.
When I fell upon that idea, I was like, all right, I want to explore who that couple is. And then I thought, oh, maybe married couples. And when I started to think about different married couples, I fell upon this idea of a couple on their second marriage, sort of non-traditional newlyweds, you know, not a couple of kids in their mid-20s who have their whole life before them. I just started with those two couples, and it took off from there.
Tribeca: It’s funny, one of the questions I had written here was about that line. My husband and I saw Newlyweds at TFF, when we had been married just six months, and now we use that line all the time. We said that after Schwarzenegger/Shriver divorce: “25 years? That’s pretty good…” But do you think that’s true?
Ed Burns: It depends on your personal situation. Divorce is unfortunate, but I don’t think that it necessarily means that the marriage wasn’t a success, depending on what your goals were, and if you have kids, how they turn out… So I mean, 10 years would not be a success for me. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t for somebody else. It’s funny, though, I’ve heard of two couples who have gotten divorced and quoted that line. They were both at that screening.
Tribeca: It really sticks! So rumors are flying about how low the budget actually was for this film, and you’ve said $9000. How does that even happen?
Ed Burns: I will clarify: it cost $9K to get the film in the can. So that doesn’t include any editing or post-production. That, all in, probably cost us $120K, because those are the things you can’t barter for or get for free.
So the $9K is to get the film in the can. Things that aren’t in the budget of $9K are anything that we own, as far as equipment; I wasn’t going to charge myself a rental fee for the camera or the sound equipment. So the $9K went like this: $2K for insurance, $2K for the actors’ fees—which is part of the SAG low-budget agreement, I think it’s called—and then $5K for food, transportation, miscellaneous costs.
Tribeca: How many days?
Ed Burns: We shot 12 days. And the way that you are able to do it for $9K is that no one on the crew gets paid. We all own the film collectively. And you shoot 12 days over the course of 5 months, so nobody has to give up a job in order to do this thing. It’s like, “Hey, are you free next Saturday?” Yes. “Okay, and you’re free next Saturday? Great.” So we’ve got the three crew members available, and I call up the actors. Depending on who can work on Saturday, we figure out the scene(s) we are going to shoot that day. And a lot of times we would shoot one day and then not shoot again for 4 weeks, because it was just a matter of people’s availabilities.
The other thing it takes to make a movie for $9K is that hopefully you are a nice, decent person with a lot of friends who are willing to do favors for you. Everything from: Can we borrow your car? Can we borrow your restaurant? Can we use your apartment? We need a coat, or we need to borrow your dog, or can we borrow your child?
Tribeca: It’s crowd-sourced filmmaking.
Ed Burns: In a way… I think if you love what you do, and you’re doing something creative, people want to be a part of that. Not a lot of people get to have that in their lives. So for a day, or really, usually, just for a couple of hours—we don’t use any lights, we’re working with available light—people say, “You come into my apartment and for 6 hours I get to watch a movie being made? All right, I’ll do that!”
Tribeca: It looks great! It doesn’t look like you were constrained in any way.
Ed Burns: What you can do with these digital cameras has leveled the playing field.
Tribeca: You used the 5D?
Ed Burns: We used the Canon 5D.
Tribeca: Can you tell us about your cast? Each of the (relatively) unknowns was perfectly suited to his/her role. How did you find them?
Ed Burns: Everybody in the movie, with the exception of Caitlin and Daniella [Pineida], are actors who I had worked with before. And all of their parts I wrote for them specifically. So Max Baker, we met on an Angelina Jolie romantic comedy, Life or Something Like It, like 13 years ago, and we’ve have been friends ever since, and I always cast him in small parts in my films. And in this film, he had been talking about quitting acting, and just painting full time. He was just frustrated with the business, because he said he hadn’t gotten a good role to play in a while. I said, Max, I’m writing a part for you, but I want you to tell me: What kind of guy do you want to play so you will fall in love with acting again? So Max helped me shape this character for himself.
Marsha worked on Nice Guy Johnny—she had one or two scenes in that film as his mom—but I immediately fell in love with her energy and her ability. So when I was writing this script, I knew I was writing this part for Marsha.
Dara Coleman I’ve worked with a bunch, and immediately I had this idea for this pretentious actor, and I told Dara what I wanted to do with it. He was like, “Great, I know what you want for that.”
Tribeca: How did you find Caitlin FitzGerald?
Ed Burns: A couple of years ago I had another script, and she auditioned for that film, and I cast her in the film, but we never made the movie. So I’ve always wanted to work with her. I thought I could tell, from when I’d met her back then, that she’d be down with our thing: do your own hair and makeup, wear your own clothes, you don’t have a trailer, you might be asked to actually carry some things on set, help us move a couch, things like that. And so back when I was writing the script, I brought her in and asked her to do the same as Max: help me flesh out this character a little bit before I finish the screenplay. And that’s it.
