As Good As He Gets
James L. Brooks is considered one of Hollywood's true auteurs. Taking his time between films, each one offers a rare insight into human behaviour, both comedically and dramatically, from classic television classics as diverse as Mary Tyler Moore and The Simpsons, to Oscar winning films as indelible as Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, As Good as it Gets, to his current Spanglish, a comedy drama that delves into America's cultural divide, starring a very different Adam Sandler.
The Oscar winning director talked to Paul Fischer in a wide ranging discussion including talk on that much rumoured Simpsons movie.
Paul Fischer: Why do you take so long between films?
Jim Brooks: I try to figure that out and each time I think I won't take as long and this time, right now I actually have an idea of something I want to do, which I've never had before, beforehand. It's so funny, by the way at this point I should have a better answer for the question worked out, but I don't. Because I come from television where deadlines, where I do it every week. I do it every week and sometimes I've done two shows at once.
PF: You're still doing television?
JB: Yes, and I still do that. I can think the negative of it is the positive of it. The result of it. I think it just takes me - I tend to do research, I tend to take about a year to write a script. It tends to be that way even though I hope it's not. It always has been about a year to write a script and then if I do research, the research can be up to a year. A couple of times it was raising money that was time consuming too, to make the movie. But, the good thing and the bad thing when you do them that infrequently is they become so important to you. You become so obsessed and that's not a bad thing for a movie. That's not a bad thing for a movie for you to serve it with that sense that it's the whole world. It tends to happen anyway. Things get very distorted when you do a movie, weirdly so.
PF: The expectation must be much higher for audiences when they have to wait a few years.
JB: Well I think they've got other things to think about, and 're a little rusty by the way, you know, there's definitely something, if you do two pictures every three years you're pretty smooth, you get your act together and it's easier to get continuity of people and everything, but the idea that you're rusty a little bit has it's own energy in it. Has it's own sense - so the sense of awe keeps on coming about the process.
PF: What sort of coverage and variations do you shoot? Do you shoot a lot of variations off of the script or what's this process like?
JB: In terms of script?
PF: Yeah, apparently you do shoot quite a bit of variation in takes.
JB: I'll try different ways. If somebody has an idea I'll try it no matter who - if somebody says - if an actress says why don't I do this, instead of having a long discussion about it, I say let's try it. I tend to do that. I always thing - the great things that can happen when 're doing a movie, because you do prepare and the actors prepare, so I always think like two actors and me are coming together to do a scene that day, they say it's going to be like this, he says it's going to be like this, I think it's going to be like this, when something that none of us imagined happens, if you give that room to happen, that's like a great day. It doesn't happen very often, if it happens two or three times in the course of a movie it's pretty great for an important scene, that tends to be a great day.
PF: Are all your films a personal reflection of where you are? You in time?
JB: Sometimes the battle is to make it a little more personal to you to really get into it, and sometimes the battle is to make it less personal to you so you can get more objectivity. What I always look for, I don't know if this writes or tells, or anything, but what I always look for is this isn't my movie. If I work very hard, I begin to see some movie out there and instead of having everybody look at me about what the movie should be I say hey, look at that and if you get them to see it, you're all chasing something. So you're trying to build that thing out there that everybody is saying let's follow that, let's go that way and you need their contribution to do that. I don't know if it's clear at all what I'm saying, but I'm always looking for that when it gets outside me, when it's not inside me. It's inside me, inside me, inside me, and I'm always looking for the moment when something starts to happen when it's outside me and you can just talk to each other. What if we did that, but you have an idea of where you're trying to go. Tone is hard. Tone is tricky. Tone is up for grabs in what we do. What's the tone of the scene. I mean one of the fun things in this movie was to mess around with tone. To have a picture that had a lot on its mind and get physical comedy in it because Tea has that to get - kids always add a freshness to it. Like I said kids are always great because they always make everything fresh that you're working with. On this one I had a great agenda about the guy character and I'd done a lot of research on the Hispanic character.
