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‘As Good As It Gets’ Turns 20: Helen Hunt, James L. Brooks, Greg Kinnear Share Secrets of an Oscars Winner

Twenty years ago, Jack Nicholson hopped through the streets of downtown Manhattan, trying to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk in “As Good as it Gets.” Playing the obsessive-compulsive novelist Melvin Udall in the James L. Brooks-directed comedy landed Nicholson his third Oscar in 1998. It was a difficult task, channeling a character that falls in love with a waitress as his local diner (Helen Hunt) and befriends his gay neighbor (Greg Kinnear), while staying true to his core as a grumpy brute. “You make me want to be a better man,” he says in an often-quoted line from the script.

If you revisit “As Good As It Gets” now, you can see how much has changed in Hollywood. For starters, the movie cost $50 million, a much larger budget than what studios currently spend on character-driven ensembles like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” or “Lady Bird.” When it opened in theaters on December 23, 1997, it only grossed a paltry $12.6 million its first weekend, crushed by the behemoth that was “Titanic.” But over several months, the movie became a smash hit, earning almost $150 million in North America and more than $300 million worldwide.

The Academy Awards were much bigger back then. In 1998, some 57 million viewers tuned in to watch “As Good As Gets” duke it out with “Titanic,” “Good Will Hunting,” “L.A. Confidential” and “The Full Monty” for best picture. While “Titanic” swept almost everything, “As Good As It Gets” took home a pair of important trophies: It was the last time that two lead actors (Nicholson and Hunt) from the same movie received the top acting Oscars.

As this year’s awards season comes to a close, Variety asked Brooks, Hunt and Kinnear to share some of their favorite memories from the Warner Bros. release, from casting to script changes. Even though Nicholson wasn’t available to join them, he frequently popped up in their stories.

I saw the movie again last night. It still holds up; it’s so wonderful and lovely all these years later.

[Silence.]

Helen Hunt: Jim, say thank you.

James L. Brooks: You know something? There was this thing that happened at the Writers’ Guild, so I had to go back and look for clips. I started to watch the movie. There was a scene early in the movie where Helen confronts Jack, talking about how her kid is going to die like everyone else. The acting was so tense and dangerously good, that I was just spellbound. I didn’t understand that I had any connection with it.

Hunt: I talked about you all the time Jim, because you hold such a giant place in my creative brain. I always looked at it, from my point of view, as a story about three people, which was already unique. I was always in opposition to Jack; I was serving him food or answering a door or showing up at a door. We were never really in a shot together. And then we did one scene where we were shoulder to shoulder and the next day, Jim brought us in to look at the dailies, kind of on fire, and he said, “Do you see what I see? It’s a romantic comedy.” We were three quarters of the way through.

How did you all first meet?

Brooks: I don’t think we met before auditions, right?

Hunt: No. I auditioned and the story I heard was that you were politely, reluctantly willing to see me, because I seemed so not right for the part.

Brooks: What happens when an audition goes great is you see you have a shot at the movie for the first time. At a certain point, Helen said to me, “I don’t mind coming back, but I think you need to make a decision now.”

How many actors did you see for Helen and Greg’s parts?

Brooks: I don’t think anybody could tell you the answer to that. For Greg, it was crazy how far the net was cast.

Hunt: It was epic.

Brooks: Over a period of months and months. I was meeting with people who had never acted before and people who were famous. And Greg had only done one part that had been released and a friend of mine, Garry Marshall, said you should really look at this guy. There’s something enormously likable about him. And then I went to see him, he was filming in San Francisco, and the scenes played.

Helen Hunt and Jack Nicholson after their best actress and actor wins at the 1998 Golden Globes.
MARK J. TERRILL/AP/REX/Shutterst

Greg Kinnear: I think my parents auditioned for the role. Everybody in the world auditioned for the role. But I only found out after the fact, thankfully. I hadn’t done very much at all. I mean, literally, my favorite movie is “Broadcast News.” Even on “Talk Soup,” I used to do the William Hurt part as a joke. I loved Simon so much the moment I read it.

Hunt: I feel like it’s worth saying. Now, directors put Justin Timberlake in the “Social Network” if you’re adventurous. You make choices for all sorts of reasons. I was on a sitcom [“Mad About You”] and Greg had been on E!. I don’t know if I was the coolest choice on the block.

Brooks: The truth is, there’s a pressure for a certain kind of casting from the list all the time. The more money is at stake, the more that pressure is extraordinary, almost irresistible for someone who may do very well in Europe. If you cut me open, you could see everything in me believes the picture we’re talking about could not have worked with anybody else in those three parts. It’s a hard truth to face in casting. You don’t find it unless you beat the door open until it happens.

Greg, your character was groundbreaking at the time as a three-dimensional gay man in a studio movie. That wasn’t so common 20 years ago.

