"I knew I didn't want to do another comedy. I didn't want to have to try to be funny."
Ed Burns went from working at Entertainment Tonight to writing, producing, directing, and starring in 1995's The Brothers McMullen, a film which cost pennies (about $25,000) and grossed millions. Burns followed that film with She's The One, a bigger-budget romantic comedy with an ensemble cast. The new No Looking Back is perhaps Burns' most challenging film yet, a bleak, rain-soaked drama set on the shores of Long Island. Though he will appear strictly as an actor (alongside Tom Hanks and Matt Damon) in Steven Spielberg's upcoming Saving Private Ryan, Burns is already preparing his next script, a domestic police drama based partly on his father's experiences as a New York cop. Burns recently spoke to The Onion about drama versus comedy, Jon Bon Jovi's hair, and the life of a one-man movie-making machine.
O: When you sat down to write No Looking Back, did you know from the start that it would be darker than your first two films?
EB: Yeah. I knew I didn't want to do another comedy. I didn't want to have to try to be funny. I started to look at a lot of films that got me interested in film in the first place, things like The Last Picture Show, Hud, Tender Mercies, The Misfits, Marty… character-driven dramas. I was drawn to a couple of things: One thing you find in all of those films is that the audience is never asked to love, or even like, the protagonist. They're all really honest films in that they're all kind of gray. People [in those movies] are shades of gray, which I think is what we are. I don't know any really good guys or really bad guys. Everyone's sort of in-between. That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to paint a more honest picture of these people. And originally the script was called Long Time, Nothing New, and it was much more of an ensemble film that looked at the whole town. But I sort of fell out of love with the early drafts and fell more in love with the Claudia character [played by Lauren Holly]. I'd never written a single-protagonist story, and never written a woman's story before, so I thought, "Why not just attack that?" And that's how the script grew.
O: Is it tougher to deal with characters when you can't fall back on humor?
EB: I prefer it. I don't know if it's an easier way to work, but it's more satisfying to me. When you're doing a comedy, you have an out. If you can come up with a couple of clever lines, especially a funny line to end a scene, it's easy. But doing a drama, it's nice not having to worry about that. I keep saying honesty, but that's really how we approached each scene. All I would ever ask the actors is: Are these honest moments? And I think with No Looking Back, we accomplished that, and that's all we went for.
O: Are you ever concerned about putting too much of yourself in your characters?
EB: You know, I haven't really written a character who I thought was close to who I am. Barry McMullen had a little bit, with the screenwriting, but that was about it. Everything else about that guy was so far from me. But there's a little bit of you in everything. I've managed to keep a safe distance, but of course there are little pieces of my life in it. I did steal something directly from my life for No Looking Back: I did pump gas in high school, and those three guys—Charlie, The Foot, and Bugsy—are real guys. Charlie was this guy in his late 20s, still pumping gas, real charismatic but basically a shitty guy. But as a teenager, I thought he was the coolest fucking thing. He had a cool, beat-up car; he always had a lot of girls, and got into fights all the time; he drank beer all day. I thought, "This guy's cool!" But once you realize that the guy was 30 years old, you think, "Hey, pal!" One day, I'll probably let it all out, like Woody [Allen] did in Deconstructing Harry.
O: Were you ever worried that Jon Bon Jovi's alternate career would distract from the film?
EB: A little bit. That's why we didn't use any Bon Jovi music at all. I didn't want anyone at any time during the film to think, "Oh, shit! That's Bon Jovi!" When I saw Sling Blade, I didn't know Dwight Yoakam played that character. I was watching the film, and I thought, "Jesus, that guy is great; I wonder who that is." So I watched the credits and saw that it was Dwight Yoakam. So when I was making this film, I thought I should do the same thing with Jon. You know, in the early scenes I've always got him in a baseball cap and a big coat, to immediately knock down the rock-stardom thing. You know, his hair… Let the audience get into the film, and then, if we did our job, you buy it and forget he's, you know, living on a prayer.
O: What was it like making Saving Private Ryan alongside Tom Hanks, who has written and directed, and Matt Damon, who also writes?
EB: We had, I think, four writer/director/actors and a fifth writer/actor. And apparently [Spielberg] almost cast Billy Bob Thornton! So we had the whole team. Everybody took advantage of the fact that we all wanted to be filmmakers, and that we were getting a chance to work with one of the masters. So everybody was pushing each other out of the way to sort of stand over his shoulder. For me, it was great, because I was cutting No Looking Back at night while shooting Saving Private Ryan. I screened the film for Hanks, and he gave me some notes. Steven saw it a couple times and gave me notes. I had some very talented guys helping me out, helping make these tough decisions as I was getting really close to finishing. There's a scene at the end of Private Ryan where me, Hanks, and Damon fall into a mortar hole, and for the two days we shot that scene, I had just screened the film for them. The three of us argued about losing this one scene. Damon was fighting for me to keep it in; Hanks was arguing why I should take it out. The three of us spent two days in a trench belaboring this scene, but Hanks won out.