Ed Burns: An Independent Force
Ed Burns discusses the long genesis of Public Morals, how his screenwriting process has developed and changed, and why he needed to relearn structure.
By Christopher McKittrick.
Out of all of the independent film success stories to emerge from the Sundance Film Festival in the 1990s, writer/director Ed Burns has done the most of any of his contemporaries to champion independent filmmaking. While working as a production assistant in the early 1990s, Burns wrote, directed, and starred in The Brothers McMullen, an introspective film about three Irish-American brothers shot in Burns’ home of Long Island, New York on a budget of $28,000. A chance encounter with Sundance founder Robert Redford in New York City led to the film being part of the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury Prize. After being acquired by Fox Searchlight and becoming the distributor’s first release, The Brothers McMullen grossed over $10 million.
After writing, directing, and staring in 1996’s She’s the One and 1998’s No Looking Back, Burns acted in his first movie that he did not create himself. That movie happened to be Steven Spielberg’s masterwork Saving Private Ryan. On set Spielberg encouraged Burns to pursue one of his dream projects, an epic about a family of Irish-American cops in New York City. It would take Burns nearly two decades to bring that project to life as the TNT series Public Morals with Spielberg as executive producer, though certainly not through lack of trying on Burns’ part.
In the meantime, Burns continued to be a force in independent film, writing and directing Sidewalks of New York (2001), Ash Wednesday (2002), Looking for Kitty (2004), The Groomsmen (2006), and Purple Violets (2007), the first feature to debut exclusively on iTunes. He followed that with three micro-budget movies that similarly embraced digital distribution, Nice Guy Johnny (2010), Newlyweds (2011), and The Fitzgerald Family Christmas (2012). Burns continued to act in other films while he double-downed on pursuing his New York City epic and found a home for an expanded version of his vision on cable television, now as an epic series chronicling New York City Irish-American cops and gangsters in the 1960s.
In addition to his producing, directing and writing duties on the series, Burns stars as Terry Muldoon, a police officer in the Public Morals Division who straddles the line between enforcement and corruption while trying to raise a family in the crime-ridden Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood of Manhattan.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Burns about the long genesis of Public Morals, how his screenwriting process has changed since The Brothers McMullen, why he needed to relearn structure, and why he thinks nobody asks him to doctor scripts.
You’ve talked about how you have been trying to make movies about Irish American cops and gangsters for seemingly your entire career. How many different scripts did you go through before you wrote the series Public Morals?
The first one was a script titled On the Job, which I wrote for Dreamworks after acting in Saving Private Ryan. That was an attempt to do an Irish-American Godfather set against the cops. It was a 1950s-1960s multigenerational story and we couldn’t get that made. Then other cop films that I couldn’t get made had titles like Fresh Kills and the Chief of D’s, and on the gangster side I had a script called Rainy Dog, we did an adaptation of William Kennedy’s novel Legs that I did with Kennedy, another script called No Sleep Till Brooklyn, and I had a script called Stoolie. Those were all my Hell’s Kitchen gangster stories. Between those six or seven scripts those have been my two passion projects: the period cop movie and the Hell’s Kitchen gangster story. In the last eighteen years I did so much research because the minute you read one book about the history of Hell’s Kitchen that turns you on to another one, like a memoir about a cop from the turn of the century. When I finally came up with the idea for this script, I had a stack of thirty books – non-fiction, memoirs, and novels – that I had dog-eared and highlighted over the years. It was great fun for me to pour back into those to start fleshing out these characters in this world.
Did you end up using any ideas from those old scripts?
Not really. However, I’m definitely going to use a bit of the script for Stoolie for season two. With that said, I took one line from the script of On the Job, which you’ve probably heard in the trailer a few times: “There are the laws and there are the rules.” That was from the opening voiceover of On the Job. That’s the one bit of that script that survived.
Did any scripts of cop movies influence the series? I can’t help but think that the endgame for this series is the events in Serpico.
When we were shooting the pilot, I had an idea. Tim Hutton’s character, Mr. O, is loosely based on my grandfather – he wasn’t a bookmaker, but he had all the other terrible traits that Mr. O had. Austin Stowell’s line “Congratulations, Dad, you’re undefeated against Mom” is a line my father used to say about his father.
I did some research about pool halls in Times Square. I came across a once-famous pool hall called the Ames, and on the Wikipedia page it mentions that’s where The Hustler was shot. So I take a look at my copy of The Hustler, and the pool hall is magnificent. I said to my production designer, “We need to find a room like this and recreate it.” We found an old ballroom in a church in Brooklyn that had the same sort of balconies that the Ames pool hall had. We went into that space and recreated the Ames pool hall down to the smallest detail. We would freeze frame images from The Hustler, blow them up, and tried to recreate the signage on the wall, the trophy case that Minnesota Fats sits in front of, and the water cooler that Paul Newman takes a drink from. Once we did that, we decided to recreate the shot when Jackie Gleeson enters Ames, and one of his guys takes off his jacket and he lights his cigarette and he walks over to where Fast Eddie is playing to have some words with him. We recreated that shot with Tim Hutton doing the exact same thing. It was not only a production design nod to The Hustler, but also a shot design nod.
