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

Years ago, you were quoted as saying that you didn't realize Broadcast News was in the tradition of classic romantic comedies until you saw it just before it was released. You said you heard some of the lines as if Cary Grant could have spoken them.

I don't remember saying that. But my reaction is, "Hey, that's really interesting." [laughs] And true. I'll never forget what you just said—or what you said that I said.

Was there something when you were filming that wasn't evident until later on in the process?

The word "process" means you're not supposed to see the whole thing until the end, doesn't it? Almost everything that's in this picture are things that I didn't see at the beginning. I'll never have this much process on a movie. I don't want to admit that because I want to have it again. Badly.

What made Broadcast News so different?

We filmed it almost entirely in sequence. We even broke up the newsroom scenes just so we could shoot the picture in sequence. And that means we kept informing ourselves. That means we woke up and these things happened with people in the sequence they're supposed to happen. So that's "process," as you say. But keep in mind—we wouldn't be sitting here talking about this movie if Holly hadn't walked in. I also waited six months for William Hurt to become available. He almost didn't do the picture. And I don't think we'd be talking about Broadcast News if I hadn't waited those six months for him.

Where do you see Holly Hunter's character, Jane Craig, today? Is she working at the Fox News Channel?

She certainly contributes to the Dateline kind of show. I think she could be one of two producers on a network morning show. In order to survive, Jane has become brilliant at the things she was fighting against. A lot of people have done that.

One of the first scenes in the picture is when Jane cries to release tension. Did someone specifically inspire that?

This is one of my rules on research: the third time you hear something, you can start to think that it's generally true. Three or four times, different women told me that in the course of a day, they cried. It wasn't that they were crying in a programmed way, it was just a release. Jane doing that is one of my favorite things in the movie.

Well, the first time Jane breaks down in tears, viewers wonder what's going on.

It's confusion. The third time she does it, we got the laugh.

Early on in the picture, you have Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter's characters go on assignment to Nicaragua to embed with the Contras, who were fighting the communist Sandinistas. Central America was a political lightening rod back then, yet you played these scenes without flinching.

The politics of that scene were totally irrelevant to me. More than once, I heard about the sexual turn-on that journalists get when they're in the field, endangered. What that moment is all about is that if Albert's character can only see it, Holly's all his. There's gunfire, he gets off this really good line, "I can't believe I just risked my life for a network that tests my face with focus groups," and he has this woman. But he's just too scared to scoop her up.

If only Aaron Altman had made his move.

That's what the scene is about to me.

Holly Hunter's character is a portrait of confidence when it comes to her work. The network news president tells her, "It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room," to which Jane replies, "No. It's awful." That's one of the great moments in this film. Was Holly's reply scripted?

Oh, God, yes. We did 24 takes because getting it just right was so important to me.

The man who plays the new president was the late Peter Hackes. For 30 years, he'd been a correspondent for NBC.

That's right—and he'd been fired in the search for pretty men.

The scene where the people in the newsroom are losing their jobs still packs a wallop.

Well, when we filmed it, I was going nuts over who cried—and even what they packed up to take home. I was trying to make it truthful. A woman called Joan Richman, a trailblazing producer at CBS News, came in and watched us shoot those scenes. She was sharp and tough and had a huge heart. Seeing us shoot that made Joan cry because she'd been through those layoffs in real life.

Another memorable scene that feels so real is the one where Holly Hunter and William Hurt first meet. They're in a hotel room, and Holly removes her panty hose while she's talking. Was that stage direction in the script?

No. That was Holly's inspiration. I was going crazy over how to shoot the scene because in the script, it was ten pages. The day of the shot, Bill and Holly said to me, "Last night, we tried something. Let us show it to you." And they showed me the staging that ended up being the scene. They showed me hugging a pillow, the two of them on either side of the bed. They showed me stuff I never would have thought of, and I don't think any director would have thought of. What they did was a genius thing, an art thing.

Holly admonishes Bill's character, "What do you want from me, permission to be a fake? Stop whining."

