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Little 'Brothers' in Big Time : Ed Burns' low-budget film made in his parents' home is opening with the sort of buzz that a young filmmaker dreams of.

August 13, 1995|Karin Lipson | Karin Lipson is a staff writer for Newsday. and

NEW YORK — It feels like 100 degrees out, but Ed Burns is keeping up the frenetic pace befitting a New York-based filmmaker for whom things are hopping.

Casually hip in combat boots, shorts and blue-and-white checked shirt, his dark blond hair slicked back, Burns is leaving a mid-town Manhattan film lab where he's been putting some finishing touches on "The Brothers McMullen," his feature film about growing up Irish-Catholic on Long Island.

On this sweltering morning a few weeks before the film's opening, Burns--who wrote the screenplay, directed and co-stars as one of the three McMullen brothers--is juggling post-production chores with publicity appearances and plans for a new film. Though he appeared the night before on "Charlie Rose," then went with his girlfriend to a 24-hour driving range, there's no sign of fatigue on his boyishly handsome face.

Suddenly, a projectionist thrusts a glossy of his daughter ("She dances! She acts! She skates!") at Burns. "I have to admit, she's fairly attractive," says Burns, grinning slyly at the older man. "I'm quite surprised." And he pockets the glossy, leaving a very happy projectionist behind.

Ah, life is good, when you're 27 and being sought out by talk-show hosts and eager fathers, and your first full-length feature--filmed on a shoestring and a handshake, mostly at your parents' house, and which opened in L.A. and New York Wednesday--is getting the sort of buzz that a young filmmaker dreams of. After being rejected by a host of distribution companies and film festivals, "The Brothers McMullen" walked off last January with the Grand Jury Prize, the top award for features, at the Sundance Film Festival. The rest may not yet be history but it sure feels good.

"First, getting into the festival was easily the greatest day of my life," Burns recalls, hunkering down on his sofa, having scooted from the film lab to the Greenwich Village apartment he shares with Maxine Bahns, who plays his screen girlfriend as well in "Brothers McMullen."

"Then Fox [Fox Searchlight Pictures, a boutique division of 20th Century Fox] buys the film, so there's a new high to my life. And then, less than a week later, the film wins the Grand Jury Prize! So it was a good week."

To put it mildly.

Sharing the good week with Burns was his father, ex-New York City Police Sgt. Edward J. Burns, and his mother, Molly. It was only fitting, after all, that they should be there: Not only did they help bankroll the film, which was made for less than $25,000, they opened the family home to young Ed and his "Brothers McMullen" team for eight months of weekend shooting.

"He would call on Friday and say, 'We're coming in two hours, and we'll shoot in the attic,' " recalls the elder Burns, sitting in his living room. Burns served as executive producer of "Brothers" and helped with the publicity through his P.R. firm.

"After the initial shock," insists Molly Burns, "we got used to it."

Of course, there was that time when she came home from shopping and yelled for her son to help with the packages. He yelled back, "Mom, I'm directing."

In fact, if there is an unnamed co-star in the film, it's the house: A neat, gray model with white trim and an inviting brick stoop, on the corner of a Valley Stream street. The neighborhood, says Edward Burns, is occupied by "cops, firemen, truck drivers, guys who own small trucking firms. There's an Old World plasterer down the block whose son is a good friend of Eddie's."

It's this very street and house that the three fictional McMullen brothers share for a few months in Burns' amiably loose-limbed film. There, they ponder questions of life, love and religion. Should the married Jack (Jack Mulcahy) continue a clandestine affair? Should the cynical, footloose Barry (Burns) give in to the pull of true love? Should the intensely religious Patrick (Mike McGlone) marry his pushy girlfriend? ("Dump her," advises Barry.)

They sit on the stoop, drinking Guinness. They barge in on each other in the bathroom. They harangue each other in the attic. They act like brothers.

While the film's story isn't autobiographical, its sense of brotherly and neighborhood camaraderie comes straight out of the filmmaker's past. "There's nothing like coming home late at night, and sitting in the kitchen and having a beer with your brother, and telling him what's on your mind. I still do it," Burns says, noting that his "Irish twin," as he jokingly calls his brother, Brian, who is only 13 months younger, lives near him in the city.

The dialogue is not only frank, it includes a few swipes at Long Island by the very urban Barry, a screenwriter like Burns himself. "Instead of living in the Village, I'm out here on Long Island with you, Amy Fisher and the rest of the gang," Barry complains.

And yet, overall, the movie's view of the area is benign. "I think I'm one of the few people who loves suburbia," Burns says. "You hear people bashing the suburbs but that's where I grew up. That's all I know."

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