Ed Burns on Film, Family and the Irish

The luck of the Irish…

In this case, it is luck and skill. Edward Fitzgerald Burns has had success since his first film Brothers McMullen seventeen years ago, which was made on a budget of $25,000 (and grossed over $10 million) and filmed at the house he grew up in as a child. Today, still creating his signature films, Mr. Burns filmed his latest project at his childhood neighbor’s house – The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.

I met up with Ed Burns at City Winery on Wednesday, December 18 to chat about his family, films, the Irish and Chicago. On that evening, City Winery Founder/CEO Michael Dorf presented a discussion of wine and film with Ed Burns to a sold-out crowd. Mr. Burns chose the films and Mr. Dorf chose the wines. The movies that were presented included: She’s the One, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, Nice Guy Johnny, Newlyweds, and Sidewalks of NY.

Tell me about the Burns’ family roots?

We don’t know where the Burns are from exactly. They probably came over during potato famine sometime in the late 1840s. The earliest record we found is a census report from 1880 tracing the Burns family to Hell’s Kitchen in New York. The Fitzgerald side of the family has been traced to the County of Cork in Ireland.

Have you taken your children (Grace, age 8 and Finn, age 6) to Ireland?

We [my wife, Christy Turlington, and I] go to Dublin every other year. Grace has been there once, and our little guy Finn hasn’t made the trip yet. They are so young they still believe in Santa, not sure for how much longer. I told my children that Santa is magic, he picks up a snowball in the North Pole, boom, turns it into a bicycle.

What do you think about Notre Dame’s football team playing for the National Championship?

Growing up in New York, college football wasn’t popular, we had two professional teams. However, being an Irish American guy, I am very excited for the big game, and have been keeping an eye on Notre Dame.

What do you love about Chicago?

My movies always do very well here [in Chicago] because of the Irish connection, as well as Boston and San Francisco. Chicago is the only city other than New York that I like to get out on the streets. It feels like there’s a New York vibe here; I like a pedestrian city; I like to walk around [and] not know where I am going, bump into people on the street, and Chicago has that.

I love the restaurants. The last time I was here, I had one of the best meals that I have ever had at Girl & the Goat. Gibsons Steakhouse – I always gotta stop there and get one of those steaks.

I am a die hard New York Knicks fan. I have been to a number of Chicago Bulls games just so I can root against them.
I am aware of all the great theatre and great actors that come out of here. I plan to take advantage of that next trip

Are any of your films a reflection of your family?

The films are autobiographical in that the Fitzgeralds, McMullens and Burns all come from the same place – working class Irish and Italian families in a Catholic neighborhood. As I sat down to write those scripts, I knew a lot about the characters: where they grew up; what their relationships were like with their parents; where they went to church; where they went to school; when they started drinking; where they were drinking; and everything about their lives up until the point that we meet them. So much of my own life experience was in forming these characters and their decisions that they were going to make in these stories.

Mr. Burns talked about “Brothers McMullen” during the presentation at City Winery:

We filmed Brothers McMullen on a very low budget and I knew that I couldn’t pay for any locations, so I thought what location can I get for free and always have access to? My parents house…the house of the McMullen’s is the house that I grew up in. There is a scene in the movie where my character Finbar and his brother Patrick are in his bedroom talking and on the wall it says “Eddie #31″ (my High School basketball number). No one seemed to question that after the movie.

Which is more challenging for you – acting or directing?

I would say directing by far. There is so much more on your plate. When you are an actor on a set in someone else’s film, you are only there to focus on your scene, your lines of dialogue. You don’t have to worry about any of the other actors, when to break for lunch, or how long to get to the next location. All you are doing is answering questions all day long. However, it is all that I have known since my first student film, and I would never want to surrender all of that control. For me, I am happiest when I am making one of my smaller personal films. I am thankful that I get to act for other people; I do that periodically, but the real joy for me comes from doing my own thing.

What is more rewarding – work or being a father?

You can’t compare the two. Both have challenges. Where I love my job and what I do, if God forbid, it was taken away from me, I would survive. The joy I get from hanging with my kids, and I am a very [involved] dad: teaching them things; watching them grow; watching them learn; making them laugh; helping them when they cry – nothing compares to it. I did not anticipate nor gave much thought to how much I would love it. I knew I would do it because that is what you do. But, it has been such a welcome surprise and really by far the most important thing in my life.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a big script. [It is] very different from anything else I have done. In addition, I am shooting a new project starting in January called Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall. The story charts two 40-something, middle-aged underachievers. I am going to play a one-time novelist, freelance journalist, who wakes up at the age of 45 with a career that didn’t work out and the right girl never entered his life, wondering how did I end up here.

The character wakes up on New Year’s Day after a one night stand with an actress who just turned 40 and is in the same predicament. Her career never worked out. She has been with an older guy for 12 years, never got an engagement ring, and was traded in for a younger model. The story charts the couple over the course of a year.

I decided rather than take that script and try to shoot it in eight weeks and sell four seasons, we are going to make 12 short films over the course of the next twelve months starting in January. I will put each short film up online and hopefully engage my audience to participate not only in most immediate things but when we need a scene for February’s chapter. For example, when the couple, Abby and Andy, go on date in Connecticut, who in my audience has a restaurant in Connecticut that we can shoot at. Who makes t-shirts and has a t-shirt that our characters can wear? What about a Microbrewery so we don’t have to drink Budweiser?

We plan to embrace all of the DIY folks and artisenal folks out there. We will help one another, we promote your brand in our film and you give us stuff for free. When we have the twelve films done, we will piece them together, I will restructure some things and shoot additional scenes to turn it into a feature film. This will keep me sane while I am writing my next BIGGER project.

What is your next BIG project?

I don’t want to give too much away. My dad was a New York City cop, and the story is a family saga set against the NYPD. Too early to know what it is exactly. I am on the phone with my dad every day asking questions like, “What would happen in this situation dad?”

What is your opinion on gun control in the U.S.?

We have a major f***ing problem in this country. We have to get these semi-automatic guns off the street. There is no reason that anyone should be able to buy assault weapons. It is absurd.

What organizations do you volunteer with these day?

We come to Chicago two or three times a year. I am involved with Tribeca Flashpoint, owned by Howard Tullman. It is a great school. Last year, I spoke at their commencement. I have also spoken at film classes over the years. Great program.

I also assist my wife with her charitable organization “Every Mother Counts.” Last month we held a film screening of The Fitzgerald’ Family Christmas in New York City and raised $10,000 for the organization.

Every Mother Counts is an advocacy and mobilization campaign to increase education and support for maternal-mortality reduction globally. Every Mother Counts seeks to engage new audiences to better understand the challenges and the solutions while encouraging them to take action to imporve the lives of girls and women worldwide. For the past two years, Starbucks has collaborated with Every Mother Counts and Christy Turlington Burns to produce a CD of talented and generous artists such as Dave Matthews Band, David Bowie, Seal, Patti Smith, and Coldplay to name a few (from Volume 2).

Photo by Rita Chen


About Cindy Burns

Currently writing for TCW's 'Woman About Town' column, Cindy Burns covers Chicago's social scene, events, fashion, and interviews women and men who are making a difference in the world. With an M.A. in American History from DePaul University, Ms. Burns is an author, freelance writer, avid reader and researcher. Ms. Burns has spent over 20 years serving on charitable boards and organizations, and currently serves as a member of the Women's Board of the Joffrey Ballet and the Women's Auxiliary Board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago. She is also an Honorary Member of the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital. When Ms. Burns isn't running around Chicago covering current events, you can find her biking, on the tennis courts, or hiking in a mountainous region of her choice.