Many large, tight-knit families have come to appreciate the bonds they have developed with their siblings and parents, and the diverse dynamics of their relationships have served as the realistic motivating factor of many genuine films. But when they come together to celebrate an important holiday, such as Christmas, they become surprised to learn that everyone had extremely contrasting memories, points-of-view and opinions that have driven the way they have lived their lives. This realization is an important motivating factor for the characters in scribe-helmer-actor Edward Burns’ latest writing and directorial effort, the new drama ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.’ The movie is a homage to the filmmaker’s first two films, ‘The Brothers McMullen’ and ‘She’s the One,’ and marks his return to his working-class, Irish-American Catholic roots after a 16-year absence.
‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’ follows the seven New York working-class, Irish-American adult Fitzgerald siblings, led by Gerry (played by Burns), as they’re dealing with the desire of their estranged father, Jim (portrayed by Ed Lauter), to return home for Christmas for the first time since walking out on them 20 years ago. Family rifts emerge, and like with any family, the holiday brings about mixed emotions and dynamics, with Gerry leading the cause for their father to reunite with the family. When his younger siblings and mother, Rosie (played by Anita Gillette), object to Jim returning home, after remembering the pain he caused them, alliances form. But when Jim reveals a secret about himself, the possibility for a new hope and forgiveness emerges. With Gerry feeling conflicted over the growing rift in his family, he forms a connection with Nora (portrayed by Connie Britton), a nurse for one of his mother’s friends, who helps give him clarity on how to cope with his family’s arguments.
Burns generously took the time to sit down in New York City recently to discuss writing, directing and acting in ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,’ and his return to his working-class, Irish-American roots that he featured in his successful first two films. Among other things, the writer-director-actor discussed how his own family influenced the characters and the script; why he decided to re-cast several actors he directed in his earlier films, and what his working relationships with them, particularly Britton, are like; and why he thinks audiences are relating to the movie’s theme of forgiveness and rebuilding family relationships.
ShockYa (SY): ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’ focuses on a large Irish-American family with seven adult children, who all contend with their estranged father, who wants to return home for Christmas after 20 years. Why did you decide to return to the Irish Catholic working class themes that you explored in your first two films, ‘The Brothers McMullen’ and ‘She’s The One?’
Edward Burns (EB): It came from when I was working with Tyler Perry on the film, ‘Alex Cross,’ and he had just re-watched ‘Brothers McMullen.’ He asked me, ‘McMullen’ and ‘She’s The One’ were so successful, and in 15 years, how come you’ve never gone back to revisit that world, that Irish-American working class family theme?
He said, “you have to take a look at what I’m doing. You have to think about super-serving your niche. I guarantee you, if you were to make a film back in that space, the audience that loved those first two movies would thank you for it.”
The minute he said it, I knew that he was right. I think I had been hesitant to go back there, because I think I felt like my life is so different now. I thought, can I write about that world with any authenticity?
I opened up my laptop, and I just started to write. Usually it takes me about six months to write a screenplay, and this took me six weeks. I was happy to discover that yes, I could still write about the world, because I knew it very well.
Sitting on these characters for 15 years, they were dying to get out of me. I didn’t have to give any thought to who they were, how they sounded, how they dressed, where they went to school, where they drank and what are they afraid of. It was all right there, and I think that’s why they just poured out of me.
SY: When you were filming ‘Alex Cross,’ did Tyler offer you any advice on how to re-approach this genre?
EB: No, not really. It was just sort of that initial conversation. We were talking when I got toward the end of the screenplay, about the big theme of the movie, which is forgiveness, and the importance of family. I told him were I was, and kept telling him where the story was progressing, and the question of whether Rosie forgives Jim or not. **SPOILER ALERT** He felt very strongly that she should. I kind of know that she should **END SPOILER ALERT**, and that was sort of the one big conversation that we had.
SY: While ‘The Brothers McMullen’ and ‘She’s The One’ are about large, tight-knit Irish-American families, they have a more comedic tone to them. You have said that ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’ is your most personal film to date, and you wanted to focus on more dramatic tones for the movie. Did you look at your own family growing up in an Irish-American family, and how did your own experiences influence the script?
EB: You know, I did. The Fitzgeralds and the Burns come from the same place. We grew up in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, were surrounded by the same people and drank at the same bars. They hit very close to home.
