Interview: Ed Burns from ‘Nice Guy Johnny’
We had the pleasure of speaking with Ed Burns, director and writer of the indie film Nice Guy Johnny, which will premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual on April 23. He speaks with us about his inspiration for the film, how he has grown as a filmmaker, and where he sees the future of indie cinema going.
What inspired you to write this film, Nice Guy Johnny?
Ed Burns: A couple of things, but primarily I would say about a year and a half ago I had meeting with my new agent, and I would say every couple of years I had a meeting that was similar to this where my team would encourage me to stop making small, personal films and put myself up for what they call open directing assignments at the studios.
Given, I guess, what I do they thought I could very easily land a studio romantic comedy directing job. I never had any interest in that, not that I think they’re bad films necessarily, but I only aspired to be a writer/director. My heroes were Cassavetes and Woody Allen and Truffaut, and that’s all that I ever wanted to do.
However, two years ago with a couple of kids and a couple of mortgages I thought maybe it might be a smart financial move to at least entertain the thought. So I read a bunch of the scripts; I took a bunch of the meetings. I have to admit it was a very tough decision because there is potentially a lot more money to make doing that than doing what I do. At the end of the day that’s not why I got into the business. I had to sort of stick with what my original purpose was and what my original dream was.
I left that final meeting after passing on this particular project. Me and my producing partner were talking about it and what are we going to do now? We said “You know what, let’s write a script about what we just went through. Let’s think about what kind of character is faced with that kind of decision when you have to stick with your dream when everyone is telling you, whether it’s your parents or your friends. Or, do you take the more fiscally responsible job with benefits? Most of my friends are in the arts and all of them wrestle with this very thing, especially as we get older and are starting families.
That’s how kind of Nice Guy Johnny came about. He’s a 24-year-old sports talk radio host who dreams of one day getting a big broadcasting job. He’s not making any money; he’s about to get married and his fiancee has suggested he come home to New York to take a job that will triple his salary and give him benefits. It’s the story of how this kid makes that decision.
You wear many different hats in this film, you’re an actor, a director; you’re a writer. How did you manage to balance all those different aspects?
Ed Burns: You know when I made my first films 15 years ago I was barely out of film school, no money, and trying to make a movie for $25,000 so I knew that it was my script obviously, I was going to direct it. I did not know any film producers and couldn’t have afforded one anyhow, so I had to produce it on my own. Then the acting was just a case of, when you’re not paying actors it’s very hard to get them – it’s very hard to get a guarantee that they’ll actually show up. I had done some acting in my student films so I put myself in the first film and have just kind of kept with it now, nine films later.
Are any of the characters based on real people?
Ed Burns: Maybe my character is loosely based on a couple of guys that I grew up with and even know today. Uncle Terry is an aging womanizer who is hell bent against his nephew getting married, especially at the tender age of 24. I definitely still know guys who are deep into their 40s who are holding on to bachelorhood with everything they’ve got. I didn’t want to judge it at all, but we kind of took a look at sort of the funny side of it and then maybe a little bit of the pathetic side of it.
You must be excited about the film festival going virtual so more people will be able to see your film.
Ed Burns: You know, for me, I have always tried to embrace how indie films, or how indie cinema is going to make use of the Internet. We saw maybe like in ’06 indie films sort of stopped finding the same sized audience for the ten years prior to that. You saw a lot of companies like Paramount Vantage closed, Warner Brother Independent closed; Miramax just recently went under. We knew that the audience still liked the films they just weren’t going to see them theatrically.
A couple of years ago I tried it with this film Purple Violets. We released it onto iTunes and we got a great response from the people that like my movies. I tried a Web series last year as a way; again to how do we find the people that like this? How do we get this material or these stories to them in a different way. When Tribeca brought this up we immediately said, “Absolutely.”
As a kid who got his start at a film festival and now is someone who loves film festivals, it’s great that now a kid in Kansas City can attend the Tribeca Film Festival, at least in some fashion and see those movies that he might be reading about on sites like yours or other film sites.