Kinnear: Yeah, there weren’t a lot. There had been some. The truth is, that he was gay was insignificant to who he was as a person. Yes, I saw that he was gay and I guess that should have felt more underlined and highlighted at the time. He was written as such a beautiful human being, with vulnerability and ultimately strength. It just was who he was.

Brooks: The movie felt that responsibility. There was no ducking it. There’s a scene in Simon’s hospital room, where he’s beaten under very ugly, savage circumstances. That morning, we decided to make it a comedy scene. We had a great time and it never hurt the reality.

Greg Kinnear with Verdell the dog in “As Good As It Gets”
MARK J. TERRILL/AP/REX/Shutterst

Kinnear: There was also a scene, after we went to the hotel, he was going to visit his parents in the original draft. And literally that kept getting kicked down the road. It was done for the right reason, because ultimately it wasn’t the way the second act gently folds into the third act.

Brooks: The big deal when any picture works is, you’ve found the right tone. On this one, it was particularly difficult. There was another scene from the script, where we look for the person who had beaten Simon. We wanted to find that person and punish him. When I cut that scene, I had to cut Jack saying a line, which will not appear again in a hurry, because he’s trying to get a male prostitute from leaving and stall. And his line is, “I would like to purchase a blowjob!”

Hunt: You must be a little sad it’s not in the movie.

Kinnear: Here, let me try it. [Laughs.] The other aspect of this is on the set, where you’re asked to go nose to nose with arguably the biggest star in the world, dressing you down and telling you not to knock on his door again. I’m pretty sure, if you watch that scene, there are a few takes on my back and you see my shoulder shaking. I kept it together the whole movie, but there were moments where I had tears coming down my eyes when Jack was unloading on me. He never broke. I said to him afterwards, “I’m sorry I lost it.” He goes, “I used it.” That’s what I learned; he never left the character. It was remarkable.

Brooks: By the way, it should be mentioned, it was murder for Jack to find his character. He had to never wink at the camera, never re-assure anybody the guy wasn’t really fucked up. At times, I was no help to him whatsoever. All I was doing was being reduced to, “Not that’s not it,” and driving him crazy. And then, one day, we were so clearly stuck in the mud, and I sent the crew home with hours left to shoot, which is something you don’t do. I don’t know what we said. I know we talked for two or three hours and the next day, everything was ok.

Hunt: He was terribly worried one day, in the only way an actor can be, afraid that you’re going to be bad. In the makeup chair, he had a bit of a rant, and he said something like: “It doesn’t matter anyway.” And then he paused and said: “The only art I left is to not do that. To not go there.” That stayed with me forever. Now when I work, especially with younger actors, I try to tell that story. None of us have the right to throw our hands up. We have to stay in it and keep trying.

James L. Brooks chats with Jack Nicholson on the set of “As Good As It Gets.” Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Do you think Hollywood would still make a movie a movie like “As Good as It Gets” today, with the budget it had?

Brooks: Legs [at the box office] don’t happen anymore. That’s what makes the game tougher.

Hunt: But also so many good things have happened. That “Get Out” can get made and is what it is, it’s the reason to fall to the ground and say it’s all still worth it. I don’t think a movie like this, simply about these three people, could have the budget that it had. And so on one hand, you could say we were all spending too much back then. On the other hand, the attention to detail of the hotel room set and the time in the car and the ability to go home—God forbid—because we can’t be there by pounding at it. Not having money spent on things that are more subtle, I think that’s a loss, particularly in the hands of somebody like Jim. The fact that we had the time and ability to redo the last scene, those things mattered.

What was the original ending?

Brooks: Helen, do you know?

Hunt: No.

Brooks: I think there were word changes. We did a different street. The kiss was during the take. I yelled, “Kiss her!” It was 80 little things. This is where test screenings help you.

Hunt: I remember when people saw this, they were worried about the couple ending up together in a movie that was so uncompromisingly true and human they didn’t want it to be wrapped up. So earning it became everything. Maybe that’s why we went back.

Do you have any memories from attending the Oscars? It was such a tremendous year for movies.

Brooks: I just remember having a good time. By the way, I think this is a great year. The unconventional seems to be ruling.

Hunt: I don’t know how to say this without sounding like I’m saying a nice thing. I’ve never been supported as an actor like I was with Jim. I felt like my brain worked on this weird frequency that needed to know these things, and then I met this person. In the beginning, I was tenderly coming up with ideas, and expecting to be turned away: “I think she should have this accent; maybe she should talk like this.” I felt like I had finally met someone who was firing on as many cylinders–many of those cylinders, other people would call crazy. I had never had that before. If there’s a lasting affect, even if I don’t meet people who are like that, I’m not giving that up. That was an irreplaceable memory for me.

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