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Pillow Talking’s Interview with ROB BURNETT

Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with screenwriter and director of Netflix’s The Fundamentals of Caring, ROB BURNETT

RobBurnett

Rob Burnett is an incredibly talented, gracious, and humble man who already has had tremendous success in the entertainment business as a producer, director, and writer, but whose creative journey now is moving in a different direction. He may best be known as having been executive producer of the Late Show with David Letterman; he also was co-creator of Ed and The Knights of Prosperity with Jon Beckerman and he helped develop the iconic Everybody Loves Raymond. In addition, Rob was the former president of Letterman’s film and television production company, Worldwide Pants.

Rob’s newest endeavor, the recently released Netflix original film, The Fundamentals of Caring, based on author Jonathan Evison’s novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, has blazed onto the scene and screen in homes everywhere. Starring Paul Rudd, Craig Roberts, and Selena Gomez, as well as Megan Ferguson, Jennifer Ehle, and Bobby Cannavale, this film is near and dear to us at Pillow Talking. It tells the story of a man, who after experiencing his own personal loss, enrolls in a class to become a certified caregiver. His first client is a young man who lives with the terminal muscle-wasting disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) – Wayne’s oldest son also has DMD. The two embark on a road trip and meet some interesting characters along the way, including a colorful runaway named Dot.

Rob talked with us at length about his film, about what inspires him, about his family, and about what’s next. We hope you enjoy reading this fascinating interview as much as we enjoyed speaking with him!

Read Pillow Talking’s Review of The Fundamentals of Caring

PT: Thank you for granting us this interview. We absolutely loved your film, The Fundamentals of Caring now on Netflix. Obviously, we have a personal stake in it in because Wayne’s oldest son, Wyatt, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy [DMD].

RB: Thank you so much. Your liking it means a lot to me because of your personal experiences with the disease.

MV5BMTA1Mjc4ODI0NzReQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDQ3MzAwMjkx._V1_UX148_CR0,0,148,216_AL_PT: We see the film as being about so much more than just a young man with this disease. It really is a touching story about situations in life over which we have no control and the way in which we deal with them. It’s about redemption and healing. It’s the importance of the small things in life.

(Stephanie) And the timing of its release is incredible, too. There are a lot of things going on with the FDA and approval for new drugs to treat Duchenne. Were you aware of the latest news?

RB: I have seen all of the recent blasts in the news and I try to keep up. Are you familiar with Charley’s Fund and Tracy Seckler?

PT: (Stephanie) There is a big DMD network on Facebook. Tracy is one of Wayne’s friends. We also have worked with various other organizations like the Jett Foundation and Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy.

RB: Tracy’s son Charley has DMD. I’ve been in touch with Tracy for a while. I knew her before this movie. There’s a movie – a documentary called Darius Goes West

PT: We know it very well. It’s about a young man named Darius who has DMD and goes on a road trip.

RB: Right. I was aware of Tracy back in the Darius Goes West days because another friend of mine was involved in the project. So when we started doing this movie I called Tracy and asked her if she would help me technically on the movie – to run some things by her. She was very gracious and helped me meet with a couple of DMD kids and also set up Craig Roberts to spend some time with some DMD kids in England. She was super helpful. So through her I’ve been aware of the battle and the struggle.

PT: (Stephanie) The DMD community is a very tight-knit network. Most of the DMD kids have similar medical profiles, problems, and issues. So it’s nice for parents to be able to have and be a part this network to share the latest news and updates and support one another.

RB: Yes.

51Vd6Y3AkML._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_PT: What was it that attracted you to this project? We now you came out of television and writing for David Letterman and while there is a great deal of humor in the film, it doesn’t seem like it necessarily was an obvious choice.

RB: Right. Well, the short answer is I fell in love with the book. Jonathan Evison’s novel [The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving] did a beautiful job in portraying a tragic story in a funny way. I just found the mixture of those two emotions really interesting. My personal entry point into all of this is that I had a childhood friend by the name of Paul who passed away of ALS about eight or nine years ago. I’m on the board of Project ALS. This was the closest I had ever come to being closely and intimately involved in a disease of this nature. There are some real similarities with these diseases. With ALS the mind is fine and the body goes away. I was very close with Paul and his family. To watch this horrible ride had a very big impact on me honestly.

