It was a filmmaker’s worst nightmare. An early test screening of “I’ll Do Anything,” a musical comedy about the movie industry, had been poorly received. Word was circulating in Hollywood that members of the audience had walked out of the Culver City screening room or otherwise shown their disapproval of Oscar-winning director and screenwriter James L. Brooks’ Christmas release.
A staunch believer in the test screening process, Brooks is accustomed to negative reaction early in the game. His 1983 “Terms of Endearment,” which ultimately won five Academy Awards, and his Oscar-nominated 1987 “Broadcast News” also had problems initially. Both films went on to become substantial hits.
The response to the Aug. 7 screening of “I’ll Do Anything” was different, however. The main stumbling block were the songs, written by Prince, Sinead O’Connor and Carole King and performed by actors such as Nick Nolte and Julie Kavner, who are not known for musical roles. “At three points in the movie they (the audience) absolutely rebelled against the way we presented the music,” Brooks said later. “It was up there with the top five worst professional times in my life.”
In the $40-million film from Columbia Pictures, Nolte is an unemployed actor who suddenly finds himself forced to take care of his troubled 6-year-old daughter. Joely Richardson portrays a junior studio executive and Albert Brooks is an arrogant producer attracted to a character played by Kavner who, ironically enough, conducts test screenings.
Many filmmakers test audience reaction to their movies by showing them to people recruited from shopping centers or other public places. Normally these screenings are the most closely guarded part of the filmmaking process. But The Times attended two subsequent screenings of “I’ll Do Anything” and discussed all three previews with Brooks in a series of interviews.
The second screening--out of a planned series of seven--took place Aug. 25 in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa. A third followed Sept. 7 in Long Beach. The locations were selected to avoid press leaks. Top Columbia executives, including studio chairman Mark Canton, attended both previews. For these two screenings, Brooks eliminated nearly all of the musical numbers in order to focus on whether his story line and characters got across to the audience. As he states below, he still intends to release “I’ll Do Anything” as a musical.
Brooks would not permit interviews with audience members or examination of their evaluation cards. But clearly, both screenings went off far better than the first. In both cases, the jokes drew laughter--more so during the third screening than during the second. There was applause in San Diego, but it was tepid compared to the warmer clapping in Long Beach. Only a few people left the theater during either screening.
The following interviews were conducted on the Columbia lot:
Aug. 20 Interview
Question: Why do you go through this process?
Answer: I do a lot of previews. I don’t know how to cut a picture without it. Sometimes you fight very hard to hold onto something that the audience doesn’t like. An example would be Holly Hunter’s crying in “Broadcast News.” Part of it is about communication. You have these thoughts, you’re wondering if they’re getting across, you’re trying to tell a story. You want to please as many as people as possible but there’s a lot beside that. For example, the sweat scene in “Broadcast News” (in which the television news reporter played by Albert Brooks blows his tryout as an anchorman by sweating profusely) laid an egg at several previews. We kept on editing that, kept on revising it. I talked to people afterward (and asked) what was the thing we did that made the scene work, and nobody quite remembers. It was just the process of doing it, taking it back to an audience and altering it each time that actually made it work.
Post-production is huge to me, and editing is one of the parts I enjoy the most. You always hope the picture that wants to be released will start to assert itself. I hardly ever do reshooting. I do this instead.
In (“I’ll Do Anything”) there’s a song 45 minutes in that the audience would not allow us to do (rejected). With each succeeding song, with I think two exceptions, we didn’t have a problem. The goal has always been to do a musical that doesn’t sacrifice reality because it’s a musical. So part of what happened with these songs in particular and some others was that they stopped reality. The picture stopped dead every time. These were solo songs (actual solos by Kavner and Whittni Wright, who plays Nolte’s daughter Jeannie, and a duet performed by Nolte and Whittni). The production numbers were OK and one of them played quite well.
So I decided to screen the movie without music for the next preview and I’m doing it (so I can focus on story and characters). What you will see is a movie. No question about it it’s a movie. But there’s things the music does for me that I really want. There’s something about the emotional life, something about capturing the atmosphere of the community they work in.
Q: So you’ll be trying to see if the story works. Give me an example of what else you’ll be looking for?
A: The child I’m trying to capture is a complicated, mercurial child. If she’s perceived as a brat I’ve done something wrong. If she’s perceived as adorable, I’ve done something wrong.
Aug. 27 Interview
Q: Now you’ve had a second screening. How were the scorecards (filled out by the preview audience)?
