Why Filmmaker Ed Burns Makes Movies for $10,000

| February 28, 2012 4:00 AM video

Filmmaker Ed Burns pays the bills with Hollywood acting gigs, but prefers making indie films in New York. His most recent film, "Newlyweds," was made for $9,000. AP/Matt Sayles.

Filmmaker Ed Burns said he plans to bring his career full-circle sometime in the next two years, with a sequel to “The Brothers McMullen.” Speaking in an interview with Rafael Pi Roman for NYC-Arts, Burns said he began working on the sequel script at the behest of director Tyler Perry.

Those familiar with independent cinema know why that’s exciting news. In 1995, the Long Island native wrote, directed and produced “The Brothers McMullen” for just under $25,000. After winning the Sundance Film Festival‘s Grand Jury Prize, the movie went on to gross $10 million and launched Burns’ lucrative acting career, including a role in the upcoming HBO show, “40,” also starring Michael Imperioli and Michael Rapaport.

But this whole time, Burns has kept busy behind the camera. He’s helmed writing, directing and producing duties on seven more films. All are set in New York, where he still lives, and all — including his latest, “Newlyweds,” which was shot for $9,000 — were produced with humble budgets. In discussion with Pi Roman, Burns explains why he prefers low-budget filmmaking, how he shoots on the cheap and why new distribution channels should excite aspiring (and broke) auteurs.


Filmmaker Edward Burns speaks with Rafael Pi Roman about how and why to shoot movies on a shoestring budget. Video courtesy of NYC-Arts.


Why Low Budget?

“The primary reason really is to protect the process. You can tell the story that you want to tell without any interference from anyone. Usually that interference comes from someone who is going to write you a check for several million dollars,” said Burns.

Know Your Limits

According to Burns, there are definite things you’ll have to work without if you’re going to make a movie for $9,000:

  • Movie stars
  • Camera stabilizing equipment
  • Film stock (he shoots digital)
  • A large crew to handle props and wardrobe

“Just Go Make Your Movie”

Burns advised young filmmakers to make use of the cheapest tools they can find.

“You guys have access to cameras that cost under $3,000. Why not just go make your movie? And it’s up to you to fight the good fight, market the hell out of your film and use Facebook and Twitter and email blasts and do all of the things indie rock bands have been doing for the last 10 years,” said Burns.

The same do-it-yourself principles, he said, apply to writing, casting and scouting locations.

“With ‘Newlyweds,’ after I plotted out what was going to happen to these characters, I had to figure out where do they live, where do they work? I had a friend owns a gym, so Buzzy, the character I played, he’s a trainer,” said Burns.

Burns shot “Newlyweds” in real places, using a small camera and three-person crew, where regular people were going about their daily routines. This process, he said, often resulted in cinematic serendipity, like when an intoxicated restaurant patron butted into a scene.


Watch the trailer for Ed Burns’ “Newlyweds.” The full film will be available for download in May. Youtube/EdwardBurnsFilms

Forget the Theater

Around 2006, Burns noticed that independent films were grossing less and less in theaters. The following year, Burns became the first filmmaker to open a movie exclusively on iTunes.

“The difference was, our opening weekend we could play to the arthouse crowd in New York and L.A., or we could be pumped into 45 million homes,” said Burns.

“Newlyweds,” which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011, will be available for download on May 22, 2012.

The Virtues of Working in New York

Although he makes occasional sojourns to Los Angeles for acting gigs, Burns continues to dwell and make films in New York for two primary reasons.

First, he said, New York City continues to be the capital of  the independent filmmaking. But more importantly, the city continues to be a muse.

“New York City is the greatest co-star an actor can have,” said Burns, who added, “The city is constantly inspiring. I still take the train all the time and I just sit there and I watch folks and listen to folks.”

  • Vanessa

    I love Burns’ tutorials and information. However, what are his thoughts on Union vs. Non Union?

    • geraldine Winters

      Depends on your budget and how much control you’re wiling to give up over your film. Read the fine print on sag experimental or low budget. It seems they virtually own your film. Read carefully before you agree they will sue for their $$, saw it happen!

  • geraldine Winters

    I am so on the page with Burns! I believe and have proven that good films can be made on digital with small casts and non star players. New York city is filled with amazing talent willing to work for small salaries if they consider it worthy. I made my multi-award nominated feature Non Compos Mentis (A mind that is not intact) for $3000- and a cast of four principle actors. Its all in #1. the writing 2. the casting 3. and the DIRECTING! Glad to see its really art to Burns and not some powerful machine driving his work. I love his acting and his films he’s a testament to Indy passion!

  • Rick

    It looks like Ed has a formula that works. I would like to have more info on equipment he used and the editing software …. etc. The back bone of film making is the equipment from the cameras POV.

  • T.E.

    The downside is that filmmaking on this scale can only ever be a hobby, carried out by hobbyists. Even with a crew of ten people, a budget of $9,000 means that someone (if not everyone) is working for free. The professional cinematographer–who has made it his life’s work to interpret story through light, shadow, and color, and who presumably needs to feed himself and his family–is inaccessible to a production like this; he simply can’t afford it, and so the director will have to shoot it himself, or bring in someone “looking for a break” (meaning, probably not very good). Same goes for editors, sound recordists, and frankly, actors. Either that, or you crew your film with trust fund babies and Hollywood’s rich kids, which isn’t exactly what Cassavetes had in mind when he hit the streets of New York to make “Shadows.” Best case scenario: an occasional “Faces” or “Momma’s Man.” More likely scenario: a generation of Swanbergs (lord help us), but with the rarest of exceptions, there will never emerge from this model a “Midnight Cowboy” or a “Dog Day Afternoon”, something that has a hope in hell of mattering twenty years from now.

  • Joe

    What about E&O insurance? That’s about $8,000 by itself.

  • Anon

    Thank you, Ed Burns. Film is my love, maybe my only love, in this
    life. Thinking L.A. would be a worthwhile endeavor to find more work
    and continue to build and grow, I sit here now hating (as I always have,
    just tried to be open minded) the people here, hating the industry as
    it represents itself in this portion of the world (the studio system and
    whatnot), and have, quite sadly, found my passion for filmmaking
    (again, my only true passion) fading a little. This article, your words
    (if you read this) have inspired me to remember what brought me to love
    film so much – the independent pictures that had no one I recognized,
    but told a deep and moving story. I’ve begun work on a script I feel
    will have some compelling messages and depict “real life,” in a sense,
    and am so happy to imagine being able to actually make it without having
    to worry about huge cast attachments, financial reports, and the back
    and forth with private equity holders that tends to happen when hundreds
    of thousands of dollars are involved. Thank you for reminding me why I
    fell in love. I hope this re-ignites the flame and it stays lit long
    enough to be a productive part of film without playing into the
    Hollywood system (I fucking HATE HOLLYWOOD!! AGGHH!!)

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