In 1971, a stand-up comic named Albert Brooks wrote an Esquire article about a non-existent school for comedians. Later, PBS hired him to make an information commercial for the same fake school. The show ran on the network’s The Great American Dream Machine. Brooks went from there to a season making short films for Saturday Night Live and wrote, directed and starred in the feature film Real Life.
Since then he has made six films of his own and has taken acting roles in 10 other movies including the recent My First Mister, which marked the directing debut of Christine Lahti. While promoting the film, Brooks talked to Reel West about Saturday Night Live, the on-set problems that arise when the director also acts and the reasons why he became a triple threat.
How did you end up making short films for Saturday Night Live?
“Actually, the show was originally going to be The Albert Brooks Show. I told them (Lorne Michaels and executives from NBC) that I didn’t do television. They left and came back three months later and said they didn’t know what to do, but they knew that they needed someone who was a ‘name’ performer to be involved. They asked me if I would come on and be part of the show. They asked me what I wanted to do and I said that I was hoping to become involved in the movie business. I asked ‘what if I made shorts?’ And they said ‘so you will come to New York?’ And I said ‘no’ but they kept coming to me because they needed me. In turn, I got a lot of publicity for them in March before they went on (in September).
“Lorne Michaels and I did this big press junket at Universal at a time when he didn’t even have his Not Ready for Prime Time Players. I was on television all the time and so I had people coming up to me and saying ‘Hi, I’m Bob from Dallas. What is the show going to be about?’ And I said ‘Well, I will be doing short films. Lorne?’ Lorne said ‘well, we’re not sure yet.’ ‘Sounds good,’ said Bob. Lorne went away for the summer and he got his show together and it went on the air with my movies. I was in L.A. safely making these short films and as the show took off and his core got hot, I was no longer needed. But if you go back to the archives, the rave of Saturday Night Live in Newsweek is one page and it’s about one thing: a short film I made called Super Season. I made up three shows that were coming to NBC and Newsweek said it was a great little film. But the review credited the Not Ready for Prime time Players. God bless him, but Lorne never corrected them. My friend Harry Nilsson was the only one who wrote Newsweek and said ‘Albert Brooks made that movie.’”
You are one of the few writer/directors who chooses to act in other people’s films on a regular basis. If you could only continue working in two of the disciplines, which one would you choose to drop?
“From Real Life I have wanted someone else to direct, but I learned early on that writing is the hardest part. If you write something and you really want what you worked so hard at to come to life, it’s really hard to find someone else to direct. I can give you an example. No-one would have cast (actor/director) Garry Marshall in Lost in America. If I had given it to Carl Reiner to direct he would have done a fine job, but he wouldn’t have cast Garry as the casino pit boss. He would have put Jonathan Winters as the pit boss. No-one would have put Rip Torn in Defending Your Life. No-one else would have cast Debbie Reynolds in Mother. They would have gone with Shirley MacLaine, or someone like that. But those are the things that make one director’s movies different from another director’s movies.”
You have directed and acted in all of the films you have written, with the exception of The Scout, which you didn’t direct. Would you consider directing a film and cast someone other than yourself in the lead role?
“I have written a new script that I won’t be in because there wasn’t a part for me. The story didn’t lend itself to that. I didn’t want to act in Lost in America. That was my first experience trying to get a movie star. I remember sitting and waiting for an answer from Bill Murray, and this was in 1983 when he was at the height of his fame. I got a call from his agent, who said ‘Are you ready? Bill loves it.’ This was October of 1982 and he said ‘Bill will be available in Christmas of 1984 and he wants to do it.’– So I thought ‘I’ll just go and do it. I don’t want to wait two years because I will never want to make this movie.’ He had nine movies to do before that because he was so popular.”
Do you consider yourself to be the kind of person who needs to be in control?
“No, I don’t consider myself to be a control freak because I don’t come from the place where it’s all about manipulation. I was a lazy guy in school. I was never the one trying to manipulate the other kids or trying to be president of six high school organizations. I was never like that and I never started out doing that as a professional person in this business. I started out in stand-up and I was making up my own stuff, and I wasn’t selling it to Rodney Dangerfield. So early on I got used to knowing how to think of something and carrying it through. I come from the place where I am thinking ‘I have put my blood on the pages. How do I get this represented correctly?’ The answer came early in my professional life: you have to do it yourself. Now this situation (My First Mister), is the opposite. For better or worse I am here. And you stick with that choice. But I am telling you, it begins with the writing. I have never directed a movie that I didn’t write because it’s just too difficult. If that makes me a control freak, then maybe I am, but I don’t think that worrying about completing the vision that you started with should bring with it the label ‘control freak’.”
Speaking of this film, is it easy working as an actor for hire when you are subject to the whims of a first-time director?
“No. I didn’t direct secretly while Christine was sleeping. We would rehearse and I would say things that I thought were important but I would just say them to her. I did tell them (Lahti and the producers) that I thought the script was too sentimental but I understood that you still had to tell the story of these two people and their relationship. If someone grows an attachment to someone else then that is a story. There are ways to do it well and there are ways to make you feel nauseous. One of the ways to do it is if the emotion isn’t there, then the strings take over. That is what happens a lot in movies. The actors aren’t doing it and the words aren’t doing it so the musicians have to do it. But I was not standing around and saying ‘put the camera over here’.”
Is there a role that you haven’t played that you would take even if you hadn’t written it?
“I would love to play a psychotic because I am not the guy everyone has seen in that role and I really believe that the people who are the really scary people are more like me than the people who we think they look like. Whenever someone shoots up 18 people he is described as seeming like a nice guy, so I know that I can pull that off. But I know that I am not the first guy thought of for the role, so I just want to do it so that I can say ‘see, there, I can do that’.”
What kind of director are you? Since you are in most of the scenes in the movies, do you plan carefully or do you like a lot of coverage?
“I shoot a lot. I don’t do video playback because I would rather shoot more than go and watch on a little television because I don’t think that shows me anything. I would rather shoot more while everyone is there because I think it’s a very expensive waste of time to have everyone standing around doing nothing. If you are going for a very special camera move that you have to get, then I would watch that back, but I don’t think that with head phones and a small screen you can really recognize performance. There is too much pressure and people are all around you. If I am acting in a scene with you I would direct it differently then if I am not. I can’t get the same view that I can if I’m watching, but I can get another view because I am in the boat with you. So I can get a sense of how”