Jim Brooks Follows 'Terms of Endearment' With 'Broadcast News,' a Risky Movie About the People America Loves to Hate
JAMES L. BROOKS HAS COME FULL circle, which may help explain why his head is spinning. From 1964 to 1966, Brooks was a writer and reporter for CBS News in New York. Then he went to Hollywood. He did rather well. Eight Emmys and three Oscars and two decades later, he has returned to journalism, if only for a visit.
"Broadcast News," the new movie Brooks wrote, produced and directed, is set in the Washington bureau of a major television network. It's not so much about sex and power as it is about values, and it says the values, they are a-changin'. In the film, a cute and callow young anchorman, played by William Hurt, rises, and a seasoned, savvy, rumpled reporter, played by Albert Brooks, falls.
They are both in love with the same woman, an ambitious, high-powered and conscience-stricken producer played by Holly ("Raising Arizona") Hunter.
However well it does in the rest of the country, "Broadcast News," which opens in D.C. Christmas Day, is all but certain to do very, very well here. Washington will eat this movie up and then smack its lips with pleasure. The picture is funny, it's intelligent, and it's aimed at the upscale, but what will sell it here is that it's all about Washington Media Folk, the people America loves to hate and who, it might be speculated, love to hate themselves.
Another reason Washington will like the movie: Jim Brooks likes Washington. Really. No fooling. As Mikey liked Life, Brooks likes D.C. -- wards and all. He spent a year, off and on, inside the Beltway, researching and shooting his picture. He liked it here so much that one weekend he looked at houses in Virginia. (He didn't go completely crazy; he didn't actually buy one.)
"It's such an unusual city," Brooks says, smiling benignly behind his big dark beard, which helps him look like an older version of Leonard Maltin, the film critic. "People always compare Washington and Hollywood -- you know, both are company towns, that sort of thing. But I think in Washington there's at least a patina of normalcy. The social occasions seem more relaxed to me, the people are more skilled socially. People have parties and make toasts; they don't do that in Hollywood. There's a little grace to it. In Hollywood, people are just riddled with anxiety all the time."
For a large part of 1985 and 1986, Brooks was all over Washington with his little notebook. He was a ubiquitous specter, hanging out at the CBS and NBC news bureaus, showing up at ultramedia events like the Gridiron dinner, the White House correspondents' clambake and the Washington Journalism Review awards. He lurked and he listened. Not only was he making a movie about journalism, he had become a reporter again to research it.
"I always have with me an envy of journalism," Brooks says. Indeed, newsrooms have been prominent in two of his greatest successes: "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Lou Grant," television classics he co-created and co-produced.
"And in terms of Washington, I was fascinated by how many people come to town with one administration and then stick around, never leave. It's amazing, really, how many bright people there are. The place is lousy with first-rate minds. It's a town that often has an oddity passing through it, and I was one of those oddities."
It's certainly odd to hear somebody talk about Washington and its medialytes in such positive terms. Glowing, even. But then "Broadcast News" is no Fear & Loathing production. It offers despairing portents, but it doesn't conjure a world of starkly contrasted heroes and villains, and it isn't cynical. "I wanted to do a picture that did not declare and service a rooting interest," says Brooks. "I don't know why I wanted that, as I sit here now."
The here where he sits now is a cozy bungalow surrounded by a lawn of mud on the 20th Century Fox lot in West Los Angeles. It's the Brooks bungalow, officially the home of Gracie Films, the production company Brooks founded and whimsically named after Gracie Allen, because he always liked her. On one wall, framed, are three torn-open envelopes from the 1984 Academy Awards ceremony with the "and-the-winner-is" messages inside them:
For Best Picture -- producer James L. Brooks, "Terms of Endearment." For Best Screenplay adapted from another medium -- writer James L. Brooks. For Best Director -- director James L. Brooks. ("Terms of Endearment" was the first picture he had ever directed.) The actual Oscars are at home. A fellow Hollywood writer calls the display on the office wall "unbelievably vulgar and ostentatious," but that's one of the few bad things you can get anybody to say about Brooks. He is a wildly and passionately respected guy, known to energize those around him and to inspire nearly hysterical loyalties.
