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Q&A: ‘Defending Your Life’ at 30. Why Albert Brooks’ view of afterlife bureaucracy endures

Albert Brooks sitting in a chair in "Defending Your Life."
Albert Brooks in his 1991 film “Defending Your Life,” which is being released in a restored edition by the Criterion Collection.
(Criterion Collection)
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Filmmaker and actor Albert Brooks crafted portraits of contemporary life that are somehow ironic and earnest, affectionate and misanthropic, stretching their knowing authenticity to a point of skeptical absurdity.

A Hollywood kid, Brooks’ life and career cover an astonishing span of show business history. His father, Harry Einstein, was a popular radio comedian known as Parkyakarkus in the 1930s and ’40s. Dad died immediately after performing at the Friars Club induction of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in 1958, when Brooks was only 11. Brooks began performing on television variety shows in the late 1960s and had a successful stand-up comedy career in the 1970s. After making a series of short films for the first season of “Saturday Night Live,” he released his debut feature as a filmmaker in 1979 with “Real Life.”

What came next was a poignant and pointed series of films — “Modern Romance” in 1981, “Lost in America” in 1985, “Defending Your Life” in 1991 and “Mother” in 1996 — that were snapshots of comfortably insulated, white middle-class American life, full of foibles, anxiety, ambition and discontent. “The Muse” in 1999 and “Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World” in 2005 continued his streak of idiosyncratic, deeply personal comedic filmmaking.

It’s notable that in his first and, for now, last films he played characters named Albert Brooks, exaggerated creatures of show business who reveled in revealing outsize ego and insecurity.

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As an actor, Brooks made his screen debut in “Taxi Driver” and over the years appeared in “Private Benjamin,” “Out of Sight,” “Drive,” “This Is 40” and “A Most Violent Year.” His performance as a jealous and principled TV news reporter in “Broadcast News” earned him a nomination for a supporting actor Oscar in 1988. As a voice performer, he’s appeared in “Finding Nemo,” “Finding Dory,” “The Simpsons” and “The Secret Life of Pets.”

Albert Brooks, in Santa Monica, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2015. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Albert Brooks on Jan. 9, 2015 in Santa Monica.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Brooks frequently collaborated on the screenplays to his movies with Monica Johnson, who died in 2010, but “Defending Your Life” was one he wrote on his own.

In that film, which opened on March 22, 1991, and on March 30 will be newly available in a 30th anniversary restored disc from the Criterion Collection, Brooks imagines the afterlife as a bureaucratic waystation. People are sent first to watch scenes from their life, with a defense lawyer and a prosecutor to decide whether their soul should move forward to the next evolutionary step or be sent back to Earth to try again. Rip Torn and Lee Grant play the defense attorney and prosecutor, respectively, of Brooks’ character, Daniel Miller. During his trial he meets a woman, Julia (Meryl Streep), who seems on the path to a very different afterlife.

Brooks recently got on the phone to talk about the film and his career.

Albert Brooks, left, in "Defending Your Life."
(Criterion Collection)

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When someone mentions “Defending Your Life,” what does it bring to mind for you?

It depends on how they say it. “Do you know where I can find ...?” That’s a question. “Why the hell did you make ... ?” That’s another question. But I don’t have any pat feelings.

I’ve heard you say that “Defending Your Life” is the movie of yours that people talk to you about the most. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s the subject of fear and death. I’ve had people say that they showed it to people they thought were heading out of here, just to give some sort of meaning where they couldn’t find meaning. And I just think that when you get into those topics, you’re going to get much more emotion. If you talk about literally anything to do with dying and what that may mean, that’s something everybody thinks about. And especially since this isn’t religious, it’s more about standing up for yourself while you’re alive. I think a lot of people have that issue.

Where did your conception of the afterlife come from? Did you do much research into different theologies or religions and ideas of what the afterlife might be?

I was aware, certainly, of the way the Buddhists thought. I was well aware of that. I was aware of the religion that I was brought up in. I grew up in a religion that doesn’t really deal with hell. And so I didn’t much like the idea of hell. It’s kind of living because you’re afraid of the after, of the punishment, doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me. I can’t say that anything makes huge amounts of sense, but if one idea that you would have about death is that it’s literally nothing, that’s a hard sell. “And what would the movie be?” “Well, the screen goes dark and that’s it.” “OK. Well, let us think about it.”

So it always occurred to me that if I was able to understand something, why would it just be here? In other words, why wouldn’t it have some sort of universal idea? If I could understand it, it must be larger than me. And then I looked at the way the world works and it sort of occurred to me that it would make sense that if the Earth were part of the universe, that the universe could work that way too. So that sort of gave the idea of a businesslike environment, just a giant corporation and run like a giant corporation. And that’s sort of what the character of Rip Torn explains about the universe, that we’re just parts of a giant machine.

And if that part’s defective, we gotta go back and fix it up. And so I think that one of the big ideas of the movie was that this wasn’t the final resting place, that humans can do better somewhere else, where there’s more brain use, more thought, more intelligence. And that if you had that, this may not be the final stop for you. So that always intrigued me.

In your films, do the characters you’re playing represent your own concerns and anxieties at the time?

Yes, because I’ve written all those movies. Any movie that I wrote, that’s a bigger part of me even than acting in them. And so, yes, I have thought that I’ve wasted a lot of my life being afraid when I shouldn’t have and, yes, in “Mother,” there was a lot of my mother in that and the relationship that baby boomers had with their mothers. That has to come from my experience because I’ve written it. And so that would differentiate between an acting role. I mean, if I play Cyril Wecht, who was the head of the hospital in “Concussion,” I didn’t write that.

