Set in the summer of 1983 in Rockaway Beach, the film follows a group of recent high school and college graduates as they work summer jobs, fall in and out of love, and prepare for their new worlds to begin after Labor Day weekend.
I had the absolute distinct pleasure of speaking with indie filmmaker Edward Burns about his new ensemble film Summer Days, Summer Nights, his journey starting out as an English major to finding his passion as a screenwriter and director, and forging his own path as an independent storyteller.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the initial inspiration for this film? Were you pulling from personal stories from your adolescence and circle of friends?
Edward Burns: It’s funny, this is one of those screenplays that came from 1000 different places, quite honestly. The first thought I had was I wrote the script, probably four or five years ago, my kids were 11 and 13, and I really just wanted to make a feel-good, PG 13 movie that they could watch. That was really my initial goal. The other thing that came up was my son had just started to get into the Beatles, and a lot of those early Beatles albums. And the feeling that those early songs gave you like, “Eight Days a Week” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” - I was like alright, I want to make a film that hopefully could be as timeless as the songs, but really would put a smile on your face and put you in a better mood. Those were kind of the two tonal places I was starting from as far as mood. And then I had long been a fan of American Graffiti and all of my films for the most part are ensembles. I love ensemble comedy-dramas. I've had sort of the idea of doing my version of an American Graffiti on my sort of list of screenwriting goals for a long time, and I thought OK, that feels like the right template to use to knock off those other two things I wanted to do, PG 13 and a feel good. The other thing that I did in sort of going with American Graffiti, I knew it would be period. And I started to think about some of the summer jobs I had as a kid, like parking cars at one of those beach clubs, that you see the Debbie character works at. So, the minute I hit that, I was like, alright, I'm going to build this around a summer and kids working summer jobs. And that's how I came up with the framework of three American summer holidays, and that helped me structure the film. In an odd way, the very last thing that I tackled was, who are these characters? What are their desires? What are their dreams? Their hopes? And what will be the bumps in the road that prevent them from getting there?
Sadie: Capturing the essence of the early 80s did you find any obstacles in bringing the spirit of that time period back to life?
Edward: In ‘82 I'm in eighth grade, I wasn’t the age of these characters. But the late 70s into the early 80s, that predates the launch of MTV. It's kind of the time that I'm most nostalgic about as far as the music as evidenced by how much great music we use in the film. When you're 12, you're most impressionable and I'm looking at these older kids in my neighborhood, and just thinking they were my superheroes, the guys and girls that you were just so curious about what their lives were like. This was a way for me to answer some of those questions.
As far as challenges, either there were certain things in early drafts of the script and again it's an indie film we did not have a ton of money, so there were some things that I knew I wasn't going to be able to pull off. Originally, I thought maybe I might have them going into Manhattan for a night or a bigger bar or nightclub scene, and immediately got rid of those because I just knew that that would be a bigger challenge. From making indie films and micro-budgeted movies for the last 25 years I kind of instinctually know what I can pull off with the budget that I'm given. And from my very first film, I've always been forced to write within the parameters of the amount of money you have. I then started to alter the script in order to make sure that I could pull that off. With that said, probably the toughest thing for us to do was to shoot that block party. We had a bunch of extras. We had a lot that we wanted to cram in, and we only had about three hours to get all of that in. That was a night where we were really jamming up against time. But I think we pulled it off.
Sadie: How many shoot days did you guys have and then how long were you in post on this?
Edward: Shoot days, I think 22, which is very tough, very ambitious, and especially since a lot of times I've done shorter schedules on feature films but on those films typically we have a “no company” move rule where it's basically we're going to be at a location or shooting on a block. On this film because of the beach town that we wanted to create, we couldn't find that in one town so, I don't know how well you know the south shore of Long Island, but the Marina was all the way in Point Lookout and the bungalows were in Rockaway, the houses were in Rockaway Beach, so we were doing a lot more scrambling than I typically would do on a lower budget film.
The post schedule, interestingly, on this film I ended up getting an AVID in my office and worked with my editors there. After we played at Tribeca, that cut of the movie was probably close to two hours and 20 minutes. And, great screening, the audience seemed to really dig it, but I knew in sitting in that theater, and watching it with an audience that there were still some more cuts I wanted to make. A couple of months after Tribeca we went back into the editing room and cut out about another 20-25 minutes from that cut. That was a longer editing process.