A: They were really good. The character Nick (Nolte) plays is nothing heroic, but tries to maintain a decent honest life. He hasn’t seen his kid in two years . . . and he’s pursuing a career that people really aren’t sympathetic toward. The great news for me--aside from the fact they were laughing at the jokes--is that they accept him as a human being and they end up really caring about him.
Here’s the next bit of good news: My most fervent goal was to present a 6-year-old child as a complicated person. So she’s tempestuous and unpredictable.
Q: Those are words that people used?
A: No, they talk about tantrums, they talk about how she behaves, but then with all that, they do enormously well by her as a character. I’ve never seen anything quite like that kind of acceptance. They write down how high they rate a character. And she rated really high.
Q: When you say “acceptance"--that means they find them plausible? Does it mean they have to like them?
A: What I loved is the child does not allow you to like her in any traditional way, I think, until the ending. . . . It would have been tough on me if (Whittni) had not been credited as an actress and she was.
The negatives (reactions from the audience) were (at) the beginning (of the film). . . .
Q: You mean that it took too long to get to the part where Matt Hobbs (played by Nolte) is reunited with his daughter?
Q: Just before we started this interview, you came up with a new opening?
A: You’re seeing me in a celebratory mood, because right now, this is our opening. And I think it works right now.
Remember what I’m doing at this time. I’m shaking out my core story, my core relationships. I’m trying to get sleek, to get purposeful. I have multiple stories--it’s always tricky. You don’t want going to the other story to be frustrating. You’re trying to keep both stories somewhat compelling. I know there’s a feeling of redundancy (but) I know why every scene I showed the other night was in there.
Q: The audience also found the ending a little abrupt?
A: Clearly, I had a great wave going from the moment (the child) started to cry. That’s the emotional ending for me. And then there’s this coda afterward. By the way, the coda when I go musical I think will be very strong.
Q: In the movie, Joely Richardson plays Cathy, a so-called development girl at the movie studio. She starts a relationship with Matt but then does something that harms him professionally. How did the audience feel about the character of Cathy?
A: I wanted her to be caught in-between, to be somebody of an age where you’re up for grabs, where you can go either way (morally). . . . The thing that shocks me--and this is something clearly wrong with me, not the audience--is people thought they (Cathy and Matt) should end up together. I think Cathy has committed an absolute act of betrayal. And it is not so perceived.
Q: Her behavior didn’t trouble your audience?
A: Yes, but not enough. It’s a communication. And if it doesn’t happen, it’s your fault.
Q: Wait a minute, these are moviegoers in suburban San Diego. What makes them right?
A: I’m trying to write about human beings. I’m always amazed at how much an audience gets. If you show them this table and (later) ask questions about what was on the table, they just notice everything. And by the way, that’s the basis of the communication. If you believe they notice everything, then you put something on the table and you want them to notice it. I think it’s demonstrable fact.
Q: At this point, you plan to delete a funny scene in which the child does an imitation of Cathy’s mannerisms.
A: Things that work in themselves can get in the way of something else. The audience laughed. But here’s the thing: I know the audience has a problem with length and pace.
So this time around, what we’re dealing with is the beginning, the very ending, some attention to pace--though I almost have to postpone that one a little until our musical life is resolved fully--and the relationship with Cathy.
Q: Your next screening will also be without songs?
A: I’m going to have one (plus one that was left in for the second screening). I would hope on the one after this to start reintroducing the music.
Q: I can imagine the studio putting pressure on you to stick with the non-musical form.
A: The top guy here (Columbia Chairman Mark Canton) is really genuinely supportive. And he was the person who got me most of my songs. I talk to him. He talks to me. He has some responsibilities that are a little different from mine. We have some in common.
Q: You could reintroduce some songs but not all of them?
A: I have to find my form, and I have to present (the songs) in a way that does not undermine the emotional reality of the picture. I have to change my game plan on how I introduce the music, what my first number is, how it functions, who sings and where.
Q: Can you do two versions?
A: No, though it’s been suggested.
Q: The studio originally scheduled this movie for Thanksgiving release?
A:. No, never Thanksgiving. The first trailer says “coming this Christmas.” That’s the quickest; we’re killing ourselves now.
Q: But Columbia issued a release that had this film scheduled for Thanksgiving--
Q: Did you get a score on each of these elements that we talked about?
A: I don’t want to get into the scores.
Q: But you were happy with it?
A: We were. The final score is going to mean something. We were happy. Sometimes a character can get a low score but that’s the nature of the character. The girl who commits this treachery--though they still think (she and Matt) should end up together--they know that she did some wrong things, and that’s reflected.
