IFH 160: Ed Burns – How to Make a $9000 Feature Film (The Brothers McMullen)

How to Make a $9000 Feature Film with Ed Burns

Many of you might have heard of the Sundance Film Festival winning film called The Brothers McMullen written and directed by Edward Burns. Burns went off to star in huge films like Saving Private Ryan and direct studio films like She’s the One but what you might not know is he has been quietly making completely independent films on really low budgets. How low, how about $9000. 

As with any smart filmmaker, Ed Burns has continued to not only produce films but to consider new methods of getting his projects to the world. In 2007, he teamed up with Apple iTunes to release an exclusive film “Purple Violets”. It was a sign of the times that the director was branching out to new methods of release for his projects. In addition, he also continued to release works with his signature tried-and-true method of filmmaking. Using a very small $25,000 budget and a lot of resourcefulness, Burns created “Nice Guy Johnny” in 2010. Again- he was the writer and director. This is a formula that may intimidate a lesser performer, but he has proven that it works perfectly for his abilities.

The film “Nice Guy Johnny” was released at the Tribeca Film Festival. While he was releasing that film, Burns wrote “Newlyweds”, another film he directed and starred in. He filmed this on a small Canon 5D camera in only 12 days and on a budget of only $9,000.

In his book Independent Ed (which I recommend ALL filmmakers read), Ed Burns mentions some rules he dubbed “McMullen 2.0” which were basically a set of rules for independent filmmakers to shoot by.

  • Actors would have to work for virtually nothing.
  • The film should take no longer than 12 days to film
  • Don’t shoot with any more than a three man crew
  • Actor’s use their own clothes
  • Actor’s do their own hair and make-up
  • Ask and beg for any locations
  • Use the resources you have at your disposal

I used similar rules when I shot my feature film This is Meg. I shot that in 8 days. Take a listen to this episode and prepare to get inspired. After you listen take a read of the making of The Brothers McMullen and read Independent Ed. You won’t regret it.

Also, Ed Burns’ DVD director’s commentaries are indie filmmaking gold. He really shares his methods and all of his secret sauce. The DVD are direct cheap and well work getting. I’ll put a list of them below. You won’t regret it.

Right click here to download the MP3
Download on iTunes Direct
Watch on IFH YouTube Channel


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The Sundance Miracle: The Brother’s McMullen

The 1995 film The Brothers McMullen was a game-changer. Not only did it start off the career of one of the most talented independent filmmakers, Edward Burns, but it also set a new avenue of possibilities for filmmakers everywhere. No longer did they need to hope for a big-name and big-budget studio to carry their story. Instead, filmmakers were given the hope to have their stories heard through a new avenue- the independent market. This is the story of how one small film that cost just $28,000 to make, paved the way to the indy film market AND earned more than $10-million while doing it!

Instead, filmmakers were given the hope to have their stories heard through a new avenue- the independent market. This is the story of how one small film that cost just $28,000 to make, paved the way to the indie film market AND earned more than $10-million while doing it!

What made The Brothers McMullen so game-changing was its production details. Formerly, movies were required to go through the writing stage, the casting stage, filming stage, post-production and of course, planned release. All of these were carried out by big-budget studios, taking a chance on their directors, actors, and producers—hoping for the best. That is a model that started in the early 1900s and carried through until landmark films and more importantly, landmark filmmakers challenged that model. The Brothers McMullen is a perfect example of pushing the envelope in terms of film production.

It was the spring of 1993 when film-lover Ed Burns first took to the task of writing his own production. He was employed at television show “Entertainment Tonight”, as a production assistant, but longed to move into his true love- film. After writing the story of three brothers, he filmed it using 16mm film at his own home and around his neighborhood. Of course, at the time, it wasn’t unheard of to film a movie, but to expect any type of commercial success –outside the neighborhood of family and friends—was a complete impossibility. Burns didn’t believe that.

Of course, at the time, it wasn’t unheard of to film a movie, but to expect any type of commercial success –outside the neighborhood of family and friends—was a complete impossibility. Burns didn’t believe that.

With a love of filmmaking and storytelling, Burns got creative. He sought out fresh actors who were willing to work for free, basking in the opportunity to be in front of the camera with good material. He also used savings to fund the film, with a cap of $28,000. By all accounts, The Brothers McMullen was a bootstrap-tightening endeavor for Burns.

What catapulted the film was a passion for its content. Burns, believing in his production, handed it off to Robert Redford as the iconic actor and director was working at an “Entertainment Tonight” elevator. Redford immediately took to the project and asked Burns to bring it to the Sundance Film Festival. It was at the fest that The Brothers McMullen found a distribution deal—something that a single director in Burns’ station couldn’t manage alone. It was 20 Century Fox that took the film, contributed an additional $200,000 for post-production work and added a high-profile soundtrack. The soundtrack included Sarah McLachlan’s “I Will Remember You”, a song that gained its own following. Together, it was a marketing plan of genius as the film hit the big screens across the country.

