As Good As It Gets: About The Production

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Director/writer/producer James L. Brooks is a three-time Academy Award ® -winner and thirteen-time Emmy Award-winner who has distinguished himself as the writer/director/producer of "Terms of Endearment" and "Broadcast News", and as the producer or executive producer of such films as "Say Anything," "Big," "Bottle Rocket" and writer of "Starting Over." He was the writer/producer of such innovative television programs as "Taxi," "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Lou Grant," "The Simpsons" and "The Tracey Ullman Show." Brooks most recently produced, with Richard Sakai, Laurence Mark and Cameron Crowe, the hit romantic comedy from TriStar Pictures, "Jerry Maguire."

Brooks first came across Mark Andrus' script a few years ago. "It was sent to me as a director, but I was working on another project at the time."

Screenwriter Mark Andrus had previously penned Columbia Pictures' 1991 film "Late for Dinner," which starred Peter Berg and Marcia Gay Harden. "My first thought was that I liked it enormously, and I wanted to produce it," says Brooks. "Mark is a tremendously gifted writer."

Brooks, who began his career as a writer, wanted to incorporate his vision of the story into Andrus' script. "I started to try and write some of what I wanted the movie to be about. It ended up being a year of writing for me."

Brooks was particularly attracted by the unconventional tone of the story, "The tone was completely up for grabs; I'd never seen anything like it."

To portray the extremely complicated character of Melvin Udall, Brooks called upon his former collaborator Jack Nicholson. Nicholson, whose distinguished body of work includes some of the most successful and highly acclaimed films of all time, won his second Academy Award for his performance as the womanizing astronaut Garrett Breedlove in Brooks' "Terms of Endearment." Nicholson won his first Oscar for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and earned nominations for his performances in the films "A Few Good Men," "Prizzi's Honor," "Reds," "Ironweed," "Chinatown," "The Last Detail," "Five Easy Pieces" and "Easy Rider." Among his recent credits are "The Crossing Guard," "Wolf," "Hoffa," "Batman," "Mars Attacks!" and "Blood and Wine".

"I think this is one of the toughest characters Jack has had to play," said Brooks. "There's something wrong with Melvin, but the nature of what is wrong with him is that he spends his life disguising what's wrong with him."

At the core of Melvin's personality is an obsessive-compulsive disorder. "It was a big decision to make it a clinical illness," explains Brooks. "It's an illness that most of us can relate to. We all get obsessed, and we are all compulsive about certain things - just not clinically so."

Melvin's disorder manifests itself in ways which are all at once infuriating, comic and tragic - from the plastic utensils he carries to avoid germs, to his fear of stepping on cracks in the sidewalk. "Jack brings the foolhardy to try playing this character. He and Melvin have a vulnerability in common," the director observes.

Carol Connelly is strangely patient with Melvin's antisocial behavior. A waitress at Melvin's neighborhood cafe, she is the only one who knows how to put him in his place.

"Carol's in her late thirties, and she has a son who has chronic, life-threatening asthma. She's worked for a long time in this very nice cafe in Manhattan," says Hunt of the character she portrays. "She meets this man who comes in every day at 11 o'clock, and they develop a very one-of-a-kind relationship."

Helen Hunt most recently starred in the runaway summer blockbuster "Twister,"' but is also well known for her role on TV's "Mad About You," for which she has won two Emmy Awards and three Golden Globe Awards. Her nearly two dozen feature film credits include "Mr. Saturday Night," "Bob Roberts" and "The Waterdance."

Hunt had been a great fan of the story even before director James L. Brooks had become attached. "It's my favorite story that I've read in years. It's hard to talk about it without sounding grand." "Helen came in to read, and that was it," Brooks recalls. "She is such a total actress that there are moments when I don't think there's anyone else who could have done it."

