Sidewalks of New York
It's a Different Language
Interview with Edward Burns
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 23 November 2001

He looks like a movie star. Eddie Burns is wearing his hair cropped short, black open-necked shirt and slacks. He looks sleek, and a couple of people stop to notice him in the Four Seasons restaurant. But he's something of a paradox, too, or at least in some conflict. Burns thinks of himself as a filmmaker who acts to finance his real job. I've met with him a few times now, to talk about films that he's made at different points in his life. In 2001, he's not so wound up as he was when he was promoting is first feature, The Brothers McMullen (1995), but rather, more self-conscious. But he's still a considerate, friendly guy. A guy you'd probably like in real life. 

I'm talking to him two days after Flight 587 fell out of the sky onto a neighborhood he says is just "five minutes" from where his Queens-based family has spent vacation time. It's hard not to talk about recent events with Burns, who is quietly, but obviously, shaken. His life has been affected variously, including the postponement of his wedding to fellow New Yorker Christy Turlington, and the opening of his new film, Sidewalks of New York. A faux-documentary about six major characters in love and out, the film is part Woody Allen, part Max Ophuls, and all Burns, in its obvious affection for the city. We begin by talking about one of the film's quirkiest aspects, its soundtrack. 

Cynthia Fuchs: What inspired you to score Sidewalks with lyric-less Cake songs?

Edward Burns: That's pretty cool, huh? I'd been a big fan of the music, because it's such a different sound, with the horns that they use, and I thought, stripped of lyrics, this would be great as a movie score. We were editing the film, and since we made it for under a million dollars, we had no money for a composer. So I took one of their albums and pulled little pieces of instrumental, cut it to a bunch of scenes, sent that to John McCray (in the band), and asked him if the idea interested them at all. He said, "Seems pretty cool." They sent us the tapes and we basically did needle drops.

CF: Was this different from scoring your other movies?

EB: On McMullen, we sort of did the same thing, we took prerecorded music and did needle drops, found a spot in the tune, and did rough fade-ins and fade-outs. The great thing about music is, you just experiment. The song you think is going to be a disaster turns out to be perfect. There's one scene in particular, when I'm at the video store with Rosario Dawson [as Maria], and we're wanting the same video and looking at each other. When we laid that piece of music against picture, the shifts in the music hit the cuts exactly. It was as if they wrote it for the scene. So that gave us the faith to try other stuff. Someone once gave me this theory that creative work has a certain cadence or tempo, and even if a piece of music wasn't written for a certain piece of film, occasionally they have the same cadence. Who knows if that's true? But it's a cool theory. 

CF: How did you come to the documentary interview structure?

EB: It came to me, basically, on the set of Saving Private Ryan. We were all young guys, hanging out, trading war stories about relationships, things that had gone wrong. I thought it would be interesting to do a film about what happens when people come together and apart, the screw-ups that can happen, rather than the romantic comedy, which examines it all coming together beautifully. I started working on that, on the set. Then, we were scheduled to shoot Ryan in sixty-six days and we wrapped in fifty-eight, because Spielberg was using handheld cameras and available light. I'm sitting in a foxhole one day thinking, "I make these low budget, independent films. If I could adopt this style, I'd cut my schedules in half and budget down to nothing. That means I maintain creative control." And because of that, I can get Stanley Tucci to work, because he's only here for two days. Dennis Farina worked one day, Heather Graham worked five days. It was a way to get a great cast even though I had no money. And pseudo-documentaries are the cheapest thing to shoot: stick somebody on a corner with a camera, and get it in one take.

CF: How was that for actors, the one-take approach?

EB: If they didn't get the line right, we'd do another take, but really, while seventy-five percent of the interviews were scripted, the rest was improvised. We interviewed everybody three different times, in different locations. I told the actors there would be one set of interviews done before the crew followed your character around with cameras, the second during that time, and the third, a couple of weeks after the crew had left your character. That way we could have different perspectives. And during those three interviews, I told them, we'll ask questions that aren't in the script, so just answer them in character. That makes it feel as authentic as possible.