This guy was great as a human as I have come across. He had a spirit that was impossible to stop. To watch him go through this, day by day, beginning with telling us he was diagnosed. I remember that he came to a surprise birthday party for my wife on her fortieth birthday. He flew in from Colorado — and that was when he told me this horrible news. And then all the way to his memorial service which was one of the most beautiful events I had ever been to. There were hundreds of people coming from all over to pay homage to this man. There was something about that – I always wanted to write about on an emotional level. And I think this book struck that chord for me. I think specifically – I don’t know if you guys can relate to this side of it – is that these diseases by their nature are overwhelmingly dramatic – life and death kind of dramatic things. Yet, when they happen to you or to someone you know there’s another reality to them – which is that there is a day-to-day life that has to continue with this drama. You can’t deal with this drama every moment. That’s not how it works.

PT: Exactly.

RB: It’s very dramatic – and yet, Oh my gosh, you have this horrible disease and yet now it’s time to eat breakfast. Now it’s time to watch TV. Now it’s time to, as in my friend’s case, time to talk to your kids and do this and do that. Not every day is epic. Do you know what I mean?

PT: Yes. Absolutely. It can’t be.

RB: I know this is a longer answer than maybe what you were looking for.

PT: Not at all! Please go on.

RB: This is the very personal part of this for me. But watching my friend Paul live in the aftermath – the day-to-day – there’s a mundanity to all of our lives but there’s an odd urgency when you have a disease on top of that. There’s something very touching to me about that process – if that makes sense.

PT: (Stephanie) Yes, it does, completely. My mother’s mother passed away of ALS although I only heard about it second-hand, as it was before I was born. (Wayne) And when people ask me about Duchenne, rather than getting into explanatory diatribes, I say it’s similar to ALS but affects young boys. But we know exactly what you mean about the dichotomy between mundanity and urgency in our daily lives. (Stephanie) Yes, I’m Wyatt’s step-mother and while I can empathize with Wayne, I know it’s very different for him living with this diagnosis since Wyatt was three. It’s like this dark cloud that’s hanging over you all the time, but you still have to put on your pants every day and go about your business.

the_fundamentals_of_caring_14RB: Right. I don’t think there’s a lot in film that deals with that. Another thing I think that is very interesting is that in the typical version of this story, it is the irascible caregiver who comes in and breathes life into the ill or the injured. But in this case, Paul Rudd’s character, Ben, is every bit as injured as Trevor, but in a completely different way. What is challenging but also beautiful about this story is that neither of them will ever get better. Ben will never get over the loss of his child. And Trevor unfortunately, unless something miraculous happens, is not going to get out of that wheelchair. So how do you find something inspirational – what’s the growth of these people? Most movies you start with a problem and kind of solve it in some way. This movie can’t do that. It’s very small, but for me, there’s something so heroic about seeing two guys that are completely dead inside metaphorically and literally getting out of the house and taking life in just a little bit – which in some ways is really all any of us in much easier circumstances.

PT: (Stephanie) I think you hit the nail right on the head and so did Evison in his book.

RB: Yes, he did.

PT: (Wayne) We are reading the book now. But getting back your point about the film, I think there is somewhat of a solution — and this is why I think the film transcends beyond just one disease or situation – in life we all have crosses to bear. I think the characters in the film, at least for me, came to an understanding that this is our lives, this is the hand we’ve been death, and we are going to play the cards as best we can because there really are no other options. I think that was so heroic for me.

fundamentals3RB: That’s exactly right. These guys are both dealt very difficult hands for very different reasons. The only way back is to care about each other and the small things. In the end, Trevor kisses a girl. That’s kind of what life is – things on that level. When Ben is talking to Peaches in the hotel and she asks, “What’s it like being a parent?” and he tells her, “It’s the only reason we’re here,” it really comes down to for all of us — not to be corny about it – but we are all kind of hurtling through this life and really all that matters is these connections that we make while we’re here and celebrating these little things. I agree with you – we are all dealt difficult cards in the sense that we’re all dying and if these guys can do it, maybe we all can do it.