PF: Going back to your tone thing from earlier, how do you manage to strike the unique balance of high comedy on the one hand, and real tragedy on the other hand, particularly with a film like this, but a lot of your work is defined that way.
JB: Yeah, I love it if comedy reflects real life. I love it if comedy reflects real life because to me it's more reassuring that we'll get through. If everything in a movie is much better than what happens to us in life and everything has a happy ending, it's not a real great message to us that we'll make it with our lives, but if they're going through some of the stuff that we have to go through in our lives and it's still a comedy, but they feel pain at times - we used to do it on the shows. We used to do it on the shows. I mean we have Simpsons that are like that for God's sake.
PF: But audiences like things wrapped up at the end of the movie and this one doesn't do that.
JB: No it doesn't do that, no it doesn't do that. And I think you have a pact with an audience in every picture, and I think the pact in this picture is to try and be truthful and to be real. So I think very early in the game they wouldn't allow you to do a Hollywood ending even if I could think of one for this, they wouldn't allow it because they want to believe it. They want to believe the ending. And the nature of the story. What is the happy ending in this? There isn't one.
PF: How important was it to have no subtitles?
JB: Pardon me?
PF: To have no subtitles on the film?
JB: If I had to have put subtitles on this picture I would have known forever that I failed in everything I wanted to achieve in this picture. It would have been a failure to me forever. I was so afraid of that, I was so afraid of that because it was always - it's just written into every stage direction of the script that if at the point - and this is the great thing, you have comedy scenes playing at a certain point where the audience, instead of being bothered by waiting for the translation, starts to be entertained by it. That's the thing I guess my one point of pride in this picture, it's that one.
PF: It was great to see Cloris Leachman in this role and she was fabulous. How different was it with Anne Bancroft?
JB: It would have been a different picture. There's always a truth, whenever you have actor A instead of actor B you're not just changing the part. When the parts are this important you change the picture, you change tone.
PF: So did you rewrite because Anne dropped out?
JB: No, I maybe re-directed. I just - it became a little wilder. It became wilder.
PF: What about Sandler, when you end up with a star like that, do you end up writing partially for the benefit of the persona that Sandler has created previously, or was the character pretty much - when he was cast was it pretty much the same character from the get go?
JB: I think - it's a cliché, but what does it mean for an actor to make a part his own? It means that he takes on what you had intended and starts to put in his own stuff so that it becomes something that could only happen if he played it. I think this part, the way Adam plays it, could only happen if he played it.
PF: Why did you want him for this?
JB: Because what he has - first of all he has a comic persona which I really wanted and he's a great regular looking guy that you believe, which I really wanted. By the way, the bonuses that I got. I saw Punch Drunk which is the reason I cast him. I said looking to make these different moves and he's - I think it's just ...
PF: Jim, the flip side to that for me is that he is the regular Joe but she is this gorgeous creature that you kind of go in real life she'd be an actress which she is.
JB: I think her beauty is still accessible. I think her beauty is of a nature, especially the way we treated her in this movie, it's still not like I can't talk to this person she's so beautiful. I think it's a little bit the way we dress her in the movie, where you've got to go almost the way Tea did, to see that she's gorgeous at that point until at the end when - we very rarely see her relaxed and presenting her beauty. The character doesn't live her life presenting her beauty. I think one of Pars' most difficult acting jobs in the movie is how she reacted when she's told she's gorgeous. I love her reaction because it's a little unnerved, it's a little like what are we talking about. It's not a subject that I want to talk about and I always love her reaction on that.
PF: How much research do you do for a character?
