James L. Brooks Talks 'Simpsons' Sequel, New Film Projects (Exclusive Video)
The triple Oscar winner and 47-time Emmy nom spills his career secrets
James L. Brooks, executive producer of The Simpsons, says he has been asked by Fox to make a second feature film version of the 25-year-old animated Fox series, though he said there are no immediate plans.
"We've been asked to [develop it], but we haven't," he said. "We're doing a lot of other stuff." Brooks cited the recent Hollywood Bowl Simpsons show and a much-discussed new Fxx app, which he said would be released "in a few days" and would permit fans instantly to find any joke they remember, and send it to friends. "Fxx, who are the FX cable people [are] coming up with this app that’s gonna be so cutting edge. You gotta see it." After the initial app release, he added, "In January the more sophisticated version will be out but it probably won't crash. I think they’ve really put their thoughts into it. It allows us to go past our imaginations ultimately but for starters you get any bit, you get anything you want. You think of a joke you'll be able to call it up, you'll be able to send it."
Brooks, the Oscar-winning writer-director of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, was a guest in the second season of The Hollywood Masters, the interview series moderated by The Hollywood Reporter's executive features editor Stephen Galloway. The interview took place Oct. 1 at the Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television.
The series of 90-minute interviews, to be televised later, will also feature Charles Roven (Oct. 8), Billy Bob Thornton (Oct. 15), Hans Zimmer (Oct. 29), the Farrelly brothers (Nov. 5) and Hilary Swank (Nov. 12).
Brooks said of the previous Simpsons feature, 2007's The Simpsons Movie, "We felt we were risking everything. What if the movie stank? It took us two years just to get loose, just to breathe a little, like we do on the show. It was a murderous two years until we got there. It took us two years to try and act like we didn’t give a shit, which the show needs a little bit. The movie needed that quality."
He recalled how the series began. "Animators wanted a prime time television show. They hadn’t had one in 25 years, and there was no outlet on television. And it moved me. And then we started fighting for the right to do a series. At the time, the Fox network was shaky financially, really shaky. So to get them to commit to a 13-show buy for an animated series was tough. But they did, to their credit — to Barry Diller's credit." Diller was then running the network.
Brook acknowledged that "There was a time around the 10-year mark when it was very tough coming up with stories," but then, he said, "we got over that, and then suddenly it wasn’t [difficult], and I can't explain why."
He also said he is working on a new feature film of his own, that would return him to the director's seat for the first time since 2010's How Do You Know. "I can't talk about it yet," he said. "I'm on page 110, but it's almost just figuring out where to go. I'm in the home stretch."
A full transcript follows.
GALLOWAY: Welcome to The Hollywood Masters, filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. Our guest today is really one of the monumental figures in film and television over the past half century and just looking at his work is pretty intimidating. He's earned something like 47 Emmy nominations, he's won three Oscars. He's [made] what ranges from some of the most important television work, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Lou Grant, Taxi on through award winning films, Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, As Good as it Gets and leading to a show that’s been called the most important show on television, The Simpsons, which is now a quarter century old. I am really thrilled to welcome one of my favorite filmmakers, James L. Brooks [APPLAUSE].
GALLOWAY: I want to start with your beginning in New Jersey. You said of your upbringing that your hobby was surviving. What did you mean by that?
BROOKS: Oh god we’re gonna start there. Um, it was -- we were, a downtrodden family. An errant father. You know, my dad was an alcoholic. Um, I wasn’t as plucky as you'd hope [LAUGH] myself. And I guess that’s what I meant.
GALLOWAY: How did you imagine your life when you were growing up?
BROOKS: I don't know that I managed it well at all. I think it was about surviving. My mother worked insane hours to, you know, keep basics together. My sister worked. At a certain point I was able to work and everybody chipped in and that’s what it was about but, um, my father was funny, my mother was funny. My mom had two sisters and that was really part of our structure and, um… [LAUGHS]
GALLOWAY: Were you happy growing up?
BROOKS: Lets’ see, uh…no. I read, I liked that. I was happy afterwards. I was happy in college. Briefly I was in college but I was happy there. I'm happy now until we get into this.[LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: I was gonna ask are you happy now?
BROOKS: Well, uh, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Not this particular moment. [LAUGHTER] How did you envision your future at that point?
BROOKS: Oh, not at all. Just if I could make a decent salary and no matter what it did. I was only in college, unfortunately, for, um, a year. I think my major was public relations and I had no idea what it meant except it seemed maybe attainable. So I didn’t have ambition like that. Like even after college I took courses in writing. I enjoyed it. I loved doing that and after college I started to have dreams of writing a play so I took some courses. And the courses tended to be very good. There was one at The New School and there was one at City College taught by professionals instead of professors and it was good.
GALLOWAY: When did you first get an interest in writing?
BROOKS: I think I was always interested in that. I mean I was on my school paper in high school. I did the interviews. [You’re] shaking the hand that shook Louie Armstrong’s hand.
GALLOWAY: Was he nice?
BROOKS: He was great. And I asked him the best question. I asked him how he keeps his lips up and the answer was about 20 minutes long. There were so many ointments involved and such.
GALLOWAY: Did you know that you had the right question or did you sort of stumble on it?
BROOKS: Oh gosh that’s a good question. I think I stumbled on it, yeah.
GALLOWAY: And how did he keep his lips moist? [LAUGH]
BROOKS: He just went through a lot of bottles in his dressing room and told me what his ritual was and it’s such a great fact, about just the upkeep of those magic lips.
GALLOWAY: You fell off NYU and you got a job at CBS.
GALLOWAY: How and what did you do?
BROOKS: Well that was great. I got a job as a pageboy, which is an entry level job that not only went to, that tended to go only to college graduates, of which I was not one. But my sister’s best friend was the assistant to the man who hired and that’s how I got that job And that was my first taste of, you know, New York and anything resembling glamour because the other people on the page staff were ambitious and that was the conversation.
GALLOWAY: And what did your job entail?
BROOKS: Being an usher, being at reception desks. The worst part about it is that we had to wear these huge capes in New York winters and you looked ridiculous in those capes. And it was that or freeze. The choice was a narrow one sometimes.
