An interview with Gabrielle and Ursula Burton
by Adam Blair
What would you do if a year’s salary just dropped out of the sky? How would it change your life, and what wouldn’t change? These are some of the questions posed by MANNA FROM HEAVEN, a comic fable with a great cast of character actors, including Shirley Jones, Frank Gorshin, Jill Eikenberry, Wendie Malick, Seymour Cassel and Harry Groener. The film itself is a family affair: it was produced by the five Burton sisters (Maria, Gabrielle, Jennifer, Charity and Ursula), written by their mother Gabrielle B. Burton and co-produced by their father Roger Burton. Sisters Maria and Gabrielle co-directed, and Ursula acts in the film. All seven Burtons have dedicated themselves to a grass-roots, city-by-city approach to marketing and promoting MANNA, which opens in New York and Los Angeles April 4. Gabrielle and Ursula spoke with Films in Review’s Adam Blair about the challenges and pleasures of creating a truly independent film.
FIR: I was curious about the overall idea for the film — is it an urban legend in Buffalo, or was it something that happened to someone you knew?
GABRIELLE BURTON: Our mother read an article in the paper about a truck that dumped a bunch of money on a working-class neighborhood in Florida,
and of course the people gathered it up.
URSULA BURTON: It was just a little squib.
GB: The police went around and collected it back, so she wondered, what would happen if no one collected it — would it answer your dreams?
UB: It’s really a story about rediscovering hope, so we do say it’s a fable, it’s not an urban legend.
FIR: Gabrielle, you’re the co-director [with your sister Maria]. Were you on the set with her?
GB: Yes, we directed together. It’s like a lot of sibling teams now that direct together — we had worked on Temps, our second film, very collaboratively, because I had written that and she directed it. We’re very collaborative as a family. As directors you discuss what you want, and you have to verbalize what you want and why you’re choosing something. Discussing it with another person really makes a lot of the choices solid and thought through.
FIR: Sometimes siblings develop a shorthand, a shared frame of reference.
GB: Yes, it’s a lot faster. We communicate really quickly, and also there’s a sense of basic trust. At the same time we get along, which is why we work together, and we know that everybody wants the same thing at the end of the day — we all want a good product. Since we’re all producers, we’re all wearing that hat as well. There aren’t the arguments between producers and directors, or directors and actors.
UB: You just have the fight between yourself.
FIR: But sometimes directors have to be ‘disciplined’ by the producer — they might say ‘If you want this shot, well, we can’t afford that one.’
GB: Even within ourselves, we’d say if we take this five minutes to do one shot, we won’t be able to get that other shot, so what’s going to be more important? Having that sense of responsibility also made our priorities clearer.
FIR: What kind of budget were you working with?
UB: Under $4 million
GB: If you consider that My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s budget was $6 million, that under $4 million is considered so grass-roots.
FIR: It’s a real independent movie, not one of these faux independents.
UB: Even to the point where we had walkie-talkies that weren’t working very well, and the fire department brought us over some other walkie-talkies. That really grass-roots independent.
GB: We were able to keep the costs down that way, with a lot of the generosity of the people and businesses in Buffalo — they donated what they could. All of the food was free, people helped sew costumes, the locations, the mayor helped us and gave us an office — major expenses were cut out of the budget because of people’s generosity.
FIR: Ursula, what was it like being the producer as well as an actor? Did you find yourself divided while wearing other hats? Were you able to turn that off to enter your character?
UB: You have to turn it off to enter your character, because the moment before you’re rolling, you’re still casting someone or talking with some crew member or making sure the food will be there. But it’s really exciting, and it’s this wonderful balance between two roles. When you’re hired by someone else to be an actor, you’re so pampered — you don’t have to worry about losing the light or people griping — they come and get you when it’s time to shoot. It’s so glorious. But when you’re doing your own project — I care so deeply about the projects that are ours, and they’re really a part of me. That’s so exciting, especially when you’re an actor and you have so little control over so much of the product that you end up doing, and so little control over the parts you get. It’s a really wonderful balance.
