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

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."

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.