Tribeca: You’ve been making independent films for over 16 years now. Do you learn anything new anymore?
Ed Burns: Yeah, I do. We kind of stumbled onto this very different process, one that I want to keep doing moving forward. I couldn’t do it on bigger budget films—and it came out of necessity—but we’d shoot 2 days based on people’s availability, and then we have 3 weeks off.
And what I’m learning is that I enjoy being able to shoot for 2-3 days, take that footage, bring it into the editing room, play with it for three weeks, and I see what the actors are doing—what I’m enjoying about their performance, something they are bringing to the character that I didn’t anticipate, something that ‘s been improvised. Even things that I don’t like, a subplot that isn’t working, or something that is maybe too broad or too dramatic—I don’t have to discover those things when the movie is already done shooting and I’m in the editing room. Now, I’ve only shot 2 days, and I can go back into that screenplay and rewrite according to what I’ve already got. And I can do that again, after we’ve shot another 3 days.
Tribeca: Did you shoot chronologically?
Ed Burns: No. But there was still enough room to be able to make some changes. But also, there would be something that we would shoot that was in the 2nd act of the movie, and, based on what had happened in that scene, I knew that I would need to rewrite something that happened earlier in the film that we hadn’t yet shot.
Tribeca: It’s like a big puzzle. It sounds fun.
Ed Burns: It is a big puzzle. The thing that I learned is that if you’re going to make this kind of film, you don’t need to be as precious with your screenplay before you send it out to your actors, and even before you start shooting. Normally you’re an island when you’re writing, and when that thing is done, when I’ve done all the work—the 25 drafts—then and only then can I send it out. Now I am much more comfortable getting it out early because I want their input. I want them to help me finish it.
I also recognized that when you go to shoot, you shouldn’t think that your screenplay needs to be done. Because it isn’t what the movie is. The thing needs to grow, it needs to evolve, it needs to be pared down, or it needs o be fleshed out, or it needs to have room to go in directions you didn’t entirely anticipate. And that’s really been liberating—to not think that the script is the blueprint, and I’m just going to build it based on those specs.
Tribeca: Any other advice you can share with those looking to follow in your footsteps?
Ed Burns: I read something once: this guy Jon Jost, who made this film, among others, called All the Vermeers in New York. He wrote this article where he said, “Hollywood is lying to you. They are telling you that you need hair and makeup and wardrobe and a script supervisor, and a this and a that. You don’t. I make my movies with a camera and a sound-recording device, sometimes with a one-man crew. I f you want to tell stories, just go and do it that way.”
I remember I read that when I was writing The Brothers McMullen, and I was like, hey, that’s what I’m going to do.
Tribeca: Newlyweds will launch in over 40 million homes on VOD on December 26. What appeals to you about the VOD platform, and that wide of a reach? There’s a big difference between the number of people who could see The Brothers McMullen when it came out vs. Newlyweds…
Ed Burns: Traditionally, specialized movies would be released in NY and LA on 2 screens, or maybe 4 screens. And then a few weeks later, you would expand to a few more markets, and after that, to a few more markets.
Tribeca: If you were lucky.
Ed Burns: If you were lucky. But there are very big cities with lots of fans of independent films that don’t have indie or arthouse movie theaters. So when I go on Jimmy Fallon to talk about Newlyweds, or on the Today Show, or an actress of mine might go on whatever program or be in a magazine, all of those people who read that? If they didn’t live in NY or LA, they couldn’t see the movie sometimes for 6 months, until the thing would come out on DVD.
Now the dramatic difference is that someone will read about this film, or see me on television talking about it, and right then and there, they can either go onto their computer and find it on iTunes, or on their TV, click on the on demand channel, and turn it on. It’s the difference between 2 screens, NY and LA, or 45 million homes across the country. Financially, it’s a no-brainer that films should go out on VOD.
Tribeca: Financially, and ideologically, right? You want people to see your work.
Ed Burns: The whole name of the game is that you want people to see these films. That’s why we do it. And the other interesting thing is that the audience is there. They just don’t go to the theater the way they used to. They are in their living rooms with nice, flat screen TVs. So why ask them to pay for the babysitter, the taxi, the this and the that, in order to go to the theater, when they could have basically the same experience in the comfort of their home? So that’s when we realized: just deliver it through the pipeline into their living rooms.
Tribeca: Finally, what makes Newlyweds a must-see?
Ed Burns: I think Newlyweds is a funny, fresh, very honest look at marriage and relationships and families, and you know, in this time where there are a lot of funny films out there, they do feel produced and manufactured, and very often, you don’t get the sense that you’re watching real people. If you’re interested in films that feel a little bit more grounded, and a little more slice-of-life, then Newlyweds is definitely the film for you.