Just looking at him, you might not recognize James L. Brooks. You might not even know his name. But he’s technically a household name. The words “James L. Brooks” are beamed onto the nation’s television sets every Sunday night, as it has been for 28 years. Brooks is one of the creators of “The Simpsons.” When the show began, he was already a legend, having co-created “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Lou Grant” and “Taxi.” If that weren’t enough, he’s the Oscar-winning director and writer of “Terms of Endearment,” “Broadcast News” and “As Good As It Gets.” And on top of that, he executive produced both “Say Anything…” and “Bottle Rocket,” the first films directed by Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson.
Brook’s name, and influence, are once again on “The Edge of Seventeen,” a high school comedy written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig. The film follows a grouchy, antisocial junior (Hailee Steinfeld) as she rages against her chipper classmates, as well as the bestie (Haley Lu Richardson) who’s hooked up with her dreaded brother (Blake Jenner). She only gets along with a similarly grumpy English teacher (Woody Harrelson). Even if Brooks is only a producer, it’s a lot like his films: funny but realistic, about messy emotions and sometimes unlikable characters who are, weirdly, therefore very likable.
Brooks talks to us about learning about teens, his career-long interest in strong female heroines and whether we’ll ever see the original version of his 1994 comedy (and almost musical) “I’ll Do Anything.” (Spoiler: Not any time soon.)
When you started working with Kelly, was it a lot like helping to discover Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson?
Yes, very much so. She came in with a draft. I actually felt a bit mixed about it. But during our meeting I felt struck by her rather than the draft. As she was leaving she turned around and said, “Nobody will ever work harder than I will.” That was my take on her, and it proved to be the correct take. Then what happened is she began going back to square one — researching kids, talking to them and talking to them, and bringing in film of them talking. I’m a research nut, and she’s particularly good at that — at asking a great question that makes people open up. Then she went off to write, and it wasn’t like a draft had changed; it was like she popped. A writer showed up, a voice showed up. I’ve never seen anything like that in my life, of somebody just emerging between drafts like that.
The humor in her film is similar to the one in your work: There’s a heightened, almost performative quality to the jokes, but the emotions are messy.
And the shorthand for that is life. [Laughs]
Nadine is not always likable and kind of bratty, which I mean as a compliment.
You know what the amazing things is? First of all, the character is hard to take, hard to like. That’s an interesting heroine right away. That’s what makes it real. I think, in a strange way, her flaws are one of the keys to having people identify with this movie, whether they’re a girl or not or 17 or not. I don’t know quite what I’m saying but I sort of believe it. [Laughs] I love [Steinfeld’s] performance. When she’s hard to take, she’s hard to take. Some of Kelly’s dialogue in the mouth of a heroine, you wouldn’t believe it if you looked at it on paper.
It’s how a very smart, very funny and very accurately sweary high school girl would speak.
Yes. She does say, “Suck several dicks” at some point. [Laughs]
That also has a way of keeping us on edge, especially if we come expecting a typical teen comedy.
You know what’s great? Those split seconds where you think you can predict which way a picture goes, and then they don’t quite do that. If that happens a number of times, people give themselves over to the movie.
You have a long history of focusing on strong, independent but believably flawed female characters, going all the way back to working on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Have you always had to fight to get that type of heroine on TV and film?
I’ve experienced it differently. I think television has always been much kinder to that, and old movies. But I think the thing now where there are no more parts for women, where only five percent of directors are women — that’s going bye-bye. Television always had women stars, women in the power structure, women who were influential. I think so often what the effort has been is to nail a contemporary heroine at very different times. Mary was very much of her time — she was the first person to have a birth control episode. [Laughs] That was maybe the first show to have a gay character in one episode. That’s what that time was. I remember the conscious thing with “Broadcast News” being to try to define a woman that was happening at that time. And in Cameron’s “Say Anything,” the point of that movie was that a male hero was sacrificing himself at the end to support his more intelligent, dazzling, golden gal.
Can you talk about “I’ll Do Anything,” your 1994 comedy? It was originally made as a musical, with songs by Prince and Sinead O’Connor, but after a preview screening that didn’t go well, the song-and-dance number were entirely cut out so it was a straight-up comedy. Will the original version ever see the light of day?
You know, I had a head of steam shortly after the movie — shortly after the trauma of the movie. I wanted to do a documentary. I thought it would be really good to say, “This is what happened, this was my road.” Because in a certain way it was the end of privacy. My first preview had been seen and written about; the L.A. Times wrote about it. So I tried to recut the movie. It was the first thing like that, where you can’t just have a preview screening, get your notes and work in private. At the screening there were walk-outs, but for the first 20 minutes we were a smash. So it was really weird. I remember going back to the people I worked with and apologizing, then getting to work. So I wanted to do a documentary about that, show the people who had lived through a really rough experience, and then say, “Here’s the movie they saw that night.” But I couldn’t get the music rights. I think there’s one copy some place, but I haven’t looked at it. And I couldn’t show it. I wasn’t able to do that, but I tried for a while.
I’d love to see it. Is star Nick Nolte one of the people singing Prince songs?
He did one, as I recall. They were more spoken. He sort of appeared in Prince songs. He didn’t really sing.