James L. Brooks’ Approach to Filmmaking: “Writers Rule”

Apr 30, 2023

With Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret playing in theaters nationwide now, Collider’s Perri Nemiroff spoke with the movie’s producers, James L. Brooks and Julia Ansell, about the passion and ethos that goes into each and every project they make. Their production company, Gracie Films, is responsible for classic titles like Jerry Maguire and Big, which makes them just the minds to adapt Judy Blume’s beloved novel to the big screen for the first time since it was published over 50 years ago.

If their past work is any indication, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret starring Abby Ryder Fortson, Rachel McAdams, and Kathy Bates has a good chance of going on to become a rewatchable classic. Similar to director Kelly Fremon Craig’s previous coming-of-age tale with Gracie Films, The Edge of Seventeen, Are You There God? explores the highs and lows of growing up, with all of Blume’s signature heart and humor.
While talking with Perri, Brooks and Ansell explain how Gracie Films goes about supporting the voices of articulate filmmakers. They also talk about casting Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and pinpoint one specific thing that set this production schedule apart from their past films that proved quite helpful. You can watch the full interview in the video above or read the transcript below.

Image via Lionsgate

PERRI NEMIROFF: I was reading a quote in our production notes about how a goal of Gracie Films has always been to support the voices of articulate filmmakers. What’s one way that you go about doing that that has stayed the same since day one when you first started the company? But then, on the other hand, what’s something about what it takes to make that happen for a filmmaker that has had to change given how the industry has evolved over the years?

JAMES L. BROOKS: Writers rule. That was our idea when we started it, and [the] writer always has control over his or her material whether it’s by directing or being a really active producer, and that’s never not been the case.

I love the sound of that. How about something that’s evolved for you given how the industry has changed since the beginning of the company?

BROOKS: There are tougher times and easier times, but really, that ethos, or whatever it is, has never changed, and it won’t. It won’t. A lot of writers directing for the first time is a part of that.

I like that compass right there. I hope you stick with it forever and ever.

BROOKS: Promise. [Laughs]

Julie, I was thinking a little bit about the film, and also the book, and how they’re all about how key early influences can be a big deal in someone’s life growing up. If I turn that idea towards your career, what’s something about the people at Gracie Films and the company’s goals that now make you think, “I am so glad that I started there with those people?”

JULIE ANSELL: I’m incredibly lucky. We’re always about the work and about making these movies, and I’ve honestly never worked on a movie that I haven’t been proud of and loved, and I don’t know that many people can say that in the industry.

BROOKS: She did leave briefly. [Laughs]

ANSELL: Well, briefly, but then I scurried back because I saw reality and didn’t like it. But yeah, it’s a privilege to be able to do that and to help writer-directors get their vision on screen. It’s an amazing thing to be able to do that.

BROOKS: We never talk about it, but the great thing is that everybody who works there, there aren’t that many, ten …

ANSELL: No, we’re small.

BROOKS: … works on everything.

I wish more companies out there would embrace that mentality.

Image via Lionsgate

There was another quote in our notes that said the best movies are a combination of a great script and the perfect cast to go with that script, and I very much believe in that and I feel like you hit that right here. Which role in the film would you say was the easiest to cast where the right actor just magically presented themselves and which role proved most difficult to find the perfect fit for?

BROOKS: That’s easy. Rachel was the easiest and Margaret was the hardest. We saw thousands of girls and there was nobody in second place.

ANSELL: When she walked in the door, thank god. Then we knew we had a movie.

I can very much understand that. She is something else in the way she carries this film.

I always love asking about overcoming challenges on set, so can you both give me an example of a time during the making of this movie when something on set wasn’t working quite right, you had to find a creative way to pivot and wound up finding some unexpected magic that made a particular part of the film even stronger?

BROOKS: Did it go that easily? [Laughs] Is that possible?

ANSELL: No, I think it was erased. [Laughs] I think we just got rid of those bad thoughts.

BROOKS: I think the coffee was late one morning and it was pretty tough. [Laughs]

ANSELL: We did do something on this movie that was a little different. Because of scheduling, we had sort of a two-week break in the middle and I think [that] was a great thing to do, and maybe more productions should – if you could do it – because it really allowed us time to kind of think about what we’d done. We worked with the kids in the first part of the movie and then the adults in the second, and it really aided it. It just gave us that time to think when you don’t always have time to think when you’re in the kind of hell of production.

Image via Lionsgate

This book, and now this movie, is going to wind up being a pivotal part of people’s lives and how they experience and process growing up, so I was wondering, what is the movie version of that for you? The movie that you turned to that made you feel seen, answered your questions, and offered you guidance when you were growing up?

BROOKS: I’d say Network.

Solid choice right there.

ANSELL: There’s different things you look to movies for. Weirdly, the movie Being There spoke to me in some way. I mean, it made me want to get into working in films.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is in theaters now. Be sure to check out Perri’s interview with Judy Blume and Kelly Fremon Craig below for more on the film:

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