Ed Burns opens his blue eyes very wide as he tells the story of how luminary after luminary piled in behind him on a Twentieth Century Fox-chartered Learjet one morning this past March. There they came, up the aisle, he recalls: Tom Hanks (”Hey! You’re that Brothers McMullen guy!” he sang out. ”I loved that movie!”), Meg Ryan, Liv Tyler, Winona Ryder, and Warren Beatty, all bound, as were Burns and his girlfriend, Maxine Bahns, for the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas. That’s where Burns would accept a scriptwriting award for McMullen, confirm his status as the man behind last year’s most popular little film that could, and begin touting She’s the One, his new saga of romantic misadventure, opening Aug. 16 complete with a grown-up budget of $3.5 million and — gulp — star names like Jennifer Aniston, Frasier dad John Mahoney, and Cameron Diaz (The Mask).
”I was waiting for somebody on that plane to ask me to go get them coffee,” Burns confesses, referring to a task that, before he turned writer-actor-director early last year, was one of his jobs as a flunky at Entertainment Tonight. ”Or maybe shine their shoes or something.” Right now, Burns is at ease in khaki cutoffs and a scruffy Salt Lake City all-stars T-shirt, lounging on the backyard deck of his pool-equipped, rented Hamptons house. He leans back languorously for a swig of beer. Pop goes the bottle out of his mouth, covering the sound of a discreet belch. ”Max and I kept looking around like, What’s wrong with this picture?”
At 28, Burns may be wary of that first career air pocket, but right now he’s enjoying a post-overnight-sensation sort of life. With his brother, Brian, 27, he’s just formed Irish Twins Productions and signed a two-year deal to develop TV dramas and comedies for Twentieth Century Fox Television (no McMullen spin-off, though). Fox Searchlight Pictures, which nurtured the $25,000-budget McMullen to a $10 million gross, is releasing She’s the One. Burns is now in negotiation to do a Long Island-twentysomethings-in-angst ensemble piece (budget: $6 million) and, after that, hopes to turn out a ’70s urban-cop drama (”probably 10 mil,” says Burns).
Burns was determined to keep the price of She’s the One low enough to avoid a sophomore slump and allow it to turn a profit for Searchlight ”without [having to be] the next big thing.” He once again tapped Bahns, 25, to be his on-screen paramour (their characters marry a day after they meet) and slick-haired Mike McGlone, McMullen‘s hilarious worrywart, to play his younger sibling (this time he’s a nasty, philandering Wall Streeter out to divorce his wife and marry his mistress, who happens to be his bro’s ex-fiancee). But Burns knows that the cast member everyone wants to hear about is Aniston.
”We were four weeks from shooting and starting to get scared when we got her,” says Burns. ”She was about to start her [Friends] season. I called up and basically pleaded with her manager, Is there any way?” The filmmaker had auditioned dozens of actresses to play neglected spouse Renee, but ”they went whiny and bitchy instead of vulnerable.” Fortunately for Burns, Aniston had happened to see and adore McMullen the week before. She came, she read, and she was pronounced ”great” — even though she nearly fell on her face.