Edward Burns Explains How Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and ‘Game of Thrones’ Influenced His (Great) First TV Series, ‘Public Morals


For the last decade or so, you probably know Edward Burns as one of two people: The first is that charming New Yorkah who pops up in romantic comedies like “The Holiday,” “27 Dresses,” “Friends With Kids” and even “Will & Grace.” He’s snagged a few roles as cops in a couple of studio flicks, as well, but he’s a tried and true “Prince Charming”-type for anyone who loves a thick Queens accent. That person, though, is Edward Burns, Studio Actor. Far more interesting to the indie community and film fans at large is Edward Burns, Writer, Actor, Producer and Director. 

Since his debut film, “The Brothers McMullen,” took home the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, Burns hasn’t stopped writing — and directing, and producing, and acting and more. He’s been pumping out character-driven indie films for two decades now, and helping push VOD distribution into the mainstream along the way. An innovative and inspired filmmaker, Burns — like so many others — has now taken his talents to the small screen. But he’s not done pushing boundaries just yet.

Public Morals,” a 1960s gangster saga focusing on both sides of the law, is set to become the first TNT drama to stream new episodes online before airing them traditionally. One day after the series’ premiere on August 22, the first four episodes of the 10-episode first season will be made available on VOD, TNT’s website and other outlets to bring as much exposure as possible to the exciting new drama. Not only that, but Burns wrote and directed every episode of “Public Morals,” making the series a more filmic and auteur-driven effort, a la “True Detective” Season 1 or “The Knick.” Ahead of his show’s premiere, Burns spoke with Indiewire about his personal connection to the material, why he made the transition from indie film to TV, how Steven Spielberg — his director on “Saving Private Ryan” — helped with the show and whether or not he plans to return to the indie film world anytime soon.

You’ve been trying for a while to get this Irish cops and gangsters project going, and you grew up in a family of cops, right? So this is pretty personal?

Yes. The stuff in it that’s autobiographical is limited to the relationship between Terry Muldoon and his sons. The other story we’re seeing — the subplot in the pilot — is word-for-word me and my dad when I’m in the sixth grade. And there are other moments like that between my character, Terry, and his son James, that pull from what it was like to grow up with a father who was a police officer; what it was like to grow up in that culture and climate in a big cop family where a lot of your social life — weddings, funerals — were attended mostly by cops and their families. All the other stuff, the cops and the gangsters come from, probably, 20 or 25 years of my obsessions. The movies I loved, the novels I tended to read, and the nonfiction that I was obsessed with, [it] always had to do with New York City, Hell’s Kitchen, gangsters, cops, the waterfront, Times Square, those kinds of things. I took all of those obsessions and put it into the show. 

I’ll even go one step further: The show was born after I wrapped “Mob City.” Bugsy Siegel, the character I played, got killed off, and the guys at TNT wanted to know if I had any interest in developing or creating a television show. And at that point, I didn’t. I thought about it, but I didn’t really have any ideas for a TV show. So I went back home to New York, and I said, “Why don’t I come back to LA in the fall and see if I can pitch you something?” So when I came home, I looked at the stacks of unproduced screenplays that I had in my office. I kinda had two genes that I had been playing with and had no luck getting either of the films made. One, I think you mentioned earlier, was a script called “On the Job,” which was my attempt at an Irish-American “Godfather,” set against the NYPD. You know, like a multi-generational Irish family epic that took place over the course of 15 or 20 years. Tried for years to get that made, could never get it made; stack of scripts, four or five different screenplays that had to do with the Irish mob on the west side of Manhattan. I wrote a turn-of-the-century story, I did an adaptation with William Kennedy of his novel “Legs.” I did a 1970s, kind of Westy’s gangster story, and I could never get any of these films made. 

So when I went home to New York to think of what show I’d want to do, I thought why don’t I take these two passion projects of mine and marry the two ideas. That’s how I came upon this idea of, you know, the Muldoons, this extended NYPD Irish-American family from Hell’s Kitchen, and the Pattons will be the gangster family from Hell’s Kitchen. And they will be connected  through the neighborhood, through similar experiences, and then they’ll also be connected through marriage. And that’s kind of where I started. 

What was it that helped you with the transition from film to TV, and what was that process like for you?

When I sat down to write the 10 episodes, I decided not to try and write the individual episodes one at a time — write Episode 1 and move onto Episode 2 — I approached more the way you’d write a novel. And I kinda had some sense of where the chapters might end. But I tried not to think of them as individual episodes. Let me just do one or two passes in novel form with chapter breaks; lay out the story that way, see how the story flows and how that might play out. Once I did that, I was able to go into those individual chapters and sort of fine-tune those and craft those into individual television episodes. What this afforded me to do was… Getting 10 hours to tell your story instead of 90 minutes or two hours on a feature film, you just have so much more time to tell people’s stories and play with more complex characters. Unlike what’s happening in film, the fact that this was television, I could play with people who felt a little more real dealing with real emotions and real situations. That was kind of the approach. 

The one thing I had was, you know, Steven Spielberg’s an executive producer, and Steven and his team at Amblin Entertainment really helped me in getting my head around how you deal with act breaks within the episodes. That was something I was completely unfamiliar with, and, quite honestly, as I broke my novel, let’s say, down into 10 chapters, I really needed their assistance, saying “Oh, well at the end of the fourth act you should have it end on this scene rather than that scene.” And having Steven as a mentor in the TV scene is as good as it gets.

It’s interesting that you said how much time you had to get into characters, because it’s something I’ve heard before when people talk about moving from film to TV. But this show feels so immediate. It’s a very tight, effectively-paced script, which isn’t usually the case for some people who make the transition. Outside of Spielberg’s influence, did you have anything you modeled the show after, like another TV show that inspired you or maybe a specific one of these stories from your past that felt like a way to access specific TV beats?

