“…Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything – real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can’t get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you’re in for the ride of your life.”
A few weeks back I was chatting with Academy Award winning director Pete Docter about his phenomenal new animated film “Soul” (2020) which takes place partly in ‘The Great Before’–a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Talking about how they arrived on how the place was going to look, he mentioned studying Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” (1991). “Worlds like this are super fun to put together, but super challenging, too, because they could be anything,” shared Docter. “It was very important that it was a reflection of the main character and the story we were telling about him.”
I had seen “Defending Your Life” back when it first opened. I am a big admirer of Brooks’ work as a director. His films, which include “Lost in America” (1985) and “Modern Romance” (1981), feature him in the leads, characters which are modifications of his own quirky personality: self-deprecating, smart, neurotic and self-obsessed. He makes for endearing company. I’m happy to report that it has become a better film with time–or maybe I am able to appreciate it more now after spending a whole year living in what feels like a way station.
Daniel Miller (Brooks) is on top of the world. He’s a successful Los Angeles advertising executive who is celebrating his 39th birthday by buying himself a BMW convertible. He’s trying out the car’s CD player, listening to Barbra Streisand”s “Something’s Coming” from the musical “West Side Story.” The choice is hysterical. He’s singing along to the lyrics “there’s something due any day, I will know right away, soon as it shows…” when he collides, head-on, with an incoming truck.
He wakes up dazed and confused in a world not unlike Anaheim. In Brooks’ view of the afterlife, there is access to three golf courses, terrible night entertainment where comics are constantly bombing and Kiwanis conventions for the dead. Your hotel room level is assigned according to the way you lived your past life. Miller is assigned a Motel 6 level. The food is delicious and you can eat all you want and not worry about gaining weight. Judgement City is, as the main character calls it, a pit stop.
There are lawyers aplenty and Daniel has to undergo a multiple day trial in which his life is assessed. After the process if he wins he will move on to the higher cosmic level (I assume heaven); if he fails he will have to relive his life until he gets it right. “There is no hell,” his attorney (played by Rip Torn in great form) says, “though I hear Los Angeles is pretty close.”
In the courtroom, Daniel has to see, on an immersive big movie screen, moments in which he didn’t take full advantage of what life had to offer because of his own fears and insecurities. He was held back on his choices about money, marriage and career. “A compilation of misjudgments – based on fear and stupidity,” says the prosecutor (played sharply by Lee Grant).
During his stay he is approached by fellow defendant Julia. “You really look so familiar to me,” she says. Unlike Daniel, Julia has led a good life and she’s staying in a Ritz level hotel. She brings a breath of fresh air to him and to the film at large. Julia is played by a surprisingly loose and charming Meryl Streep in a seemingly effortless turn. She’s luminous. Their budding romance and witty repartee are beautifully modulated. On a date he encouragingly suggests they visit “The Past Lives Pavillion” hosted by a holograph of none other than Shirley MacLaine. In her booth, Julia sees that she was Prince Valiant. Daniel sees that he was an African warrior being chased by a lion. “Who are you?” she asks. “Dinner,” he replies.
Brooks worked with a bigger budget than he’d previously had. The film looks terrific. His director of cinematography was one of the giants, Allen Daviau who’d shot “E.T.” (1982), “Empire of the Sun” (1987), and “The Color Purple” (1985) for Steven Spielberg. Sadly Daviau was one of the artists we lost to COVID this past year.
The film’s romantic ending is thoroughly satisfying.
Daniel Miller : “I always read that you had to be OK with yourself first before you could be OK with another person. Now I feel OK with you. But I don’t know how OK I was with myself before I met you, so maybe you’re making me OK.”
Available to stream on HBO Max and Sundance Now and to rent on Microsoft, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Redbox and DIRECTV.
Written and Directed by Albert Brooks
Starring Albert Brooks, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, Lee Grant and Buck Henry
Writer and Director Albert Brooks on the Idea Behind “Defending Your Life”
“I don’t know how, where, and why the idea for ‘Defending Your Life’ began; the idea had been bouncing around for a while. Stories like that sort of have to bounce. They don’t come out of nowhere. I went through my own period of life with sort of everything turning upside down, and wondering, why is it this way? I went from being unafraid at the beginning of my career, in my late twenties, [to] being like the Roadrunner; I looked down and I didn’t see anything. You don’t wake up one day and say, “Earth ain’t the best place to be.” That’s a brewing type of feeling. We’d all watched “heaven” movies forever, and they always bothered me. They were just like little children’s fairy tales. So I began to think more clearly that, why would anything in the universe be different than what we already see? In other words, our best indication of this vast, mysterious place are the processes that are going on right in front of us. And we see the Darwinian theories working; we see survival of the fittest working. Even in making automobiles, the better automobiles are the ones that keep getting made, so why would anything be different than that? It intrigued me that the whole universe would be run sort of like a business. I also liked not having Earth as a place that’s the best place. You don’t want to go back to Earth — and by the way, they weren’t threatening to send you back as an animal. It was obvious you were going to have to go back as a person and try it all over again; that was failure. So this is an alternative, but it’s at least an alternative that makes some weird kind of sense to me.” (rollingstone.com)
Writer/Director Albert Brooks on the Making of “Defending Your Life”