My grandmother was Josie Fitzgerald, so I named the matriarch after her. Her husband was a terrible human being, my grandfather. A different kind of terrible than Big Jim Fitzgerald, but I knew that I wanted that kind of father. I had some kind of sense of how growing up in a house with someone like that would affect the children.
But the bigger plot points in the story didn’t come from my own family’s experiences. However, there are little moments and pieces of dialogue that were pulled from conversations I’ve had with my brother and sister. The scene were I take Tom Guiry (who plays the youngest Fitzgerald brother, Cyril) to the tenement where the family was from, that pulled from a conversation my mother and I had about my father’s tenement, so there were little things like that. We shot six houses down from where I grew up, on my block, at my train station, at my church. So there’s a lot of me up there on the screen.
SY: Since the film heavily emphasizes family relationships, you brought back some of the cast from your early films, including Connie Britton, Mike McGlone and Anita Gillette. Why did you decide to cast them again in ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas?’
ED: Well, the movie’s about a family reunion and a family coming together. So my producer and I had this idea when we were casting that we should make it a film family reunion, also. So we went through the 10 films that I’ve made, looked at our cast lists, and said, let’s cast one actor from each film.
Fortunately, we’re still friends with so many of the people we have worked with, and they have remained friends. Once we put these folks together and started to roll cameras, we had a sense that these people had a real history, because some of them had known each other for 18 or 19 years.
The other great bonus is that I’ve become a very collaborative filmmaker with the actors. I trust them and they trust me. So having all these people I’ve worked with before, it gave me more confidence to say at times, okay, this is what the scene is supposed to be, but let me see you guys do your version of it. Anytime I do that, I end up getting some really magical moments.
SY: You hired Connie Britton, who appeared in ‘The Brothers McMullen,’ to play Nora in ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas.’ What was it like working with her again in particular, since she has garnered fame on television, with such shows as ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘American Horror Story’ and now with ‘Nashville?’
EB: I love Connie, she was in my first film. She was the first actress I ever auditioned that I really liked. When I was making ‘The Brothers McMullen,’ we were holding my first auditions, and I didn’t know how to audition actors. I’m thinking, either these actors are all terrible, or it has to be my script, because it wasn’t working.
Then Connie came in and delivered gold. I thought, wow, this one is incredible. Maybe my script isn’t so bad, because that scene actually worked. Since then, we’ve been great friends, and this is our fourth film together. She’s a trooper, and such a generous actor.
We have a scene in the car together, which is a harder scene for me. I said, I’m not going to be able to direct myself in this one, so if you wouldn’t mind, keep an eye on me. If you have any notes or suggestions, please let me know. So she held my hand throughout that scene. You only get that from a friend, and from someone you trust.
SY: You set the film around Christmas, which is when families come together and try to fix their relationships. Do you think audiences will be able to relate with the themes of the film, and come to appreciate their own families?
EB: Yeah, I hope so. I think forgiveness and the importance of family are sort of the the two things I was playing with when I was writing this. We’ve got a Christmas movie coming out at Christmas time, when families get together to watch movies, and everyone’s watching Christmas films. I hope that people see this film and feel like it’s true to life, and see some version of themselves up there on the screen. That’s all you hope for.
SY: You’ve written all of the films you’ve directed, including ‘The Brothers McMullen’ and ‘She’s The One,’ as well as your latest movies, including ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,’ ‘Newlyweds’ and ‘Nice Guy Johnny.’ Do you prefer writing the films you direct, and do you find it easier to direct the films, since you had written them?
EB: Yeah, the only thing I’ve wanted to do was make personal films. I couldn’t imagine writing a screenplay and then letting someone else direct it. I don’t have a tone of interest in directing someone else’s screenplay.
Like I said, I like to draw from my experiences and my world. I like to recreate or reimagine snapshots from my life. That, to me, is the thrill of filmmaking. I’ll never say never, maybe I’ll find that screenplay one day, where I absolutely want to take on someone else’s work, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon.
SY: You have also starred in several bigger-budget studio films in the past few years, including ‘Alex Cross,’ like you mentioned, and ‘Man on a Ledge.’ Do you enjoy acting in the bigger-budget movies that are written and directed by someone else?
