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.


Don’t Outspend, Out-teach and Share

February 24, 2011
posted by sheric

In this last post based on the book REWORK, I want to address the chapter on using your web presence to teach rather than shill. I regularly advise filmmakers and artists on building their brand using online tools and one thing I always say is share your knowledge. Don’t use your website or social networking page to constantly talk about yourself and your projects. Everyone is an expert at something, so use that expertise to build relationships. Some get it, some don’t.

The book chapter is again about a page and a half and it spends some time talking about how to outmanuever the big guys. In the case of the book, they are talking about corporations. In your case, I am talking about Hollywood. Studios have large marketing departments with large budgets to spend large amounts of money to buy people’s attention. You know why that is a problem? They are doing what every other studio is doing. They buy advertising, they sponsor events, they hire agencies to redouble the efforts of the people hired full time to do that job and then complain that marketing costs are just skyrocketing. They go to great lengths to outspend each other. What they don’t do is teach.

“Teaching forms a bond you just don’t get from traditional marketing tactics. Earning loyalty by teaching forms a whole different connection. They’ll trust you more. They’ll respect you more.”

I know several filmmakers doing this right now. My friend Jon Reiss was doing this on his blog before he finally gathered up all of his writing in Think Outside the Box Office. He still blogs. Well before that, my friend Chris Jones and Genevieve Jolliffe gathered up their filmmaking knowledge into a series of books called The Guerilla Filmmakers Handbook. Chris still does this on his site and through his bi monthly internet TV show. Gary King regularly shares his experiences and thoughts on filmmaking on his blog An Indie Life. Screenwriter John August devotes his personal site to sharing his knowledge of screenwriting; he even has a tag line that says “A ton of useful information about screenwriting.” It would be so easy for them to use static sites that are completely devoted to one of their films, so much less work, but that isn’t how people get to know them. All of them can’t spend tons of money to get attention for their work, but they can spend time and energy which is not something studios are willing to do. Besides the fact that big corporations are obsessed with being secretive. Everything they do has to pass through lawyers and publicists and upper management. When you are small and niche, you can outmanuever that, you answer to yourself.

I know what you are thinking, you want that studio type success so you will emulate what they do. You can’t, you don’t have that kind of cash and the type of films you are making do not compete with the multimillion dollar extravaganzas they make. Take those thoughts and put them away. Celebrate the niche, OWN it. Where is it written you must scale big to be a success? Believe me, if the Hollywood dream is still your main goal, become a small success. They will come to you to get a piece of that. Isn’t that a better position to be in, having them come to YOU?

Now, consider how do some people become “personalities” and capitalize financially? Often it is by being a respected expert. Do you know Emeril Lagasse, Paula Deen, Martha Stewart, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith? You do because they freely share their knowledge and opinions, they are respected as experts in their industry. You may not like their work, their food, their movies but you have to admit you know who they are. They didn’t get into your consciousness by being secretive and hoarding their expertise. They put it right out there along with their work. Shouldn’t it scare Paula that copying her recipes might give someone else a competitive advantage? No, just following her recipes isn’t going to result in a competitive business model. Paula is a unique talent and so are you. Share your knowledge, champion other people’s talents more than your own. You empire will grow much faster that way, rather than by toiling in secret obscurity. And be patient for god’s sake! It will take some time for you to capture attention; it won’t be immediate gratification. All of the above personalities spent long, hard hours working and sharing long before TV studios and film studios picked up their work for wide distribution so that everyone knows their names and so it will be with you. First, you have to start.