In 1995 The Brothers McMullen won the Grand Jury Prize and ended up grossing more than $10-million at the US box office. Recall that it cost just $28,000 to create. Though the film was a fantastic addition to the catalog of family-based dramas, what it truly did was open the door for more independent filmmakers to get their stories to the world.

Casting

When Ed Burns was tasked with casting his film, he was limited in resources. He had raised just under $28,000 for the fill production, but that was hardly enough to actually pay his talent. Being resourceful, he offered “lunch for work” options to new actors. He also cast himself as the lead role and his girlfriend of the time as the leading lady. The rest of the cast was made up of friends and acquaintances, along with actors, all willing to work a full day of filming for a good meal.

Barry “Finbar” McMullen, the main character, was portrayed by Ed Burns. He took on the character because of first his lack of a budget to pay a leading man, but secondarily because of his own love of acting. In addition, he wrote the story so he was thoroughly tied to the character and understood his nuances better than any outsider would. Though Burns had little acting experience at the time, he proved to be a natural. Plus, the story was close enough to him that he was able to portray a brooding main character to carry the storyline.

Burns cast his then-girlfriend Maxine Bahns as Audrey, Barry McMullen’s girlfriend in the movie. The Brothers McMullen was her first film role, though not her first foray into acting. She loved the creativity of acting and studied at the Beverly Hills Playhouse under the famed Milton Katselas. A lifelong fan of the arts, Bahns was able to imbue Audrey and portray her against Burns’ tumultuous experiences of life.

Everyone else in the film was an unknown at the time. Connie Britton was cast as Molly McMullen. Britton would go on to her own long list of acting credits, but the Burns film was her first “big substantive” part. Like Bahns, her former acting experience was mostly studying the artform and small stage productions.

Beyond that, the other actors were complete unknowns. Despite this, they were all adept at portraying the Irish-American characters. This was fine though because the story Burns wrote was not dependent on big star power. In fact, to stay true to its indy roots it had to use people who were unknown and acting for the sake of the artform.

The Story

The Brothers McMullen is the story of three brothers. Main character Finbar “Barry” McMullen is first seen at his recently-deceased father’s grave. His mother informs him that since her husband is now gone, she is returning to Ireland to reunite with her old love. His name was Finbar O’Shaughnessy and was the reason why her eldest son was named the same. She also tells Barry that she gave his father 35-years of family life, but has always pined for her true love- Finbar.

Jack, portrayed by Jack Mulcahy, is the second McMullen brother. He purchases his parent’s home and lives in it with his own family—his wife Molly, played by Connie Britton. Jack is in the midst of his own struggles of infidelity. He has Ann, played by Elizabeth McKay, who he is having an affair with. He goes back and forth throughout the film with a desire for his mistress with a loyalty and love for his wife.

Temporarily, Barry and youngest brother Pat, played by Michael McGlone, move in with Jack and his wife. This is the setting where they labor through most of their turmoil—individually and as a family. Pat is engaged to Susan, played by Shari Albert, but plans on breaking it off. Unbeknownst to him, Susan is also unhappy and she takes the initiative to break up with him. Pat is depressed at the news but quickly take sup with Leslie, a local mechanic portrayed by Jennifer Jostyn, and the two embark on a road trip to California in a car she has been renovating.

Barry by far is the independent. He never wants a relationship…that is until he meets Audrey, portrayed by Burns’ real-life girlfriend Maxine Bahns. Although at first, they argue, the love connection soon erupts. They embark on a relationship and Barry’s independence is something he continues to struggle with.

In the end, Molly figures out that Jack is cheating on her. He refuses to talk about it and leaves. After contemplation, he breaks off ties with Ann and visits his father’s grave. Via a poignant voiceover piece, he talks to his father about his mistakes and his plan to rededicate himself to a faithful marriage. He returns home to make amends with his wife. The movie ends with Barry, Pat, and Jack all meeting up at the family home. They decide collectively to pursue love and happiness, forgive themselves for the past and wisely plan their futures.

The Legacy of The Brothers McMullen

What was so special about The Brothers McMullen of 1995 was what it did for the film market. How could a $28,000 film made by an unknown end up bringing in $10-million? There are big budget films that cost $10-million to make and never recoup their production budgets! For decades film companies believed that they had to have all the right elements to tell a lucrative story. Burns’ film proved them wrong. It proved that with a poignant story, solid filming, and a determined spirit, films could not only come to life but earn big dollar returns. The proof was the creation of “Fox Searchlight Pictures”, a subsidiary of Fox. The division was created to support arthouse and independent films. What was evident with the move was that big-name studio heads were now aware of how much money was as-yet untapped in the mainstream market.

 

The Brothers McMullen opened the door for filmmakers everywhere. Though they may lack a budget, a high-profile cast, a beautiful setting or even a tangible plan, they still had the support of independent filmmaking communities. The film and its director/writer Ed Burns gave that independent community the blueprint and hope that their projects had potential. Since that time, big studios have taken notice by offering their own support of great stories and talented people.