You feel sorry for Tom! [laughs] That portends a future, right? [laughs]

Producer Polly Platt has said, "There are no bad guys in Jim's movies." Are there any bad guys in Broadcast News?


Even Jack Nicholson's character, the anchor Bill Rorich?

I don't think he has a mean bone in his body. The audience knows he had affairs. They know he cares, but he's hard-nosed enough not to let himself be done in by caring. He's done his war stories. The stage direction for Jack's handshake with Bill Hurt says, "The world's best handshake." I think we know everything about Jack's character from that handshake, which is wonderful.

You have the Washington bureau chief character says, "There's a recklessness in the air," referring to their business. That was 1987. What's in the air today?

In the late 1980s, people were being criticized for laying off reporters. When's the last time you heard someone criticized for that? In a lot of news organizations, what's going on now is a form of torture. They increase the workload until somebody collapses. It's all about how many columns they can get out of a human being. But it's nuts to be cynical. How can we not say that what happened in Egypt produced some great journalism?

Broadcast News opened against such pictures as Wall Street, Empire of the Sun, Throw Momma From the Train, and the Barbra Streisand picture, Nuts. That was Christmas 1987 at the cineplex.

They all beat me, didn't they? [laughs]

The New York Times' Aljean Harmetz said the movie had no major stars—

Bill Hurt was a star.

—a bland title, no car crashes, and a heroine who won't sleep with her leading man because she doesn't like his ethics.

She tried! But he turned her away, man.

Given all those things, how did you think Broadcast News would do at the box office?

I did all my test screenings and marketing, but I was coming off Terms of Endearment. So I took some breathing room. I was enmeshed in making the picture and just trying to get it right.

Broadcast News was made a time when the news business was changing. Romance was, too. You once asked, "Who else are you going to fall in love with when you work 18 hours a day?"

We were hearing about two-career couples. There were couples living in different geographic places. Pragmatism came into relationships. Before today's technology really hit, there was fundamental change in almost every era. I was obsessed with all that.

Your most recent picture, How Do You Know, is about love. Where is romance today?

Falling in love is different. But I've got a hunch that if you asked every adult in America, "What's the smartest thing you've ever done?," a lot of them would answer, "Marrying him." "Marrying her."

What's the smartest thing you've ever done?

Giving up a union job, a union writing job. It was a better job than I ever conceived of being able to get. I quit and somehow came to L.A. for another job that I lost in six months. But quitting that job was the smartest thing I ever did. It brought me here.

In the years since Broadcast News, we've lived through major news events: the end of the Cold War, the 2000 presidential election recount, and the September 11 attacks. Do you think September 11 coverage was TV journalism at its best?

The remarkable thing about 9/11 was that journalism pretty much put down its badges. People didn't worry about reacting as human beings. People who weren't reporters reported. David Letterman was sort of a brilliant reporter for a second—but it was a way nobody had ever covered a story. They just presented what was inside themselves.

You've worked with some of the top actresses in the business—Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Holly Hunter, Reese Witherspoon, and others. Who's your favorite leading lady?

Well, I'm stunned by what Holly did in this movie. But my answer is Whittni Wright, the six-year-old girl in I'll Do Anything. I think she gave the greatest child performance ever. She's a miracle. I think she was God. She's my pick.

You were recently quoted as saying, "I never believed this would happen. Motion pictures have been made successfully into a business." But hasn't Hollywood always been an industry?

Yes. We've always tested pictures, and marketed them. But the folly was, when someone had an idea or script, people were silly enough to run numbers on what kind of business the picture might do. Pictures were always a successful freak show. You just couldn't tell which freak would bring in an audience. Now, we can run numbers. There's actually a way to do that job. That's what the so-called tentpole movies started. Studios can be pretty damn accurate about business all the way around the world if they make a certain movie in a certain sort of way. Of course, there will always be surprises. But Irving Thalberg isn't someone you'd want to hire right now.

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