The tremors you felt from Hollywood just before the earthquake were coming from Jim Brooks. Mr. Brooks, the writer/director of the highly acclaimed movies "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News," is sweating out the reception that his latest effort -- the musical sans music "I'll Do Anything" -- will receive.
"I'll die if a movie doesn't work,"
Mr. Brooks says. "I recognize what I'm saying is not a healthy attitude toward my work, and I should aspire to a healthy attitude, and yet in truth, I don't. I want to feel that sense of commitment to the movies that I do."
"I'll Do Anything" stars Nick Nolte as Matt, a struggling, earnest actor who falls in with Burke (Albert Brooks), a cynical producer of noisy action flicks, and Cathy (Joely Richardson), a well-intentioned yet brazenly opportunistic employee of Burke's. Matters aren't helped when Matt must assume custody of his bratty 6-year-old daughter, Jeannie (Whittni Wright).
When Jim Brooks conceived "I'll Do Anything," he envisioned it XTC as an audacious Hollywood musical, with songs written by Prince and Sinead O'Connor, choreography by Twyla Tharp, and the whole thing performed by his distinctly non-musical cast.
Eyebrows across Hollywood were raised -- even by the film's producer, Polly Platt.
"Jim said he was going to do something I thought was impossible," Ms. Platt says. "The script worked so completely on its own, I didn't understand how the music was going to work. I didn't see any room for the music."
Mr. Nolte adds: "In the original script, all it said was, 'There will be music here.' The structure was never around a musical. I've talked to a music director, and he said, 'You cannot have a story with real characters in a musical.'
"We were trying to do something unique. We were trying to take theemotional moment, the emotional beat, and just before it ended, start into song. . . . We were hoping we could extend that emotional moment in song and then get back into the film. But either we didn't figure it out or the audience is too cynical, or something."
The musical sequences were shot at great cost; the film's budget weighs in somewhere around $40 million. But, ultimately, the director too conceded that his idea was a nobly failed experiment, that audiences wouldn't buy the reality of the characters' plights juxtaposed with the unreality of them crooning their lungs out.
"At the time, I would have argued that the exception might be Hollywood, which is already larger than life," says Mr. Brooks. "Now, I no longer make that argument. Not if you have complicated characters; then the picture isn't going to work."
Mr. Brooks didn't realize that his original vision for the film didn't work until test audiences told him. "I was surprised, but an amazing thing happened to [audiences]: They would leave the picture, it would stop being real [during the musical numbers], they'd stop believing it, and then the song would be over, and they'd go back.
"The amazing thing was they kept on going back."
At one point, Mr. Brooks concocted a version of the film that audiences seemed to accept, which featured six of the original dozen numbers still in place, only performed not by the actors but by Prince and Ms. O'Connor. But he was not pleased.
"The dangerous thing was that middle picture," he says. "That was the one that could've harmed me. If I had released that movie, it would've harmed me because it was a compromised attempt to solve my problems. Once I abandoned that version, then it was OK."
It's ironic that test screenings influenced the film's direction so profoundly, since the movie itself pokes fun at them. Burke is deflated when he's told his dumb action movie jazzes audiences -- but not nearly enough.
"I rely on [test screenings], but I find that nobody understands what I mean when I say I rely on them," Mr. Brooks says. "People have this idea that you take a film to a test screening, the audience tells you what picture they want and you give it to them. They sure tell you if it's funny or not. . . . It's how you use test screenings."
Hence, the film evolved from a splashy musical to a sensitive story about a father-daughter relationship, set against the cutthroat backdrop of Hollywood.
Mr. Brooks also takes aim at the cruel cynicism that pervades the film industry, most memorably in a scene in which Burke's employees slag actors -- one dismisses Tommy Lee Jones with three words: "Very unfortunate skin."
"When I first started writing, I thought I would use all fictional names," Mr. Brooks recalls. "But then I realized that in order to be honest about what I was attacking, I had to use real names, because there's a casual ugliness and rudeness that takes place in most of us out here.
"There's some poison in the water, a talent many people have to see the weakness in people.
"I remember when I was a kid out here, I was dating the best-looking girl I ever went out with in my life," he continues. "And I walked into a party with her, and a friend said to me, 'Fat thighs.' Instead of being arrested by her beauty, he spotted that; that's representative of a kind of horrible ability out here."
Now that the film has been whipped and snipped into shape -- most who have seen it agree the seams left by the excised musical numbers hardly show -- the question for Mr. Brooks is whether audiences will accept the movie as a seriocomic, poignant, father/daughter tale, or be turned off by the Hollywood motif.
Producer Platt, in particular, is concerned. "I wonder if there's any goodwill left for Hollywood," she says. "I don't think people love Hollywood as I did as a kid. They perceive us as craven rich people who whine too much."