An Honest-to-Goodness Family Film

Burton Clan’s ‘Manna’ Opens Locally Today

By Natalie Hopkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 25, 2002; Page C04


The filmmaking Burtons, with “Manna From Heaven” star Shelley Duvall: From left, Charity, Jennifer (on floor), Maria, Ursula, Duvall, Gabrielle C., Roger and Gabrielle B. (LOIS RAIMONDO — THE WASHINGTON POST)

The paparazzi were nowhere to be found. There was no red carpet, no passive-aggressive publicists guiding movie stars down a procession of whirring cameras and extended microphones.

The screening for the new indie flick “Manna From Heaven” at the Motion Picture Association of America headquarters downtown was definitely more wonk than swank — an impression the parade of legislation-toting Congress members did little to counter.

“It is the perfect film for this moment in history,” said Rep. Karen McCarthy (D-Mo.), one of many members who played movie critic that night. “You’ll walk out of the film soaring.”

“We don’t have enough of these movies,” added Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “It says something wonderful about family and everything else.”

If the screening earlier this month had the feel of a campaign stop, its creators say all the better.

“It’s very much like politics,” said “Manna” co-producer Jennifer Burton, one-seventh of the ebullient family behind Five Sisters Productions. “What we are asking people to do is really vote at the box office.”

Only you needn’t commit to the Burtons for a full election cycle. Just two feel-good hours of old-timey family entertainment served up by a distinguished cast that explores an intriguing premise:

What if a big white truck dumps thousands of dollars at your doorstep, but you learn decades later that the money wasn’t a gift from heaven, but a loan that must be repaid?

Written by the novelist and family matriarch Gabrielle B. Burton, starring two Burtons (sisters Ursula and Maria) directed by two sisters (Maria and Gabrielle C.) and produced by the whole Burton family, including sisters Charity and Jennifer and dad Roger, “Manna From Heaven,” answers that question.

And the “Manna From Heaven” experience presents many more. Questions like: Can a family of brainy do-gooders from Buffalo come together to make it in the cutthroat movie business? And moreover: Can they do it without killing each other?

The film hits selected Washington theaters tonight, as the latest stop on what the Burton family calls the Manna Whistle Stop Tour to promote it.

“Manna” has been gaining momentum all summer. The film was screened successfully in Buffalo and at several film festivals across the country. At a showing in Missouri, McCarthy became smitten by the movie and offered to host the Washington screening, as well as introduce legislation in Congress to support independent filmmakers. The congresswoman expects to introduce a bill sometime next year that would give tax breaks to filmmakers who shoot at U.S. locations instead of more cost-efficient sites across the Canadian border.

History forces us to doubt the functionality of showbiz families. But yes, the Burtons are well-adjusted. And yes, they actually like each other. If not, they wouldn’t submit themselves to the rigors of family-style filmmaking for a third time.

In the 1990s, Five Sisters Productions shot two movies, each on less than a million-dollar budget: “Just Friends,” a lighthearted look at platonic relationships, and “Temps,” a decidedly uncynical view of Gen X work life.

“Temps,” which is in the process of being developed into a television series, was Five Sisters’s attempt to show the world that, despite the insistent slacker portrayal, young adults were about more than just greasy hair and bad attitudes during the 1990s.

“We were like ‘who are you?’ ” says Charity.

Adds Gabrielle C.: “All of our friends work really hard.”

Although the budget for “Manna” is twice the amount of the last two projects combined, it is minuscule compared to that of their competition for national distribution. The Burton sisters believe the strength of their mom’s script helped them snag Hollywood veterans such as Cloris Leachman, Shelley Duvall, Seymour Cassel, Jill Eikenberry, Louise Fletcher and Harry Groener on such a small budget.

“Manna” has not even a fraction of the average marketing budget. “We have nothing,” says Jennifer. “We have these green fliers for two cents each.”

Speaking from the other end of a conference table, Gabrielle C. pipes in: “That’s two and a half cents,” she chides in the only hint of dissension in an hour-long conversation with the entire tribe Burton.

“It adds up!”

In what appears to be their only concession to Hollywood, all seven Burtons refuse to tell their age, saying only that the sisters are all 20- and 30-something and span across an eight-year range. You believe them when they, all earnestness and bright eyes and shiny brown hair, say it’s not vanity, but fear of limiting their opportunities in the film industry that prevents them from divulging that information.

Although the girls grew up mostly in Buffalo, where “Manna” was shot, they were all born in the Washington area, and spent their early years in Bethesda. Roger Burton was a psychologist at National Institutes of Health, while mother Gabrielle B. was the noted feminist author probably best known for her award-winning 1988 novel “Heartbreak Hotel.”

The family left Washington during the 1970s so Roger could take a teaching job at the University of Buffalo. The girls thrived in upstate New York, becoming overachievers by any measure.

Jennifer and Gabrielle C. are Harvard graduates, the former in creative writing, the latter with a PhD in literature. Ursula and Maria are Yale-trained actresses. When the youngest sister, Charity, isn’t making movies with her family, she teaches at a Los Angeles inner-city public school.

The film is a perfect reflection of the family’s idealism. “It’s a comedy, but it shows people that there is a possibility to change their lives for the better,” says Jennifer Burton. “Then you can impart a sense of hope.”

To hopelessly jaded moviegoers, the film may come off as a touch sentimental. Even the most hardened characters have a fierce sweet streak, with the exception of one played by Wendie Malick. Malick, who plays the acerbic former model on television’s “Just Shoot Me,” gives a deadpan performance as the misanthrope Inez, a tough-talking card-dealer.

“It’s not that they’re perfect,” explains Jennifer Burton. “It’s not that they totally change, but they have this moment of grace.”

If you spend more than five minutes in the presence of the bubbly Burtons, you figure they spend much of their time on that side of grace. And it comes as no surprise that they are donating part of the proceeds from “Manna” to one of their pet projects, Habitat for Humanity.

The Burtons know their upbeat film will shock those who have come to expect dark, brooding work from independent filmmakers. That’s why the success of another limited-budget crowd-pleaser, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” has added to their cheery outlook.

The sleeper hit has fortified the Burtons’ conviction that they are on to something. Gabrielle C. figures they’re even on the cutting edge: “It is truly edgy to have a feel-good independent.”