Tribeca Film Festival Interview: Edward Burns's <i>Nice Guy Johnny</i>

Within three minutes of sitting down with Edward Burns to talk about film, you're having such a good time that you literally want to run him around the corner to the legendary Blarney Stone pub.
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Edward Burns. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

Within three minutes of sitting down with Edward Burns to talk about film, you're having such a good time that you literally want to run him around the corner to the legendary Blarney Stone pub, put a pint of Guinness in front of him and say, "Tell me all your stories." However, we don't have that kind of time. The pace of the festival is so relentless that some vegans wake up and eat pork fried-rice for breakfast.

Also, it is 10AM.

Burns brings his film Nice Guy Johnny to the festival this year. It is the story of a young man discovering how hard it is to be a good person in the face of other people's expectations without giving up on your own dreams. This is a conundrum Burns knows well, an independent filmmaker who likes to make "tiny little stories about the people I know" but has faced the enormous pressures of a director who has been wildly successful. If there is anyone who can withstand the pressure to be something he's not, it's Ed Burns.

From the moment he steps out of the elevator and introduces himself as "Eddie," he is immediately disarming because there is something so genuine and true about him. He seems to know, inherently, exactly who he is and is extremely comfortable with that person. Sort of like Popeye's "I yam what I yam." If Popeye could be outrageously appealing and be married to supermodel and humanitarian Christy Turlington. They now have two children (look out world), and there is something of the father about Burns at all times. He is nurturing, kind, makes you laugh and reminds you to take your coffee when you leave the studio. You find yourself thinking about him in your spare time and hoping that things go well for him. Nice Guy Johnny is a kind of ode to people in all walks of life, to not give up, to keep following their passion even when it isn't easy, and Burns walks the talk.

We are pre-coffee, but can still speak English, more or less. Is it true that you write every day? When do you do your writing?
Burns: You know, I drop the kids off at school, that usually gets me to my office at 9:30. I give myself 45 minutes, read the paper.....
New York Times?
Yeah, the Times and then the Post Sports Section. Find out how my Mets are doing. Then I bang out as many emails as I can. By 10:15, I like to start writing. Then if I can go 10:15 to 1:15, I get in a nice solid chunk. When I'm busy, like during this time either doing publicity or trying to set up a movie, then I usually have to go out for lunch. But usually, I like to order something in, bang out some phone calls, and then I like to do a big uninterrupted stretch from 2 to 5:30, 6. And either to pick up the kids from whatever their after-school activity is, or home for dinner.

This is very interesting. Most people might think of you as a director or an actor, but really you're a writer first?
Burns: If I go for more than four days without writing something, the guilt is crippling. For example, yesterday I found a two-hour window and I somehow got in there.

So even during a festival of this magnitiude, you're writing?
Burns: If you want to make independent films, it's so competitive, and it's so hard. You've got to keep at it. Times in my career where I've become lazy or distracted, not only did I feel dissatisfied, like when I go two or three years without a film. But there is a definite 'Out of Sight Out of Mind', 'What Have You Done for Me Lately?' thing that happens. So I think it's important to keep working for the more practical and financial reasons and it helps to keep you fresh. I throw out a lot of what I write. Since The Brothers McMullen, I probably have 25 un-produced screenplays that I will probably never do anything with. But they had to be written in order to write the one that followed it.

How do you know when you have "the one"?
Burns: On the more practical side, sometimes you think you have the one, and the town, if you will, tells you otherwise. You can't get it cast, and you can't get it financed. But, when I'm writing, if I'm still thinking about it when I go to bed. Or, if I wake up and I'm still thinking about a scene I was working on during the day. Then I think, "Okay. I'm onto something here."

What's this next one called?
Burns: It's called Under Blue Suburban Skies, it's a companion piece to this film I made ten years ago called Side-Walks of New York. It's the Suburban version of that. Six suburbanites who are connected through their sexual liaisons.

Do you have a working knowledge of suburbia? We might think of you as a tri-state area kind of guy. You're from Queens...
Yes, but then we moved to Valley Stream.
Aha! This is a side of Ed Burns we do not yet know.
Burns: (laughs) Right. I haven't really done that film. The Groomsmen touched on it a little bit, but I didn't capture exactly what I was going for there. It's an interesting thing that happens. When you're writing, you tend to have a good sense of your tone. But sometimes on set, it might be an actor's energy, if you're not careful, you can lose sight of the tone. When I look back on my films, the ones that I don't love--and those are usually the ones that didn't work, either critically or financially--the tone just got away from me. In Nice Guy Johnny, the tone I had in my head and on the page was the one I was able to capture on film.