PT: (Stephanie) Wayne always says that Wyatt is his hero. And as you both said, we all have our challenges, but when somebody has something this huge that’s impacting their day-to-day life, it’s pretty amazing for the rest of us to watch someone get up out of bed every day and do the things that they do. It’s like, how can we complain?

RB: It doesn’t surprise me that your son’s your hero. There is something incredibly heroic about that. I felt that way about my friend Paul as well. This guy never had a bad word to say, never had a complaint – you just kind of marveled at it. You try to take a little bit of that with you. As far as portraying the disease in the movie, for me, this movie is not a deep dive into DMD. That’s not what this movie is. It’s not a documentary. It’s not showing all of it in depth. I thought the best thing I could do – and I’ve gotten this response from people which is really nice – let’s try to show Trevor in a way where his disease is an aspect of him but does not define him. You know? I think Tracy and Charley both loved the movie for that reason as well. Jonathan Evison at one point when he was younger was a caregiver and took care of this young man Case Levenson who I think at the time was nineteen years old and was basically the real-life Trevor. One of the most satisfying and exciting parts of this journey for me – we were the closing night film at Sundance [Film Festival] – and Case and his Mom came to the big Echo Theatre and watched the movie. They loved it! I introduced Case and he got a standing ovation.

PT: Wow!

RB: It brought tears to everyone’s eyes. I think he’s in his early thirties now. But his mom hugged me when the movie was over. And it was so lovely for me. She said exactly what I had hoped she would say. This was so great. She said this is exactly what it was. Case was funny, but sometimes he was a jerk. She was so satisfied with the movie and Case was so satisfied with it. It really made me very happy. There are so many different ways to help, but I think putting some humanity into all of this – here’s Trevor, here’s a kid. This is an actual person, not a statistic. This is a kid who wants to kiss a girl, wants to do this, wants to do that. To see that, I thought, this is really helpful and was pleasing to me. I don’t know how you guys felt about it in this regard, but I hope you felt similarly.

PT: (Stephanie) We understand completely. We have produced a number of projects including a full-length play called Waiting for the Sun which involves a college student with muscular dystrophy. It’s been performed a number of times. And there’s a line that the female character in it says to character with MD; she says, “You’re just a jerk. A jerk in the wheelchair.” As you’re talking, I’m thinking that’s always the thing we try to do when we include disability in our own projects – you’re not a disabled person, you’re a person with a disability.

RB: I completely agree. We’re of the same mind. There’s a line in my movie when Trevor says to Ben, “Have you ever considered that I’m a prick with or without the wheelchair?” (laughs) which I kind of love—

PT: We loved that!

RB: Yeah. That’s exactly what it is. Maybe not you guys anymore because you are so close to it, but I think most people make the mistake when they see someone in a wheelchair and they just log that in their brain as there’s a guy in a wheelchair, there’s a kid in a wheelchair – that’s what that  kid is – he’s that kid. But that’s not who that kid is. He’s a whole kid.

PT: Right.

RB: Kids are different and amazing. That’s what they are. And some just happen to be in a wheelchair.

PT: And you even brought up a very important element in the film which we’ve also explored in our projects, that he’s a kid with needs and wants and desires with regard the Selena Gomez character, Dot. He does like girls. So many people think individuals in wheelchairs do not have romantic interests or sexual desires. That was done so well in the film. It was done with such sensitivity. (Laughs) It’s not likely you’re going to get Selena Gomez, but Trevor can still dream!

RB: (Laughs) Yes!

PT: That brings up another question we have about casting. We were not familiar with Craig, but we certainly know Paul Rudd’s work and Selena’s. What was it like for you working with that incredible triumvirate?

