HERE FOR SIFF this May, Ed Burns had the haggard, sleep-deprived look of a man shuttling between Vancouver, B.C., and Seattle on the production of a movie with Angelina Jolie, Life or Something Like It, and gripped his grande-sized Starbucks cup with no small sense of urgency. He was tired, but that befits a 33-year-old whose Sidewalks of New York (see film calendar review) is the fourth film he's written and directed since his '95 debut, The Brothers McMullen.
For this effort, he adapted a fast-and-light guerrilla filmmaking approach. How long did it take? "A personal record of 17 days!" laughs Burns. "Ideally you'd rather have more money—more money means more time—but . . . there are too many compromises you have to make in working with the studio. After Private Ryan, seeing the way Spielberg worked with a handheld camera and available light, I saw how quickly he could work. That's where the idea of the pseudo-documentary was born."
By that, he means the man-on-the-street interview sequences interspersed throughout Sidewalks. "In making a pseudo- documentary," Burns explains, "if a mike falls into the shot, if we lose focus, if you see the camera operator's shadow against the wall, we can let all that stuff fly. A big influence, too, was I purposely hired an editor that hadn't cut any narrative films—he was just a documentary editor."
Are multiplex viewers ready for documentary-style techniques? "Without a doubt. Handheld, jump cuts—people will say, 'It's for the MTV generation,' but if you watch any TV now, certainly commercials, I think most people are used to that style of filmmaking."
Beneath that style lurks Burns' interest in the unseen substance of what disparate New Yorkers, although seeming strangers, might have in common: "The film was sort of about connections. Basically I wanted to look at who we're connected to through our sexual liaisons. The six characters are linked, and then those six continue that pattern six times throughout the film. That French play La Ronde was an influence." (OK, it's actually a German-language play by Arthur Schnitzler filmed in French by Max Ophls in 1950, but the guy is tired, so give him a break.) Burns also cites The Blue Room (based on La Ronde) and "strangely enough, that show on MTV, The Real World."
Although his six characters are diverse in background, age, and ethnicity, Burns emphasizes that there are certain universals at work in Sidewalks. "I have a lot of friends in their early 30s who are on their second marriages. I don't think that's something we see in films. Everyone I know has either been cheated on or cheated on their significant other. These were some of the things that you come across but you never see in a traditional romantic comedy."