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Filmmaker Ed Burns on his 'Brothers McMullen' break and surviving 'director's jail'

Filmmaker Ed Burns poses in front of a poster for his first film
Filmmaker Ed Burns poses in front of a poster for his first film "The Brothers McMullan" during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

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Filmmaker Ed Burns burst onto the scene in 1995 with his debut film, "The Brothers McMullen." Shot for only $25,000, it won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and instantly made Burns a star in the indie film world.

But as often happens, fame was fleeting. Burns' follow-up movies, including "No Looking Back" and "Sidewalks of New York," were neither critically nor commercially successful, and soon he was struggling to find people willing to bankroll his work.

Now 47, Burns has written a memoir, "Independent Ed," which recounts his roller coaster career and the trials and tribulations of learning how to make micro-budget films as efficiently as possible. And in another surprising turn, Burns is developing a police drama called "Public Morals" for TNT.

When Burns joined us at The Frame studios recently, we asked him about the impetus behind writing a memoir, the adventurous creativity being cultivated on TV, and the lessons he's learned over his 20-year career.

Interview Highlights:

So is this memoir a filmmaking primer, or a cautionary tale?

Over the course of 20 years and making 11 indie features, I had the greatest high that any independent filmmaker could have — "Brothers McMullen" going to Sundance, winning the Grand Jury Prize, and getting distribution.

Had you told me than that five years later I would be put in "director's jail" and no one in town would be interested in looking at one of my screenplays, I wouldn't have believed it.

So what I tried to do with the book was share and be as candid as I could with all of the flops and the disappointments, but at the same time I was able to regroup and re-imagine my career, so I thought that there were some pretty valuable lessons in there.

Did you really have some sort of epiphany into the mistakes you made, your missteps, and what you could have done differently?

I realized that there are very few careers where folks are able to stay at the top for 20 years. Our careers are a series of highs and lows, hits and misses, and if you have two or three misses in row, then sometimes your career can end right then and there.

During my darkest days, I always knew that if I got really desperate I could write another script that we could do with that ["Brothers McMullen"] business model. That movie turned into "Nice Guy Johnny." Most people probably haven't heard of "Nice Guy Johnny," which wasn't nearly as successful as "Brothers McMullen," but it did get some very nice reviews and it played at a ton of film festivals.

But more importantly, I recognized that indie film fans' viewing habits had changed and most people weren't going out to the art house theaters the way they used to in '95. Why don't we just go straight to [video on demand]? And the movie ended up making several hundred thousand dollars of profit for us, and it got me back into the conversation.

In the book, one of the things I try to say is that you have to create your own opportunities. It would have been very easy for me to say, Welp, I guess it's over. I've had a good, long 18-year run, and this is the end.

But one of the things the book also suggests is that your early success was almost more curse than blessing, and it's specifically about the movie "She's the One," that you made at Fox Searchlight, who distributed "Brothers McMullen." In the middle of getting that film out, you...decided to renegotiate a contract and ask for a little bit more, and as you write in the book, you felt that they took it out on you by not supporting "She's the One," which became the target of their ire.

It's another cautionary tale. At that point, I'm in the business for maybe 12 months. I have a team of advisors, agents and lawyers, and they're advising me that there was more money on the table and I could have more control than I had on the last film. What 27-year-old kid doesn't hear that and say, Well, yeah, of course, you guys know better than me, so let's go for it?

In the book, I then explain that my friends at Searchlight were disappointed that we played hardball with them, and they let me know that it affected our relationship and what we might do together moving forward. I never made another movie for Fox Searchlight, and they never picked up any of my films for distribution.

I knew in my gut that that wasn't the right decision, but again, when you're 27 you don't know any better. If you're that kid coming out of Sundance this year, you're as red hot as you can be, and your agents are telling you all these things and there's some part of you that says, That just doesn't sit well with me, you have to trust your gut and listen to yourself.

You're now working on a TNT series called "Public Morals." What has your background in independent filmmaking brought to that experience? Do you try to retain some of the independent spirit that's infused so much of your work?

This new project has been the dream gig for me. The amazing thing that's happened over the last 15 years on cable television is that the executives at those networks have recognized that the best shows aren't born or delivered by committee. And when there's one person at the helm with a singular vision, great art comes from that.

Two years ago, I was lucky enough to work with Frank Darabont on a TNT show called "Mob City," and it was on that set where I started to think, Maybe TV is an option for me. We did six episodes, so he made six little, indie films, and I thought, Look at this -- the indie film aesthetic has moved over to cable television. I think my 20 years of making these low-budget, run-and-gun shows certainly helped in making this.

This Q&A is just an excerpt of the entire interview. Listen to the audio for more!

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