Filmmaker returns to his 'hood for Christmas movie

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By LYNN ELBER, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Filmmaker-actor Edward Burns is drawing inspiration from familiar ground and new sources, including Tyler Perry.

Burns' latest movie, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas," stems from Perry's suggestion that Burns revisit the Irish-American experience central to his earliest works, "The Brothers McMullen" and "She's the One," from the mid-1990s.

Perry served as impromptu career counselor during production of his own change-of-pace crime drama "Alex Cross," which co-stars Burns.

"If you make another film that goes back to that (familiar) world ... I guarantee you that your audience will thank you for it," Burns recalled Perry telling him.

Burns took the advice to heart and pounded out a first draft for "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" in six weeks, a fraction of his usual six months.

The film, opening in limited release in theaters Friday and available from iTunes and video on demand, features Burns as the oldest sibling in a family abandoned two decades ago by dad Big Jim Fitzgerald (Ed Lauter).

The wayward parent's desire to return home during the holidays is a shock for his grown children, each of whom is facing challenges, and provokes a torrent of bitterness from his wife (Anita Gillette).

"Christmas is a time for families getting together, and when families get together it can be tricky," Burns said. "I think forgiveness is a big part of a successful holiday season."

The cast is filled with veterans of Burns' other films, including Connie Britton and Michael McGlone.

A native of Queens, N.Y., Burns had resisted mining his Irish-American heritage again partly because he feared being seen as a "one-trick pony."

"And my life had changed so dramatically since those first two films that I wanted to explore my new life," he said. "I also think I was worried whether I could write about that place and those characters with the same authenticity as when I lived there."

Burns, married to model and activist Christy Turlington and the father of two, found he'd remained connected with his home turf and those who people it.

"I never had to give a second thought to, 'How do they think, where do they drink,'" said Burns.

For the record, Burns said "bigger plot points" aren't pulled from real life — "I would like to have a much better Christmas experience than the Fitzgeralds had to suffer through" — although he draws from environment and family conversations. He even filmed in the neighborhood where he grew up.

The movie's distribution represents another reversal for Burns, who's taken to putting his work online instead of in theaters, a welcome option for independent films lacking an expensive marketing push.

It was a holiday movie void that led Burns to couple the on-demand and iTunes availability of "Fitzgerald" with a big-screen release, starting in cities including New York and Boston.

"If we blow them away, we hit the 'burbs. If not, we'll play in a handful of markets," Burns said, philosophically. (The film is rated R for a handful of expletives.)

Keeping one foot in the past, he just started writing a sequel to "The Brothers McMullen" and hopes to begin production on it in 2014. But next up is something entirely new, a dozen short online films that ultimately will be woven into a single one.

"When all 12 chapters are done, we'll pull them from the Web, recut and play with them and maybe even play with the ending," Burns said. The project, titled "Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall," follows the relationship of a middle-aged couple.

Although Burns has been distributing his work online since he released "Purple Violets" on iTunes in 2007, it's Louis C.K.'s successful online sale of his 2011 comedy special, "Live at the Beacon Theater," that is behind the especially bold approach.

"If it's inspired by anything, it's inspired by Louis C.K.," Burns said.

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