Edward Burns heads back to Long Island with his latest movie, “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.” This ensemble dramedy starring Burns, Connie Britton and Michael McGlone, is now available on VOD (in select theaters 12/7).
Gerry (Burns) lives at home with his mother (Anita Gillette), running the family’s pub and trying to rebuild his life after a personal tragedy. When his estranged father (played by character actor legend Ed Lauter) asks to spend Christmas with the family he abandoned years previously, Gerry must encourage his six siblings to participate—a task that proves much more daunting than he anticipated. With The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Burns maintains his signature style and continues to explore his Irish working class roots.
We got the chance to sit down with our neighbor, Edward Burns, to discuss the holidays, the influence of Sidney Lumetand a potential sequel to The Brothers McMullen.
Tribeca: The Fitzgerald Family Christmas screened this year at the Toronto Film Festival. Can you talk about that experience?
Edward Burns: It had been almost 10 years since my last visit to the Toronto Film Festival, with Sidewalks of New York. I love playing at festivals for a number of different reasons. I wouldn’t have a career without the Sundance Film Festival. As you well know, the Tribeca Film Festival has been my “home court” film festival, so to speak, for over ten years now. The great thing about playing in front of festival audiences is that they are mostly made up of cinephiles who are not only smart about movies, but love them too.
As our business moves more and more towards digital distribution, having the opportunity to play in a great big theater with great projection and sound is valued more than ever before, at least for me. To have that experience and then to share that with an audience that actually cares? That’s great. Festivals are a big part of why you do this.
Tribeca: The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is your second film to be distributed by Tribeca Film both theatrically and through digital platforms. What appeals to you about the VOD platform and its wide reach?
Edward Burns: Just what you said—its wide reach. When you release your film theatrically through a platform release, on that opening weekend you are going to play in New York, and maybe LA, on two screens. For your opening weekend if you go out on digital, you reach potentially 40 million homes. Your audience is constantly getting bombarded with information, and we’re all fighting for those eyeballs.
Today, audiences watch what they are going to watch, and buy what they want to buy, when they choose. That’s the great thing about VOD—it’s instantaneous. There is no waiting.
Tribeca: Although we heard that you were inspired to return to your Irish-Catholic working class roots from a conversation with Tyler Perry, I wonder if you always intended to explore that particular setting and those particular characters. Does writing about what you know have a special attraction?
Edward Burns: You know, I was having a conversation with my producing partner Aaron Lubin after we saw Clerks 2. We hypothetically asked ourselves: “Could we ever do a McMullens sequel?” I spoke to Mike McGlone and Connie Britton and told them that one day a sequel may be in the cards. I didn’t really give it a lot of thought after that. When Tyler and I had that conversation on the set of Alex Cross, a lightbulb went off for me. I really should give some thought to that McMullens sequel.
However, when he said the thing about “super-serving your niche,” he opened me up to the idea that I do have a big part of my audience that really loved my first two films because they came from a similar world and could really relate to those Irish-Catholic working class experience. When I go to film festivals, I always get people coming up to me and asking, “When are you going make a movie like those first two movies?” The minute Tyler said, “Super serve your niche,” I thought, “This guy is absolutely right.” I knew the time was now.
Tribeca: You’ve had a lot of experience as a writer/director since making your first two movies. Did that make the writing process this time around any different?
Edward Burns: The writing process was completely different this time around, because it was a hell of a lot easier. This was a screenplay that just poured out of me in six weeks. Normally, a first draft for me takes roughly three to six months, and then you have to go through it and choose what you want to re-write and what you want to cut, and then try to get the movie made.
The draft of The Fitzgerald Family Christmas was so complete just after six weeks that I started to call up the actors and gather the cast and send them the screenplay. Part of the reason was that I knew the setting and the people of the script so intimately that I never had to give a thought to characterization. I didn’t have to wonder where’d they come from, what they drink, etc. It was the most fun I’ve had writing since I wrote She’s the One.
Tribeca: You explore a lot of different themes about family in your work, but I don’t think you have ever tackled the holidays so directly. Had you thought of making a holiday movie previously? Why now with the Fitzgeralds?
