Interview: Writer/Director/Actor Edward Burns Talks NICE GUY JOHNNY
Last week, writer/director/actor Edward Burns' latest film the indie romantic comedy Nice Guy Johnny arrived on DVD via MPI Media. The film stars Matt Bush (Adventureland, One Last Thing) as Johnny Rizzo, who's about to end his low-paying dream job as a local radio sportscaster in Oakland for a dull career as a cardboard warehouse manager in New York at the request of his demanding fiancée played by Anna Wood. While in New York, he's dragged to Long Island by his bed-hopping Uncle Terry (Burns), where he meets a pretty tennis instructor played by Kerry Bishé, who forces Johnny reconsider where he's going with his life.
Burns made his debut 16 years ago with The Brothers McMullen and has since written and directed a dozen films. I spoke to him recently about his film, the continued allured of independent filmmaking and his upcoming projects.
Twitch: Looking at Nice Guy Johnny and some of your other films, they all seem to have the common thread of guys who just can't seem to get it into gear. What keeps bringing you back to that idea?
Edward Burns: You know, [with] this one specifically, I was the guy in crisis two years ago when I first came up with the idea for the film. I had spent two years trying to get two different films made that were bigger-budgeted films than I had done before, and I couldn't get either one made. And my agent came to me and said, "Look, why don't we put the indie dream to bed, and put yourself up as a director-for-hire for a studio film?" It's something I had said "no" to for 14 years. And finally, I thought, you know what? Why not? They told me how much you could potentially get paid for one of these gigs, and I thought, "Look, send me some scripts."
I read a bunch of scripts and there's a handful that are pretty good but most of them are not my cup of tea. But there was one that I thought, "Maybe I could lend my voice to this." I might be able to somehow get some ownership over this material and make it mine. And of course I told my agents and they were very excited about the notion of this and I just said "Give me the weekend to reread the script before I say yes and take the meeting and fly out to L.A."
And that weekend is Johnny's weekend. Johnny's a guy who loves what he does and he has a weekend to think about whether or not he should take better-paying gig--the more fiscally-responsible career path instead of holding onto the thing that he truly loves. So, in this case, it was drawn from an experience that I had had right then. Other times, the inspiration can come from any number of places--a story I hear, something a friend of mine is going through, something maybe I went through years earlier.
Twitch: So you were your own Nice Guy Johnny.
EB: Yeah. I had to make that decision. Was I willing to give up the thing that I loved to do, which is writing and directing my small indie films--which, quite honestly, don't pay anything, really. They're small, so their box office potential is minimal.
And I've never really cared about that. I kind of like doing what I do, but at some point people [asked] "Don't you want to make some real money here?" And from those conversations is where Johnny's dilemma came from. I decided to make the character a much younger guy because I didn't want to make a mid-life crisis story, I wanted to do the kid at the start of his career.
Because I look back at my life, when I was deciding to make The Brothers McMullen, or even before that, when I was first telling people that this is what I wanted to do with my life, there were a number of days with people who thought that that was crazy. "Why don't you go and get a real job," they would say. And I look back at those moments, and had I listened to them, I'd have a completely different life. So, I've always been a believer that if you have that dream and you've found the thing you love to do, then you have to pursue it with everything you've got.
Twitch: The money aside, you haven't found any studio projects that are interesting to you?
EB: Not really. You know, I wasn't a kid in film school who fell in love with the camera and obsessed over cool shots and effects. I was the kid who originally wanted to be a novelist--I've always thought of myself as a storyteller, and you know, the guys I fell in love with are Billy Wilder, and Woody Allen, and later on Truffaut. So I was always sort of obsessed with smaller character stories, dialog-driven films. I'm lucky in that I love to write.
So the idea of picking up someone else's screenplay to go and shoot doesn't interest me. That's not to say that one day I won't do it, but the joy of the process doesn't come from that. It comes from creating the thing.
