Credit: Courtesy Photo
Edward Burns Interview -
Up Close and Personal
Frank Talk on His Life as Writer,
Director, Actor, and Family Man
By Beverly Cohn
ie-hard New Yorker Edward Burns first captured cinematic attention
in the most poignant The Brothers McMullen, a story about
the struggles of three Irish Catholic siblings, which he wrote, produced,
directed, and starred in. The film won the Grand Jury prize at the 1995
Sundance Film Festival as well as the Best First Feature
at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards. His break-out acting role was
in Saving Private Ryan, elevating his status to a bankable
movie star. Since then he has continued making his small,
and always critically acclaimed independent films such as Newlyweds
and Sidewalks of New York, and has acted in dozens of films
including 15 Minutes, 27 Dresses, Friends
With Kids, and the soon to be released I, Alex Cross.
Edward Burns co-stars with Sam Worthington as Detective
Jack Dougherty in "Man On A Ledge." Photo Courtesy:
Summit Entertainment. Photo by: Myles Aronowitz
Burns recently sat down with a select group of journalists
to discuss, among other topics, his latest film, Man On A Ledge,
a fun pop-corn caper film loaded with interesting twists and turns.
He co-stars with Ed Harris, Edward Burns, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie,
Titus Welliver, Genesis Rodriguez, and Kyra Sedgwick.
The following has been edited for continuity and
"I went on that set thinking this could
be graduate film school for me and Im going to watch how
the great master does it." Courtesy Photo
Cohn: The Brothers McMullen received
much critical acclaim, as did your work in Saving Private Ryan
and even 27 Dresses. Being as multi-talented as you are,
when you are hired as an actor, do you ever see things directorially
that the director might be missing and do you act on it?
Burns: Never. The first movie that I acted in that wasnt
my own, was Saving Private Ryan, and I knew when I showed
up on that set that I wasnt going to be offering any suggestions
to Spielberg (Steven) as to where to put the camera. (laughter)
I went on to that set thinking this could be graduate film school for
me and Im going to watch how the great master does it. I learned
so much about working with actors and communicating with the crew, and
executing different types of scenes Id never done. So, every film
that I work on as a hired actor, I seize that opportunity to kind of
sit back and watch and learn and I did that on Man On A Ledge.
The squad led by Tom Hanks in "Saving Private
Ryan." Courtesy Photo
Cohn: Before we talk about Man On A Ledge
what specifically did you learn from working with Spielberg?
Burns: We were doing two or three takes and then moving
on. Were thinking that he hates us and were all going to
get fired. Then we have this scene where we have a fourth take and hes
giving very specific direction to everyone and after 12 takes, we finally
move on. At lunch we sit down and ask him what happened today and why
all the direction to which he said, that today you didnt
know what the hell you were doing. He explained that he cast us
because we were all very specific types and he knew what we could do
and wanted us to that in the film. He said that Ive got an ensemble
here so youve got a lot of scenes with five guys talking to each
other and Im going to give you three takes to figure it out. You
obviously made your choices and came prepared but I dont expect
you to nail it on the first take. Im going to give you room to
get warmed up and in the first take you might hit 50% of what you planned
on doing, but maybe you missed a couple of moments you wanted. I figure
by the third take Ive given you enough room to know whether or
not youre going to find it on your own and most times I guess
we did and other times we didnt.
Cohn: How did that experience impact on your own
Burns: Prior to that experience, I was the kind of director
who thought directing meant that after every take I am sitting down
with the actors and giving them some direction. The first film I made
after Ryan was Sidewalks of New York. I look
at the performances I got in that film, not to take anything away from
the actors in my first three films, but I really almost gave no direction
in that film. It was really gentle pushes and nudges sometimes to speed
it up. That was the start of my collaborating with my actors in a different
way encouraging a bit more and improvising and thats kind
of where I am now.
"I credit Tom with learning how to conduct
yourself on set as an actor." Courtesy Photo
Cohn: What did you pick up from Tom Hanks?
Burns: Weve all worked with jerks on sets but
I credit Tom with learning how to conduct yourself on set as an actor.
Hes one of the biggest movie stars of all time and the guy shows
up early every day, knows his lines, never argues with the director,
knows everybodys name, is polite and giving to everyone, and does
all of his off-camera work with the same energy as when hes on
camera. We were all a bunch of young kids and nobody had been in a big
movie before so we were constantly picking Toms brain about the
biz and his preparation in developing a character. The great
thing about Tom is, while he takes the work very seriously, he doesnt
take himself seriously. We would be sitting around joking, having a
great time and Steven would say, OK, lets get ready to roll,
and Tom would take a moment and that would be good to go. That was very
Edward Burns as Detective Jack Dougherty in "Man
On A Ledge." Photo Courtesy: Summit Entertainment.
Photo by: Myles Aronowitz
Cohn: Getting back to Man On A Ledge
how much help did you get in character development?
Edward Burns with his wife
Christy Turlington and kids at Disneyland.
Burns: There are some directors that are completely
open to that kind of creative collaboration and thats how I like
to work with my actors. I bring them in early and encourage them to
help me flesh out the characters. Ive always said that an actor
is only concerned about the character theyre playing, whereas
the writer/director has to worry about the entire piece so a good actor
is going to show up and know his character much more intimately than
the filmmaker and even the writer so I want to tap into the work theyve
done in order to help me better understand the character and also flesh
it out in a different way by adding some nuances that I didnt
think of quite honestly. Ive worked with filmmakers who have no
interest in that kind of a relationship and then some others who do.
