Getting His Irish Up
Usually after such a sweet reverie, the wannabe filmmaker wakes up to reality—and another day of Mcjob purgatory. But this dream was reality for Ed Burns when his first feature film, The Brothers McMullen, a tale of three Irish-Catholic brothers, won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in Park City, Utah, last January. When the award was announced, Burns heard the delighted screams of his mother, Molly, and his girlfriend Maxine Bahns, 24. "Then," he says, "I sort of blacked out. It was wild."
Bought by Twentieth Century Fox, The Brothers McMullen has already earned $1 million after a week of national release in theaters. More important, the film won Burns a $3 million budget from Fox for his next movie. If Burns was caught off guard by the success of The Brothers McMullen—whose witty dialogue has drawn favorable comparisons to the work of Woody Allen—others weren't surprised. "It's not necessarily a movie that sweeps you off your feet," says Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance's head of programming, "but it stays with you."
The movie's low-key mode is a reflection of Burns himself, who grew up on Long Island in Valley Stream, N.Y., listening to Springsteen and playing basketball. "I was totally convinced I was going to play in the NBA," says Burns, who still shoots hoops for two teams in his Greenwich Village neighborhood.
But in the sixth grade, he won first prize in a Catholic Daughters of the Americas poetry contest. At first the award "was the family joke," says his father, Edward J. Burns, 57, a retired New York City police sergeant who now runs his own public relations firm. "I'm not saying he wasn't smart, but Eddie was primarily a jock."
Encouraged by his father and other family members, Burns kept writing. His ear for dialogue, he says, was honed at the family dinner table. Sparring verbally with his sister Mary, now 32 and a mother of two, and brother Brian, now 26 and a TV producer, he says, "you had to be prepared to take your lumps and give them." His mother, a manager for the Federal Aviation Administration, taught him to love quality films. "As a kid I wanted to see Porky's," Burns recalls, "and she took me to see Annie Hall."
But even after he left Hunter College, where he studied film, in 1991, the closest Burns could get to the movie business was driving a van for E.T. In that time, seven of his screenplays were rejected by producers and agents. So in the spring of 1993, Burns decided to make his own movie. Coaxing friends and coworkers into volunteering time (Bahns costars), he shot The Brothers McMullen in eight months, using his parents' home as the main set. "By month six," Burns says, "they were getting a little sick of us."
After all that, four film festivals turned down the movie. Finally Sundance offered a slot. Even then, Burns had to skip a rent payment on the apartment he shared with Bahns in order to ante up the festival's $125 entry fee. (He ended up borrowing rent money from his father.)
Burns says he intends to keep exploring the social milieu he has tapped in Brothers. "We've never really seen the Irish-American experience," he says. "I want to see people like my friends in films. Maybe I won't make the big bucks, but it'll make me happy."
For now, he and Bahns are very happy—and enjoying a relative boost in bucks. They hope to marry and have children in a couple of years. But at the moment, work is the only item on his agenda. "I've been waiting a long time for this day to come," says Burns. As for Bahns, the onetime classics major at New York University has deferred plans to take a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne in order to act. "I'm a bookworm, very quiet," she says. "But acting lets me come out of my little cave."
The couple have been indulging just a bit, buying a CD player and a computer and renting a larger apartment. "We moved into a doorman building," Burns says. "That's about as Hollywood as we get."
NANCY MATSUMOTO in New York City