Q: You could have cast singers in these roles but you didn’t. Why not?
A: Somewhere in my mind I wanted to honor working actors. I’ve been around them a lot of my life. It’s what this movie is about. Nick is the great “been around this town, been through it 11 different ways.” His baggage couldn’t be better for this movie.
Q: You said the other day, some people do reshoots, you fix everything in the editing.
A: It’s not a religion or anything but I sure would rather not, and I don’t see the need to do it this time so far. I don’t think it (reshooting) will happen.
Sept. 10 Interview
Q: So now, after the third screening, where do you stand?
A: At this point I know the comedy the way it’s now presented works. I think the relationships work, with one exception, Cathy--and I think there’s a righteous reason--I’ve screwed up with her (laughs). I changed just a few things; I mean these are really subtle changes (but they) made them resent the character so much they didn’t know why I was presenting the relationship.
Q: So it went from one extreme to the other?
A: (Yes.) What I want is a woman with two forces in her who ends up taking one road at the end of the film.
Right now, I’m trying to get my music back in, and this relationship, and some pacing stuff is about what I’m left with. I’m OK with everything else.
Q: So what you did with this character was . . .
A: Gave her a little less time at the beginning, changed her last line in the film, added some lines.
Q: But these few changes have the audience doing a U-turn on her?
A: It’s amazing . . .
Q: So in other words they found her charming and then they disliked her at the end?
A: There’s a delicate balance with Cathy that I must find.
Q: Will you have to do any reshoots to achieve this balance?
A: I think I’m going to go out next week and get Nick in a car and reshoot for one sentence. Just one line.
By the way, the new thing is I’m very happy with my new opening.
Q: So at this point, the audience no longer felt you weren’t getting to your main story fast enough?
Q: What else did you learn from the Long Beach screening?
A: There was no part of the movie that I showed in Long Beach that didn’t work. There wasn’t a scene that didn’t play. All the reaction to the characters, with the exception of that one relationship, was exactly the way you’d want it.
Q: You still have a problem with the ending, even though it now includes a song?
A: My problems are taking an emotional moment that happens three or four minutes before the end of the movie . . . and not having it dissipate before the end of the movie. (Reaction to the ending) was better this time but not good enough. Pace was better this time, but not good enough.
Q: I am a still a little puzzled by the idea that (scores from evaluation cards filled out by) a movie audience in San Diego or Long Beach can have so much effect.
A: I hope I’m not doing that (relying on scores). I don’t think I am. Because if you play a numbers game it’s silly, it’s like having a computer write the thing in the first place.
Q: So the score does not influences you very much.
A: You’re aware of it. You get a lot of scores--on each character, each element, each scene. By the way I read every card. So these are strangers but they’ve looked at your movie and now they’re writing you these notes.
Q: But aren’t you worried about catering to the lowest common denominator?
A: No, because I won’t. I swear to God I won’t.
Q: But some other directors see these previews as interference with the artistic process.
A: They did this in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Every movie you loved went through this in some form or another. . . . I’m trying to communicate.
Q: So why do the scores at all? Why not just ask them for their comments?
A: I don’t feel like I have to make a religion out of that either. It seems legitimate to me. . . . (But) that’s why I read every card. Because (when) somebody counts them up and says this many people thought this, this many people said that, it’s not the same as going through the cards. You get out of the numbers game when you say gee, this is a woman of 34 and she went to college and she’s married and she thought this. . . . Sometimes I look at people’s faces instead of the screen. It’s not about a faceless numbers game to me.
Q: You are still determined to put back the songs?
A: I really want this to be a musical.
Q: It’s hard to imagine that the studio isn’t saying, why not let well enough alone?
A: There is that, I think in a supportive way. They endorse making a musical so there are people (at the studio) who share that with me. But they’re going to a movie and hearing an audience laugh a lot, and I’m going in and adding an ingredient which the first time I used it was a negative ingredient over all. So yeah, there is that.
Q: You’re still trying to open the movie at Christmas?
A: Yes. (But) to make Christmas I have to limit myself to two more previews.
Q: You’re not going to do the seven then?
A: In order to make Christmas I don’t think I could.
Q: There have been rumors that the picture might be delayed until next year. What would be the harm of that?
A: Probably none. I’m clearly not going to say I can put out a picture that’s almost the picture that I want so I can get it out at Christmas. . . . I hope my choice would be for the picture I really want to put out.