Twelve Days

Remarkably free of score-settling and gossip, “Independent Ed” ought to be required reading in film schools
Edward Burns and Steven Spielberg on the set of “Public Morals” Edward Burns Photo

“Independent Ed”
Edward Burns
Gotham Books, $26.95

It’s a scene that’s replayed itself a million times in Hollywood — the supplicant stealing a few seconds of the big shot’s time and attention with a pitch, a screenplay, or, one day in September of 1994, a nearly completed feature film on a clunky VHS tape.

“I had been a production assistant at ‘Entertainment Tonight’ for four years and probably overstayed my welcome by about three years,” Edward Burns writes in “Independent Ed,” in which he candidly recounts his struggles to retain some artistic freedom and self-respect in the movie business. “I needed to make more money and start charting a path toward a real career.”

An unsuspecting Robert Redford was the means. Mr. Redford, aging, movie-star short, but still golden, with hair as good as ever, was never more influential, what with his Sundance Film Festival going full bore. He was on set promoting his latest project, “Quiz Show,” about the 1950s television scandals involving Charles Van Doren. Our hero, sweating it out among the cables and apple boxes just outside the bright lights’ glare, rehearsed his spiel and, once the actor-turned-mogul was out in the hallway, pounced: “I’m an independent filmmaker, and . . .” You know the rest. “The Brothers McMullen” was his baby, made on the fly and on the cheap for all of $25,000. Would he take a look?

The elevator arrived. “As the doors closed, I saw him hand it to his publicist. Then they were gone.”

The industry, of course, is not for the thin-skinned. A rejection letter arrived two months later, hard on the heels of earlier turndowns from all manner of agents, managers, and even what was then a brand-new Hamptons International Film Festival — a “final straw” that, as a Long Island filmmaker, particularly outraged him.

But then something incredible happened. With another set of eyes screening submissions, Sundance reversed course and sent Mr. Burns an acceptance letter barely two months after the brush-off. Not only was he in, his film famously won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. It went on to pull in $10.4 million at the box office. He was 27 years old.

These are the kinds of breaks young strivers need in life and too rarely get. As with most such “overnight” success stories, luck played a part. Here there was good timing at work, the breezy authenticity of “The Brothers McMullen” — about working-class Irish-American guys from New York who B.S. and bloviate about girls — amounting to a fresh offering in an age of special-effects blockbusters.

Remarkably free of score-settling and gossip, “Independent Ed” ought to be required reading in film schools, certainly more than so than Syd Fields’s “Screenplay,” which Mr. Burns mentions, with its tiresome admonitions to incite the protagonist to action, throw an obstacle in his path, have him overcome it, lesson learned, all in three tidy acts. (That may be structure, but it can send you scrambling for “My Dinner With Andre.”)

For one thing, there are all kinds of tips for guerilla filmmaking, beginning with the way this first-time director used so many exterior shots in “McMullen.” Interiors cost money, so for a scene where his character is walking out of a restaurant with his agent, Mr. Burns set up a long lens shot across the street and he and a buddy from “Entertainment Tonight” stepped into the restaurant, counted to five, and then turned around and headed for the door. They sneaked four takes this way before getting the bum’s rush.

Elsewhere, he dissects the way his hero, Woody Allen, would orchestrate a scene of dialogue with two or three people in a room: After a close-up the camera might move with a character across the room to reveal the interlocutor, and then back, followed by a conventional two-shot, and on to a “master shot,” a wide view of the entire scene. And like that.

Mr. Burns is nothing if not frank throughout, from relaying a professor’s advice that led him to film in the first place — “As an English major, you can become a film studies minor, where you watch a bunch of old movies, write a paper, and you’re pretty much guaranteed an A” — to his admission on the next-to-last page that of his 11 movies in 20 years, half were failures.

Other advice for aspiring filmmakers comes by way of his N.Y.P.D. dad, who, listening to his son lament all the rejection as they nurse beers at the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, reminds him he called the 12 days shooting “McMullen” the best of his life, adding, “As I recall, you made this film because you had something to say and because this is what you want and need to do with your life.” A nod. “Then stop complaining, sit down, and write another screenplay.”

The film world is different now, with inexpensive digital cameras and laptop editing. Mr. Burns says, in essence, ignore the resultant glut of output, kids, and follow your dream.

He realizes “there are no mistakes. And there are no bad films. Making movies is a gift, it’s a joy. . . . The work is hard, that’s true, but at the end of the day, you’re only making a movie. It’s a privilege to make a movie, and I never forget that.”

Edward Burns lives in New York and East Hampton. His latest work is a television series for TNT, “Public Mor­als,” about a division of the N.Y.P.D. in the 1960s. It is scheduled to premiere on Aug. 25.