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INT: James L. Brooks

12.16.2004

Seven years after his last effort, As Good as It Gets, received seven Oscar nominations, acclaimed (though not exactly prolific) filmmaker James L. Brooks reemerges this week with Spanglish, a comedy/drama of clashing cultures and fractured families. Spanglish tells the story of Mexican housekeeper Flor, a single mom who speaks no English, and the Claskys, the affluent Beverly Hills family that hires her. Beset by the various problems that seem to invariably accompany vast wealth and privilege, the Claskys’ lives are further disrupted when the headstrong (and smokin’ hot) housekeeper joins the fray. Brooks stopped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills last week to talk about his experience making Spanglish. Judging from the enthusiasm he displayed in our roundtable interview, he’s quite passionate about his latest effort. Check it out. Was Adam Sandler your original choice for the lead role? Yes he was. I always liked his work. I always liked all of the regular-guy stuff about him, and his comedy is, his stand-up and stuff like that tends to be daring, just really inventive, and then I saw Punch-Drunk Love and I called him the next day. I think I was thirty or forty pages into the script and then he would come and read hunks of the script, and I think he was like around page 90, and he said fine. Would you have called him if you had only seen Little Nicky? Uh, if I only saw that? I mean, I really was aware of his work, and I value comedy. I value somebody who can be funny - I really do- and I tried to cast him for a small part when I did I’ll Do Anything. It was a small part and he was just on Saturday Night Live and he came in and he knocked me out, so I remembered that, and that was a long time ago. He was just a kid on Saturday Night Live, and he had such a great quality, I tried to cast him for that but we couldn’t work it out. It was a small part. But this is the stuff that always sounds icky or Hollywood or what people talk about, working with him is a lesson of how to deal with people in the course of your life, because he is such a deeply good guy and you just look out of the corner of your eye and you see the way he handles everything in the course of the day, and you see the thing that’s past great manners - when the humanity is out there, and when human beings you come in contact with no matter who they are engaged, and I really, it was like a lesson. I felt like I had a road to just do it better on my act, just watching this guy conduct himself in the course of his work and life. And you know I think it was so much about the character, because I loved the guy in this movie. I mean, I really, this movie is about stuff and I research it heavily, but I have a deep love for the guy character in this and it’s really important to me because it has to do with men and sort of feelings about ways I think they’ve been- you know, like I have a theory that Dagwood Bumstead was a great unrecognized hero of American literature- I really believe this. He showed up every day, he got knocked down every day, he never got to eat his sandwich every day, the dog jumped on him every day, the kids were always, his wife was giving him a hard time and he showed up every day and did his deal. So that was in my mind on this guy. How do you make characters who are so unlikable yet still sympathetic? Tea Leoni’s character is a real monster. She was one of the two toughest characters I’ve ever tackled in my life, and it was for all of the reasons you’re outlining. It’s where vulnerability starts to get out of hand so it doesn’t matter if you’re vulnerable any more, so it was a real understanding of her, and she had no malevolence- that’s one of the things. She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She’s just, as the current phrase goes, a desperate housewife. What sort of sensitivity did you have to play the language barrier for laughs? Um, well, the great thing about research is that if you’ve done enough of it, you don’t feel like a jerk to try it. If you’ve put in your time and you say, "Okay, I know I spent a lot of time on this, I know I listened." Then you go forward, and one of the key things of my research was the first time I think it happened once where three mothers in a group, three Hispanic mothers in a group brought their children and the three kids spoke English and the three mothers did not, and the conversation that started there led to so much in the script - that one session. Did you consider using subtitles? My nightmare was that I’d have to. I mean, I have a lot of nightmares, but I think my big nightmare was if I ever had to put subtitles on this picture, it would have been a failure, because the thing is, and the thing I love most, is that nobody mentions that part of it. It’s just part it, it’s just the deal, you know, and I think it becomes part of the entertainment of the picture. You’re sort of in somebody’s shoes because you’re waiting that half beat to hear what they’re saying, so I feel...