Fundamentaals16RB: It was a dream honestly. It started with Paul for me. I reached out to him when I finished writing the movie. We met for coffee and amazingly he liked the script and said that he would do it. Once that happened, everything started to happen. We probably went through about two hundred and fifty kids before we ended up with Craig. We knew that the chemistry between those two characters would make or break the movie. And once you have Paul Rudd in your movie, everybody wants to be in your movie. So we had our pick of just about any kid that age. It’s funny, Craig tells this story about how he came into my office to audition. I stupidly had left up on my white board all of the other kids we had auditioned and were considering for the role (laughs). I forgot about it – it just became part of my office. And he looked up and he thought, Oh, my God! There were two hundred names up there (laughs). I said, “Don’t worry about that.”

PT: (Laughs) Very daunting!

Fundamentals4RB: Yeah. We had four or five kids at the end. Paul came up from Atlanta – he was prepping the Ant-Man movie at that time. He came up to audition with all of them. Once we saw Paul and Craig together, we got excited. We knew we had something that could be special. And then Selena had the same manager as Paul – Aleen Keshishian – and Aleen called me and said, “I have someone for the role of Dot.” I said, “Great,” but she wouldn’t tell me who it was. She said, “I want you just to meet this person without knowing who it is.”

PT: How hysterical.

RB: Yeah. She said, “I don’t want you to have any pre-conceived notions. All I’ll tell you is that she’s incredibly famous, she has twelve movie offers and yours is the only want she wants to do.”

PT: Wow!

RB: I probably could have googled her client list, but I just thought, You know what, I’m just going to get the full experience of this. So we set a meeting. I opened the door at 11 a.m. and there’s Selena Gomez.

PT: No Way!

Fundamentals of Caring

Fundamentals of Caring

RB: Yeah. It’s funny. I was working at the Letterman Show and I had seen her sing. She was a guest on the Late Show and I had seen her on magazine covers – I had seen her in that context. But when she’s standing in front of you in army pants and a sweatshirt all by herself – she’s just a kid. I have a daughter who at the time was twenty – now she’s twenty-one – she just looked like one of my girls’ friends really. But I can’t say enough good things about Selena. She’s just a sweetheart, honestly. It’s kind of mind-blowing to me how down-to-earth this girl can be. Her life is unusual to say the least. She is famous to a level I have never seen before. And I have seen a lot of different forms of fame. She has the Giant version – the White Hot version.

PT: Yes, for sure. (Stephanie) She is my daughter’s favorite person on the planet. She calls her her “queen” (laughs).

RB: We’d go and shoot in remote places and somehow by the end of the day there would be a thousand kids waiting to get a glimpse of her. She came the first day with no one, no entourage, nothing else. We sat and talked for two hours. She’s a smart kid and a hard working kid. I can’t say enough good things about her. The first thing you want as a director is that you want your actress to be great. And a very close second for me is that you want them to be nice. You have to have the first thing. The second thing is a luxury. In this case we had both.

Fundamentals10PT: (Wayne) That’s great. Selena is the reason we really came to watch and review the movie. My step-daughter, Chayce, said, “You have to see this movie. Selena Gomez is in it.” And then Stephanie told me it was about a kid with Duchenne and I was like, Oh man, I really don’t want to see it. I shy away from things that have disability themes in them because I’m living it. (Stephanie) But my daughter is relentless. She’s a smart girl and she knows what I like, so she didn’t stop until we watched the trailer.

RB: (Laughs) That’s great.

PT: (Wayne) So we had no real intention of reviewing it for our blog at least initially. But after we started watching it, I realized that this is a film that is not just about Duchenne. It’s about life with real characters. And I said, “We have to review this film. I want people to see it!” The entire cast was great. (Stephanie) Yes. Peaches also was great – what a peach she was!

RB: Yes. Megan Ferguson. She’s a doll. She’s one of my favorite people. She’s great. She’s hilarious.

PT: You really had such an incredible cast all around. Being in the business and casting for projects, I know the issue must have come up about whether or not you should cast someone with DMD in the role. Having directed and having first-hand experience with DMD, I think trying to do that would have been impossible. It just would have been too demanding and overwhelming for everyone involved.

RB: It’s very demanding. As it turned out, it was about eighteen degrees in Atlanta when we shot this movie. It was pretty uncomfortable. I just think it would have been too much.

