The Fitzgerald Family Christmas marks writer/director/star Edward Burns’ return to capturing the working class milieu of his earlier work in films like indie darling The Brothers McMullen. Somewhat surprisingly, the film also marks Burns’ very first foray into a making a film about the holidays.
In the film, Burns plays Gerry, a grown man who still lives with his mother (Anita Gillette) on Long Island. He also lives with the burden of running his family’s bar and filling in for his father (Ed Lauter), who walked out his large Irish family – a total of seven siblings – twenty years ago. When his father announces that he’s dying and wants to spend his last Christmas with his family, the disparate siblings come together and debate whether or not they are ready to forgive their father for the transgressions of the past. Amidst all the family drama, Gerry also strikes up a romance with at-home nurse, Nora (Connie Britton).
Here’s what the very prolific Burns had to say about his inspirations for the film, the benefits of working with friends, how VOD is changing independent film, and a little rumor that he might guest star on Nashville…
Obviously, this film continues a Mercury Theater-like tradition of you working with a lot of familiar faces – including Connie Britton, Michael McGlone, Caitlin FitzGerald, to name a few – how do you feel that your filmmaking benefits from that established sense of familiarity?
The biggest thing is the fact that a lot of these actors – and this is something that I did not anticipate – because they had worked together before and some of them have known each other for a long time. Mike McGlone, Anita Gillette, and myself have known each other for eighteen years now. So the minute we started rolling cameras, we had a sense of real chemistry among the actors.
These guys all know how I work – they like to work that way. I am comfortable with how they play with my dialogue. The other thing is, other folks like Mike McGlone, Connie Britton, I know from way back when. I’ve always loved what they do with my written work. They just know how to deliver those lines, you know? Those are all the reasons why I love to work with them.
Perhaps most notably, one of the repeat actors in this film is “Edward Burns.” Do you have a process for “directing yourself,” so to speak?
You know, the very first silent black and white movie I made in film school, I cast myself – just because I was too intimidated to approach the kids in the theater department. So, I got the bug. And I’ve been doing it ever since. Any actor will tell you that they have the intent of going with a particular take. So, I have to go with my gut on that. I make sure that I get enough takes of myself.
So, on any scene where I’m a little unsure of my performance or what’s required is a little outside of my comfort zone, I’ll identify those scenes in pre-production and my producer – who’s been with me since Sidewalks of New York, twelve years or something – and my DP, we’ve done seven films together. Those two guys, we get down and we say, “Okay.”
For example, that scene with me and Connie in the car, when I kinda sense that I am fed up with my family. Those two guys…I said, “you’re going to have to direct me now.” And they did. And also, back to your first question, Connie, who I have worked with now four times, and who I really trust, I said, “Connie, anything you think I can do, let me know,” and she gave a few nice little helpful suggestions.
This is your first film directly about the holidays. Did you find it difficult to make this film appropriately poignant for the holidays without going into schmaltzy territory?
Yeah, I did not want this to be that charming, romantic, funny, “hey, it’s the crazy Irish family together for the holidays” movie. And the Christmas movie idea came a little bit late in the process. I was already writing the screenplay about kids trying to get together for their mom’s birthday. And I was trying to think, “I need a device to try to get everybody under one roof for a number of days.” I also needed a plausible reason why so many things might be coming to a head for the characters. So Christmas is a great time for that, because when you get together, there’s a lot of pressure – the pressure for everyone to get along. And in that, sometimes, the ugliness comes out.
Also, the Christmas season, people announce that they are having a kid, getting separated. I know that’s when a lot of folks – I know in my family and my friends – that’s when the announcements are made. So [the film taking place during Christmas] is a great device to satisfy two things.
Then, the theme for this itself is going to be a movie about forgiveness. That’s one of the themes of Christmas, and it all kind of ties together nicely.
