Sisters making films: The Burtons

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The Burtons

“In any small business, people find a family to work with,” says Ursula Burton, who has been featured on “The Office.” The Burtons have established a unique way of working together. They pool their money, and sisters draw on it as needed. Jennifer Burton, with a PhD. from Harvard, serves as the company chief financial officer. They share producing credit on every project but take turns writing, directing and acting.

“They seem to almost be Siamese in that they were always joined at the hip,” says Wendie Malick, costar of TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland.” In 2002, Malick starred in the Burtons’ comic fable “Manna From Heaven” along with three Oscar winners: Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman and Louise Fletcher. Maria and Gabrielle co-directed the film, based on a script their mother, Gabrielle Sr., wrote, which won a motion picture academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for screenwriting.


“Our parents were always saying: ‘Don’t be competitive. Be supportive. Be inclusive,’” Maria Burton says.

The family motto was “Clap loudly for your sister,” Ursula Burton explains, because although she may have stolen the part you desperately wanted in that play, “One day she’ll be in your audience.”

The Burtons’ other films include the 1996 romantic comedy “Just Friends,” “Temps” and Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God.” They are developing a movie based on the Mercury 13 female pilots who were tested to be astronauts in 1961 but never flew in space. “It’s ‘The Right Stuff’ for women,” Maria says. The Yale grad was delighted to meet eight of the 13 aviatrixes while researching the script, but it’s been difficult to get the movie financed, they say, because the true story does not offer a typical Hollywood ending.

“Only from men,” Maria Burton notes. “Women get it.”

“That is the story that we encounter in our lives,” Ursula Burton says.

What is most apparent about the Burton Five is how upbeat they are, which probably has something to do with the way they were raised in Buffalo, N.Y., where their father, Roger, was a professor of developmental psychology. Concerned they “were all choosing very difficult careers that can make you depressed,” as Maria puts it, Mom and Dad a few years ago organized a weeklong family retreat. They rented space at a conference center to study happiness psychology. “The Burtons were in Conference Room C, next to IBM,” Maria recalls with a laugh.

Continue reading about the Ephron sisters.