Q&A: Albert Brooks talks 'Drive,' awards love, the problem with twitter and Judd Apatow
After a long and very busy Golden Globes morning last Tuesday, this pundit collapsed into a well deserved nap. Being an entertainment writer/journalist/critic/commentator is a fantastic job, but the back to back days you have to get up at 5 AM to hear both SAG and Globe nominations are arguably the toughest of the year. An hour later, I groggily woke up and stared at the 40 new E-mails that somehow found their way into my inbox. Just two minutes later the phone rang. Smartly, I answered the unknown number and heard, "Greg? This is Albert Brooks."
Crap Ellwood. You better wake up, snap out of it and get it together.
Brooks was calling to discuss his well deserved Golden Globe nomination for "Drive," an honor that will hopefully catapult him toward an Academy Award. The legendary comedic writer stepped out of his usual comfort zone for Nicholas Winding Refn's modern classic playing Bernie Rose, an organized crime "entrepreneur" with a very bad temper. Brooks is also know, of course, for writing and directing some of the most original dramedies of the past 30 years. "Real Life," "Modern Romance," "Lost in America," "Defending Your Life," "Mother" and "The Muse," just to name a few. And, of course, he's a former Academy Awards nominee for his role in "Broadcast News" and was pretty fantastic in "Out of Sight" and as the voice of Marlin in "Finding Newo."
I quickly gathered my wits about me (maybe) and we were off...
Awards Campaign: So, how you doing today, sir?
Albert Brooks: Excellent, thank you.
Awards Campaign: Let’s talk about this, this movie. When you heard about the script, what about the character appealed to you? What about Bernie Rose made you want to make 'Drive'?
Albert Brooks: Well, you know, I’ve been so busy over the years making my own movies that when I act in other people’s movies [the question is] what can I do that’s different? And this was right up the alley of what I was looking for. And the casting director called my manager, they knew each other and she said, 'I have this script and Ryan Gosling’s attached and this director, Nicholas Refn and this is, needs to go quickly,' and I was going -- this is on a Thursday -- I was going to San Francisco on a Friday, they got me the script and they said, 'If you like it, go to his house. He’s renting a house here, before you go to San Francisco.' And I did that, I read it on Thursday, I talked to him on the phone for a minute, I went to his house, and you know? I wanted to play a character. I’ve played characters that have been shady, but basically they’ve been pussies. You know, the guy, Richard Ripley in 'Out of Sight,' he never stood up, he never stuck up for himself. He had to get goons to help him. So, I liked the fact that Bernie Rose, who didn’t initiate any of these problems, when they came to him, he took care of it himself. It was a stronger kind of character than I normally get. And I wanted to play that. And fortunately, I’ve seen scripts in the past of these kinds of parts and I’ve made overtures, but the director didn’t see it. But Nicholas thought it was always the best idea. So, it took a Danish guy to say, 'Good.'
Awards Campaign: How have the ups and downs of the awards season been for you? Has the critics groups awards been more rewarding than you thought?
Albert Brooks: Listen, Gregory, you know, it’s a good question. I’ve been doing this for a long, long, long, time now. And the truth is that sometimes you do things and part of you thinks, 'Wow, that’s the best thing I’ve ever done,' and no critics group is confirming that with you. So, you know, you always got to be happy when somebody likes what you do. It’s stupid not to be happy. I’m looking forward to going back to New York for the New York Film Critics Dinner. They awarded me a screenplay award for 'Mother' and I remember it as being just a lot of laughs and a nice dinner. So, obviously, if people like the work, it’s all good. I don’t see any issues with it. It would be like if a ball team didn’t want to get into the World Series. There’s no reason not to. When December comes, there were many movies I’ve been in that I thought were really good movies and they weren’t standing in December. So, you’d rather be standing than not, that’s all. It’s pretty simple and straightforward. I like talking to you about it. The alternative is not talking to you. So, you know, you’re an easy guy to talk to. I find it all enjoyable, it’s lovely.
Awards Campaign: I am envious of all those attending the New York Critics Dinner next month because something tells me your speech will be quite entertaining. You are a naturally funny guy and we’ve seen that in your movies and you are incredible in 140 characters on Twitter. I've got to ask about your tweets. How many of those spur of the moment tweets or are they things you’ve thought about during the day and then you sort of pop on and put them on later?
