Edward Burns is no stranger to the world of indie film. He launched his career with the $25,000 The Brothers McMullen at the Sundance Film Festival back in 1995, during the dark, pre-digital days of 16mm cameras and now-foreign concepts like optical houses and film prints.
In 2010, after seven larger-budget features as a writer-director, Burns returned to the low-budget arena with Nice Guy Johnny, which he made for roughly the same budget as The Brothers McMullen. Burns, who also produced and co-starred in the film, bypassed traditional distribution methods by releasing the film himself, first with a short festival tour and then with a simultaneous day-and-date rollout on VOD, DVD and Pay-Per-View.
Now Burns is taking this new model even further with Newlyweds, which he produced for a staggering $9,000 sum. His self-described “pseudo-documentary” relationship comedy premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and has just been released in various digital formats.
So why would an established moviemaker like Burns embrace methods and equipment more common among self-financed first-timers? MM had the opportunity to ask him about this and other aspects of the changing indie landscape via cell phone as he strolled through Central Park, the ambient noise of New York City serving as an appropriate backdrop for such a candid conversation with one of the city’s most identifiable auteurs.
Paul Osborne (MM): Nice Guy Johnny was already an incredibly inexpensive film to make. How’d you get the cost down by almost two-thirds for Newlyweds?
Edward Burns (EB): This time around, we used a Canon 5D instead of the RED camera; and the lenses we used were Canon lenses, no additional glass. We shot the entire film handheld. The other thing was, on Nice Guy Johnny, we had to pay for some of our locations. On Newlyweds, there were a lot of handshake deals. We would go in and say, ‘Look, here’s the camera. On most days we’re either a two- or three-man crew, and each scene only has two actors in it. We’ll be using primarily available light, there’ll be no generators and we’ll plug into an outlet. So we could get our locations for free.
We saved a couple thousand dollars on transportation, too. There’s the difference between having to put actors up versus shooting right in New York City, with folks just staying in their own apartments. With Nice Guy Johnny, I paid some people a handful of money to lock down their schedule for the week we shot in the Hamptons.
MM: You’ve returned to the micro-budget approach for two movies now, so clearly it’s working for you. What are the advantages to making films this way?
EB: Obviously you have the freedom you don’t have in big-budget filmmaking, because you don’t have the guy who cuts the big check looking over your shoulder. Whether it’s somebody from the studio or just a private financier, no one is asking to know why, in the middle of the day, you’re deciding to scrap a scene or change a location. It allows you to be more nimble, more spontaneous. You free yourself from the traditional production shackles, which you need when you’re spending millions of dollars. When each production day costs you several hundred thousand dollars, you’re very accountable to what you get done. But in our case, we didn’t have to play by those rules.
As an actor, the great freedom comes when you’re shooting with such a small camera. Most days our cameraman was the only crew; there was no sound man, we were just wearing lavalier mics in a live environment, with no lights. You’re not slating anything. I’m not calling action or cut. So performance-wise, after the second or third take, you forgot you were making a film. At no point were there any of the triggers that might indicate to an actor, “Oh, I’m here on a set playing this part.” If you can make the filmmaking apparatus and environment disappear, you get much more realistic performances. And we were able to do that each and every day on Newlyweds.
MM: In terms of cast and crew, how do you convince others who are used to the big-budget way of working to get on board with this sort of approach?
EB: So many people are tired of the bulk of the work they have to do, and that goes for both below-the-line and above-the-line talent. So if you can offer an actor or a crew member a project that they care about, that’s how you get talent to show up and work for peanuts. More and more people are going to see this as a viable alternative to how we’ve been told we’re supposed to make movies.
MM: You took a very different approach to distributing Nice Guy Johnny. Were you happy with the results?
EB: Very happy with the results, yeah. We used a company called FilmBuff as our aggregator. They helped us get the film onto iTunes and to Comcast, Cablevision and Time Warner and do our DVD deal.
MM: For Newlyweds, you’ve signed with Tribeca Films, the distribution arm of the Tribeca Film Festival. How will this release differ from Nice Guy Johnny?
EB: There really is no difference. Our deal with iTunes, VOD and the cable companies is all the same. It’s a better DVD deal. Otherwise, it’s the same terms. The sticking point is that we don’t get any advance; they have the film for three years, but we retain the copyright. That’s the big thing, because at this point I recognize the need to be able to build a library of my own films. Especially as these digital distribution pipelines change, I’m going to be able to monetize my films as the landscape evolves. Facebook and YouTube are only a few years old; who knows how we’re going to be consuming this type of media in three years.
The reason we went with Tribeca is that we wanted to use their brand to help us reach a wider audience. But we didn’t want someone to spend a lot of money marketing the film, because those costs are counted against it, and this is not a million-dollar business. You’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars. By being able to partner with Tribeca, we get to use their branding—their big machine—to reach a much wider audience.
MM: How much control are you retaining over the release?
EB: I have full control. They saw what we did with Nice Guy Johnny and said, “Well, that worked. We want to do the same thing.” The one change is we won’t go day-and-date with the DVD. Quite honestly, that didn’t work on Nice Guy Johnny. So we’re going to go back and do the more traditional window. We might steal from the Magnolia model and do the theatrical release four weeks later. We’re looking at the Kevin Smith model, where he sort of did the indie band tour with Red State. We’ll maybe do the one-city version of that, where we stay in town for a week and do Q&As. There’s an audience of young filmmakers out there who would be interested in more than just seeing the film.
MM: Kevin Smith did very well self-distributing Red State, and Francis Ford Coppola is taking a similar approach with his next film, Twixt. What does that say about the state of modern film?
EB: I think there’ll always be a pretty healthy theatrical audience for those Friday and Saturday night popcorn movies. There’s something about the experience of seeing a film in a darkened theater with a bunch of strangers that’ll always work for certain types of movies. But with these smaller films, very rarely do you see any kind of major success story. We’re talking about small, walk-and-talk character pieces that, years ago, could get $3 million, $4 million, $5 million or maybe even $10 million at the domestic box office. I think that’s over. There are a number of reasons why, one being that there are so many more entertainment options available now.
But the big thing that has really hurt independent film theatrically is the fact that original cable programming is so good. When you think about “The Sopranos,” is there a gangster film that came out theatrically in the last 15 years that can even touch it in terms of the quality of the acting, the directing and the storytelling? No. Think of “The Wire.” What’s come out, theatrically, that compares? Or “Entourage” or “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad.” The audience that likes that type of programming was our audience in the 1990s. Now, not only are they staying home to get that kind of storytelling, they’re seeing it on a big flat-screen TV with surround sound and a great HD image. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper than getting in your car or in a cab, driving to the theater and paying for parking, the babysitter and popcorn. You can do it in the comfort of your own home.
MM: So are you going to stay with this micro-budget approach?
EB: I’m finishing up a script now called The Fitzgerald’s Family Christmas, which is a return to a world I haven’t touched since McMullen and She’s the One. It’s about a big, Irish-American, working-class family living in Queens, with a group of adult siblings dealing with whether or not they’re going to let their estranged father join them for Christmas dinner. We’re going to try and make that movie for about $20,000 and do the same thing as Newlyweds with our digital release. The other thing I’m working on, I can’t say yet, but I’m co-writing it with a friend of mine. It’s more of a mainstream film that will cost about $15 million to make. Whichever one of these scripts comes together first will be the next thing that I do.
MM: So you’re going to go in both directions in the future?
EB: I think so. I love making low-budget, run-and-gun films, but there are a different set of compromises you have to make. We’re not going to have a Steadicam and we’re going to have to shoot with available light and beg and borrow for free locations. The actors are going to have to do their own hair and makeup. You won’t have the luxury of a production designer. Right now, I prefer those compromises—the compromises of being able to have full creative control.
That said, I also want to make bigger films, so I’m going to have to embrace the other compromises that come with someone writing a big check. I’m thinking I might do one big-budget film—well, if $15 million is really considered big-budget anymore—and then two of my little ones and go back and forth. It’ll just depend on the film. Whatever works to be able to make the movies I want to make. MM
Paul Osborne is the director of Official Rejection, the acclaimed documentary about the experiences of independent moviemakers on the film festival circuit. He also wrote and produced the indie feature Ten ‘til Noon and is currently in post-production on Favor. Follow him on Twitter @paulmakesmovies.