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The A-List: James L. Brooks on his latest film The Edge of Seventeen

By Iain Blair

James L. Brooks, the legendary writer/director/producer, probably has a reinforced mantelpiece in his home. If not, he could probably use one. After all, he’s Hollywood royalty — a three-time Academy Award winner and 20-time Emmy Award-winner whose films include Broadcast News, Terms of Endearment, As Good as It Gets and Jerry Maguire.

Brooks, who began his career as a writer, produced television hits such as Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Tracy Ullman Show and The Simpsons. He produced his newest film, The Edge of Seventeen, for writer and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig.

Writer Iain Blair (left) with James Brooks.

A coming-of-age comedy, it stars Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson as inseparable best friends attempting to navigate high school. Along with acting vets Kyra Sedgwick and Woody Harrelson, the behind-the-scenes team on The Edge of Seventeen includes DP Doug Emmett (The One I Love, HBO’s Togetherness) and editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith, ACE (About Last Night, How Do You Know).

I talked to Brooks about making the film and why post is everything.

You’ve made such a diverse slate of films. What do you look for in a project?
A writer with a specific voice. That’s always the main thing.

I heard that you worked on this script with Kelly for four years. Was that unusually long?
Unfortunately not (laughs)! This is up there, but I’ve never done less than four years on any of my own films when I direct, so that’s how I work. On this, it became more about what Kelly was about to do than what she did. I urged research on her, and she turned out to be gifted at it.

She got groups of young women of this age together and she was very empathetic and she asked great questions, and we’d look at the video, and it started to give us a sense of mission and responsibility. Then about two years in, she turned in this draft that was just extraordinary. Here was a writer popping and a new voice emerging, and I was dazzled. Then it took two more years to cast it and get financing.

She’d never directed before. How nervous were you?
I wasn’t. You’re always nervous about the movie, but I was the one who said to her, ‘You should direct this one day,’ and she told me she’d been trying to figure out how to sell herself for the job. I believe in writer/directors, as once you’ve done the script, you’ve seen a version of it.

You’ve mentored so many first-time directors over the years, including Cameron Crowe for Say Anything and Wes Anderson on Bottle Rocket. What have you learned from all that?
That it’s good to back writers of real ability. In Cameron’s case, he was a noteworthy screenwriter when he directed for the first time. From the start, we knew Wes was going to direct, and he felt he’d have died if he didn’t. It’s always the writing first, then that need to direct.

EDGE OF SEVENTEENDo you like the post process?
I not only love it — I think that post is what filmmaking really is. Editing is where you make the film. Everything else —all the prep and the shoot — is just the raw material you then shape into the actual film.

Where did you do the post?
We did it all in LA. We rented space for all the editorial, and used Wildfire for finishing.

You’ve worked with editor Tracy Wadmore-Smith before on the rom-com How Do You Know (Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd), which you directed. Tell us about the relationship and how it worked.
She was absolutely brilliant, as we were a long time editing, and it wasn’t always easy with two of us in the room. But you try to find “it.” You’re not trying to just get your way. You’re trying to find the movie. That’s what it is. You start off with a firm idea of the movie you want to make, and then in post, you’re forced to come to grips with the movie you’ve actually made. And they’re not supposed to be the same thing.

That’s the thing about actors and what they bring to the script. You can’t have that many people involved in the shoot and not have the whole movie redefined in some way. We shot in Vancouver, and Technicolor did the dailies. Then it was back to LA. I was there with Tracey pretty much every day, and I love editing. It’s exciting. It’s everything. It’s a roller coaster. Editing is hitting your head against a brick wall until it gives.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEENEditing’s changed so much technically since you began.
Totally! I did my first films with people wearing white gloves and carefully handling the film and all the bins, and when you made a cut, you had to wait a couple of minutes until it was made. Then digital and instant gratification arrived, and that meant you can see every version of every scene, given the time — but you don’t have the time to do that.

I’m a huge digital fan. It’s like electric lights. Who wants to go back? It’s such a different process that the result has to be different. Look at the whole religion of lighting a set — it’s been changed forever as you can now do so much in post. There’s almost nothing you can’t do in post now. So I’ve lived through the revolution, and we always schedule more time for editing than we think we might need. This took a good six months to cut.

Don’t you like to preview?
I do. I’m a big believer, and they always result in more tweaking and refinement to the film. And that went great. We were very lucky as we were previewing very well, but Kelly and I both felt we needed a couple of extra scenes in order to really get the ending right, and STX, the financing company, gave us three extra days to shoot them and solve the problem. Kelly came up with this last shot that means everything to me. It’s the absolute honest true ending we needed.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
We did all the mixing at Wildfire, that has an Atmos stage with an Avid S6. Kelly was brilliant at finding and using the songs — there are over 30 — which form the great backdrop to the story. But the score was tricky. My friend Hans Zimmer agreed to produce it, and he brought in this wonderful composer from Iceland, Atli Orvarsson, who came up with the perfect theme, and that was the last piece of the puzzle. Then we spent a final week fine-tuning the mix with re-recording mixers Kevin O’Connell, Deb Adair and Chris Carpenter. It’s hard to over state the importance of sound. It’s always huge, especially when you’re trying to be real.

Director Kelly Fremon Craig and James Brooks on set.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but there are a few.
They were all done by Stargate Studios, and we couldn’t get the damn phone right! That killed us for a while, as there was an emoji we just couldn’t get right. Sometimes it’s the simplest stuff that’s the hardest.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
We did it at Wildfire with colorist Andrew Balis, and Kelly and the DP were more involved in that than I was. The DI is hugely important.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry since you began?
Obviously, the digital revolution, but also things like women crew members and getting over the tendency to say, ‘Can I help with that?’ when the grip’s a woman (Laughs)! What hasn’t changed is that script is everything, passion counts, and post is the most creative part of filmmaking.

Why haven’t you directed more films recently, and what’s next?
I’ve just been so busy with these other projects, but I’ve been working on a script for several years — which is normal for me — and hope to do that. But the price you pay to direct is to go legally insane – meaning, you lose touch with the world and people you love. And that’s a high price to pay.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

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