About halfway through writing the script for
He went for the latter. A risky choice, I said, judging by recent Christmas movies that have had any kind of staying power. From "Elf" to "Bad Santa," none qualifies as a kitchen sink
The clamorous, working-class Irish-American setting is a return to form for Burns, who made his name with "The Brothers McMullen" in 1995. Fittingly, two of his co-stars from that film (
"'McMullen' is more of a
On Tuesday, Burns will be in Chicago talking up his films at City Winery. The setup is eight wines paired with eights scenes (plus commentary) from his current and past works, including "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," "The Brothers McMullen," and "She's the One."
That much booze might give new meaning to the phrase in vinum veritas. Then again, Burns' persona has always been that of a man most at ease when he's talking — with or without the lubricating assistance of a drink or two — and it continues to be one of his most disarming qualities, both on-screen and off. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Q: Why a Christmas movie?
A: You know what? I did not set out to make a Christmas movie. I knew I wanted to make a film about a big Irish family. My best friend is one of nine, and another buddy is one of 12, and I've always heard great stories about what it was like to grow up in a house like that. And, quite honestly, I needed a device; I needed a reason to get seven adult siblings under the same roof for an extended period of time.
There's so much pressure during the holidays to have a good time, and, with that, a lot of things kind of come to the surface. That petty argument you had six years ago that you've allowed to fester; you have a couple of drinks and then all of sudden that's when you get into it. People always say, "Oh, God, if I could only just survive the holidays with my family." These are things we can relate to. We've all experienced some version of it on some level.
Q: It looks like you used practical locations (in existing homes) and that you didn't build any sets. I'd wager those homes haven't been redecorated in 30 or 40 years.
A: It's funny how these things happen. I wrote the screenplay imagining that the Fitzgeralds lived in the house I grew up in (on
The minute we got that location, we went to scout — this was last December — they already had their Christmas decorations up. And you can't beat authentic clutter, you know? They said, "Do you want us to change anything?" And I said, "Do not touch a thing." And that's why we quickly went out and shot a couple of scenes. And then we asked them, "Would you mind keeping your Christmas decorations through February?"
Q: When I spoke to you last January, you said you were still working on the script, so that seems like a quick turnaround to finish the film in less than 12 months.
A: We probably shot five days last December to capture as much of the free production value as we could, when people had their Christmas lights up. But we weren't officially up and running, so I was a little coy when I spoke to you.
The great thing that has happened for me with these last couple of films (self-financed on an ultralow budget) is that it has allowed us to move much more quickly and have an abbreviated pre-production schedule. The money is there, and when we choose to go we can crew-up very quickly.
Q: That has to be satisfying, because the cliche is that it takes forever to get a movie made. I would imagine this is the opposite experience of that.
A: The most torturous aspect of the film business is trying to get your film financed, and then even once that happens, those financiers have a lot of say in the creative decisions, and that sometimes can delay you for months. Casting, script notes, where they want to shoot, who's going to be the composer, all those types of things.
Q: I've been reading about a Web series you're developing. Is that partly a reaction to those frustrations, as well?
A: Yeah. I have fallen in love with the micro-budget approach. So while I finish writing the "McMullen" script this year, and in order to keep me sane, I have this idea that we're going to start shooting in January. It charts a relationship over the course of a year between two 40-something underachievers. They're hitting middle age and they don't know what the hell happened.
I envisioned this as a feature, but then I thought, why don't I just do 12 short films over the course of the year? And then when
On that morning when I wake up in a panic because I haven't made a movie in a year, I can be like, "OK, I have two shooting days to look forward to at the end of the month." Also, filmmaking is a craft like anything else, and you can get rusty, so it's good to keep your chops up. And the great thing is, the stakes are so low. If it doesn't work, it's going to cost us $20,000.
Q: You and Connie Britton have known each other for a long time. What's this I hear about you being interested in a role on "Nashville"?
A: What happened was, I told a journalist that Connie did us a big favor by working around her "Nashville" schedule, and he said, "If it was reversed, would you do the same and be on her show?" And I said "Absolutely." But, you know, I'm not calling up the producers of "Nashville" to see if I can get a part.
Q: That's an interesting point, though. How often do you find yourself pursuing acting gigs?
A: Quite honestly, never. I've come to realize that, if I'm your co-star, I'm a little bit of a kiss of death at the box office.
I did a movie with
But seriously, I went out to LA after
So I pulled out a script I that I had written a couple years earlier, "Sidewalks of New York," and basically I haven't looked back. The filmmaking has always been the No. 1 priority. The acting is something that, in between my writing and directing, if I have a window, I call my agent and say, "Hey look, April, May and June, I'm free, can we find something?"
Q: I recently learned that your brother is married to your wife's sister (Burns is married to Christy Turlington). That sounds like a premise for one of your movies.
A: My brother Brian is a writer, as well. He wrote for
Q: Do you ever find yourself contemplating the
A: Uh, no. When Christy and I were on our first date, she said, "I've been offered dozens of acting jobs, and if you want a second date, promise me you'll never ask me, because I have no interest." And you know what, it's worked out pretty well, and I'm not going to jinx us.
Burns talks about his films at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the City Winery; go to citywinery.com. "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" opens at the Wilmette Theatre Dec. 21; go to wilmettetheatre.com.
The pride of the North Shore wrote and produced 1992's "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York" (
The 3 Penny Was Here series at Lincoln Hall pairs
Divided by race
Local documentary producer Kartemquin teams up with the Black Cinema House to screen three rarely seen short docs from the 1970s about race in Chicago. Dubbed "Chicago: Segregated City," the evening will include an early look at scenes from "'63 Boycott," a new film from Kartemquin (still in progress) about the 1963 protest of then