Filmmaker Ed Burns on His New Film ‘Nice Guy Johnny’

When you think of your classic New York filmmakers, the names Scorsese, Allen, and Lumet pop up. Think a little harder, and you might come up with Ed Burns. Ever since his first feature The Brothers McMullen wowed audiences and won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance ’95, Burns has been telling stories of urban malaise and modern relationships with budgets most Hollywood films spend on catering. A veteran at the Tribeca Film Festival, Burns is back with the premiere of Nice Guy Johnny, a likeable comedy set in the Hamptons. We caught up with Burns at the Apple Store SoHo, where they are hosting the “Meet the Filmmaker” series––sit-downs with leading writers, directors and actors, in conjunction with the festival. Here he is discussing his new film, the current state of independent cinema, and his Quentin Tarantino man-crush

What inspired you to make this movie? Two years ago I had a meeting with my agents and they talked about how my last movie, Purple Violets, didn’t get a theatrical release, and how it was time to give up the personal filmmaking career and direct a studio romantic comedy. So I went on a bunch of meetings, read a bunch of scripts, and almost did it. Then I realized couldn’t do it. To me, that would be admitting failure and giving up the dream of doing what I wanted to do since I was in film school, which was to make small, personal films. So after a long process and having said no to a much greater paycheck, I sat down and decided to write a script about how tough this experience is, to hold fast and forgo the easier money. I’ve always wanted to try and fulfill that Woody Allen or Truffaut dream, and this is a story about how hard that dream is.

Did you always know you wanted to play the role of Uncle Terry? I knew that I wanted to play with the idea of a guy who has someone in his life that appears to be giving him the wrong advice, but the challenge was that I knew somehow in the end even the dumbest guy in the room has some information for you that’s valuable. I know a couple guys like him, so I knew there was good room for some humor with how those guys view the world and relationships, so I knew that would be a lot of fun.

Of writing, directing, and acting, which do you enjoy most? I love writing more than anything I do. It’s the only part of the process that isn’t collaborative, and it’s the only part of the process where you don’t need someone else’s money to get it done. As far as doing all three, when I did my first film, I never thought it would be a real movie and that it would just be an experiment that got me an agent. So I can’t speak to whether or not it’s difficult. It’s more just what I do.

How do you think this film compares to your earlier work? This is certainly my most personal work since The Brother’s McMullen. There’s an honesty, a warmness, and freshness that I don’t think I’ve had since then. With this film, I just wanted to get back to writing conversational humor. In that respect it’s my best success.

How do you think the independent film world is different from when you released The Brothers McMullen? There’s a lot of great opportunities for indie filmmakers now that didn’t exist then that have to do with the technology that’s available for us to shoot film. When I started we were filming on re-canned film stock. I even re-enrolled in Hunter College for one class just to get the student discount. The immediate disadvantage is that distribution has gone out of business in the last couple of years. But there’s a lot happening with these new digital platforms and we’re all trying to figure out how we can monetize it enough so that we can keep making these films.

How do you feel about films that have simultaneous release On Demand and theatrically? Filmmakers need to fall out of love with the traditional theatrical release, that’s disappearing. Maybe there’s an evolution that now you take a film through the festival circuit and you have to think that that’s where your film is going to be seen in a theatre.

Is something lost when you’re not watching a movie in the cinema? Certainly, but there are those people that when we went from the LP to the CD said something was lost. It’s like whether you read a book in hard cover or on a kindle. I think a good story can find it’s way into your soul in a number of different ways.

Explain your love affair with New York? In film school I fell in love with Woody Allen and Spike Lee, and I love Scorsese. Their specific slices of the New York experience is why they are some of my favorite filmmakers. I always wanted to carve out my slice of the New York experience.

What people in your varied career have you worked with that have shaped you creatively? I think my biggest influence was working with Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan. I think the biggest lesson I learned from him was that he hires actors where he knows what he’s going to get from them and then he gives them the opportunity to find it. For me that changed the way I worked with actors.

Plans for the future? I tried for the last couple of the years to get bigger films off the ground, and the level of interference and operation that’s required, I don’t think it’s for me. I have fallen back in love with the process, with the small story. I think I’m just more comfortable there.

Is there anyone you would love to work with in the future? I’m a huge Tarantino fan. I don’t think we could be more different, but if there’s one filmmaker that anytime I see one of his films I’m jealous not only of the filmmaking talen,t but of the writing talent, it’s him. It’s like, “Oh man, I want to speak those words.”

As someone who has lived in New York their whole life, what are some of your favorite places to eat or drink here? We just ate at Pulino’s today, fantastic. There’s another great place called The Smile, over on Bond Street that we love. There’s a bar in Tribeca called Puffy’s Tavern that’s one of the last drinker’s bar in Tribeca.

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