'Public Morals': Ed Burns on Making TV's 'Irish-American 'Godfather''

Indie-film veteran details the origins and big-screen influences of his small-screen crime saga

Ed Burns, creator and star of TNT's cops-and-mobsters show 'Public Morals.' Credit: Jessica Miglio

When Ed Burns was a kid, he remembers his relatives giving him pictures of his great grandfather, these grainy black-and-white shots that hinted at a wild, we-make-our-own-rules-here past. "He's standing on the roof of his place in Hell's Kitchen, with giant scissors in his hand," the writer-director says, sipping a Guinness in a Tribeca bar near his home. "And he's about to cut the ears of his champion fighting pitbull, this beast with a muzzle on. I asked my dad, what's the deal here exactly? Seems the old man was in the trucking business, from the teens until the 1940s. I never got confirmation as to whether or not he was a gangster, but..." He pauses for a second and then shrugs. "It started my fascination with the old neighborhood's Irish Mob, that's for sure."

Years later, when Burns was on the set of Saving Private Ryan, his father and uncles came down to visit for an afternoon and started regaling the crew with stories about being New York City cops during the Sixties and Seventies, colorful tales of busting perps and buying meals ("a sandwich or a hot dog") for streetwalkers who'd missed night court. Afterwards, Steven Spielberg pulled him aside and said, That's your next movie. "I told Steven that I already had this idea for an Irish-American Godfather — a big father-and-sons saga dressed up in cop clothes and filled with gangsters. He was like, 'I love it, let's do it.' So I was all set with my post-Ryan project." Burns laughs. "That was 1998. And now, here we are."

It would take several false starts, abandoned scripts, side roads and the reinvention/revolution of the small-screen medium before Public Morals, his new TV show on TNT, would finally see the light of day. But according to its creator, he's glad he had to wait. A sprawling, multi-story series involving a 1960s NYC vice squad headed by plain-clothes officer Terry Muldoon (played by Burns himself), it weaves together tales of ethically compromised cops and young prostitutes in peril, family melodrama and the inter-criminal power plays that happen when a mobster bigwig is made to sleep with the fishes. Blessed with actors like Timothy Hutton, Brian Dennehy, Neil McDonough, and a who's-who of indie-cinema veterans, this ambitious attempt to chart a vintage era of Gotham law and disorder might have felt rushed in a two-hour setting. Given the freedom to tell its story over 10 episodes, however, Burns uses the breathing room to turn his police procedural into a miniature epic.

The result is a complete 180-degree turn from the sort of movies the Brothers McMullen filmmaker had made his name from over the last two decades. "I mean, I'd done a historical crime story before, but not a real historical crime story," the director says, referencing his Eighties-set gangland opus Ash Wednesday (2002). "The budget was so low that you never really knew it was another decade! But I'd just played Bugsy Siegel on [Frank Darabont's post-Walking Dead TV show on TNT] Mob City, which takes place in the 1940s. I watched how Frank was on set with no interference, with enough resources to do something with scope, and with the ability to put together a great cast — and I was starting to get jealous of people who made TV shows.

"So when the network came to me at the end of my run," he continues, "and asked if I was interested in doing something with them, the first thing I thought of was: the 'Public Morals' vice division my dad used to tell me about. Plus I'd done research on Irish-mob blood feuds for at least three original projects that all got put in the drawer ages ago. So as soon as I got back to New York, I took the old scripts out, read over the ideas I jotted down back in the late 1990s, and thought, the cops and gangsters...it's all already here. I finally have a chance to do it, and do it right!"

Once Burns and his producing partner Aaron Lubin developed the idea further and finished a few drafts, they sent it to Spielberg, hoping to get some constructive notes before the official pitch meeting; instead, the Amblin head honcho immediately signed on as executive producer. ("Imagine you're pitching a network, and then Steven Spielberg suddenly decides he's going to sit in with you," Lubin says, laughing. "It's like going to play a pick-up basketball game and hey, now you have LeBron James on your team.") Everything went into green-lit overdrive from then on, and after the series premiered to impressive numbers late last month, TNT quickly posted the first four episodes online for mini-binging. (You can check them out here.) Burns has already hinted that, if the show gets picked up, he already knows what he wants to do for Season Two, which would involve a peripheral character stepping forward and taking center stage.

