A Homecoming for Five Filmakers

By Gene Warner – News Staff Reporter
The Buffalo News

The Burton sisters are returning to Western New York, and they’re not coming back just to tour their old Eggertsville neighborhood, reminisce about their childhoods or visit their old cultural haunts. Although they may do plenty of that. They’re coming home to Buffalo to shoot a movie that could be in local theaters within two years.

City officials hope to stage a press conference later this week to announce that the Burton sisters – Jennifer, Maria, Ursula, Gabrielle and Charity – plan to make their hometown the setting for their third full-length feature film. “Manna From Heaven” is the title of the ensemble comedy, but the entire film effort could be subtitled “All in the Family.”

All five sisters, in their 20’s or early 30’s, will be co-producing the film with their father, Roger, a recently retired psychology professor at the University at Buffalo. Their other, Gabrielle, a prize-winning novelist, wrote the script for “Manna From Heaven.”

Four of the five Burton sisters are back in Buffalo now, trying to shape the project. But they emphasized it’s not a done deal.

“We are meeting with potential investors in Buffalo, and that will determine whether it’s possible to bring the movie to Buffalo,” Jennifer said during a noisy interview with her and three of her sisters in their parents’ Eggertsville home.

The five young Burton women hope to begin shooting the movie next March. Following a six-to-eight-week shoot, the commercial film could be ready for distribution in fall 2000.

“The enthusiasm the Burton sisters have for this project is contagious,” Mayor Masiello said Tuesday. “We are thrilled that they are interested in Buffalo as the location for their next film.”

The five sisters are quick enough that they often cut off each other’s answers in mid-sentence, to create a revised reply to almost any question. And with their plans not yet finalized, they didn’t want to give away too much of the plot or any of the actors potentially involved.

So what’s this movie all about? Is it, as its title suggests, about pieces of bread falling from the sky? Almost. “It’s about Irish and Italians living in Buffalo” Jennifer explained. “It’s what happens when you get a gift from God, and 30 years later, you learn it’s (a loan that’s) due immediately.” Characters will include Rita and Tony Annunciata, the ballroom dancing instructors; Tony’s sister Theresa, the nun; con artists Ed and Bunny; Rita’s mother, Helen Madden, an embittered old woman; Inez, the casino dealer, and Dotty, the beautician. Sounds like Buffalo. The movie is in the vein of “Waking Ned Devine” and “The Full Monty,” featuring working-class characters whose challenges bring a community together and, in the process, revitalize both the characters and the community. Oddly enough, the movie’s final scene is a community celebration in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, a once-dilapidated theater that has been restored to magnificence. “Luckily for us, Shea’s already has been renovated,” Jennifer said.

The sisters also have their eye on featuring many of Buffalo’s landmarks in the movie, including Shea’s, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, City Hall, the zoo, the Anchor Bar and the Darwin D. Martin house.

The Burton Sisters — educated at Harvard, Yale and Denison universities after their years in Amherst schools — formed their own production company, dubbed Five Sisters Produtions. They’ve already made two feature films: “Just Friends,” a romantic comedy that can be seen on the American Movie Classics and Romance Classics networks, and “Temps,” which got strong reviews at the USA Film Festival.

“All Our films are very different genres,” Jennifer said. “But they share the sense that people can change their lives for the better. Even though there is an acknowledgement that there are problems, people are able to find ways to overcome those problems.” Their films ooze hope — not pink-colored optimism, but real hope. “It’s become very hip in independent filmmaking to make things dark,” Maria said. “But that’s not what we want to do.”

Buffalo helped shape the five sisters as artists, the Burton sisters said, because of the terrific sense of identity Buffalo residents retain and because of the strong arts presence here. “I think there’s an enormous arts community here,” Ursula said. “We grew up going to the theater, the symphony orchestra and the Albright Knox.” Now they’re coming back, and their parents are obviously thrilled. “The last time they all worked together was when they all delivered papers for the Courier-Express,” their mother said. “It’s really wonderful for us. You always love your kids, but when your kids grow up and you really like them, it’s one of life’s great blessings.” Call it manna from heaven.