James L. Brooks, acclaimed writer-director
of ‘Terms of Endearment’ and ‘As Good As
It Gets,’ talks
up the merits of smart comedy.
by M.E. Russell
(To read the uncut web-only version
of this interview, click here.)
Asked how much his audience’s
concerns play into his creative choices, acclaimed writer-director
James L. Brooks
responds with a story about vomit.
“I think there was a time
in early independent film when it closely resembled idealized
art,” he says. “You
know ‘Husbands’? It’s a great film; Time
magazine called it the best film ever made, and with reason.
“Well, Cassavetes and his acting-mates who made that picture … had
a scene in there where people were vomiting for 20 minutes
in a john. And as the audience started to leave the theatre
in the middle of the scene, [the filmmakers] clapped each
other on the back and said, ‘We did it! We did it!’ Meaning, ‘We
reached them — we’ve made our point.’”
Brooks sort of simultaneously
laughs and laments. “Nobody
thinks like that any more.”
While it would be nigh-impossible
to accuse Brooks of torturing an audience, he’s definitely done his share of pioneering — carefully
stretching the boundaries of comedy on movies and television
while reaping awards, dollars and ratings in the process.
He’s won 18 Emmys so far for his work on “The
Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Taxi,” “The
Tracey Ullman Show” and “The Simpsons.” In
1984 he won three Oscars, for writing, directing and producing
the tearjerker comedy blockbuster “Terms of Endearment,” his
feature directorial debut. Two subsequent directorial efforts, “Broadcast
News” and “As Good As It Gets,” garnered
him four Oscar nominations, two each for best original screenplay
and best picture.
In Focus debriefed a bit with
Brooks on his latest, “Spanglish” — but
the conversation quickly turned into a wide-ranging discussion
of his entire career. We talked about “The Simpsons,” “The
Office,” comic theory, television versus film, why
sentiment isn’t bad, and whether we’ll ever get
to see the lost cut of “I’ll Do Anything” — which
Brooks originally shot as a musical, only to discard almost
all its songs after a round of audience testing. An edited
I’d love to geek out with you a little about
Adam Sandler. I thought you used him really well in “Spanglish.” Why
do you think he’s so underrated? He’ll do something
like “Punch Drunk Love” — and then people
will immediately forget he gave a good performance.
JAMES L. BROOKS: Also — from the beginning — “The
Wedding Singer.” I don’t get it. I think it’s
happened to other people, though. I think it happened to
Tom Hanks; I think, at a certain point, that it happened
to Jack Lemmon. And in the tradition of those guys, [Sandler’s]
incapable of a dishonest moment. And when he does his albums,
his stand-up is bold and edgy and dangerous. And funny, by
very humanizing of Hispanic and illegal-immigrant culture.
Obviously, some of the screenings I cared most about were
the Latin screenings. And not only did they react to it,
but they were so glad that someone had done the damn thing.
And you know, [the movie] did the right thing — it
got them thinking about their moms, or it got them thinking
about their kids; it got them thinking about their culture.
also seemed to purposely not resolve a lot of its issues.
The Sandler/Leoni marriage
was left open-ended,
Paz Vega’s relationship with her daughter could get
rocky, Sandler and Vega’s flirtation was left in limbo … .
I don’t agree with that take on the ending. I would
say, clearly, that Paz and her daughter’s relationship
was snatched from the teeth of a power that would destroy
it. I think, clearly, from the cultural point of view, that
child was rescued at the end.
And I think no picture ever tried more to
assure you that’s
true – by nature of the fact that the daughter’s
narration was spoken six years after the fact of the movie.
thing I was asking when I walked out of the movie is, “What’s going to happen to Téa Leoni’s
I talked to marriage counselors, and here’s what they
say about it: Marriage has a great shot. It’s a big
wake-up call, and it actually tends to get impassioned again.
I tried to do a scene to suggest this. But
if you do a scene to suggest it, you’re suggesting a tidy ending, which
people didn’t want – they don’t want a
Hollywood ending to this. But I think what I filmed was represented
Do you describe
your films as “dramas with comedy,” or … ?
I would never use that term. I call my films “comedies” because
they won’t live unless we clock a certain number of
laughs. It’s not a complicated thing at all – you
must make them go “ha ha” with a certain frequency
to call yourself a comedy.
Now, I believe in comedy where people can
be real people – when
they hurt, they get to really say, “Ouch.” And
I tend to really get lost in my characters and what kind
of people they are.
