Sundance boy wonder Ed Burns sticks to what he knows for sophomore feature
Edward Burns tried not to squint as he nodded another thin-lipped smile for the photographer from a Brazilian teen magazine.
He didn't seem too sure that he's the kind of hunky Hollywood American that a teeny bopper rag should be wasting a roll of film on. But he's learned to just let that sort of thing happen in the 18 months since becoming the low-budget virtuoso writer-director of the Sundance Film Festival with his $25,000 film "The Brothers McMullen."
Sipping from a bottled water on the deck of his San Francisco hotel room and sporting a day's growth of whiskers, some of the trapping of the movie biz seemed to be creeping in to his life. But he hasn't gone entirely Hollywood just yet -- today he has no sunglasses.
"It's a little bright out here isn't it?" Burns asked rhetorically as he sat down to talk about his second film, "She's The One."
At 28-years-old, he's excited to be making a living from his dream. "There are worse ways to spend an afternoon than talking about yourself and your film," he admitted without a hint of arrogance, which came as a surprise after the self-absorbed characters he's written for himself.
The sarcastic romantic comedy is getting a big push from Fox Searchlight Pictures, in part because it's laden with rising stars. In addition to Burns, who stars and directs, the movie features Cameron Diaz, the girl from "The Mask" and Jennifer Aniston from TV's "Friends."
Burns has learned to recognize when the inevitable questions about Aniston's feature film debut are coming and interrupts a question that began "You know I have to ask..."
"Jennifer, right?" he asked with the grin of a school kid called on in class when he knows the answer. "I knew who she was, but hadn't seen the show."
In the film, Aniston plays a randy young wife whose Wall Street husband seems to have lost interest in sex with her (in favor of Diaz, his mistress).
Burns auditioned dozens of actresses, but didn't get to see Aniston until she could get a break from shooting "Friends." When she finally did audition, he cast her on the spot.
"She was the only one who sort of saw the character's intelligence and knew her cynical side," he said.
As for Cameron Diaz, who was named Female Star of Tomorrow by the National Association of Theater Owners, "She's The One" is one of three films she's made this year.
The former model is emerging as a major talent and she just about steals this movie from the ensemble cast as a man-eating ex-hooker that has two brothers wrapped around her finger.
"It was a tough part because we needed someone who was drop dead beautiful, but we also needed someone who had a sense of humor," Burns said.
The character is reminiscent of Rita Hayworth in "Gilda" -- men fall for her again and again, even after being stung by her callousness.
"Everyone else we auditioned did a real breathy Marilyn Monroe. But Cameron got it. She knew the character would be a little vulnerable."
Burns sounded like he fell under the spell of the character himself as he described her metamorphosis.
"In the original draft she wasn't an ex-hooker, she was just sort of a tough cookie," he stopped himself and laughed, "'Tough cookie!' Where the hell did I come up with that one? I sound like my old man."
While working on "McMullen," Burns heard from a friend's younger brother that one of his college classmate had been arrested for prostitution, and Burns tucked the idea away.
"I said, 'That's a character! I've got to remember that.' (Then) when I was writing the cab scene (in which Burns' cab-driver character picks up Diaz, his ex-fiancee), the line 'I know how you put yourself through school' just popped out."
The story and characters in "She's The One," which Burns wrote after taking "McMullen" to Sundance, bear a strong resemblance to his earlier film.
Both movies revolve around Irish-American brothers and their frustrations with the female sex. Both star Burns himself, Mike McGlone, the first actor to ever audition for the budding director, and Maxine Bahns, Burns' girlfriend, who also proof-reads his stories.
"She's the first one who gets the scripts," Burns said. "She's my B.S. detector from the female point of view."
Now working on a new screenplay, which he promises is not about Irish-American brothers, Burns said his writing process has changed immensely in recent years.
"I was an English major in school and was flunking out. I wrote some of the worst poetry ever and my girlfriend left me," he said with an ironic laugh.
He tried his hand at a novel, but threw it out after three pages ("I recognized it for the shit it was."). Then his father gave him a screenwriting book and he saw that movie scripts were mostly dialogue, his forte.
He wrote and filmed "The Brothers McMullen" while working as a production assistant on "Entertainment Tonight." He wrote at night and on weekends, and when shooting started he filmed whenever he had a spare moment.
"I'd call everybody up after work and say, 'Let's go down to Central Park and shoot the breakup scene before the sun sets.'"
After the success of "McMullen" he found himself on a considerably different schedule, and with $3.5 million for "She's The One."
"Now I write for 10 hours one day but won't get back to it for two weeks."
With "She's The One" percolating with potential, his schedule only looks to get tighter. His new movie is already in pre-production and starts shooting in February.