EB: I love it. It is tricky sometimes, because I have to try to find a window in between my films. But it’s good, because I get to work with other filmmakers, which few filmmakers get to do. I get to watch how they work, and maybe pick up some new tricks.
But more importantly, I get to work with great actors, who otherwise I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet. Usually, with those relationships, I end up bringing those people into my films at some point.
Plus, doing big movies is just fun. It’s fun being on those sets. My sets are very different, and we have fun in a different way. Those are a blast.
SY: Many of your movies are lower-budget, independent films. Do you have a preference of the independent films over the bigger budget movies, or do you enjoy doing both?
EB: I enjoy doing both, but as a filmmaker, I do love the small scale of these independent films, and their intimacy on set. It’s such a different way of working. You are making the film all day long, every minute you’re on set.
Where as on a big budget film, you’re making the film a couple minutes here and a couple minutes there. So it’s a more intense experience.
SY: On ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,’ was there any improv on the set? Did you take any suggestions from the actors?
EB: Oh yeah, all the time. I like to encourage the actors to play with my dialogue. I think that comes from the fact that having worked with all of them before, you have a good level of trust that they will improvise within the scene and within the character. They’re not going to try to showboat, because that can happen sometimes.
SY: The movie premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. How did audiences react to the film there?
EB: We were surprised by the amount of laughs we got. We knew that the film was more dramatic, and that there were some funny bits of dialogue. But we were very surprised by how much laughter we got. That told us they were fully engaged with this family.
Then the great thing afterwards was that people were coming up to us, and were telling us, I’m not Irish, I’m not Catholic, but this is absolutely my family. Or, what were you doing, peeking in my kitchen window last Christmas? So those were pretty great compliments to get.
EB: All day long, I’m reading and retweeting their reviews. It’s been an overwhelming positive response from people, which is great.
SY: Besides ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’ premiering at Toronto, several of your movies have played at the Tribeca Film Festival, including ‘Nice Guy Johnny’ and ‘Newlyweds,’ which closed the festival in 2011. Why do you enjoy playing your films at the festivals so much?
EB: You know, I got my start at Sundance years ago (in 1995 for ‘The Brothers McMullen,’ which won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize). I don’t have a career, if not for the film festivals. Not only is that where I was launched, I finally get a place to show my films and show my work to the professionals in the business.
But over the years, I’ve made small movies. My movies don’t really get the bigger theatrical releases and giant marketing campaigns. So I need film festivals, and those folks who love the small, character-driven movies who seek them out at festivals. They see my movies, and then spread the word about them.
It’s great for me, because I love interacting with the audiences. So you go to the film festivals, and do a Q&A. You meet young filmmakers afterwards, you are constantly asking questions. Since I make these micro-budget films, they ask, how do we make the movies on these small budgets? So I always love the festivals.
SY: Like with many of your previous films, including ‘The Brothers McMullen,’ ‘She’s The One,’ ‘Newlyweds’ and ‘Nice Guy Johnny,’ you produced ‘The Fitzgerald Family Christmas’ through your production company, Marlboro Road Gang Productions. Why do you enjoy producing your films through Marlboro Road Gang Productions-do you feel like you have more of your own say?
EB: Basically, that came out of wanting to maintain control over the films. I didn’t want to be told who to cast, how it should end and what music to use. Granted, we have to make movies on lower budgets, sometimes micro-budgets, but it’s been liberating. While you have to make compromises from a production standpoint at times, you don’t from a creative standpoint.
SY: Do you enjoy having total control over the creative aspects of filmmaking?
EB: Yeah-if you make personal films, you want them to be yours. I’m lucky that I have a great team that I collaborate with. But I definitely do not want to have an executive dictating to me the kind of music I’m going to have in my film.
SY: Do you have any upcoming films, whether writing, directing and/or acting, lined up that you can discuss?
EB: Yeah, a cool thing I’m doing, is called ‘Winter/Spring/Summer/Fall.’ It’s a look at a middle-age couple, and charts their relationship over the course of a year. What we’re going to do is shoot 12 short films, starting in January. Each one will be about seven to ten minutes long, and will tell that story.
Then we’ll put them up, talking about these new forms of distribution, on the Web in some capacity. We don’t know where yet, but definitely the director-to-consumer sales is the future for a lot of filmmakers and musicians. So we’re going to explore how we might do that.
Written by: Karen Benardello