There will be plenty of huge Hollywood celebrities at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, which starts today in Park City, Utah, but inevitably, the biggest star of the festival will be someone you probably don’t know yet. Every January, an artist — typically a young filmmaker — comes to Park City with a story to tell (and sell) and emerges as the Next Big Thing. It started with Steven Soderbergh when sex, lies, and videotape opened everyone’s eyes near the dawn of the independent renaissance in 1989, and it became an annual tradition as the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and David O. Russell were discovered by Hollywood. Last year, director Benh Zeitlin became an overnight sensation when Beasts of the Southern Wild became a Sundance smash, and the buzz hasn’t worn off — last week, his movie received four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director.
But the most famous of rags to riches Sundance fairy tales remains Ed Burns, who was a lowly production assistant at Entertainment Tonight when a chance encounter with Robert Redford helped get The Brothers McMullen into the festival. His charming drama, which told the story of three Long Island brothers wrestling with life-altering decisions, featured a no-name cast (that included Connie Britton), but that didn’t matter to the smitten Sundance jury that awarded it the Grand Jury Prize.
Burns, who returns to Sundance this year as a member of the U.S. Dramatic Jury, looks back on his incredible first Park City experience, which still serves an inspiration — and sound advice — for filmmakers whose lives are about to change.
There were so many lucky, little breaks that needed to fall into place for McMullen to happen. I made the film when I was 25, when I was working as a production assistant on Entertainment Tonight. And during that year, I sent a rough-cut VHS copy of the film to every producer, agent, distribution company, and film festival, and we were rejected by every single one of them. I maxed out the credit cards, in debt, basically convinced that nothing would ever happen with McMullen given the stack of rejection letters. But I knew Sundance was the big one and I had my application. I forget what the fee was at the time but it was more money than I could really afford. But I thought, “You know what? It is Sundance , so why not just fill out the application and go for it.” So we submit the film… and we hear nothing.
At some point after that, I’m working at Entertainment Tonight and we are doing an interview with Robert Redford for Quiz Show. So I take a VHS copy with me to the junket and I have my 35-second spiel prepared, and I know the minute the interview is over, I’ve got basically 30 seconds to give it to him. I stop him at the elevator, and say, “Hey, I’m an independent filmmaker. I made this film. It’s a very personal story. It’s been submitted to the festival but I thought, why don’t I take a shot and give it to you as well.” And he basically just said, “Oh, thank you very much. We’ll make sure that someone takes a look at it.” That was kind of it.
Months go by and around Thanksgiving, I get a call from Jeff Gilmore, who’s running the festival and he basically says, “Look, we got a copy of this movie of yours. It says it’s a rough cut. Have you finished the film?” I say, “Yes I’ve finished the movie” — which I’m lying, we didn’t finish the movie. He says, “So what’s the running time now?” Given that I’m a Woody Allen nut and most of Woody’s movies run about 90 minutes, I just said, “Oh, it’s about 90 minutes.” He said “What scenes are cut?” I just make up a couple scenes. He goes, “Well, I’m happy to hear that. That’s good news. We’ll be in touch.” End of the week, I get the official letter.
We then had two months to raise $50,000 to finish the film, recut the movie, and then transfer it to 35 millimeter. My dad had a friend who had a friend who worked on the lot at Fox. He was an Australian guy named David Evans, and we basically asked him to get McMullen over to Tom Rothman, who was just starting Fox Searchlight. And as Rothman tells the story, being new to the Murdoch empire, he thought, “When an Australia guy hands you a movie, I figured I should watch the thing.” He really dug it, and he reached out to us and did a deal where for $50,000, Fox Searchlight would get a first-look deal on the film at the festival.
I still had a full-time job so I was working in this editing facility where we could get in after 8 o’clock at night and then we’d work to 4 or 5 in the morning. But the movie isn’t ready in time, so I need to get on the plane to arrive at Sundance and the print is going with my producer Ted Hope the following day. He’s going to land with the print and we’re going to deliver it to the Egyptian Theater that day. So to sit there in the theater and see it projected — it’s the first time that any of us who worked on the film were seeing the film projected, period, let alone seeing it projected with an audience.
The first screening is really the moment that my life changed. Even back then, a lot of the films had stars in them, and we had this little no-name movie. The movie starts, I’m still in the lobby. They saved me a seat sort of near the back of the theater, in the middle, because I wanted to get the real, full experience. I was sitting down next to this old woman, and I’m a nervous wreck. I’m probably white as a ghost. Then, the audience begins to laugh where they were supposed to laugh. And halfway through, the woman reaches over and grabs my hand and says, “I think you can stop worrying. It seems like they like the picture.” There was applause afterwards. You do the Q&A and then after the Q&A, the line at the side of the stage to ask us questions and to meet us literally went up the side of the theater. Literally, five days earlier, I was getting coffee as a production assistant. It was a surreal, trippy, heady, heady experience. Forget about first-time filmmaker, any filmmaker dreams of that kind of screening.
Afterwards, we got all the heads of the distribution companies coming up to my lawyers saying, “We want to make a bid.” Agents handing me their cards. Producers telling me that I got to get out to L.A. to take a meeting. So now the film has nice buzz, so at the second screening, Redford is there. And afterwards, I get to meet him, and he basically says, “You’re the kid who handed me the film. I’m glad everything worked out.”
We were one of the very first films sold that year, to Fox Searchlight for $250,000, which back then, was considered a real nice number. It was all well beyond my hopes. My folks came out. My mom got to meet Redford. McMullen was a full family affair. The full cast, all of us shared a condo way outside town. It was kind of like how we made the movie. There were the eight of us in this two-room condo together, sleeping on couches, on the floor, and a couple of bunk beds. That just added to the experience: for all of them who had gambled with me and worked for nothing and stuck with me over the course of eight months while we made the film, for us all to be there on that night together, it was like a big dream come true for all of us.
That moment is great and young filmmakers absolutely should embrace it and enjoy it because as quickly as it comes, it also dissipates. James Schamus, who came on board after we got accepted to Sundance, gave me great advice. He said, “Look, there’s no guarantee that we’re going to sell the film. However, during those 10 days when you’re up there, you will never be that hot again, regardless of what happens with the film. So my advice to you is write another screenplay and have it in your hands when you get up there, because someone’s going to see your movie and say, ‘Well, we don’t want this one but what do you want to do next?’ And if you have another script in your hands, given the excitement of the festival, someone is going to say, ‘Okay, we want it.'” So I sat down in those two months when we were trying to finish McMullen, and I write She’s The One. Then the amazing thing happened that McMullen sold and Tom Rothman then said “What do you want to do next?” and I handed him the script. So by the time that I left Sundance, not only had we sold Brothers McMullen, but I knew that I then was going to be making a film for Fox that upcoming year.
My 27th birthday was the day that we won the Grand Jury Prize so it really was one of those weird Cinderella stories. Entertainment Tonight was there and after the awards ceremony, they said, “Are we going to see you at work on Monday?” Obviously, the answer was, “No.”