Your film is being featured in the Tribeca Festival, both the virtual and being screened as part of it. It seemed only fitting that the city of New York play a role in your film as this one does. What was the best and worst part of filming there?
Ed Burns: You know – I think I’ve shot – yes, I guess I have; every film I’ve made I’ve shot at least a handful of scenes in New York. There really isn’t a bad side to shooting in the city. You have just great crews available to you. I’ve always said the best co-star any actor can have is New York City. There is nothing but great locations. Every street has another story to tell. For me, the number one thing that you get in New York City is this enormously deep pool of actors.
With this film, given that the story revolves around a bunch of kids in their early 20s, we wanted to find those New York actors that were just on the cusp of breaking out. I told my casting director, “Who are the kids that keep coming in and keep losing out on that great part because they’re not a name yet?” Then we kind of set that as our goal, like let’s find those kids that are going to be household names one day, they just don’t have the body of work yet to get the big part. That’s who we found.
The two leads, Kerry Bishe and Matt Bush are incredible and Kerry, I don’t – maybe she had done one small film before. This other young woman, Anna Wood, was another great find, who I don’t think had ever been in front of a camera before. For me that’s what New York gives you which is why I stay here.
Of the things that you’ve done, the acting, the screenwriting, the directing; if you could only concentrate on one for the rest of your career, if you had no choice about this, which one would you choose and why?
Ed Burns: Hands down, it wouldn’t even need to make a decision, it would be writing. I started as a writer; it’s what I love; it’s what I do every day, so that’s a no-brainer.
Since Nice Guy Johnny is about people pursuing their dreams at a cost, what did it cost you to get into acting in the first place?
Ed Burns: You know, acting—I guess it forces you to thicken your skin. Definitely while it can be great for your ego, there are certainly a handful of films I have and the reviews that have followed that are pretty bruising to your ego. There is that. But as far as like what it cost me? I don’t know that it has. I was very lucky when I made my first film; I was 26 years old and it got picked up for distribution. Fifteen years later I’m still making my little personal films so I’m, I think, one of the lucky ones.
I know a lot of indie filmmakers out there – it’s kind of like bands, you know, you struggle and you fight and you get that first film made and you get some attention with it. Then you make the next one and then that’s it. To still be doing it after 15 years I’m definitely a lucky guy.
With Nice Guy Johnny kicking off the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual, what do you think of these new distribution methods, including iTunes as a way to reach more people?
Ed Burns: I love them. I think anyone who is still interested in making small films has to fall out of love with theatrical distribution. When I was in my 20s, me and my friends, and if you were into indie film, you went down to the art house theater or the specialized movie theater and you made sure that you saw that film its opening week.
Today I think it’s a little different and you can watch a film on your phone, on your computer, even now you can get them on You Tube, so I don’t think the theatrical component is as important as it used to be. If you allow yourself to fall out of love with that I think you can reach the people that will love your film.
I mean, I think the tricky thing that everybody is trying to figure out now is how do we monetize that? I think if you keep your budgets really low, I think we’re going to find a place where you can make low-budget personal films and at least break even or make enough that you can go make the next one. I think that’s where we’re going to be in a couple of years.
Do you think if you had made The Brothers McMullen today it would find the same success that it did at Sundance or do you think that the independent film market and audience has changed too drastically?
Ed Burns: There is no shot we would be as successful today. I can’t speak to whether or not it would play at Sundance. When we submitted it to Sundance 16 years ago it had gotten rejected from every other film festival as not being edgy enough. We just kind of got lucky by the time it got around to Sundance because we were sort of coming out of the post Reservoir Dogs as the major sort of indie film influence. There was this glut of like Tarantino rip-off films and the kind of pendulum had just swung back the other way that the timing was kind of right for Brothers McMullen. I definitely benefited from that.
As far as, let’s say we were lucky enough, we get into Sundance, it gets picked up for distribution, it’s interesting. I don’t even know that we would get picked up for distribution. I can’t remember the last film that I saw – an indie film that got picked up and was given a real theatrical release that had a completely unknown cast. Back then you had Slacker and then after Slacker you had Metropolitan and then you had Clerks and then you had McMullen but after that you don’t see too many of those. I definitely have not seen any in the last couple of years. I’d say, maybe – remember that film Primer? Maybe that’s the last one that comes to mind. Maybe not.
