For This Sister Act, Everything’s Relative

by Melissa Balmain
For The LA Times

The Burton sisters haven’t been nominated for an Oscar. They’ve yet to pose on the cover of Vanity Fair or get a perfume named after them or even sign very many autographs.

And still, wherever they go, these five filmmakers are causing outbreaks of full-blown, star-magnitude jealousy.

“They so make me wish I had four sisters,” a movie director says.

“What an awesome way to live,” a producer’s rep sighs.

“Will you all be on one check?” asks a waitress, but you can tell as she lingers at their table that she really wants to ask, “Will you adopt me?”

The reason for all this Burton envy is as easy to find as it is hard to fathom: They actually get along. The whole dark-haired, bright-eyed bunch of them. You suspect this from the way they squeeze each other’s hands (affectionately) and laugh at each other’s stories (loudly and often). You know for sure when you learn that they’ve made two feature-length films together without a single attempted sororicide.

The Burtons’ first movie, “Just Friends,” is a romantic comedy about a young man whose ideal woman is engaged to someone else. It has played to enthusiastic crowds at medium-tier festivals around the world and will be featured late this month at the International Family Film Festival in Albuquerque. A reviewer from Variety saw an early cut and called Maria Burton, 32, the oldest sister and the film’s director, a “talent to watch.” The Burtons have sold “Just Friends” to a number of foreign buyers and are negotiating a deal for a cable television premiere this summer or fall.

Their second movie, “Temps”–now in the last stages of post-production–is a comedy about young adults struggling to forge long-lasting careers and relationships.

Both films combine little-known performers with established character actors (Hal Linden as an insurance company boss in “Just Friends,” Seymour Cassel as a film studio president in “Temps”). True to the name of the Burtons’ Santa Monica-based company, Five Sisters Productions,the sisters do everything from writing to fund-raising to acting in key roles on-screen.

“I can’t even think of any three-sibling teams, let alone five-sibling teams, other than the Burtons,” says Jack Lechner, executive vice president for development and production at Miramax and a friend and admirer of the sisters. “And I think it’s absolutely remarkable that they not only work together, but they work together so well and happily. And how well adjusted they all are. Almost to a shocking degree.”

How the Burtons got so shockingly sane, and have managed to stay that way in a field that’s anything but, is the sort of story you’d never believe on film. It starts in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., where the sisters spent most of their childhood. “We were always together,” says Charity, 24, the youngest. “And family was the first priority.”

Their parents–Gabrielle, a novelist and screenwriter, and Roger, a psychologist and musician–had everyone tell true stories about their daily lives as they ate at the family’s big round dinner table. (After meals, those doing the dishes got fictional stories read to them by those who were not.) They often took their daughters to movies. (Everyone liked to sit through them twice and critique them afterward.) Each summer, they splurged on family trips to such places as Alaska, China and India. (The sisters formed a singing group, Buffalo Gals, that performed at restaurants, hotels and nightclubs along the way.) Sibling arguments were frequent but short. For one thing, the Burtons say, it was boring to sulk alone. For another, their parents made sure they talked problems out.

“You had to articulate what was wrong, what had happened,” says Jennifer, 31. “You’d say, ‘She’s mean,’ and Mom and Dad would say, ‘No, what she did is mean.’ ”

“Or you’d say, ‘She made me feel bad,’ ” Charity chimes in, “and theywould say, ‘No, the way you feel is up to you.’ ” If talk didn’t do the trick, the Burtons weren’t above getting physical. “One time,” Jennifer says, grinning at the memory, “Dad brought home cream pies for us to throw at each other.” The sisters put on bathing suits and ran into the backyard for a lemon-meringue and chocolate-cream war.

Not that in-your-face was the family’s usual style. The sisters successfully ran lemonade stands together and sold doughnuts. They shared clothes, chores, a paper route. One time they even, unwittingly, shared an obscene phone call. (The girls were under the impression that a dying man was on the other end–he sounded so out of breath, poor guy — and they took turns on various extensions trying to calm him down.)

It was probably inevitable that the Burtons would end up sharing a production company too. At first, though, after graduating from Yale, Harvard-Radcliffe and Denison universities with all sorts of theatrical experience, they started down separate paths.

Maria acted, produced and directed in Boston, New York and Los Angeles. Jennifer studied Japanese theater in Tokyo and got a PhD in English literature at Harvard. Ursula, now 29, became an actor in New York. Gabrielle, now 26, pursued creative writing in Boston and studied directing and screenwriting in France. And Charity worked for Americorps, organizing and teaching in literacy programs in New Orleans and East Los Angeles.

About six years ago, Ursula and Maria combined forces to produce and act in the musical revue “A . . . My Name Is Alice” in Los Angeles. They took a couple of years after that finding another project they really loved–and at last optioned the script for “Just Friends” and went into the movie business. Gabrielle, fresh from film school, became their co-producer.

Jennifer and Charity signed on during post-production. “I saw a cut of ‘Just Friends’ and I was just bowled over,” Jennifer remembers. “This was like a real movie! I joined the company. I’m no dummy.” Echoes Charity, “I’m no fool.”