Sadie: You briefly touched on this about character development and I I really enjoyed that every character has a moment of loss, which then kind of turns into this change in growth, either leaving town and going to college, allowing love to run its course, etcetera. Do you create in-depth character bios and for each and every single character or do you kind of just let it play its course as you're writing it?
Edward: I'm a big believer in outlining. And I learned early on, the more time you spend on your character bios, the more time you spend on your outline, do that tough work, then when it's time to write, you allow yourself to write dialogue. Not only do you know the characters inside and out, you know them more intimately. With this film, I started initially with Caitlin Stasey’s character Suzy, and I made this film years ago called No Looking Back, which was about a young woman trapped in a small seaside beach town, in the winter, Lauren Holly played the lead in that and it's the story of a character who knows she needs to escape the rut of her small town, but she didn't have a specific dream or a specific skill. Like, she didn't pull the guitar out from underneath her bed and finally write the song or she wasn't dreaming of writing the great American novel or like the Debbie character in our story, wanting to be a dancer and move to Manhattan. She was just a kid and knew she had to get out, that there was more to the world. SI kind of started with what if I took a character like that, who went away to California, and she returned in the summer. That was kind of like the place that I started with. I knew Suzy was a small-town girl who escaped her hometown because she knew that it was a dead end. But she kind of has to return home without having the dreams come true, maybe her tail between her legs. I came up with this idea of this unhappy marriage with this guy that cheated on her and she’s unsure about what her future would hold - she was sort of the first lead character. And then, originally this was going to just be about two women. Winky was going to be the counter to her. Winky was the character who never left her hometown, had no desire to leave her hometown, was terrified of the notion of leaving her hometown, and like, Suzy also in a relationship, that wasn't working out. So, that's kind of where I started with those two.
The one part of the story that I took from my life was the desire of JJs character of wanting to be a writer. Having some talent with writing and having your father be the one who encourages you to pursue a career of writing, as opposed to, let's do the job where you could potentially make a lot more money. [laughs] As I'm outlining and doing my character bios, I started with the two women, then added JJ, and then I felt like “OK” that's a good mix of those three interesting stories I want to explore - all three characters with three different ages. And then I started to build the world around them. That's one of the benefits from spending a lot of time outlining is you get to explore all of those tangents, without having to fully commit to, let's say writing 25 pages worth of dialogue, only to discover, “oh wait, that was a terrible idea.”
Sadie: Outlining is essential. I have budding writers ask me “how do you write a screenplay quickly?” and my answer is always to spend time outlining and then you will save yourself a lot of time and wasted scenes if you get it on the page first as an outline.
Edward: Without a doubt. When you start writing your script off of your outline, is it strict to the outline or is it more like a little bit of a roadmap that you use to just kind of keep you on track?
Sadie: More like a roadmap. And I have a writing partner and so we use that just to make sure we're on the same track and we're not veering off.
Edward: I would say I do that, pretty much most of the time. There have been times, probably more so with television, where I really try and sort of stick to the outline. But the problem is, as you know, the joy of writing is when you're just in that weird flow state. And the characters and the screenplay take you in a direction you did not anticipate.
Sadie: Absolutely. And then the fear of not wanting to disappoint your characters, which is always tough.
Edward: [laughs] Yeah.
Sadie: I'm curious to learn more about your filmmaking journey, especially for our readers who aren't, you know so well versed in your career because you have such a varied and very successful career and in doing what you love. What piqued your interest in wanting to become a storyteller in this business?
Edward: I originally thought I wanted to be a novelist. I was an English major, and if you were an English major, you could become a film studies minor which quite honestly, I just did because I had heard that they were easy A's. I was not a film buff, as a kid in Junior High and high school. I mean I went to the movies, I liked movies, but I never thought that that was a career option for me, or quite honestly for anybody. I didn't grow up knowing anyone who knew anyone who knew anyone in the film or television business. But taking that very first film appreciation class, one of the first films I saw was Billy Wilder's The Apartment, and it blew me away. I spoke to the professor after class, "Who is this Billy Wilder?" you know, did my research and I thought “wow, you can be a writer and the director.” Just not having given that any thought, I immediately at that moment said “OK, I don't want to be a novelist anymore. I want to be a writer-director.”
