A true New Yorker and proud to show it

Filmmaker: For Ed Burns, writer of `Sidewalks of New York,' capturing the zest of the city was paramount.

November 29, 2001|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - As actor-director Ed Burns speaks on screen, you squint and blink and rub your eyes. But the image is still there - the two slender towers that Americans have watched crumble and disappear repeatedly on news programs since Sept. 11.

It's at once chilling, sad, and yet reassuringly normal to see the World Trade Center towers on screen. It's also seemingly apt, considering Burns' Sidewalks of New York is the latest movie from a Long Island-bred filmmaker who has made it his mission to document the real New York: joy, pain and hardships.

Burns initially considered digitally removing the towers, as other directors have done, but decided against it.

"Nobody wanted to pretend that the towers were never there," says Burns, whose movie opens tomorrow. "Somebody made a great analogy, saying that `When a relative of yours dies, you don't go into the family photos and remove them.' We just felt strongly that they should stay in."

For quintessentially New York filmmakers like Burns, the question of how to cast the city on the big screen has never been more complicated. But in addressing the question of whether to alter Sidewalks - a wry comedy about the lives of six New Yorkers in a roundabout search for love - the actor said it was a no-brainer.

"I made no changes," says Burns, who wrote, directed and stars in the movie, which also features Stanley Tucci and Heather Graham.

He thinks audiences will respond to his film because "you can see it's made by somebody who loves New York."

That's where he is on the day before Thanksgiving, when he nonchalantly strides into trendy Tribeca restaurant Bubby's in sleek black pants and a light blue dress shirt. He casually tosses his parka on a chair, and launches into a discussion about New York.

It's a topic that Burns is more than familiar with. He was born 33 years ago in Queens, and grew up on Long Island. After working as a researcher on Entertainment Tonight, he won the Hollywood lottery in 1995 when his $25,000 movie - financed by his police-officer father - The Brothers McMullen won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to gross $10 million.

Now, he lives half a block from Bubby's, in the $2 million loft that John F. Kennedy Jr. shared with his wife before their deaths, and is engaged to supermodel Christy Turlington. The wedding date has been set for next year.

But he tries to be the same brusque, down-to-earth New York guy he was growing up. "I like doing what I've always done," Burns says in his raspy, tough-guy voice. "There's not like [an] ulterior motive behind it other than, `Why should I change my life?' "

So it's not surprising that he puts the places he loves into his films. Sidewalks, shot in 17 days for about $1 million, uses a West Village restaurant called Caffe Dell Artista and Mrs. Hudson's Video Library as settings for key scenes.

"I'd like to be the type of filmmaker that 20 years from now, people will say, `If he had not made these films, we may not have seen this little piece of the world,'" he says. "I tried to paint an honest picture of the way we speak and the attitudes we have about our sex lives. As much as the film focuses on the characters' romantic lives, it's a little bit of an attack on the fact that we are obsessed with that."

Sidewalks grew out of conversations four years ago between Burns and fellow actors in Saving Private Ryan.

"A bunch of guys were talking about their lousy relationships, and most of the stories were funny," he says. "That's when I came up with the idea of doing a comedy that was an anti-romantic comedy, about all the things that happen between a man and a woman when it doesn't work out."

Some have called Sidewalks a "period piece" in the aftermath of Sept. 11, a label that Burns says he understands.

"Some of the conversations they had in the movie, I don't know that you would have today," Burns says. "You know, when Heather's character in the film says, `The difference between our generation and previous generations is that we've never had to suffer through a war or anything like it. So we don't really know the kind of hardships that other generations had.' That isn't a conversation you would have today."

But for now, Burns hopes that Sidewalks does well enough that he finds financing for a longtime dream project: On The Job, a 1960s film about a police officer's family. And, like his fellow New Yorkers, he's focusing on getting on with life post-Sept. 11.

"I was standing two blocks from here watching the trade center fall - something that nobody would ever have fathomed before," he says. "It was the worst thing I've ever seen. It was the worst day of my life."

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