In Independent Ed: Inside a Career of Big Dreams, Little Movies, and the Twelve Best Days of My Life, Edward Burns relates his experiences working in the film industry as a writer, director, and actor. Burns directed and produced his first film, The Brothers McMullen, on a tiny $25,000 budget — which went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. Since that initial success, he has gone on to make ten more films on his own terms and act in several big budget Hollywood movies (such as Saving Private Ryan) and television shows.
This memoir highlights Burns’ successes, but perhaps more importantly delves into his mistakes, the poor decisions and bad luck that makes a movie fail to be the success one hoped it would be. These missteps, more than the successes, are where the greatest lessons lie.It’s hard to figure out why something succeeds, much easier to point to the number of reasons why something didn’t. His honesty in looking back on these moments, in which he examines where he went wrong and where the cards were against him, is a part of what makes this memoir work.
A few practical, useful pieces of advice are littered throughout the book (the difference between a master shot and a two shot, for example), providing some help in the nitty gritty of making a movie — but the real value of this book is in his philosophy toward filmmaking in general.
For Burns, the act of independent filmmaking is the ability to make movies according to your own vision and away from influences that might compromise that vision. He describes the twelve best days of his life as the twelve days he spent filming his first movie, The Brothers McMullen — twelve days telling a story true and making a movie for no other reason than the sheer joy of making a movie.
After The Brothers McMullen became a success and as his career as a director progressed, Burns continued to seek out those twelve days of joy. This lead him to choose projects that may have had smaller budgets, but that provided him with the freedom he needed to tell the kind of quiet stories to which he was drawn and to experiment with new technologies (such as using digital cameras and premiering some of his films on streaming services).
With the availability of such technologies, he notes, filmmakers have the opportunity to seek out their own twelve best days, to experiment and learn how to make movies while in the process of making movies in the same way writers learn how to tells stories through the act of telling stories, and musicians learn how to create songs by plucking strings on a guitar to get it right. He explains:
“At this moment, anyone who dreams of becoming a filmmaker is lucky indeed. For the first time in the history of cinema, filmmaking does not need to be a capitalist enterprise. You no longer need millions of dollars or even thousands of dollars. You are no longer beholden to someone writing a check. It no longer needs to be a business. It can be your artistic expression.”
Many filmmakers have realized this and are using various outlets on the internet to get their movies made and seen. But, as someone who’s often felt overwhelmed by what I believed the barriers to moviemaking to be, it’s empowering to be reminded that those barriers than I had imagined them. It’s a strong message for me — for all of us creative types — to get back to work and to keep seeking out those best days, those days when we are engaged and living our work.
As a footnote, I realize that I’ve never seen any of the movies Burns directed. As someone interested in independent filmmaking, I’m fascinated by what people are able to accomplish with small budgets and creative thinking. It would be interesting to do a marathon focused on movies that Burns directed to see how his skill in low budget movies evolved over time.
Another Note: This book was an ARC provided by the publishers in exchange for an honest review.