Die-hard New Yorker Edward Burns first captured cinematic attention in the most poignant “The Brothers McMullen,” a story about the struggles of three Irish Catholic siblings, which he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in. The film won the Grand Jury prize at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival as well as the Best First Feature award at the 1996 Independent Spirit Awards. His breakout-acting role was in “Saving Private Ryan” elevating his status to a bankable “movie star.” Since then he has continued making his small, and always critically acclaimed, independent films as well as working as an actor in such films as “15 Minutes,” “Newlyweds,” “27 Dresses,” “Friends With Kids,” and the soon to be released “I, Alex Cross.”
Burns recently sat down with a select group of journalists to discuss, among other topics, his latest film, “Man On A Ledge,” a fun popcorn adventure caper about a man threatening to jump off a building ledge 227 feet up in the air. The film is loaded with interesting twists and surprising turns. He co-stars with Sam Worthington, Ed Harris, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Anthony Mackie, Titus Welliver, Genesis Rodriguez, and Kyra Sedgwick.
The following has been edited for continuity and print purposes.
Being as multi-talented as you are, when you are hired as an actor, do you ever see things directorially that the director might be missing and do you act on it?
Burns: Never. The first movie that I acted in that wasn’t my own was “Saving Private Ryan.” I knew when I showed up on that set that I wasn’t going to be offering any suggestions to (Steven) Spielberg as to where to put the camera (laughter). I went on that set thinking this could be graduate film school for me and I’m going to watch how the great master does it.
What specifically did you learn from working with Spielberg?
Burns: I learned a lot about working with actors and communicating with the crew, and executing different types of scenes I’d never done. For example, we we were doing two or three takes and then moving on. We’re thinking that he hates us and we’re all going to get fired. Then we have this scene where we have a fourth take and he’s giving us very specific direction and after 12 takes, we finally move on. At lunch we asked him what happened and why all the direction. He said that, ‘Today you didn’t know what the hell you were doing.’ He explained that he cast us because we were very specific types and he knew what we could do and wanted us to that in the film. He said, ‘You’ve got a lot of scenes with five guys talking to each other and I’m going to give you three takes to figure it out. You obviously made your choices and came prepared, but I don’t expect you to nail it on the first take. I’m going to give you room to get warmed up. In the first take you might hit 50 percent of what you planned on doing, but maybe missed a couple of moments. I figure by the third take I’ve given you enough room to know whether or not you’re going to find it on your own.’ Most times I guess we did.
How did that experience impact on your own directing style?
Burns: Prior to that experience, I was the kind of director who thought directing meant that after every take I sit down with the actors and give them some direction. The first film I made after “Ryan” was “Sidewalks of New York.” I look at the wonderful performances I got in that film, not to take anything away from the actors in my first three films, but I really gave almost no direction in that film. It was more gentle pushes and nudges sometimes to speed it up. That was the start of collaborating with my actors in a different way – encouraging a bit more and improvising. I bring them in early and encourage them to help me flesh out the characters. Actors are only concerned about the character they’re playing, whereas the writer/director has to worry about the entire piece. A good actor is going to show up and know his character much more intimately than the filmmaker, and even the writer, so I want to tap into the work they’ve done in order to help me better understand the character, and also flesh it out in a different way by adding some nuances that I didn’t think of.
What did you pick up from Tom Hanks?
Burns: We’ve all worked with jerks on sets, but I credit Tom with learning how to conduct yourself as an actor. He’s one of the biggest movie stars of all time and the guy shows up early every day, knows his lines, never argues with the director, knows everybody’s name, is polite and giving to everyone, and does his off-camera work with the same energy as when he’s on camera. We were all a bunch of young kids and nobody had been in a big movie before so we were constantly picking Tom’s brain about the ‘biz’ and his preparation in developing a character. The great thing about Tom is, while he takes the work very seriously, he doesn’t take himself seriously.
Your character of Detective Jack Dougherty in “Man On A Ledge” tries to talk Sam Worthington’s character of Nick Cassidy off the ledge. Do you think you could actually do that in real life?
Burns: Probably not. I doubt that I have that skill set. I have a couple of little kids so I’m negotiating all day long – eat your broccoli if you want to watch “The Adventures of Tin Tin” (laughter).
