James L. Brooks looks back at the making of his unforgettable films
James L. Brooks: My Life in Oscar Pictures
"Keep the bad away — I think that's a description of directing minute by minute," says James L. Brooks. "The first thing is to keep bad away, and then you can try to make something good." Good is a bit of an understatement when it comes to Brooks' films over the past four decades. It's hard to imagine a movie landscape without characters like Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine) from Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News' Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), and Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson) from As Good As It Gets. But though Brooks wrote and directed those films—to say nothing of producing other classics, such as Big and Jerry Maguire — he is quick to share credit. "Movies are one of the great team sports," he says. "My particular joy — should I use that word? — my particular whatever about directing is working with actors. I always thought the one thing I can do is make the actors better."
Terms of Endearment (1983)
"It was the first time I directed, and there is something great about that," says Brooks, who'd made his name in television, co-creating The Mary Tyler Moore Show. "There's bliss of ignorance." He credits his cast — which included Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger (near right), and Jack Nicholson — for the film's success. "It just wouldn't have been good were we not to have everyone we did. That's the humbling thing that no one can ever get used to and that no one can ever talk about. You can do everything the same — [but] have different actors anywhere, and the result is different. In this case, it was all them."
Jack of All Trades
Terms of Endearment was the first film on which Brooks and Nicholson collaborated. "He was great to me," Brooks remembers. "He'd come up to me at the end of some days and say, 'You want to know the worst direction you gave today?...Do you want to know the best?'" Brooks laughs and adds, "This was my first movie, and someone giving a sense of play and perspective helped enormously."
The Golden Year
At the 56th Academy Awards in 1984, Terms of Endearment won five awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Adapted Screenplay for Brooks, and Best Actress and Supporting Actor for MacLaine and Nicholson. "Everyone thinks the weeks before [the Oscars] that you're a cool guy, and then you show up that night and you realize you're not," Brooks says. "What I remember distinctly is that when I won for [screenplay], it was as joyful and fulfilling a moment as I've ever had in my life. My identity to myself is as a writer, and there it was. It was dreamlike."
Broadcast News (1987)
"I don't know if Broadcast News was prescient [about the media] or just made at the right time when everything was turning," Brooks says. Casting, per usual, was key. "I waited six months for Bill Hurt because I thought he was indispensable — you can't act charisma." For the woman at the center of the love triangle, the tightly wound Jane, Brooks didn't find his leading lady until two days before rehearsals. "People who you work with can make you feel like you are odd or obsessive when you are simply doing what the job takes," he says of his determination to find the right Jane. "Holly Hunter came in, and that was it. Immediately."
Run, Joan, Run!
This famous scene showing a panicked Joan Cusack racing down the hall to deliver a news tape was inspired by research. "I was in the NBC local newsroom in Washington one day, and someone was running their tail off. I said, 'Oh, thank God, they still run!'" Brooks says, laughing. "So that's where that scene comes from."
As Good As It Gets (1997)
Brooks wouldn't have made As Good As It Gets without Nicholson in the role of Melvin Udall, an obsessive-compulsive writer who falls for a waitress (Helen Hunt). "We needed our friendship," Brooks says. "[Melvin] was a characterization that was a needle to be threaded that was at times impossible to find. It was very frustrating for [Nicholson]. One of the most interesting days was raw and awful, and I did something I'll never do again: I sent the crew home at midday. It was Jack and I alone on this set, and I couldn't tell you one word we said to each other, but we sat there for three hours and the next day everything was okay."