Fundamentals of Caring

PT: Yikes!

RB: Having said that, we actually did consider someone who had cerebral palsy for the role. He was English as well as it turned out. We did a reading with him and he was quite good, but ultimately I judged him the same way I judged everybody. But as far as getting someone with Duchenne, we talked about it at length and we just thought that the demands of shooting would have been very difficult first and foremost for the kid and also for the film. But I also didn’t want to put somebody in a position that was really difficult or so physically hard on somebody that it may have been life threatening.

PT: We read that you shot the film in about 26 days give or take. How tough and how long was it once you acquired the rights to the book to get the film up and running?

RB: I have to say by Hollywood standards it went incredibly smoothly. I bought the rights to the book myself and I wrote the movie. All that maybe took me six months in all because I also was working for the Letterman Show at the same time. I met with Paul and he agreed to do it. We had independent financing almost immediately. We actually were going to go earlier than we did. This was maybe three years ago from when we’re talking right now. We finished shooting the movie a year ago in the winter. So I would say the whole thing took maybe a year and a half to two years from the time I bought the rights to the book – which is actually pretty quick. We were pushed back when Paul got Ant-Man in the middle of that process. I think we were supposed to go in May originally and then I pushed back until January in order to wait for him. By Hollywood standards, this was all kind of lightning fast I would say.

PT: (Wayne) You were the closing night film at Sundance. In the nineties I was doing the festival circuit and was negotiating to distribute completed films at the various festivals including Sundance. Back then, you had a very strict sales hierarchy. You played the festival, hoped for a distributor to pick it up and give it a theatrical release, and then you would go down the distribution chain, pay TV, Premium Cable, etc. This has all changed today as a result of all the different media and content providers like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and so on. Can we ask what made you decide to go with Netflix?

RB: Sure. What happened for us was that when we finished the film we had a screening. Well, actually, the film wasn’t even done. We went to LA and we had a large screening to kind of see what we had. We hired a company and recruited an audience of about three hundred. It wasn’t friends and family – just a real audience. And we played the film unfinished. There was green screen in it, there was temp score, but the essence of what we had was there. Frankly, the movie played off the charts. The testing was remarkable to be honest. People loved it. They loved Paul. They loved Craig. They loved Selena. They really loved the movie. So what we did was we went back and spent the next couple of months finishing the movie – adding score and color correction and all of that stuff. We then decided that maybe the best way for us to sell this movie was to go back to that same theatre and recruit another audience. The film just played so well. There were huge laughs in the theatre, there were tears. We just knew we had something that audiences seemed to enjoy.  So we thought let’s do the same thing again, but we’ll invite buyers in to watch the movie. So we did. We went back to the same theatre and recruited another audience.

PT: Were you nervous?

RB: (Laughs) I was terrified that somehow the first audience was a fluke and this one was going to bomb when everyone was there. But the movie once again just killed. We got into Sundance from that screening. John Cooper was there and apparently walked out and called his program people and said, “We just got our closing night film.”

PT: Wow. That’s incredible!

RB: Yes. It was incredibly exciting. We then got offers right there from different places. And it was a little tricky because some of the places didn’t have their decision makers in the room. They had lower level people in the room. So they wanted DVDs of the movie. We didn’t really want to give out DVDs because we wanted people to watch it in that setting with an audience with everyone laughing.

PT: Right. Good decision.

8ef2fec4b3b44a9dca19de978f7a0922RB: It just felt better. So we then scheduled another screening for a week later to get higher-level people there. So we had two buyer screening in LA and we got offers. It was the acquisitions team at Netflix that made an offer. As you were saying before, there was a particular way that a film was sold where you get theatrical and eventually you go down the line to the subscription window. Netflix turned that on its head a little bit last year. They made us a big offer which was reported in the newspapers for seven million dollars – and that was just for the streaming rights to the movie. So they said, “You can go out and get a theatrical release and do whatever you want to do, but when you’re all done we would be locked in at seven million to put it on Netflix.”

PT: That was great!

RB:  It was clearly the best offer we got and we were thrilled and excited about it. Subsequent to that, we went to Sundance. The film played incredibly well at Sundance. Despite having sold the subscription window we had people saying, “We want to release this theatrically.” We thought the theatrical release would be somewhat mooted because the theatrical release is really there to drive that streaming window that already sold.

PT: Absolutely. 

RB: At the time the Netflix Original side of the company came back and said we want all of this – we want to own all of it. When they put it before us – aside from offering us more money which was important to our investors – and say they are going to release your movie in 190 countries to 81 million subscribers in 12 languages – you realize that a movie like this (laughs) which is not Star Wars – it’s never going to be in front of as many people as that. And while Netflix doesn’t release numbers, so I don’t have a number of how many people have seen it, I can just feel that a lot of people have seen this movie. You can tell. And they’ve told me they are extraordinarily happy with the results. We were trending on their home screen for a while.

PT: Nice!

RB: You can go on Twitter and look at the Twitter feeds in all different languages of people loving the movie. I think for this particular movie of this particular size with this particular subject matter, I think this was the best way to get this in front of the most people we possibly could.

PT: We would agree. We think it was a great offer right up front for the streaming rights and well deserved. We can tell you this, based on our experience with social media platforms, content providers and online digital dissemination, your movie has been seen by countless people already. We just posted the review of the movie and we’ve already received fifty thousand documented hits and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

RB: That’s nice to hear. You can kind of tell in your own travels where things stand. You can tell how you’re being received – whether people are liking the thing you did or not. It’s very anecdotal. It’s not scientific. But I’ve been doing this long enough that I can feel just from random people emailing me and sending me messages on Twitter and Facebook saying, “Oh my God, we saw your movie!” You can just kind of feel it’s getting out in the world. I did always think that with this movie, be it in a theatre or even definitely easier being on Netflix, what it has going for it is that it has incredible play ability – it’s very easy to recommend to someone. In fact, on that metric in the scoring (and I don’t know a lot about how all of the movies are scored), one of the questions [Netflix asks] is, Will you recommend this to a friend? They ask if you’ll definitely recommend it, probably, might and then it goes down from there. The percentage that says they will definitely recommend it to a friend – that’s how you have a chance for a movie that has word of mouth. Even if you say probably recommend, I think they know over the course of time that that’s not as important as how many people say they will definitely recommend it. They told me going in, if you can get fifty percent of the people that see your movie to say they will definitely recommend it, you have a chance of having a real word of mouth hit. I know in that first screening we scored a seventy-six percent.

PT: That’s great!

RB: There is something about this movie that is touching people which is great. I give the credit to the cast. I think Paul, Craig, Selena, Megan, and Jennifer Ehle who plays Trevor’s mom.

PT: Yes, she was terrific!

RB: They all brought something to this – that is what you hope as a director that you get from a cast. They take your material and they lift it up to a whole other level. I think in this case that’s what happened.

PT: As a writer and filmmaker, what advice would you give to young filmmakers and writers?

serendipty-article-deskRB: Well, I think my advice is to write and make films. That sounds very obvious and easy, but it really is the case in today’s world. I have a daughter Lucy who just graduated high school who, out of my three kids, really wants to be a filmmaker. She made a beautiful short film this year at her school with her friends. When I watched her do it – she’s shooting on cameras that are not that much worse than the cameras I’m shooting on – she’s editing on the same equipment that I’m editing on. This is the reality of it – if you want to make a movie, you can make a movie. If you want to write a movie, you can write a movie and you should be doing that all of the time. I think the biggest and best advice that I’ve learned in my career – and it’s a little bit corny – but it really is to follow your heart and not worry about results. If I look at this particular movie that I did, CAA, my agency, sent me twenty books. This is the one I wanted. It was absolutely, without a doubt, the least commercial of any of the books that I read.

PT: That must have surprised them.

RB: They were looking at me like I’d lost my mind. “Of all the books we sent you, this is the one – the guy who lost his son and is going to take care of the kid in a wheelchair?” I was like,  “This is the one that resonates with me.” Honestly, when I sat down to write it, I never, in my heart, believed that this would become a movie. I just thought, I love this, I’m going to write the best move I can write, and I just know that good things come from that. Maybe someone sees the script and I get to do something else – who knows what. And because it was so pure and genuine, off we went.

PT: (Stephanie) We know that your big break was getting the internship with David Letterman and you spent a lot of time in TV. I interviewed Phil Rosenthal years ago when I was a freelance journalist. I interviewed him about Everybody Loves Raymond. I know you worked on Raymond which was such an iconic show. How did you go from TV land to deciding you wanted to get into film?

RB: First of all, on Raymond, Phil and Ray did an unbelievable job on that show. That was an unusual run. That was the lightning in the bottle that people talk about. Phil and Ray were perfect partners. For me, it was a series of steps. I’d worked for the Letterman Show a long time writing jokes and very short things. It was very disposable in a certain way. Every night a new thing and you keep going and going. And then I did a TV show that I created with my genius friend Jon Beckerman called Ed. I don’t know if you’re aware of that show.

PT: Yes. It was a great show!

250px-EdtvRB: Thank you. We did that show on NBC for four years. We had Tom Cavanagh and the great Julie Bowen who is now on Modern Family. It was a one-hour scripted show. We shot on film back then. It’s where I cut my directing chops. Those episodes were really like making small movies each week. Fifty-five- to sixty-page scripts shot in eight days. The episodes were two million dollars apiece. It was great experience for telling stories and for learning about shooting, editing, writing for sure – eighty-three hours of that show. It was a very big part of my development. So in terms of the length of material, I went from very short – the Letterman Show – to mid-length at Ed, and then to push that out to an hour-and-a-half movie – all kind of makes sense to me.

PT: Wonderful progression, really. So what’s on your future agenda?

RB: Amazingly, because of the success of this movie I am suddenly in conversations that I probably have no business being in (laughs). I do have a lot of opportunities in front of me which is thrilling. I’m really kind of deciding what I’m going to do. I am trying to find something that resonates with me, that excites me, that means something to me. I don’t know if I will be adapting another book as I did with this one. Then again, I have some original ideas that I might try to pursue. I’ve been sent a lot of scripts to potentially direct. Again, I would love to find something that really resonates with me, maybe do a little writing and hop into something. I know if I have to do this again, these things take a couple of years before you  mount it and if that’s the case, that’s okay. I would just love to get my hands on the cameras again. There’s a couple of projects that I’ve read that have some interest for me at this point. I would not be opposed to jumping in at this point and directing something else.

PT: So you think that directing films is where you’re headed?

RB: I think so. I don’t see myself going back to television at the moment. I have great respect for television. I think in today’s world television is every bit as good as movies. From a lifestyle standpoint, one of my girls is going to be a senior in college. The other girl I mentioned just graduated high school and is going to college. I still have a fourteen-year-old boy at home who is going to be a freshman in high school. I know when I was doing Ed for that four-year period, my girls were young, and it was just all-consuming. I wouldn’t want to take myself away from my family again in that way. Movies are hard, but they’re linear. You’re writing which you can do on a reasonable schedule. There’s a very intense period – we shot twenty-three days in Atlanta – it was intense, but it’s a relatively short period of time. But the idea of doing a series, at this moment, is not something that I would consider. My time with my three babies who are no longer babies is running out. My heart is breaking day-by-day over that.

PT: We can appreciate that. We have seven between us.

RB: Seven kids! What the heck! Seven kids! And you’re doing this blog and everything else!

PT: Yes. We are that insane Brady Bunch with the big, huge handicapped van that we all can pile in and out of.

RB: That’s great.

