Thanks to Dad, Filmmaker Debuts With 'The Brothers McMullen'

'KNOWING what I know now,'' writer, director, producer, actor Edward Burns repeated, ''would I still make 'The Brothers McMullen?' ''

His answer: ''In a heartbeat.''

Burns's film concerns the adventures of three hip and humorous Irish-American brothers from the New York suburbs. It cost $25,000 to make and was filmed at his parents' house on Long Island, where the filmmaker, now in his mid-20s grew up. It was also produced with money from his dad, a retired sergeant of the New York City police.

It won Grand Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

''It took eight months to make, for we could only work on weekends. Dick Fisher, my PD [photography director], and I worked weekdays for 'Entertainment Tonight' in New York. ''I was a go-fer, got people coffee, and drove the van. That was daytime, but nights I was writing 'The Brothers McMullen.'

''I wasn't an overnight anything,'' the soft-spoken Burns explains. ''I'd known since I was 12 that I wanted to write. I have a bureau full of rejection slips to prove it.

''Three years ago, my dad said, 'You wanna be a filmmaker, so let's go make a movie.' ''

In the Burns family, it was Mama who was the movie buff. Growing up, she'd take Eddie and his young brother and sister into Manhattan to see every Neil Simon play or movie.

''As a kid,'' Burns says, ''I'd rather have seen 'Animal House' than 'Annie Hall,' but all that other [culture] rubbed off on me. After my dad's go-get-em' talk, I told him I had this idea about an Irish- American family. There's been movies on Afro- Americans and Jewish Americans, but why not about us?

''When I finished writing 'The Brothers McMullen,' I didn't send it to Hollywood, but I put an ad in Backstage Magazine, listing that a first-time producer with no budget wanted actors to work for no money. My reply - 1,500 photographs and brochures.''

The first person to audition for the part of the younger brother, who had to tell his girlfriend he wasn't ready for marriage, was Michael McGlone.

''He was so good,'' Burns explains, ''that I thought 'this is going to be easy.' Not true. I just happened to get the best first.

''The following week I was going to work on the subway, when this kid sits next to me, and keeps staring at me. Finally, I looked up, 'What?'

'' 'Aren't you the guy who's producing the movie, and I read for you last week? Did I get the part or what?'

'' 'Sure,' I gulped, 'didn't you know?' ''

That's how casting went. The older-brother role is played by Jack Mulcahy, who two years earlier played softball with Burns. ''I remembered him, knew he was an actor, and phoned to offer him the part.''

The hardest part to cast was that of Burns's girlfriend, Audrey. His real-life best girl, Maxine Bahns, was studying for her Masters degree in classic literature at New York University. On weekends, she'd run the camcorder while he read lines with various actresses. Then he'd do the camerawork, while she read lines with the actors.

He liked the way she did the lines, and finally asked her if she'd play Audrey. She made her acting debut and is a natural.

''There were advantages to filming at my folks' home, for my mom would 'cater' the movie and saw to it that everyone got a good meal. When the film was completed, she served corned beef and cabbage at the wrap party.

And when discouragement set it, his father, Edward J. Burns, provided critical support. Listed as executive producer, he would say things like, ''You're putting yourself in a pressure cooker. You're worrying about end results, instead of the process. It's getting there you enjoy. You don't have a deadline, you don't even have a distributor or a theater for your film, so don't sweat it.''

At first, his movie wasn't well received: Burns sent it to most of the film festivals, and they turned it down; he sent it to distributors, and they rejected it.

But, he grins, ''The luck of the Irish came through when we were accepted by the Sundance Film Festival.'' Knowing that the annual festival usually awards films more esoteric than his, Burns, his family, and cast went out to the festival site in Park City, Utah, with few expectations. They hoped only to have a good time and maybe meet a distributor.

When actor Samuel Jackson announced the Grand Prize winner, Burns's mother let out a scream. And Burns was stunned. ''I don't know how I got to the stage, or what I said. I do know what I didn't say: Maxine told me that I thanked everyone except her,'' he recalls.

That win earned Burns a distributor, 20th-Century Fox, which paid about $750,000, so everyone got paid.

Burns is ready with his next script, tentatively titled, ''She's the One,'' about a New York firefighter and his two sons. McGlone and Bahns will star with Burns, who will direct and produce, and Fox will release it.

''This time Fox has a budget of $3 million,'' Burns says. ''Now who's going to tell me dreams don't come true?''

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