Sundance interview with Edward Burns

February 28, 2013
posted by sheric

As I said in my Sundance wrap up post, I had a chance at this year’s festival to talk with Writer/Director/Actor Edward Burns. He was incredibly kind and generous with his time given that he was on the US Dramatic Jury this year and had many films to see on the ground…plus the usual meetings and functions that come with being…Edward Burns. The interview lasted about 30 minutes and some of the conversation was edited down in the following 2 video segments. Here are some things you missed…

Q: In research, I read that you studied literature in college. How did you turn that into screenwriting and directing?

EB: ”I was an English major at school and was not doing that well honestly and was brought in by my academic adviser to say I needed to bring my grades up or we’ll put you on academic probation.  For English majors, they offered film studies as a minor and basically you watch old movies and write a paper and it is a guaranteed A.

The first class I took was called Four Directors and it was Wilder, Hitchcock, Ford and Orson Welles. The first film I saw in that class was Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and I sat in that classroom and fell in love immediately. Also, when I was in junior high and high school, my mom was a big Woody Allen nut. So my mom started me off with Take the Money and Run, Sleeper, Manhattan, Annie Hall, Hannah and her Sisters.

So after that class, I started to think about that early love affair I had with Woody, and I thought maybe I don’t want to be a novelist. Maybe screenwriting should be a thing that I focus on. I called my dad and told him and he sends me Syd Field’s screenwriting book. I’ve never looked at a screenplay before. It is all dialog, and dialog is something I wrote a lot in my short stories and something people said I excelled at. So forget novels, I am going to write screenplays and I took every screenwriting course they had.  I wrote my screenplay and I finished my junior year and I called my dad and said I gotta go to a film school, I’ve taken all of the screenwriting courses they have here. I thought Columbia or NYU. He said look at your grades, look at my salary. Let’s rethink it. So I go to Hunter College which had a very small program at the time. They had one CP16 camera, but 3 great professors and that’s all you need sometimes.

I left there with a short film under my arm and was on my way. I needed to make some money so I  finished up in night school and went to work full time. I worked at 2 places. The 7 o’clock news, the local news, and a production assistant at Entertainment Tonight.   That was really helpful because we went to visit movie sets all the time to do the behind the scenes stuff.  I got to see everything from a big budget film like Scent of a Woman to a small, indie John Tuturro film and a number of smaller indie films. All I did was watch and try to observe and learn.

Even now, the acting side of my career affords me the same thing. When I got to work with Steven Spielberg on Saving Private Ryan, that was my graduate film school. I knew showing up on that set, I am just going to keep my mouth shut and watch this guy. Less interested in what I could learn as an actor, but more what I could learn as a filmmaker.

Out of film school, like everyone else in the early ‘90s, I was obsessed with Quentin Tarantino. And every screenplay I wrote was a Tarantino rip off. Thank god none of them were any good or got made. And someone said to me, write what you know.  I took that Robert McKee screenwriting class and one thing he said for your next script, think what is your favorite genre of film and write a script in that genre. My favorite genre was Woody Allen, whatever genre that is. So I sat down and wrote Brothers McMullen and I used Hannah and Her Sisters as my template.  So I have a scene of 2 people walking down the street, it is 3 pages of dialog and nothing really happens but hopefully it is funny and insightful and I thought well people loved it in Hannah, so I hope people will love my version of it.

Woody was absolutely and still to this day my primary influence.”

Q: You consulted with Tyler Perry about how he maximizes his revenue. Can you talk a little about that conversation?

EB: “His big advice to me was be mindful of your core audience and be respectful of the fact that they come out time and time again. He said think about super serving your niche.”

Here are 2 video clips of the rest of the interview:



I will be speaking at this workshop in Vancouver in 2 weeks. I’d love for my Pacific Northwest/BC Canadian friends to join us and talk over a drink afterwards. Also, I have started a G+ Community completely devoted to independent film marketing and distribution ideas, tools and advice. So far we have over 150 members from around the world. If you are interested in this topic, join us.


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