Exclusive: James L. Brooks on How Do You Know


Considered by many to be the master of the dramedy thanks to his Oscar-winning films Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets, filmmaker James L. Brooks is doing something a bit lighter with his sixth movie How Do You Know, which stars Reese Witherspoon as Lisa, a 30-something softball player who needs to find a new direction in life after being retired from the game. She ends up being pursued and having to choose between two very different guys, an overly-confident professional baseball player named Matty, played by Owen Wilson, and George Madison, a businessman down on his luck who has just been indicted for a crime he didn’t commit, played by Paul Rudd. At the same time as he’s trying to woo Lisa, George also has to contend with his unsympathetic father, played by Jack Nicholson, teaming with Brooks for the third time having won Oscars for both their previous two movies together.

ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Mr. Brooks for a short interview last week.

ComingSoon.net: You must have a million ideas in your head at any given time so what drives you to develop one of those ideas into one of these movies?
James L. Brooks:
I don’t know if I have “a million ideas”! (laughs) I don’t know whether I have ideas all the time. I think I’m curious about things all the time, I think I’m always curious, and I think I’m always interested in whatever passes by, and I know I tend to think about things and I tend to talk about things and sometimes that takes root and gives me something to chase. But never chasing something where I see the end of it, chasing something to a very early stop and then I’ll chase it again and try and follow it. Then if I’m lucky, try to control it at the end.

CS: It takes a lot of time to write and develop movies and a lot of money to make them, so there must be some point where you say, “Okay, this is the one I need to follow.”
Well, the first thing that happens to me is that it leads me to writing and then by the time I have a script, I’m a writer trying to sell a script and then if I sell the script… in this case, I spoke to Reese (Witherspoon) before I started writing it. Before I wrote a word, I just knew I wanted to do a contemporary heroine and I just said, “I want to do this movie with this woman at the center of it and I just want you to know I’m doing it because I want you to do it.”

CS: Having produced “The Simpsons,” you’re used to having lots and lots of writers…
Well, that you have a lot of ideas for, that’s where it applies because you absolutely must because it requires it. What we do requires a lot of ideas, and even while making this movie, I sort of had three thoughts about stories we should do that we’re doing that I’d call in. Yeah, it’s great having “The Simpsons” for that reason and that’s what’s great about television, because any idea you have can right away, you can say, “Okay, let’s do this idea and you do it.” Your first question works exactly for “The Simpsons”—that’s the thriller of “The Simpsons.”

CS: But how hard is it going from that to sitting in front of a computer writing your own movies?
Different deals, but it always takes six months to make one because it takes that long to get the animation back, but the writing goes pretty quickly.

CS: You’ve become the master of the dramedy, having done it for so long and mixing comedy and drama is generally tough, but this movie tends to be veering a little more towards the comedic. Was that very intentional?
I started out that way, and I said, “Be a little screwball, be loose” and I worked very hard to be funny in this picture. At the end, I’m going to die if it doesn’t have something to do with the lives we’re leading now, so that happens to me at the end, but I started saying to myself, “Come on, be loose, stop it. Be funny.”

CS: You’re also a bit of an anomaly because there aren’t many writer/directors working within the studio system, but that must be tough, because normally, you have to find independent financing. This one you’ve been very lucky that you’ve had a studio behind you the whole way.
You’re so right, man, you’re so right, and I said to myself when I started this, I said, “Don’t you dare complain, man. You sat down and you put some stuff down and they’re letting you make a movie out of it. You shut up, you don’t complain, you just go do this no matter what happens.” I think I broke it a few times because it got pretty tough. (laughs)

CS: It must have been a long time since you’ve had to deal with what some filmmakers have to contend with, spending ten years to get the money to make a movie.
It was tough in this case. No, for very few people does that go away. I think there are always… let’s pick a number, let’s say there are always ten people at any given time where somebody will give them almost as much money as they want to make anything they want, maybe twelve. Whatever it is, it ain’t me. (laughs)

CS: So filmmakers like James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, those kinds of guys.
Brooks: Yes, yes, yes, Steven (Spielberg) has his own self-perpetuating… and we can come up with a few others, and David Fincher would be one… and all properly so! I get it! (laughs)

