Directing his life

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

By Andy Klein

published: January 09, 1997

Ever since his first film, 1979's Real Life, Albert Brooks has occupied his own little niche in American cinema. While his old buddy Rob Reiner quickly moved from the small, quirky, and wonderful This Is Spinal Tap to slick mainstream films, the 49-year-old Brooks (n. Albert Einstein) has released a film every four or five years--each dealing hilariously with some very basic, universal life issue, each starring Brooks himself in one variation or another of a man obsessed. Where the insanity of Real Life derives from the protagonist's ruthless show-biz-career obsessions, Modern Romance chronicles a similar character's romantic obsession. Lost in America is allegedly a quest for the real America, but the characters never get very far; even at the end, they probably don't realize that they are as much a part of the real America as the Grand Canyon...and much shallower. Defending Your Life is Brooks' vision of the afterlife as another government bureaucracy, albeit one involving higher stakes.

Now, with Mother, Brooks casts himself as a writer who, after the failure of yet another relationship, decides to move back in with his mom (Debbie Reynolds) to get at the core of his problems. Of all the fundamental themes Brooks has worked with, Momism is probably the edgiest.

Andy Klein: There's this Oedipal undercurrent in Mother...well, actually, it's not an undercurrent. It's absolutely explicit, which is good because, kept suppressed, it would have been really creepy.

Albert Brooks: It's amazing how infrequently the subject's been done. I was shocked. I mean, I was shocked I could get the title Mother. That was still available in that MPAA title bank. And, when they do tackle it, it's always done in a silly way--like Stop or My Mother Will Shoot. Those mothers aren't anybody's mothers...You can't sit in the dark and go, "Oh, my God! My mother did that!" Unless you're, like, John Dillinger.

Is your own mom still with us?
Yes, she is. Thank goodness! She's in her 80s...early.
Has she seen the film?

Oh, yes, she saw it. My mother's funny: She uses my other films to tell me how much she likes this one. She said, "Y'know, honey, this is going to be the big one. 'Cause in this one you don't have to die...or drop out..." I said, "I understand."

But she didn't take any of it personally?
No, the first time she saw it, she actually said to me, "You know, I think one or two lines I recognize from us." And I said, "One or two lines? Do you think you can operate call waiting?"

The early scene that killed me was the food scene...the ancient sherbet...
That produces the greatest kind of laughter you can get. You know: "Oh, my God, I've seen that my whole life. Now it's on a movie screen." I love that. I love to see that. I had never seen that image before, but it's been with us forever. If you had a mother, you have that image. At home, we had Neapolitan ice cream that had no color. Those three colors had dissolved into one. I'd say, "Show me where the strawberry ends, and I'll eat it."

You grew up in Beverly Hills? And hung with that now-famous crowd from Beverly Hills High?

Yes, I was in with that crowd of people--the Dreyfuss-Reiner group.
Did Carl Reiner actually curse you with the title The Funniest Man Alive?
Once, when Johnny Carson asked him who the funniest person he ever met was, he said, "A 12-year-old kid named Albert Einstein." That was a quote that sort of stayed in my biography forever. I think just the fact that he mentioned a kid was a big deal. And then, you know, having a name like that...

Did the quote cause you great anxiety?
Well, I must tell you something. The best advantage about having my name, until I changed it, was that it prepared me for all that stuff. I mean, I had this moniker of the world's most famous scientist when I was 4. "That's really his name?"--I didn't even know what people meant. Why are they asking that?

Was that a conscious joke on your parents' part?
You know, I never got a straight answer. My dad always said, "Ask your mom." My mom always said, "Ask your dad."

You got to TV pretty quickly, including some sitcoms.
One Love American Style and some Odd Couples.
You had more hair...bigger hair.
Yeah, right. Same person, bigger hair.
Then you did those films for Saturday Night Live?

I had been doing tons of Carson, so NBC came to me in the fall of 1974 and said, "Would you like your own show on Saturday night?" They were offering me that time slot. I had just finished being a comedian. I had done the road for six years; I wasn't getting any acting; I wasn't getting what I did this whole thing for. So I passed on it. I realized that if I did that, that would be it. That's who I'd be.

So then they came back to me in the spring, after they'd gotten Lorne Michaels, and they said, "Would you like to be the permanent host of this show?" And I actually said to them, "Why don't you get a different host each week? And be different?" I was just trying to make excuses. So then they said, "What would you like to do?" So I said, "Let me make short films." I virtually didn't get paid, but the deal I made was that I owned them. They gave me the money to make them, and then I owned them.

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."

What else has your mom said about it?
She was one of those people who wondered, "Well, I don't know, dear, if you think Debbie can do this..." because my mother had a real strong preconceived notion of Debbie Reynolds. So she was very "Oh, my God, she was wonderful.