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Arts and Music

Home For The Holidays

Valley Stream’s Ed Burns returns to his roots

with The Fitzgerald Family Christmas

There’s a scene in the new Ed Burns film The Fitzgerald Family Christmas where Burns’ Gerry Fitzgerald takes baby brother Cyril to see the tenement their estranged father grew up in on Manhattan’s West Side. It’s a scene where members of this fictional South Shore family return to the New York City roots of their forefathers. It’s one of those semiautobiographical moments that Burns has become so adept at slipping into his movies and is based on a similar memory he had.

“Both my folks went to high school in Queens and the Bronx. They came out to Long Island but they were city kids, so they were always taking us back into Manhattan,” the writer/ director/actor explained. “My mom was a theater nut as well, so she was always going to see Broadway shows. My dad, being a cop in New York, would always take us in to walk around the Village and take us to this restaurant, that pizza place or in this case, the building where he grew up. We were always being told that Long Island is a great place for your childhood but your dreams will come true across the river. So once you were 18, we were told to get our asses into the city.”

It’s this kind of reality-driven drama that’s firmly placed Burns in the position of being the unofficial cinematic voice of working-class, Irish-Americans, particularly those families who call Long Island and the surrounding suburbs home. It’s what got Burns on the map back when his 1995 debut The Brothers McMullen won the Grand Prize Jury at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. While that theme of Irish-American families carried over to his 1996 follow-up, She’s the One, it’s a world that he’d been creatively away from for quite some time. That is until a fellow indie film peer reminded him about not forgetting his roots.

I was working with Tyler [Perry] on a movie two summers ago and he had just rewatched The Brothers McMullen,” Burns explained. “He said, ‘Look, the first [film] was so successful and She’s the One was so successful. They’re both about Irish-American working class families from Long Island and you’ve never written about that world again in 15 years. Take a look at what I’m doing and super-serving your niche because I guarantee you that if you go back to that world and write another film about that place, I guarantee you that the audience that loved those first two movies will thank you for it.’ The minute he said it, I knew that he was right. I went to my trailer, popped open my laptop and I started writing. For me, the first draft of a screenplay usually takes about six months and this took six weeks.”

Returning to his childhood haunts to shoot his latest project became a sort of homecoming for Burns on a few different levels. Even though his parents had moved from Valley Stream to Rockville Centre, the filmmaker’s mother was instrumental in reaching out to old friend Tina Costello, a neighbor who lived six houses down from the Burns clan and generously offered her home up for the movie to shoot in. That authenticity was important to the Hunter College alum.

“I’m shooting this film on my block. That scene I shot with all the kids in their pajamas in the kitchen and I can remember being in that kitchen as a little kid. So you can imagine, there are a lot of surreal and weird moments and memories during the making of the film,” Burns pointed out. “But I wanted the film to be a homecoming of sorts. Because I was going back to that milieu, I wanted to shoot it not only in my neighborhood at my train station in Gibson. My old church—St. Joseph’s. And the bar, even though we renamed it.”

In a quest to capture that feeling of family that was instrumental in informing the tone of the new movie, Burns went through the cast list of all his prior movies and pulled one cast member from every movie in order to have a filmmaking kind of homecoming. Likewise, he retained his usual behind-the-scenes crew ranging from Huntington native and director of photography William Rexer to Cold Spring Harbor composer P.T. Walkley. It’s a strategy Burns felt was key to the success of the film.

“The great bonus that we got from that is that all these actors have worked together before. They all know one another for years. Like Anita Gillette, who plays the mom, and Mike McGlone, who plays Quinn, they worked together on She’s the One and they know each other 17 years,” he said with a grin. “So the minute they were on screen together, you can see there was a real history between these folks. The whole production was about going back home.”

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas revolves around the namesake Long Island brood and the controversy of the adult siblings’ estranged father requesting to come home for Christmas for the first time since walking out on his wife and seven children 20 years prior. Lines are drawn, grudges resurface and complex emotions collide, not unlike most family dynamics during this time of the year. It’s the kind of familial drama that Burns acknowledges he was lucky to avoid growing up.

“The holidays, for whatever reason, were never that stressful for my family,” he recalled. “I mean, there’s always going to be that argument you had with your sister back in August and now it’s going to have to be addressed, which is something that shows up in the film. Not that exact thing, but those types of scenarios. But some of the more dramatic turns in this film are all things that were either stories I’ve heard or things that just came from my imagination.”

The whole project was such a joy to write, direct and act in that the Long Island native promised that it wouldn’t take another chat with Tyler Perry to remind him the creative gold he’s got in the types of characters that Burns created over two decades ago.

“It was the most fun I’ve had writing probably since I wrote Brothers McMullen,” Burns admitted before adding,  “I’m not going to wait another 15 years before returning to Valley Stream for another go-round with them.”

Ed Burns will be doing Q&As on Sunday, Dec. 9 at the matinee screenings of the following theaters: Clearview Squire, 1150 Middle Neck Rd., Great Neck 516-466-2020. Malverne Cinema 4, 350 Hempstead Ave., Malverne, 516-599-6966