Burn-ing love for movies

Filmmaker Edward Burns, a former UAlbany student, has learned to take each movie one shot at a time

Staff writer

ALBANY -- Edward Burns, a casually charming, funny guy about to be swarmed by college girls who love his movies, further hooks his audience by telling a tale full of famous people:

It's last year, and he's sitting in a foxhole, asking advice about a scene in his new movie. His consultants: one past and one future Oscar winner, Tom Hanks and Matt Damon.

Damon voted to cut the scene in question, but Hanks thought Burns ought to leave it in "No Looking Back,'' Burns' third movie. While acting by day with his Oscar-nodded pals in a different picture, he was editing "No Looking Back'' at night.

And when Burns climbed out of the foxhole, where he had been pretending to be a World War II soldier on D-Day, he sought input from yet another Academy Award winner: Steven Spielberg, who was directing Burns, Hanks and Damon in the epic "Saving Private Ryan,'' which opens this summer.

Damon had promised that, if he won an Oscar for his movie "Good Will Hunting,'' he would thank his buddy Burns in his acceptance speech. Damon won.

"But I didn't hear any mention of me on Oscar night,'' Burns says to his audience, earlier this week at University at Albany's Page Hall, after showing the crowd "No Looking Back.'' It might be the only chance Albany audiences have to see the film. Because it has been receiving poor reviews in the large cities in which it has so far opened, it may never play commercially in smaller markets like Albany.

Wish lists

As advisers go, Spielberg and Hanks rank toward the top of most young filmmakers' wish lists. Learn from the best, borrow from the best, says Burns, who easily confesses to not knowing nearly as much as he'd like to about making movies. But when he's fretting -- when he looks at a pile of cash, cans of unexposed film and dozens of actors, and panics that he won't be able to combine them into a good movie -- he calms himself with words of wisdom from Spielberg.

"You can't make a movie any faster than one shot at a time,'' Spielberg told him during the filming "Private Ryan.'' Whether a two-person argument between Burns and Jon Bon Jovi in "No Looking Back'' or an invasion scene with thousands of extras, explosions and military vehicles in "Private Ryan,'' both are accomplished basically the same way: Prepare, rehearse, turn on the camera to capture re-created life on 35mm rectangles of celluloid as they whir behind the lens at 24 frames per second. Burns or Spielberg: same principle, different scale.

The scale of Burns' movies remains deliberately small. He started with "The Brothers McMullen,'' a movie legendarily tiny in budget ($25,000, borrowed from his father) and in crew (four).

That film, about the titular siblings, received accolades at the 1995 Sundance festival and led to two more pictures: "She's the One,'' from 1996 and the new one, "No Looking Back,'' made for $3 million and $5 million, respectively. "McMullen'' featured a cast of unknowns, but its success brought Burns access to more recognizable names: Jennifer Aniston, Cameron Diaz and John Mahoney (the father on "Frasier'') for "She's the One,'' Bon Jovi and Lauren Holly for "No Looking Back.''

Though $5 million sounds like lottery winnings to everyday folks, Hollywood studios view the sum as relatively insignificant. Leonardo DiCaprio will get paid $20 million just for appearing in his next film; Tom Cruise and others already earn that much for their acting turns. Studios don't meddle much in $5 million pictures, especially when you're Ed Burns and your executive producer is Robert Redford.

"When you've got a small budget, (the studio) leaves you alone. You get final cut, you get to pick the music, they don't tell you who to cast,'' says Burns. Besides, Burns adds, "I've still got a lot to learn.''

Learning the art

The director discussed himself and his films during a one-on-one interview Monday afternoon and, later that night, during a question-and-answer session that followed the screening of "No Looking Back.'' The showing was arranged by the New York State Writers Institute. Novelist William Kennedy, who heads the institute, knows Burns' father, and invited the 30-year-old director to show his new film in Albany.

