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Cool ’90s Dude Edward Burns Says Indie Films Aren’t Dead

The guy from 'The Brothers McMullen' talks about fatherhood and his smart new TV show, 'Bridge and Tunnel'


Viewers will feel whatever they feel about Edward Burns’ new show, Bridge and Tunnel, but we’re pretty sure the biggest takeaway will be: “Holy shit! Burns is playing the father of a 22-year-old!!” It’s frankly terrifying. Burns, who — with The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One in the mid-1990s — exploded as the indie film world’s wunderkind writer-producer-director-actor, will turn 53 on January 29. How did this happen! But life goes on with or without us, so accept it we must. And you could do far worse than the lively new show, Bridge and Tunnel, which unfolds in 1980 and follows a group of friends who’ve just graduated college and must contend – or try to — with growing up, ending relationships, and leaving the comfort of their Long Island homes.

Burns, who wrote, produced, and directed the six-episode series, plays Artie, father of the central character, Jimmy (Sam Vartholomeos), an aspiring photographer. Bridge and Tunnel is funny and poignant, steeped in period details (the cars, clothes, hair, songs), and will ring true for kids in college, recent college grads, and their parents. If you’re an empty-nester, or you have strong feelings about how you’ll deal with becoming one, Bridge and Tunnel offers insight and comfort.

Fatherly recently chatted with the easygoing, optimistic Burns about the show (premiering January 24 on Epix), life in New York City with his wife (model-author Christy Turlington) and their two teenage kids, Grace and Finn, and more.

What elements of the bond between Jimmy and Artie did you want to explore?

The most important thing I wanted to explore was these are all working-class kids, so (it’s about) the barrier to entry into the dreams and jobs they want in New York City. It’s very, very hard. No connections. No access to them in that world. And I can speak to being a working-class kid who wanted to be a filmmaker and knew nobody in the film business. That was an impossible dream. Yet, my mom and dad were super-supportive of it, whereas I think, typically, working-class parents might be like, “Well, why don’t you get a job with some benefits so your future is ensured, but do that on the side?” That wasn’t my experience. They both said, “Hey, go for it. I fully support you.”

So, I knew I wanted Artie and Kitty to fully get behind Jimmy’s crazy dream, but knowing I needed to create some conflict in the relationship, I came up with this idea that as much as he’s supportive of it, and loves the fact that (Jimmy) got this great job, the idea that he’s going to leave for six months in Alaska… My kids are in high school, and the college conversations have started. Of course, you want them to go off to school, but it’s, “What do you mean, you’re going to go off to school in California?” That was a fun thing to play with. I just wanted to lean into families that were supportive of one another. When you finish the show, you want to go to bed feeling better about the world. All of the parents (out there), they might be a little nutty, might be a little goofy, but at the end of the day, I think you see they’re supportive of their kids and what they’re trying to do.

A lot of people will be surprised, maybe even freaked out, that you’re playing the dad of a 22-year-old. What was that like for you?

Well, I’ll be 53. In 1980, when my dad was 53, I was 24. So, certainly, at that time, you were getting married earlier and having kids earlier. So, it felt realistic that I would have a kid that age. I have certain friends that I grew up with that have kids that are that age. I knew it was accurate, but at the same point, it was also a little weird given that I’m fortunately still a few years away from that!

And how is this for weird: John Mahoney was only a couple of years older than you are now when he played your dad in She’s the One.

Yeah! And those boys were older than the kids in this. It’s funny, John Mahoney… When [Epix boss] Michael Wright and I were first talking about the show, he mentioned Brothers McMullen and She’s the One, and he was like, “I want it to feel like those families.” That’s when I got the idea, “I’ve got to write a part for myself in this. Let me steal a little bit of John’s character from She’s the One.” Smoking the cigar in the backyard and giving bad advice was certainly one of that character’s traits.

Do you envision Bridge and Tunnel as a one-off or, if the ratings and reviews are strong, do you want to tell more of this group’s story?

I pray that we get several seasons. First of all, the show was originally written as eight episodes, and half the show took place in Manhattan, the bridge and tunnel. We saw these kids at home getting re-acclimated to their childhood friends and families, but it was also going on job interviews, starting (careers). We would see Jill (Caitlin Stasey) at work, being made fun of for her (Long Island) accent and all that. But when Covid hit, 20% of my budget had to go to Covid protocols, testing three times a week, and all that. So, I had to go from eight episodes to six, and then we couldn’t shoot in Manhattan. I had to rewrite all of that, and have them talk about it when they get together for drinks, or to play Wiffleball in the backyard. Hopefully season two, I’ll get to recreate 1980 New York City and the world that these kids will be in.

You mentioned your kids. I’m guessing they’re both home with you and your wife in New York City. How would you describe your family’s experience so far amidst the pandemic?

They’re home, but next week they go back to two days at school and then homeschooling the rest. It’s not enough. They’d love to be back in school, right? But they’re getting to see their friends and getting out of the house at least two days a week, which I know they desperately need.

Indie films are still getting made, but arthouses are gone. There’s Netflix, Epix, VOD, etc. One of your films, Purple Violets, was initially released as a digital download for iTunes…

It was the first one ever!

Right. That was a fresh distribution method back then. What’s your view of the current state of indie films?

It’s interesting. It’s a great time to be an indie filmmaker from the standpoint of there is no barrier to entry anymore. You can pick up this (reaching for his cellphone), and you can make a pretty damn good-looking movie on your phone. You can cut it on your laptop. So, the idea of having to go to some investor and having to raise a couple of million dollars is off the table. If you’ve got the wherewithal to make a micro-budget movie like Brothers McMullen, you can do that now very easily. The challenge, as you said, is then what do you then do with that movie? How do you find an audience? The theaters are gone. But the good news is the Sundance Film Festival is starting up again. It’ll be a virtual film festival this year. But every year coming out of that festival, and all the other great festivals, you do hear about that little tiny movie with actors you’ve never heard of somehow break through and find an audience.

Today, more times than not, they find that audience via a digital platform and not the Angelika or the arthouse in your town. But, look, it’s always been close to impossible to pull off the miracle, you know? It’s just hard. My year at Sundance, the year before there were something like 400 films admitted, and ‘94-‘95, it went up to 800 films. Now, one in 800, those odds were better than probably one in 8,000 today given the ease with which you can make a movie. So, I guess the long answer is, it is still possible. It’s just probably tougher than it’s ever been. That said, though, there are a number of indie filmmakers who don’t even care about mainstream success, or theatrical success, who have built their own audiences via their websites or YouTube or platforms I’m too old to ever stumble across. They’re out there doing it, and they’re figuring out ways to make movie after movie after movie. I think it’s probably more like it is for indie bands and indie musicians now. They’ve got to build their audience via social media. The only problem is they can’t go do a live gig and build their audience that way.

Before you go, we’ve got to ask: What was the one thing from 1980 you felt, visually, you absolutely had to capture in Bridge and Tunnel?

You haven’t seen episode five yet. I grew up in a corner house. When I was a little kid, I’d look out my window, and that’s where the older kids would hang out and smoke weed, drink beer, and sit on the hood of their car underneath a street light. So, we have a scene in episode five where it’s just Jill and Stacey (Isabella Farrell) on the hood of their car. When you see it, that’s literally the view from my childhood memory. That’s the one shot I was like, “I’ve got to figure out how to work that in.” And you don’t see kids doing that anymore! If they’re 22, they’re not sitting on the hood of their car under a streetlight on a Saturday night.

Starting on January 24, you can watch Bridge and Tunnel on Epix here.