‘Manna From Heaven’ is a real-life sister act

Not only did the five Burton siblings collaborate on the comedy fable set in their hometown, their mom wrote the script.

By Carolyn Patricia Scott, Times Staff Writer

April 11, 2003

They call their film company Five Sisters Productions, and for once in Hollywood, that’s no exaggeration. The sisters Burton — Charity, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle C. and Maria — are the heart and soul (as well as director, producer and some of the cast) of “Manna From Heaven,” a warmhearted comedic fable that, not surprisingly, is about family.

“Manna From Heaven,” which opened last Friday, is being self-released by Five Sisters in more than 30 theaters in Los Angeles and New York, with plans for a national release later. Gabrielle C. and Maria co-directed the film; Jennifer is the line producer; Charity helped with casting. Their mother, Gabrielle B., is the screenwriter. Co-producer Ursula made sure the entire family had on-screen roles in the $4-million film, which is set in the family’s hometown of Buffalo. For the main roles, the sisters were able to attract such well-known actors as Shirley Jones, Cloris Leachman, Louise Fletcher, Frank Gorshin, Jill Eikenberry, Shelley Duvall, Seymour Cassel and Wendie Malick, all of whom are profit participants in the film.

The filmmakers cast against type. Jones, a star of Broadway and film musicals, plays a con artist. As she recalls: “I read the script and thought, this is fun. A little different. A little bizarre.” Gorshin, an impersonator, plays it straight as Jones’ husband. though he does get an opportunity at wildly comedic turns with a variety of accents.

But the filmmakers couldn’t resist the temptation to have Jones sing — she does a version of “Just the Way You Look Tonight.” Initially they hesitated to ask her. “We can’t pay you,” Gabrielle C. confessed. But Jones agreed. “They had a wonderful symphony orchestra,” the Buffalo Philharmonic, Jones recalls, “and they’d recorded in my key.”

The film takes a humorous look at a mildly dysfunctional family whose members find redemption within themselves and one another. The sisters, all in their 30s, say that in some ways their filmmaking process imitates real life. Los Angeles-based Five Sisters Productions was formed seven years ago; “Manna From Heaven” is its third movie, after “Just Friends” in 1997 and “Temps” in 1999.

“Our parents raised us so that we have fights and arguments,” Ursula explains. “The way that we’ve learned to deal with our differences is what makes us successful — we each get to discuss and express opinions, but we’ve got to say why we believe what we believe.”

To keep the production company afloat, the sisters pool their money from acting jobs and other work (Jennifer is a lawyer). Four of the sisters live in Southern California; the fifth, Gabrielle, lives in Ohio but commutes regularly to Los Angeles. Asked how spouses, boyfriends and others respond to the Burtons’ devotion to their business, Maria says: “They know how it is before they get in a relationship with any of us.”

Shooting the film in Buffalo, the family encountered a spate of bad luck: Their grandfather died, and as they returned from the funeral, their car was in an accident that put Gabrielle C. and Charity in the hospital.

Then their car was broken into, and cameras and other equipment were stolen. The mayor of Buffalo went on television and upbraided the thieves. By evening, the camera and equipment surfaced at a local pawnshop. (The shop owner told the thieves that the whole lot was junk and paid them $50, then called the police.) The sisters lost only a day of production time.

“There,” Gabrielle C. explains, “there was our manna from heaven.”