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Tribeca Film Festival Wraps Up As Director/Writer Ed Burns Talks About His Career

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The Tribeca Film Festival has upped the proverbial ante for other film festivals by adding in two new presentations for those not able to head to New York City to attend this noted film festival, headed in part by Robert De Niro.

Not only did TFF have the traditional red carpet premieres and parties, but they also launched TFF Virtual, which was the virtual online version of being part of the TFF as it happened, live online for red carpet arrivals, film screenings, and also roundtable interviews with an array of directors, writers, and actors. Sponsored by American Express, it offered those outside the venue the opportunity to be part of the action.

Pushing the proverbial film envelope even further, American Express and TFF decided to offer the TFF On Demand. A select group of films, plus red carpet segments along with filmmaker interviews, are offered to the public and are expected to reach more than 40 million households through partnerships with leading cable, satellite, and telecom providers including Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon FiOS, and Amazon on-demand. The titles will be available on a Tribeca-branded menu for a minimum of 60 days. What's interesting is that you can see select short "featurettes" free on Amazon which allows you some insight into the TFF as well as into the films. I love the entire concept that has been worked out; it really "rocks the house" in a brand new way.

The films available On-Demand include the following (as well as some freebie trailers that will certainly give you the flavor — if not the entirety — of various movies):

  • Climate of Change
  • Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
  • The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle
  • TiM
  • The Wild Wonderful Whites of West Virginia
  • Metropia
  • My Last Five Girlfriends
  • Road, Movie
  • The Swimsuit Issue
  • The Trotsky
  • Kobe Doin' Work
  • Muhammed and Larry
  • The Birth of Big Air
  • Through the Fire
  • The Infidel
  • Hellfighters

I was invited to participate in a roundtable interview with director, actor, and writer Ed Burns whose movie Nice Guy Johnny which premiered at the TFF. Here is an excerpt from the transcript and the podcast of the entire interview; however I missed the first three questions put to Mr. Burns so it picks up with him in the midst of answering a question.

Excerpts From the Phone Q&A

Moderator: Welcome to the Tribeca Film Festival conference call with Edward Burns. Today we’re going to be talking about Ed’s new movie Nice Guy Johnny, as well as the Tribeca Film Festival's versatile program.

Jamie Steinberg: What inspired you to write Nice Guy Johnny?

Burns: A couple of things, but primarily I would say about a year and a half ago I had a meeting with my new agent, and I would say every couple of years I had a meeting that was similar to this where my team would encourage me to stop making small, personal films and put myself up for what they call open directing assignments at the studios.

Given, I guess, what I do they thought I could very easily land a studio romantic comedy directing job. I never had any interest in that, not that I think they’re bad films necessarily, but I only aspired to be a writer/director. My heroes were Cassavetes and Woody Allen and Truffaut, and that’s all that I ever wanted to do.

However, two years ago with a couple of kids and a couple of mortgages I thought maybe it might be a smart financial move to at least entertain the thought.

J. Steinberg: Time to change your mind.

Burns: Yes, so I read a bunch of the scripts; I took a bunch of the meetings. I have to admit it was a very tough decision because there is potentially a lot more money to make doing that than doing what I do. At the end of the day that’s not why I got into the business. I had to sort of stick with what my original purpose was and what my original dream was.

I left that final meeting after passing on this particular project. Me and my producing partner were talking about it and what are we going to do now? We said, “You know what, let’s write a script about what we just went through. Let’s think about what kind of character is faced with that kind of decision when you have to stick with your dream when everyone is telling you, whether it’s your parents or your friends. Or, do you take the more fiscally responsible job with benefits? Most of my friends are in the arts and all of them wrestle with this very thing, especially as we get older and are starting families.

That’s kind of how Nice Guy Johnny came about. He’s a 24-year-old sports talk radio host who dreams of one day getting a big broadcasting job. He’s not making any money; he’s about to get married and his fiancée has suggested he come home to New York to take a job that will triple his salary and give him benefits. It’s the story of how this kid makes that decision.

Steinberg: You wear many different hats in this film — you’re an actor, a director; you’re a writer. How did you manage to balance all those different aspects?

Burns: You know when I made my first films 15 years ago I was barely out of film school, no money, and trying to make a movie for $25,000, so I knew that it was my script, obviously I was going to direct it. I did not know any film producers and couldn’t have afforded one anyhow, so I had to produce it on my own. Then the acting was just a case of, when you’re not paying actors it’s very hard to get them – it’s very hard to get a guarantee that they’ll actually show up. I had done some acting in my student films so I put myself in the first film and have just kind of kept with it now, nine films later.

Rosa Cordero: I wondered if any of the characters were based on real people.