GALLOWAY: I think you met or saw Edward R. Murrow.
BROOKS: That’s right. Got him coffee. Somebody wrote a book about Edward R. Murrow and spent 12 years on it. I saw her being interviewed, and they said, “What’s the most interesting thing about him?” And she said that he was worth the legend. He was the poster boy for integrity. For service, for what news should be. And people worshipped him as a god, he affected the history of the country. One of the best looking guys you ever saw in your life. He was this amazing visage. I can't think of who it would be like today. I can't think of a corollary. Anybody who'd be anything like Edward R. Morrow.
BROOKS: He built broadcast journalism and he hired the people who did CBS News during the Second World War and he basically ran the news department with his associates. They did great. I mean, the documentaries are still available and the scripts for the documentaries, the See It Now documentaries, you won't believe news scripts like this. I mean the scripts were literature. And I remember finding dusty copies, you know, when I was a kid and they're amazing.
GALLOWAY: But is it that there’s something different about our values today or is it that this was still within memory of World War II, that it shaped the way things were seen?
BROOKS: Well, sure. He came up when there was a good side and bad side in a war. The world was imperiled and knew it. And he was the model of, you know, ethical behavior. He brought down McCarthy. I don't know if you guys know about that but there was a whole deal when [there was doubt about] whether the country would hold together because we had this one crazy senator.
GALLOWAY: Did you have a mentor? Did somebody influence you there or shape you?
BROOKS: Yeah, there was an editor who was killed in a plane crash, John Merriman, who was Edward R. Morrow’s editor. He went over the copy. And those were writer’s guild union jobs, even desk assistants. Which I was. That was sort of a copy boy in the news room. And he was basically the basis for the Lou Grant character when I did The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
GALLOWAY: I think you were there for some pretty monumental things. I think you were there when JFK was assassinated.
BROOKS: Yes. I was a copy boy when he was assassinated and and there was a moment when when a bunch of us were at lunch and they called all of us back to the office, not knowing the reason we had been called back, but that we had urgently come back. We were running through New York not knowing why. And then we came there and there it was. It was an amazing time.
GALLOWAY And I think you had to write something. You said that you wrote gibberish. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKS: Yes. They said do this and it was one of my first opportunities and, you know, you couldn’t make head or tail of it.
GALLOWAY: Why did you leave CBS?
BROOKS: I had an opportunity to come to Los Angeles. I'm surprised I left because I loved my job. I was a news writer and I had a union job. To stop there would have been great. Good friends, everything else.I loved the work. But I got a chance to do documentaries here and I did it. My wife at the time was wonderfully supportive and felt almost more than I did that it was an opportunity so I did it.
GALLOWAY: You worked for David Wolper.
GALLOWAY: And William Friedkin was working there too.
BROOKS: Yes, yes.
GALLOWAY: What did that teach you?
BROOKS: It was a very colorful place. And some of the people we worked for were colorfully abusive. We worked all hours. And there-there was one brilliant producer who did the Making of the President series with Wolper and, in the editing room there would be a cord maybe as long as this room is, a telephone cord. And when he hung up he'd throw the phone over his shoulder and it would be our job to catch it. That was just one of the bits of training that we-that we got.
GALLOWAY: When did you start writing then? I mean fiction writing?
BROOKS: I wrote some of the documentaries and then I was laid off and I had no job. I started writing, spec scripts for The Dick Van Dyke Show that didn’t do any good, didn’t get me a job. Though I'd always written. I mean, in high school I sent out short stories, you know.
GALLOWAY: Did you feel confident as a writer?
BROOKS: I wanted to write. I mean I don't know if that’s the same thing. It was a dream that you'd ever sell anything. When I sent out short stories I once got a personalized letter of rejection which was encouraging to me. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: That sounds somewhat like a paradox. But at what point did you start to feel you knew what you were doing as a writer?
BROOKS: I think when I had a show on, my own show on the air. I think not until then.
GALLOWAY: Which was Room 222?
GALLOWAY: Which was a pretty important show because it was, one of the very first shows on television that really had an interracial cast.
GALLOWAY: Was that a battle at the time?
BROOKS: There was a great guy named Gene Reynolds who was the director and he really battled the network. The kind of story you could do was enormously sensitive. And he won those battles for us which was pretty great.
GALLOWAY: How did Room 222 come about?
BROOKS: I had been writing freelance television for maybe two seasons and they offered my first pilot. It was going to be about a black schoolteacher. And there was enormous pressure to make the pilot episode having him help a white kid because everybody thought it would be easier. And then Gene fought that battle and we had him helping a black kid. And that went well. That show went well.
GALLOWAY: You moved to other shows and maybe the most [important] of them was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which then led to Lou Grant. Pretty important show and the first of your work to really feature a very strong woman. Were you consciously trying to do that or how did that come about?
BROOKS: Allan Burns, who was my writing partner at the time and the guy who got me my first breaks as a writer because he was really established, he had created like five or six shows with another partner, and we became partners for the first time. Mary Tyler Moore had come off The Dick Van Dyke Show and on The Dick Van Dyke Show she was everybody’s crush. I mean, she was the girl. And her husband, who was one of the best men I ever worked for, Grant Tinker, ended up as chairman of NBC. So much of it is luck. If you ever catch a great boss it’s just such a rare thing and it’s amazing. And he was everybody’s best boss. I mean there’s a decade of people who came out of MGM that really, their lives are better because he was their boss.
GALLOWAY: What made him a great boss?
BROOKS: He fought for us. He supported us. He cleared the way for us. We handed him the first idea for the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which maybe was a stinky idea. And they told Grant to fire us after they heard the idea. This is a famous story but it’s true and ridiculous. This was our first big network meeting and we were flown to New York and they explained to us that because we had Mary coming off a divorce, they said there were three things that the public won't watch on television. This was in a meeting with a lot of people present and this is the head of programming for CBS. People with moustaches, Jews and divorced women. And we had one of the three so they asked Grant to fire us and he didn’t. And then we came up with another idea which was the show. No moustaches.
GALLOWAY: There’s so many classic television shows you've done. What appeals to you about the sitcom as a form?
