Making independent movies on a budget is green filmmaking by default, says actor-director-writer Edward Burns, whose latest effort, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," opens in select cities Dec. 7 and is also is available VOD. "The way I make my films, without a doubt we have the smallest carbon footprint of any film that's been made in the last year," says Burns, "and that's because we work with a tiny crew; we have no trucks, no trailers. We show up on set in two or three SUVs and when the actors aren't working they're hanging out on set in another room at the location. We have minimal lighting, we use available light whenever possible."
For Burns, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" is a return to the cinematic roots of his first feature, "The Brothers McMullen," and "She's the One," a world he's comfortable with and knows well. "It had been 15 years since I'd written about the world that I come from, working class Irish-American families. I'd been sitting on these characters and these types of voices for so long, the script just poured out of me the minute I started writing it," he says, calling the process "liberating and fun." While he based the characters on people he knows, "They're all composites [though] I'm always pulling scenarios and exchanges of dialog from some of the experiences that I've had."
In the story about six adult siblings and their conflicts with each other and their estranged father in the days leading up to Christmas, Burns plays Gerry, who has taken on the role of caretaker and de facto patriarch. "He's a guy who's trying to do the right thing by his family. He means well, but he may not know what's best for his brothers and sisters, or his mother and father."
The middle of three siblings in real life, he didn't base Gerry on himself. "I know two guys who had to play that role in their families, for very different reasons. Both talk about that at certain points they felt that they had to sacrifice their dreams and had some resentment towards their siblings and their parents for forcing them into that role." Burns also borrowed from an old screenplay idea involving a man who becomes the caretaker for younger siblings, one of whom has drug addiction issues.
When it came to casting, Burns called upon actors from his previous films. There were only two actors — Ed Lauter and Tom Guiry — that he hadn't worked with previously. "We don't work with big budgets so you gotta be OK with dealing with the lack of trappings of an independent film. Also, I like to collaborate, I like my actors to improvise, I like the input in the development of the characters. So I filled out the cast with actors I've worked with before," he explains. Those familiar with his work will recognize Michael McGlone from "The Brothers McMullen," Caitlin FitzGerald and Kerry Bishé from "Newlyweds," and "Nashville's" Connie Britton, who plays his love interest, Nora. "We joked that it felt a little incestuous, given that I played her brother-in-law in 'McMullen,'" he says.
While he's used to wearing multiple hats as a director, writer and actor on his films, Burns noted a few creative challenges. "There are nine characters, all of whom have subplots and character arcs. Trying to juggle those stories and making sure everyone gets enough screen time, and making sure everybody felt like a real fleshed-out character was a challenge." So was achieving the right balance between drama and comedy. "Where in a scene do we break the drama and throw in a laugh? In my family, when things get real emotional, you break that by making light of it. My favorite films and filmmaker is Woody Allen and he's probably the best at being able to juggle both those tones. I think the reason that I aspire to make those movies is they honestly reflect real life," he says.
"The themes I was interested in exploring were the importance of family and the importance of forgiveness. As unworthy as someone can seem of forgiveness, in the end the feeling that comes through from that is worth the work," Burns believes. "I try and make films that honestly reflect what it's like when families get together. Especially during the holiday season there's a lot at stake, a lot of things come to a head, and with that comes a lot of drama. I wanted to make sure that this felt like a real family, not a Hollywood family."
Next on Burns' agenda is a project called "Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall," following a relationship over the course of a year, and it will take a year to shoot. "We're going to make 12 short films, each seven to ten minutes long, so it will be serialized. We'll release those films online and when we're done, hopefully if I've done my job well enough, it'll feel like a cohesive story. While I'm doing that," he adds, "the next year will be spent writing the sequel to 'The Brothers McMullen.'"
But first, Burns and his family will head to San Francisco to spend the holidays with his wife's mother. He admits that adhering to green principles is "tricky" around the holidays. "You always feel guilty when you have two small kids, and toys that are packed in so much cardboard," he says. "We obviously recycle everything, we drive hybrid cars. Those are the basic things we always do."