After we did that, I had this idea to pay homage to all the films that made me fall in love with movies as a kid in film school and made me want to get into this business. As a New York kid, they tended to be New York movies. So Michael Rapaport wears the porkpie hat that Popeye Doyle wears in The French Connection. There’s a great scene in The French Connection where Gene Hackman walks into a nightclub where there are three singers onstage and he says hello to one of the waitresses, gives her a kiss, checks out the girls onstage, and then he sits at the bar with Roy Scheider. We recreated a nightclub to look almost identical to that, and our music composer wrote a piece of music and hired a three-girl band to sing the song. That’s another homage to The French Connection in episode six. Our character Kane wears Johnny Boy’s hat from Mean Streets. There are a ton of winks to The Godfather. There’s a scene in the finale where Brian Dennehy’s character has a pow-wow with all the other Irish mob bosses. We designed that to remind the audience when Don Corleone and the other heads of the Five Families meet. We looked at what they had on the table – they had a fruit bowl on the table, we had a fruit bowl. We recreated bars from The Friends of Eddie Coyle and Mikey and Nicky. Deirdre’s apartment is a loose replica of Audrey Hepburn’s apartment in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The list goes on and on. The winks and nods are for the cinephiles who get off on that kind of stuff, which I do. Once we did The Hustler one, we kept looking for opportunities to have some fun with it.
In the series, Terry is a cop on the take, but he’s heavy-handed about teaching morality to his children. How do you balance the moral compass of characters like that?
What you want to do is be willing to let that line move a little bit. Terry is one guy at home and has his code of ethics there and the rules that he has established in terms of how he wants his children to behave, and then there’s another set of rules and ethics that govern him on the street. Again, he’s dealing with very different types of folks on the street than he is when he is at home. As a writer, it’s fun to play with the idea of who Terry really is. Is Terry the guy at home with his kids and he’s putting on a performance out in the street, or is he actually more of the guy on the street and has to put a performance at home for the kids?
As a writer, it’s a question I tried not to ever answer. A more complicated character is a character who is in flux who is a little bit of both. As we go on in the series – if we’re lucky enough to get a second, third, and fourth season – you start to see how playing both sides of the fence, or trying to be those two different guys, is going to complicate his life.
Twenty years ago this month The Brothers McMullen was released. Has your writing process changed in the last two decades?
The biggest change is that writing is now my full-time job as opposed to trying to get home from work and staying awake to make sure I got two hours of writing done. When I was writing McMullen, screenwriting was a part-time gig and really just a dream that one day I might make money doing. The fact that I don’t need to steal away time is the most dramatic difference.
The other big difference is that I try to approach it the way I think songwriters might approach writing a song when they pick up guitars. When I’m writing, I no longer self-critique during the process. I don’t feel like I have to write the best version of any scene on my first pass. I know I don’t need to let anyone see this. It could just be for me. A songwriter will noodle around trying to find that right chord progression. They won’t stop dead in their tracks, terrified to experiment with the next chord, which I know I was guilty of. I know a lot of other screenwriters are too because they can’t find that right line of dialogue and it paralyzes them or they don’t know how to end that scene and they sit there staring at the page for hours trying to figure that out.
What I discovered years ago was to commit to just writing a bad version of that scene, so you can move on to the next scene. If that’s also a terrible version of that scene, that’s fine too. Move on and keep moving your story forward. What I’ve found is that you end up losing yourself in the storytelling, and all of a sudden you’ve written ten pages. You’ll go back the next day and look at those early scenes that you thought was the bad version and you’ll discover they weren’t nearly as bad as you thought. There were some pieces in there, some lines of dialogue, some thoughts in places where the scene was going that surprise you by how good they are. I force myself to sit down and do my four to six hours a day, but I don’t worry on the first draft whether or not it’s good or bad. I just try to enjoy the creative process and let the thing flow.
That said, the thing that I had to learn with McMullen and the first five or six films I made was that I was hesitant to throw anything out. I thought if I wrote something it would pain me to make that cut because I know how much hard work went into it. For each one of the Public Morals scripts, which are about forty-five pages, I easily throw out more than fifty pages worth of scenes.
I recognized after my film Purple Violets that I had gotten away from respecting traditional storytelling structure. I thought I knew it, but I stopped outlining and stopped thinking about audiences’ expectations. After that film I thought that I needed to go back and re-educate myself. So I went back and read a ton of books on Hollywood screenwriting and story structure. A lot of it I found very helpful and a lot of it I didn’t, but I know going back and having respect for structure helped me enormously as a screenwriter.
Speaking of Purple Violets, after that you wrote and directed a series of micro-budget films – Nice Guy Johnny, Newlyweds, and The Fitzgerald Family Christmas. When you’re writing projects of that size, knowing you don’t have a large budget to work with, does it change the way you write the screenplay?
Absolutely. With all three of those movies I would write down the list of locations that I knew I could get for free. I knew I would be writing more daytime exterior scenes than nighttime scenes just because of the cost of lighting and how time consuming and difficult shooting at night is with a micro-budget. I also knew I would be writing away from any scenes that would require a lot of extras. With those parameters I wrote the scripts. It was a different discipline. Unlike Public Morals, where there are no parameters, I can write that it is the early 1960s, I want to shoot a scene outside the Waldorf Astoria where Muldoon crosses the street on Park Avenue and period taxi cabs are passing, enters the hotel, and goes up to a hotel room. I couldn’t write that scene for any of those three micro-budget movies even in a contemporary story. With Public Morals I could do anything, so I had to unlearn a lot of those things when I sat down to write Public Morals.
Of all the films you’ve written, one in particular sticks out to me. You’re credited with co-writing the 2004 remake of Flight of the Phoenix. It’s the only film you’ve written that you did not also direct. How did you get involved with that?
Tom Rothman, who was the head of Fox at the time, was making that film, and Tom is the man who bought McMullen when he ran Fox Searchlight. He called me up and said that he had this script that needed a dialogue polish and asked if I was interested in doing that. They brought me in and gave me a draft of the script and asked me what my thoughts were. I had some thoughts on dialogue and some minor story ideas. I probably did three drafts of it, and that was it. I never met Scott [Scott Frank, the other credited co-writer]. I have to admit, it was a fun process and I enjoyed doing a dialogue punch-up. But I guess I didn’t do that good of a job because nobody ever asked me to do it again! [Laughs]