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Never Near Grace:
An Interview with Albert Brooks

August 26, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the August 26-September 1, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly. ........................................................................................................

“I don’t think I’ve ever been on the inside to be thrown out,” says actor-writer-director Albert Brooks. “I’ve never been Hollywood’s golden boy, so there’s no reason to be Hollywood’s gray man. There’s no falling from grace; I’ve never been near grace.”

Brooks’ low-key, idiosyncratic approach to comedy may never win him mass adulation. However, with his 1979 mockumentary Real Life, his bitter satires Modern Romance, Lost in America and Mother and the afterlife romance Defending Your Life, Brooks has earned a cult following. In a recent roundtable interview in Los Angeles, Brooks recalls, “I’ve never sat down, turned on a typewriter and said, ‘What will sell? What will Hollywood want?’ I just make a movie that makes me laugh. Even when I was 26, these were tough to make. Maybe on a parallel planet my movie makes $300 million and Austin Powers doesn’t.”

The comic may not consider himself a major player, but his latest flick, The Muse, is an insider’s view of the pitfalls of the entertainment industry. In it Brooks plays a spurned screenwriter who turns to a mysterious woman (Basic Instinct’s Sharon Stone) to “inspire” his work. Brooks remembers that studios initially rejected his story because it seemed too provincial.

“This was written for Paramount, and they chose not to make this movie. One of the things I heard was that this is too ‘inside.’ The trouble with Hollywood is whatever is currently happening affects current decisions, and with my luck, the day I turned in my script was the day that ‘Alan Smithee’ movie (the critically reviled box-office flop An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn) came out. I went to a few different places, and then October (now USA Films) was the one place that seemed friendly,” he says. “Part of me thinks that maybe that’s not something (executives) sit and say, ‘Oh, look at this! He’s making fun of us. Let’s do this one. Nobody has thick skin, except for alligators.”

Brooks may have had trouble finding a studio, but he had no difficulty recruiting costars. “(Sharon Stone) said yes without reading it,” the filmmaker recalls. “Everybody did. I called her up, and I said, ‘Sharon, I’m doing this movie and this is what it’s about.’ She thought I was going to ask her to play a cameo. She didn’t even know where I was going with the question, and I said, ‘So will you be my muse?’ There was this four-second pause, and she said, ‘Yes, I’ll be your muse.’

“I knew that more than anything she liked to laugh and had a sense of humor,” Brooks says. “What surprised me the most was the amount of preparation and the amount of ideas she comes up with. She’s as good as anybody I’ve directed. I was really impressed.”

Stone helped Brooks realize his vision, but he already had firm ideas about muses and the Greek myths that featured them. He says, “Obviously, I had read the stuff that’s required in school. I did a lot of reading. I knew enough about what muses were. Just so I got my facts straight, I did as much research from the library as I could and found out about these ladies and what their names were.

“I’ve had a number of muses over the years,” he adds. “Monica Johnson, this woman I’ve written with, has been muse-like. I think when I met my wife (Web site designer Kimberly Shlain), she made me feel like this could be a real muse. Love can act as a muse.”

In the film, Brooks even suggests that muses are responsible for the propensity of similar movies coming out at the same time. “There’s so much formula here that you want to write about it. It’s too tempting not to,” he explains. After attributing Deep Impact and Armageddon to the “Action Muse,” Brooks gibes, “I don’t know if those people had a muse. I think they just had (Lethal Weapon producer) Joel Silver.”

The muses that have guided Brooks may not have made him a titan of the industry, but they have kept him vital for the last two decades while many comics lose their touch after a few years. “I think Woody Allen is still capable of making a good movie,” he says. “Ninety percent of painters can’t, but Picasso could. The possibility is there. Maybe the key is to adjust to who you are. I’ve not seen Mel Brooks make a movie about a guy who’s 65 trying to do something. If you still try to make a 20-year-old Mel Brooks movie when you’re 65, it may be difficult. That’s partly the fault of the studios. They want Blazing Saddles at 70. That never works. The whole point is to accept who you are, and there’s got to be great stories in each decade of life. (The Muse) is the first movie where I’ve had children as characters. Maybe in the next movie, the children play more of a part. Even as a standup, I’ve been conscious of using who I was at that moment for comedy.”

“Every day you pick up the Wall Street Journal, and they say that people in their 70s are the largest population on earth,” explains the director. “They have to have some entertainment. Maybe it won’t be the first weekend at the box office. Maybe it’ll be pay-per-view at a Florida rest home. There’s commerce there. Eighty-year-old people don’t want to see (the band) Limp Bizkit. They still want to see Mel Brooks if he wants to do it.”

Now at age 52, the filmmaker may receive even more inspiration from a new source: his nearly 1-year-old son Jacob. Brooks says, “My son is too young to have influenced anything I’ve done yet. (But) probably without realizing it, it has changed my perspective. I never would have watched Teletubbies. It’s not something I would have done on my own.”

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