Sibling Non-Rivalry

The Burton sisters, who make films and shows together as Five Sisters Productions, explain how their family setup made them ideal collaborators.

People who talk with us about Five Sisters Productions fall into two camps. Some smile wistfully and say, “Oh, that would be so wonderful!” and others look horrified: “I couldn’t cross the street with my sister!”

It’s not all easy, though we wouldn’t have it another way. It took years to work out how to separate work from personal life. To be honest, we still grapple all the time with this one – it’s a real challenge for families who both work together and like each other. We want to have gatherings and holidays together and call each other up with personal news. But those calls and times together often bleed into talking about work. You might call a sister up to ask if she remembers what Mom used to put in our Thanksgiving ambrosia salad (mini marshmallows, definitely, but walnuts?) and then one of you will ask, “Did you make that call yet?” or say, “We need to file that paperwork,” and it’s right into work mode, when you thought you were making a fruit salad.

The real-life sisters who helm Five Sisters Productions: Charity Burton, Gabrielle C. Burton, Ursula Burton, Maria Burton, Jennifer Burton. (Photo by Joseph Aczel.)

In addition to the work-life divisions that all family companies have to figure out, there are the funny things that are particular to being five sisters working together. First of all, we’re so many … bodies. In meetings, there are rarely enough chairs.

Plus, some people are a bit rattled by a group of five – they worry that each decision will go through an onerous committee process, that we’ll disagree, or send mixed messages … but the reality is that, as close siblings, we have history – and this actually speeds up communication. We know each other better than anyone – we know the subtext to a vocal inflection or a look. It’s really not unusual for us to finish each other’s sentences. We talk in shorthand, like most close siblings, and once a decision is made, we speak as one voice – sometimes literally as well as figuratively, as people can’t always tell our voices apart on the phone!

On the set of The Happiest Day of His Life: Mother Gabrielle B. Burton (seated left), Ursula Burton directing (seated center), producers Maria Burton and Jennifer Burton (standing), and D.P. Anette Haellmigk (seated right).

How’d we end up here? We’ve thought a lot about it, especially after talking with so many people who can’t imagine siblings as colleagues. Certainly, our parents had a lot to do with it. Our dad was a professional jazz musician, who then became a researcher and professor of developmental psychology and, in his 70s, retired from academia and started acting professionally. Our mom was also a writer, so we grew up in an environment that valued the arts.

When we were kids, our parents prioritized having adventures as a family. They didn’t wait for a convenient time or until they had a lot of resources. Traveling on a shoestring was the only way we could do it. It wasn’t great to share-out a box of cereal, or comfortable to sleep on an overnight bus, and some of us swear we’ll never go camping again, but our parents showed us that it could work and actually be fun much of the time. This turned out to be really good training for the world of independent filmmaking, where you have to be flexible and adaptive … and where things aren’t always, let’s say, “deluxe.”

Filmmaking sisters Charity Burton, Ursula Burton, Jennfier Burton and Maria Burton during the making of Temps.

Growing up with seven people in the family, our parents set up a system called First Turn, which started as a way to make the pecking order not always revert to birth order. Our parents assigned each of us a day of the week (Maria was Monday; Charity, Friday), and whoever’s day it was got the First Turn for whatever choice presented itself – if a guest brought a box of chocolates, the first pick went to the sister whose “first turn” was that day. This system also included having chores on our days (cooking dinner, taking care of the dog, etc.), so we learned that responsibility comes with perks, and the system gave us both a sense of interdependence and of working as a unit. First Turn avoided fights over trivial things (“I want the blue cup!”) and in the long-term, it also meant that we saw each other more equally, more as partners. We still use First Turn today. When our parents downsized their Buffalo home to move to Los Angeles, we went around and chose what we wanted in order. (Luckily for Jennifer, it was on a Tuesday!)

After we left home, our working together as adults happened organically. At first, while each of us developed an individual career, we’d join forces periodically. Ursula and Maria produced and acted in the L.A. premiere of the show A… My Name is Alice, which ran for a year, and after that, they started developing films. A year later, we worked on our first film together, Just Friends, which Maria was directing. After that, Gabrielle wrote Temps, and it fell into place that we could make the film in Boston, so we decided we would all work together full-time on that, and soon, our Five Sisters production company was official. We’ve continued over the years, making six features, as well as commercials, shorts and PSAs – alternating individual and company projects to create content that reflects our diverse interests.

Actor Seymour Cassel, director Maria Burton, actress-writer Gabrielle C. Burton and actor Todd Poudrier during the making of Temps.

Right now, we are working on a short-form series, Old Guy, a comedy about ageism in the media. It’s based on the experiences of our dad, whose acting career began in his 70s. In contrast to his vital and active life as a man embarking on a third career, he noticed that most of the roles for older characters fell into a limited number of narrow stereotypes – incontinent, impotent, lecherous – and were often not even given a character name other than … “Old Guy.” Our mother thought our dad’s experience was good fodder for a series and brought the idea to us sisters.

Starring our dad (who played Martha’s dad on Baskets) as Harry, and Peri Gilpin (Roz from Frasier) as his agent, the show follows Harry in his acting life. His wife, a writer (played by our mom, Gabrielle Burton) tries to advise him on the value of the jobs he takes, while his agent is more interested in her commission than in what types of roles he plays. In each episode, Harry is challenged by playing an undeveloped character type, which humorously highlights different stereotypes about old age.

Maria Burton (center) directing her mother and father, Gabrielle B. Burton and Roger Burton, on the set of Old Guy.

Looking deeper into connections between ageism and media, we found studies that show television often depicts, and thus reinforces, narrow views of old age. As discussions about how to respond to the pandemic have revealed both the pervasiveness and dangers of ageism, we are releasing the series now. We hope that with comedy, this series can spark new awareness and conversations about combating ageism in media and society.

In film, you create a family-like team that expands and contracts, depending on the stage of production. We now have a large “family” of creatives with whom we work over and over again, and we always know we can count on each other. People are lucky to find collaborators who share a sensibility. We are grateful to have five.

Maria, Jennifer, Ursula, Gabrielle and Charity Burton run Five Sisters Productions, a boutique independent film and commercial production house committed to making high-quality films that highlight diverse and underrepresented voices, engage audiences, and contribute to a sense of hope on a personal or social level. Five Sisters Productions has made six feature films, including Manna From Heaven for MGM, documentaries, and numerous short films, PSAs, and commercials. Recent work by the sisters includes the critically-acclaimed documentary Kings, Queens, & In-Betweens, about drag culture in Columbus, Ohio, and the drama A Sort of Homecoming, now on Netflix. Their latest production, the web series Old Guy, debuts new episodes every Thursday at 8 p.m. EST on YouTube. Learn more about their work at their official website.