Q&A: Ed Burns’s Extremely Awkward Holiday

If you’re expecting a Thanksgiving rife with family dysfunction and bickering, the last thing you probably want to see is a movie about a family trying to survive the holidays without murdering each other. (Who needs the encouragement?) But you might want to make an exception for The Fitzgerald Family Christmas, the latest from writer/actor/director Ed Burns, available on video-on-demand Wednesday and in theaters nationwide on December 7. Even if you’re not in an Irish-American family with an estranged father who wants to ruin and/or save Christmas and have six brothers and/or sisters who can’t really agree on anything, there’s something here you’ll relate to. Unless you’re in one of those families that never argue, and the holidays are just about hugs and unconditional love and not being judgmental. In which case, fuck you.

I called Burns earlier this week to talk about his new film and the horrors of holiday togetherness and Irish Catholic families, a subject he’s been an expert on since his breakout hit, 1995′s The Brothers McMullen. We also talked about New York City cop movies and Star Wars sequels, only one of which he hopes to direct one day.

Eric Spitznagel: What’s your plan for Thanksgiving? Are you spending it with family?

Ed Burns: My family is all on Long Island, so we sort of flip-flop each year. We’ll either go to see them on the island, or my folks and my sister and brother’s family will come into Manhattan to spend it with us.

And they all agree to that? There’s no passive-aggressive bartering? “Let’s do it at my place instead this year. I don’t want to travel after all.”

Nope. It’s pretty easy. Everybody agrees.

Jesus. I’m in my forties, and I’m still incapable of negotiating a peaceful Thanksgiving. What’s your secret?

I don’t think there is a secret. You just have to be willing to compromise. Not that it doesn’t get chaotic. This year is the Manhattan year, and we’re going to have a packed house on Thursday.

Do you self-censor when your family visits? Like the rest of us, are you constantly trying to steer conversations away from abortion and gay marriage?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

“Hey, did you hear what that nutjob Pope Benedict said?” And then the whole family’s in a screaming match.

It’s not worth it. But that’s one of the things I wanted to explore with this movie.

How crazy Pope Benedict is?

It could be anything. It’s about getting through the holidays without having “that” conversation. You know what I mean? It’s different for everybody, but all families have that minefield that everybody tries to avoid. If we just don’t bring that thing up, that one subject, then the holidays will be considered a success.

Movies about dysfunctional families at Christmas are almost cliché at this point.

Are they?

It feels like it. It’s one of the world’s oldest stories. Boy meets girl, boy takes girl home for Christmas, boy nearly punches his mom for questioning his life choices.

Sure, sure.

How do you keep it fresh and interesting? Were you worried about being redundant when you wrote the script?

I never gave it a moment’s thought. I wasn’t worried about it being too similar to other family films or Christmas films. I just tried to be true to the world I was writing about. If I made their world as specific as I could, then it would ring true. That’s one of the best rules of storytelling. The more specific it is, the more universal it is. I’m hoping that people watch this film and recognize themselves or their families in it.

I definitely did. There were a few moments that felt uncomfortably familiar. And I’m not Irish or Catholic.

That happens a lot! We’ve taken it to a number of film festivals and screened it around the country, and people are always coming up to me and saying, “I’m not Irish. I’m not Catholic. But that’s my family.”

Being pissed off at your family is apparently the common denominator of humanity.

I think it is. It’s not just an Irish thing or a Catholic thing. At the end of the day, we’re all pretty much the same.

There are seven siblings in Fitzgerald Family Christmas. Did you come from a large family?

I have a brother and sister.

So not really.

No. It’s small by Catholic standards.

Is there safety in numbers? If you’ve got lots of brothers and sisters, maybe there are more people to jump on landmines and save the others. Or do more people just mean more bodies to yell at?

Well, I’ve talked to friends from big families, and they say it breaks down into smaller subsets. The three older siblings stick together, the three youngest siblings stick together, that sort of thing.

It sounds like the branches of government.

Sort of, yeah. There’s also a lot of complicated intervention. Like, the two middle kids have to handle the three younger ones so that they don’t upset the three oldest ones. So I guess the answer to your question is yes and yes. There’s probably safety in numbers, but there’s also a lot more craziness going on.

I’ve met people who say they don’t get stressed out by their relatives during the holidays. Are they full of shit?

It depends on the family. If you’re fortunate enough to have some great parents and wonderful siblings, then it’s not going to be as stressful to see them every year. Our family holidays run pretty smoothly. But I’m the first to admit I got lucky.

Would your brother and sister agree?

