A booth in a bar.
If there's a more appropriate place to meet up with Ed Burns, I can't think of one. Our midday rendezvous takes place at the Greenwich Street Tavern, in NYC's posh Tribeca, a former warehouse district that has undergone a Lazarus-like renewal. It's an iron-canopy-bistro sort of neighborhood, where patches of pavement peel back to showcase brick relics of its gritty past. Burns lives two blocks away with his wife, ex-model Christy Turlington, and their two children, in a loft apartment formerly occupied by JFK Jr.
Once seated, we sweep our menus aside and order Amstels, and the discussion quickly veers in the wrong direction. Burns, who talks just like his films' self-assured and quizzical leading men, comes across as "New York friendly": He rarely smiles, and when he does, his countenance can quickly transform into a sort of benign irritation, as if his BMW's just been dinged by a shopping cart in a parking lot. Still, he starts the interview by asking me questions, like the writer he is. A couple of beers later, I've revealed a litany of family stories and ex-girlfriend complications. This is bad journalism. Before I lose control of the interview, before it becomes more Charley O's than Charlie Rose, I take action to save it. (Full disclosure: I order more beer, and for 20 minutes we debate the merits of point guards Dwayne Washington and Billy Donovan.)
But, in a way, this beer-fueled banter is very... Burnsian. Beginning with the 1995 indie uberhit The Brothers McMullen, Burns' screenplays have mined the commitment-phobic and confused psyche of the American male. Typically, Burnsian males play verbal tennis with each other, in taverns and on ball fields, all the while wrestling with the cosmic riddle of women. In the end, the protagonist always gets what he wants (the girl), but-just like in life-he remains clueless as to what motivates her.
Although Burns' career has been wedded to a singular creative oeuvre-the one knock most critics hold against the director-the romantic-comedy genre has helped him sustain a successful career for 10 years. That's an enviable eternity in the filmmaking business, independent or otherwise, and Burns knows it. "It's a very difficult atmosphere today making independent movies. I've been very lucky." Lucky indeed. Investors continue to return Burns' phone calls because they know he's a low-budget specialist and they'll get a return on their money. Take, for example, his latest film, The Groomsmen-another romantic comedy, costarring Burns and Brittany Murphy, about a group of thirty-something high school friends riddled with doubts about impending marriage and adulthood.
Shot in less than a month on a measly budget of $3 million (Murphy and costars Jay Mohr and John Leguizamo earned $11,000 each), Burns dressed it up to look like a $15 million film. "There are a lot of actors you can't even approach with an over of $11,000." But Burns makes it work. He got a crew that works for union minimums, and he shoots at many locations for free. "The investors believe in what we're doing-they know, for example, that there'll be a picture of Brittany Murphy wearing a wedding dress on the cover of a DVD box, so they know they'll make their money back."
But The Groomsmen is far from blockbuster material, and Burns knows that, too. "I'm at the point where I want to see how things look from the mountaintop," he says. "It's like what Bruce Springsteen said when he was about to record Born in the USA. He knew he could make a good single and build an album around that, but he wanted to make a great album-he wanted to know how things looked from the mountaintop."
And so, the 38-year-old Burns is planning a retreat from the romantic-comedy genre-the very place that earned him his commercial success to begin with. And in its place, he plans on writing a blockbuster of a script-the kind of story that can earn him a $50 million budget and lure in a Russell Crowe-caliber star to deliver it to screens. In other words, in order to see the view from the mountaintop, Burns has decided to recapture the kind of discipline and motivation he first summoned up as a hungry 22-year-old desperate to break into an industry he loved.
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Also in MF's September 2006 Issue:
Triple threat Ed Burns.
Find out how rap mogul Tim Mosley produced a smash-hit body in this months Success Story.
Idol Dropout Mario Vazquez drops his debut CD.
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