Knowing nothing about the business at all or what that would entail, so I then transferred from that school to Hunter College in Manhattan, which had film production classes. Then I took every screenwriting and film production class and film appreciation class, did a deep dive in the way that you do when you suddenly become passionate about something, and you know that's really all I've been thinking about for the last - that was 1988 - however many years ago that is. [laughs] That was it. It's funny, you look at those early films that you saw and that have continually inspired me, and for me in film school when I saw Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, I look back at my career now and I realized that film has spoken to almost everything I've done professionally in the business. First of all, it's an ensemble. It can be very dark but it's also very funny at times. I love the multi-generational look and that town in Texas. That's something I've done throughout almost everything I've done. And I didn't realize that until recently when I re-watched it again because I've watched it probably every couple of years. I was like, oh well, I've been chasing this movie, since the first time I saw it in 1990.
Sadie; That's incredible, especially that it’s resonated that long for you like that. You've been very successful as a multi-hyphenate, as a great actor, director, producer, and all the above. I wonder, do you think for the next wave of filmmakers that it's best to maybe double down on one creative endeavor - that being writing, directing, or acting, or do you think there's benefit in being the jack of all trades, and that there's more opportunity for multi-hyphenates in the independent space?
Edward: I think it really depends on your passion for any one of those disciplines, right? Quite honestly, my passions started with writing and then writing and directing, and then the thing I'm least passionate about is acting which is probably why I'd say 10-12 years ago, I really kind of stepped back from sort of pursuing that as another career. I love to act in my own films because I can dictate the schedule and everything like that. I really think you always have to start with passion, because you know as a screenwriter, it's such a hard business, it's so competitive, you're constantly dealing with rejection that unless you will love it, and it is the thing that called you and you need to do it, why would you bother? Because it really can kick your ass. [laughs]
To answer the other part of your question, if you are someone who's passionate about acting, or someone who's passionate about filmmaking, and you're not a writer, but you have some interest in writing, I think you should absolutely sort of explore that because the great thing for me, over the course of 25 years is anytime I had a film that I was trying to get made and I couldn't get made, just because I couldn't raise enough money or a studio wasn't interested or whatever it was, I would never sit around and wait for someone to say “yes”. I would say all right, well that scripts out there, hopefully, someone will finance it, but in the meantime, let's go back and just write another micro-budget script and that way we can be, and we, I keep saying we, it’s my producing partner Aaron Lubin, we’ve been working with forever, and he and I will sit down and say, we can dictate what our future is going to be. We can dictate what the next year of our life is going to be and what we're going to do. So, that means we have to go make a $25,000 movie that no one will see, that's completely fine, but at least we're doing the thing that we love to do. Even if it stinks, at the end of the day, some critics hate it and the audience hates it, you always get some great thing from it. You either make a great connection with a crew member, you have a relationship with an actor who you end up casting time and time again, or you learn from the mistakes, and the experiments that you tried on that film. So, I would say for any of those folks, the one thing you can maybe add to your arsenal is writing because you have the ability to control your own destiny.
Sadie: I love that and the idea of just doing and practicing so that you can learn.
Edward: And that's the thing that like we now as you know, the fact that you can just make a film so inexpensively, whether it's a short film you want to shoot on your phone or whatever that was never available to writers and directors 10 years ago. It's the same as if you were a songwriter, you pick up your guitar and you have your notepad and you write a song, you're never thinking about how much money you might potentially lose doing that, or a painter very rarely will think about the costs of the canvas, [laughs] and their oil paints, but we always had to factor that in, and now you don't. I think it's a really exciting time if you're a young person just getting into this today.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. Ed, I really enjoyed speaking with you and talking about your movie and I'm excited to see what else you have in the pipeline for us.
Edward: Awesome, Sadie you too. Thanks.
Summer Days, Summer Nights is available on Digital and On Demand August 24, 2021.