Edward Burns: No, I never thought I’d be making a holiday film. When I sat down to write the script initially, I didn’t know where I was going with it. Early on, when I’m writing, I’ll start with a scenario or a scene and build from there. I fell upon this idea of a big Irish family with seven adult siblings. Once I fell upon that, I needed a device to bring these seven adults together, and that’s where the idea of a holiday came in. I ultimately decided on Christmas.
During the holiday season, usually a lot of things come to a head. People announce they are getting engaged or having a baby or filing for divorce. Everyone is together for a few days and forced to have these conversations about uncomfortable subjects with their siblings or parents or with the people they have been avoiding all year. I knew that it would be great, because I could play with the good and the bad stuff you get from these types of big family gatherings.
Tribeca: There’s this sense of community that I really love about your films. Like other great NY directors, you have the same actors who keep popping up in your work. Do you write with them in mind?
Edward Burns: With this film, I definitely wrote many of the roles for people I had in mind, but not all of them. For example, when I started to flesh the screenplay out, I knew that I wanted Kerry Bishé and Caitlin FitzGerald from Newlyweds to be two of the sisters, but I didn’t know which of the sisters I wanted them to play. Also, I had spoken to McGlone about a McMullen sequel, and I didn’t know the timeline for that project, so I knew I wanted to write a role for McGlone.
Those were the only people I was initially writing for. After some time, I decided to give Connie a call and see if she would be available to play the part of Nora. Once she agreed, I started to re-write the role with her in mind. Once we had four or five of our cast members in place, Aaron and I sat down and said we should cast actors from every one of the ten films we’ve made. We have a great relationship, and we thought that since this is a movie about a family and their reunion, why don’t we make this a filmmaking family reunion as well?
Tribeca: The Fitzgerald Family Christmas was shot on location. Did you even need location scouts for this project? How open was the community to your coming in with cast and crew and making this film?
Edward Burns: Everyone was so generous and just opened their doors to us. When I was writing the script, I knew who these people were and where they lived. I was imagining the homes that I grew up in. The bulk of our locations were established by me calling up my family still living on Long Island and saying, “Who do you think would let us shoot in their homes?” We shot a couple of scenes at my sister’s house, a couple of scenes at the house of one of her friends, and then others at a buddy of mine’s mother-in-law’s house. That’s how we did our location scouting.
I have this one big memory from making the film. It was the final scene, where I’m sitting there with the filmmaking family of actors I’ve worked with and then some, like Mike McGlone who I’ve known for over 18 years. I’m shooting them in a dining room where I can remember having dinner myself when I was kid with my own family. It was a pretty fun and surreal experience.
Tribeca: Stylistically, this film is very different from Newlyweds. You tended to let the drama speak for itself in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. What led you to that approach this time around?
Edward Burns: On Newlyweds, we didn’t have a huge budget, nor a long schedule or many toys to play with, so it was much more of a “run n’gun” style. In Fitzgerald Family Christmas, we knew we didn’t want to draw attention to the camera work, but we also wanted the lighting and the color palette to be specific and classic, in a way. We studied some Sidney Lumet fllms—Prince of the City in particular.
Tribeca: Prince of the City? Really?
Edward Burns: Yeah, that might seem like an odd choice, but so much of it takes place in working class suburban homes. As we were looking at things, we just started noticing the way Lumet would frame the shot in those types of settings with those types of characters.
Tribeca: Has your family seen the film yet? What was their reaction?
Edward Burns: My parents saw the film at the Gold Coast Film Festival, and they loved it. The movie can be pretty emotional, and my sister had no idea she would be bawling at the end. She said, “I wish you would have told me!” My brother said it was the best movie I’d ever made, but he was never going to watch it again. I guess something hit a little too close to home [laughs].
Tribeca: So I have to ask— is a sequel to Brothers McMullen still in the works?
Edward Burns: Oh yeah. I’m slowly outlining that screenplay and I have a good sense of what’s going to happen with most of the characters. The idea is that 2015 will be the 20th anniversary of The Brothers McMullen, so we’re going to try and get the movie ready for that. Hopefully, we’ll shoot in 2014, and I have a good year to get that screenplay into shape. We’re all looking forward to it.