“I had a bigger budget for ‘Defending Your Life,’ which was exciting because I had never done special effects before. ‘Total Recall’ had just come out a year earlier, and we sat in the room with the people who did those special effects. There was a scene in that film where Arnold Schwarzenegger was in a moving train, and the train went across the landscape and you could see his face in the train — and up until that time, that had never happened. So the people who did that enabled Meryl Streep and I to be in the tram as it disappeared off into the universe, and that technique had just been invented. And those trams were miniatures. We had big trams, but we didn’t have 15 of them that could go off into the distance, and certainly we couldn’t be in one of them, and you wouldn’t see us, so that kind of stuff was all exciting. Judgment City and the way things looked there were basically traditional matte paintings that they’d been doing since the beginning of movies. That’s how they did the original ‘Ben-Hur’ just talented people painting over a city. For example, the Judgment Center, the place where we did the trials, was the Federal Building in West Los Angeles with two large annexes painted onto it, and it’s just done perfectly. That never changes. You can do that today and it looks as good as it always did.” (rollingstone.com)
About Director of Photography Allen Daviau
Born on June 14, 1942 in New Orleans, Louisiana, Daviau began experimenting with camera work in his teens. After graduating from high school in 1960, he bought a 16mm Beaulieu R16E camera and three Angenieux prime lenses, according to bio by ASC. He started shooting student projects, a music series for local station KHJ-TV, and proto-music videos for acts such as The Who, The Animals and Jimi Hendrix. He also worked as a still photographer on the TV series The Monkees. Years later, he worked with Spielberg on a 1985 episode of the NBC anthology series “Amazing Stories.” When Panavision needed a cinematographer to test a new set of lenses or camera system, Daviau was the go-to guy. “Like no one else, he could make beautiful images, and putting his name on the tests was the image-makers stamp of approval,” Bob Harvey, long-time Panavision executive, told Beitcher. “And all it ever cost in the end was a great meal and three hours of amazing conversation!” Spielberg released a statement following Daviau’s passing. “In 1968, Allen and I started our careers side by side with the short film Amblin. Allen was a wonderful artist but his warmth and humanity were as powerful as his lens. He was a singular talent and a beautiful human being,” Spielberg said. Following Amblin, Daviau and Spielberg went on to work together on “E.T. the Extra- Terrestrial” (1982), “The Color Purple” (1985) and “Empire of the Sun” (1987), earning three of his five Academy nominations for those films. He also won the BAFTA award for Empire of the Sun. He received his other two Oscar nominations for films he did with Barry Levinson, “Avalon” in 1990 and “Bugsy” in 1991. His other film credits include John Schlesinger’s “The Falcon and the Snowman” (1985), 1987’s “Harry and the Hendersons,” produced by Spielberg, Albert Brooks’ “Defending Your Life” (1991), Peter Weir’s “Fearless” (1993), Frank Marshall’s “Congo” (1995), Rand Ravich’s “The Astronaut’s Wife” (1999) and his final feature, Stephen Sommers’ “Van Helsing” in 2004. Daviau was honored with lifetime achievement awards from the Art Directors Guild in 1997 and the American Society of Cinematographers in 2007. In addition to his work in film, Daviau served as Cinematographer-in-Residence at the University of California, Los Angeles. (deadline.com) Daviau passed away in April of 2020.
About Writer and Director Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks is among the most inventive practitioners of motion picture comedy, as well as one of its most incisive commentators on contemporary life. Brooks began his career as a stand-up comic, and went on to become an award-winning actor, writer and filmmaker and best-selling author. His first novel “2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America,” published in 2011, was a New York Times Best-Seller. Brooks has written, directed and starred in seven feature films, many of which have made the best comedies of all time from numerous critics and The American Film Institute: “Real Life,” “Modern Romance,” “Lost In America,” “Defending Your Life, Mother,” “The Muse and Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World.” He is also known for his numerous voice over characters, some of which include Hank Scorpio, Brad Goodman, and Jacques the bowling instructor from “The Simpsons,” He also starred in “Finding Nemo,” playing Nemo’s father Marlin. “Finding Nemo” received an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and has become one of the highest grossing animated films ever made. Brooks made his acting debut in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, “Taxi Driver.” His other acting credits include such films as “Private Benjamin,” “Unfaithfully Yours,” “I’ll Do Anything,” “This is 40,” “Out of Sight” and “My First Mister.” He earned an Academy Award nomination for his performance in Broadcast News. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Brooks studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University before starting his performing career in 1968, doing stand-up comedy on network television. He began on “The Steve Allen Show,” later became a regular on “The Dean Martin Show,” and performed on such variety programs as “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “The Merv Griffin Show,” “The Hollywood Palace” and had over forty appearances on “The Tonight Showstarring Johnny Carson.”
Brooks has recorded two comedy albums: “Comedy Minus One” and “A Star is Bought,” the latter earning him a Grammy Award nomination for Best Comedy Recording. His first directorial effort was in 1972 for the PBS series “The Great American Dream Machine” where he adapted an article he had written for Esquire Magazine, Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians into a short film. Following this, he created six short films for the debut season of “Saturday Night Live,” originating the short film concept for that program. His role in “Drive,” playing the villain Bernie Rose, garnered him a Golden Globe nomination and 17 Best Supporting Actor wins from the country’s major critics groups including the New York Film Critics Circle. He also co-starred with Jessica Chaistain and Oscar Isaac in “A Most Violent Year” which garnered Best Picture of the Year from The National Board of Review. He is married to artist Kimberly Brooks and has two children. (albertbrooks.com) Brooks’ most recent works include “The Little Prince” (2015), “Concussion” (2015), “Finding Dory” (2016), “The Secret Life of Pets” (2016) and most recently “I Love You, Daddy” in 2017.