Burns first began to learn about the art of film at UAlbany, where he spent five semesters, from January 1987 through May 1989. Before those film-appreciation classes, he says, in an oft-repeated joke, "My idea of a great movie was anything with full-frontal nudity.''

After the UAlbany stint (his first transfer was from the State University College at Oneonta to UAlbany), Burns transferred again to Hunter College in his native New York City before going on to make "Brothers McMullen.''

In the tradition of independent filmmaking, he shot the movie at night, over an eight-month period, using his mother's house for many scenes, while working as a production assistant for the television program "Entertainment Tonight'' and living in a one-room apartment in Greenwich Village.

Blue-collar drama

"No Looking Back'' fits alongside "Brothers McMullen'' and "She's the One'' in scope and theme. In all three, twentysomething men and women, from middle- and working-class neighborhoods in New York City's outer boroughs, talk endlessly while trying to make sense of their lives and of the opposite sex.

But where the earlier pictures were comedies with men at their centers, "No Looking Back'' is a somber blue-collar drama that focuses on a woman, Claudia (Lauren Holly), struggling between commitment to her considerate but dull fiance (Bon Jovi) and the potential of more excitement with her loutish ex-boyfriend (Burns himself).

The new film also differs in the artistic maturity exhibited by its director's treatment of the setting. The ailing seaside town in which the characters live, unnamed but similar to Rockaway Beach, Queens, where it was shot, becomes as much a character in "No Looking Back'' as the actors.

"When I sat down to do it, I went back and looked at the films that got me excited about wanting to be a filmmaker -- 'Five Easy Pieces,' 'The Last Picture Show,' 'Hud,' 'Tender Mercies,' 'Midnight Cowboy' -- they all had a real sense of place,'' Burns says.

Moreover, the inspirational films also featured central characters who weren't conventionally categorizable as "good'' or "bad.'' He was drawn to explore the characters' nuances, he says, the "shades of gray'' that becloud intentions, the jealousies and fickle indecisiveness of the human heart that make it hard sometimes just to get along with others, never mind make a love affair work.

Besides, Burns says, he wanted to play the troublemaker. "It's more fun to be the (expletive)heel,'' he jokes. "I gave myself all the good lines.''

What's ahead

Burns' next project, for which he has almost completed the script, will be a film set among the world of New York City cops -- his father was one for almost three decades -- with a budget between $20 million and $30 million.

Maybe. After "She's the One'' received tepid reviews and similar box-office receipts, Burns saw the budget for "No Looking Back'' drop steadily from an initial $13 million to the final figure of $5 million. And now "No Looking Back'' is getting middling to appalling reviews in the dozen cities in which it has opened.

Low-budget films have comparably small amounts of money to spend on advertising. Rather than opening a movie all over the country at once, the strategy instead is to show it in larger cities and hope for positive reviews that will help sell the picture in smaller markets. But the negative early buzz on "No Looking Back'' has slowed its wider release, and it may never get to Albany.

Sure, Burns takes it personally. "That's me up there on the screen,'' he says, "all me.'' And it is: He writes, directs, produces, acts in stories about people and situations very much like him. His movies matter so much to him that he wouldn't watch "No Looking Back'' with the UAlbany audience. "It's too painful,'' he says, if the viewers laugh at the wrong time, or don't laugh when they're meant to, or are restless during what he wanted to be a riveting scene.

But Burns learned with "McMullen'' how to handle setbacks and failures. He wrote four screenplays before that one, all of which didn't attract a sniff of interest. He says his father told him, "If you like the process, go ahead and make your own. If you love it, just keep doing it.''

And so he shot "McMullen,'' which, after many initial rejections, went on to gross about $10 million, making it proportionally the most profitable film of 1995.

Maybe "No Looking Back'' won't be looked back upon as a success, by anyone. There's always Burns' acting gigs. "Private Ryan'' will maintain his name and face visible a while longer and help him raise money for his own projects.

And Edward Burns will continue to make movies. "If you love it, just keep doing it.''

First published on Friday, April 10, 1998

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Edward Burns - No Looking Back