Marriage is a sacred institution, but when it goes wrong it can quickly lead you into an institution.
In Ed Burns’ new film 'Newlyweds,' it’s the tensions that unexpectedly erupt in marriages that are under the microscope, when one happy couple’s commitment gets severely tested as their respective family members enter the picture.
You can pick your life partner after all, but you can’t pick your relatives. In Burns’s new film, he plays a hard-working personal trainer named Buzzy O’Rourke who’s married to the rich and ridiculously beautiful Katie (Caitlin FitzGerald).
But the domestic harmony of their relatively new marriage is put to the test by the arrival from LA of Buzzy’s five-alarm emergency of a sister Linda (Kerry Bishe).
As played by Bishe, Linda is variously a mantrap, a force of nature, a neurotic mess, a deeply conflicted lover and at times a gold-plated bitch. A kinder assessment might be that she’s young and completely directionless, not knowing what she wants or who to ask for it.
But in the beginning Linda is Buzzy’s welcome house guest dropping by from out of town, although the picture darkens when she steps out wearing one of Katie’s designer coats without asking (which she promptly loses) and then brings a stranger home from the bar for sex.
The wild-child act has its charms, but those fade quickly when it starts to look like Linda’s just taking advantage of her big-hearted brother. Buzzy’s wife Katie is the first to spot the selfishness of Linda’s actions, and from that moment on the weather is set for storms.
What emerges most sharply is that Burns writes strong roles for women, and his films are fascinated by all the things that make them tick.
“I think going back to the first film ('The Brothers McMullen') and every one I have made since, it has all been about trying to figure women out,” Burns tells the Irish Voice. “It’s also about adoring them and loving them and being fascinated by them.”
It was Burns’ own mother who first pushed him in the direction of his filmmaking career through her fanatical devotion to Woody Allen films.
“Those films really got me excited about being a filmmaker,” he explains.
There was certainly nothing in Burns background growing up in Long Island and Queens that suggested he would grow up and become a famous screenwriter and actor. No career map takes you from Woodside, Queens to upscale Tribeca in the city and a happy marriage to Christy Turlington, one of the world’s top supermodels.
“It’s been a wild ride that I never anticipated,” says Burns, who has two children with Turlington.
“I wasn’t a kid that had those types of fantasies about wanting to be an actor. So there are these moments when I look at my life – especially now that I have kids – and I try to explain to them what my childhood was like.
“That’s when I think wow, this has been an amazing journey based on a handful of lucky breaks on my part. I definitely busted my ass, but there is something to be said for being at the right place at the right time.”
In recent years Burns has decided to self-finance his own features rather than go the traditional route of securing financing from partners or studios who want to influence the final shape of his work. His low-budget gambit has resulted in unprecedented creative control, and along the way he has made a tidy profit to boot. 'Newlyweds' was shot on Burns’s own cameras, and the film will stand or fall on its own merits.
“I did not get into the business because I wanted to make millions of dollars,” he explains. “I got into the business because I was a writer/director who has stories to tell.
“Now that I can continue to tell my small, character-driven stories I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. I have sole creative control and I can make a living doing it. What more can you ask for?”
One of the luxuries of that creative control is the freedom it gives Burns to create his own projects. Next up, his Irish fans will be delighted to learn, is a sequel of sorts to 1995’s Irish American classic 'The Brothers McMullen.'
“The next film I’m doing is called 'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,' and it’s about seven adult siblings who have to decide whether or not they’re going to allow their estranged father to join them in their mother’s house for Christmas dinner,” he says.
Can you think of a more Irish dilemma? It’s exactly the kind of set up that Burns has always excelled at and when he started the project it almost wrote itself, he says.
“I wrote the script in four weeks. It’s as if I had been sitting on these characters for 15 years. Hopefully we’re going to shoot that January,” Burns says.
Family dramas have always been at the center of Burns’s work, and in 'Newlyweds' there’s an interesting tension between love of family and the desire to escape them forever. Relatives can be a tedious lot of people who don’t know how to live or when to die, and grappling with that dual awareness is where the film finds its power.
Everything terrible is something that needs our love, the poet Rilke once wrote. In Buzzy’s case that terrible thing is his sister Linda.
She doesn’t value herself enough to understand why anyone else would be interested in her life or happiness. She doesn’t understand her own effect on people; she can’t connect emotionally to them at all.
But all these shortcoming only make Buzzy feel more protective of her, even when everyone else is running the other way.
“Even though Buzzy doesn’t really know his sister well she is still blood and instinctively he has to protect her. But by protecting her he is potentially costing himself his own marriage. That’s an interesting idea to play with,” says Burns.
“He sees a lot of himself and who he used to be in her. Linda is loosely based on a bunch of people I knew in my early twenties. I would probably say that I may have pulled a Linda once or twice in my life where I stayed in a friend’s apartment a day too long or showed up in the middle of the night after too many drinks and I wasn’t respectful of someone else’s generosity. So I was sympathetic to her and I like the idea of the big brother wanting to protect her from the people.”
Burns’ mother would always tell him about the melancholy streak the Irish have and to this day, he says, even when he’s writing comedies he still has to have the characters you’ve fallen in love with disappoint you or break your heart.
“I don’t know where that impulse comes from other than it’s probably an Irish thing and a reflection of real life,” Burns says.
From Woodside and Long Island to Tribeca and Hollywood, Burns’s life has been an incredible journey already, but he remembers where he comes from.
“Mostly I grew up in Valley Stream, Long Island. A working class suburb on the island that I go back to twice a year just to walk around and let it pull up so many memories,” he says.
“We just went out to shoot a couple of test scenes for 'The Fitzgerald Family Christmas' and it brought everything back home.”
'Newlyweds' will be available on iTunes and Video on Demand on December 26.
Here, catch the preview for it: