The Brothers McMullen: Small budget, big heart
Family, marriage, religion, love – these were all as confusing in the 90s as they are now. And director Edward Burns didn’t need a large budget to show that everyone struggles with these basic concepts. With a budget of approximately $25,000 to $28,000, Burns was able to give viewers a glimpse into the lives of the McMullen brothers – Barry, Patrick, and Jack – after their father’s death.
How Burns made his miniscule budget work
“No pay. Will provide lunch.”
These were words in the ad with which Burns had hoped to lure Irish-American actors when he’d started work on his debut flick, titled The Brothers McMullen. At the time, Burns had been working as a gofer at Entertainment Tonight, so production, filming, and even scriptwriting for his first film had to be done in his spare time. This is challenging, to say the least, because Burns is doing the screenwriting and directing himself. He even plays one of the main characters.
Over eight weekends, he shot scenes in his parents’ home in Valley Stream, Long Island and in various open spaces and public places in New York State. Burns calls the process simply ‘making do’. He and his crew set up quickly and filmed scenes in parks and out in the open, to avoid the time-consuming and costly procedure of securing permits.
Burns also made the most of his budget by getting stock from the Raw Stock exchange and by using recanned stock. He admits that it was nice to be able to defer many payments needed for a lot of processes. Even the post-production company DuArt allowed Burns to defer payments for processing. Now, though, Burns asserts that each person involved in the making of The Brothers McMullen has been paid his or her due and more.
Burns himself appeared in the film, playing Barry McMullen, alongside his then-girlfriend Maxine Bahns. Bahns’ character Audrey plays Barry’s love interest.
Even twenty years after the film’s release, though, and despite all the budget constraints, Burns still calls shooting it “the best 12 days of his life.”
The heart of the McMullen brothers
At the heart of the film are, indeed, the brothers McMullen – three grown Irish American men who are struggling with their relationships and with the morality of their choices. The McMullens’ actions are partly influenced by their Catholic upbringing, as they each suffer from guilt due to their wrongdoings. The guilt is not enough, though, to make them stop ‘sinning’. There lie the struggles of the three brothers as they strive to make the right choice.
“McMullen is a family piece. But it’s not sappy-sweet, like The Passage or something,” director Kevin Smith says of The Brothers McMullen.
Burns admits that he put a little of his own Irish Catholic background into the film, although The Brothers McMullen is, by no means, autobiographical. This is particularly applicable to the recently deceased father in the film, who is remembered as an abusive parent and spouse. Reportedly, Burns’ father was insistent that Edward remind audiences that the fictional father isn’t based on Edward’s real-life dad.
“Maybe it had to do because my father and I are so close. There’s fear of writing a father that might be close to him. I kinda wanted to go the opposite way,” says Burns.
For The Brothers McMullen, Burns was hailed as ‘The New Woody Allen.’ The film enjoyed a highly positive reception, as it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival. It was also the first film ever released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, a segment of 20th Century Fox for Independent, Dramedy, Foreign, and Arthouse films.