GB: There’s a great picture of Ursula. She’s in the nun’s habit in the scene where she’s getting the ashes at the altar. They were lighting for that, and she’s her own stand-in too…
FIR: Another cost savings!
GB: So she was sitting for the lighting in this nun’s habit, and she’s producing at the same time — she had two cell phones in her ear and she was casting for the young cast.
FIR: You did get a great cast together — a lot of people who are familiar from television, but to a certain extent casting them against type. How did you bring together wonderful actors like Shirley Jones, Frank Gorshin and Cloris Leachman?
GB: We had a wish list, and many of the hurdles were getting through their agents for what we were offering to pay. Then it was figuring out their schedules, because it was a month in Buffalo, in the winter. That was a big issue — we were going to cast some other people and their schedules didn’t work. Now we can’t imagine other people in this cast.
UB: We were very interested in casting against type — I think with all of us having performance backgrounds, and knowing what that’s like to have many different colors that you want to show — that’s why you become an actor, to step into so many different lives. That’s very interesting, to let people do what they really can do.
GB: And knowing that these people have that range, and that they could do those parts. That Shirley Jones could play a con artist, for instance.
FIR: Or that Jill Eikenberry could be mousy, when you think of her as the very directed “L.A. Law” lawyer.
GB: Jill Eikenberry said specifically that it was so exciting to play a responsive character, someone who is never initiating anything, but who is always responding to everybody else’s needs.
FIR: Ursula, are you anything like your character? Kind of innocent and otherworldly?
GB: I can answer that. As far as the casting process, we had a list of people we were thinking of for that. All of a sudden, my mother said Ursula would be perfect. We were looking for someone who did have that quality, and had that kind of beatific strength of character. Someone people would follow, but who wouldn’t be Pollyanna and sappy. It’s hard to find an actor who can hit that chord. Knowing Ursula so well, that was what was nice about this — here’s someone who could do this part and play it well. It wasn’t initially set to be this way — it came about in the casting process.
FIR: I understand you’re taking a grass-roots approach to marketing the movie as well.
GB: What happened was that we made the movie, and we took it to film festivals and it was winning audience awards. We could tell from people’s reactions that it had an audience, it was something that had legs. Then when we were talking with distributors, a bunch of them proposed opening the film in New York and L.A. and seeing if it stuck. Another one said, how about eight cities at the same time, but not really putting in a lot of prints and advertising money. That was scary because you could see the writing on the wall. If you open a movie in New York and L.A. for a weekend, without advertising, without a huge $35 million studio budget, you’ll probably, like most independent films, close in a week or two, and that’s the end of the story. Then they sell off the video rights and own the film for seven years. So knowing that there was an audience out there, but that a lot depended on the way you marketed to them, our family decided that we would take a year of our lives and try it. We partnered with this releasing company, RS Entertainment. They had proposed a marketing structure similar to what we had been proposing to the large distributors, who had said ‘It can’t be done. Americans won’t go to see a feel-good independent American film. They’ll go see a feel-good French or British film. But the Americans are supposed to be dark or edgy.’ That’s the marketing structure.
UB: The whole marketing structure is geared for that. If you’re a Waking Ned Devine, Full Monty or Billy Elliott, they’re set for that, but we didn’t have Irish accents, so they don’t know how to do it.
FIR: Just Buffalo accents.
GB: Irish Buffalo accents. We thought that’s kind of rigid, to say you have to be one or the other, and it is time for Americans to tell these feel-good stories about small communities coming together. We took the year — starting in August 2002, we opened it in Missouri, then Kansas, then Washington D.C., where we screened it for Congress, which was really exciting. Then we opened it in Arlington, Va., Greenbelt, Md., Buffalo, Olean, N.Y., Columbus, Ohio, and then Juneau, Alaska.
FIR: You’re really on the whistle-stop tour.