"I sort of fell in love with him," says Susan Zirinsky, now Washington senior producer of "The CBS Evening News" and also associate producer of "Broadcast News," The Movie. She started out as technical consultant for Brooks on the film, but her role and their friendship grew. In the early stages of his research, Brooks spent weeks following her around like a bad cold. Or, maybe, a good cold. If there is such a thing as a good cold.
"He wasn't just the observer or the chronicler," Zirinsky recalls. "He would challenge me. He would ask, 'Why do you do that? Why is that wrong? Why do you fight if somebody wants to do X?' He questioned all the values."
Zirinsky met Brooks at the 1984 Democratic convention in San Francisco, the place where the idea for "Broadcast News" was born. It was an eventful convention for her; she'd just eloped with fellow CBS newsman Joe Peyronnin, now the network's Washington bureau chief. One morning, Zirinsky came down from their Fairmont Hotel room and had a long, animated meeting with Brooks on a park bench.
"When she told him she was on her honeymoon, he fell off the bench," Peyronnin recalls. Eventually Zirinsky took a six-month leave to work on the film, and spent her vacation time working on it as well. "The experience was really magical for me. Jim was great. I won a lot of arguments, and I lost a lot of arguments."
For Brooks, the re-entry into broadcast journalism didn't remind him at all of his long-ago days with CBS News. "There wasn't a shred that was the same," he says. "So I realized that one thing I had to do was get away from any sense I had of ever participating in it. This was so different."
Brooks haunted journalists at all three networks, but he spent the most time with the embattled soldiers of CBS News, and people are bound to view the un-named network in the film as awfully CBSish, particularly because drastic budget cuts and firings occur about halfway through the picture, just as they did at CBS this year and late last year. Brooks insists he wrote this grim scenario before it was played out for real.
"It killed me because here I could have had the cutting edge, you know, and now it's as if I did it off real life," he says, very manic and wowed. "It was amazing to me! It was depressing! Because now it seems I based it on an existing network when I did not."
There were times, though, that reality nudged Brooks' fantasy. One character makes a speech early in the film to a convention of local TV news types and says, "The legacy of Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite is being squandered in a desperate popularity contest." During filming, Brooks read an angry op-ed article, published in The New York Times, protesting the personnel and budget cuts at CBS. It was signed, though not actually written, by Dan Rather. Upon seeing that, Brooks added Rather to the roster of luminaries cited in the speech.
Of course, that speech may not be in the film anymore. Brooks has already jettisoned an entire subplot about a homosexual Pentagon informant who leaks material to the future network anchorman.
In Washington especially, insiders and outsiders who see the movie will be determined to match the fictional characters on the screen with real-life models in the media. This prospect causes the doggedly cheerful Brooks' smile to wilt with a plop. He stops playing with his beard and leans forward in his big creaky rocking chair.
"I don't think they'll be able to," he says in a half-hopeful tone, "because it's not there. It's exactly what I tried to avoid." Does he mind that people are bound to play the matching game anyway? "I mind terribly. It's so much off the point of the movie. It's a way of doing everything the movie's against. It's an attempt to control by trivializing, I think."
Zirinsky says Jane, the flinty producer played by Hunter, is not based on her, and that nobody is Dan Rather and nobody is Roger Mudd and nobody is anybody else, really. "This is not the CBS story," she says, er, flintily. "It's the best and worst of all of us." Nevertheless, life and art can get awfully close. Zirinsky says she found herself weeping while looking at dailies of a scene in which Robert Prosky, as a longtime network news executive, is fired. "This was just when things were falling apart here," she says. "I'm sitting there, and I realize I'm crying. It's tough to be an adviser and to be living through it at the same time."
All but two days of the picture's shooting schedule was done on location in Washington. Office space was rented in a building opposite the old post office on Pennsylvania Avenue, and the network newsroom was constructed inside. Town houses were rented for main characters near Dupont Circle and on Capitol Hill. The sets for the TV studios and control room were built out at Wolf Trap, which was otherwise unoccupied for the winter.