Now Maria, Ursula and Charity live in Santa Monica, and Gabrielle is bicoastal. Jennifer, the only married sister, lives in La Jolla.

Not content until Five Sisters Productions was really Five Sisters and Two Parents, the Burtons have optioned three screenplays by their mother. They’ve acted alongside both parents in “Temps.” And they’ve never stopped heeding Mom and Dad’s advice.

“We still try and talk problems through,” Maria says. One afternoon six months ago in a New York sound studio, Ursula, Gabrielle and Maria leaned toward a huge video screen with their hands identically folded in front of their chins. They were watching two “Temps” characters kiss after their first date.

“I think we should keep the music up the whole way and lose the lines,” Gabrielle said. “I liked that surging feeling.”

“But,” Ursula said, “there’ll be the annoying thing of what did they say?” “But,” Maria said, “all we lose is the ‘good night,’ right? I agree with Gabrielle.” “OK,” Ursula said amiably. So it went, hour after hour, point by point. Sometimes one sister’s opinion held sway, sometimes another’s, but always the Burtons kept talking until everyone seemed happy. No cream pies necessary. Of all the problems they’ve addressed this way, the thorniest may be the Great Directing Dilemma.

The Burtons’ third film–likely to begin shooting by fall–will be based on one of their mother’s screenplays. It will, if fund-raising continues to go well, be their most expensive effort yet.

While the sisters were shooting “Temps,” Gabrielle said she’d like to direct Film No. 3. But Maria, after honing her skills for two movies in a row, was hardly eager to step down. “We just couldn’t see what a solution would be,” Maria recalls. So the whole family talked and talked, parents included. “I think it was Mom who thought of splitting it up.” Which is just what Maria and Gabrielle plan to do: Each will direct half the movie. “For this company to last,” Gabrielle ex-plains, “we all have to be able to get out our long-term goals.” They also have to work out the short-term matter of sister overload. “We have enormous fun together,” Maria says. “It’s just our own time we’d like to have more of.” Private time. Down time. But when your colleagues are your sisters and your best friends, that’s tough to find. The Burtons have tried setting rules about not discussing work after certain hours. Amid some crisis or other, the rules always fail. “After a while,” Charity laments, “you’re just like, ‘I’ve seen you for 82 hours straight and I really would like a break.’ ”

Once their company is more established, the Burtons aim to hire other people to do some of the round-the-clock work. That will free up the sisters to pursue individual projects in acting, teaching, writing and so on–and give them more energy for the aspect of Five Sisters that they enjoy most. “We all feel strongly about telling stories,” Ursula says. And they feel strongly about how to tell them. “The idea of throwing in a random sex scene for the sake of getting the film distributed is not something we would compromise on,” Gabrielle says. Ditto for a random scene of violence. “We don’t have any gratuitous smoking, either!” Maria says. What the Burtons do have are movies that, like the sisters themselves, brim with hope. In “Just Friends,” a wallflower finds the love of her life. In “Temps,” a poet learns to be happy despite her lack of professional success.

“Our films aren’t optimistic, though,” cautions Jennifer, who wrote her dissertation on the literary construction of hope. “Optimism is an idea that everything is great in the world. Hope is you believe that it could get better. . . . You don’t just say everything is wonderful in the world, you know, Pollyanna, because that’s just false. But at the same time, if you give your characters a cynical vision where they are defeated by difficulties, I think that actually has a negative effect on the people watching the film.” A hopeful vision, on the other hand, can have a positive effect–especially on veteran observers of the independent scene.

“I see a lot of new filmmakes, so many of them unsuccessful, trying to be cynical and pessimistic, making a lot of films with a lot of attitude but no substance behind them,” says Robert Hawk, a member of the competition selection advisory board for the Sundance Film Festival, where the Burtons work each winter. “Both of the Burtons’ films have a humane, humorous spirit that I think is lovely.”

Will that spirit find a flesh-and-blood following? Will the Burtons one day get the big bucks, the big stars, the Vanity Fair cover? The sisters are–surprise!–hopeful. Among the movies they see themselves making are two more based on screenplays by their mother, one based on a novel by Jennifer, and at least eight based on ideas of Gabrielle’s and Maria’s. The movies would run the gamut from a courtroom drama to a sci-fi blockbuster. “Basically,” Maria says with a laugh, “we’re booked for the rest of our lifetimes.”

Burton watchers say the sisters have a good shot during those lifetimes at making a splash. “They certainly have the talent and the tenacity,” Hawk says. Jeff Dowd, a producer and producer’s representative who has worked with the Burtons and with filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, believes the sisters–like the brothers–combine to create an “amazing source of energy and trust.” “I want to see the situation,” he says, “where four or five of those sisters are going to a major actor and asking her to be in a movie–because I think they’ll get that actor if the script works. You know, she’ll want to hang with these people, she’ll want to spend time with these Burton sisters.” And, chances are, she’ll wish she were one of them.

Copyright 1998 / Los Angeles Times