'Public Morals' Creator Ed Burns: TV Is the Next Step for Indie Filmmakers

"It's clear that the audience that used to go to the art house has moved toward television," the creator behind TNT's new period drama tells THR.
Jessica Miglio/TNT

After a turn on the 2013 TNT miniseries Mob City, the network asked actor and indie filmmaker Ed Burns if he'd be interested in developing a series. It was an offer he couldn't refuse.

"Like a lot of indie filmmakers, I took notice of where our audience was going and where is the best place to tell your story," he tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's obvious that it's on television."

The result is Public Morals, which premieres Tuesday. Burns created the project and also stars as Terry Muldoon, a leader of the NYPD's Public Morals division in the late 1960s. He and members of his squad (Michael Rapaport, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Austin Stowell and Patrick Murney) keep the city's vices in check while skimming a good cut of the action themselves.

The other side is headed by Brian Dennehy as aging mob boss Joe Patton and Burns' Mob City co-star Neal McDonough as Joe's son Rusty, just out of prison and eager to get back in the game.

The project is based on several films Burns had been trying to make about New York cops and criminals for two decades, he says, to no avail. One story was what he describes as an "Irish-American Godfather,'" a multigenerational story about New York City cops. The other revolved around gangsters in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen neighborhood.

"I probably had three or four different scripts," he says. "... I had a turn of the century one, a 1950s one, a 1970s one. I've always been obsessed with Hell's Kitchen and those gangsters because my great-grandfather was sort of a Hell's Kitchen hood."

Burns' was also influenced by his father, who was an NYPD officer and did in fact work in a vice unit for a time. The elder Burns didn't tell too many stories about his work, so Burns leans more on his memories of his dad at home to inform his character.

"There are some cops who talk a lot about the job. He really wasn't one of those, probably because he went back to school and was always pushing us more toward education," Burns says of his dad. "That 'school fool' story in the pilot" — Terry comes down hard on his eldest son for goofing off in class — "that's me and my dad word for word. I'm pulling more from my dad's experiences as a father and how he dealt with my brother and I."

Although he had originally envisioned these various projects as separate entities, Burns came away from his work on Mob City impressed with both the resources creator Frank Darabont had at his disposal and the lack of interference from the network.

"Basically what I did was I said, 'These are my two passion projects; let me see if I can reimagine them as a television show,' " Burns says. "Rather than doing two separate ones, I had this idea to make a show about two families in Hell's Kitchen. The Muldoons are the cop family, and then the Pattons, who would be the gangster family."

It's a show that fits neatly into TNT's crime-show wheelhouse, while also playing things a little rougher around the edges as the channel has done of late. For Burns, the series represents not just a passion project but also a logical step in his career.

"You're afforded more creative freedom, and I think there's a number of different reasons for that. It's almost like the heads of the networks are behaving the way the heads of studios did in the late '60s and '70s, during that golden era of film. They respect the creative vision and singular storytelling," he says.

"So I'm looking at all that as a guy who's making independent film and struggling to get bigger budgets, struggling to find distribution. And then when you do get your films financed, dealing with a lot of interference. I just thought, 'You know what? Why continue to go there when it's clear that the audience that used to go to the art house has moved toward television?' "

Public Morals premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on TNT. Starting Wednesday, viewers will be able to watch the first four episodes on demand, on TNT's web site and via the Watch TNT app.