So how is Brooks as a filmmaker? ''With Jim, you learn what to do right,'' says Albert. ''As opposed to some other directors, where you're quietly going 'I gotta make a note never to do that.''' Still, it's the words, more than the filmmaking, that make Brooks' movies so good, in Albert's opinion: ''If you watch a Jim Brooks movie and you like it, the first thing you're liking is the writing, and the story, and the characters. And then of course, it could be that it's directed well, and it's cast well, and all that stuff follows.''
The man who made Defending Your Life, Lost in America, and Mother doesn't draw this hierarchical distinction as a criticism. But Jim Brooks doesn't seem to have impressed Hollywood as often with his direction as with his writing. Sure, the Academy handed him the Best Director statuette for Terms of Endearment, his feature debut, back in 1984. But Oscar balloters haven't nominated Brooks for direction since, despite showering nominations and awards on his performers (both Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt took acting prizes as the spindled romantics of As Good as It Gets).
Debate over whether Brooks the writer outstrips Brooks the auteur may heat up again once Spanglish is released. With more story arcs than ever to juggle (except maybe in Terms of Endearment, the filmmaker suggests), he admits he had a heck of a time on the Spanglish set. So much so that Variety dubbed the picture ''As Long as It Takes'' in an April 2004 smackdown. ''It's amazing how much more perverse you are as a writer than as a director,'' he says by way of explaining the long shoot, which of course wasn't helped by having to replace Bancroft. ''I remember just being so happy that I'd painted myself into some corners [while writing]. I thought that would make it interesting. When I had to wrestle with that as a director, it was a different story.'' Did he see trouble coming? ''That denial thing helps me. It really does.''
According to Brooks and the cast, the script changed very little during shooting. But Brooks' mercurial feelings about what the tone should be never seemed to settle. While the actors loved the director's vast appetite for exploration, it sometimes drove them bats. Says Vega, who was unable to understand or speak a word of English when she started on Spanglish in October 2003 (she's been cramming since): ''He would say a lot, 'I don't know, I don't know. Now try this. And this. Now let me try the opposite.' Until you say, Jim, you are crazy!'' (It didn't help that Brooks no habla español.)Leachman describes the vibe affectionately as ''free-falling. You're not going for some result. It's just, Throw it in the air and see where it lands.'' She endured take after take of one crucial mother-daughter scene until she finally asked flat out what he wanted. ''No no no,'' he told her. ''I just do a lot of takes because I love to watch you work.''
The weight of Brooks' uncertainty, though, fell hardest on Leoni and her character, Debbie a neurotic, difficult, sometimes infuriating personage right up there with Ted Baxter and Sue Ann Nivens for sheer cringe-inducing behavior. (For instance, she buys her daughter clothes that are too small so she'll lose weight.) ''To get the tone of that character down,'' Brooks now concedes, ''was conceivably impossible, because the minute after you find her appalling, you're delighted by her. It's just such a hard part.... You turn it this much, and it's too dark. This much the other way, it's too frivolous. We spent weeks of going crazy with it.''
Leachman says that when she arrived on set about a month into the shoot, she heard stories about how strained relations had initially been between Leoni and Brooks ''It was terrible.'' Brooks goes so far as to acknowledge things went badly at first ''It was rough as hell to get this character'' but he praises Leoni profusely for ''hunkering down'' and ''finding her character.'' For her part, Leoni diplomatically avoids any suggestion of friction. ''This was a process more intense and thorough than any other film experience I've had, that's for sure,'' she says. ''It wasn't rewrites. It was, How to play it?'' Until she sees the finished cut, Leoni has little idea how her performance will turn out, since for every big Debbie scene, ''we would shoot it empathetic, sympathetic, all-out dark, and then just for broad comedy,'' she says. ''It almost sounds like I'm saying 'Well, he didn't have a vision, so he was just sort of getting everything in the can.' It's not that at all. There were just so many possibilities. And he couldn't know [on the set] how far we could take her in any given scene.''
Can Brooks find, in that mountain of footage, a shape that might propel him and his cast to awards-season glory again? He doesn't seem to dare hope so. Leachman came in for a recent dialogue-looping session to find him ''crumpled on the sofa, saying 'I've lost it. It's gone.''' He looked so miserable, she reports, that she took off his shoes to massage his feet. She got to his hands and a finger cracked. She recalls him saying ''Ow! You broke my finger'' kidding, of course. Then he announced, ''Given my day, I would rather sit here and have my fingers broken by Cloris Leachman than go on.''
Chin up, Jim. You might just make it after all.
(Additional reporting by Allyssa Lee)