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
Brooks was particularly attracted by the unconventional tone of the story,
"The tone was completely up for grabs; I'd never seen anything like
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
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
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"
"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
"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
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."
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.
Back to "As Good As It Gets"
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'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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