You drive a hard bargain (laughter). Does your wonderful New York accent ever get in the way?
Burns: The thing that I was most happy about in this film was that it was shot in New York and I didn’t have to deal with my accent. Sometimes I get, ‘We have to do another take because that New York s–t came out’ (laughter).
Your dad was a New York Police sergeant. Did you use him in any way in developing your character?
Burns: Not necessarily. He was a cop. His brother was a cop. I’ve got five first cousins who are cops – three of my childhood buddies became cops so I grew up immersed in cop culture and know how to walk the walk and talk the talk enough to fake it in a movie. There were a couple of guys I knew that you could say that while I didn’t exactly base my character on them, I did tap into that type of jerky personality where he’s pissed off at the world when he gets demoted and has to play subordinate to Elizabeth’s (Banks) character of Lydia Mercer. He’s breaking her chops the whole time and belittling every choice she makes, mocking every mistake. That’s always fun to do. It’s kind of like the character in “Saving Private Ryan” who was a similar kind of jerky guy and I think I excel at that (laughter).
Does your family ever make fun of you because you didn’t become a cop?
Burns: No. Even though my dad was a cop, when I expressed interest as a young guy in being a writer, he became my biggest supporter. If I ever complained early on about the business, he’d tell me to take the cop test, but now it’s too late to take the cop test (laughter).
You studied literature and filmmaking. Did you ever take formal acting classes?
Burns: No. In film school you start making your 16mm black and white silent films and I didn’t know any actors, so I put me and my friends in the film. As I started to make what we call sync-sound movies, that actually had dialogue, I would give myself a couple of lines. That’s how I started acting and like anybody else, I got the bug. I guess my training was making all those student films and then making “The Brothers McMullen.”
How did your career change after “The Brothers McMullen?”
Burns: After that film came out, I got a ton of acting offers to be in real Hollywood movies, but I knew what a fraud I was as an actor, quite honestly, because we shot that film in only 12 days and I acted in six or seven of those days. I was in the editing room and knew how bad I could be (laughter). Basically, I didn’t give much thought to the acting because I was writing a version of myself. So I decided to get a few more films under my belt. I can’t say that I took any formal training, but I studied acting and worked at it and tried to get better. Finally after three films, I felt confident enough in my ability to put myself out there and then I got “Saving Private Ryan.”
Is it easier to be an actor or a director and how does it impact on your role as a husband and father?
Burns: It’s easier to be a director when you make the kinds of films I make. I make these small movies in New York. I control our schedule and the number of hours we work each day and it ensures that I am there to either drop the kids off at school or be home by bedtime. I’m really lucky. I’m one of the few guys who have been able to stay in New York and one of the few independent filmmakers who has managed to stay independent in making my movies. One of the reasons is that I got lucky in that I fell into this acting career and quite honestly you get paid a lot more money acting in “Man On A Ledge” or “I, Alex Cross” than you do making independent films. That blessing has afforded me a certain level of financial freedom that has allowed me a level of creative freedom.
Which New York story has not been told and would you like to fill in that gap?
Burns: I have a script called “On The Job” and I’ve been trying to get it made for 15 years. It is a multi-generational Irish-American NYPD family saga ala “The Godfather.” It takes place from 1966 to 1974. We almost got it made years ago. We had the money and then lost the guy. I have one more film to do and that will be next up.
That’s a big project.
Burns: I need a hit (laughter). If “I, Alex Cross” is a hit, I can assure you that film will get made.
Do you live a normal life in New York?
Burns: Yes. My wife and I don’t ever get hassled. We live near The Greenwich Hotel where a lot of celebrities stay, so if Tom Cruise is staying there, and we happen to walk down the street, they’ll take a picture of us, but otherwise on no occasion do we get hassled.
Is it easier on your family life living away from Hollywood?
Burns: I don’t know really. We never gave that any thought. We’re both New Yorkers. She’s transplanted, but I’m born and bred and we both love the city. Part of the reason we were set up originally was the fact that we’re both New Yorkers who didn’t want to leave and wanted to raise our kids in the city. I love it so there’s no reason to ever leave. It gives me everything I need.