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 print 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
FOCUS: I'd love to geek out with you a little about Adam
Sandler. I thought you used him really well in “Spanglish.”
JAMES L. BROOKS: He did a great job.
Why do you
think he's so underrated by the critical community? He'll
do something like "Punch Drunk Love" — and
then people will seemingly immediately forget that he gave
a good performance.
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.
go out on a limb and declare "Billy Madison" and "Happy
Gilmore" way smarter films than they're given credit
I agree with you. And when he does his albums,
his stand-up is bold and edgy and dangerous. And funny, by
“Punch Drunk Love” even takes the form of a
typical Sandler film — right down to his character’s
sudden outbursts. His character even has more nuanced sorts
of outbursts in "Spanglish” —
like when he’s
slowly having his restaurant taken away from him, where he
to set his hair on
very humanizing of Hispanic and illegal-immigrant culture;
in movies, illegal
are usually played as plot points rather than characters.
some of the screenings I cared most about were the Latin
screenings; you just care about
them saying “okay” at
the end. 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.
It got them feeling good about being represented.
More so than
in other films of yours, I got a sense that there's a far
longer cut of "Spanglish" out
There’s a longer cut of everything I’ve
was the original cut of “Spanglish”?
never do that number.
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….
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. That bit of assimilation where
everything that came before disappears is prevented — and
I think that’s a real ending.
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.
I think one
of my favorite moments was when the little girl goes, “I need my space,” and
Paz Vega jumps in and goes —
No space between us!” [laughs]
main thing I was asking when I walked out of the movie
is, “What’s going to happen to Tea 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
This is what I believe happened: Clearly it’s
a wake-up call. I think there’s a line in there: “It
the worst thing in the world to find out that you love your
husband.” Her relationship with her mother has dramatically
he now has looked outside herself — she’s
not totally buried in her own ego. And she’s been able
to take some outside input from her mother, because she had
a lot of resentment of her mother, on good grounds — her
mother was alcoholic, promiscuous — but it has gotten
The way that
Tea Leoni’s character was destroying
her husband’s enjoyment of his work was most trenchant
Oh, I’m so glad to hear you say that. It’s
what happens when they view your work as your mistress
of your work.
I think in a bad marriage, you lose a sense
of who you are. And when a woman who shares all Sandler’s character’s
values becomes a kind of mirror for him, I think it kind
of brings him back. It’s the nature of his heroism
that he always sees the other point of view and understands
what other people are thinking — but I think he owns
himself at the end.
are really hard to pin down by genre. Do you describe your
films as “dramas with comedy,” or.…?
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.” I
think that’s true. 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 theater
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.
How do you resist the Hollywood trend to slot
films into easy marketing categories?
It’s hard. You need support. And I understand [that
trend], too — it costs so much to make them and so
much to market them. Everybody wants some feeling of safety — even
though, more often than not, “safety” is an illusion.
Do you feel at this point that Hollywood trusts
you? Can you get anything you want made at this point in
I don’t know. That’s not the question. The important
thing is, is there something you really want to get made?
[laughs] I mean, if you’ve got that one, then you’ve
got a chance to get to the next question. In the abstract,
it’s silly, I think.
Your stories about working with Andy Kaufman
are legendary. Did that last round of Kaufman-mania in the
late '90s overlook
anything important about him that you remembered? Is there
a Kaufman story yet to be told?
I don’t know if there’s a Kaufman story yet
to be told. 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.
been a sort of creative explosion in TV comedy in the wake
of "Seinfeld," much of it overseas and
on cable — I'm thinking specifically of "Curb
your Enthusiasm" and "The Office" and maybe
some of the Adult Swim cartoons, if you want to stretch the
definition a little. What are you particularly enjoying on
TV right now?
Well, I think “The Office” is a monumental achievement. “The
Office” is one of the great things I’ve ever
seen in my life. I think it’s one of the great comedies
anybody ever did in any form. It amazes me. It stuns me.
It transcends everything. So I can’t put it on a list — because
I think it’s one of the great comedies ever done.
Yeah. There are comedies you love and then
there are comedies that just become this sort of holy writ.
you had to name the five greatest comedy films of your
life, this is certainly on my list.
got to wonder where Ricky Gervais is gonna go from here.
Well, I spoke to him, and he
has some ideas. He does.
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.
time do you get to spend in the writers’ room?
I do a short day. We have a table read,
and then notes on the story, and stickin’ around
to try and suggest some ways we can go.
The great thing about the series — and I think the
thing that keeps us alive — is the authority we give
each show-runner. It means something; the person who’s
putting in the hours has to have the authority. 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 big speech.
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, and I always saw
them — lots of them. I don’t even know that it’s
a new thing. I love it when Cameron Crowe does it, and I
tend to know the people who do it.
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. Writers like speeches.
to have inspired a new generation of directors to follow
suit with similarly genre-fuzzy
pieces — I'm
thinking of David O. Russell, Wes Anderson, certainly Cameron
Crowe. Do you accept your role as a kind of mentor to those
You know, I never know quite what the
word means. I love doing pictures with Wes and Cameron,
and I love it for the
same reason: They each have a specifically original voice — and
that’s great to get that out in film.
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!
those early meetings like where you were workshopping the “Bottle Rocket” story
Regular. Wes is a big listener, and then
he’d go away
with Owen, and they’d come back with something — and
then, you know, we did some stuff in post. The thing was
to always get his voice on. Wes is a very … specific
individual. So is Owen.
How is working with those two guys different
from, say, working on television?
It has a lot more similarities
I think. In television, you’re a team doing it — the
idea of collegiality is very television.