The big deal is to make it real. Some of those
done get tragic at times – “Terms of Endearment” had
tragedy in it. But the experience of seeing it in the theatre
at the time was to hear something played for laughs almost
all the way. There was a laugh in the last scene.
“Comedy” can mean a lot of things. To me, the great
thing about doing “The Simpsons” is that you
can do any form of comedy you want in that show. You can
do burlesque, you can do romantic comedy, you can do high
comedy, low comedy … because the characters will travel
with you. I just believe in the borders of comedy not being
as strict as people imagine.
Do you feel at this point that Hollywood trusts you? Can
you get anything you want made at this point in your career?
I don’t know. That’s not the question. The important
thing is, is there something you really want to get made?
Your stories about working with Andy Kaufman are legendary.
Is there a Kaufman story yet to be told?
I don’t know … I do know that when he did the
wrestling stunt, it was on every front page that he was injured – and
those of us working with him were very concerned. And then
I saw the stop-action of the tape and realized that it was
a stunt. And I called him and said, “Andy, do you know
what it’s like for those of us who care about you to
have thought you were injured?” He says, “Do
you know what it’s like to lie in a full body cast
for three days?” It was everything for his art.
What are you particularly enjoying on TV right now?
Well, I think “The Office” is a monumental achievement.
I think it’s one of the great comedies anybody ever
did in any form. It amazes me. It stuns me. It transcends
everything. If you had to name the five greatest comedy films
of your life, this is certainly on my list.
are you in the day-to-day operations of “The
“The Simpsons” was my full-time job for about three
years, and then it was my major part-time job, then it was
my night job – and now, when I’m not shooting,
I do a day a week. If we do a [“Simpsons”] movie,
I’ll be very involved.
The great thing about the series – and I think the
thing that keeps us alive – is the authority we give
each show-runner. I try and make sure that happens.
who’s straddled both theatrical features
and TV production, how would you tailor “The Simpsons” to
the big screen?
Well, the idea is not to tailor it – the idea is to
make it worth the experience of going to a movie. And we’re
getting together and seeing if we can do that.
Would it be a musical?
Uh, it would be a “Simpsons.”
a healthy disregard for screenplay format – in
the sense that you’re unafraid of giving an actor a
Well, there’s a great tradition of that on the screen;
I don’t think that’s against screenplay format.
I always liked [big speeches] in movies. I love it when Cameron
Crowe [who wrote and directed the Brooks-produced “Jerry
Maguire”] does it, and I tend to know the people who
The only reason it doesn’t happen so often is because,
a lot of times, writers are re-written, and speeches aren’t
gonna survive that. Writers having authority over their own
work is not an everyday thing.
seems to have inspired a new generation of directors – David
O. Russell [“I Heart Huckabees”], Wes Anderson
[“The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou”], certainly
I love doing pictures with Wes and Cameron, and I love it
for the same reason: They each have a specifically original
took Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson and “Bottle
Rocket” under your wing, did you have any idea what
you’d be unleashing on the world?
Oh, my God. Everybody who was living on that floor in Houston
ended up in Hollywood! The whole cast and the writer and
director were all living on the floor in one room!
How is working with those two guys different from, say,
working on television?
It has a lot more similarities than differences, I think.
When people come in a room to make a [feature] film, it could
be all the stuff you imagine about Hollywood. But I think
when you come from television, the way I do, what you can
offer is a spirit of collegiality, where you can be a little
loose and chase the right ambition. Instead of “Will
they like this?” it’s “You get to say this.”
In television, writers run the show – so you get used
to trying your ideas out, and you work with a variety of
actors in a very close situation. And when a series in working,
you get to work in an area of creative freedom and security.
It’s very hard for movies to match.
So what keeps drawing you back to movies, then?
Movies are good in that you turn the things that make your
legs shake into things that make you feel good. The stakes
are so high that it becomes an opportunity to work with
some of the best people in the world on every level. [You’re]
surrounded by people who share the passion – something
you take advantage of in an easy, joking way in television.
I mean, nobody would guess walking into a “Simpsons” rewrite
room that it was a passionate, dedicated room, but it is.
You’ve said that moviemaking is “lonely because
you asked all of them to work … for this idea you had.” Do
you feel less lonely when you’re working with fellow
filmmakers – like, say, Albert Brooks?
Well, Albert used to rub it in. Because Albert, knowing exactly
what it was like, used to tell me, “There’s no
better feeling than going home as an actor and knowing what
you have left in your day.” [laughs]
You’ve talked about “As Good As It Gets” “needing
permission from an audience to exist.” How much do
audience concerns play into your creative choices?