Edward Burns. Portrait by Leslie Hassler.

So you were able to get it! This seems to be a topic on which directors can really differ. Some need the film to look like the vision in their head. Some welcome inspiration and change from outside sources. Has the vision sometimes changed along the way and can that ever be a good thing? And if not, how do you keep outside influences, well, out?
Burns: It's tricky. There have been films I have done where I lost sight of the tone. I might have an actor on set who is very funny or even very dark. And you might, in the moment, sort of fall in love with what they're doing.
And you get swayed from your own vision?
Burns: Yes, and you don't even see it until you're in the editing room. And you see that this particular energy when matched up against the rest of the film is throwing us off course a little bit. So, yeah, that has happened and I don't know how you prevent it other than luck and also diligence on the filmmaker's part. And if you have a good producer, which I'm lucky enough to have saying, "Wait! What's the film we're making here? Is it a broad comedy? Are we doing a conversational comedy?" That was a question we wrestled with on this one (Nice Guy Johnny) because there were some funny moments we had that were just too big and we had to focus on keeping it conversational.

So in your new film, Nice Guy Johnny, you're playing Uncle Terry, someone who is actually a darker force in the film. Your main character Johnny is torn between his values, his dreams, and the influences of others. They press upon him things that he in fact does not want for his life. You, as an independent filmmaker have experienced the expectations of others many times, especially with the larger studios. Would you like to speak to that?
Burns: That's how the idea was born. My last film did not perform as well as we had hoped. My agents at the time said, "Maybe it's time to put yourself up for open directing assignments." Studios have a bunch of scripts, they thought of me doing studio romantic comedies, 'It's a no-brainer, he knows how to make movies, and he gets them in on time.' The advantage of that is: They're guaranteed a release, it's a nice big budget and therefore, a nice big paycheck. So, for the first time in my career I thought, you know, maybe it's time to explore this. Everybody in my life is saying, "Why not entertain this?" So, I take the meetings, I read the scripts. And I got very close to one. I almost said, "Alright, lets go do it. Let me just read the script one more time." And I realized that I couldn't do it. Not for any reason other than that I got into this business to be a writer, and I thought that I had stories to tell. When I wrote Brothers McMullen it was a reaction to the fact that I wasn't seeing any movies that represented the world that I came from. That has always been all I tried to do. Just tell these little tiny stories about the people I know. The studio script was fine, but it had nothing to do with me. I couldn't see giving two years of my life to something I didn't believe in. In my acting career, you can say, here's three months of my life, I hope no one sees this...

And we will neglect to mention which ones these are...
Burns: There's a handful of them. But this is the area in my career where I was unwilling to compromise. So, I went to my producing partner and I said, "We have to come up with a story about how tough this decision was." And all of our friends who are writers and filmmakers and musicians--almost everyone we know--either had wrestled with it, like with a parent or wife or was wrestling with it now like, do I keep at this thing, or do I take this gig that will give me the steady pay check?

The other thing I wanted to explore, with Terry and Johnny. I wanted to play with a male character who really wants to be a good person. There's a line in the film where we say he's "nice to a fault", and we don't really see male protagonists like that in films. It's about his decency. And in a weird way, everyone around him looks at that like it's a weakness.

A defect?
Burns: Yeah, and his Uncle Terry is the opposite of a decent guy. He keeps hammering him about, Why? Why do you need to be a man of your word? Who cares if you cheat on your fiancé? This man has given his word, but the word was, I will take this job and give up on my dream. So it's not just a question of giving up your dream, but also having to disappoint someone or going back on a promise that you made. So that's a fun conflict.

Is it true that you based Terry on friends you knew who were clinging to the remnants of their bachelorhood?
Burns: Every man has a couple of friends who either never married or got married and divorced very young and never had children. I wanted to have fun with the idea of the aging Lothario.

You play a bartender. Do you know how to mix drinks?
Burns: I never bartended. So, I can pour a beer.