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But when you start writing, I at least write from something that’s meaningful to me. “Modern Romance,” there were aspects of that relationship that I went through that were terrible, but I thought it would make a good movie. Actually, “Lost in America” was mostly about the people in life that make these huge decisions that go bad in two weeks. That’s what fascinated me about life-changing decisions: “This is the way it’s going to be, we’re packing up.” And then you only hear about that and you assume it’s OK. I thought, what about all the others that get to Wyoming and go, “Jesus Christ, is this a mistake.” So that was an idea.

“Defending Your Life” had a lot of versions. It didn’t just come in a spurt. And I think in a very early version, it did not have that ending at all. One of the very first versions I ever wrote of that, Daniel was sent back. And I think the last scene was a pasture with a horse and you knew it was him. That was one idea, but damn if it didn’t work its way into this very nice love story and that’s when you see it; that’s what it should be. The other would have been funny, but this was the movie it was meant to be.

The films in your body of work as a writer-director all really reflect their moment. They are very funny and yet they each have much deeper themes going on. Do you see comedy as the spoonful of sugar that lets you explore the bigger ideas?

The real answer is that I think I never even thought of it as comedy. I was naturally funny as a very young kid. I could make people laugh; I knew how to do that. When you’re trying to sell a movie, the studios, they perk up when they hear a comedy, so they’re called comedies and they will go into that classification whether I want them to or not. But when I’m working on them, I’m doing what you just said. I’m only trying to tell a story that to me is real. And, yes, if it’s not funny, I would have the right to make a serious movie. I would just have to tell people upfront, don’t expect anything funny in this.

So I just look at the movies as individual stories. That’s most important. And within that story, you make it funny. You could make it hysterically funny, that’s great, but you still have to tell the story. And you learn that early on in previews, because you’ll sit in a preview and you will hear laughter so loud that you can’t even stand it. And then at the end of the preview, you’re getting these comments of, “I don’t like what happened — I’m confused. Why did the person not get the promotion?” And you realize early on, “Gee, all that laughter is not even adding up to a compliment.” So what they’re really watching is a story. And if they liked the story and they go with the characters, they’re not measuring the laughs, but if it’s raucous but they’re not buying it, I’m in trouble at the end.

Meryl Streep and Albert Brooks in 'Defending Your Life'.
(Criterion Collection)

Tell me how you came to cast Meryl Streep. This role is during her pivot to comedies, and there’s a relaxed quality to her performance in “Defending Your Life” that she hadn’t shown as much before.

I was friends with Carrie Fisher, and Carrie Fisher used to have these parties and she would invite different people she knew. And I came to her house once and Meryl Streep was there with some other people. And I began a conversation with her and she was just the easiest-going person you would want to meet. And it was like, “Wow, I didn’t know you were that person. I, like everybody else, thought you were the movie characters.” So we talked about work and everything and she said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m just about ready to start a movie I’m really excited about.” And she sort of smiled and said, “Is there a part in it for me?” And I laughed and went, “Yeah, right.” And I went home and I thought, “Jesus, this would really work nicely.”

But what would work nicely is the person I spent those two hours with. And so she was interested and she understood what I was going for. And she sort of hung out. She literally let her hair down and just was this casual, easygoing person who happened to be, in the story, the perfect person. And she did that effortlessly and it was great. It was great for the story. It was great for me. And I don’t think I ever would have thought of that if I didn’t actually have the experience of seeing it. Because, you know, Meryl Streep, as she racked up more and more performances, if you didn’t get a chance to meet her, you would just have no idea. You would just assume the person you’re seeing is Sophie, because that’s all you would know. So this chance of seeing another person and that other person saying. “I’d like to work with you,” and me thinking, “Gee, if I could get that person in the movie, that would be amazing.” That was a nice thing that worked out.

Can I ask you about your friendship with Carrie Fisher? Especially in the time since she died, her legacy has just grown and grown. How did the two of you first meet?

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God, I’ve known her for so long and I can’t remember the first time we met. I think the early ’70s. And I think people introduced us because she was known to be really funny. And so she was someone just to be funny with and laugh with and do bits with. She was really this magnetic personality. I didn’t remain extremely close as life continued because the lives became too different. Carrie had another kind of life that involved way more socialization than I felt comfortable doing, but I always remained her friend. She always had these yearly parties that were the big ones, the only one I went to, that’s where you’d see everyone you ever met. And then a nice thing happened on the other side of our friendship, where I called her out of the blue and said, “Do you think your mother could play my mother?”

And she said, “She’d be great.” So she went to work on Debbie [Reynolds, Fisher’s mother] and made Debbie feel comfortable about it. And that was a good person for me to cast. And it was interesting that I called Carrie. Listen, Carrie was brilliant. She had her problems, as we all know, with substances and other stuff, and she worked through it as best she could, but she was really clever and really fun to talk to. And in the early ’70s, every guy left with a crush. Men were dropping at her feet.

Do you see yourself directing again?

I don’t think about it in those kinds of terms. I wrote a novel a few years ago called “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America,” and I had been working on that as a limited series. But the truth is, I think the pandemic has stopped it in its tracks right now. So I would have directed some of those. And if I wrote a screenplay, I would know what kind of movie I could get made now. I understand the landscape. And so if I wrote a movie for the new landscape, I’d be fine directing it. I mostly like to direct movies that I write, because directing by itself isn’t really what I longed to do. What I really liked to do was write, and then the directing serviced the writing.

I remember the first movie I ever wrote, “Real Life,” I went to Carl Reiner, who I knew my whole life. And I said, “Do you want to direct this?” And he was smart enough to read it and say, “You have to do this. I won’t do this. This is your brain. You direct it.”

And it turns out that’s really what you have to do, because the directing is the casting and it’s how long the scene goes and how subtle something is. It’s all of those choices. And if you’ve written it, you want it handled right. And so you do it out of necessity.

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