James L. Brooks: At present time everything is about ratings and numbers and how much each film can earnWritten by Eva Csölleová, Vítek Formánek
American director, producer and screenwriter James L. Brooks is extraordinary and talented man .Without film education he got into CBS, where he acted as an usher and worked for them as a writer. He continued writing for further shows which became successful and then in 1979 he wrote and co-produced a movie called Starting Over.Next project was Terms of Endearment for which he collected three Academy Awards.in 1984 he founded his own television and film company Gracie Films.Three years later while working for Tracey Ullman Show he hired Matt Groening and they created popular-to be- series The Simpsons. His further successful films were Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets, and also collaborated at movies Jerry McGuire, Big,The War of Roses. Apart many nominations for Academy Awards and winning many of them he was also nominated for 47 Emmy Awards winning 20 of them. We wrote him and asked if he would answer our questions to which he agreed. We got them back two years later due to his workload but still were very happy with that.
What did your parents do, any artistic influence from them?
Father was selling furniture and mother was selling children´s clothes, she was really trying hard to keep us fed and sheltered.so they didn´t influence me that way, but with broken family life I had time to do things on my own and loved reading and writing. So I could say they had indirect influence at me.
I wasn ´t great student at school but I was working in school newspapers. And there was my picture in the papers every week so it kind of built certain hostility among students towards me. I didn´t have any big ambition at that time, only one was to make enough money to live.
Do you think your childhood gave you something which later appeared in your movies and in hindsight you benefited from that?
Have you ever thought of becoming a filmmaker or your prime interest was writing and then it got to the point when you wanted to transfer stories from paper to screen and did it without proper education?
I was reading the plays, the comedies and the dialogues since I was a kid and it was great joy for me and I passed my time with that. When I was older I also took the writing courses but I of course have to fend for myself to survive and had to get a job and I did many but wasn´t very successful but then I got into CBS- thanks to my sister´s connection- and got a job as a replacement for sick guy at the desk which required to be a top guy knowing a lot, and I stayed there since the guy didn´t return and it kind of navigated by life for a while. I started to write for CBS News. I believe that you have to have luck to break it in your life. I had that in more than one way .I then moved to Los Angeles and worked on David Wolper´s documentaries. When I was jobless I went to a party and met successful producer Allan Burns who put his foot into many doors for me and was instrumental in me meeting lots of people and securing a job as a writer of the series My Mother the Car.And it went from there.
So when you have written and directed Broadcast News, it obviously was based on your own experience, wasn´t it?
Yes, I felt very strong and knowledgeable about that and I made sure I did a good research., since it has changed a lot since I left it and I wanted to be as accurate as possible. So it took me about 18 months to research in that industry. I think they are my favorite work and I really liked them.
You always made and make years´ long research before making a movie. Is the strong story always priority for you without having box office success as the back of your mind?
I care mostly about the characters. To film the Terms of Endearment took me four years .I knew it had to be a comedy otherwise it would be just ordinary movie and it wouldn´t work. It was very difficult to film it and there were lots of emotions among the cast which I have never dealt with before. So I again made a deep research.
I have my own company Gracie Films and we don´t make film every year. When I like the story written by an author we really are into the character and we always have the writer with us until the very end. It´s not like in other studios, where they buy the book and have script writers who re-write the whole story over and over again.At present time everything is about numbers and ratings and how much earned this film in certain amount of time and how much can we make if we do this. You run through computer when you write and after that you go and make a film.
In your Room 222 you showed firstly a black lead character. Was it deliberate so you wanted to break the barrier and make a statement which would help on social front?
Yes, Room 222 was a very conscious break of barriers. It has run for 5 years and at the beginning studio wanted to change the plot and make main hero played by black actor h
elping white student but I prevented that. I was working with Gene Rowlands who taught me very important things about making good and deep research.
Did receiving 3 Oscars make life easier for you from artistic point of view and opened doors or on contrary it put you under public microscope and you felt the expectations and pressure?
Each coin has two sides and I think this works in this case too. It was great to win that but it also deprived me of a low profile life I enjoyed. I like my style and pace and I didn´t feel comfortable under the public spotlight. This can be dangerous since you can get very much self -conscious and also big corporations can use their power in film industry at the expense of artistic spirit.
Your movie As good as it gets won many awards but probably wasn´t easy to get filmed because it also featured a gay. Did you have any problems with studios to agree with supporting this project?
It was a period of about 12 months when we were constantly turned down for various reasons. But we believed we had a good story and we believed in it and when people have changed in the studio they finally told us to go ahead and we went. We didn´t have to change anything in the script, no lines were crossed so it went well. Main character wanted more money than studio was willing to pay and none of them would budge and inch. Then I found young Helen Hunt and she was just perfect for the role. I re-shot ending many times. I think you work hard till you feel you have served films with all you have got.
You are still heavily involved in television work. Do you think this media is more creative in making artistic movies than film studios?
While making films I never wanted to shut my door for my TV job. TV and movie industry are so different. In TV, everybody knows each other, they are friends off work and even visit each other weddings while in film, everybody is so much focused on doing work, it´s bit impersonal and immense research is made. Making films is lot less fun since it´s so demanding and actually it should not be fun to make them because it´s very hard and expensive job. I am glad that I experienced still having fun while making movies. I think TV continues to be the thing where writers have control over their material to certain extend. In films it´s the director who rules and the studio which can have a say because film is a big business.
o you have any personal link to Simpsons and don´t you think that sequel don´t go from artistic heart but only follow the general taste cos success breeds success?
I continue cos it still brings me the lots of pleasure to make them. When Matt Groening put together a version of dysfunctional family in the lobby of my office, neither me nor him knew it would become such a hit. I had a clause in contract stating that Fox Broadcasting Company would not interfere with the content. I have no idea why they became a cult figure, but I am a fortunate person since who else can say he works on what he likes with almost same people for over 25 years. It is my day job and I am very fortunate and blessed.
You won tons of various awards, which one do you treasure the most?
When I won the Academy awards for Terms of Endearment first one was or writing the screenplay. And since I always wanted to be a writer, I was over the moon, it was all I could have dreamed of. Then I won the Academy Award for best director and it was unsettling. And then I got Award for best picture and I felt I was just beaten up, it was so weird.
Thank you very much
Vítek Formánek and Eva Csölleová
Photo: James L. Brooks, Pinterest, Getty Images