That’s a good point. I don’t know. I think they’d agree, but you’d have to ask them. Maybe they’d tell a different story.

So that’s your secret? The only way to have a drama-free holiday is “hope your family isn’t a bunch of assholes”?

Well, no. It’s never that easy. And that’s kinda what this movie is all about. You have to do the tough work and have the conversations you don’t want to have. Because by doing that, you can come out the other side. Without being too cornballish about it, I wanted this movie to be about forgiveness and healing. It’s about realizing, well, shit, the boyfriends, the girlfriends, the husbands and wives, they may come and go, but there is nothing like those blood bonds.

I want to come to your house for Thanksgiving.

[Laughs.] I’ll have to talk to my wife.

I’d prefer you clear it with your dad first. He’s the ex-cop?

Oh, yeah. You definitely want his blessing before you show up.

Have you ever thought about doing a movie about him?

I wrote a screenplay years ago, but we couldn’t get it made. It focused more on the life of a cop rather than his family. But I’ve been thinking of another way to approach it. I’m a long way from writing the screenplay, but it’d basically explore my childhood, when I was in sixth, seventh grade, and what it was like to grow up in the 1970s in Long Island, when your dad is a New York City cop. I haven’t figured out what the story is yet, but ideally, it’d be as powerful as Stand By Me.

Was he always telling you crazy cop stories? Like, “Today I had to kick in some perp’s front door.”

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Our entire lives, we had stories like that. And his brother was a cop, and five or six of my first cousins were cops. We were always surrounded by cops, so we heard lots of crazy stories. Every vacation, every wedding, every funeral, it was always cops telling tales.

Were their tales exaggerated?

No, just the opposite. They’d laugh about TV shows and movies about cops that got it wrong. They were like, “Did you see that horseshit cop show?” Actually, I think that’s part of the reason I haven’t made my cop movie yet. I’m afraid of their critical eye. I want my family to think it’s an authentic representation of a cop’s life.

In a good cop/bad cop situation, which one was your dad?

[Long pause.] That’s a good question. Probably depending on the situation, and his partner, I’m sure he played both sides of that fence.

Whenever I watch one of your movies, I always think you look like somebody who could handle himself in a fight. Is that an illusion, or are you as tough as you seem in movies?

You’re asking if I get into fights?

If you’re in a bar and things go down, are you the guy who breaks a bottle over a table and uses the shards as a weapon? Or are you the guy who shrieks, “Not the face, not the face”?

Well, thankfully, I haven’t had to get into a fight in a long time. But there was a time when I was a capable fighter. I was never anywhere near being the toughest kid in my neighborhood, but if it came to that, I could handle myself.

You could take a punch?

I could, sure. And I could fight back. But I wouldn’t go looking for it. I was never the guy that instigated the fight — let’s put it that way.

Before I let you go, I need to ask the question that all journalists are currently obligated to ask every working filmmaker. Are you directing the Star Wars Disney sequels?

No.

Because you don’t want to, or you haven’t been asked?

If they asked me, I guess I would have to do it.

You would?

Well, it’d be very hard to say no. I’m not thinking creatively. I’m thinking financially.

You could make a lot of indie movies with that paycheck.

But even with the money, I don’t know. I loved Star Wars as a kid, but that’s not my thing. I haven’t even seen the second series of films, the prequels.

That alone should make you the top contender. You’ve never heard of Jar Jar Binks?

I have a vague idea who you’re talking about.

Please direct the sequels. Star Wars needs you.

I don’t think I have a choice. I can’t imagine I’m a guy anywhere near the top of their list.

Because they don’t want to set Star Wars in Long Island with a bunch of working-class Irish Catholics?

Their instincts are probably correct.

What’s your personal opinion about the sequels? Is it a good idea to keep the Star Wars franchise alive, or are they killing what’s left of the magic?

I think it’s a great idea. Look at Skyfall. It’s probably the best James Bond sequel ever, and certainly the most financially successful. We only got to that by suffering through sequels that weren’t as strong. It takes time, but sometimes the wait is worth it. In this age, when everything is re-branded, when you’ve got a property as valuable as Star Wars, why not take a gamble? What’s the worst thing that can happen? You make a lousy movie that makes a billion dollars.

And our childhood memories of a treasured movie trilogy are once again trampled on.

Well, whatever.

You don’t think that’s worth protecting?

Not really, no. At the end of the day, what are we talking about? These are only movies. With the exception of The Godfather one and two, I don’t know if movies are really sacred. They’re just movies.

(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)