James L. Brooks on Journalism, the Oscars, and 'Broadcast News'

The writer, director, and producer reflects on the film that brought him to the Academy Awards more than two decades ago

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Criterion Collection

This is Academy Awards weekend in Hollywood, and James L. Brooks is a man who knows about Oscars. He's been nominated eight times, and at the 1984 Oscar ceremony, he took home three statuettes for writing, directing, and producing Terms of Endearment. Three years later, Broadcast News, another film that Brooks wrote, directed, and produced, was released. It's the story of a love triangle set in a network newsroom in Washington. Through the characters of news producer Jane Craig, anchor Tom Grunick, and correspondent Aaron Altman—played, respectively, by Holly Hunter, William Hurt, and Albert Brooks—moviegoers got a glimpse of how the news business operates. They also witnessed, as Brooks told us, a movie about "three people who lost their last shot at intimacy."

Broadcast News was nominated for Writing and Best Picture, but it lost to Moonstruck and The Last Emperor. Still, the film remains a standout from the era. It's now certifiably reached the classic category because the Criterion Collection has just issued a new high-definition digital transfer of the picture on DVD and Blu-Ray. The discs also contain footage that Brooks shot that never made it into the theatrical release.

Journalism is a subject close to Brooks' heart. Now 70 years old, he's spent a good deal of his life dramatizing the people who work in it. Two giant 1970s TV series that he co-created—The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant—were also set in newsrooms. We visited with Brooks at Twentieth Century Fox here in L.A. Images from the TV series The Simpsons, which Brooks has been producing since 1989, cover giant soundstages across the lot from his personal office. But this is Oscar week, so we talked about the movie that took him to the Awards ceremony 23 years ago.

Broadcast News has an authenticity about the news business that most other films about journalism haven't been able to capture. Why is making an authentic picture about journalism so difficult?

Making an authentic film about anything is difficult. Take Steven Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan. There had been great war movies before it, but not ones that told it like it was. Think of the pictures that Steven was making up until then. Then he steps forward and makes this authentic war movie. That's one of the great feats of talent I've ever witnessed in my life.

Certainly All the President's Men and Broadcast News are first-rate on journalism.

Alan J. Pakula, who directed All the President's Men, also directed the first movie script I got produced, Starting Over. I went after him because of All the President's Men.

You worked at CBS News in the early 1960s. How did that experience figure in the making of Broadcast News?

Well, I was at CBS News on a fluke. I replaced somebody who was on vacation. I worked as a copy boy, then became a news writer. This was at the end of the glory days there. You're looking at somebody who actually saw Edward R. Murrow. He'd go get a drink at this bar, and I'd get a table and have coffee just so I could keep looking at him.

Did the CBS News people show up as your characters in Broadcast News?

Actually, a man called John Merriman, who was one of Murrow's editors, was the basis for the character of Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The main thing that happened to me is that I was exposed to people who were sophisticated—the smartest people I'd ever met in my life. It was a sea change for me. And I became a news nut.

So how did Broadcast News come about?

I'd just made Terms of Endearment and didn't know what I was going to do next. I always think of those days as the best time of my life. Norman Pearlstein, who was an editor at the Wall Street Journal, got me into the 1984 national political conventions. I met a girl who was a brilliant reporter and a White House correspondent—and she was dating two guys.

Who was the correspondent?

I don't want to name her because that was her private life.

Was your goal to make a picture about the news business?

We'd come out of years of feminist pictures, and I wanted to catch a new kind of woman. I was on the lookout. That was my conscious goal. And then I met Susan Zirinsky.

She was the legendary CBS News producer who gave you the behind-the-scenes perspective—and was one of the models for Holly Hunter's character, Jane Craig.

That's right. And after six months of casting the picture, two days before we started rehearsals, Holly Hunter walked into the room. Her acting killed me. It's a different rhythm and style.

Broadcast News gets into ethical questions. In one scene, a reporter asks, "Would you tell a source you loved them just to get information?" When you were researching this picture, how many people actually confessed they'd done that?

You've selected a line that never got a laugh, but that I loved. I was always waiting for it. Very often at screenings, I'd be the only one laughing when that line came out. But nobody actually said they'd done that.

You shot this picture in the 1980s. What do you see when you look at it today?

I'm knocked out by the performances. I'm stunned by how long we would hold shots on Holly, how deep inside the characters we went. I don't think any actor has done what William Hurt did in this movie. Holly, Bill, and Albert Brooks all gave great performances. I'm knocked out by them.

This new DVD has quite a few deleted scenes on it. What did you cut out?

There's a subplot where the Tom Grunick character, played by Bill Hurt, meets a man called Buddy Felton. Buddy's roommate works at the State Department, and Buddy has heard a story that he decides to pass on to the news. Buddy is gay, and he has sort of an instant crush on Tom. He says to Tom, "I hear stuff all the time. Isn't it good for you to hear things before they happen?" It's a relationship that leads to Tom breaking stories. Tom had been brought up with good manners, and he's gracious to Buddy. Plus, you realize this character cares deeply about Tom Grunick.

Why didn't you keep this story in the picture?

Because it makes it a darker film. The turning point is when Buddy finally tells Tom, "I broke up with my roommate. He's really the magnet for everybody who knew anything." So basically Buddy no longer has the connection to give Tom inside information. Humorously, Buddy offers to get back together with his roommate to help Tom out, but Tom says he's doing okay and doesn't need that. There's an awkward embrace and just before Tom goes on the air, Buddy says to Tom, "I want to tell you what my mother said to me: 'Don't be afraid to be wonderful.'" But you sense a dark side to Tom: he no longer needs this source.

There's also an alternate ending featured on this DVD. Considering the ending that we've always known for Broadcast News, seeing this new footage of another ending is really quite extraordinary.

I look at the picture now with that alternate ending, and it also makes this a different movie. I hadn't seen it since I decided not to use it. I was trying to film this ending using a technique that worked in A Man and a Woman, directed by Claude Lelouch, where one of the actors is unaware of what the other one is going to do, but somebody blew the shot so we didn't get what I wanted.

Well, we won't spoil it for our readers.

Besides, if we had used that ending, the movie would have been altered dramatically.

Albert Brooks' speech about the devil—"He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation... and he'll get all the great women"—makes it into the national conversation from time to time. The McLaughlin Group program, following on a Maureen Dowd New York Times column, used it as a way of describing President Clinton during the scandal over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Mary McNamara of the L.A. Times invoked it to help explain Don Draper, the ad exec of the "Mad Men" series.

Really? I was unaware of either of those things.

What were you imagining when you wrote the speech?

The duality of God and the devil is something that occurs to me in one way or another at various times. I don't know if I initially had the devil in mind, but I knew it was Aaron's last pitch for the girl. The surprise in it as I was writing was the line, "Look at that. I buried the lede." I can't tell you how important that line became to me.

It's a long scene. You don't see that kind of thing much in movies anymore.

It's as long as two people go, two people talking to each other. From the moment Holly comes over to Albert's house, until the moment she leaves, I knew I needed something to allow staging. One of the most intense, humbling hunts for a location I've ever had was searching for that house. In the script, I'd written that the Aaron character would step outside and look at the Jane character, who's inside. But it wasn't until we found that place on Capitol Hill that things started to fall together. And Albert Brooks just killed the speech.

It's a scene where, as you once observed, he stops loving her by force of will. It happens at the exact moment when he sees that she can't catch her breath because she's so worked up over another man.

And Albert absolutely plays that. He goes from being wildly in pain about losing this woman to being, "O.K., Jane. Thanks for dropping by."

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