You Had to Be There: Explaining Edward Burns For Young People

For people of a certain age, the creator of EPIX's Bridge and Tunnel is emblematic of a very specific corner of '90s indie culture.
  • Edward Burns in Bridge and Tunnel. (Epix)
    Edward Burns in Bridge and Tunnel. (Epix)

    You wouldn't think that the debut of a six-episode series on the premium cable channel Epix would be an occasion for a generational cultural reckoning, but that's exactly what's happening with the premiere of Bridge and Tunnel, the new series created by writer/director Edward Burns. The story centers around a group of recent college graduates who are trying to get their lives and careers started in Manhattan while still feeling drawn and connected to their hometown out on Long Island.

    If you're at all familiar with Edward Burns's work, this premise — young people striving to make something of themselves with a heavily Long Island atmosphere — may bring back some pangs of nostalgia. But that's the thing: are people in 2021 familiar with Edward Burns's work? People under the age of, say, 35? I've long believed that the films of Edward Burns serve as a litmus test for age and cultural literacy. If you're old enough to have experienced the age of 1990s indie filmmaking, you are deeply familiar with his early films and his overall vibe. If you're not old enough to have been there, it seems pretty unlikely that you'd have any idea who Edward Burns is at all. If that's you, and you're puzzling over why people such concrete opinions about this guy you've never heard of, it's time to take a trip back in time.

    Edward Burns, if you can believe it, grew up in an Irish Catholic family on Long Island, New York. After college, he got started on the lowest rungs of the Hollywood ladder, as a production assistant on Oliver Stone's The Doors and then at the TV series Entertainment Tonight. At the same time, on the barest of bare-bones budgets, Burns was also writing, directing, and producing what would be his debut feature film, The Brothers McMullen. The film is a rather humble story of three Long Island brothers — Burns himself plays the middle brother — who just buried their father and whose mother shipped off to Ireland to be with the man she's loved all along. Over the course of the film, the brothers navigate their own disastrous romantic relationships, with themes of infidelity, loyalty, thwarted ambition, and general male bullheadedness at the forefront of their stories.

    The legend goes that, with the film completed, Burns approached Robert Redford backstage at an Entertainment Tonight taping and handed the Oscar-winning actor/director a copy of his film. Somehow this worked (and didn't get him fired from ET!) and Redford not only watched the movie, but liked it enough that he extended an invitation to Burns to have the film screen at the Sundance Film Festival. At the time, Sundance was the epicenter of a burgeoning indie film movement. The 1995 Sundance Film Festival in particular featured some of the decade's most influential films and artists, including Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation, Atom Egoyan's Exotica, Todd Haynes's Safe, and Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave. In the midst of this avalanche of talent, Burns screened The Brothers McMullen and it got a hugely warm reception. It went on to win the Grand Jury Prize, the top prize for dramatic filmmaking at the festival. The then-brand-new Fox Searchlight Pictures — which would go on to win Best Picture four times at the Oscars — acquired the film, making The Brothers McMullen the very first Fox Searchlight film.

    The Brothers McMullen wasn't a major crossover hit, but it was a word-of-mouth indie sensation, ultimately grossing $10 million off of its miniscule $28,000 budget. The film was also notable for launching Sarah McLachlan's "I Will Remember You" from its soundtrack. At that year's Independent Spirit Awards, the film won the award for Best First Feature. More than that, though, The Brothers McMullen came to be emblematic of a certain era in indie filmmaking: wayward men grappling with a changing world, baffled by their romantic lives, musing from elaborately written screenplays that were both funny and a little showy. Small-town slices of life about people struggling to break free from the legacies of their parents. Aesthetic modesty as a virtue. And while the '90s indie movement featured some wildly talented women, queer people, and people of color, Burns' white, blue-collar milieu certainly helped The Brothers McMullen become the indie emblem it became.

    In the wake of The Brothers McMullen, Burns was one of the biggest indie filmmakers in the country. And so for his follow-up film, 1996's She's the One, he leveled up —at least when it came to the cast. Burns once again cast himself in the lead role, bringing along his McMullen co-stars Mike McGlone and Maxine Bahns. But in the role of McGlone's mistress (and Burns' ex-girlfriend), he cast Cameron Diaz, who'd just recently blown up in The Mask. And in the role of McGlone's frustrated wife, he cast Jennifer Aniston, who was riding high off of Friends' massive debut. (Other familiar faces included Frasier's John Mahoney as the boys' unsympathetic father, and Leslie Mann and Amanda Peet.)

    She's the One was a modest hit as well, this time for the parent studio 20th Century Fox, earning $13.8 million off of a $3 million budget, although critics weren't as kind as they were to McMullen. Diaz and Aniston helped get the film a ton of attention, however, and Tom Petty recorded the lead single from its soundtrack and made a music video featuring scenes from the film. Already, the themes for Burns's two feature films were starting to become the stuff of an Edward Burns Film: close but fraught family relationships; a blue-collar Long Island upbringing; volatile romantic relationships; one brother sleeping with another brother's ex.

    With the end of the '90s, though, came the end of the brief era of Edward Burns, Indie Darling. His 1998 film No Looking Back — which featured many similar themes to his first two films, with Burns starring as a guy who returns to his small east-coast hometown and finds that his ex-girlfriend (Lauren Holly) is dating not his brother but his best friend (Jon Bon Jovi) — didn't make much of an impression, and was the first Burns film to lose money. His next film, Sidewalks of New York, was the least like his previous three, a winding road of relationship stories, starring Burns, Rosario Dawson, Brittany Murphy, Stanley Tucci, and Heather Graham. The Manhattan-set film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival three days before the 9/11 attacks, and the studio ended up pushing back the film's release date and removing background images of the Twin Towers from the film's poster. Like many films released in the wake of 9/11, it didn't make much of an impact.

    Since Sidewalks of New York, Burns has continued to write, direct, and produce his own films. He's made ten movies in the two decades since, none of them making much of an impression on the indie landscape, much less on the mainstream. If he's known at all to younger generations, it's likely for his acting appearances: as the boss Katherine Heigl pines for in 27 Dresses, the boyfriend Cameron Diaz breaks up with at the beginning of The Holiday, or as himself on a handful of Entourage episodes, which should tell you everything you need to know about how famous Edward Burns was in the film community, and who he appealed to.

    So does Bridge and Tunnel signal a return to form for Edward Burns? Another story about young people with blue-collar Long Island roots trying to make something of themselves, maybe the whole Edward Burns vibe will live again with a brand new audience. He's still starring in his own stories about youthful Irish Catholic layabouts, only now he's playing the dad (!). And those stories are still about the hold that your hometown and the relationships of your youth still have over you as you're trying to break out as an artist. Maybe those themes and that vibe will resonate; maybe they'll remain best experienced in a mid-'90s indie dramedy. Either way, if you spot a Gen Xer raising a curious eyebrow about the new show on Epix, now you know why.

    Bridge and Tunnel premieres on Epix January 24th at 9:00 PM ET.

    Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, The Herald Sun, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Bridge and Tunnel, Epix, Edward Burns