CS: You wrote this with Reese in mind but very few writers do that because of the onus of writing with someone in mind and then they don’t want to do it, then you have to rethink things, but in this case, with Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson, were you thinking of them while writing?
No, I wasn’t, I wasn’t. That was all from the casting process and it was all from a righteous casting process and Katherine Hahn, who I think is so important to the picture, the same way. No, Owen and Jack came in late. Paul came in through. I’d seen pictures of his, and I was really interested in him. If you’re talking about people who can really be convincing actors and who are really funny, it’s not that many, but there are a lot, and when I heard Paul read the script for the first time, he became the only person in the world who could do the part, and very quickly for me. It’s been so creative doing that part with him, because the guy was a little mysterious, and I think he’s an original character who is funny in every way you can be funny and utterly convincing and at times, heartbreaking. I think it never could have happened with anybody else, because he contributed so much. First of all, the goofy stuff. Making the goofy stuff part of it. Everything I just said, heartbreaking, and to be able to do physical comedy and include that in being a true character, that’s been a wild ride for me, and a treat working with him.

CS: Even though he’s not often credited for writing, he’s actually a pretty sharp writer. Was he one of those collaborators when you brought him on that he added some stuff to the character?
He can’t not be collaborative. It’s what he does. He’s thinking funny and you get to think funny with him. I’m used to that from the television work, too, where you do that, but it’s really exciting with him, and it’s just pure pleasure when you say, “We’re going to do the drunk scene tomorrow, we’re in the place where the scene is going to take place, what can we do with the drunk scene?” That was fun, that was fun.

CS: Jack, you obviously had already worked with and already knew. Is that a similar thing with him that you can just have him come in and he’ll just nail it?
Brooks: No. (laughs quite heartily at this) No, the great thing about Jack is that each time… the problem that happens with long careers is that you get afraid to be afraid, so you’ve gotta keep that thing alive that makes you say, “Can I do this? Will this work?” You have to keep that part alive and that makes everything very alive, and that’s the way it is working with Jack.

CS: Interesting. There are things he does in this movie even like when he’s smiling at something and then it turns into a frown. Things like that which immediately get a laugh.
Brooks: (laughs) Yeah, he can get you what we call “free ones” (laughs)

CS: This is your sixth movie and you have a good experience working with the studio system. With “Spanglish” it was a little different because you had Adam Sandler doing something quite different from what he normally does. This one, you have really good actors who are doing things that are generally comfortable to them.
That’s true, that’s true.

CS: Do you generally try to take something away from each project that will inform you on how to approach the next one or do you generally want to stick to your original vision?
I think you always want to have a project where it’s not about you, where you’re serving it. Where it has needs and you’re trying to meet those needs, so you’re trying to lift it out of you and put it out there and then say to people, “Hey, I think that’s it, let’s head that way.” That’s what the experience was like. In other words, you push, you push, you push, but finally, you want to be pulled by it.

CS: Do you still approach things similarly every time you make a movie?
I always do research. I always think that the deal, once I do the script, sort of the experience I go through writing, which is everything you can imagine, but I always think it’s the one thing I can do when I’m directing is say is that it’s all about the actors, that I can say, “We’re all here to serve the actors.”

CS: Congratulations on turning 70 this year.
Brooks: Thank you, thank you.

CS: You generally have been doing one movie every four, five or six years, so do you feel like you might ever get to the point like Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen where you’re trying to make a movie every year?
I don’t think I’m able to. I could do it if I directed somebody else’s stuff, which I’m always open to, but it’s never happened and maybe it never will, but I don’t think there’s a way that I think differently than I’ve ever thought. Remember, I got this and I never think it’s going to take me that long, I never do. You do three pages a day, you’ve done a script in 40 days. I still believe that can happen to me, and maybe if I was adapting the right book it could, because I’ve adapted books as well.

CS: I’ve heard that’s harder, though.
No, it’s easier because you feel you have a collaborator. You’re not alone in the room, you’ve got something with you that makes it easier and a different game.

You can also read what Mr. Brooks said about the chances of a sequel to The Simpsons Movie here.

How Do You Know opens everywhere on Friday, December 17.