BROOKS: We always thought we were doing character comedy and sitcom sort of is a throwback to when this situation was the big joke. We didn’t do that. It’s some bastion between live theater and television. You have an audience, you shoot it sort of live and it’s exciting. It’s a great work week and there’s regularity to it and the technology is not in your way at all. It’s about working with the actors, it’s about getting the joke right, it’s about getting a laugh. It’s a great way to work.
GALLOWAY: Why comedy and not drama?
BROOKS: Who I am I guess? Through all the time there was, you know, there was, you know, I was beaten up regularly but I was the class clown.
GALLOWAY: You then went to make another really great television show which we all know called Taxi. Let’s take a look at a clip from Taxi.
BROOKS: That was Chris Lloyd [playing] a drug casualty as his brain was fried by drugs. And he was working as a taxi driver. The end of that clip is when they're trying to help him take the test and [Lloyd says], “What does a flashing yellow light mean?” [Jeff Conway’s character whispers], ”Go slower.” And [Lloyd] says [extremely slowly], “What…does…a…flashing…yellow…light…mean?” That happened five times, and the director had to cut it off because it just was --It became, I think, the longest laugh ever on television.
GALLOWAY: How do you create that? Where did it come from?
BROOKS: Listen, that was the best. This was the best time I ever had, working on Taxi. Working on any show that works is the best job you can possibly have in any area of the business. You’ve got so much going for you, a good community, everybody’s hanging together and you get to do it every week. But at this particular time, anybody in television was a pariah as far as getting a movie job was concerned. This was late 70s, early 80s. You can't believe the extent to which that was true. A few actors made it over the wall but that was it. We even had separate entrances on the Paramount lot. So that we were all doing great, plus we had the added thing where we were underdogs. We were discriminated against so it was -- it was so great. You know, Tom Hanks was there doing a show and Robin [Williams] was there doing a show and Ron Howard was there doing a show. It was like you read about the movie studios of the 40s when everybody went to the other person’s picture and hung out. Taxi had a really good party every Friday night after the show that everybody came to every Friday night.
GALLOWAY: But do you remember the genesis of this scene?
BROOKS: It was all driven by characters. The whole series was based on a magazine article about a cab company in New York where everybody had ambitions to be something else. One guy wanted to be an actor, one guy wanted to be a prize fighter. Our hero was the only one who knew he was a cab driver. And Andy Kaufman was part of the show and he was, you know, I guess you can call Andy a lot of things. He was sort of the father of performance art, too. Nobody like him ever on a set. So it was Carol Kane who was nominated for Academy Award for best actress. She came in. So we got to invent a religion for Andy because he played a foreign guy. And he spoke a language that nobody understood. So we got to invent all these mores for him and figure out what the religion was in his country. And Danny DeVito who, who was Louie De Palma on the show and was one of the cogs on the show. He kept on bringing us people who he had done Cuckoo’s Nest with, the movie. So it was all just great actors coming from terrific disciplines. We knew how good it was. We knew it would never get better as we did it.
GALLOWAY: Did you come up with the idea? The driving test? And then how do you take it from that because it’s such a developed scene. And by the way this scene is six, seven minutes, which is pretty extraordinary for a character comedy.
BROOKS: It was not formal. People would have ideas. That’s the great thing about a series, you're driving a work and you have an idea for a story for your characters and you can go into work and it’s gonna be a television show. I mean that’s what’s great about the job.
GALLOWAY: So why did you leave television?
BROOKS: I never did. I never did.
GALLOWAY: But you did move away.
BROOKS: Look, I said it twice.
GALLOWAY: In case I didn’t believe it. But you did move into film at that point.
BROOKS: I did.
GALLOWAY: And you went from this to write I think Starting Over.
BROOKS: But not from this. I did it and then went back. And it kept on being like that.
GALLOWAY: Were you thinking of moving into film early? You said it that there was this huge barrier between the two media.
BROOKS: I got a movie made in ’79 and I was one of the first ones over the wall, I think. And then it started to happen. I'd been hired to write a screenplay for a book called Starting Over and I was fired with[out] their telling me. So I was working. You have fun in store, you guys. And when I called to talk to him about the script they had hired somebody else and I had been fired. About a year and a half later the option became available and since I had started on [it] I picked up the option and I wrote a screenplay. And I sent it to a director I really admired, Alan Pakula. And we got the movie made.
GALLOWAY: Now why were you fired?
BROOKS: I don't know. I had handed an outline, I handed in some stuff I guess they didn’t like.
GALLOWAY: And why didn’t they tell you?
BROOKS: If they had answered the phone I'd be able to tell you.
BROOKS: I had another friend who was fired from a screenplay after they had after he had handed him his draft and they said, "Perfect." [LAUGHS]
GALLOWAY: Why Pakula and what did you learn from him?
BROOKS: All the President’s Men was great and he had done a picture with Liza Minnelli [The Sterile Cuckoo] that I thought was very sensitive. I think he was wonderful with actors. The way he was focused on them and the kind of conversations he had about it. And he was very good on story, too. Really good on story. Very literate man.
GALLOWAY: He banned you from the set.
BROOKS: Yes. But I should have been banned from the set because I'd come from television where I was the final word and I talked to the actors directly and that was a passionate relationship we had every time. And now, I'm, you know, a fledgling on a movie set and every time they did a line in a way that I thought was wrong you could read it on my face. And Alan said this great thing in banning me from the set the second day. He said when you direct you don’t have to know everything, but you need the illusion that you do. And then he was so great to me in post-production because he let me be in the editing room, he let me have reels to work over. He made me a tremendous part of the process so he really mentored. Yeah.
GALLOWAY: Did he teach anything about film writing as opposed to television?
BROOKS: I can't say yes to that. If he asked me to rewrite something I always rewrote it. And I could see what he could do with some of the writing. Like, he staged some scenes that were brilliant and that transcended the writing. That were funnier than the writing. There was a men’s group, emotional support group in a church basement and the next people in were the women’s emotional support group. And they were all divorced. They were divorce support groups so they were all recently divorced people. He had one stairway and he had the men and the women on the stairway at the same time just, you know, just standing from each other and it was great. And the men had just left these dog eared snacks, the women brought in all this great food. It was good.
