Shot in his old neighborhood and featuring a cast made up of actors from Burns' past projects, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" also sees the Long Island native returning to territory that first launched his career some 17 years ago in "The Brothers McMullen": the Irish-American working class family. But it may never have happened if it weren't for some words of advice Burns received from Tyler Perry.
A passionate supporter of independent filmmaking, Burns debuted his new film during this year's Toronto International Film Festival, where he was also part of a panel on the future of digital distribution. Moviefone sat down with Burns at the AMC Storys lounge to talk about returning to his roots, how the indie film landscape has changed since he first started out, and why we have Tyler Perry to thank for his new movie.
What made you decide to do a Christmas movie? My idea wasn't to make a Christmas movie, originally. What I wanted to do was go back to the world of my first couple of movies, and also do a film about a big Irish family. I have a bunch of friends who are [from big families], I have a friend who's one of nine, another one's one of 12. So if I'm going to tell a story about seven adult siblings, how do I get them all together? The good thing that happens with Christmas is people do a lot of different things around it. Like the [Michael] McGlone character is gonna propose, everybody comes home for the holidays, it's a time where that thing that's been swept under the rug during the course of the year, [becomes] "All right, you know what, I think I gotta talk to Dad about it when we're home for the holidays." It was a good event to have a lot of things come to a head.
Are you from a big family yourself? No, just one of three. But I grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of big families. You would constantly hear great stories about what it was like. I grew up in the neighborhood where we shot the film. There were these tiny houses, and kids sitting around a tiny kitchen table. I just thought that was a pretty rich world to play with.
What made you want to return to that world after all these years? I acted last summer in this movie with Tyler Perry ["Alex Cross"], and he had just watched "The Brothers McMullen." And afterwards we were having lunch and he goes, "You know, your first two movies, you did a great job with that Irish-American working class world, why haven't you ever made another movie about those people?" And I didn't have an answer. He said, "Look, take it from me, you've got to super-serve your niche. I guarantee that those folks that really love those first two movies, you come at them with another Irish family film, they're gonna love it."
And the minute he said it, I knew that he was right. I wasn't writing something at the time, and had kind of been looking for something. So I opened up my computer, I wrote "Interior, The Fitzgerald's Kitchen - Day," started writing, and 6 weeks later, I was like, "There's something here. This should be my next film."
Was it difficult for you to get back into that world at all? Just the opposite, I have to admit. A lot of times in scripts, you spend a lot of time worrying or wondering, "What am I gonna do with this character? I'm not quite sure of what his reaction might be at this crossroads, or how would she react if that happened to her." I think with these characters, since I grew up in their world, and I also hadn't written about it for 15 years, I had a backlog of situations, stories, lines of dialogue that I wanted to get out. And the minute I started writing, listen, it was the easiest script that I've ever written. It really just poured out of me.
What was shooting in your old neighborhood like? That must've made this feel even more natural. There's no way a production designer could have given us the look that we got in all of these homes. The main thing is, it's a slice-of-life movie, so you want them to feel real. And there's a wear-and-tear and a lived-in feel and a history to all those homes that we were shooting in. And I think that comes across in the film. The actors would step into these locations and immediately have a better sense of the character that they were going to play.
And then, all of the locations that we used were for the most part people that we knew. A lot of times when you shoot on location, the person that owns the house or the apartment, you don't meet them. But these people hung out, and stayed for the couple of days we were shooting, so the actors would then get to meet the woman that owned the house. And in one of the houses, she had raised 10 kids. So they asked her, "Well, how on Earth did you [do that], where did they all sleep? What was breakfast like? What was dinner like?" So that definitely informed their performances.
Was it easy to bring the cast together? There are a lot of familiar faces in here. I'm lucky, I have a great group of friends now, [and] after making 10 movies in 17 years, they know two things about me: I'm not going to be able to pay them, but I'm very collaborative. I love actors, I want their input, I want them to improvise, I want them to take ownership of their parts. I think, you know, you're doing a horror movie, you're doing a romantic comedy, you're doing an action film, the director doesn't want to talk to you about any of that bullshit. You hit the mark, say the line, I've got to worry about my explosion. So, I think that's why they show up time and time again.
And what we did with this film was, I went through all of the movies I've made and was like, because the movie is a family movie, it's about a reunion, let's make the cast from our filmmaking family. So we went through every film, and were like, we need an actor from that movie, who was in that that we can put into this. And then the added bonus of that, well, one is we've worked with these people before, I like them and they like me, so you know you can work together. But a lot of them had worked together and known one another for years. You want to buy these two characters as siblings, you want to get a sense that they actually have a history, and the thing is, they actually do have a history.
Is that the biggest difference between making something like "Alex Cross" versus a smaller independent production? There are so many. Doing big-budget movies, there's a lot of great things that you get from those experiences. First of, doing action is always fun. I love running around, racing cars, shooting guns. That's just a blast. You're in the make-believe world a little bit more than when you're trying to do a film like this. And that's sometimes fun to totally suspend your disbelief, and be like, "All right, I'm a f--king bad-ass cop, I'm rolling in here and all these f--king tough guys are gonna be afraid of me." That's fun. But yeah, it's just a completely different experience, from both a filmmaking point of view and from an acting point of view. I like doing those other movies, but I prefer making small, talkie movies.
How much has the indie landscape changed since back when you first started? Dramatically. On the plus side, the real big change is what's happened with the digital revolution, digital cameras and the fact that they are so inexpensive by comparison to film cameras. The fact that you get this great look with available light, that you can now make a film for almost no money, and you know if you can tell a story and you find some good actors, you're going to get a real hearing because the movie's gonna look good. Your film won't immediately just be dismissed because it looks amateurish, which was a problem back then. Or it was harder to reach a wider audience, because some audiences would just look at a grainy, 16-mm film and be like, "Eh, that doesn't look like a movie to me." So if you're a kid coming out of film school, this is the most exciting time now, because you can buy a little Canon, you can shoot a great-looking movie, you can cut it on your laptop. The other thing is, now with these new forms of digital distribution, potentially you can reach a much wider audience. So all of that is great.
You're pretty active promoting your films on social media, do you find that helps you attract that audience as an indie filmmaker? Ted Hope, who produced my first couple of movies, he's all over Twitter, and is all about trying to help young filmmakers. Three years ago, he sat me down and he said, "You've got to get on Twitter. You need those 500 true fans who are going to turn into 5,000 true fans, because you gotta get out there and talk to the people who give a shit about your movie, and interact with them in a meaningful way, listen to them, ask them questions, and you're going to find there's going to be real reward in that." And on my last few movies, I'm tweeting out ideas, we've done poster contests, and song contests, so I know that I have a really good relationship with them, and I can tell when I ask them to support the films that they actually do.
And I think we now as indie filmmakers need to look at ourselves more the way indie bands, or bands in general, do. You know, there's a reason The Dead have a fan club. You want that fan base to stick with you, you need to think [in terms of] what you're doing film to film in the way that indie band jumps in the van and has to do that tour and play in front of 15 people sometimes. You've got to go to functions, go to film festivals, shake hands, listen to people, if you're interested in that kind of relationship. And to make money making these movies, you've got to do that.
"The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" opens in limited release on December 7, and is currently available on iTunes and Video on Demand.