One thing I’ve always liked about your work is that it is about real people and relationships, which is in many ways an antithesis to much of what’s out there. What movies have had the greatest influence on you and your work?
Ed Burns: I mean by far Woody Allen, the major influence, and primarily his films that deal with just that. A film like Hannah and Her Sisters; Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives; when he’s dealing with people and how we deal with one another.
A big film for me when I was in film school was Marty based on the Paddy Chayefsky play. The Last Picture Show, that Peter Bogdanovich film. Truffaut was a big influence on me; Louis Malle. Those filmmakers that dealt with real people in a pretty honest way. That’s what I’ve been trying to do and I think even when I look at my films, when I get away from that is when the films don’t work.
This film is fundamentally about the cost of pursuing your dream and subsequently being asked to give up on said dream. In reflection, at any point in your life, have you yourself ever been asked to give up on a dream of any kind, at any age?
Ed Burns: I am 26 years old, I’ve already shot and cut Brothers McMullen, I’ve submitted it to a number of festivals, producers, agents, distribution companies, and I have a stack of rejection letters to show for it. I’m $25,000 in debt.
My mother comes to me one day and says, “If you’re willing to get a haircut, I will buy you a suit and then you can go get a real job.” Thank God, I did not take her up on that deal because six months later the film got into Sundance and all that. That conversation with my mother definitely was at the forefront of my mind as I was writing this film.
Talking about Brothers McMullen 15 years ago, and 15 years of movies in between, the camera work, the directing that you do, how has it changed from that very first time behind the camera to now? And are you involved in behind-the-scenes for American Empire or Prince of Providence?
Ed Burns: I am not involved with American Empire. Prince of Providence, my friend Michael Corrente, has been trying to get that film together for a while so if he ever does that would be terrific.
The camera work in McMullen was as basic as it gets. Again, we had a three man crew, no dolly, no steady cam and it was just about trying to get that story captured on film. We weren’t thinking about moving in the camera, we weren’t thinking about shots because I knew going in there is no way I can compete with Hollywood on that level. If I try and do a more complicated shot or spend a lot of time trying to light something in a very specific way, it’s going to look like what it would be the poor man’s version of it. What we did on that film was just, all right, let’s focus on these characters and the acting and try and make this as honest a representation of the world that I had come from.
However, since then, with some increasing budgets, again I still haven’t made a movie for more than $5 million, but I have at least gotten some dolly track and a couple of steady cam shots and fortunate enough to work with a great DP.
I think the two films that I’m probably most proud of with the overall look is a film I did called Purple Violets, where we do these gorgeous like what we call moving masters. It’s sort of one long take that covers a three page scene and Woody Allen is the master of those. We kind of adopted that style on that film and I think we really did a great job executing it.
Then Nice Guy Johnny, it’s the first film I shot using the RED camera and it gave us a different type of mobility and there are some images in this film that are just breathtaking. I think the RED camera is going to be a game changer for indie cinema. You can – they’re small; they’re not terribly expensive compared to a film camera. You can go out with almost no lights and make a pretty great looking film. We’ll see if I’m right about that.
It’s interesting that given that now that the Tribeca Film Festival is really doing something groundbreaking by going virtual. How much more it will drive people, particularly film students, into wanting to participate and understanding the need for small films? I’m wondering what your thoughts are about that?
Ed Burns: I only hope. It’s funny, you know, when I was in film school that’s what we loved, whether it was Jim Jarmisch and Hal Hartley, or looking further back Truffaut and Louis Malle, or De Sica. We wanted to tell small personal stories. I think now the – at least it appears to me the kids that are really into film are into sort of maybe more like genre films whether it’s comic book stories or horror.
I don’t really know. Maybe all these things are cyclical and maybe it’ll just be a matter of time before young film students fall back in love with the small personal film. I don’t really know, but I hope so because that’s all I really enjoy watching.