GALLOWAY: You then go from that to the film you direct that put you on the map in the film business and let’s take a look at a clip of Terms of Endearment. [CLIP]
BROOKS: He's a womanizing astronaut. She hasn’t had a date in years. [APPLAUSE]
GALLOWAY: I so love the performance in that film and every time I see it I think most people here have seen it, I'm stunned at Shirley MacLaine and her sort of willingness to be dislikable, extreme and in some ways it makes you care for her more. When you work with those actors what guidance did you give them?
BROOKS: Um, I don't know. Some of it was blood sport. Jack [Nicholson] I just chased for a long time. Burt Reynolds was the number one box office star at the time and he agreed to do it and, um, and then talking about being fired, and then I got a call from his publicity agent saying, “Burt’s not doing your movie but he wants you to know that he loves you.” It was one of the worst nights of my life and it was clearly in retrospect one of the best nights of my life. And then we got Jack and then I couldn’t find the woman for that part. I had the most extraordinary time because the character should be about 50 years old. And that brought me into lunches and meetings with wonderful actresses. I mean just, you know, so many great women. For some reason hadn’t thought of Shirley, who I've loved all my life who's, God, The Apartment, you know, just everything. You know, she's one of the great stars ever. And there was a wonderful agent, Sue Mengers, who, wasn’t my agent but who said, “You should really send this to Shirley.” And I did and I went to see her at the beach and I realized right away it should be her and we sort of stood not facing each other, facing a wall parallel to each other. I don't know why. And she said this could be important, like under her breath, you know, could be an important performance. She wanted a Texas accent and after rehearsals I thought a Texas accent was not right, that we shouldn’t do it. I had done my research and I had hung out in Houston, Texas and, you know, people talk with every accent you can think of and no accent at all there. And I thought it would be a mistake to make it that regional with her. So I changed the stage direction at the beginning, and I put off-off screen dialogue that said she was from Boston. And she's such a pro and she's so legitimate and her thinking is so good that once she had to say the word she was from Boston in off screen dialogue she dropped the accent.
GALLOWAY: What’s interesting is I think you had a battle to get this. The book was owned by Jennifer Jones, one of the great film stars who’d been married to David O. Selznick and then I think married Norton Simon, who's an industrialist.
BROOKS: Yeah, I won't say it was a battle. At the time she wanted to play the part herself and it was, um, a process. And she was great at the end of it. I don’t think there was a fight.
GALLOWAY: How do you tell somebody I don’t want you to play the part?
BROOKS: I never did that. I just, you know. I don't know. I just hung in there.
GALLOWAY: You fired her without telling her. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKS: No, no, no. No, no. You know, as it got closer and closer, I don't know. It was just holding the question instead of providing an answer.
GALLOWAY: What was the challenge of adapting this book? I think the Jack Nicholson character wasn’t in the book.
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. There was a suitor. The significant guy was a former general who was 30 years older than she was. That didn’t feel right to me. And then again being in Houston, you know, that’s astronaut central and I thought that would be great. And then I thought of some perversion of the boy next door and what that would mean and I liked that. And, yeah, that’s how.
GALLOWAY: Writing a screenplay is very different from writing a comedy from television. What’s your process? Do you write a treatment?
BROOKS: Well I had the book and Larry McMurtry is one of the great writers of the West. A Texas writer He's just a brilliant novelist. And I felt awed by him. And he's a quirky guy because he also operates a bookstore or did at that time in Washington D.C. I mean he was at the cash register selling you these rare books. And I went there and I just wasjust slack jawed and hero worshipping. And he threw me out and he said, “I have my book, you go write your screenplay.” Which was great because it was liberating. There was an option on the book. And this was one of the toughest times. And I was at page 90. I write long screenplays and this was about halfway from what the first draft became. And I couldn’t figure out what to do. I mean I just was stuck. And then the option came up and the studio had to buy the book because it could no longer option it. So they bought the book. And that was the worst time. I just don’t know how I got out of it. I'm telling this story in case you have a time like this. I was in a situation where frequently I had blushing attacks. You know, like you had just done something embarrassing. But I'd be in a room with a script I was not making any progress on, just flushing like that. And I was in New York with a concert pianist who was a good concert pianist but he always avoided playing New York. And that night I just said what was happening to me and he said, “Oh, you're in a state of shame, I have that all that time.” And just that there was a name for ii really was helpful to me, that somebody had gone through it before and they’ve come out the other end really was so helpful to me at the time.
GALLOWAY: So you were stuck on what?
BROOKS: I just lost my way with it. I re-remember all the emotions. I don’t remember what the pivot was. And then a friend of mine had a shack in Hawaii on the big island where the waves are like this. And I had the illusion that I had [solved] the script. And there were these three dogs that nobody owned but sort of just adopted people. And I went out on the beach and there were these waves like this and the dogs were following and I thought I had [solved] it, which it turned out I hadn’t, by the way. But that was one of the greatest moments of my life. I shouted. I just, you know, what’s the verb, I euphoria-ized.
GALLOWAY: Why did you think you'd licked it but you hadn’t?
BROOKS: Um, I don't know. That happens a lot in writing. I mean that’s the ride I think. Part of the time it’s self-loathing and part of the time it’s – “Jesus, I just did something great.”
GALLOWAY: You changed your writing and you've shot films that you've rewritten. You shot a film that was a musical and then you went back and you took out all the songs.
