Ed Burns on filming New York, making Christmas movies, and the new realities of indie filmmaking

Ed Burns and Connie Britton. (Tribeca Films)
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For filmmaker, actor, and screenwriter Ed Burns, the holidays were too good a subject to pass up.

"You’re gonna get together, you’re gonna be under one roof for a couple of days," he said when I caught up with him on the phone earlier this week. "It’s also the time of year to make big announcements, and the pressure is on to get through the holidays and have everyone get along. And in most families, that doesn’t really happen all the time."

And it doesn't happen in his latest film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, which opens today. The titular family is a large one, with seven brothers and sisters. On top of the geometric expansion of sibling rivalries and spats you get in large families, the Fitzgeralds have a larger issue to deal with: patriarch Jim Fitzgerald (Ed Lauter), who abandoned the family two decades earlier but wants back in, at the very least to share Christmas with his children and their mother.

It's been nearly two decades since Burns first broke into film with The Brothers McMullen, and plenty has changed both in the industry and in Burns' favorite setting, New York. Several of McMullen's stars appear in the new movie, and while Burns said there's been talk of a sequel to taht one, Fitzgerald let him tell another story.

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"I wanted to make a film that took a look at the big Irish family," he said. "I’m only one of three, but my best friend is one of nine and another good buddy is one of 12, so for years I’ve been hearing great funny and sad stories about what it was like to grow up in that kind of house, and what Christmases were like in those homes. That was really the initial inspiration."

Fewer families end up so large these days, of course, but nostalgia isn't something Burns has ever shied away from, and the sort of people and places he continues to want to represent in his films are what's left of an older New York; he acknowledges all that.

"Of course, very few folks are having seven kids anymore, and families do break up and move about, and that’s another reason Christmas works," he said. "I needed a device in order to get them all together and get them all under one roof. I also need to have a time of year or a plausible event when a number of big dramatic things could be happening in each of the characters’ lives at the same time. And so it seemed obvious that Christmas did both things."

There is a drawback to working in such an established genre of course. Burns might easily have drifted into Hallmark territory, hitching his own nostalgia to a genre that already drips with it.

"You know, two things I was thinking about with the fact that this is a holiday movie," he said. "One, I kind of knew I did not want to tell the happy, cheery, romantic, Hey look at this big crazy Irish family, come have a laugh with us kind of Christmas movie. I wanted to go with something a little more honest, a little more grounded in the real world to reflect a little more of what most folks and families go through in the holidays. And I thought about my favorite holiday film, which is It’s A Wonderful Life. And I thought, OK, there’s a film where it’s a real-life blend between comedy and drama, and you know George Bailey has to go through some pretty tough times in order to get through to the heartfelt payoff at the end of the movie. I knew I wanted that kind of finish or conclusion. But like anything it has to be earned."

Taking a more pronounced acting role than he has in recent films, Burns plays Gerry, who is something of the George Bailey of the film, the glue that holds the family—and the story—together, if under enormous pressure. His mother Rosie (Anna Gillette) is celebrating her 70th birthday just a few days before Christmas, and as Gerry tries to rally everyone to come to a party, he encounters one roadblock after another. He faces the unhappy prospect of floating his father's plan of visiting on Christmas to the family, and expects angry resistance. His siblings and their families are themselves facing a host of issues, from infidelity to domestic abuse to alcoholism.

"I knew that in order to have forgiveness and real healing we’re going to have to expose and address the most serious wounds," Burns said.

Gerry attempts to counsel them in turn, all while trying to make the holidays run as smoothly as possible. It doesn't go according to plan, but just when he finds himself needing to just take a break from the lot of them, he meets Nora (Connie Britton, of "Friday Night Lights" and "Nashville" fame), with whom he finds a welcome ear and the prospect of romance.

With so many characters and intertwining storylines, Robert Altman is a clear inspiration here, but Burns kept returning to another reference point.