Burns: Maybe my character is loosely based on a couple of guys that I grew up with and even know today. Uncle Terry is an aging womanizer who is hell bent against his nephew getting married, especially at the tender age of 24.

I definitely still know guys who are deep into their 40s who are holding on to bachelorhood with everything they’ve got. I didn’t want to judge it at all, but we kind of took a look at sort of the funny side of it and then maybe a little bit of the pathetic side of it.

R. Cordero: I actually know some people like that also. I was wondering how you feel. You must be excited about the film festival going virtual so more people will be able to see your film.

Burns: You know, for me, I have always tried to embrace how indie films, or how indie cinema is going to make use of the Internet. We saw, maybe like in ’06, indie films sort of stopped finding the same sized audience for the ten years prior to that. You saw a lot of companies like Paramount Vantage closed, Warner Brother Independent closed; Miramax just recently went under. We knew that the audience still liked the films, they just weren’t going to see them theatrically.

A couple of years ago I tried it with this film Purple Violets. We released it onto iTunes and we got a great response from the people that like my movies.

I tried a Web series last year as a way — again, to how do we find the people that like this? How do we get this material or these stories to them in a different way? When Tribeca brought this up we immediately said, “Absolutely.”

As a kid who got his start at a film festival and now is someone who loves film festivals, it’s great that now a kid in Kansas City can attend the Tribeca Film Festival, at least in some fashion, and see those movies that he might be reading about on sites like yours or other film sites.

Patty Grippo: The first thing I wanted to know, since your film is being featured in the Tribeca Festival, both the virtual and being screened as part of it, it seemed only fitting that the city of New York play a role in your film as this one it does. What was the best and worst part of filming there?

Burns: You know, I think I’ve shot — yes, I guess I have — every film I’ve made I’ve shot at least a handful of scenes in New York. There really isn’t a bad side to shooting in the city. You have just great crews available to you. I’ve always said the best co-star any actor can have is New York City. There is nothing but great locations. Every street has another story to tell. For me, the number one thing that you get in New York City is this enormously deep pool of actors.

With this film, given that the story revolves around a bunch of kids in their early 20s, we wanted to find those New York actors that were just on the cusp of breaking out. I told my casting director, “Who are the kids that keep coming in and keep losing out on that great part because they’re not a name yet?” Then we kind of set that as our goal, like let’s find those kids that are going to be household names one day, they just don’t have the body of work yet to get the big part. That’s who we found.

The two leads, Kerry Bishé and Matt Bush, are incredible and Kerry … maybe she had done one small film before. This other young woman, Anna Wood, was another great find who I don’t think had ever been in front of a camera before. For me that’s what New York gives you which is why I stay here.

P. Grippo: Of the things that you’ve done, the acting, the screenwriting, the directing — if you could only concentrate on one for the rest of your career, if you had no choice about this, which one would you choose and why?

Burns:
Hands down, it wouldn’t even need to make a decision, it would be writing. I started as a writer; it’s what I love; it’s what I do every day, so that’s a no-brainer.

Troy Rogers: Now, since Nice Guy Johnny is about people pursuing their dreams at a cost, what did it cost you to get into acting in the first place?

Burns: You know, acting—I guess it forces you to thicken your skin. Definitely while it can be great for your ego, there are certainly a handful of films I have and the reviews that have followed that are pretty bruising to your ego. There is that. But as far as like what it cost me? I don’t know that it has. I was very lucky when I made my first film; I was 26 years old and it got picked up for distribution. Fifteen years later I’m still making my little personal films so I’m, I think, one of the lucky ones.
I know a lot of indie filmmakers out there – it’s kind of like bands, you know, you struggle and you fight and you get that first film made and you get some attention with it. Then you make the next one and then that’s it. To still be doing it after 15 years I’m definitely a lucky guy.

T. Rogers: Now with Nice Guy Johnny kicking off the Tribeca Film Festival Virtual, what do you think of these new distribution methods, including iTunes, as a way to reach more people?

Burns: I love them. I think anyone who is still interested in making small films has to fall out of love with theatrical distribution. When I was in my 20s, me and my friends, and if you were into indie film, you went down to the art house theater or the specialized movie theater and you made sure that you saw that film its opening week.

Today I think it’s a little different and you can watch a film on your phone, on your computer, now you can even get them on YouTube, so I don’t think the theatrical component is as important as it used to be. If you allow yourself to fall out of love with that I think you can reach the people that will love your film.

I mean, I think the tricky thing that everybody is trying to figure out now is how do we monetize that? I think if you keep your budgets really low, I think we’re going to find a place where you can make low-budget personal films and at least break even or make enough that you can go make the next one. I think that’s where we’re going to be in a couple of years.

Ed Burns had a great deal more to say. You can listen to the podcast for the entire interview:

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