BROOKS: It’s not like it was this distinguished choice. This is becoming hard luck stories. Do you intend it to be that? This is something that’s extraordinary because I'm gonna tell you about a time when you made movies and you tested them and it was a private experience and nobody knew about it. And you went out to the city and you had an audience and they wrote cards and you came back and you read the cards. This was the moment where that went away. It’s no longer possible. I mean, Ron Howard once had his people who worked for him, 30 people, and he read about it online when he got [home]. To have that kind of privacy in the process of making a movie and then that it’s not possible anymore is a terrible thing. Well I did a musical about Hollywood and we had a preview and half the people walked out of the preview. And it was like, stunning. And it was working to a certain point, which made it even worse. I had gotten through the first musical number and it was working. And then the walkouts happened and it was just devastating. And the L.A. Times did a big story about it the next day. This was a preview. And from there on in they followed me home. The L.A. Times did major stories all the time about what I was going through. Talk about a state of shame, man. It was horrible. And the only way to save it --and it’s all patchwork now -- was to start pulling the songs. Somebody whose parent had done big Hollywood musicals told me that the parent who had done them had always said that in order to do a Hollywood [musical] You need a very simple story at the heart of it. And then Elaine May had said, because it was really a father/child story at the core of it. And what I hoped in appreciation of character actors, you know, those soldiers in Hollywood. And Elaine-and Elaine… And this was a kid who, you know, cried a lot and stuff like that. And Elaine May said, “Do you ever notice that when somebody slaps an errant kid the audience applauds when the kid is misbehaving? And that’s what you're up against.” I didn’t see it that way at all. I never quite put it together but that was the experience of that.
GALLOWAY: Well going to the opposite of a hard luck story, follow this with my favorite film, Broadcast News. [APPLAUSE] This is this amazing scene where you have this triangular relationship and Holly Hunter is falling in love with William Hurt and she's about to tell Albert Brooks.
BROOKS: Which scene is it?
GALLOWAY: Well let’s take a look. It’s the one with the speech.
BROOKS: Oh the devil speech?
GALLOWAY: Yeah. Every time I look at this there’s such wonderful actors my heart goes out to a different character each time just on the strength of the acting. Let’s take a look at this wonderful scene. [CLIP]
GALLOWAY: How do you feel when you see that scene again?
BROOKS: I don’t think I ever wrote a speech that I care about more. And there’s a real hunk of scene yet to come and there was a big hunk of scene that preceded it and that set just, you know, to find the place. The practical set to shoot that scene. It’s a very long scene.
GALLOWAY: That’s eight or nine minutes.
BROOKS: Yeah, it was a very long scene for two people and for the staging I just needed a plan. I kept on postponing the scene because I didn’t have a proper location for it until we found that place with those two corridors and the step down and, you know, that allowed some staging.
GALLOWAY: Holly Hunter. What would you have done if you hadn’t found her?
BROOKS: I would have had, uh, a movie that didn’t work, I think. That’s a frightening thing that you can put everything into a script, you can do all your prep and if five different people walk through the door at that key moment you have five different movies. Everything else the same. It’s something you can't even be conscious of because it’s so humbling to even think about it. I had to start shooting in three days when she came in the room for the first time. We were lucky she was in town. And you're always lucky when somebody who you work with closely doesn’t take your passion as being, you know, being insane or being neurotic. That just takes your passion as passion. And Juliet Taylor, who's Woody Allen’s casting director and did so many great films. So important. She was my casting director and she had brought everybody she could think of in front of me. And when I was on the phone two days before I had to start shooting, she listened. And she made me repeat again what I was looking for, and Holly Hunter had done just a couple of things and the picture would not have worked without her. And I postponed for six months to get Bill Hurt because I don’t think the picture would have worked without him. And Albert I always had in mind.
GALLOWAY: It’s one of those miracles where you get, you know, the perfect casting. I've seen that film so many times and that scene, every time you watch it you notice something new, like when Holly Hunter sits down this incredible touch of having her move the things.
BROOKS: Oh I always loved that. There’s a scene in the picture where just before I started shooting I put a piece of red schmutz that I saw on Albert’s shirt just so in the middle of the scene he could, you know, just go like that, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Then what I think is daring is breaking the drama by having him go outside in the middle of the scene.
BROOKS: Yeah, that was in the script as just to get a breather. You know, just to try and figure out, you know, rather than just have somebody spout that long speech you at least want to show them trying to get some thoughts in order.
GALLOWAY: Why was that speech so important to you?
BROOKS: Because I believed what it said. I just believed it. Believe it now.
GALLOWAY: When you made a film about it you did a lot of research -- did you learn anything that you didn’t know about the news business?
BROOKS: It was the time of the first massive layoffs that are still going on. The New York Times announced today they're laying off, uh, 100 more people. But this is one of the examples of research. I had to write this character who wasn’t in it played by Bill Hurt who was sort of a dumb guy. Sort of a limited guy who because he was good looking was elevated basically to the top of the news department in very crude terms. And there was a guy on a CBS News show that was kissing show business for the first time that was on that show and everybody in the news department made fun of him. He was a good looking guy and he had not paid the dues that everybody else had paid. And I interviewed him. And it was the best thing that could have happened to me because he was aware that he was the butt of jokes and suddenly he became sympathetic to me. I think if I hadn’t met him I would have written the character in a much more two-dimensional way.
GALLOWAY: One thing that’s interesting is there were two endings to this film and if you look at the criterion DVD you can see the other ending that was shot which changes how we see this film. When you wrote the script were you uncertain about the end or what made you shoot the end?
BROOKS: I had this idea that the only way to do a romantic triangle was to really be open to either guy getting the girl. Every romantic triangle you ever saw it was sort of pre-ordained who you should root for and who should get the girl and you waited until that happened. And I left that open. I told the actors I was open to either one of them getting the girl. And so that means that you're playing every scene without having to have that result. The result of the scene must be that you like this person more. So it just made the work so much more interesting for everybody, for all of us. And then as we got towards the end I couldn’t put her with any guy. And you don’t want to end a romantic comedy that way. You know, preferably. But I couldn’t do it. And you have testings, people weren’t even sure which one they wanted her with, but they wanted her with somebody. So I had an idea. There was a French film, A Man and a Woman, that had a wonderful emotional ending where she gets off the train and I forget what the story was but they weren’t gonna happen and she suddenly sees him and the scene really gets you. And then I read that the director had not told her when she got off the train that he would be there or vice versa. I said boy, that’s so cool. And so I tried to set it up. I told them we need a technical retake of Holly leaving the airport in a cab at the end. I was trying to emulate that French experience because at the last minute I was gonna put Bill Hurt in the cab with her in character, that he came back. Knowing that they were each good at improvisation and seeing what would happen and maybe I'd get just a juicy ending. And just before Bill got in the car somebody said, “Hey, Bill!” One of the members on the crew. And it was over. And I went out of body. I think we filmed something but, you know. But that meant that I went with the original ending, which just projected them into the future. And then I saw the picture two years after I made it I figured with the ending I had, what the picture was really about was three people who lost their last shot at real intimacy. Which I had never intended when I wrote it but, you know, it’s a team sport. We had great people who worked in a great way on that picture, you know, you can end up having your film be about something you never imagined.