When people come in a room to make a [feature]
film, it could be all the stuff you imagine about Hollywood.
can even read a lot about films and almost walk into a meeting
with the cynicism of a veteran — because everybody
talks like that.
But I think when you come from television,
the way I do, what you can offer is a spirit of collegiality,
can be a little loose and chase the right ambition. Instead
of “Will they like this?” it’s “You
get to say this.”
I was going to ask how years of working in
television have influenced your approach to movies.
the deal is, in television, writers
run the show — so
you get used to trying your ideas out, and you work with
actors all the time, 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.
And that’s invaluable. In other words, you have absolute
sanctuary to do your thing in television — and it’s
very hard for movies to match. Because one of the things
that television has is continuity, week-to-week and year-to-year — so
every man gets to form his rep company.
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. So the resources,
which cost so much, are extraordinary to have.
Doing television is collegial; doing a movie
is a more lonely experience. But I’ve been very lucky, particularly
on “Spanglish,” to be 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.
But you walk into a movie room, you won’t mistake it.
that moviemaking is "lonely because you
asked all of them to work that hard for this idea you had." Do
you feel less lonely when you're working with fellow filmmakers
who've been through your end of the process — like,
say, Albert Brooks?
Well, Albert used to rub it in. Because
Albert, knowing exactly what it was like, used to tell
no better feeling than going home as an actor and knowing
what you have left in your day.” [laughs]
I’ve heard he was like that on “Finding Nemo,” too.
I interviewed Charlie Kaufman once, and he talked about the
TV writers’ room being this incredible proving ground
for him — because it was competitive, and if you could
survive it, you could pretty much do anything.
That’s a good take. I always say, “A series
that’s working is the best job anyone can give you
in entertainment.” It just is.
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? I’ll
try and give it to you. Let me please you.” Which might
be another word for “genre” or something. But
it is a communication; you haven’t done it until they
hear what you’re saying, you know?
When I was researching “Terms of Endearment” and
I was talking to young assistant English profs, trying to
understand one of the characters — because I’m
a nut on research — one of them talked about “the
art of reading.” Reading is where it finally happens,
after you read it and it enters your brain and you think
about it — that’s the end of the author’s
creative process. And I think there’s a lot of truth
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 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. You have that in television, too; it’s
feeling an audience. Then you get the numbers. Sometimes
you’re surprised. It can be one sentence someone says
[in testing] that’s the whole evening for you: “Oh,
yeah. Oh, great. I got that out of tonight.” It’s
also a great way to get a picture down to size, and it’s
a really great way to know when you’re wrong, or when
you’re too long.
out as a newswriter for CBS in the ’60s.
Does that discipline factor into your work today? And why'd
you make the jump into fiction?
Well, it was my first real
job after I, you know, aborted school. I mean, one of my
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 talked
What were the instances?
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. Even though there was source material,
it was doing the research in Houston that allowed me to make
it not parochial — and even though [“Broadcast
News”] was by a great Texas writer, realizing that
Houston was Our Town, you know?
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. I think one of the important
speeches in that [came from] talking to a great artist, because
[Greg Kinnear’s character was] a painter. 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, because you have their faces
in front of you. It helps you have a purpose outside yourself,
And I think that’s very important. Because the great
thing that happens is, you’re writing a movie and it’s “me
me me” and “Can I get this idea?” and “Did
I do good today?” and then something starts to happen — and
it’s not about you at a certain point in the process.
How long does the research process take?
varies. I tend to think of things in terms of a year — and
sometimes my “year” means six months, and sometimes
my year means two years. But I always think of it as a year,
no matter how long it takes.
Writing, I always say, takes me a year. I
done it in four months once, and I think it took me longer
once — but I always say a year.
I’m always blown away when I hear that Steven Soderbergh
wrote the script for “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in
And who was the guy who did all those
great movies with the teenagers living in Chicago? [It’s John Hughes. — ed.]
They were all tremendously successful. He did every script
in three days.
that fail on the first try are occasionally finding new
audiences on DVD. Is there anything
you've done in television
that didn't quite catch fire on the first try that might
enjoy a second life on home video? I'm thinking in particular
of "The Critic."
“The Critic,” for sure. At the end, we were
fighting for “cult classic,” and I believe we
made it. And there has been a DVD of “The Critic.”
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.
A great pilot, I thought. 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 Ullman”s. We did
a “Best of Tracey Ullman Show” once, and some
of those sketches were great.
me of “The Ben Stiller Show” — something
that didn’t quite find its niche.
Yeah. And it was murder,
with all the makeup — just
the physical burden of doing the show every week. But when
we put together our best, it was really great — it
had a spirit all its own.
How do you write and direct a highly emotional
scene without it devolving into mawkishness? It strikes me
that there are
several steps along the way where an emotional scene can
go completely wrong.
Well, I have cautions. Because 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, you’ve got to remember, 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
going to have to watch that again.
It was like bumping-into-somebody-in-a-crowd
kind of politeness, you know? And in “Spanglish,” it’s the
translation scene — maybe the longest comedy scene
I ever did in the movie. With the setup, it’s 11 minutes.
I loved that that changes form as it goes, and it all stays
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
Is there any chance in the future that we might
see this? That would be a fascinating document.
I think it
would. I think it would. And
I really wanted to do it — I thought there was really
something to pass on in my experience of it, painful as it
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 plays, and
people would wonder why the hell I ever changed it. [laughs]
of the “Director’s Cut.” Home
video, in fact, might be the ideal medium for this film,
on some levels.
For the musical version? I think so.
I think so. Because it’s a more intimate experience.