Maybe what’s going to happen is given studios are focused on the giant tent-pole movies and that’s kind of all that they seem to be doing right now, and they will dominate the multiplexes with those, and I think deservedly so. You go to see Avatar and that is a pretty incredible experience in the theater. Maybe now people are going to be watching movies on their iPads and their iPhones and a lot of people have flat screen TVs, or you can watch it on your laptop. You know, maybe the only place for those small personal films will be kind of this kind of virtual thing or home viewing or via the Web, which will force people to – if you’re not going to be financed by the studio you’re going to have to make a very low budget film. The genre that works best when you have no money are small talky films, so who knows, maybe this will start a little, a mini movement.
If you were to compare Nice Guy Johnny to your previous works, what are some of the elements that stand out that really speak to how much you’ve grown as an actor, writer, director, and producer?
Ed Burns: Acting-wise I’d say it’s my best performance in one of my films and I say this kind of there are three reasons for that. One is I kind of wrote it toward my strengths I think as an actor and kind of wrote a part for a part of my personality that maybe I haven’t explored in my films before for me to play.
The second reason is I’ve just been doing it longer so kind of like any muscle the more you work it I think the more command you have over it. Primarily the biggest reason is in the film it’s about a bunch of 24-year-old kids and we wanted to find unknown actors. I kind of wanted to go back to whatever the magic was I was able to create with my cast in Brothers McMullen. There was an enthusiasm on that film that I never sort of captured again or never felt on set again. With this film we went and we found Matt Bush, this actress Kerry Bishe and Anna Wood, and then even some of the supporting players who really had very little experience in front of the camera. They’d all gone to acting school and stuff like that but what I found, for me as an actor was their enthusiasm and their love and appreciation for getting to act, to be in a movie, to be on set, it was infectious for me as an actor. Every scene I have I’m opposite this kid Matt Bush and he’s coming at you with everything he’s got and with such enthusiasm and love for it that there was no way – he was pulling like the best stuff out of me. I would credit him with that.
Writing, I think it’s my – say my most honest and personal film since The Brothers McMullen. I just kind of wanted to go back to like not really trying to be funny, sort of writing about people that I really knew intimately. Then as a filmmaker, again, it’s almost like the acting the more you do it the more confidence you have, the more you know what you need and what you don’t need. I think I’ve been working now with my DP Will Rexer, this is our fourth film together. He and I really, I think, have grown together and I have a lot more faith and trust in him than I’ve had with any other DP. I kind of allow him to sort of push me now in a way that maybe I wouldn’t or didn’t in the past.
Was the writing and filming process different from your prior movies?
Ed Burns: No, not really. I write every day. I’m pretty disciplined in that respect. I’m pretty tough on myself. Filming-wise, maybe the difference between this film and the last couple is we were a pretty small tight-knit cast and everyone got to know one another very well. Maybe there is a little bit more collaboration and input from the cast in this script than in films in the past.
You mentioned with Brothers McMullen the rejection letters and even the offer from your mother about getting a suit and getting a real job. Did you, whether it be at that point or earlier in writing films and directing and so forth, did you find yourself at such a low point ever that that idea really became a serious consideration? And what was it that inspired you to continue to live your dream and continue to go for it and not to conform to what everybody else was saying?
Ed Burns: The low point probably was before we got accepted into Sundance I remember I had printed up my first resume since I had gotten out of college and gotten my first production assistant job. I had been a PA for four years at this same television show but, if you’re a PA for four years you’ve been a PA for three years too long probably. I had put together a resume; I had taken a couple of scenes from my short films and from Brothers McMullen and kind of put together a reel and I was about to apply for a job at Comedy Central directing these things called bumpers, which is little things in between shows. That was probably the low point where I was like, “All right, this movie didn’t work. I’m out of money and I can’t – I’ve got to get a real job now, I’m 26 years old.”