Twitch: What about the challenge of getting money and getting an independent film made? What's the difficultly like now versus when you were making The Brothers McMullen?
EB: You know, it's never been easy. Right after Brothers McMullen and She's The One it was easy for about a minute. And [then] three years later, I'm making Sidewalks of New York for a million dollars. So, I've never found it easy to raise money.
And again, I think probably because I have found a smaller--like I said before, dialog-heavy, character-driven movies. And my movies don't really fit into--there's not an easy fit because I don't make esoteric dramas, and I don't make straight comedies. The thing I've always tried to do is find the thing that Woody had mastered, which is the balancing of those two very delicate tones.
You look at a movie like Crimes and Misdemeanors and you're dealing with very dramatic situations and then really light stuff. And that's something I've always tried to do and those are just tougher movies to get made, and they're always tougher movies to sell to an audience theatrically.
Twitch: A lot of the humor from the film comes from your Uncle Terry character. Where did he come from?
EB: When I came up with the idea, I wanted the protagonist to be a guy who is nice to a fault--who allows everyone in his life to steamroll him to the detriment of his passions and his dreams. So, when I had this notion of him being nice to a fault, I thought the mentor, then should be the antithesis of him. The mentor should be a guy who's a selfish prick--a total one-way guy.
But I like the notion that, "What if his mentor is giving him advice [that] throughout the entire story, everyone will think is idiotic, and this guy is a bit of a buffoon?" And then you realize that maybe that's not the best advice for everybody, but it's sound advice for our hero. So that's kind of what I wanted to do with Uncle Terry.
And I grew up on Long Island, so I've known dozens of Uncle Terrys.
Twitch: Terry keeps beating on the same drum, that above anything else, marriage is death. And it almost seems to be proven out by a lot of the characters in the movie. How do you feel about that idea?
EB: It isn't my personal belief. The movie we just finished, that just premiered at Tribeca, Newlyweds [also written by, directed by, and starring Burns] explores a couple that's sort of figuring it out and at the end of the film you think that this is a good couple, a happily married couple.
When I look at the film, I don't paint it as "marriage is death," I sort of see as, like any relationship, whether it's a relationship between brothers, father and son, or man and wife, or girlfriend and boyfriend, they're just tough. Relationships are complicated and work and compromise are required in any relationship. And from that--from those conflicts--is where drama and comedy come from.
So, my life and the world I draw my stories from tends to be real people--people just trying to go through the day, trying to manage a marriage, a family, a job, their friends, and that's the stuff they're wrestling with day-to-day. Not to say that I don't love genre films, but I don't find my inspiration as a filmmaker from trying to create a hypothetical about what a guy who holds up liquor stores might be thinking as he's sitting in the car outside of the liquor store.
Twitch: I understand you have another movie coming up, [Asger Leth's] Man on a Ledge?
EB: In that, I play a hostage negotiator and Sam Worthington is--I don't know how much I can give away--Sam Worthington is a guy who appears to be a jumper, and he is the man on the ledge. And I go there to negotiate and he doesn't want to speak to me, he wants to speak to Elizabeth Banks for some reason. So Elizabeth and I work together, and she comes and it's [about] trying to figure out what Sam's deal is and why he's up there on the ledge.
I haven't seen the film yet, but the script is pretty great. It's a thriller--what was that Spike Lee movie with Clive Owen?
Twitch: The Inside Man?
EB: That's it, sort of like The Inside Man.
Twitch: What else do you have coming up?
EB: So, I just finished this film, Newlyweds and we're about to make our announcement Monday who's distributing it--which is pretty exciting. That stars myself and Kerry Bishé who played Brooke in Nice Guy Johnny.
And I'm acting in a movie in August with Tyler Perry called I, Alex Cross. And then I've got an HBO show with Doug Ellin, the guy who created Entourage that we start shooting in October called 40.
Nice Guy Johnny is on DVD now.