One thing all these sets had in common was you couldn't get near them. You couldn't get near them if you had 16 press passes dangling from your neck. This media-minded movie was off-limits to media. Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and other publications tried to gain access but were denied it.
Why was his movie about reporters closed to reporters? "Well, we weren't really," says Brooks, now sporting a sheepish grin that wouldn't fool anybody. "It's just that we were working so hard. I don't understand how anybody does it any other way, I really don't." Hurt is temperamental and doesn't like observers around, Hunter is temperamental and doesn't like observers around, and Albert Brooks (no relation to Jim) is, in David Letterman lingo, "just nuts."
Perhaps the veil of secrecy was imposed as a publicity gimmick to hype the picture. "Oh God, no!" says Brooks, holding his forehead.
"Washington is a very tough town," says Zirinsky in defense of the secrecy. "Jim really wanted the creative aspects of the film to live and breathe among themselves, and not have any outside pressure. Why open yourself up to a lot of outside interference and ruin your concentration?"
The law was laid down. The wall was put up. JIM BROOKS IS A WORRIER, BUT HE IS a happy worrier. If you had dropped in on him at the Fox studios in September, you would have found him in the deepest throes of agonizing over the final cut of his movie, yet, once he left the editing room, he seemed ebullient and chipper, even when saying things like, "The stage I'm at with the picture now is -- clinically insane."
His first cut of "News" left it 3 hours and 24 minutes long. He had to get it down to a near-two-hour length. Preview audiences were hustled into and out of screening rooms as a way of testing a rough cut of the picture. After these screenings, Brooks went over the preview cards filled out by the crowds, who hadn't been told what movie they were going to see when they agreed to come. They were just told it starred William Hurt.
The audiences seemed to like the picture. They laughed at all the right places. Various crowds saw various endings; Brooks couldn't nail down the one he liked. It's a question of which man the heroine will end up with: rumpled Aaron or callow Tom. Or neither. "The fact that I can put her with either man means I should put her with neither man, I think," says Brooks, looking as though he hasn't convinced even himself.
One thing the preview audiences all seemed to like was the film's quirkiest piece of casting: Jack Nicholson as the rather Rather-like anchorman of the network. He's a peripheral character, but he hovers ominously throughout the picture, and, on his first appearance (on a TV monitor), a murmur of pleasure and surprise swept over the audience.
Nicholson, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for "Terms," spent two days shooting his small but highly visible role in "News." Brooks insists Nicholson wasn't paid a million dollars. But he does say, "You and I should someday be able to make that on a weekend, let's hope." Nicholson arrived grizzled, stubbled and grungy from another acting job. Brooks had his hair cut, got him a shave and showed him the suits he'd be wearing. "Eight suits. All of which he kept. And they were great suits."
Zirinsky remembers being dazzled. "When he came on the set and started acting, I could feel it in my bra. That's how great it was."
For Brooks, one of the Washington memories he seems most fond of is the night lobbyist Nancy Reynolds had him, Hurt, Hunter and Albert Brooks over for dinner at her odd log-cabin house in Arlington to meet her old pals Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
"I feel like I dreamed it," Brooks says, laughing. "It was an unforgettable night. It was like prom night, getting ready for it, doing the jokes anticipating it. It was a treat. I sat next to the first lady and across from him. My wife sat between Albert and the president, and has dent marks in her breast from Albert leaning over."
Dinner was briefly interrupted when it was announced that Howard Baker was on the phone. "And I said, 'Who's he want?' And just giggled a lot." Did the president congratulate him on "Terms of Endearment" and its success? "No." Did Brooks feel compelled to make some statement on behalf of, say, the homeless? "No. I think that would be very self-serving. Don't accept those invitations if you want to do that."
So this sophisticated, seen-it-all hotshot from Hollywood went completely gaga over the president? "No, I don't think I went completely gaga. I didn't even go ga. But it is like seeing Yosemite or something. People ask what it was like, and you bring out the pictures."
Albert Brooks lost a contact lens during the dinner.
And the president found it on the floor and gave it back to him.
No wonder Jim Brooks thought Washington was just ducky. ::