The basics of life. I see you've learned the important things! (Burns laughs) You've talked before about the passion and enthusiasm on the set of Brothers McMullen. You said that you wanted that vitality again, that you wanted to duplicate that energy for this set. Did you get it? Did it feel like that again?
Burns: Totally. We made a great decision early on. Given that it's a lower-budget film, we didn't have to cast a bunch of names. We wanted to find no-name actors, actors an audience wouldn't be familiar with. When people saw McMullen, it felt very honest and real. People felt almost as though the brothers really were brothers because they didn't recognize the actors. I went to my casting directors and said, "I want to find the kids who keep losing out because they're not a name yet." We got three kids who showed up every day and were hungry to work, who were so appreciative not only to have a job, but to be in a movie. They couldn't believe it! The only thing on their minds were their characters. And, what can I bring to this? And, do you need me to do anything else, and can I try this? As opposed to, a lot of times, there are a whole lot of other factors on a set. When people are successful and have full lives, it becomes: 'What time is lunch?' 'I have a meeting with my agents', or 'I have to get out of here to go to the theatre.' With these kids, it was Rock n' Roll. All they wanted to do was work. That reinvigorated me as an actor, big time. I haven't been this good in a long time. And it's only because I had this kid opposite me and he wouldn't allow me to get lazy, or phone it in. He was there to play.

You once said that you wanted to be more of a John Cassavetes, and like him you've really done your own projects and then allowed yourself to participate as an actor on other people's projects. You've been on the set with some pretty incredible directors. What was it like to be on Saving Private Ryan?
Burns: That was the first time I ever spoke a line of dialogue that I didn't write. The great thing was, the first time it was someone else, it was Spielberg.
Well, if it's gonna be someone else......
Burns: Right! It was just an amazing experience to me. I learned a lot as an actor, but that's not as interesting to me as what I learned as a filmmaker. Watching how he communicates with his crew, how he works with his actors. Early on in my career, I figured that as a director I had to be directing my actors all the time. Every take, I would give them a note. A suggestion. On his set, he wouldn't give us a note. Until after the third take. And we asked him why. And he said: I give you three takes to figure it out. I hired you guys for a reason. I know you're capable of doing it. I know you want to do it well. If you screw it up the first couple of takes, you don't need me to tell that you screwed it up! And that changed the way I work with actors. For me, it made working with actors a lot more fun, and a lot more exciting. There's the excitement of allowing them to figure it out, to discover it, in front of you. Then when it happens, you can actually see the actor getting it, and they say, "I've got it! Give me another take!" It's really fun.

In your film She's the One, there are these scenes involving your father in the film (the incomparable John Mahoney) where he encourages the two brothers (who are in their late twenties) to literally don boxing gloves and fight it out, every time there is an argument. Those scenes are completely unlikely, and utterly hilarious. But somehow they seem true. Where did you get that? Where did that come from?
Burns: You know, that was my Dad. We had these old sets of boxing gloves we kept in the basement, and with my brother and I (although not when we were that old) and lots of times with friends, let's say we were playing football in the backyard and there was an altercation and we started to fight, he would step in and say, "okay, lets get the gloves on" and if you needed to fight, you would fight it out that way.

What was it like playing yourself on Entourage? I mean, you're you, Ed Burns, but you're not the you who is seated here. What does that feel like?
Burns: You're a version of yourself. It was fun to do. I was a big fan of the show, and my brother was a writer on the show. So I was there when he was there. It was interesting because it was a different kind of acting. You would say, "Now how would I say this to an actor?" It was kind of effortless and great fun. Most of my stuff was with Kevin Dillon who is a great and very funny guy. And the writing on that show is incredibly funny.

We've talked about getting the idea, that kernel, that you hope transfers safely from your mind to the screen. What will that be for this film? What do you want us to take away?
Burns: The one thing I hope you get from it is, how important it is, if you have a dream no matter what it is because in this case he wants to be a sports broadcaster, to hold onto it. You don't want to wind up at the end of the road saying, "F**k! Why didn't I write that screenplay or why didn't I write that song, or try and become a painter or sportscaster or writer or open that restaurant?

This film is an ode to following your bliss or following your dream. Now, we have to note that things have worked out well for you in this arena. You make films based on the stories that you would like to tell. You're married to one of the most beautiful women in the world. What happens, Ed, when you get what you want?
Burns: Hopefully you recognize that it's a gift, and that it can be taken away at any moment. In my career I have had great highs, but I have to bust my ass every year to get another movie made. The business is set up to take you down. It's a very competitive business. I'm 42 now, and when I made the first one I was 26. There are young kids coming out of film school every day saying, "Move aside old man, it's our turn." So you have to be respectful of the opportunity you've been given and stay diligent in keeping on it and working hard.

And the hard work is paying off. Nice Guy Johnny has been extremely popular at the Festival:

Tribeca Film Guide for the movie.

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