I SAW JAMES L. BROOKS’ NEW MOVIE, “I’ll Do Anything,” this week. I found it very, very funny, but I left the theater more distressed than amused. The source of my angst was not the movie itself, but rather the way in which we, the press, have treated it. Perusing the magazines and newspapers lately, one would conclude that Brooks’ film, which hasn’t even opened yet, was an expensive failure, if not an outright debacle. By creating this impression, my colleagues in the press have brought into focus a rather intriguing question: What is news and what constitutes, by contrast, a clear invasion of artists’ privacy?
Ask Brooks, the man responsible for such remarkable movies as “Terms of Endearment” and “Broadcast News,” and there’s little doubt where he stands. “All I ask is a chance to work on my films in private and to invite the critics and the public to judge me once the work is complete,” he says, which sounds like a reasonable proposition.
However, Brooks ran into trouble on his newest $ 40 million film when he interrupted his editing to try some test screenings before small, invited audiences. Brooks has always been an idiosyncratic director, whose first cuts have been vastly too long and disorienting. Even “Terms of Endearment” ran up mediocre test scores at first.
WITH HIS LATEST FILM, Brooks, to be sure, faced a rather unusual problem: The movie was designed to encompass eight musical numbers and had been touted by the studio as a musical. When Brooks saw the movie with an audience, however, he realized that he had made a misjudgment. “The music undermined the reality of the film,” he acknowledges. After the initial screening, he therefore took out all but one number, then shot for three additional days and did some re-editing. The results pleased both Brooks and his audiences at subsequent screenings. The scores went up and so did the director’s self-esteem.
That’s when his movie became news.
Having heard dire reports about the first test, the Los Angeles Times indicated its desire to do a piece about Brooks’ flip-flop. Unsuccessful in warding off the story, Brooks invited the reporter to wait until she could see the next two previews as well. A lengthy story ultimately appeared entitled “A Work Definitely in Progress.” It was a well-written piece that subjected the post-production process to intense scrutiny, but inevitably left the impression of a movie in trouble. Brooks claims he cooperated against his will. “I felt I was put in a position of fighting to defend my movie in the middle of creating it,” he says. “All I really wanted to do was finish the job — in privacy.”
Other reports were soon to follow, as one publication after another competed to show it had access to the “inside” news. Entertainment Weekly reported that the film had “a disastrous test screening,” quoting one member of the audience describing it as “the worst torture possible.” As recently as last week the New York Times suggested that the film was a $ 50 million disappointment.
My purpose here is not to single out specific reporters or publications for criticism. The journalists in question were, in fact, fulfilling their mandate — they were penetrating the studio’s wall of non-cooperation and disinformation and getting out the “truth.”
But I would ask my fellow editors the following question: Was this really a service after all? Does it serve the reader to pre-review a two-hour and 45 -minute first cut shown at a test screening — especially when the work comes from a director who is renowned for deconstructing and reconstructing his work in post-production? I have personally been involved with many movies, going back to the first “Godfather,” that previewed badly but were ultimately honed into hits. (Alas, I have also observed many films that went from bad to worse.)
IN OUR ZEAL TO COMPETE for news in an increasingly demanding environment, therefore, perhaps we should all think twice about intruding into “the process” itself. If a reporter writes about a deal before it is consummated, chances are the deal may never reach fruition, which leaves a reporter with a non-self-fulfilling prophecy. If a reporter writes off a movie as a flop before it has even completed its editing process, then that movie may very well be consigned to flopdom, whatever its merits.
In reporting on “the buzz,” the press is in fact creating it. In our desperation to be ahead of the news, we run the risk of making it rather than reporting it.
It’s bizarre that Jim Brookswould emerge as a high-profile victim of all this. No one has more street smarts than he in dealing with the media. Indeed, one important character in his film is a Joe Farrell-like individual who tests films and reports on their scores. Another key character, brilliantly portrayed by Albert Brooks, is a film producer who is utterly destroyed by the mediocre test scores registered by his most recent action film.
Hence we have the ultimate paradox: A film that is victimized by the very process it satirizes. Only Jim Brooks could concoct such a mess.
But here’s the rub: If Brooks is the victim, the press becomes the heavy. And that is indeed a disquieting situation.