When you trace the history of the modern comedy – whether big-screen or small – producer James L. Brooks's name is unavoidable. As the creative force behind The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show, Broadcast News, As Good as It Gets and a little enterprise called The Simpsons, Brooks is an industry legend, with 22 Emmys and three Academy Awards to his name. This Friday, the producer will release The Edge of Seventeen, a rare R-rated teen comedy that harks back to the less-sanitized days of The Breakfast Club. The Globe and Mail spoke with Brooks during September's Toronto International Film Festival, where The Edge of Seventeen screened as the closing-night film.
What struck me about The Edge of Seventeen was how upfront it is – it never feels condescending or even out of touch. How closely did you work with [the film's writer-director] Kelly Fremon Craig?
It was a long process. She came in with a first draft that was very different from what it is now. But then, just before she left the room, she did a P.S.: "Nobody will work as hard as I will." And since then, she's been true to her word. It was my sense of her, more than the script. She went on to research it for six months, talking to kids, establishing relationships. The second draft came in and it was extraordinary.
Suddenly there was a voice there, and a heroine talking like no heroine had ever talked before. And then it was like playing roulette, in terms of casting. … When Hailee [Steinfeld] came in, we just couldn't believe it. And then Woody [Harrelson], thank heavens, he was passing through town and he read the script and was able to take a walk with Kelly and feel extremely comfortable about who was directing him.
And you have a long history of working with Woody – he was in your first play [1990's Brooklyn Laundry].
My only play! I don't think we'd have a movie if he didn't do it, because we needed a "name." But I also don't think we'd have a movie if anyone else would have done it, either.
It's so easy to make his teacher character this sentimental, generic thing. Woody threaded a needle we didn't know was there until he was doing it. It all depended so much on his and Hailee's chemistry.
What was it like working with the studio STX? They're a relatively new player in the game.
Well, they broke their business model to support us. They're designed for more expensive pictures, and we're pretty low. But they were supportive and present for the whole time – they were part of the intensity. It was interesting to have a real studio that focused on us. I was knocked out that Adam [Fogelson, chairman of STX] went over and looked at our last timing – I've never had that happen before. And now the release date makes me nuts. It's scary as hell, I don't know.
Well, with a late-November release, it's being positioned for certain things, in terms of awards consideration.
Everybody wants to go see the other movie. It's not crazy to say that, for that weekend. But I don't know. I mean, there's never a weekend that doesn't scare you. I'm not an expert on it, but I know just enough to be scared shitless.
But STX's support must be reassuring. How challenging is it to make these middle- and low-budget films right now?
Well, from what I hear, this might be a banner year, where the good guys win. It's significant, because you have television going through a renaissance, where the pursuit of excellence is also good commercial sense. But in film, you have this other thing that's really safe and if you bet a lot of money on it, and it works, well, that's the way to go.
And that was never true before and it's resulted in a lot of horror stories for a lot of people, myself included. The middle picture, where I existed … well, I call them the "not you" years. As in, you see someone in the industry you know and they tell you a horror story of not getting their film off the ground, and I say, "Not you!" But this year, I've heard of so many different titles that I must see, it's fantastic. It's like the cavalry arrived!
Speaking of television, your career is filled with so many TV classics. What do you make of the current "peak TV" landscape?
I rejoice in it. I'm a big fan. But really, it's how you apply your time. Fargo, man, with so many actors playing so many great characters and then they do another season and it changes all over again? It's wild. Did you see The Night Of? I thought the courtroom stuff was bad, but my involvement was total, from episode to episode.
I wanted to talk about journalism with you for a moment, a field that's been explored so much in your career, from Mary Tyler Moore to Broadcast News.
[Laughs] Deep breath. I'm a journalism junkie. I think we're in a funny position now, you go from being the fourth estate, the watchdog of democracy, to being the whipping dogs. What has fallen so much? The economics of it have been so savaged. But I think responsible journalism is in a tough spot this election year, because the country could fall if we elect the wrong guy. We won't have the United States of America any more and we won't have any humanity any more. So I think responsible journalism is putting a light on the front pages and saying, 'watch out.' And I hope they pull it off. But much of television was corrupted by the ratings of the Republican convention, getting numbers like that. But the future is hanging in there some place, at the circus.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't ask about future plans for The Simpsons, including a second movie.
I have to talk carefully, so let me see: It's possible. We always feel religious about the right to chicken out. We're doing a lot of different stuff right now, so it's almost like we couldn't handle a film, from a workload point. We've worked with Google on virtual reality and we're feeling excited about it.
And when I say we're working with Google, it's more we walk into a meeting with their engineers and you understand seven minutes of a two-hour meeting. But it's exciting and we do have the notion of returning to a film – morale is very high, because we're getting to go to all these places to screw around and try new things.
And do you have any plans to return to directing?
I'm working on a script and I'm very committed to it. I've done three drafts and I'm doing some research, so we'll see where that takes me. But I definitely want to do this script and I want it to be a movie. That's my wish.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The Edge of Seventeen opens Nov. 18.