You know, it’s supposed to be a communication….
It’s tough when you say, “What do you like? Let
me please you.” Which might be another word for “genre” or
something. But you haven’t done it until they hear
what you’re saying, you know?
One is reminded
of Albert Brooks’ character’s
reliance on testing cards in “I’ll Do Anything.” [Brooks
laughs] How much do you rely on testing yourself?
You know, you can’t do a comedy and not test it. I
don’t know anybody in comedy who doesn’t have
to meet the test of “Are they laughing?” at some
But it’s not just looking at the numbers; it’s
feeling the audience. Then you get the numbers. It can be
one sentence someone says [in testing] that’s the whole
evening for you. It’s also a great way to get a picture
down to size, and it’s a really great way to know when
out as a newswriter for CBS in the ’60s.
It was my first real job after I, you know, aborted school.
One of my favorite parts of my job right now is something
that could be loosely defined as “reporting” – going
out to talk to a great number of people to try and find
out the truth about something. Twice I’ve found major
parts of the story I’ve told from the people I’ve
In “Broadcast News,” basically, one person I
was talking to told me the story in her life that led to
the triangle in the movie. For “As Good as It Gets,” even
though I’ve had gay friends in my life, when I wanted
to write a gay character, I felt I had to do research and
talk to gay people on a whole different level. In the case
of “Spanglish,” it was talking to a chef, it
was talking to hundreds and hundreds of Hispanics.
And as you do the research and you have their
faces in front of you and you go over the transcripts, you’ve built
up a constituency – where if they say you’re
full of shit, it’s rough. The great thing that happens
is, you’re writing a movie and then something starts
to happen – and it’s not about you at a certain
point in the process.
that fail on the first try are occasionally finding new
audiences on DVD. Is there anything
in television that didn’t quite catch fire on the first
try that might enjoy a second life on home video?
“The Critic,” for sure. At the end, we were fighting
for “cult classic,” and I believe we made it.
And I feel that way about an old series called “The
Associates” – Martin Short’s first series,
where I think we did 13 shows, and five of them were terrific.
You did the things you’re not allowed to do in the
pilot, so I took perverse pleasure in that – we took
the most likeable character and got rid of him. [laughs]
And then some of the “Tracey Ullmans”. We did
a “Best of Tracey Ullman Show” once, and some
of those sketches were great. It was murder, with all the
makeup – just the physical burden of doing the show
every week. But it had a spirit all its own.
How do you write and direct a highly emotional scene without
it devolving into mawkishness?
You can’t live in fear of being seen as sentimental.
If what you’re trying to do is avoid being called “sentimental,” it’s
not gonna happen. You can’t do a scene out of a negative.
You’ve got to want to be true. You’ve got to
find the emotional life of the scene.
And also, I love shifting tone. So the chances
are, if I’m
doing a very dramatic scene, I will look for something that
amuses me. The weirdest example of this – which no
one ever laughed at but me, God help me [laughs] – is
in “As Good as It Gets.” When the Greg Kinnear
character is being almost beaten to death, one of his attackers
goes to grab a lamp to hit him with, and as he passes the
other attacker, he goes, “Excuse me.” [laughs]
It was like bumping-into-somebody-in-a-crowd kind of politeness,
I don’t know if this is a touchy subject, but film
geeks want to know: Will we ever see the musical version
of “I’ll Do Anything” on DVD?
No, it’s not touchy. I wanted to release it, and I
wanted to do it with a documentary about my experience, and
I really wanted to do it badly after I finished “As
Good As It Gets.” I actually spent some time trying
to make it happen. But we didn’t have the rights to
the songs for the DVD – and that’s what killed
I thought there was really something to pass
on in my experience of it, painful as it was.
Does “The Simpsons” sort
of scratch that musical itch these days?
[laughs] It wasn’t so much an “itch” – I
thought it was the right way to tell a Hollywood story. And
then it wasn’t.
I remember somebody said I made the
story too complicated for a Hollywood musical, and maybe
that’s why I had
a problem. But I also put acting over musical talent … .
The experience at the time was, if I
had five, six people in the room and I showed them the
musical, they went nuts;
if you put 500 people in the room, at a certain point
they wouldn’t suspend disbelief – it really
got in the way, the way we did it.
One of the reasons I was reluctant to
[put the musical version on DVD] was, in small groups,
the thing really
people would wonder why the hell I ever changed it.