'Nice Guy Johnny' screens at the Roxie Theater after an SFFS Master Class by Ed Burns.

Ed Burns Looks to Future by Getting Back to Basics

Andrew Provost October 31, 2010

Ed Burns’ latest film, Nice Guy Johnny, marks a triumphant return to the touchingly personal and ludicrously low-cost filmmaking that made him a star 15 years ago in his debut indie smash, The Brothers McMullen. Both films were shot for $25,000 on unpaid-for locations and feature ultra-talented unknown actors. His new film stars Matt Bush as Johnny, who would be a sportscaster if his fiancée (Anna Wood) weren’t so insistent he give up that dream and get a well-paying job, and Kerry Bishe as Brooke, the lovely tennis instructor who challenges Johnny to rethink the future he seems to have no say in. As it turns out, Burns has much more to be excited about than a successful revisit to his no-budget filmmaking roots: ‘Johnny’ is the first film over which the indie pioneer has maintained complete and total control, from its making to its marketing and distribution. Overseeing and collaborating on the film’s web site, design, posters and trailers (as well his hilarious ‘homage trailers'—more on that later) has revitalized the writer/director in a way that has him as excited as ever about the future of independent filmmaking. The movie was released last Tuesday on Demand, through iTunes, Netflix and just about everywhere else one can imagine, other than the big screen. Burns appears at the Roxie November 4 for a master class presented by San Francisco Film Society followed by a screening of his new film. I spoke with the director on the phone about the making of Johnny, its life outside of theaters and a whole bunch of other things nice.

SF360: So, where did the idea for Nice Guy Johnny come from and how did this whole project take off?

Ed Burns: A couple years ago my agents suggested that I should consider putting myself up for an open directing assignment, because there was some interest from the studios in my directing of mainstream romantic comedies. For years I had said that was something I wasn’t interested in, but they then mentioned the potential paycheck and I thought, you know what, why not read some scripts? So I read a bunch of screenplays over the course of about six months and I found one that I thought, maybe I can do this. My agents were very excited, they said, let’s set up a meeting, I said, give me just one more weekend to re-read the script before I commit. And it was that weekend that really was the inspiration for the screenplay. You know, that weekend is Johnny’s weekend, where he’s got to make that decision to go for the paycheck or keep doing the thing that you love to do. So, after I eventually passed my producing partner and I had a lot of interesting conversations about the notion of what it can cost to pursue you dream and how you’re gonna disappoint people when you do that. But in the end that’s only choice you really have. As we started to weed out the story I started to go back as I was writing it to think about, who was I as a 24-year-old kid? I was pursuing my dream and there were naysayers in my life telling me I was crazy, but I was hell-bent to do it and that was the whole McMullen experience. So then when we finished the script we thought, how are we going to get this made? And we just thought, you know what, we’ve been talking about McMullen, so we kind of came up with this crazy idea, we said let’s just re-create the model. And we set up some very strict rules for ourselves, that we wouldn’t shoot more than 12 days, it was gonna be $25,000, we only wanted to work with, for the most part, unknown actors or friends of ours. Everyone was gonna do their own hair and makeup, wear their own clothes, we weren’t gonna pay for a single location, every place we’re gonna shoot we have to get for free, and that’s kind of how we went about it.

SF360: One of the most remarkable things about the movie is that it seems to be so personal for everyone involved, not just you. Matt Bush and Kerry Bishe, it seems like they’re giving it their all as well, and that really comes across in the filmmaking.

Burns: Well, that’s great to hear and it’s absolutely spot-on. We’re asking these kids, we didn’t know them before hand, and we’re asking them to show up on a set that when they get there, there’s three guys standing there (laughs). There’s no trailer, there’s no craft service, there’s no hair and make-up, and then we’re asking them, OK, look, when Kerry’s shooting this scene, we need you to help us set up the lights. Or with Matt Bush, we’re gonna take Matt down to the beach to shoot his jogging scene, would you mind running and grabbing some pizza for the crew, Kerry? And once everybody sort of saw that’s how we were doing it, they dove right in. And it was pretty awesome for us to watch them not even hesitate. They just went for it.

SF360: How much more focus do you have to bring to a project when you’re working with such a small cast and crew? Is it more exhilarating?

Burns: Absolutely. You know, it’s weird, it’s a different type of focus because the focus is only pointed at the scene. It’s only about the actors and the shots, and also the intent of the scene. It’s not about all the other bullshit that comes along with making a bigger movie, which is, we’ve gotta make our day, and having a producer stand over you either watching the clock or making certain demands or telling you you can’t do certain things, you know, you’re not being distracted by the visit by the guy from the studio.

SF360: How does your new distribution model allow for more creative control as a filmmaker?

