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A look inside Hollywood and the movies : A Work Definitely in Progress : It's a comedy, so please laugh. It's a musical, but not at this screening. James L. Brooks is previewing, previewing, previewing 'I'll Do Anything' for test audiences and now provides a rare inside look at the process

September 19, 1993|TERRY PRISTIN

It was a filmmaker's worst nightmare. An early test screening of "I'll Do Anything," a musical comedy about the movie industry, had been poorly received. Word was circulating in Hollywood that members of the audience had walked out of the Culver City screening room or otherwise shown their disapproval of Oscar-winning director and screenwriter James L. Brooks' Christmas release.

A staunch believer in the test screening process, Brooks is accustomed to negative reaction early in the game. His 1983 "Terms of Endearment," which ultimately won five Academy Awards, and his Oscar-nominated 1987 "Broadcast News" also had problems initially. Both films went on to become substantial hits.

The response to the Aug. 7 screening of "I'll Do Anything" was different, however. The main stumbling block were the songs, written by Prince, Sinead O'Connor and Carole King and performed by actors such as Nick Nolte and Julie Kavner, who are not known for musical roles. "At three points in the movie they (the audience) absolutely rebelled against the way we presented the music," Brooks said later. "It was up there with the top five worst professional times in my life."

In the $40-million film from Columbia Pictures, Nolte is an unemployed actor who suddenly finds himself forced to take care of his troubled 6-year-old daughter. Joely Richardson portrays a junior studio executive and Albert Brooks is an arrogant producer attracted to a character played by Kavner who, ironically enough, conducts test screenings.

Many filmmakers test audience reaction to their movies by showing them to people recruited from shopping centers or other public places. Normally these screenings are the most closely guarded part of the filmmaking process. But The Times attended two subsequent screenings of "I'll Do Anything" and discussed all three previews with Brooks in a series of interviews.

The second screening--out of a planned series of seven--took place Aug. 25 in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa. A third followed Sept. 7 in Long Beach. The locations were selected to avoid press leaks. Top Columbia executives, including studio chairman Mark Canton, attended both previews. For these two screenings, Brooks eliminated nearly all of the musical numbers in order to focus on whether his story line and characters got across to the audience. As he states below, he still intends to release "I'll Do Anything" as a musical.

Brooks would not permit interviews with audience members or examination of their evaluation cards. But clearly, both screenings went off far better than the first. In both cases, the jokes drew laughter--more so during the third screening than during the second. There was applause in San Diego, but it was tepid compared to the warmer clapping in Long Beach. Only a few people left the theater during either screening.

The following interviews were conducted on the Columbia lot:

Aug. 20 Interview

Question: Why do you go through this process?

Answer: I do a lot of previews. I don't know how to cut a picture without it. Sometimes you fight very hard to hold onto something that the audience doesn't like. An example would be Holly Hunter's crying in "Broadcast News." Part of it is about communication. You have these thoughts, you're wondering if they're getting across, you're trying to tell a story. You want to please as many as people as possible but there's a lot beside that. For example, the sweat scene in "Broadcast News" (in which the television news reporter played by Albert Brooks blows his tryout as an anchorman by sweating profusely) laid an egg at several previews. We kept on editing that, kept on revising it. I talked to people afterward (and asked) what was the thing we did that made the scene work, and nobody quite remembers. It was just the process of doing it, taking it back to an audience and altering it each time that actually made it work.

Post-production is huge to me, and editing is one of the parts I enjoy the most. You always hope the picture that wants to be released will start to assert itself. I hardly ever do reshooting. I do this instead.

In ("I'll Do Anything") there's a song 45 minutes in that the audience would not allow us to do (rejected). With each succeeding song, with I think two exceptions, we didn't have a problem. The goal has always been to do a musical that doesn't sacrifice reality because it's a musical. So part of what happened with these songs in particular and some others was that they stopped reality. The picture stopped dead every time. These were solo songs (actual solos by Kavner and Whittni Wright, who plays Nolte's daughter Jeannie, and a duet performed by Nolte and Whittni). The production numbers were OK and one of them played quite well.

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