The Man Behind The Brothers McMullen – Edward Burns

Film director Edward Burns made a name for himself on the big screen through hard work and creativity. Though it seemed like a quick rise to fame, Burns was not an overnight success. It took a few years for him to find his place in the market. One thing that developed his success though was his family’s love of cinema. It was this love that would call to Burns and push him to the film world as a professional. This is the story of how he honed his craft and became one of the most successful self-made directors of the time.

Edward Fitzgerald Burns was born in January of 1968. He grew up in a normal Queens neighborhood in a Roman Catholic household. Almost immediately film and the small screen would take on a central role in his life. He noted throughout his career that films were what brought him and his family together. He stated “Regardless of what happened, we knew that sitting in front of the television to watch a film was family time…everything we argued about was gone!”

It was possibly the calm that film brought about that opened the door for a young Burns to start considering his place in the film. He went to college and almost immediately was drawn professionally to cinema. One of his first jobs was as a production assistant for various television programs. This is the training ground where he learned that this was the right place for him. Getting an inside view of how productions were pieced together, was exactly what Burns wanted. He wanted a real-life education to learn the basics. Having worked on such important television shows as “Entertainment Tonight”, he was able to confirm that this was where he wanted to study his life’s work.

While acting as a production assistant, Burns took his craft seriously. In his free time, he started working on his own films. The first one was called “Brandy”, which was a 45-minute long film that was shown in 1992 at the Independent Feature Film Market. It was received warmly by critics and its production value was esteemed. This opened the door for more work from the young director. Almost immediately after “Brandy” and its release, he moved to a new project called The Brothers McMullen.

The Film that would change everything

The Brothers McMullen was a film that Ed Burns wrote, directed and starred in. It was an ambitious task, but he already was familiar with the content—an Irish-Catholic working family struggling with relationships, love, and self-awareness. As an ode to his upbringing, Burns explored the lives of the three McMullen brothers as they stumbled their ways through their collective lives. What made the production so unique though was the way it was brought about.

Burns wrote the film and directed it. He was limited to his production assistant income and set aside about $30,000 for the entire film’s budget. Of course, this was virtually unheard of, but determination and vision drove the young director to carry on with his dream. He also had to find creative ways of making his film work. He filmed it in his own house in Long Island. He used his then-girlfriend Maxine Bahns as his leading lady. Other actors were located via ads in newspapers promising no cash compensation but “lunch” would be provided daily. Though he had the goal of creating a successful film, he was still working throughout the weeks so filming happened only on the weekends. In total, it took 8 months to complete filming.

When the film was done, Burns was still working at Entertainment Tonight. One high-profile guest was Robert Redford. Burns approached Redford with a copy of The Brothers McMullen and asked him to watch it. Redford did and was so impressed with what he saw that he contacted Burns and asked if he could include the film at the famed “Sundance Film Festival”. The showing brought Burns an additional $200,000 in funding to do some post-production cleanup and to create a soundtrack for the film.

Upon release, The Brothers McMullen brought in over $10-million in the US alone. At the time, this was enough to make it one of the biggest independent films of the day. For just $30,000 it turned around and created not just a well-received film, but a new director who garnered much respect due to his initial release. In the end, the film walked away with the 1995 “Sundance Film Festival” Grand Jury Prize, the “Independent Spirit Award” Best First Feature and the “Deauville Film Festival” Jury Special Prize for Edward Burns.

Wearing more than on hat

Although Burns was noted as a top-notch director, he was known for taking on many hats in his various productions. Not content with just being the director, he used his talents to develop his own acting and writing abilities. Following up The Brothers McMullen he wrote, directed and starred in She’s The One with the same triple-threat talents. His second film was much more notable because of its big-dollar budget and its big-name stars. It was an ensemble drama starring Jennifer Aniston, Amanda Peet, and Cameron Diaz. He quickly moved on to another project called Sidewalks of New York.

What made Burns so unique when he was working on his first few films was first, his talent with all aspects of filmmaking. From acting the lead roles to writing to directing—Burns was able to manage the time-consuming demands of the work. Another unique element of his storytelling was his ability to shoot big-vision films on a shoestring budget. He spoke about his techniques citing filming with hand-held cameras and using personal locations. A studio would hand him $200,000—only a fraction of what their film budgets were for other projects – and Burns could create a film of high quality in storyline and production.

One thing that Ed Burns has always done was to share his wisdom and experience with up-and-coming directors. He stands by his commitment to small budgets/big vision productions. While other directors may demand high compensation and budgets, Burns has always maintained that

“You can make a movie for no money…and have a blast!”

As a commitment to this statement, in 2012 the director established a screenwriting contest to celebrate directors who were looking for production assistance. Well before the more popular method of creating an online buzz, Burns was a visionary with showing would-be directors that money is not a necessity to do what they love!

Ed Burns is one of the most innovative and resourceful film directors, writers, and producers of all time. Not only has he been able to create a career of outstanding works, but he has done it up against odds that would have felled lesser men. With shoestring budgets and hand-held cameras, Burns has managed to create some of the most well-respected and in-demand stories of all time. His method of completely immersing himself in the art form of film has also spoken volumes to his dedication and talent in the market. Likely, he will continue to have groundbreaking success on his own terms.


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