There was that. I always said to myself even if McMullen didn’t work the best bit of advice that I got was from my dad one day. I was pissing and moaning and complaining about all of the rejection letters and he said, “What’s the problem?” I said, “Well, nobody likes the movie. Nobody wants to buy it.” He goes, “You told me the 12 days that it took to shoot the film were the 12 best days of your life.” I said, “Yeah.” He goes, “Well, do it again. Just figure out a way to do it again.” That was a real eye-opener for me. If anything sort of kept the dream alive it was that. I kind of said to myself I will keep trying to make these little $20,000 to $25,000 movies every three or four years until I’m 35. I figured I could make like three more of them. If one of them doesn’t work by the time I’m 35 then I will give up the dream. Fortunately we sold Brothers McMullen and here we are today.
Do you see the character Uncle Terry as the antagonist of the film or do you see him as someone who is helping Johnny reach his goals?
Ed Burns: He’s sort of like – he’s a mentor of sorts, but it’s almost like the devil on one shoulder and the woman he meets on this journey, played by Kerry Bishe, as sort of maybe the angel on the shoulder. The interesting thing is like I think my character is a mentor that is always – he’s sort of the dumbest guy in the room. He’s always giving this kid terrible advice, but only at the end of the journey when he comes through and you see these decisions he’s made you realize like, “Oh, maybe the idiot knew something after all,” if that makes any sense.
And out of all the films that you have done which one would you absolutely, honestly say is your favorite other than Brothers McMullen?
Ed Burns: Obviously, well, hopefully you’re always madly in love with the one you just finished. I think Nice Guy Johnny is definitely my favorite because it is my most personal. Other than that Sidewalks of New York is hands-down my favorite.
You have an extensive body of work as an actor in general, and you’ve worked with a lot of living legends like Steven Spielberg, Sir Ben Kingsley, Robert De Niro. From all those experiences in your acting, how can you say that might have translated into your being a better director?
Ed Burns: Probably if you’re smart and you check your ego at the door when you work with one of those legends you use it as an opportunity to go to school. I think I’ve done that every time when I’ve gotten lucky enough to work with one of these guys. Spielberg, hands-down the most influential experience I’ve had to date. Watching not only his decision-making process but also how he communicates with his crew, but mostly how he communicated with the cast.
The one thing I took from him that changed how I deal with actors is we’re like two weeks into the shoot and he’s giving us two and three takes to do a scene and giving us no comments or notes after any of them. He was just like, “Okay, great, moving on.” Finally, after two weeks he finally, after a third take, asked us to do something different, after a fourth take, fifth take, sixth take. Finally at lunch we asked him like, “Why today? How come you were sort of directing us today?” He goes, “Well, today you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.”
He explained to us that especially given an ensemble he hires people that he knows what they do and expects them to do what they do on the day. He will give any actor three takes to figure it out. Some guys nail it on the first, some guys nail it on the second; most people find it by the third. If by the third you haven’t given him something that he likes then he’ll step in and sort of steer you back on course.
I know for me when I was making my first couple of films, I thought the director needed to direct so after every take I was giving the actor any kind of note or any kind of encouragement. Only since that experience did I realize, you know what, let them do their thing, they will figure it out. That is usually the case, I’ve found.
Working with De Niro or Hoffman, you just pick up little things like how they respond to a director and how they like to be spoken to, and the best way that they might receive a bit of criticism or when someone suggests just change. That was pretty informative to just kind of watch, “Ah! I am not going to do it that way when I have to deal with an actor I’m maybe going to do it this way, the way that guy did it.” So you learn those kind of things as well.
You mentioned tent-pole films, the big summer blockbusters and extravaganzas, considering the kind of films that you make now, do you ever see yourself maybe 10 or 15 years down the road actually making a film with a $250 million budget and all these whiz bang special effects?
Ed Burns: You know, I really don’t. I have one script that we tried to get made a couple of years ago that was a sort of big period film set in turn-of-the century New York City. That’s something where I would have needed a lot of CGI but not the kind of effects that you would need if you’re going to be making an Ironman per se. I love those movies; I go to see a fair amount of them, but it was never – some guys write symphonies, some guys write folk songs. I think I write folk songs.
Nice Guy Johnny premiered Friday, April 23, on Tribeca Film Festival Virtual. You can pick up your Premium Pass until April 30 at www.tribecafilm.com/virtual/.