I was never a fan of director-actor Ed Burns (and that’s putting it mildly), but I quite enjoyed his first book, “Independent Ed.” I reviewed it for the Buffalo News.
In the independent film boom of 1995, Edward Burns seemed, to my 15-year-old eyes, the luckiest medium talent to wander the streets of the Sundance Film Festival. Consider that 1995 was the year of Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise,” Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” Todd Haynes’ “Safe” and Wong Kar-Wai’s “Fallen Angels.”
With a gross of more than $10 million, Burns’ debut film, “The Brothers McMullen,” was more financially successful than every one of these modern classics. It also elevated the admittedly charming Burns to the forefront of indie cinema.
And to a teenager who thought (wrongly) that Quentin Tarantino was a genius, the modest, working-class, Irish-American family drama of “The Brothers McMullen” looked as square as Hollywood fare like “First Knight” and “Waterworld.”
Burns’ post-“McMullen” career has seen its share of ups and downs, but he has persevered, and with his first book, “Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life,” he has given us his most wholly satisfying artistic effort to date.
The book has also made me realize that I was way too hard on Burns. Comparing him to Haynes is like comparing Ron Howard to Peter Greenaway (“The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover”). They operate on different playing fields.
As Burns explains, his playing field was self-created. While working as a production assistant on “Entertainment Tonight,” Burns saw films like “Reservoir Dogs,” “sex, lies, and videotape,” “Slacker,” and “El Mariachi” burst onto the scene. Their success influenced his thinking, but also showed him what was lacking in his early scripts.
“I had an epiphany,” he writes. “While I was convinced this kind of moviemaking was within my grasp, it dawned on me as I thought about my work that I was not writing the kind of scripts these guys were making. Their films were personal, inspired by their lives, and pulsing with the energy of a new generation. My scripts, on the other hand, were derivative.”
The real influence came from a filmmaker who had been cranking out a movie per year since the ’70s.
“When I thought to myself about what films I loved the most, I instantly knew the answer: Woody Allen movies. So I said to myself, ‘All right, I’m going to write whatever that genre is; whatever Woody’s genre is, that’s what I’m going to write.’ ”
Unlike Allen, however, Burns had to create his film for a meager $25,000.
Shockingly, he did it. With money from his parents and two additional partners, Burns was able to shoot “The Brothers McMullen” in 12 days. Interestingly, the finished product was rejected by a number of film festivals, until Robert Redford’s Sundance fest said yes.
The film took home the festival’s top prize, and Burns was suddenly a success. Next came “She’s the One,” with a high-caliber cast (Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz), a soundtrack of songs by Tom Petty, the film grossed almost as much as “McMullen.”
Burns never quite captured the success of those two films again, and that makes the remainder of the book a tad less interesting. It is enjoyable to hear what led to later efforts like “Purple Violets,” which became the first feature film to debut exclusively on iTunes.
But the films themselves – “Violets,” “Nice Guy Johnny,” “Newlyweds” – are minor, at best. His higher-profile work by the late 2000s was in front of the camera. Even his personal life with wife Christy Turlington drew more attention than his films.
Still, it is hard not to walk away from “Independent Ed” impressed with Burns’ smarts, his humility and his love of filmmaking. His work as a director, quite simply, is adequate at best. But the hustle and ingenuity he showed in making his cinematic dreams come true makes him an important figure in the world of ’90s film.
The book ends with a project on TNT (produced by one Steven Spielberg), and a reminder that success as a filmmaker is not necessarily about box office. “It’s about the process,” Burns writes. “Independent Ed” shows there is real truth in those words.