And the “schmaltz question.” I guess when I was writing the script, I got up to the part where the dad announces that he is dying. And I had to make a decision about that. That wasn’t something I had anticipated putting into the script. If I’m going to go down this road, I have to make everything more dramatic and these characters are going to have to cover a rockier ground. And I thought about It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a perfect blend of, you know, the light and the dark, comedy and drama. So that was sort of my goal. I wanted the audience to go on a tougher journey that hopefully when the family got together at the end, it felt earned.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is the most recent project of your to have debuted on VOD before it hits theaters. What do you think are some of the benefits of using the fairly new VOD platform versus a more traditional, strictly theatrical release?
The VOD platform, in my opinion, has saved indie cinema for a lot of us. This year, a handful of indie films that were released the more traditional way in New York and LA, holding off of the VOD, iTunes platforms…I don’t know the exact numbers, but you can probably count on one hand the number of films that really work and turned a profit in theatrical.
However, if you look at Box Office Mojo, there are dozens and dozens of movies that top out at, you know, a quarter of a million dollars, or a half a million dollars in the box office. I think the movies that are released by Fox Searchlight and the big companies.
I think the writing is on the wall a little bit that moviegoers are still going to flock to the cineplex for the event films. But for those of us who are making the smaller, character-driven films, smaller comedies and dramas, that audience is already getting that same type of entertainment through this great cable programming – whether it’s Mad Men on AMC or programming on FX, HBO, Showtime – so they’re used to that kind of scripted entertainment being available to them at any time they want it when they want it.
And way back with Purple Violets, when that movie was on iTunes, and the last couple of movies on VOD, we saw, “that’s our audience.” And they are very comfortable and know how to navigate VOD. Comcast told us that the difference between the movies Nice Guy Johnny in 2010 and Newlyweds in 2011 that indie film on demand had gone up 75%.
The big difference is The Fitzgeralds is available is 45 million homes. If I were to have released it traditionally, it would have been playing on one screen at Cinema Village and one screen in LA. And those movies are available for two weeks. To those of us that are okay with folks seeing our films on the small screen, it’s a great option.
I noticed also how a lot of the siblings – most notably your own character, Gerry – are almost coded, class-wise, by their wardrobes. Gerry wore a dated-looking leather jacket and chain, etc. To what extent did you have input on wardrobe, and do you think it helped your cast get into character with greater ease?
Wardrobe and location are a big part of any film. But especially this film, where I’m looking at the seven siblings and they’ve gone off in very different directions. You’ve got everybody from the oldest sister in Queens and I wanted her home and her dress to reflect that. And a character like mine, who stayed home and who has taken over this struggling bar and is still a real Long Island guy, his wardrobe reflects that. Like, my character wears a cross outside these hideous argyle sweaters.
Everything from the look of the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, to all the tchotchkes, to little things that the characters wear.
Any time I am writing a script, I always think about environment. So, I drove home to Valley Stream, Long Island and just kind of drove around and walked around the Green Acres Mall. And I am sort of trying to snap pictures of people and how my characters dress. For Caitlin FitzGerald’s character, I took a bunch of photographs, and I said, “This is who you are. That’s how you are going to dress.” And she got that. And for my character, I ran into someone I know and essentially just copycatted his outfit. I was actually at the mall, and he was wearing the crucifix outside of his shirt, and right there in the mall on Long Island, I said, “that’s what my character will wear.”
Circling back to my first question about working a lot of the same people over the years, I read online recently that you are interested in guesting on Connie Britton’s new show, Nashville. Is that something that you really see happening, and if so, who would you want to play?
I mean, somebody asked me once if I would go on the show. Yeah, absolutely! Though it’s not something I’m actively pursuing.
Connie’s so good to me and she has a crazy busy schedule and her part on the page [in The Fitzgerald Family Christmas] is much smaller than it is in the movie. When I sent her the script, I said, “Look, if you respond to the film, I promise you I’ll beef your character up.” And she said, “you know, I’m really busy, but I love the script and I’d love to be a part of it. I think I’m going to have a week in January when I’m available, so let’s try to work this out.”
She bent over backwards to help me and participate in this film. So if Connie ever said, “Eddie, are you showing up? We’re going to fly you down to Nashville and you’re going to play this guy,” I’m on the plane the next day.
The Fitzgerald Family Christmas is currently on VOD opening in select cities December 7th. For more information, please visit the film’s website.