Directing his life

Albert Brooks talks about his Mother and a character called Albert Brooks

Are they out on video?
I don't want to do a video of them now. But one day you'll see me on television doing an 800-number ad.

Your directorial voice is essentially unique, but was there stuff you saw in the '70s that made you want to make movies?

Yes! Everything! Because they were all experimental and great and weird. Think of the movies of the late '60s: Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces and all that kind of stuff. And Woody [Allen] was just starting. The main thing was that nobody talked about the financial part of movies. We'd see movies in college and sit up and talk about the goddamned movie for two hours. "What'd ya think? Didja like that scene?" That nobody was in the theater never occurred to us. We didn't care. Who cared who saw it? We saw it.

So then, all of a sudden, as the world began to change and it became "Well, if people don't go there must be something wrong with this," then all that stopped. But for a while, every movie...Kubrick's films...You at least saw people trying stuff. And that's all I was doing. I was just trying things that I knew how to do. So I wasn't looking at movies saying, "I want to make that kind of movie." I was looking at movies going, "Wow! People are taking chances." And I was taking the chance that I knew how to take.

But some people were doing stuff similar to yours. Elaine May?
Yeah, I remember those, but they weren't even the movies I loved the most. I remember seeing Take the Money and Run, and that was a standup guy who'd just done something in the cinema and it was really great. And Woody's early movies were...well, tons of his movies--his middle movies, I mean--there were a lot of Woody movies where you went, "God! A guy's getting to do this!" And Woody was the only one who got to.

The door closed after Woody, in that he had a patron saint, he didn't test, no one read his stuff, no one commented. No publicity. All he did was make 'em. It was sorta like what I did with my standup. Nobody bothered me, so I came up with 65 routines. I just kept going. Unfortunately, I had to deal with the same film world that Steven Spielberg dealt with. I just wasn't as successful.

How did you cast Debbie Reynolds? She hadn't been in a feature for a long time.

A long time. Oh, she had one scene in [Oliver Stone's] Heaven and Earth--a film which I don't think even Oliver Stone saw. And before that it was 26 years.

So why?
My list was short. I wanted somebody who nobody had seen for a very long time. If I was going to make a movie called Mother, I wanted you to not know what to expect in the title role. If you use one of those few actresses who are doing all of those parts, then you come in with such a preconceived notion. And then...that wouldn't be so good. So Debbie starts with a clean slate, or a slate that you don't think you're going to get.

What actresses get all those parts?
Well, basically, Shirley MacLaine gets every role in movies. And I love Shirley MacLaine. I mean, she did Defending Your Life for me. She's one of the greatest women there is. She's just a very interesting, fascinating woman. But for this movie...

What surprised me most about Debbie in this is that she's believable even when she stops just being kinda dingy.

Right. That was the trick to the whole movie--to start out with one dimension and wind up with another. That's what the movie is really all about. It's not quite what you expect. The other trick was to balance the characters enough so half the audience would side with each one. Debbie was very funny because, one day about three weeks into shooting, she came over and said to me, "You know, honey, the audience is going to like me much more than you." I said, "That's exactly what you should be thinking."

Everybody old enough to remember her has a limited view of her.
Oh, God, yes. But you know, Debbie never got a chance or was even asked to do anything other than what those musicals required. And that was just one little thing. People had two reactions when I said I was going to use Debbie Reynolds. The reaction was either "Omigod, is that the greatest thing I've ever heard!" or [in a cautious tone], "I hope you know what you're doing." Those people just remember Singin' in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown and would say, "Do you want to use Tammy in a movie?"

But you and Rob Morrow [who plays Brooks' brother in the film] seem so Jewish.

I know what you're thinking. But...this is not a Jewish mother--and I can show you test scores from Kansas to prove it. Neither the mother nor the son had to be of any kind of religion for this story to make sense. I'm not Mel Brooks. I mean, I'm proud of my heritage, but I'm not into doing shtick about that all the time. But I've had many, many people with this movie say, "Well, is that a Jewish mother?" And I say, "Well, sure it is. But it's also a Catholic mother."

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