JB: Enormous, enormous, enormous. Sitting around tables, sitting at my home, gathering women, hearing great lines, seeing women with their children, having the kids translate, talking to them about that experience. That was just an accident when the kids were there with their mother one day and that led to being the most important part of the story. Maybe hundreds of women, notebooks filled with transcripts. Almost 90% of them in Spanish which I don't speak, with somebody translating for me. Just - and the nights when you get loose, the nights when you do it at night and you're just sitting around and it goes on and just when it stops being formal and some of the best of it is you're sitting back like this at a certain point instead of asking questions and they're just talking to each other and somebody's just telling you what they're saying and it's great. There was a 19-year-old mother of a 2-year-old that I met and she said this extraordinary thing, I had the line in the movie and I had to cut it out because I didn't do the scene, but she said that she - she was a very attractive woman and she said the next time she had a man who was viable at all that she'd instead of dating him and finding out these facts about him she wants to take him to the park with her kid, see him interact with her kid and make her decision on the guy based only on that. And that became the heartbeat that I kept on talking to about to Pars. That became the heartbeat of - and I had some narration in once that goodness would be a catnip. I had a marketing idea that everybody hated, decency is sexy. But just the idea that when you're used to Latin macho men to suddenly see this man who starts to enter your heart who is so different than any man you've known, and yet the truth about Latin men is they tend to celebrate their children as well, but it tends to be very manly in a traditional sense, so one of the most fun things that happened is when she runs out of her car because this guy is emotion, is so different than any she's used to. To me if somebody told me tomorrow that I had to go back and do a light romantic comedy with just Adam and Pars, I'd love to do it. I think they're funny and great together. I think now she speaks a little English, I think it was just entertaining at its core, those two.
PF: You've been doing this for such a long time now, how has it changed for you and what does the future hold for you?
JB: I think television keeps on being a place where writers can go and if they're successful they can have their way and they can have creative freedom. I think television continues to be that, which is the great thing about television. If you have a series and you get a rating, nobody's going to comment on your script, you can do the script you want, you can run your show, which is great. Movies, the stakes are getting so high and the competition so great and you open and you have a minute and a half to make it or not, that's changing some. So I think the percentage of films where just a guy or a woman gets to try something that's not tried and true, I think that number of movies will lessen because it's so expensive to make them and market them.
PF: Is you're next film going to be on a similar vein?...
JB: I love romantic comedy, I really do, but I think you have to have another idea that you're chasing along with romantic comedy so I begin to have an idea I'm chasing.
PF: They're tough to be original too aren't they? To make an original romantic comedy, especially in your world of romantic comedy isn't it?
JB: Yeah, I think that's a challenge, but it comes with the basic idea you start chasing it. If that's not a rich idea, or if that's not a complicated idea, then it's even harder. But if you start with a little - I mean I don't even know what I'm chasing for this one, but I have just some inklings to start on, but I think it will be that. And there's always a chance that a book comes along. I've done adaptations too.
PF: You're not still involved with the Simpson's are you?
JB: No. I'll go back now to my one day a week because I've finished shooting and there is talk that we'll work on a movie.
PF: How long will you be with the movie version?
JB: The idea of the movie is that all of us who ran the show at one point and who have been there from the beginning come together as the writing team for this movie. That's the idea of it.
PF: How many people does that come to?
PF: Nine people, wow.
PF: Is there any plot?
PF: It's 2007, the rumoured ...
JB: We're going to put some fake plots out there just to make it interesting.
PF: What about DVD. Anything we didn't see ...
JB: Yes, yes. I'll do some scenes I cut out. I might to Pars' screen test if it's okay with her which is sort of great. There's some behind the scenes stuff that I'll put in. I'll the commentaries which I always do, it's just fun to just watch the movie with - if we had the time, everything is coming out so fast. I just finished this movie two days ago and it's weird.
PF: Do you look back at your early TV stuff and go I did that and this was ground breaking or this was something I learnt from, or I learnt this from ...
JB: I have great affection. It's like the old gangs on the street. If I look at the Mary Show or if I look at Taxi or you know, this is five years of my life, seven years of my life, this is the block you grew up on, these shows, and you have formed great relationships with the people. When you work alongside somebody day in and day out for that length of time, the relationships tend to be wonderful, they're lifelong, lifelong. So I always have that.
PF: And don't wait too long for the next film.
JB: I'm going to try not to, I'm running out of time.
PF: Could you be a director for hire or do you think it's really important for you to originate your own material?
JB: I did that once on a play and I liked it. I liked it. It made directing different. But I don't have any plans to do that.
Spanglish opens on Friday.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.