"Super-serve your niche."
Those were the magic words that reeled Ed Burns back to his Irish-American roots with his latest indie film, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas." Wearing all three hats as writer, director and actor, Burns presents a holiday story of a divided dysfunctional family. In other words, a story all his viewers can relate to in some way, shape or form.
The story follows Gerry (Burns), who's caught in the middle of his family's drama when his dad (Ed Lauder) begs him to convince his siblings and mom to invite him to Christmas dinner. Unfortunately for his dad, Gerry's mom vowed years ago to never let him step foot into her house. Some of his siblings aren't too stoked about sharing the joys of the holiday with the father that walked out on them either.
Burns' frequent ensemble cast members — including Connie Britton, Micheal McGlone, Heather Burns and Kerry Bishé — have reunited for the movie which first debuted at this year's Toronto Film Festival. We spoke to Burns about the wise advice he got from Tyler Perry, what it's like having the freedom to casts friends, and the much-anticipated Brothers McMullen 20 year anniversary.
I heard that a conversation you had with Tyler Perry on the set of "Alex Cross" inspired you to return to your Irish-Catholic family theme. Although this film is very reminiscent of your previous work, it still offers something different. How did you make it still feel fresh?
Tyler and I were talking and he just re-watched my first film. And he said, "Look, those first two movies were so successful. In 15 years, why have you never gone back there? Look at what I've done… super-serve your niche. Your audience loved those movies. I guarantee you they would love another story like that from you." And the minute he said it, I knew he was right and I started to write.
While it's reminiscent, I think the reason why this one is different is because it's 15 years later and you're writing from a very different perspective. Writing "McMullen," I'm a 24-year-old kid and the world is brand new. Now, at 44, you're coming at the world from a very different place. And also I think, given this movie is about families, it's also about parenting gone wrong. I think as you get older, you certainly have a different perspective on your parents. But, as a dad, you also know that a mistake carries great weight. In this case abandonment, what that would do to each one of these siblings. The idea that early on in the film you see that these kids are so selfish… well guess where they learned that dad? From you. And he's going to have to try to deal with that by the end of the film.
When you went home to Long Island to shoot the movie, did you have a chance to catch up with any old friends or revisit any of your old stomping grounds?
We shot six houses down from the house that I grew up in. So certainly when we were shooting there, running into people on the block, the folks whose house it is are old friends of my family's. But you know it's funny, unfortunately when you're making a movie, there's very little time to stop and b.s. with people. So I got to say hello to some people but I didn't get to hang out.
Gerry is like the Golden Child, peacemaker and voice of reason in the family. Do you actually play that role in your family? Who is the glue that keeps everyone together?
There's only three of us and we are pretty tight. We didn't need that glue character. But Gerry, I would say I modeled him after two guys that I know. One who had to become sort of the patriarch of his family and now kind of resents it. He had to almost surrender some of his dreams in order to take care of his family business. And then another guy who is very good at being the glue in his clan. And everyone goes to him to take care of their s**t.
I've heard that the home video of the wedding that's in the movie is of your parents. What made you want to include that in the movie?
So we're making the film and someone points out on set that Anita and Ed Lauder have a little resemblance to my parents. So I thought, oh I wonder if I should pull out an old wedding photograph. And then I was like wait, a couple of years ago, I did their wedding video. I found their old footage and I cut it and put it on DVD for them. So I was like I'm going to write that into the script and it worked out great.
What is it about Connie Britton, McGlone, Burns, and all your other recurring cast members that make you want to keep bringing them back to your projects?
A couple of things... One, it's always more fun to work with your friends. And if you have the ability to cast your friends in your movie, why the hell wouldn't you, right? The second thing is they'd become friends because we had good working experiences together and I think they kind of get my voice and what I'm trying to do. And I also love what they do with my writing. I like to make my actors kind of improvise and play with my dialogue. So when I find actors that are good at that and I like what they do with it and feel comfortable with them, I like to bring them in. Everybody in this cast, with the exception of the dad and the youngest brother, I worked with before. What that gave us was people actually felt like they knew one another. They actually felt like siblings. So that was just an added bonus. Especially when you're making a smaller film and have a tighter schedule, you don’t have a long rehearsal period where people can hang out and live in the same house together and get to know one another. Definitely helped out.
What's your all-time favorite Christmas movie?
"It's A Wonderful Life" probably by far. When I was writing the script, I had the moment where I was like, "Okay, what am I going to do with this movie? Am I going to do light and funny, romantic and charming, or am I going to go dramatic and have the big emotional ending? Voila! 'It's a Wonderful Life.'" Given that's my favorite Christmas one, I figured let me go for the rocky ground.
Is a sequel to "The Brothers McMullen" still in the works?
Still in the works, working on the script kind of on and off. I want to have the film ready for the 20th anniversary. I want to pick these characters up 20 years later — so that's 2015, which means we'll shoot in 2014, which means I still have about a year to finish the script.