About halfway through writing the script for "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" (which opens at the Wilmette Theatre next week), Edward Burns says he found himself at a crossroad. "Do I want to make the big, crazy, funny, holly-jolly Christmas Irish family movie?" he recalled when we spoke last week, "or do I want to go for something a little more grounded in the real world and a little more serious?"
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 drama. To which Burns told me: "My favorite holiday film is 'It's a Wonderful Life.' I just thought, all right, that film captured a perfect blend between light and dark, humor and drama. George Bailey has to get through some very tough stuff, and the second half of that movie is dark and dramatic. But I think the reason we all love the ending and get choked up is because it's earned. You've sweated it out with Bailey. And I thought: Let's go for that."
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 (Michael McGlone and Connie Britton) show up here, as well. They will all team up again for the "McMullen" sequel Burns is writing.
"'McMullen' is more of a comedy, and I thought, if I'm going to do these two movies close together, why not gamble and do something a little more dramatic with the Fitzgerald clan? I can save that lighter, boisterous stuff for 'McMullen.'"
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 Long Island, N.Y.). My folks have since moved, so I called my mom and said, "Do you think there's anybody back in our neighborhood who would open their doors to the Fitzgeralds?" Because I knew I wanted those tiny kitchens, tiny living rooms; small houses crammed up right next to one another. And she said, "Let me call Tina Costello." And Tina said, "Eddie's making a movie? Of course he can shoot here." So I end up shooting the film six houses down from my childhood home. On my block.
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 Louis C.K. put his stand-up special on the Web and sold it directly to his fans, I thought, OK, that is really cool, and that is the future of distribution. So what we'll do is make one short film a month and put it online, charge 69 cents or 99 cents, and we'll do 12 of them. And if the thing works, then maybe I'll try and rework it and see if it holds together as a feature.