Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson and Jack Nicholson on “How Do You Know”
James L. Brooks has the best laugh in the business.
It sounds fake, like he’s actually pronouncing every “Ha Ha Ha.” But it’s so hearty and infectious, it has to be genuine. Even when several people are laughing at once, its Brooks’ chuckle that rises above the fray.
And there was a good amount of laughter from the press corps and the celebrities being interviewed during a recent New York event for Brooks’ latest, “How Do You Know.” The cast – which includes Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn and Jack Nicholson – accompanied their director to Manhattan to meet with gathered journalists and discuss Brooks’ latest romantic comedy.
The first question was a true softball, even for a film about a softball player (Witherspoon) who is between athletic gigs and committed boyfriends. One female journalist asked the celebrity panel how they’re supposed to know when they’re in love.
“It has been too long ago for me to remember,” Nicholson chimed in, breaking up the panel and the room.
Brooks took the question a little more seriously. “I had a line that I believed so much in that I threw it in, but I eventually took it out of the movie. Paul was going to say that it’s when you are more yourself then you ever thought possible.”
Nicholson, who previously collaborated with Brooks on “Broadcast News,” “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good As It Gets” (the latter two each earning him Best Actor honors) summed up their pairing as such: “He’s probably the best screenwriter. You always get great material, and he always casts wonderful actors. Look at us all. [Laughs] That plus you rarely get to work with a dear friend, and that goes well. A couple of Oscars didn’t hurt in cementing the relationship. That’s how you know you are in love.”
But how do you know that you are born to act? In the film, Witherspoon’s character questions her future in professional sports when she’s passed over for an Olympic squad because she’s getting older. Did these A-listers actually have back-up plans in place in case the acting thing didn’t work out?
“I remember actually thinking … Jim actually produced our first movie [‘Bottle Rocket’], and we had a horrible test screening process. And I remember actually thinking about joining the military,” Wilson said. “We had one horrible test screening. An executive came up afterward and said, ‘Congratulations. Seriously.’ And Jim, quick as a whip, said, ‘Our goal for the next screening is to have someone say ‘Congratulations’ without having to say ‘Seriously.’”
So Wilson and Brooks have experience working with Brooks already. What did Witherspoon, a newcomer, learn about his creative process?
“It felt like a play,” she said. “I learned a lot about breaking bad habits I had for a long time. It’s a testament to the writing that you can play a scene 26 different ways. You can play it funny, you can play it sad, you can play it all different ways. It’s because the writing and the dialogue is so good. One time, Paul and I did a scene where we were on a blind date … and Jim said, ‘OK, you say Paul’s lines,’ and so we did the whole scene as a rehearsal. And I thought, ‘That’s so amazing.’ And we knew each other’s lines!”
Those types of experiments are common with Brooks, who is shaping the picture scene by scene, line by line.
“I think movies are supposed to be that you start with one idea, and when the actors come in, it’s supposed to change course,” the Oscar winning director said. “Everybody’s contributing. It’s supposed to be, at that point, a group effort. Honest to God, in the last 36 hours, I have had so many thoughts about what this picture actually means that I wish I had thought of some time ago.”
Leave it to Nicholson, though, to encapsulate the entire process with the wittiest of words.
“You have to remember, [Jim] writes comedies like nobody else. You are dealing with life, death, business crime, fatherhood, motherhood … all of these very serious topics, and everything’s funny. It has truth, and it’s funny. But what he attacks, to begin with, is where it’s distinct. If you are dealing with cancer, news, or all of these different things. It is the goal that he sets for himself. He sets himself very interesting goals. I remember the one I particularly like was in ‘As Good As It Gets.’ He says, ‘Number one, I want to write a part for the dog, not just get a dog.’ But he said, ‘I also want to get a specific laugh based on language.’ He just picks out very hard things to do, and then it’s supposed to look very easy, kind of like Fred Astaire. But where he starts is always amazing to me.”
James L. Brooks’ “How Do You Know” opens everywhere on Friday, Dec. 17.