Albert Brooks: Well, I don’t plan Twitter out over the day, no. But I put a little thought into it, which much to my chagrin, because it takes away from a real living, you know? I’m a big consumer of news and I have my six newspaper sites booked. And what I like bout Twitter is it’s almost, it allows me to make a comment about something that’s just on my mind. You know, when Herman Cain drops out, I can say something. When, you know, when I didn’t get a SAG award, I can say something. It’s a very immediate—it’s almost like doing standup in a way.
Awards Campaign: Yeah.
Albert Brooks: Because you’re reacting to the immediacy. And there were some people that do exactly what you said. They, you know, will write down tweets in advance. When I start doing that, then I’m in trouble, because then I have really embraced a business that has no payment structure.
Awards Campaign: Yes, but it’s the reward of more followers, isn’t that enough? (Laughs.) That’s not more, that’s not enough? No, I guess not.
Albert Brooks: None of the followers give me the money! Do you see a drop box anywhere?
Awards Campaign: No. No. That’s the one part of the business model they sort of haven’t set up very correctly, very well.
Albert Brooks: Yeah, by the way, you know, that’s something that the internet does that no business industry of the world has done, the internet gets a lot of people to do things for nothing. And, you know, it’s supposed to be some kind of reward, well, you know, as a reward, you can have 200,000 followers. Yeah, but, you know, I’m not starting a religion. Who are these followers? But, I like to comment and, you know, it’s something I would do to my friends, I’d call up a buddy and I would say, 'Did you see what Romney did today?' So. that’s sort of what Twitter becomes. You do it shorter, you make a comment, but it’s almost like a phone call to a friend.
Awards Campaign: But, I guess the one additional thing about Twitter for someone of your notoriety is that it allows you to grow your audience. So, the next time you have a movie coming out, especially one that you own, it allows you to market it to them or let them know about it. I know you’ve been on this 'Drive' ride for awhile and I’ve heard that you’re going to be doing a little more acting, but are you working on a new picture you'd like to direct yourself?
Albert Brooks: Well, here’s the real answer. I’ve been working as a writer. I’ve been writing a book, I started another book. This is what I feel and I think about it all day long. Once I start, if I decide in my mind I’m going to make another Albert Brooks movie, then I’m done with acting in other people’s movies for another three years. Because, you know, that’s [how long] it takes. From the writing to getting the financing, you can’t leave that. Not when it’s yours. You can’t tell the guy who just, gave you a couple of million dollars, 'Hey, I’m going to go to France and work for Roman Polanski, I’ll see you at Christmas.' They don’t want to hear that. So, I’m sort of doing everything but that to see if I can string together a couple of acting jobs that are interesting to me. Because over the years, I’ve turned down so much because I was making these movies. So, once I start, then I’m done with being able to get a script from Nicholas, because I won’t stop. So that’s what I’m doing. So, I’ve been writing another book which allows me to write, because if I can’t write, I feel weird. So, at least I can express myself. I can turn on a computer and pour stuff out. But I have not made that mental commitment to start filming another movie only because I’d like to see if there’s something really that I haven’t done before as an actor that I could try to do.
Awards Campaign: Do you have anything upcoming you’re committed to shoot? Or anything that you’re interested in that’s about to happen?
Albert Brooks: Well, I did the Judd Apatow movie ['This is 40'] this summer.
Awards Campaign: Right, right, right.
Albert Brooks: Yeah, so that’ll come out next year and I read a script last week and it wasn’t great, but maybe it could be better, but it was another kind of different part. But no, I haven’t gotten anything where I’ve said, 'I don’t even care to go to North Carolina' where everything is shot anyway. And no, I don’t have the next thing locked down. I read three things. I didn’t fall in love with either, one was better than the other two. But, you know, the whole thing about this business, it’s a daily business. I can hang up from you and go take a pee and get a call from the agent and have a job that I like. So, that’s why I pee all the time, hoping the phone will ring.
Awards Campaign: I have to ask you really quickly just about the Apatow movie because many of us know about his process of improvising lines and scenes as he does on most of his film. And he set records -- actually, I don’t even know, did he shoot on film or was it digital?
Albert Brooks: No, it could be an Arri Alexa [camera].
Awards Campaign: O.K.
Albert Brooks: And nobody’s shooting on film anymore.