"You know, The Brothers McMullen turned 20 this year," he says, "and after it showed at Sundance, everyone kept saying 'He's influenced by Woody Allen.' Which is true, obviously! But my two movie gods have always been Allen and Martin Scorsese, and for ages, I wanted to see if I could do something that sort of paid homage to that influence as well. And one of the first days I was on set for this, I remember getting ready to set up a shot and I turned to my director of photography and said, Wow, we have the money, we have the toys and we have New York City. It's finally happening. We can do our Scorsese movie, it's just going to be 10 hours once a week now!"

Ed Burns on Four Specific Movie References in Public Morals:
The Hustler
"There was this Times Square pool hall, the Ames — it was a famous place in for fencing stolen stuff and a big Irish wise-guy hangout in the 1970s. I was like alright, we have to recreate that. We tried to find it, I thought maybe the pool hall's still around, and it's long since gone. So we would freeze frames of the movie, blow them up, and look at the details: Where's the water cooler where Paul Newman takes a drink? Is that a balcony up there? And then we recreated the whole thing in a church basement in Brooklyn.

"There's a scene in the first episode where this young cop played by Keith Nobbs walks up to Timothy Hutton's character in a pool hall, and we mirrored the set-up so from a sequence in The Hustler. It's like, Jackie Gleason comes in, walks by one of the guys, takes his coat off, pulls out his cigarette, lights it, and sits down on the couch. And if you watch the two scenes back to back, it's almost exact. We didn't quite match it, but we got close."

The French Connection
"Public Morals takes place in the early 1960s, but we didn't want to be specific about years, or even specific events — Mad Men already did that beautifully, and we weren't going to do better than that. Plus we wanted to throw in a lot of references to our favorite New York movies from the Seventies as well, and I mean, come on...you're not going to do a French Connection homage?

"There's a scene where Gene Hackman walks into a bar and meets up with Roy Schreider. There are three girls singing on a stage, kind of like the Supremes. So, what he does is he walks in, he talks to the cigarette girl, whispers in her ear, gives her a little kiss, stops — all one handheld shot. It rack-focuses to the three women on stage. Hackman turns, we focus on him, he walks over to the bar. [You can catch a glimpse of the scene at the 12-second mark in the video above.] So what we did was, we recreated that nightclub, we take Ruben Santiago Hudson [who plays the police chief] in, he comes in, turns, rack focus to our three girl singers, walks over, kisses the cigarette girl, walks over, sits down with one of the gangsters. So there are the little nods like that, and then there are the bigger ones, like Michael Rappaport's hat. That's the most Popeye Doyle-ish hat I've ever seen!"

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
"According to my dad, every precinct had a bar within a block of the station house that was where the cops conduct most of their business, when they were "apparently" drinking on the job [laughs]. Before you went into the office, you went into the bar, talk to some folks, found out what’s going on. You get a tip on this, a tip on that, great. So we needed to create the local precinct bar for the show. So I was telling my production designer and my location scout, "We need a place that looks like the bar in The Friends of Eddie Coyle, the one where Robert Mitchum sits down with Peter Boyle. So we look at the film, my location scout says, 'Okay, let me see what I can find.' Can't find it. We're totally out of luck.

"Then my production designer says, 'Let's just build it.' So the bar where the Public Morals cops hang out at, Pop McKennas, is almost perfectly recreated to scale and color the bar from Friends of Eddie Coyle. I come from the indie-film world where you never have the time or budget to do that kind of stuff, so to be able to a designer go, Yeah, let's just make it...I mean, that's indie-filmmaker heaven, right?"

Catch Me If You Can
"There's a shot in Catch where there's a long-lens tilt down off of the Pan Am building, which we loved, and Leonardo DiCaprio is crossing Park Avenue, and he goes into a phone booth. We have a scene where my character meets with Brian Dennehy for a private meeting at the Waldorf Astoria, so we're scouting the hotel, and okay, I'll be walking from here to here. And I then I realized, 'Wait a second, the Met Life building, that was the old Pan Am building!' If we're doing the 1960s, let's do that, and let's do that shot. So I'm on the phone, I looked up at that moment, and we did the exact same thing. I wanted to throw a hat tip to Steven in there anyway, because he's been such a mentor to me. And it wasn't like I could do a shark coming down Sixth Avenue [laughs]."