- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2001

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NEW YORK

Ed Burns has become a cliche. There´s his Sundance trophy, the starring roles with Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro, the loft in Manhattan´s trendiest district and the engagement to supermodel Christie Turlington.

For the past six years, Mr. Burns´ life has taken a trajectory that would make an astronaut wheeze. If it were scripted, he says, he´d reject it as too unbelievable.

"It´s as surreal as it sounds, without a doubt," the 33-year-old screenwriter, actor and director says in his smoky Long Island accent.

What makes his Hollywood rise doubly surreal is that before making his debut film, "The Brothers McMullen," he was on the other side of the looking glass: stalking celebrities for the fluffy TV show "Entertainment Tonight."

"When I was at 'ET,´ I wasn´t really thinking about, 'Oh God. What would happen if I ever became famous? Should we be doing this?´ I was out of college and making $18,000 a year. I was like, 'I need this job. Who are we chasing? OK, I´m driving,´" he says, laughing.

"But when everything happened after 'McMullen´ and I got some degree of fame, I was like, 'OK, I know exactly how I´m not going to behave.´ There were enough examples of that childish behavior that you see a lot of stars like to get away with. I never want to embarrass myself that way in front of strangers."

This month, Mr. Burns gets to revisit tabloid journalism´s dark side in "15 Minutes." He plays a New York arson investigator chasing two psychopaths who want fame so badly they will kill for it. Mr. Burns´ character must catch the bad guys while keeping an eye out for a tabloid TV show that fuels and sensationalizes the murders.

Director and screenwriter John Herzfeld calls it "a social commentary in the form of a thriller." Casting Mr. Burns opposite Mr. De Niro, Mr. Herzfeld says, made sense even without the younger man´s experience at a tabloid show.

"I thought he had a great screen presence. He had a real honesty about him. He had a naturalness to him, definitely had a real New York feel," says Mr. Herzfeld.

All those traits were evident in 1995 when Mr. Burns scraped together $25,000 and used his family´s modest Long Island home as a setting for "The Brothers McMullen."

He used public locations to avoid permit fees, hired an inexperienced crew and had his mom cater the shoot. The bittersweet comedy about three Irish-American brothers would go on to win the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival and earn $10 million domestically.

Mr. Burns was 27. Instantly, this blue-collar, Gary Cooper-type became a darling of the Chablis-sipping, independent-film community a connection that Mr. Burns dislikes.

"I was never part of the independent-film community," he says with irritation. "I´ve always liked to remain independent even from the independent-film community."

His second directorial and screenwriting effort, "She´s the One," starring Jennifer Aniston and Cameron Diaz, had bigger stars and a bigger budget, but was critically roasted as a lighter reworking of his first film.

Mr. Burns re-emerged in 1998 with "No Looking Back," a drama about a waitress nearing 30 who must choose between her boyfriend and an old flame. Reviews weren´t kind but neither was Mr. Burns.

"That was a tough film for me because I listened to some people that I shouldn´t have listened to I changed the title and made some changes the studio wanted," he says.

"Now that it bombed and didn´t do so well critically, I know never again. I´ll only make films the way I want to make them, and I´ll live and die by my decisions, not somebody else´s."

That same year, Mr. Burns joined Tom Hanks and Matt Damon in the cast of the World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan." Watching director Steven Spielberg at work, he says, helped shape his own filmmaking style.

"I´m slowly discovering how to tell my stories more cinematically," he says. "I´m interested in things now that five years or six years ago I never thought I would be interested in."

After "15 Minutes" comes "Sidewalks of New York," a film Mr. Burns wrote and directed due in May. He also developed the pilot for the "McMullen"-style TV show on NBC called "The Fighting Fitzgeralds."

Both, like his three previous films, are intimate affairs that focus on relationships between relatives and close friends. As always, there are no pyrotechnics, no car chases.

"I like smaller, character-driven, dialogue-heavy films those are the films that I personally like to go see and obviously that´s what I try and make as well," he says.

Crucial, too, is the role of family: "How do you find more drama than in a family?" he asks. "The stakes are so much higher. At least for me, no friend will ever be as close to me as I am with my family."


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