We also didn't hire a production designer, and only shot on locations that already existed. The location manager found apartments that would match the characters. So we'd rent apartments from people and use their beds and their sheets and their bathrooms. And the thing that was great about that is I could work against [that idea] where, whether it's a television show like Friends or a movie like Autumn in New York, you always see apartments that nobody could afford. I make movies and I can't afford the place that you see a waitress living in. Even Katz's Deli: we couldn't afford to close that place down for a day, so they said, "Look, for the money you have, you can have six tables." So they're open for business and we're shooting. It was definitely a new way of shooting a movie for me, and I hadn't directed a movie since No Looking Back, which was the worst experience.

CF: I spoke with you when you were promoting 15 Minutes [in which Burns co-starred with Robert De Niro], and you described that as the opposite of what you wanted to direct, at that point.

EB: You know, acting in 15 Minutes was fun, but when I got off that set, I was hungry to do what I love to do. I was trying to get this other film made, On the Job, this sort of epic, Irish American movie, but we need about $30 million, and we just couldn't get the money. And so I pulled this script for Sidewalks out of the drawer and showed it to my producer. I met her January 20th, and we were shooting by February 23rd. And that day, it was sixty-two degrees in New York; the day before it had been thirty degrees. Everything just kind of fell our way. It was one of those things that doesn't happen in the movie business. And I was able to hire friends who don't have agents. Whereas, when you're working with a studio, they say, "Get the guy off That '70s Show." 

CF: What's your sense of how the movie works differently, after the 11th, than how you initially envisioned it?

EB: It's tough for me, because I'm so close to all of it, the film and the event. I live eight blocks from the World Trade Center and was there when it happened. You hear people talking around the country about New York, which was a city that a lot of people maybe didn't love to embrace. And now, you're hearing all these people who are pro-New York, even rooting for the Yankees, when before they wouldn't dream of doing that. But while other movies set in New York have been successful, like When Harry Met Sally..., this one is about real New Yorkers, in a way that those movies aren't. And people seem to have a new interest in who New Yorkers are. I'll be interested to read or hear what people think about the movie, based on the "post-eleven point of view."

CF: Sidewalks takes on class differences -- most obviously in the "bridge and tunnel" speech that Tommy makes. How is that important for you?

EB: What I wanted to do was look at as many different types of New Yorkers as I could, that I thought I knew well enough to portray accurately. So, of the six characters, five come from different boroughs, everybody is a different ethnicity, and I have the one out-of-towner, [Ashley], played by Brittany Murphy. I wanted to play with the idea that, as different as they all are, everybody's looking for the same thing. Originally, that scene where I'm talking to Heather [playing Annie], about being a "bridge and tunnel" kid, was about bragging rights, wearing where you come from as a badge of honor. Now, though, that scene feels different, as the character talks about how his dad helped build the city, how his dad was a cop. But it's too soon. Maybe a year or two from now, with more perspective, we can look back on it and see what it means.

CF: I've read somewhere that, because you do so much on your films -- writing, directing, acting -- you become an "easy target." It's a lot of responsibility, but obviously you embrace it in some way.

EB: You can't worry about what your critics are going to say. I've stopped reading them, because they can be just too painful. Woody Allen said once that he stopped reading reviews because "I'm not the idiot they say I am and I'm not the genius they say I am." For me, starting as a writer, I wanted to direct only to maintain control over what I'd written. And the acting was an extension of that too. I don't want someone else to make a decision about something I've written and that I care about. If I wrote an action script, I wouldn't feel the need to control every aspect of that. But I'm not doing those films. It's important to me that music like Cake's is used in my film. I don't really write about my life; my point of view comes through, and I'll use my background as a backdrop, the neighborhood I live in, but I rarely pull something from my experiences. Maybe I'm not brave enough, or, maybe I want my friends and family to continue talking to me.

CF: You've done a lot of work in a short time. How has your understanding of what's possible for you to do in this business has changed?

EB: There are two parts to that. In the beginning, when I started out, I had no intention of acting at all; I wanted to make one film a year, to stay in New York. But when the second film [She's the One] came out, it got beaten up a lot, people said it didn't "fulfill the promise of Brothers McMullen," or, "It's too much like Brothers McMullen. Now, I never said that I was going to top Orson Welles on my second time out. I always said, I wanted to make small films while I learned how to do this. I had never been on a movie set before. For McMullen, we had a three-man crew. And when I was given money to direct a real movie, I knew I should stay close to home, and thought, "Don't f*ck this up, because if you screw this one up, they won't let you make number three." It's different for guys coming up through the indie world, because our first films are made on credit cards and student loans, with untrained actors. You're not really learning how to make movies there, you're experimenting, and some of us get lucky. It's not like coming up in the commercial world, or the old studio system. For us, it's smart to take it easy, do what Rick Linklater is doing now. We have to learn our craft, and for me, that's not just as a director, but also as a screenwriter. It's not something you're instantly great at, at least in most cases.