GALLOWAY: Do you think if that other ending that you've shot, today if that other ending had worked, do you think you would have gone with it?
BROOKS: I think the actors wanted it. They wanted that ending. “I don't know” is the only honest answer.
GALLOWAY: Are you satisfied with the film as it stands?
BROOKS: Oh yeah. Mm-hmm.
GALLOWAY: What’s interesting is you continue with film. Almost at the same time you're doing Broadcast News you start working on a little television show, The Tracey Ullman Show. And maybe as an afterthought you decide to have some little animated segments and that leads to what I'm gonna show you now. Let’s take a look at a clip from The Simpsons. [CLIP]
BROOKS: This is a theatrical short we did.
GALLOWAY: I love the way everybody reacted when the thing came down.
BROOKS: This was the most fun we've had in years doing this short. We just loved doing it.
GALLOWAY: What was the genesis of the show? And you obviously can't have imagined this would have lasted 25 years.
BROOKS: We had these small pieces that Matt Groening did, 20 seconds long, that we used as bumpers in the television show for Tracey Ullman. We'd do it in front of the audience and there’d be these massive waits for Tracey to change makeup because she could be so many different people. And we'd start to string these together. And at the point when we’re in our fourth year we had a lot of them. The audience really reacted to them. These little crude [animations]. And then we had a Christmas party and the director of this and the key director of the show for all these years was a young guy and he got drunk and he was heading for me and he got me and he just said how much animators wanted a prime time television show. They hadn’t had one in 25 years and there was no outlet on television for 25 years. And it moved me. And then we started fighting for the right to do a series. At the time the Fox Network was shaky financially, really shaky. So to get them to commit to a 13 show buy for an animated series when there hadn’t been one for 25 years was tough. But they did to their credit. To Barry Diller’s credit. And then it worked.
GALLOWAY: What’s been the hardest challenge of working that show?
BROOKS: I don’t think it’s in terms of how hard it is. There was a time around the 10 year mark when it was very tough coming up with stories and then we got over that and then suddenly it wasn’t and I can't explain why. I don't know why. We all appreciated we had a little island of our own. I mean you'd be shocked how many people had been there from the beginning even though there’s new blood coming in all the time. And we exist being able to run our own shop and we have an idea like that, that we just want to do on the side. It wasn’t quick getting the money but eventually, you know, it took a struggle, but we got the money for this and we wanted to do it simply, that’s why there’s no dialogue. And it was great. It’s like, “Hey kids, let’s do the show right here.” Because the director would sit as we pitched the short and he’d be drawing as we went and it was just great. We recently did a thing at the Hollywood Bowl and there keep on being these odd tasks that we do that just keep on reenergizing us.
GALLOWAY: I don't know if you watched it, but this whole marathon of Simpsons shows.
GALLOWAY: What does it tap into that’s kept it so successful?
BROOKS: We’re funny, you know.
GALLOWAY: That helps.
BROOKS: I think that’s it. And the characters are great. You know, of anything I've done, you know, if you pull this out in 100 years I think it’s gonna be nice to look at.
GALLOWAY: Right when you began I think you inserted a clause into your contract with Fox that they had no rights to interfere.
BROOKS: You know, it wasn’t like that. It was a fledgling network and when we did the Tracey Ullman show they said we wouldn’t have any censorship. And as the network got successful of course that [LAUGHS] that was forgotten. I know I have horrible studio stories, everybody has horrible studio stories, but this story is, it really worked. And they give us rights that we don’t have in the contract and it’s been great. And the FXX who are the FX cable people, we just went into syndication which is usually just a dry, commercial kind of thing, has been this…they're great. They did pieces like there are early Apple commercials. They did such great spots for us. And they did this marathon and now they're coming up with this app that’s gonna be so cutting edge. And suddenly they came in as, you know, as a cable network starting a brand new network which means that they're running hungry and we get to run hungry again with them.
GALLOWAY: What is the app?
BROOKS: You gotta see it. A version of it will be out in a few days, then in January the more sophisticated version will be out but it probably won't crash. I think they’ve really put their thoughts into it. It allows us to go past our imaginations ultimately but for starters you get any bit, you get anything you want. You think of a joke you'll be able to call it up, you'll be able to send it.
GALLOWAY: You've taken on Fox and satirized them on the show.
BROOKS: Oh yeah.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever run into Rupert Murdoch?
BROOKS: Rupert’s appeared in our show.
GALLOWAY: Oh. [LAUGHS]
BROOKS: At the end of this short he does Porky Pig. "That’s All Folks."
GALLOWAY: How much of your time does it take up?
BROOKS: It varies depending whether I'm doing a movie at the time but it’s been anywhere from all consuming to, uh, to phone calls. Right now I guess it’s, say it takes three days a week for me. Three or four days a week. But when we did the Hollywood Bowl it was was all crazy hours and stuff like that.
GALLOWAY: Do you still work closely with Matt Groening?
BROOKS: Yeah. Yeah I mean every week, we have a reading at the table and then we go in and we start working on it.
GALLOWAY: So you're talking about the new network being hungry. You've achieved so much. Do you still feel that hunger to create?
BROOKS: Has anyone ever answered no to that question? No, I don’t, no. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: There are people who say that. John Cleese.
BROOKS: Well here’s the thing. As all you guys will discover with anything that comes from you and you're on the line and your image of yourself is on the line, it’s a vulnerability that comes with writing a script. It’s always key who you show it to first and what feedback you get first. I mean for anybody. Possible exception of Jim Cameron. [LAUGHTER] It’s how long you're willing to go through that and I think that’s what it boils down to. But if you don’t go through it what are you doing?
GALLOWAY: Do you have another film in the works?
BROOKS: I do. [LAUGHTER] I can't talk about it yet. It’s at its core a picture about family and the hilarious traumas that… [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Have you written it now?