I would say there are two things I was looking at as I was writing the 10 episodes. One is a ton of Scorsese, and that’s probably evidenced in the style in which we shot the show. One of the things that the Scorsese [films have] — especially the gangster films — that a lot of other gangster stories don’t have, is the playfulness. The good time. And that’s something  I knew I wanted my characters to have. Both the cops and the gangsters. I did not want it to drown in “heavy-osity.” I wanted it to feel like… even though these are bad guys, they’re having a good time. I think that what you said about it having a good pace or it being engaging, I think that might have something to do with it. 

The other thing was, quite honestly, “Game of Thrones.” What I loved about “Game of Thrones” was that it was such an effective ensemble piece. You could jump around with all these different stories that at first don’t appear connected and wouldn’t necessarily dovetail until Season 2. So that would be sort of the more ensemble nature of the show. I definitely looked at “Game of Thrones” as inspiration for that. And since you’ve seen the first four episodes, you know we kill off some characters that probably five years ago we wouldn’t have been allowed to kill off. When I saw the end of Season 1 when they killed Ed Stark, I said, “Wait a second, you can do that? Okay, cool. I’m gonna start whacking some guys.” And that’s what we did.

You’ve been at the forefront of new distribution models as far as indie film goes for a long time now, and I was curious if that kind of understanding of how people are watching things these days affected your decision to get into TV.

Absolutely. It’s the natural progression for any indie filmmaker. We did back in ‘07 with “Purple Violets,” and putting that onto iTunes exclusively. That is where that indie-film-loving audience that used to go to the art house [goes]. They are now home in front of their televisions. This is really a case of where is the best place to tell this story. A friend of mine had a great line the other day, he told me “When we were kids, films were for adults and television was for children. And now the reverse is true.” And there actually is some truth to that. So for me, with this story, what I was able to do was… I could not ever have gotten this story made as a film. And if I did, it would have been very hard to reach a wide audience. And I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of indie filmmakers making the decision to bail on the film career and embrace this new medium as the place to tell those stories.

We’ve definitely seen a huge movement in that direction.

For someone like yourself who’s so aware of the importance of distribution, what was it about TNT and their pitch that made that network the right fit for this show?

Two things. One is, I was working for TNT on the Frank Darabount show, and they approached me about coming up with an idea for a television show. So I only took this show to TNT. The thing that’s great about TNT is, Kevin Reilly, who runs the network, has talked about, you know, this is the direction that they want the network to go in. Telling these types of edgier stories, for lack of a better description. I think we’re sort of in the right place at the right time. We’ve got this story, and that’s where they want to take the network. They’ve been nothing but 100 percent supportive of us with everything. I mean, we got almost no notes while writing the script, no interference while shooting the episodes, and nothing but support during post-production. And even helping us to find a little bit more money so we can play even more music in the show.

So you’ve got a full season under your belt, you’ve got this great show coming out — where do you stand as an indie filmmaker? Can you see yourself going back to making more of those?

I’m sitting here right now at my desk, working on Episode 5 of Season 2, even though we haven’t been picked up yet. And I’ve got a stack of memoirs in front of me about cops and gangsters. So right now, the only thing I can think of is where do I take these characters; hopefully not just in Season 2, but Seasons 4 and 5. And as I said, this has been such a long labor of love trying to get a story like this to the screen. Back in ‘95, after “Brothers McMullen,” I thought that screen was going to be in a theater. But now, I am happier, actually, that it isn’t a film and that it is a television show. For all those reasons I said before. That said, if after the run of this show something hits me where I wanna make another film, I don’t wanna say no, but this has been such a charmed experience that I hope I get to do this for a long time. A big part of that is all of my department heads — all the people who worked on my indie films and all the people who worked on other folks’ indie films — it’s tough out there in the indie film world. Across the board, not only above the line but below the line, too, we’re all overjoyed that television has become the new home for these stories. 

The cops in “Public Morals” aren’t presented as heroes or antiheroes, which is a fresh take in today’s TV landscape. And what struck me about that, considering the show’s title, “Public Morals,” was just what their relevance would be for a modern audience. Are they some kind of an old guard that’s been overwhelmed by P.C. culture, or are they a problem that existed and was washed away because of it?

I’m not quite sure what the question is, I’m sorry—

I’m sorry, let me rephrase: When I was watching these people go about their business — these are cops who are kind of on the take, working with people who are doing illegal activities throughout the city — they’re not presented as heroes or antiheroes. I’m just kind of curious what you thought of them, and what audiences are supposed to take away from these kinds of individuals? 

I think, I mean, there was a division in the NYPD called Public Morals, and […] these crimes are sort of what they were in charge of policing. But in everything that I’ve read, going back to this book called “Island of Vice” about Teddy Roosevelt’s time as a police commissioner, there was this allowance made for what they call these “nuisance crimes,” or victimless crimes. I was fascinated that this culture and climate and way of doing business and making allowances had existed for a hundred years, back to Tammany Hall days. I don’t, and the show doesn’t, have any political agenda or any opinion as to whether it was right or wrong, These are really interesting characters for me to play with. I guess I was really just trying to sort of manipulate these stories and that history and play with questions of morality and power, but really also just try to make it a fun and entertaining piece. 

“Public Morals” premieres Tuesday, August 25 at 10pm on TNT. The first four episodes will be available August 26 via watch.tntdrama.com, TNT’s mobile app and VOD. Watch the trailer below.

This article was originally published on the Indiewire website.