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Ed Burns talks persistence, hard work, and shoestring budgets with Northwestern students

More than 30 Northwestern University students enjoyed a one-hour Q&A session with actor, writer, producer and director Ed Burns on Oct. 15.

Burns is known for acting in films like 27 Dresses and Saving Private Ryan, but his true niche lies in films in which he writes, directs, produces and often acts. The first of such films was The Brothers McMullen, winner of the 1995 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. His most recent film, Nice Guy Johnny, stars recent School of Communication theatre alumna Kerry Bishe (C06).

The school hosted a free screening of Nice Guy Johnny prior to Burns’ visit.

At the Q&A, Burns shared the story of how he developed The Brothers McMullen on less than $20,000, as well as stories about his work with Bishe on Nice Guy Johnny.

Burns encouraged students starting out in the industry to get “any kind of job” they could in the media arts. “You never know where that one relationship is going to lead you,” he said.

In fact, Burns has worked with the same producer, Aaron Lubin, on all of his own film projects since his 2001 film Sidewalks of New York. A self-proclaimed Woody Allen fan, Burns said he finds himself drawn to working on “talking character comedies.”

Associate professor and acting program director Cindy Gold moderated the session and came away with some ideas she thought her students might use. “I think one of the most important points was that he made a deal with himself when he was just starting out that he had to do one thing each day, just one thing, whether it was to make one more call or one more email, to further his career dreams,” she said. “He lives, and embodies, the ideal of the hard-working artist. Talent is important, but hard work gets you what you want.”

RTVF sophomore Alec Ziff found Burns’ story of “making it” in the business fascinating. “As he spoke about the trials and tribulations of trying to write, produce, and direct his own movie to get his foot in the door, he inspired me to work as hard for my dream as he did,” Ziff said. “Ed Burns stressed the fact that he would not be where he is today had he not been persistent. In an industry where you hear, ‘No,’ every day and constantly are being rejected, only those who have a thick skin and are driven enough to drown out the naysayers will succeed.”

Burns talked a bit about casting Bishe in Nice Guy Johnny; she was selected from an open casting call. He complimented her talent and ability to “play” with the script all while cheerfully lugging lamps and crewing her own set due to a shoestring budget.

Overall, Burns’ talk, Gold said, was “very inspiring.”