15 Minutes With James L. Brooks

The Hollywood legend talks to LAMag about producing the film adaptation of Judy Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” 40 years of “Terms of Endearment” and working with Andy Kaufman

With three Academy Awards, 54 Emmy nominations, and the cache of being the director of classic movies such as Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets — and, of course, a central figure to iconic shows such as The Simpsons and Taxi, James L Brooks has one of the great resumes in Hollywood history.

Alongside director Kelly Fremon Craig, producer Brooks adapts the hugely popular Judy Blume novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for the big screen. The book follows 11-year-old Margaret whose family moves from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey and she has to navigate new friends, feelings, and the beginning of adolescence.

The Simpsons aside, you haven’t had a producer credit for five years — what was it about Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret that drew you in?

I started at the ground floor. Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer and director, wrote to Judy Blume and said, “I want to do the book.” Then she called me and brought me into it and we went right away to see Judy. We came away with her permission to do the book and that was like four and a half years ago. I guess if you say it’s been five years… we don’t do more than one thing at a time, ever. Doing a show and a movie is plenty for me!

What is your job as a producer?

Mike Nichols used to say that the really important thing in a movie is to ask the question, “Who’s your buddy?” Who’s the person who has your back? Who’s the person you can trust to say anything to? Who’s the person who cares as much as you do? Which is crazy when you’re directing a picture, how much you care. But yeah, I think that’s the role.

Did you relate to the story of that young person moving from New York to New Jersey?

I lived in a much grittier part of New Jersey [laughs]

The cast and creatives of the movie were asking fans to share their “Margaret moment” — the moments that shape us, that move us, that defined us growing up. What’s your “Margaret moment”?

Without going all “boo-hoo,” I had a tough time in high school as a victim of bullying. I guess that was the roughest.

Typically, most writers like to steer clear of the creative process of movie adaptations. But what was Judy like in this creative process?

It was so different on this because she was the spirit of it. This was her legacy. Pleasing her was as important as anything, doing right by her was right next to it. It felt like a righteous but enormous burden. I mean, you just couldn’t not do right by Judy and live with yourself afterward.

What did you take away from those early conversations with her?

She was sort of perfect. She was encouraging. She was supportive. She made one enormous contribution, there’s a point where the 12-year-old girls in it do this exercise to increase their bust, “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.” Judy was on the set and we had the girls doing it and Judy said it’s all wrong, “You do it like this!” So that was a time when she stopped the presses.

So was she on set a lot?

Frequently. Beautifully. Not a lot, maybe there were four or five days when she visited us.

Terms of Endearment turns 40 this year. It was an incredible directorial debut that swept the Academy Awards that year. What were your fondest memories of making that movie?

Two moments come to mind. We had a three-year-old boy in it playing Tommy and all he can do is improvise, you know, he’s not going to read or script or do a part. He showed up and he was that charming in the film. 

Then, in all honesty, it turned out to be tremendously difficult. It was difficult. It was hard for various reasons. In the end, we shot the last scene which is when the heroine crossed the river from Manhattan and you can see the city in the background. The last shot was going over the bridge and I was tied to the hood of the car, and I knew it was the last shot and it had been really hard. And that was just euphoric for me!

What was your directorial style, especially for a drama-comedy like Terms of Endearment?

To try and make sure the laughs happen and to make the shooting all about the actors, to make everything support the acting. From the atmosphere on set, we are all there for the actors.

My favorite actor of all time is Jack Nicholson, You both have such a fruitful working relationship, what do you think made this so successful?

He’s the actor of his generation. Way back we had an argument over who was the best actor alive and I think I won the argument by saying Jack, this was before I worked for him, because he could do either role in The Odd Couple! First of all, his comedy skills and always truthful. He’s a beautifully trained actor and he’s smart. When we first worked on Terms of Endearment, it was my first time directing, and he’d come up behind me and he’d say, “Do you want to know what the best direction you gave today was? Do you want to know what the worst direction you gave today was?”

Another intriguing character that you’ve worked with over the years was Andy Kaufman. What was he like to work with?

I’ll tell you how I found him. He had a nightclub act which was “foreign guy” — very close to how he played Latka on Taxi. He had an accent and he was an immigrant. He just came to this country and it was hilarious. He did it in a nightclub and it was beautiful, beautiful work. By the way, I think Andy was the inventor of performance art, I don’t think it existed before him. Then, a really atrocious comic came out after him, called Tony Clifton, he ridiculed the crowd and stuff like that. Andy’s manager leaned over and said to me, “That’s Andy.” It just blew your mind!

Then when he did Taxi, he insisted that we hire Tony Clifton too. And then, as Tony Clifton, dressed as Tony Clifton, he came on the stage with two prostitutes. The cast went crazy! I said, “He’s an artist.” But then Judd Hirst said, “An artist doesn’t piss on other artists!” We told Andy that he had to cut it out with Tony Clifton and he said “Okay, but can you do it where I show up and you throw me out?” He shows up with two prostitutes as Tony Clifton and we call the Paramount guards. It was almost like an old silent film, as they picked him up and threw him outside of the studio. He called up my colleague and he said, “Thank you, that was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.”

I’ve seen that since moving to Disney+, The Simpsons have released various shorts. Is it refreshing that you can have that freedom to stray away from 23-minute episodes and have them much shorter?

What’s been great is that every once in a while, about four times a year, we just do a little short. And that’s been really nice. It’s fun to think of the three or four we do a year. Being on Disney+ has been extraordinary for us because some of the binges that people go on because there are over 700 shows!

Finally, the Clippers are facing the Suns in the NBA Playoffs this week… how do you think they’ll do?

Everybody says we don’t have a chance. We have a key injury and we’re facing possibly the most talented team in basketball who are riding a crest. I think they’re undefeated with Kevin Durant, I don’t think they’ve lost when he’s been in their lineup. 

Our second-best player [Paul George] has been injured and really this is somebody who scores 25 points. eight assists and fantastic rebounds. He’s just one of the great players and we don’t know whether he’s going to make it back by game three. If we lose the first two games it’s going to be so hard!

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