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Assumptions about autobiographical accuracy in art are usually fallacious, but in The Brothers McMullen, writer/director/co-star Ed Burns forces the issue.
Much of the 27-year-old Valley Stream, Long Island, native’s ultralow-budget feature debut was shot not only in Burns’ home town, but in his parents’ house. The fact that the film depicts the romantic tribulations of three Irish-American brothers (ranging in age from early 20s to early 30s); that Burns plays Barry, the middle McMullen (Burns is himself the middle child of three, although his elder sibling is a sister); and that he cast his girlfriend, Maxine (“Max,” to Burns) Bahns, as Barry’s love interest, only strengthens the suspicion that Burns may not have had to invent all of the events unfolding onscreen.
However, Burns strenuously denies that the film is cribbed from his life. “I had written seven screenplays prior to McMullen, so I had worked out that autobiographical horseshit,” he explains. “In the scripts that I wrote when I was 21, every character should have been named Eddie.”
As to why he chose to stick so close to home for his subject and locations, Burns has a convincing, if prosaic, answer: “I wrote the script knowing I was going to make a no-budget film.” The director claims that impecuniosity was also his original motive for writing himself a part. This assertion would be more convincing if Burns weren’t tall and handsome, with heavy-lidded blue eyes and a charismatic, brooding screen presence. His appearance hardly suggests “behind-the-camera”—he looks more like a Baldwin brother than a Coen.
Burns has, in fact, received offers of parts in other people’s films, but seems to have no desire to be the next David Caruso. “After [McMullen‘s success at the Sundance Film Festival], if a character’s name started with “Fitz,’ “O,’ or “Mc,’ I got the script. I got IRA scripts; I got all sorts of shit,” he says.
Despite Burns’ denial of any autobiographical veracity in McMullen, the suspicion persists that one aspect of the film—the force with which the McMullens demonize their deceased father—must be based on Burns’ experience. The brothers call their father things like “miserable prick,” and one scene in which the brothers are alone together turns into a session of shared memories of paternal verbal abuse. The vehemence of Burns’ presentation of the father as an unlamented ogre is particularly perplexing, since Ed Burns Sr. is credited as the film’s executive producer. Burns Jr. emphasizes that that aspect of the film in particular is not autobiographical. “I must be terrified to write anything close to my dad, so I go far in the other direction,” Burns insists. “We’re really tight. We had a couple of tough years in high school…so he ignored me for about three years, and then when I grew up, he came back. [My father and the McMullens’] have nothing in common.”
Burns admits to having drawn on his own experience in general for the caustic way the brothers interact. At one point, Barry, conferring earnestly with Patrick (Mike McGlone) about the youngest McMullen’s guilt over his intention to abandon his fiancée, blurts out, “How the hell could a fruitcake like you end up my brother?” Such realistic moments enliven several scenes that would have otherwise become ponderous. “One of the things I wanted to do when I sat down to write the script was [to capture the conversations I might have with my brother]…that I’d never have with Max, that I’d never have with my best friends, and certainly never have with my parents. Brian and I would go through periods where we hated one another….I don’t know if the McMullens represent the way most siblings are; I just know it’s the way we are….I have definitely had similar conversations with my brother.”
If cutting repartee is a regular feature of his family life (“It wouldn’t be a Sunday dinner if we weren’t ragging on one another”), one wonders what filming in his parents’ house was like. Burns says it was a generally pleasant experience, despite one incident of paternal interference. “It [was] easy because we were at home; it was a bitch because, you know, my parents were there, telling me to clean up my room. In one of the scenes, you can hear my dad sneezing. We’re in the basement, he’s up in the attic, and you can just catch a hint of it.”
No sneezes will be audible in Burns’ next film, unless they’re in the script. Where The Brothers McMullen was made for only $25,000 raised upfront, with Burns shooting on days off from his production assistant job at Entertainment Tonight, he now has a deal with Fox Searchlight to make another movie (tentatively entitled She’s the One, after the Springsteen song), this time with $3 million to spend.
However, Hal Hartleylike, Burns has no plans to stray from his L.I. haunts; the new film is about a New York City fireman who retires to the Island to fish. The film is sure to renew questions about its degree of verisimilitude, since it also deals with father-son and brotherly relationships, with McGlone again playing Burns’ brother and Bahns, his love interest. However, Burns just works with the resources at hand. “After we did McMullen, I knew I wanted to work with Mike and Max again, so I wrote [She’s the One] as a no-budget script. But now that we have money, we can do more than two takes; we can really have fun with it. I want to do a couple of films with money, but I think I’d like to go back one day and do that sort of run and gun and shoot, with no permits, no help.”