GB: And now we’re opening in New York and L.A. Originally we had planned a real whistle-stop, where we were traveling in a van, the Manna Van, from town to town. We thought it would be in 26 to 50 cities and play one or two weeks in each city. But in the first stop, Branson, Mo., it played six weeks, and in Kansas City is played eight weeks, which was really unusual for an independent. In Kansas City it doubled its box office the third week. So all of a sudden it became a different kind of release — and right then was when Greek Wedding hit.
FIR: I was going to ask about Greek Wedding, which was a feel-good independent that hit the jackpot.
UB: That won the lottery, but nevertheless it does show that people will go to a feel-good movie. It proves that idea wrong, but still some people consider it an anomaly, the exception
FIR: That doesn’t prove the rule.
GB: At the same time there’s a very reactive attitude in the film business — they have the “Greek Wedding” TV series and they are probably making Greek Wedding II — so you might have more feel-good, fun, quirky comedies. So then [the theater owners] AMC and Regal noticed the numbers, and said we’ll book you into our theaters for a week, and if you can hold competitively against the other 25 films out there, then we’ll keep booking it one week at a time. So that’s what we’ve been doing.
UB: Each city we’ve gotten more and more theaters, and just expanded wider and wider.
FIR: So what’s the plan for New York?
UB: About 15 theaters, and in L.A. we’ll be in about 21.
FIR: So the strategy of building it has worked.
GB: It’s always like Sisyphus. Every Friday starts at the lower level — it doesn’t matter if last weekend you showed big numbers, and this weekend Bringing Down the House opened on three screens and you might have dropped just a couple of points in rank. It doesn’t matter, you’re gone. If Manna doesn’t come in at the top level, you’re out.
UB: I’m getting nervous just thinking about it.
FIR: But it’s already been out for eight months.
UB: That’s what’s so interesting — it does work. We’re still running in Buffalo, we’re in our tenth week there. But in each market, the bar is raised. It is a challenge — we don’t have that $35 million promotion budget, we don’t have TV ads running, we don’t have whole pages in newspapers, we’re not on all the talk shows. It’s a question of letting enough people know we’re actually opening. We’re in the theaters handing out fliers. It’s a constant battle — please put our posters up, please run our trailers.
GB: And there are so many levels. When you’re a studio, they have so many checkers on all those levels. We’re only seven people. It will be a huge opening in N.Y. and L.A., so it won’t be one filmmaker per theater as it’s been in other places. There are even the logistics of driving the prints around. Ursula and I were trying to figure these things out — we’re trying to get the prints to places and they’re hours and hours away from each other. And we won’t have half the bookings until the Monday before the opening, so you can’t get any posters in there, and you can’t get any trailers running. No pressure.
FIR: You mentioned the theme of the movie being about hope and dreams. Is it more than just a feel-good movie?
UB: Our sister Jennifer wrote her dissertation on hope, and what she was talking about was that Pollyanna is very different from what she defines as hope. I think that’s in our movie as well. It’s not that everything is whitewashed or perfect. There is adversity, and you have to acknowledge this adversity. In our movie there’s homelessness, people are being beaten up and are hungry and cold. You need to acknowledge that, and then say, but, people can make things a little bit better. Even individuals — even the con artists played by Frank Gorshin and Shirley Jones — in the end, he doesn’t stop being a con artist just because he’s going to do something selfless. But he does something for somebody else — that’s the point. People can improve themselves, but in a realistic way. So I think it is hopeful but not Pollyanna.
GB: Part of it is about a community coming together, and rediscovering hope as a community. And a lot of people have been saying, in these times particularly, that that’s a really wonderful message to have in a movie, because people are so cynical and skeptical and these times are so uncertain and troubling. This movie is about, in a very small, reasonable way, how this community comes back together and finds itself. And the city around it gets revitalized by this process, and it all becomes just a little bit better. We’ve been hearing from audiences that this is something they want to see now, because it’s hard nowadays to find hope.