Portrait of the Artist: Brian Burns

“Portrait of the Artist” is a series by photographer Claudine Williams. The Q&As are with people in the arts and culture industry — actors, musicians, painters, writers — with photos to suit each artist.

Brian Burns is a screenwriter and producer in New York City, known for his work on Blue Bloods, which can be seen on CBS on Fridays at 10p. He lives in Tribeca with his family.

Describe what you do for a living. How did you get started in that business?
I’m a writer but I’m also a producer. I guess even more than all of that, I’m a storyteller. That’s what I’ve been doing for 25 years now.

I started when I was right out of college in D.C. in political news journalism as a production assistant. I was the guy that brought the anchors coffee. The thing that was cool about the job was because it was a morning show, if somebody called in sick, they couldn’t replace them. I’d fill in as the last-minute guy who would get to write a few stories. When you’re doing news, you take an AP wire and you basically paraphrase it and it’s all happening live. The anchor is reading what you just wrote 10 minutes ago, right in front of you and it was such a thrill. I was like, ah, I’m done. I knew that this is what I’m going to do for a living.

But I’d also always wanted to make movies too. That’s what I studied in college. And because I was doing a morning show, I had zero social life. I couldn’t go out at night so I taught myself how to write a screenplay. At the time, the only book out there on writing a screenplay was one by Syd Field. I would write for two or three hours before going to work at 2 in the morning. At the end of reading the book, I had my first screenplay but I had nobody to give it to. I knew nobody in the business. But at the same time, up in New York City, my brother, Ed Burns, was pursuing the same dream. He was much further along than me. He had already written several screenplays and he was up here shooting and directing his first movie. A year or so later, he winds up winning the Sundance film festival with “The Brothers McMullen” and then I finally knew somebody in the business. He was nice enough to pass my script along to somebody at Fox at the time, and that was kind of the beginning of my career.

Where did you grow up and how did you wind up living downtown?
I grew up in Long Island in a town called Valley Stream, which is just outside of Queens. My father is from Queens and my mother is from the Bronx. My father was a New York City cop for almost 30 years and he was hell bent on making sure that me, my brother and sister were not Long Island kids. He wanted us to be city kids. My father started his police career in Harlem in the 25th Precinct. So as young as I can remember, my dad would take us up to Harlem and we’d walk the neighborhood with him. He would walk us through really tough parts of the neighborhood. He would take us into the restaurants, the bodegas, and then into the precinct and lock us up in jail, like the scared straight program.

He planted the seed for us that Long Island was always going to be temporary, that the goal, the ambition was to make it to Manhattan. And that really stuck with certainly my brother and me. The reason I was living in D.C. writing news was because I couldn’t afford New York. After I sold that first script, I finally had enough money, came to New York and I had my first apartment on Downing Street in the village. Then I was in the West Village for about 10 years and then for my career, I went out to Los Angeles and lived in California for six or seven years. I never thought I would get back to New York. It’s really difficult as a screenwriter to have a thriving career in New York unless you’re A-list, and I was not A-list yet. So then I got the opportunity to write Blue Bloods and not only was it shooting in New York, but they were going to write it in New York, which is really unusual. There are a lot of shows that shoot in New York, but they’re written in L.A.

At the time my children were really young, my oldest was 2 years old and my youngest was 4 months. I was kind of having a hard time in California. I didn’t know anything about it or where I was living. I didn’t even know what highway to take to get where I was supposed to be going. I had nothing to pass on to my kids there, and I was really longing to be able to pass on some family history to them. In New York, I saw a great opportunity to work with my dad, in a way pick his brain, use his stories. So I jumped at the opportunity, and now here I am 10 years later and living in my favorite city and my favorite part of New York City. I’m incredibly blessed and am just so unbelievably lucky.

Does living downtown help you with the work you do?
Absolutely. Whenever I’m at a loss for what to write, I’ll just take a walk, not just around my neighborhood but all around. Sometimes I’ll walk all the way uptown. It’s New York City, there are 8 million stories and if you’re looking, you’ll find something. What I really like to do is shoot down here. I want to be close to my apartment. I want my wife and kids to be able to come visit me on set. So I’m always looking around the neighborhood for interesting, cool places to use as locations in the show.

What kinds of projects are occupying your time right now?
I’m working on another police show with a twist. I can’t really talk about what that twist is yet. I’m also working on a comedy about late night talk shows.

What’s the best thing about living downtown?
That’s a good question. It’s a really rewarding and special experience when you get to live your dream coming true. And this is where I always wanted to be. This is the neighborhood I would come down to and walk these streets and daydream. As a writer, you’re a professional daydreamer. I spend most of my day living inside my head, slightly outside of my reality, living in kind of like a dream space, a fantasy version of my real life. I tell my kids all the time, you know, we have millions of people crossing in front of us every day on our way to school, or over to a friend’s house, from all walks of life. I tell them all the time, if one of these people walked down my block on Long Island, it would have been banner news. Everyone would’ve come out of the house to say, “Who’s this guy?” I always like to imagine what my parents’ life was like living in New York City, and now I see a little bit of that through my kids. My kids are having a childhood that’s more similar to what my parents had than I did.

Describe the perfect downtown weekend for Brian Burns.
It would definitely include some baseball with my youngest at the Battery Park ballfields. All four of us going to a movie at the Regal theater. I’d like to have lunch in the library at The Greenwich Hotel where I’ve been living for the last 2 months. The library is now my new favorite spot. And you might find me having a steak at the bar at Wolfgang’s. I’m there probably three nights a week and having way too much red meat. What else do I want to do? Oh, bike riding along the river on a Citibike.

Thank you Brian!

 

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