May 13, 2008

Oakie Masters Series

Comic Genius James L. Brooks Inaugurates Annual Lecture Event

By Mel Cowan

USC students enjoyed a wide-ranging lecture and discussion with Oscar and Emmy award-winning writer/director/producer James L. Brooks (Broadcast News, Taxi ) on May 2 as part of the inaugural event of the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Masters Lecture Series, hosted by the School of Cinematic Arts.

Writer/producer/director James L. Brooks, inaugural Oakie Masters Lecture  Series speaker.
The series, which will bring leading filmmakers and artists to the school to speak on a topic of their choosing, is also meant to celebrate the legacy of actor and philanthropist Jack Oakie. A beloved performer from the vaudevillian tradition who appeared in 87 films, Oakie was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Il Duce of Bacteria in the 1940 Charlie Chaplin film, The Great Dictator.

“Both James Brooks and Jack Oakie’s work spanned film and television, and encompassed everything from screwball slapstick to savage satire,” Dean Elizabeth M. Daley told the audience that filled Frank Sinatra Hall in the Norris Theatre Complex. “They’ve contributed so much to the art form of cinema and it’s fitting to celebrate them in tandem.”

The School of Cinematic Arts partnered with Victoria Horne Oakie in 1981, and subsequently the Oakie Foundation, to support SCA students from across all six of the school’s divisions. To date, 38 awards have been presented.

Brooks took the stage and introduced material from Taxi, the beloved Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning series which ran from 1978 to 1983. The writer/producer spoke warmly of his years on the show. “It truly was the best job in the world. I loved the pace of having to create a show every eight days, and working through the night with the writers to make it happen for these amazing actors.”

Speaking with moderator and Writing Division Chair Jack Epps, Jr., after screening the episodes, Brooks discussed his strategy for working with actors. “Actors are the heart blood of film and television. I audition very carefully, because it’s a sign of respect for the actor, but also because I want to get the very best performances from the people I work with.”
Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Foundation

Brooks emphasized the value of open-minded collaboration in his projects. “The best scenes I’ve worked on are the ones where I’ve shown up with an idea of how it’s going to be, and maybe the writers or the actors have shown up with their idea of how it will be, but together, we all come up with something completely different and new. Those are the great scenes.”

When asked whether he had any advice for young writers, Brooks replied, “Just appreciate that you can be a writer. Enjoy your freedom of thought.” Regarding the writing process, Brooks admitted to bouts of self-doubt, but ultimately said, “I have to sit here with the illusion that my first draft will be all I need.”

Opening up for a Q&A, Brooks discussed the role of improvisation with regards to writing, confessing his love for the Judd Apatow-produced film Superbad, hailing its “incredible monologues” saying, “anything that works that well, even if it is improvised, counts as writing in my book.”

He also revealed that the long-gestating Simpsons movie had over 100 distinct drafts, but that when it came time to market the film, “it was like a dream. It was the first time I’ve had a collegial, working relationship with a marketing team where we actually collaborated on the way we wanted people to think about the film.”

Sarah Tarkoff, screenwriting junior, warmed to Brooks’ take on expressing oneself through scripted work. “He pointed out that on some level, all writing is personal writing. If it’s a story you’re choosing to tell, some of you is going to make it into that script.”

Before adjourning the discussion for a reception in the Queen’s Courtyard, Brooks was asked what he thought about the hot topic of media convergence. The veteran filmmaker just smiled and said, “Everything’s going to be fine. It’s going to be just fine.”