BROOKS: I'm almost at my 90 page dilemma that I'm on page 110, but it’s almost just figuring out where to go. I'm in the home stretch.
GALLOWAY: And no casting yet?
GALLOWAY: When you write do you have actors in mind?
GALLOWAY: Not this time?
GALLOWAY: If we have any audience questions. If you're interested come to the mic and introduce yourselves.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi, I'm Julianna Collins, I'm an LMU alumni. I was in the production department and I'm also a freelance production designer and I wanted to ask when you're directing a film what’s your approach to the visual design of the film?
BROOKS: It’s always one of the key jobs on any movie, and and there’s a woman that I worked with for years, Polly Platt, who was a preeminent production designer. And after her was Kristi Zea, who's preeminent. And it didn’t stop at production. In each case they were intimately involved with every part of the making of the film. My favorite memory of Polly who was a great trailblazing woman who wrote and if you look her up you'll see so many great films. We did Broadcast News and we knew we were gonna use red, a primary color and we were gonna do it and I was about to do a take, at a school yard and suddenly Polly said, “Wait a minute,” and she herself painted the stairway red.
GALLOWAY: I'm fascinated that you didn’t think of shooting that in a studio.
BROOKS: No it was all in Washington, it was all practical. I think it’s great to be all practical. I love it, yeah. You can build sets and it’s all that stuff and it’s great and stuff like that but there’s something about the limitations making you invent something. When you can't move the wall.
GALLOWAY: Also in that there’s a wonderful part where Holly Hunter goes around the wall in the kitchen and she's talking and it just feels so real.
BROOKS: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I'm Jim McCambridge, I'm a junior screen writing major. My question is how do you approach television writing differently from writing a film and to piggy back off of that, how has television writing affected your film writing and vice versa?
GALLOWAY: Very good question by the way.
BROOKS: Doing a three camera show, there’s no illusions. You get the laugh or you don’t when you have an audience. So it’s-it’s something that’s sort of great when it gets into your head. When you do a full-length piece just because it’s full-length and because people are sitting in the dark and because they're getting up and going there you probably need more story. I think it’s more humbling. You can have a half hour show with a simpler premise. Even though a half hour show will take a complicated premise. So I think there’s that difference The stakes are much bigger. That creates a whole different energy. It’s more life and death. I mean there almost is no life and death in a series that’s been renewed. And you get to pick your team with extraordinary care. And everybody’s a stranger and they come together and that’s a different energy. You know, television is a much warmer experience working. You can be a human being and do a television series. You are a human being. It helps you be a human being to do a television series. You've got to be legally insane to direct a movie. You know, because you're-you're-you're-you're distorted. Your sense of reality is distorted. You don’t read a newspaper and know what’s going on in the world. You know, it’s that craziness. It’s a more difficult sentence to finish for a movie. The reason I called you here today is, you know, to tell you what, to show you what, you know.
GALLOWAY: What do you find the most difficult part of directing a film?
BROOKS: Staying on schedule I guess. When you say next setup really you're telling the actors we got it, you're okay. It really is sort of an unspoken contract. Like I say you're legally insane. That’s the toughest part to be honest with yourself about whether you have the scene. And to let a scene breathe. You have a scene in your head and you saw a scene already but the great thing because it’s a team sport is when something happens nobody expects. And you need that to happen three or four times in the course of a movie, I think.
GALLOWAY: Do you manage to maintain objectivity when you're shooting a film?
BROOKS: You try. You know, Mike Nichols has a thing where he says the most important thing to know in a film is who your buddy is. Who's the person who tells you the truth that you respect and that, you know, that you have that honest conversation. You know, so you try and have that person.
GALLOWAY: Who is that for you?
BROOKS: It varied. It used to be Polly, you know.
GALLOWAY: Yeah. She has this extraordinary reputation. I wish I'd known her because everybody talks about her insight. Was that on a script level or in casting or…?
BROOKS: Primarily it was on the passion level. She cared about film that much.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. My name is Hunter Aisham. I'm a senior film production major and screen writing minor. I've noticed I think in the clips today and in watching some of your films and TV shows like Terms of Endearment and Taxi and all the way down to certain episodes of The Simpsons that there’s a certain streak of melancholy that runs through a lot of it. And I was wondering if you have found that, that informs the humor because you often take things that are sad and turn them around and make them hilarious.
BROOKS: You know, I think it does. And I think it’s a human experience too. You get closer to reality, people at melancholy moments and then, you know, it’s like great. It’s like if you're in love with somebody and something bad can happen you can suddenly with somebody get the joke of it. And, you know, the bad thing is much better. We did a famous Mary episode that was based on my mother and her sister getting the giggles at a funeral. And it’s one of the most remembered episodes we did which is a perfect example of that.
GALLOWAY: How much do you feel that you're putting your own stamp?
BROOKS: Oh I should tell you if I may, [this] just came to me. As I said, I had an errant father and who, uh, sort of left the family. And then 15 years after I hadn’t seen him I got word that he was in the hospital and my sister and I went to see him in the hospital. And we walked in and it was tense to say the least. And, I walked in, next to his bed, and he was ridiculously old looking. And I said dad, and it wasn’t him. [LAUGHTER] And we got two Taxi episodes off that. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: People talk about auteuerism in film. Do you find the same in television? If I see a film it’s a recognizably James L. Brooks film, but I've also read that you said with television, you know, that there’s a whole group at work. You're serving something other than yourself.
BROOOKS: The great thing in television, usually the writer’s in charge. It’s the one place. In movies it’s certainly not true. But in television it’s true and there’s something, you know, the inmates running the asylum and all that. And there’s something to that. Right now, [there are] so many great shows that are truly authored. It’s a place where writers are in charge. Right now, you know, a lot of the great things we see each year will be on television.
GALLOWAY: If somebody was starting today would you recommend film or television?
BROOKS: Well there’s not that much separation from anything today. Everything’s good. The best job in this business is a television series that’s working. I don’t think that’ll ever change. Because you keep on reaping rewards from the groundwork you've done. Movies, everything’s very intense [and] apart. Now, great things can happen, great things do happen, and there can be some continuity when you work with the same people, but not like television.
GALLOWAY: Would you do another television series or does The Simpsons prohibit that?
