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COVER STORY : James L. Brooks, Hollywood's Dark Prince of Comedy, is trying to pull off a $40-million manic-depressive musical comedy. How'd he talk them into it? Well . . . : They Just Gotta Trust This Guy

March 21, 1993|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Huddled with one of his film's co-stars before shooting a big scene, James L. Brooks whispers into Albert Brooks' ear, soothing the actor with a hypnotic comic mantra.

"Make it all anxiety and pain," he says softly. "It hurts. You're in pain. Intense pain. Lots of pain. Just hurt, man."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 28, 1993 Home Edition Calendar Page 95 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Paula Herold is the casting director for James L. Brooks' "I'll Do Anything." Her first name was inadvertently omitted from a story in last Sunday's Calendar section.

Is it any wonder the 53-year-old writer-director reigns as the Dark Prince of American Comedy, the man with an instinct for finding the hidden agony in every burst of laughter, the funny bone in every wince of pain?

One of the creators of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi," Brooks went on to write and direct two hit films--"Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News"--while also producing Fox TV's groundbreaking show "The Simpsons."

But now he's really pushing the envelope. An intense perfectionist armed with a caustic wit, Brooks is making "I'll Do Anything," a manic-depressive musical comedy featuring a woebegone out-of-work actor, a despondent test-screening researcher, an indecisive development girl and an Angst -ridden action-movie producer who contemptuously refers to his rivals' efforts as "cappuccino movies."

It's a true Hollywood Insider's comedy, a $40-million movie where every laugh is laced with fear, insecurity and betrayal.

"Everyone cries in this movie," Brooks cheerfully admits, wandering the set, wearing a green felt baseball cap and cuffed bluejeans. "Even the walk-ons cry in this movie!"

Today, producer Burke Adler (played by Albert Brooks) is fidgeting in a nearly-empty suburban movie theater, seated two rows behind a clump of youngsters who constitute the most powerful and mysterious force in today's culture--the focus group.

They've been recruited to discuss Adler's latest schlock classic, "Ground Zero" (we actually see footage of the mock film, which features Woody Harrelson battling a crazed villain in a meat freezer).

As written by Brooks, the scene is an unsettlingly authentic depiction of Hollywood marketing research, in which young moviegoers give researchers instant input into their movies' appeal for different demographic groups. Led by no-nonsense research chief Nan Mulhanney (played by Julie Kavner), a crowd of earnest moviegoers grade the film by the most elemental of date-night standards.

It's too long, too violent, too stupid--each complaint sticks like a dagger in Adler's heart.

Before shooting the scene, Brooks coaches the extras playing his focus group. "How many of you have seen 'Under Siege'? " Brooks asks his extras, who respond with a raise of hands. "How many of you liked it? . . . How many of you would rate it Excellent? . . . Good? . . . Fair? . . . Poor?"

Brooks walks around the group, studying his camera angles. "So anything you would say about 'Under Siege,' you should say about our movie. And anything you would say about Steven Seagal, you should say about our star, Woody Harrelson."

Brooks retreats behind the camera and films Kavner questioning the group. When she asks for a show of hands from everyone who enjoyed the movie, Albert Brooks strains forward in his seat, almost airborne with anxiety, glaring at the focus group member nearest him who keeps her hands in her lap.

Between takes, he nervously prowls around the theater, beads of sweat collecting on his upper lip.

"This reminds me too much of the real process in my own movies," he says (the actor has directed four features himself, most recently "Defending Your Life"). "It's torture. You worry about what every single person thinks."

So what was he thinking when he menacingly leered at the woman who didn't like his character's movie? "Oh, nothing really," he says brightly. "I just wanted to lift her out of her seat, strangle her and throw her out of the theater."

Albert Brooks, who played the sweat-drenched TV newsman in James L. Brooks' "Broadcast News," seems to have a direct hot line to the director's comic psyche. You can almost feel them tapping into each other's hidden anxieties as they go one-on-one, dribbling jokes back and forth as Brooks prepares his actor for a key close-up at the end of the focus group scene.

"Let's get in a little tighter," Brooks says to his director of photography, the acclaimed Michael Ballhaus. "This is the biggest close-up of the movie."

Brooks studies Albert Brooks' image on his video monitor. "A little closer," he says to Ballhaus. "Just his mouth and nose."

Without missing a beat, Albert Brooks jokingly summons his makeup man: "Bob!"

Brooks' response is instantaneous: "Bob can't help you now. You need God now."

Hearing Ballhaus whispering to his camera crew, Albert Brooks erupts in mock panic. "Jim! He's switched to another language. I know only one word in German-- cross-eyed --and I just heard it!"

After he peeks into the camera, Brooks tells Albert Brooks to move closer to the camera. "We need you bigger."

Albert Brooks starts twisting his head, pretending that his neck is a corkscrew. "Here, I'll just put on my bigger head."

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