A Watershed Year for Edward Burns

Edward Burns was caught in a pensive moment on the set of “Public Morals,” the series he created that will premiere on TNT on Aug. 25.

In January 1995, 172 films were screened at the Sundance Film Festival. “The Brothers McMullan,” a $25,000 film produced, written, directed by, and starring Edward Burns, won the Grand Jury Prize. Mr. Burns went virtually overnight from being a 27-year-old aspiring filmmaker to a hot young director, whose made-on-a-shoestring first film went on to gross more than $10 million.

It’s fitting that his book, “Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life,” was published almost 20 years to the day after his triumph in Park City, Utah. However, there will be more to celebrate during this anniversary year. On Aug. 25, TNT will premiere “Public Morals,” a new series he created, wrote, directed, and stars in. 

Mr. Burns was born in Queens and raised in Valley Stream in an Irish-American family. His father, Edward J. Burns, was a sergeant in the New York Police Department and, eventually, its media spokesman; his mother, Molly, worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. Family and Irish-American life in and around New York City have figured prominently in many of their son’s films.

“The Brothers McMullen,” the story of three Irish Catholic brothers from Long Island and their troubles with women, was filmed on the streets of New York and in and around his parents’ house. The shoot is chronicled in “Independent Ed,” as is its enthusiastic reception.

Fast forward past his second feature, “She’s the One,” which starred Jennifer Anniston and Cameron Diaz, to 1998, when Mr. Burns was cast in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” During the course of production, he introduced his father and uncle to the director. The two policemen regaled him with stories about the streets of New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. At that point, the idea of turning that material into a film coalesced for Mr. Burns, and he made a deal with DreamWorks, Mr. Spielberg’s production company, to write the script. “I imagined it as my ‘Godfather,’ ” he recalls in his book.

The idea of a multigenerational saga about Irish-American policemen and gangsters, set in the 1960s and 1970s, took almost two decades to come to fruition with “Public Morals,” on which Mr. Spielberg is an executive producer. All 10 episodes of the first season have been completed.

“This was my chance to tell that big story on a far bigger canvas than I’ve ever been able to work on,” Mr. Burns said. “It also gave me the opportunity to tell the deeper stories with more complex characters, because even with a studio film with a big budget, you have 2 1/2 hours. I had 10.”

Mr. Burns plays Terry Muldoon, a policeman working in the Public Morals Division of the N.Y.P.D. in the ’60s, before the Knapp Commission was formed to investigate police corruption. Many of the cops in the division, including Muldoon, walk a thin line between morality and crime, accepting the occasional bribe or turning a blind eye to mostly victimless crimes such as prostitution and gambling. Things heat up when a war breaks out between two factions of the Irish mob in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood where Muldoon and his wife live.

“ ‘Public Morals’ is really the synthesis of all these passions of mine, whether it was the Irish in Hell’s Kitchen, the Irish gangster history, what it was like to grow up in an Irish-American cop family, the lives of cops, even just my curiosity about old Times Square and the West Side docks and Little Italy. I was exposed to all those things as a bridge-and-tunnel kid whose dad was a cop, but I also loved gangster movies and any and all literature that had to do with New York City and its history.”

The Burns family remains tightly knit. His parents and his sister, Mary, live in Rockville Centre — “UpIsland, as they say out here.” His brother, Brian, is a writer who lives in New York City. “We get together all the time,” said Mr. Burns. Only one scene in the series, in which Muldoon berates his son for fooling around in school, is autobiographical. “That’s word for word what happened between my father and me when I was in the sixth grade. Otherwise, the characters are composites of the men and women I was surrounded by as a kid.”

When Mr. Burns was growing up, his father would take the family to Hither Hills every summer in late August. “My dad loved to go out on the party boats fishing for bluefish. That was my introduction to the East End.” During college, Mr. Burns came out withfriends during the summer and mowed lawns, cleaned swimming pools, and bussed tables. “I landscaped all through college, and that gave me a little taste of the Hamptons that I was not too familiar with as a working-class kid whose father was a cop.”

One of the lawns he used to care for was Joseph Heller’s, whose garage had been converted into a writer’s room. “I used to push my mower past that room and think, one day that’s what I’m going to have. And after ‘Brothers McMullen,’ I immediately rented a house in Wainscott, where I stayed for a few years until I could afford to buy my first house.”

That house, on Gerard Drive in Springs, was home until the birth of his second child, Finn, in 2006, after which the family moved to larger quarters in East Hampton. Among Mr. Burns’s East End pleasures is fishing for stripers and fluke off the Boston Whaler he keeps at Three Mile Harbor.

“Independent Ed” details the ups and downs of his career and the many adjustments he had to make to maintain his independence as a writer-director. Among the many micro-budget projects, as he calls them, was “Nice Guy Johnny,” which was filmed mostly on the East End in the fall of 2009. Like “Brothers McMullan,” the production budget was $25,000.

“When I was making ‘Nice Guy Johnny,’ which was really an experiment to see if I could go back to my micro-budget ways, I wrote down a list of rules that were guidelines or parameters.” When he shared the list with his wife, the model Christy Turlington, she suggested he write a book about how he managed to get his low-budget films made. “I agreed with her, but I never did anything about it.”

After “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” his third consecutive micro-budget project, he visited a number of film schools where professors inevitably made the same suggestion. When he mentioned that to Ms. Turlington, she reminded him that “I’ve been telling you that for years,” and he finally took her advice.

Asked if he would ever return to the micro-budget model, Mr. Burns said, “I don’t want to say never, because who knows? But if all goes well, I get to do ‘Public Morals’ for four, five, six, or seven seasons. It’s a big ensemble piece, and there are dozens of directions and characters I can follow. So my fingers are crossed that we’re going to have a great season and go from there.”

The Hamptons International Film Festival will hold a private screening of the first two episodes of “Public Morals” at Guild Hall on Monday. Mr. Burns will also take part in the East Hampton Library’s Authors Night on Aug. 8 and be a guest at one of the private dinners that follow the book signings.

• STAR GIVEAWAY: Get tickets to Guild Hall's screening of Ed Burns's new series. 

Michael Rapaport plays Charlie Bullman, Terry Muldoon’s partner in “Public Morals.”