USA Today online: Manna from Heaven audio interview with Gabrielle and Maria Burton (transcript)

Friday, April 4, 2 p.m. ET

USA Today Online Chat Transcript

Manna from Heaven tells the story of what happens when you get a “gift from God” (a financial windfall), but, many years later, you find out it was a just a loan-and it’s due immediately. The story begins when a neighborhood in Buffalo, New York is mysteriously showered with twenty-dollar bills. Theresa doesn’t have much trouble convincing her loose-knit “family” that the money is a gift from heaven to split up. Years later, Theresa, who has become a nun, decides that the gift is really a loan and is due immediately. She calls the eccentric group (two con artists, a hard boiled casino dealer, a sweet beautician, a bitter old woman and a pair of washed up ballroom dancers) back to Buffalo to repay it. The problem is: no one has the money, they wouldn’t give it back if they did, and most of them can’t stand each other.

Manna From Heaven is truly a family affair. It was created by the five Burton sisters: directors/producers Maria and Gabrielle, producers Jennifer, Charity, and Ursula, who also plays a major role in the film. Their mother, Gabrielle B. Burton (a former AFI fellow and a Nicholl Fellowship winner) wrote the screenplay and their father, Roger Burton (a jazz musician and university professor) co-produced the film. Chat with Maria and Gabrielle about the film.

colden. ny: i saw the film, nice job in showing Buffalo in a good light. Do another.
Maria and Gabrielle Burton: Gabrielle: Thanks! It’s wonderful to have appreciation of a film we worked on for many years. As you may know, we’re from Buffalo and wanted to show off all the beautiful parts of the city.

Alexandria, Virginia: I saw this movie in Arlington, Virginia. I enjoyed the cast of characters. How did you meet such stars as Chloris Leachman?
Maria and Gabrielle Burton: Maria: We had not met her until we cast her for the movie. Seymour Cassell, who plays Stanley Stanley, was in our second film The Temps, and Shelly Duvall had been at a film festival and happened to catch the screening. She stood up and said she loved the movie and would love to work with us in the future. The others we met through the casting process, and have since become friends with them. We’re slowly building our troop.

Washington DC: I saw the film. What a weird idea for a plot. How did it come about?
Maria and Gabrielle Burton: Gabrielle: Our mother wrote the script. She’s a novelist and became a screenwriter about five years ago, and won some awards including one from the Academy of Motion Pictures. She read a squib in the paper about an armoured truck that dropped money into a working class neighborhood. Of course it was all collected, but she wondered what would happen if no one ever came after it. We read the script, loved it, and asked her if we could option it, which after some negotiation she did for $1.00.

Bethesda, MD: Since your work is a family affair, you must disagree. Who wins, usually? And does professional strain cause strain in the family?
Maria and Gabrielle Burton: Maria: Becuase we’re a family, we obviously have had disagreements over the years, as any family and company does, and because we’ve worked out good ways of getting along as a family, I think that enhances our company’s dynamic. It’s actually a strength when we have creative disagreements, because we have to really think things through and articulate what we want as artists.
Gabrielle: When we do have disagreements as any creative team ultimately does, because we’re a close family, we can communicate through shorthand, and we also know that ultimately we’ll be spending the holidays together, and we have a vested interest in working through those disagreements. Ultimately what happens is we have to verbalize clearly why we want to make a particular creative choice. Having to defend each choice or present it in a thoughtful way ultimately makes the creative product stronger.
Maria: Filmmaking is such a difficult undertaking that being a family is a blessing for us, becuase we much more often are able to laugh and have a good time.

New York, NY: How do you convince actors like Wendy Malick and Shirley Jones to act in an indie? The money can’t be too happening.
Maria and Gabrielle Burton: Gabrielle: They signed on after reading the script. Wendy Malick, for instance, called from a plane when she got the script. The biggest hurdle was getting to the agents, who didn’t want to get the 10% of what we could pay.

Los Angeles, CA: I read on your website “Vote at the Box Office” — what does that mean?
Maria and Gabrielle Burton: Gabrielle: A movie like this, being non-studio backed, is booked one week at a time. On Monday they count up the ticket sales from Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and if it doesn’t come in ranked in the top six to ten, it will be bumped. Because we don’t have studio negotiating power behind the film, it’s important to have the ticket sales, particularly opening weekend, to keep the film in theaters. This applies to any movie, CD, etc., because the potential of the piece of work is judged on its first opening sales. Therefore, voting at the box office is expressing your opinion that you want a particular type of movie in the theaters, and also to be made in the future. Studios look at movies that do well and imitate them.
Maria: Most releases nowadays are geared toward the opening weekend, and we wanted to give our film time to build word of mouth. After winning film festival audience awards, we believe it had that potential, and we went back to the original way of releasing movies with a slow rollout.
Gabrielle: The caveat is that because the movie has been given the opportunity of being booked in mainstream theaters, it doesn’t get the time to build word of mouth. It must perform competitively to send the word that there’s an audience for this type of movie.
Maria: Because Manna performed so well in fewer theaters, AMC and Regal have given us many theaters in New York and Los Angeles, so that will be the challenge: To get people out on opening weekend.
Gabrielle: A lot of people complain that there aren’t movies they want to see, but ultimately a lot of power rests in moviegoer’s hands. Every ticket is like a vote, and it’s like an election being run every week. Sometimes the difference between Manna’s being kept by the theaters has been five tickets.