PT: In most of our interviews we ask about the interviewee’s background. But we felt there was a special connection here and dove right in to the heart of the project. But I know our readers would like to know a little bit about your background. When did you know that you wanted to pursue writing and filmmaking?

burnett_featuredRB: I was one of those people that I always wanted to be doing this stuff. I had no connection to show business growing up. I grew up in New Jersey. My dad was a dentist. I, for some reason, always wanted to be a writer. I was always interested in comedy. I had no real idea how to go about it. When I graduated college I pretty much loaded up my car and drove to Los Angeles by myself because I thought That’s where show business is. I drove out there and became a bus boy in a restaurant. And I was trying to write things and submit them to magazines. Nothing was really clicking. I ended up coming back to New Jersey where I’m from and got a job on a regional newspaper. That type of writing was not really the thing for me. At that time, the Letterman Show was really starting to gather some heat and getting into the public consciousness. I made a writing submission to the show and the head writer called me and said, “We don’t have any writing jobs, but we have internships.” So I emmy21_092202applied for the internship. I had just turned twenty-three. I was one year out of college at that point. Once I landed at the Late ShowLate Night at the time – I felt like I was home, I’m where I should be now. And then I got hired from my internship to be a talent assistant on the show – which was like a secretary – getting people’s lunches and stuff. I could not have been happier with all of that. And then a few years later I became a writer on the show in 1988. And then gratefully when I was twenty-nine they made me head writer which seemed very daunting and insane to me. And then from there I went on to be Executive Producer and ran Worldwide Pants, the production company, as well and managed to do some other shows as well. So it’s been a very lucky path for me. I’ve been doing the stuff that I always wanted to do. It’s very storybook. I’m grateful of every moment of every day that things turned out the way they did.

PT: Just an incredibly charmed career and life. That’s great! What does your family think of your success?

RB: My dad loves this. It’s funny. When I graduated college I applied to law school. I didn’t really want to go to law school. I got into law school, however, but I deferred it one year. And my dad said, “Okay, you have a year.” And then that’s when I got Letterman. Now, my dad is thrilled. He couldn’t come to Sundance unfortunately. He’s eighty-four and it was too difficult for him physically. But he came to Atlanta and we did the red carpet together.

PT: Wow.

PT: It was one of the most thrilling parts of all for me. I’m there with him and he’s answering questions (laughs). He’s loving it. These things only mean anything if you can share them with your family and friends. That’s what provides the context for all of this.

PT: Absolutely. We agree.

RB: I’ve done plenty of interviews in my life at this point. My name has been in the newspaper plenty of times. I’ve won probably more awards than I should have won. But the only thing that really matters is that when I’m standing there and I can look over at my dad who is talking to some cute reporter and answering questions like he’s the star of the red carpet. That was as good as it got for me.

PT: That’s just great. (Wayne) I have to tell you, I think you made the right decision about law school. Like you, I always wanted to be in this business. The only reason I went to law school is that I was on an academic scholarship. Having practiced as a media attorney, I can tell you that nothing kills a deal faster than a lawyer.

RB: (Laughs) That’s good to know. The beautiful thing about this business is that it only takes one and you don’t know when that one is coming.

PT: (Wayne) I tell that to Stephanie all the time. It only takes one home run in this business.

Rob, we have to say that this has been an absolutely wonderful conversation and interview. We so appreciate you taking so much time to speak with us. Now we have one last question that we ask everybody. It’s something of our signature question. If you could sum up your life to date in one word, what would it be?

RB: Grateful.

PT: That’s excellent! We are extremely GRATEFUL that you granted us this interview. Thank you, Rob!

 

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Stephanie & Wayne

About Stephanie & Wayne

Stephanie is a journalist, writer, editor, and has had several hundred articles published in various newspapers and magazines, many of which still are available online under “Stephanie Lyons Schultz”. She has a Masters degree in Counseling Psychology and was a practicing psychotherapist. She currently is a professor of psychology at WCSU and NVCC in Connecticut. Wayne is an Emmy-Award winning writer, producer, and director. He has produced many programs and documentaries that have appeared on television, and have been distributed to schools, libraries, and home video. Wayne also is a practicing attorney with a Masters degree in Law from NYU. In addition, he is a professor of communications at WCSU. Together, this recently wed couple write, produce, and direct as many of their stage, screen, and TV projects as they can with a full house -- their combined brood of seven! Some of their work has been featured this summer and fall off off Broadway; other work currently is under option. They hope to continue to promote more of their projects in the coming months! Feel free to write whatever comments you like! We want your feedback!