Awards Campaign: Well, for his first couple of films, he was breaking records for actually shooting the most stock because he was doing so many different takes. And in fact, I was even on the set of a couple of them and you just watch the actors go through the scene again and again. And I was wondering, was it like that on this picture?
Albert Brooks: Yeah.
Awards Campaign: And did you enjoy that or did you find that, you know, did it get frustrating? I mean, I can’t imagine all actors like it.
Albert Brooks: No, no, no. John has a method. You don’t just go on there and make it all up. He writes a script. Then in a rehearsal period, you work with him and try to make that as good as you can make it. Then you say those lines, that’s what you do. Then after that, anything that you can think of he loves, and he sits there and sometimes he'll sit with a co-writer and yell stuff, you’ve seen him do that?
Awards Campaign: Yeah.
Albert Brooks: So, I understand that. You know, people should be shooting the market. Film is the cheapest part of the movie making process. The expense is the 100-man crew and the financing and everything. The few days you’re actually there, you know, get everything you can think of, because you’re not going back. So, I understand that. What I would do is -- we just had a little, sort of a method. We would do what’s written and then I said, 'Judd, before you yell things, let me empty my own head of the stuff that I’m thinking. And then I’ll raise my hand when I’m done and then you can yell.'
Awards Campaign: Well, you know what? I think that’s one that, you know, we’re all really looking forward to, and he must have shot a lot because it’s not coming out till a year from now.
Albert Brooks: Yeah, but that’s not why. He was scheduled to come out in June a long time ago and then I read that apparently Universal swapped places with him, they had one of those movies that three other people were making, but, you know, what was it like? Like Sleeping Beauty, you know, one of those...
Awards Campaign: Oh, right, the Snow White remake ['Snow White and the Huntsman'].
Albert Brooks: Yes, yes. And I asked him about it, and he said, this was before he’d started shooting, he knew about this new date, and this is sort of the adult comedy Christmas movie date, so I think he was happy about it. But believe me, he’s already, you know, got it up and running on its feet. I don’t think he needs the time to edit it, I think this is more about a business decision that Universal makes.
Awards Campaign: I’ve always curious about this, as a filmmaker yourself you must have had dates that you were given for films that you were making with studios and other times that you didn’t. Do you like to have the date as a sort of a deadline to stop working on a film, or are you someone who, when you make a film, you naturally come to a point, like, 'it's done'? If it doesn’t come out for a couple, another couple months, it’s good.
Albert Brooks: No, no. What naturally stops you making the film is [there is no more money in the] budget. That’s really what it is. If you had an unlimited budget, if you were a billionaire and you financed your own movies, then you can either date, because you can sit in an editing room for six years, like Howard Hughes, and never finish anything.
Awards Campaign: Yeah.
Albert Brooks: But you’re only given, you know, you’re given whatever, nine, ten weeks to shoot, you’re given eight weeks in post production, because that’s an expenditure. It’s not even the release date. I’ve never had an issue meeting a release date. I’ve begged for two more weeks in post production when the budget never allowed it. But the budget always dictates when you have to stop. And that’s really what it is. It’s never, in my case anyway, I know sometimes movies have to meet a Christmas date and they’re up against it.
Awards Campaign: Yeah.
Albert Brooks: And those movies will put on, you know, 11 extra editors to make that happen. I’ve never been up against a date, I’ve always been up against a budget. So that’s what really forces you to stop, because the employees leave. Because once they’re no longer paid, they generally don’t show up.
Awards Campaign: It’s really hard, even with all the tools...
Albert Brooks: Unlike Twitter!
Awards Campaign: It’s really hard with all the tools today to do it all yourself, it’s just very hard. So when they go away, it’s tough.
Albert Brooks: No, you want creative people to help you.
Awards Campaign: Yes.
Albert Brooks: You don’t want to do it all yourself.
Awards Campaign: Well, sir, I got to tell you, I'm huge fan, I love 'Drive' and I’m so happy that you guys are getting recognition for it. I’m still keeping my fingers crossed, to be honest, that it can sneak in as picture down the road. I still believe that a lot of people in the industry really like the film and you never what’s going to happen with these new Oscar rules.
Albert Brooks: I appreciate it, Gregory, I do. And thanks for keeping up the cheer about it. I know you were one of the earlier adopters of it and that’s very nice, I appreciate it.
Awards Campaign: Fingers crossed, thank you so much and enjoy the rest of the run.
"Drive" will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on Jan. 31.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.