"My favorite film of all time is Last Picture Show," he said. "It’s one of the first films I saw that made me say All right, I want to do that, and there’s a number of things about Picture Show that I always think about. I like ensemble casts, I like weaving together multiple stories, and I like movies that don’t have a major plot point to drive them forward. It’s much more about the little things and the little moments rather than pushing for one dramatic end."

The Last Picture Show was also an inspiration, he said, for its "environment," and as someone who has devoted most of his film career to documenting New York City, getting environments right is of prime importance to Burns.

"Very early in the writing process, even in the outlining stage I have to think about environments and fall in love with environments," he said. "I think it’s part of every film I’ve make. Which is why in this film, a very important part of this was a family that came from a working class neighborhood that reflected the neighborhood I came from, [so] I went back to my block, that’s where the Fitzgerald house is. I wanted to make sure that the neighborhood was as big a character as the folks in the movie."

Much like one of his heroes, Woody Allen, Burns has an idiosyncratic sort of love affair going on with the city.

"As a bridge and tunnel kid," he said, "I’m overly nostalgic for the place I came from and also madly in love with Manhattan, since I was a little kid, and all it represents. You know, it’s where you go to make your dreams happen." But nostalgia aside, he still wants to be true to the city as well, showing it as he sees it, and the process never stops.

"The new thing I’m working on … every cab ride I’m looking around the city taking notes, thinking where are parts of town that I love that I haven’t shot?"

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas was released a couple of weeks ago on iTunes, Amazon, and video-on-demand on cable. Scrapping the old indie model of rolling films out over weeks or months in markets across the country has been an incredibly successful strategy for Burns over the past few years. The move began back in 2006 when, a decade into his career, he had his first real flop.

"I released a movie called The Groomsmen, and it went out with the traditional indie or specialized film rollout. The problem with that is that anything theatrical is such a money-draining enterprise, and so unless you have a massive machine behind you that can keep that marketing and publicity up, by the time your movie got to Columbus, Ohio, six weeks after the initial opening in New York and L.A., an audience in 1995 might remember the name of your movie from when they saw you on 'Conan.' An audience today, we’re competeing with so many different things. So what we discovered was that the numbers we were doing were terrible, and we then also started to hear that there were a lot of people that the movie never even got an arthouse anywhere near them, especially if they lived in the suburbs. And my audience, quite honestly, is a little bit more of a suburban audience than a cool hipster downtown audience. So I thought, well I keep hearing from people that my core audience is not seeing the movies in the theaters so there’s got to be a different way to find them."

With his next film, 2007's Purple Violets, he took a gamble and put it out exclusively on iTunes. And it worked, financially.

"We did great numbers there. Compared to Moonrise Kingdom? No, but for a small indie film we’re like All right, that worked."

Video on demand was the next step.

"With Newlyweds it was an emormous success for us, so we keep trying to improve upon the model," he said.

This time there's a limited theatrical release since this season has hardly any holiday-themed films. Burns said he misses his movies being in theaters, but that the primary goal is for them to reach his audience, to get out and be seen.

"I kind of feel the way every musician feels. You really really should be listening my album on vinyl coming through a great sound system, and everyone is listening to an MP3 coming through a tinny set of headphones. I do recognize the world has changed, and people are watching these movies in a less than ideal atmosphere. That said, the great thing is that now we only take the film out to film festivals and film societies, and when you do that, you’re not playing on a tiny screen in the basement of Angelika, you’re playing, usually, at the best house in that town."

That's often enough the best house in some town that's not New York, but this time, anyway, Burns gets to experience opening weekend in his hometown.

"Those 300 people get to see the film the way you intended. Kind of like the handful of folks who still listen to vinyl," he said.

'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' opens today in New York area and is playing at the Village East Cinema in Manhattan; a Q&A with Ed Burns follows the 7:20 p.m. show on Dec. 7 and the 2:20 p.m. show on Dec. 8. Burns will also be appearing on Dec. 8 at the Arts Center in Huntington, Dec. 9 at the Clearview Squire in Great Neck, and Dec. 9 at the Malverne Cinema 4.