So my whole plan for my career was to take it slowly, to gradually increase my budgets and my canvases. Right now, I'm a little frustrated because I'm trying to get On the Job made. I want to work with a more substantial budget. I've made five now, for a combined budget of $12 million. I'm ready to graduate to that next level.

And the other thing is that, on the third film [No Looking Back], we had such a hard time raising even $6 million, that I was advised to act in big Hollywood movies, because that way your name means more and we'll have an easier time raising the money and you'll have more creative control. That's how I started to act, and after Ryan, I think I got sidetracked. Not that I want to take any time back, but I moved out to LA and pursued it for two years, to become a movie star, and then make the movies I want to make. That didn't really happen either.

And then I had fun making Sidewalks, making a well-crafted film for such a low budget, compared to the really tough time I had on No Looking Back, with the studio suggesting changes. They weren't terrible in any way, but it was a level of collaboration that I wasn't comfortable with, for that relatively small budget. So where I've come to is this: if can keep making my movies at the $1-2-3 million levels, I'll never work with a studio again. It's not worth it. At the same time, I'm also really antsy to make the bigger budget film, and I'm ready to collaborate on that side. It doesn't make any sense to make a movie between $4 and 15 million. At fifteen, they're paying you to collaborate.

CF: What did your experience on 15 Minutes tell you about that "level of collaboration"?

EB: I know I'm not an irresponsible filmmaker. You see money on bigger budget films being spent unnecessarily. I know that would never go on on my set, because I'd rather put that money up on the screen. But at the same time, there are certain things that go along with making films at that level, the toys you get to play with. I've had one crane in all my movies. I've never had a Steadi-Cam, and no actor on any of my films has ever had his own trailer. These are things you take for granted on other films. It's fun, but at some point, you wanna see what they're doing over on the other side. You do get to work at a more leisurely pace, and get access to locations that I can't get access to. I've never had a scene with more than ten extras, other than Katz's Deli, where they weren't extras. [Laughs].

CF: How did you decide on the handheld camera and jump cuts? They seem particularly New York-ish.

EB: I wish I could take credit for the jump cuts. I can take credit for knowing to hire a documentary editor, this guy named David Greenwald. The first day, we're doing the handheld, but also shooting traditional coverage, wide shots, medium shots, but all handheld. Now, when you cut on an Avid, you cut what you shoot the next day. So David shows me the scene, and it looks great. Then he says, let me show you something else. And he basically took one of the master shots, cut that with jump cuts, so it appeared that it was one camera in the room, like a documentary crew with one or two cameras. I said, "That is cool." So we changed the style of shooting on the third day. We stopped doing traditional coverage and just shot with one or two cameras, knowing we'd use the jump cuts, and that worked seamlessly. It gives the movie a different sort of energy and rhythm, butting one line up against another, or a facial reaction up against a line. There are great, sort of unintentional, unsaid moments in the film now, because of that. And New York is so kinetic and frantic, and the jump cuts do give it that energy.

CF: That raises another question: as a writer, you create characters with what they say, often. In this movie, there's so much that was not said.

EB: I love dialogue-driven films, but when I reread my scripts, much more so recently, there's a redundancy. I seem to not give the audience enough credit at times with my earlier stuff, and so now, I try to find the moments that say it without [speaking] it, which is hard. The best thing for a screenwriter to do, is to get into an editing room, because that's the last rewrite. That's where you discover, "We don't need that scene." It's a different language, and audiences get things, so you don't really need to articulate everything for them. Being in the editing room has definitely made me a better screenwriter, because I want to avoid the costly mistakes of shooting scenes you don't need. On a seventeen-day shoot, those two scenes take up a lot of time. And on a bigger film, if you can cut five scenes, at $200,000 apiece, you've saved a million dollars. 

CF: But the system seems designed to perpetuate the overspending and the overtime.

EB: It's weird, but yes. I can't wait to get overpaid.

Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.