In order to fit in with the film's fall start date, Hunt had to juggle her shooting days with the "Mad About You" production schedule, working through the show's winter hiatus. On the unlikely bond that forms between Melvin and Carol, Hunt notes, "Like any relationship, they are, as Jim puts it, a 'lightning rod' for each other. He impacts her over and over again in one way or another, without meaning to. She finds herself caring for him in a very deep way long before she knows it."

Greg Kinnear plays Simon Nye, a gay artist who finds himself at a crossroads in his career. Kinnear most recently starred in the comedies "Dear God" and "A Smile Like Yours," after making his screen debut opposite Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond in "Sabrina." The former host of "Later with Greg Kinnear," he first came to prominence as the host of E! Entertainment Television's popular "Talk Soup" program.

"Simon's being gay is not a huge issue in terms of the story, but it really makes for a more contentious relationship than already exists between him and his eccentric neighbor. Melvin doesn't get along with people too much to begin with, and the fact that his neighbor is an artist is the first wave of discontent. The fact that he's a gay artist pretty much sets their relationship on a collision course." Due to a series of events, this unlikely trio finds themselves embarking on a journey together - both literally and figuratively.

"What starts out as three people who seemingly have nothing in common as they head out on this strange odyssey, by the end of the film you'll find they have more in common than you might have guessed," observes Kinnear.

Rounding out the supporting cast are Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Simon's art dealer, Frank Sachs, Shirley Knight as Carol's supportive mother, Beverly, and 7-year-old Jesse James as Carol's son, Spencer. Skeet Ulrich plays Vincent, a downtown street hustler who sets into motion a chain of events that ultimately brings Melvin, Carol and Simon together. Gooding recently won an Academy Award for his performance in "Jerry Maguire," which Brooks produced.

According to Gooding, Frank Sachs is something of an aberration. "Until I took this role and started doing research, I had no idea there weren't any African-American contemporary art dealers. Frank is in a very foreign environment and has to adapt immediately to any situation."

Veteran actress Shirley Knight portrays Carol's mother Beverly, a widow who has taken in her single-parent daughter. Knight describes Beverly as "a middle class Irish-Catholic living in Brooklyn. She's a good mother and a good grandmother, very strong, but fun-loving, too."

As the street hustler Vincent, actor Skeet Ulrich adds another credit to his list of recent roles including, "Scream," "Boys" and "Touch." "It's interesting how this guy kind of weaves his way into Simon's life without intending to. He's just hanging out on a street corner, gets picked up to go strip at a party and suddenly he's hired as a model," Ulrich explains.

Efforts to define "As Good As It Gets" in neat, concise terms appears to elude both the cast and the director. At the heart of the story, says Brooks, is a romantic comedy. "Boy does meet a girl," the director explains, but then he cautions, "It defies any conventional way of telling what the story is."

Brook's cast had complete confidence that he would see them through the subtleties of the story. "Jim is a brilliant director," enthuses Hunt. "He just plugs into what's true and then figures out how to manage the details." The actress had only compliments for her co-star as well. "I think that Jack is a prince. He and I seem to work in the same way. There's a nuts and bolts way of understanding the work."

Ulrich observes, "Jim lets your idiosyncrasies out, which is rare in a director. It's fun to have those quirky little moments - all the weird thoughts and looks. But he is constantly trying to figure out something else about it. As tiring as it can be for an actor, it doesn't get any better than this." Gooding adds, "Jim is really a brilliant actor as well. When you have to do a scene a hundred times, you need a director who knows how to give you different choices. He is such a student of life, he's always thinking about what one character would say to another, and he can take their different points of view in every situation."

"There are so many different issues dealt with and so many differerent relationships, that to try to sum it up in a nice, simple way is just about impossible," Kinnear observes.

"I can't imagine another part coming along that I would want to do as badly as this one," says Hunt. "If you've got to put it in a slot, it's a romamic comedy. But it's also a lot of other things, as are a lot of Jim's movies, which is why they're so tremendous."

"There are very dark things that happen in this picture, and yet I believe in it as a comedy." Brooks states simply, "I'd die if it wasn't real."