BROOKS: I think I would if the circumstances were right. If there was the right people coming together sure, yeah. The Tracey Ullman show was because of that. Because suddenly there was this insanely talented woman.
GALLOWAY: Is there gonna be another Simpsons movie at some point?
BROOKS: Um…we don’t know. Uh, you know, the-the…. Um, perhaps.
GALLOWAY: But you haven’t consciously developed one?
BROOKS: No, no. We've been asked to but we haven’t. But we’re doing a lot of other stuff and that’s really…
GALLOWAY: What’s the challenge of taking it to a film?
BROOKS: I don't know what it’d be like a second time. The first time it was, you know, we felt we were risking everything, risking everything about The Simpsons. What if the movie stunk and stuff like that. And I think it took us two years just to get loose. Just to breathe a little like we do on the show. And so it was a murderous two years until we got there. We had a script and then I was able to buy time for a while and then we had to agree to an exact deadline. It took us two years to try and act like we didn’t give a shit, which the show needs a little bit. You know, the show needs that quality. The movie needed that quality.
GALLOWAY: Do you like deadlines?
BROOKS: Um, no.
GALLOWAY: Many writers need a deadline.
BROOKS: Joe Papp -- I was in his office one day…
GALLOWAY: We should tell people Joe Papp created the Public Theater in New York.
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah. And he was a legendary guy. And I was in his office one day, downtown. All these four theaters and his building, him having this office. And he says, we’re doing five minute plays. Get in there and write one. And I felt a thrill that I would have to go in an office and come out with a five minute play and he was kidding. And I remember when he laughed I felt so…
GALLOWAY: Let down?
BROOKS: Yeah, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever failed to meet a deadline? I mean where you just couldn’t crack like that 90 page barrier?
BROOKS: No, I guess not. I guess not.
GALLOWAY: Do you get writer’s block?
GALLOWAY: And then what do you do except go to Hawaii?
BROOKS: Well… [LAUGHTER] No, I'll tell you, I was blocked and this is a coarse sentence, I'm about to say a coarse sentence. And I called a friend of mine who was a writer’s writer and we all loved him and he was very witty and very smart and I was blocked. And I was whining and didn’t know what to do and he said, “What you do is lay down shit.” That’s great advice. You just put words on paper and you just don’t worry about it being great, you just start putting words on paper. And I think that’s great advice.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. My name is Matthew, I'm a third year screen writer. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about Bottle Rocket and what your involvement [was] and really what you saw in Wes Anderson. And really what that process was like. It’s one of my favorites.
BROOKS: Yeah, I wrote a long essay on that. I think it might be my only essay.
GALLOWAY: I read it. It’s in the Criterion, yeah?
BROOKS: Yeah. I guess that was it. Basically they had done a short 20 minute film for Sundance and I thought it was great. I thought it was a real voice, I thought they were unusual. I went down to Texas to see him. Polly was very involved. They were all living together, the whole cast and Wes and, you know, were on the floor of one living room. And in all that time they had the whole cast and Wes and Owen who had written it. They had never read it aloud. They read it aloud and it was three and a half hours long, four hours long. It was crazy. Obviously something has to happen. And they came to New York and to Los Angeles and we worked for a year in a very specific kind of strange relationships andwe made the movie. And we had horrible previews, horrible previews where again people walked out strangely. And the studio lost all faith in it and it was a great call to arms And, so it felt great when we stuck it out and the picture was so well received.
GALLOWAY: Thank you. One of my favorites.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: When you look back over your career what are you most proud of and why?
BROOKS: I don't know, I guess Mary Tyler Moore because it was my college. Because Grant Tinker, who was in charge of the company that made it was an executive at Fox so he could not be there. So he gave us the keys to the store. We hired the accountants.
GALLOWAY: Have you watched it again recently?
GALLOWAY: Do you watch your work?
BROOKS: Only by accident.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You mentioned scheduling earlier and I'm wondering how budget conscious do you stay on days when you know you're gonna be shooting scenes that require a lot of time?
BROOKS: YOU have help. You have a lot of help. You've got to. But there are ways to try and cut corners here and say I'll shave on this or-I won't go to that setup. And, you know, it’s always a tradeoff. But the pressure is enormous.
GALLOWAY: To piggyback on that. is there ever a time when you schedule beforehand knowing this might only take us two hours to get or it could take us eight hours but it doesn’t matter?
BROOKS: Those are tough games to play. You try and be realistic but then the studio tries to make you say something that you don’t quite believe because they want the budget down, they want you to be responsible for a smaller figure. That’s real stuff.
GALLOWAY: You do feel that pressure, do you?
BROOKS: Oh my god. Everybody does. Everybody but James Cameron.
GALLOWAY: Yes, back there?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Starting as a journalist, how did you kind of break through and get your name out there to start writing and working?.
BROOKS: Um…I didn’t. I just wrote scripts. I just wrote. You know, that’s the edge a writer has. Nobody can stop him from writing. It’s different if you want directing.
GALLOWAY: Do you think of yourself more as a writer or director?
BROOKS: More as a writer.
GALLOWAY: Any other questions? Yes? Last one I think.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with Cameron Crowe?
BROOKS: Yeah. I just loved Cameron. I loved his work. We hung out together and we said let’s do a movie together. We had fun meeting every day for a period of years and it was great and we made a movie. And then at a certain point we offered it to people and at a certain point we couldn’t get a director. And I said, wait a minute, at a certain point, you're the best person in the world. [LAUGHTER] That was it.
GALLOWAY: When you did Jerry McGuire, I know you loved the idea of having a speech in writing. Did you work with him on some of those?
BROOKS: Yeah. Well, I worked with him on everything. But everything was him. I work with people where their voice is so much fun to serve, you know. It was always his voice.
GALLOWAY: And who do you turn to for advice?
BROOKS: Uh, anybody who’s handy. [LAUGHTER] You got a minute after this?
GALLOWAY: No, I wouldn’t dare ever. I think this is such an extraordinary body of work and you know, these are among my favorite films. I'm so thrilled to have you here. So James L. Brooks, thank you so much for taking part in Hollywood Masters. [APPLAUSE]