Fortunately, in this film, Asger (Leth, director) was willing
to give us a little room to play and explore.
Cohn: Your character in the film of Detective Edward
Burns tries to talk Sam Worthingtons character of Nick Cassidy
off the ledge. Do you think you could actually do that in real life?
Burns: Probably not. I doubt that I have that skill
set. I have a couple of little kids so Im negotiating all day
long eat your broccoli if you want to watch The Adventures
of Tin Tin. (laughter)
Cohn: You drive a hard bargain. (laughter)
Edward Burns wrote, co-produced, directed, and starred
in "Newlyweds" which he shot in New York. Courtesy
Cohn: Does your wonderful New York accent ever get
in the way?
Burns: The thing that I was most happy about in this
film, was that I didnt have to deal with my New York accent. Sometimes
I get we have to do another take because that New York shit came
Cohn: Your dad was a New York Police sergeant so
did you use him in any way in developing your character?
Burns: Not necessarily. He was a cop. His brother was
a cop. Ive got five first cousins who are cops three of
my childhood buddies became cops so I grew up immersed in cop culture
so to be perfectly honest, I know how to walk the walk and talk the
talk enough to fake it in a movie. There were a couple of guys I know
that you could say that while I didnt exactly base Dougherty on,
but did tap into that type of jerky personality where hes pissed
off at the world when he gets demoted and has to play subordinate to
Elizabeths character of Lydia Mercer. Hes just going to
be breaking her chops the whole time and belittling every choice she
makes, mocking every mistake. Thats always fun to do. Its
kind of like the character in Saving Private Ryan who was
a similar kind of jerky guy and I think I excel at that. (laughter)
Cohn: Does your family ever make fun of you because
you didnt become a cop?
Burns: No. Even though my dad was a cop, when I expressed
interest in being a writer as a young guy, he became my biggest supporter.
If I ever complained early on about the business he tell me to take
the cop test, but now its too late to take the cop test. (laughter)
Cohn: You studied literature and filmmaking. Did
you ever take formal acting classes?
Burns: No. Im in film school and you start making
your 16mm black and white silent films and I didnt know any actors,
so I put me and my friends in the film. As I started to make what we
call sync-sound movies that actually has dialogue, I would give myself
a couple of lines. Thats how I started acting and like anybody
else, you get the bug. I guess my training was making all those student
films and then making The Brothers McMullen.
Cohn: How did your career change after The
Burns: After that film came out, I got a ton of acting
offers to be in real Hollywood movies, but I knew what a fraud I was
as an actor, quite honestly, because we shot that film in only 12 days
and I acted in six or seven of those days. I was in the editing room
and knew how bad I could be. (laughter) I knew there were some
good takes, but there was also some terrible stuff so I decided to get
a few more films under my belt. Basically, in McMullen, I didnt
give very much thought to the acting because I was writing a version
of myself. But, as I moved forward, I cant say that I took any
formal training, but I studied acting and worked at it and tried to
get better and finally after three films, I felt confident enough in
my ability to put myself out there and then I got Saving Private
Cohn: Is it easier to be an actor or a director and
how does it impact on your role as a husband and father?
"I am there to either drop the kids off at
school or be home by bedtime."
Burns: Its easier to be a director when you make
the kind of films I make. I make these small movies in New York. I control
our schedule and the number of hours we work a day and it insures that
I am there to either drop the kids off at school or be home by bedtime.
Im really lucky. I have a weird career. Im one of the few
guys whove been able to stay in New York. Im one of the
few independent filmmakers who has managed to stay independent in making
my movies. One of the reasons is that I got lucky in that I fell into
this acting career and quite honestly you get paid a lot more money
acting in Man On A Ledge or I, Alex Cross than
you do making your independent films. That blessing has afforded me
a certain level of financial freedom that has allowed me a level of
Cohn: Which New York story has not been told and
would you like to fill in that gap?
Burns: I have a script called On The Job
and Ive been trying to get it made for 15 years. It is a multi-generational
Irish-American NYPD family saga ala The Godfather. It takes
place from 1966 to 1974. We almost got it made years ago. We had the
money and then lost the guy. I have one more film to do and that will
be next up.
"If 'I Alex Cross' is a hit, I'll be
able to make 'On The Job' which I've had for 15 years."
Cohn: Thats a big project.
Burns: I need a hit. (laughter) If "I, Alex
Cross" is that hit, I can assure you that film will get made.
Cohn: Can you live a normal life in New York?
Burns: Yes. My wife and I dont ever get hassled.
We live near a hotel where a lot of celebrities stay, so if Tom Cruise
is staying at the Greenwich Hotel and we happen to walk down the street,
theyll take a picture of us, but otherwise on no occasion do we
Cohn: Is it easier on your family life living away
Burns: I dont know really. We never gave that
any thought. Were both New Yorkers. Shes transplanted, but
Im born and bred and we both love the city. Part of the reason
we were set up originally was the fact that were both New Yorkers
who didnt want to leave and wanted to raise our kids in the city.
I love it so theres no reason to ever leave. It gives me everything