The Production...

Principal photography commenced September 24, 1996, with two weeks of location filming in New York City. The production filmed exteriors in Melvin's and Simon's Greenwich Village neighborhood and the Prospect Park district of Brooklyn, where Carol lives with her son and mother in a modest apartment.

Production designer Bill Brzeski explains how some of the New York locations were selected. "Where Melvin lived was really dictated by where Simon would live. We liked the neighborhood of the Upper West Side, but it was so unlikely that a painter would live there. After a lot of walking around, I found an apartment building on 12th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues."

"Then we found Carol's neighborhood in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. We needed to find a bakery, and we found one that we just fell in love with. Then we walked around the corner and found this wonderful block of row homes which we dressed down a little to be a more family- oriented, working class neighborhood." Brzeski, who most recently designed the film "Matilda," had previously worked with Brooks as an art director on "I'll Do Anything." After relocating to Los Angeles, the downtown area served as a setting for more exterior scenes. Under Brzeski's supervision, a dilapidated transient hotel on the corner of 4th Street and Main was transformed in the chic Cafe 24 heures where Carol works. "The cafe is a sort of neutral zone, and we didn't ever want to feel sorry for Carol having to work there," Brzeski notes.

Brzeski's biggest challenge was the design of the set for Simon and Melvin's apartment building, erected in a sound stage on the Sony Pictures lot. "This is a movie about two completely different people living in the same space. The basic set of this whole movie is Simon's apartment - about 75% of the story takes place there." "We tried to create two apartments that were different enough, but which felt like they could be in the same world. The look of both apartments was dictated by the character. Simon was a cutting-edge, New York kind of guy. We thought about fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and New York artist Ross Bleckner for inspiration."

Set decorator Clay A.Griffith describes the decor as a "90's take on classic 50's style."

Griffith, whose recent credits include the films "Jerry Maguire" and "Seven," collected various "retro-industrial" pieces to create the eclectic, yet tasteful design of Simon's apartment. Displayed prominently in Simon's swank apartment is his original artwork, created for the film by New York artist Billy Sullivan. Sullivan's work, which is part of the modern art collection of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art, has been shown in numerous galleries including the Fishbach Gallery in New York and Allez les Filles in Columbus, Ohio, among others.

Just as Sullivan's colorful artwork set the tone for Simon's interior design, the look of Melvin's apartment was dictated by his dysfunctional personality. Brzeski explains, "One guy lives in the world, and other guy doesn't. The painter was having fun with bright colors, etc., while Melvin's apartment is a very monochromatic, muted set." "We approached decorating Melvin's apartment with the idea that this was a strange kind of world that nobody ever visits. There are little islands of activity - he plays piano over here, watches tv over there - we got a lot of that from Jim."

Thanks to his successful career as a romance novelist, Melvin is quite wealthy, and his apartment reflects a refined, albeit quirky, taste. Set decorator Griffith filled his apartment with art deco style furniture, adorning the walls with a few paintings borrowed from Nicholson's own personal collection.

Melvin's idiosyncrasies are mirrored in his wardrobe as well, notes costume designer Moffy Maginnis. Maginnis, who previously worked with Brooks on "Broadcast News," explains, "We decided he was an eclectic guy with a sense of style. Jim and I looked at a number of books about writers, to see if anyone rang a bell. Then Jack got into it, and we started talking about a 'downtown' look."

We looked at 1940's sport shirts, things with lots of pockets for him to carry his plastic utensils, gloves, and who knows what else to protect him from the outside world. When we first looked at the schedule, we thought we had 21 wardrobe changes. Then I sat down and thought about it: every time he goes out and every time he comes in, he washes his hands like he's contaminated - so he's constantly changing his clothes. By the end of the film we ended up with about 48 wardrobe changes."

"It may seem a little irrational how many times he changes clothes," adds Maginnis. "It's just part of his obsessive-compulsive thing."

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