Burns: The biggest fight we have as independent filmmakers is, I’ve always felt, creative control. You don’t want anybody to interfere with your process. So I’ve been able to do that on the production side, but I’ve never been able to do that on the marketing and distribution side. Inevitably, you make a movie you’re proud of and then all of a sudden you see the poster and you’re like, wait, that doesn’t look anything like my film! And that’s happened a number of times. The other thing is we don’t sell our movie, we license it out, so we retain the copyright and we're in charge of the marketing. So we create the poster with our friends, we cut all of our trailers together, we’re the ones designing the web site, we’re the ones controlling the conversation, and that’s a very, very different way to get your film out there and I’ve never done that before. And I gotta tell you, it’s so much more fun, I mean, it’s hard work, but it’s an absolute  pleasure by comparison.

SF360: You mentioning cutting your own trailers reminds me of the homage trailers that are up on the On Demand Weekly site. Those are so fun and so entertaining and it’s a really clever way to get people involved and excited about the movie. How did those come to be and did those films inspire you in the writing process or was that an after-thought?

Burns: Some of those films inspired me back in film school. Contempt and L’Avventura, they were, over the years, reminders of, ‘oh yes, small character-driven stories,’ even though my stuff is obviously a little different. Hannah and Her Sisters, major influence for me, not in the writing of this but certainly the writing of McMullen. So what we did was, they re-released Breathless this year, and they had a great trailer for that film, and they did it with subtitles and one of the lines was 'the nice guy' and I was like, ‘oh, nice guy, huh’ we should do an unorthodox trailer like this one. And then we thought, you now, why don’t we just try and do an homage to it? Because I went online and discovered that this new Breathless trailer was an homage to Godard’s Contempt trailer from 1963. So then I looked at the Contempt trailer so we decided well, we’ll pay homage to not only the original Contempt trailer but also to the homage to the Contempt trailer. (Laughs.) So once we did that, it turned out so great and was so much fun to do we were like, oh we gotta do another one of these old school trailers. And then we did L’Avventura and it sort of just evolved from there. My favorite is the Thomas Crown Affair.

SF360: How important is it to embrace your own inner youthfulness as an independent filmmaker?

Burns: I will say this, when we showed up on our first day of shooting, Matt Bush had such excitement and passion and, you know, this was his shot. He came so determined to, I think, show me what he’s got, that he blew me off the screen. When we looked at the dailies after that first day, it was like oh my God, I’m terrible in this scene. We had to go back and re-shoot that scene. That’s the scene that takes place in the bar. So that type of passion that he had immediately rubbed off on me on day one. It totally revitalized me as a filmmaker, I think the whole thing that happened was that it reminded us, you know you asked that question before about the kind of focus, it reminded us that this process of making movies is supposed to be fun. We’re supposed to love the creative process and though it can be hard, it shouldn’t be filled with more misery and fights than tends to be the experience on even a four million dollar movie. None of that on this set, so that’s the thing they helped bring to it.

SF360: We’re also very excited about the monthly column you’re going to be doing for On Demand Weekly. Can you tell us a lit bit about what you’ll be writing about?

Burns: Well, I’m a guy with a couple kids now, and I realized over the summer that three of the indie movies that came out that I wanted to catch, we never got to the theater. And part of that was that two of the films never even got to the theater near my place. But it was Greenberg, Please Give and Solitary Man. And I missed the opportunity to see them. Then I was thinking, I’m a big on demand person, when Greenberg came out I watched it the first night on demand. I thought, what about the idea of you sort of tipping people off to that very thing, those titles that you may have missed, and those are sort of three higher-profile indie films, but the idea was, you know, the titles that you missed because you don’t live near an art-house. What if I could tip you off to what’s gonna be available on on demand this month. And that’s essentially what it will be. It’s more like giving a shout out to other indie filmmakers who are fighting the good fight, trying to get their films a little bit more attention.

SF360: What advice do you have for filmmakers out there right now who are seeking distribution?

Burns: Well unless you make that special film that Fox Searchlight says, we’re gonna pay you a couple of million dollars and we’re gonna sell the shit out of this thing, shy of that, you’re not gonna make any money theatrically. They’re gonna buy it for nothing and you’re never gonna see any profits if they happen to turn a profit. The future of it is, well, in a weird way, I think it’s a return to the early '90s model. Back then the idea that you turn a two hundred thousand dollar profit was considered fantastic. But post Blair Witch and Napoleon Dynamite, and even Brothers McMullen, those numbers are sort of scoffed at. So I think the model has to return back to more realistic expectations as to what these films should be able to make. We haven’t spent a single cent on marketing this film, we bought no TV, no newspaper ads, no radio spots, and we’re number six on the iTunes rentals chart. Keep your production costs down, use social media, viral marketing, and crowdsourcing as a way to raise awareness for your film. Keep that overhead on the distribution as low as possible, and then also set your sights a little bit lower as to your definition of success. If you break even, you know, that’s terrific, if you make enough money to make another movie for $25,000, that’s the name of the game. But if you love to do this and you need to tell these stories just figure out a way to keep making them. And that’s the exciting thing; it is easier now than it’s ever been before to make a great looking movie for not a lot of money.