How do you make your films emotional without being sappy? If you make them real, if you make them true, if you are not - and this is where it’s tricky and I’m a little punchy from it - because there’s a great thing you get, and I’ve done it with two movies - I’ve done it with Broadcast News and I did it with this one, where there was no finish line, there was no agenda that I had to move all the characters to this point, that I was sort of open to what happens and wondering what happens and don’t want to force it. And I think when that happens, you are really respecting your story, because if I say at the beginning, "These two people end up together happily and perfectly at the end," every scene changes. Why did you choose Paz to play Flor? She’s great. I mean, what I needed, think of what I needed: I needed somebody who could play comedy, drama, to be beautiful and be beautiful in a way that doesn’t go, "Oh, I don’t believe that character exists," to be knockout beautiful but yet accessible, and yet where you can see the woman. You know what knocks me out about Paz every time I hang out with her, every time I run into her, I have a fresh appreciation that what she did in this picture was character acting. She did create a character, and it’s easy to miss because of the language thing, but she is very different from the character she plays, and the character she plays is a woman who carries with her at every moment "What do I do today to make sure my kid is okay?" How is she different from her character? Paz doesn’t go to sleep ‘til three in the morning. She’s married for two years. She’s fun and optimistic and effusive and a young woman and all of that stuff and she plays somebody who had to be mature beyond her years, who has a great sense of privacy and dignity, and who’s thoughtful and also I think has a kind of quiet, everyday- you know, I think she makes some really tough calls in this picture. She makes two lifetime calls. I think the biggest line is "If you think you’re at a crossroads, you are," because the one thing you always do is you’re saying "Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m being nuts. Maybe the situation isn’t that rough." But she gets that advice, "If you think you’re at a crossroads, you are." She's at two major crossroads one after the other in this picture; maybe four, if you think about it, and just a sense of her that she knows that this is the ballgame, the one I’m playing. Do you expect to get any heat for casting a European in the role of a Mexican woman? Knock on wood, man. I was so afraid of that, and we looked all over the world. I mean, I don’t know a part where people looked at more countries, let alone cities, for the right girl. Finally, we needed an actress who could do this role, and I did worry about that, but without hyperbole or anything there’s always a constituency for a film where if they say "You’re full of it," you are, and the constituency for this picture has been passionate about embracing the picture. They just say, "Yeah, you got it right." and that’s finally what you owed, you owed everybody, is to get it right, you know, and I think Paz was the girl to get it right with. And she did a good Mexican accent, buy the way. It wasn’t easy. How do you think this film will play in the places like the Midwest? I had previews in Arizona, which were among our best, we had a screening in Chicago which they tell me was our best. They tell me it was really exciting and just really wonderful- it was an all-women screening in Chicago. And no, it’s, it is a Hispanic story but it's funny if you try and do that right, anybody from a little over here from that main thrust of - identifies with it. I don’t think it is, you can do a more religiously Hispanic story but, once you do a religiously Hispanic story, you start to talk to people I think. I think My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a great example of that.

Why are there long gaps between your films? Are you a slow worker? I guess I am. I took some time out for life this time, but when I don’t take time out for life, it still tends to take me a long time, so I don’t know. I always intend to do it quickly, I always intend to write it quickly, I always say to myself, "Three pages a day, forty days I’ll have a script," and it’s always a year later after I say that. I can’t quite figure it out myself. It stopped bothering me - I used to feel very self-conscious about it - and it stopped bothering me, but I do have an idea what I’m going to do next, and I never had an idea this early in the game about what I’m going to do next. I do have a path that I’m going to [follow]. How bad was the I’ll Do Anything experience for you? This is what happened with I’ll Do Anything. And I couldn’t get the rights to the songs, because I wanted to do a documentary on this and really show this. It was really my desire to show it. It was the moment in time when media reporting denied privacy to anybody doing what I do for a living. Privacy - it was no longer possible to work on your picture in privacy and say "Here’s my picture. What do you think?" It became as you work, you lost your privacy, which was, that was the roughest part of the experience. Having a problem in your film happens a lot. Having to deal with a serious problem happens sometimes. Having to deal with a problem with your film under a glare of publicity as you’re dealing with the problem was murder. It was always the experience of a musical, and I want to show the musical, it was always an experience of a musical that with five people in a room, it worked, it worked, but when an audience happens I couldn’t get that suspension of disbelief. I also made some choices that might not have been great choices, I stayed with acting over singing and stuff like that, but it was, yeah, it wasn’t fun. And I think a good movie came out of it. I think the movie is truthful and comes as close as I can to catching the truth of Hollywood. Would you ever consider putting the musical version out on DVD? I would if could get the rights. I need Prince to give me the rights. I wanted to do a story about my experience making the film, and that first preview which was so terrible that night, and say "Here’s the movie they saw that night," and that would be part of the documentary. The musical portions have been preserved? Yes. My editor has preserved them, and I’m telling you if I showed them to you now, you’d go, "Why did you cut it out," but in an audience... they were four or five Prince songs. How involved are you in The Simpsons these days? Well, I sure haven’t been for the last year. Usually what I do when I’m not doing the movie is there’s one a day a week that I put in. What about a Simpsons movie? I’ll be very involved in that. I think so. If we feel right, then we’ll go forward, and we’re in the process of trying to feel right. The show is so well-defined on TV. That gives us pause, and we have paused. It’s not like people ever wanted us, it’s sixteen years, and we have gathered together the people who have been there from the beginning, and everybody who ever was a show runner on it, so we’ve all gathered together and we’re looking at this right now. It was my full time job for two, two and a half years. It’s not like I’ve been out of work. And that’s been, but that’s fun, and that’s fun and my one day a week, on weeks where the scripts up, it’s not fun, but I do enjoy that. Simpsons is a great, fun culture, and everybody just cares so much in not letting it slip, so it’s not like lazy work. It’s active work. Usually people come through the ranks and end up running the show. We have people who are writing for the show who were children watching it, I mean little children. This is our sixteenth season, and we have 24-year old writers. Would a movie be edgier? No. We’d do a film to try and tell a good story and some of the things, the fun things we can do in a film that we can’t quite do on the show- some. And we’ve always said we’re willing not to do the movie. We never feel we have to do the movie, and even here, where we’re edging towards it, the one thing that we all have to look at each other and say, "Let’s go." But we’re encouraged at this moment. (But) it could change in a minute. Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at thomasleupp@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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