ABOVE: ED BURNS (LEFT) WITH CONNIE BRITTON IN THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS.
In an Edward Burns film, familial tensions tend to fester in the background, waiting for just the right moment to boil over. In his newest film, The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, it’s the holidays that turn out to be the pressure cooker that brings the family dynamics above a simmer. The film follows the many relationships of the sprawling Irish-American Fitzgerald family as they deal with death, infidelity, alcoholism, and Christmas dinner.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas signals a return of sorts to Burns’ early movies, like The Brothers McMullen or She’s the One, as it explores the odd bonds and chaotic inner workings of family relationships. To shoot the film, Burns called in a few favors from his own family and returned to his home turf of Long Island to find the perfect Fitzgerald family home.
“It was really fun to put myself back in the kitchens and living rooms of my childhood,” Burns says. “When we were scouting locations, I called up my mom and asked her, ‘Who do you think in our old neighborhood would let me shoot in their house?”‘
The film features some of Burns’ favorite collaborators, including Connie Britton and Michael McGlone. While Burns has a virtual stable of actors he often works with, he says he did not write characters with specific people in mind; instead he preferred to let the story come first. “I will say this, sometimes you’re writing with actors in mind, but you’re not necessarily writing the part for them,” Burns says. “I’m waiting for the script to tell me which part.”
Burns was inspired to make the film after talking to his Alex Cross co-star Tyler Perry, who encouraged him to return to his roots as a filmmaker. When he was in the middle of writing the script, his mother mentioned a tenement building on 34th Street where his family had once lived. Burns ended up appropriating the story as Fitzgerald family lore.
“The nostalgic part of me likes to look back at where I came from,” Burns says. “The fun thing about being a filmmaker for me is about recreating moments that you either yourself participated in, or your friends have.”
While Burns’ films tend to rely on a kind of meat-and-potatoes linear storytelling, he has become an innovative filmmaker at the forefront of the micro-budget movement. By shooting digitally and using the Video-on-Demand forum to get his films into the homes of those that don’t live near art-house cinemas, Burns has been able to make and release a film nearly every year over the last decade. Some of his films have been made on budgets as tiny as $10,000.
“Everyone is free to comment, collaborate, offer suggestions,” Burns says of shooting digitally with a handheld camera. “You just move more quickly; it’s fluid, and I’ve really fallen in love with this way of working.”
Burns also points out that in addition to fostering a looser atmosphere on set, by shooting with smaller handheld cameras he’s able to quickly rework the story to accommodate ever changing variables like a rained-out or noisy location. His early success as an independent filmmaker and his micro-budget filmmaking have made him a kind of patron saint for aspiring filmmakers with little more than an idea and a Canon 5D camera. On Twitter, Burns regularly promotes Kickstarter film projects and other digital shorts sent to him by fans.
“The singer and songwriter, those guys can practice, practice, practice and paint and fail and paint and fail at really no cost,” Burns said “That was never anything that was available to us—but now it is.”
Burns says the key fact that new filmmakers should remember is that for the first time in history, technology has nearly leveled playing field between professionals and amateurs, at least in terms of equipment.
“There’s no reason why you can’t just keep at it,” says Burns. “[But] your wife may leave you because you’re spending all of your savings on your little indie film.”
As Burns continues to push forward the boundaries for digital filmmaking, he is embarking on an ambitious yearlong filmmaking experiment titled Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall. Every month, Burns plans on shooting a 10-minute short film that follows the relationship of one young couple through a single year. Burns also plans on engaging potential audience members via Twitter. Fans will be able to suggest restaurants for the couple to eat at or audition for bit parts by sending in videos. With box office attendance down and Video-on-Demand and iTunes rising as alternate venues for movie releases, Burns says movies may start to look very different in the years to come.
“The younger audience really doesn’t give a shit as long as they’re entertained,” Burns said. “Our habits are changing. Where they go? If I was able to predict that, I wouldn’t make micro-budget films.”
THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TOMORROW, DECEMBER 7.