Anyone who’s seen Albert Brooks in one of his own films, wry dissections that lay bare the venial vanities of La La Land (whether it’s the yuppie couple in Lost in America who trade in upward mobility for a mobile home in a futile quest for “simple living,” or the manipulative-to-the-point-of-mania documentary filmmaker Brooks portrays in Real Life), will attest to the fact that he’s a very funny man. That might not be quite so apparent, however, if all you had to go on was the murderously cool menace he exudes in the role of Bernie Rose, the reluctant yet ruthless killer in Nicolas Winding Refn’s existential crime thriller Drive. Slant discussed his long and storied career with the personable Mr. Brooks, where topics included working with Martin Scorsese, getting late-night phone calls from Stanley Kubrick, shedding some light on the secret life of Bernie Rose, and tackling the growing Oscar buzz surrounding his performance in Drive.
What do you recall most about the making of Taxi Driver?
This was before I [directed] my first movie. So it was like a graduate school for me. I would go to the set every day even when I wasn’t working. I would hang with the cinematographer. I would watch the setups. I would talk to the gaffer: “Why did you choose that light?” It was just a chance to watch the people who were very good at their craft and try to understand the whole process. I was in New York anyway. I had to move there to shoot it. So on my days off, instead of going to a museum, I just went to the set.
Watching Martin Scorsese at work, did you pick up any directorial tricks of the trade that were useful when making your own debut film, Real Life?
I think you do when you’re watching any director. You know, you’re watching a movie being made and I think you pick up all kinds of things. I mean, not a specific “Oh, that’s a Martin Scorsese shot.” You’ll see the sun set at four o’clock, and they’ll discuss how there’s a shot they wanted to do earlier, but they can’t now because the sun’s in the lens, and so what do they do? All kinds of technical things come up on a movie that you couldn’t imagine until you actually see them.
You’ve said Stanley Kubrick called you up after watching Modern Romance, your second film, to express his enthusiasm. What was that conversation like?
Oh, that was thrilling. He said that was the movie he always wanted to make, he’s been trying to make a movie about jealousy. Then he asked me how I did it. I couldn’t believe the guy who made 2001 was asking me how I did something. It just seemed so odd. He was telling me about the movie business. He said, “If this movie doesn’t do well, it’s got nothing to do with you. It’s just the studio’s conditions.” And he was telling me his own problems, trying to finance his movies. And, you know, listen, it was the greatest call you could ever get.
I know you’re a fan of Kubrick’s films. Do you have a clear favorite? Would it be 2001?
I don’t know that 2001 is my favorite. I think, with Stanley Kubrick, he’s so interesting that you watch them all. I would hope that people feel this way about the movies I’ve made: You don’t compare one to the other, you just watch it. I mean, Barry Lyndon, which I didn’t even like the first time I saw, I watched it 10 years later, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. It was shot on candlelight, and at such a slow pace, and so beautifully done. And, you know, A Clockwork Orange. Even The Shining , for goodness sake. They’re all different, they’re all watchable. Lolita is terrific.
Speaking of jealousy, Eyes Wide Shut very definitely develops those themes.
I think that’s the movie he wound up making. That was his jealousy movie.
It wasn’t quite as funny as Modern Romance, though, was it?
I don’t know. That playing piano blindfolded was pretty funny.
Prior to being cast in Drive, were you familiar with any of Nicolas Winding Refn’s earlier films?
I had seen Bronson, which I just loved. And then when I met him, I wanted to know more about him, if I was going to work for him. So I watched two out of the three Pusher films. And I loved that. I just thought, “This guy’s got style.”
Particularly in Bronson, there’s a definite Kubrick influence.
Very much. And in a good way, you know? It didn’t feel like it was stealing. It just felt like, “When something’s good, then you have more of it.”
Influence rather than out-and-out stealing.
Did you ever discuss any of those influence issues with him during preparations or filming?
Well, you know, he’s obviously a Kubrick fan. But he has other kinds of influences. His father is a very prominent person in the Danish film industry. An editor and a director. And I think the Danish cinema has influenced Nicolas. Nicolas has a lot of French influences. He’s all over the place. I think he’s gathered up a lot of very interesting ideas into something original that he’s doing now.
How would you describe the atmosphere on the set of Drive?
You’re there to work. Nicolas does many, many, many takes. Sometimes 35 takes. Which is fine, provided you feel the director is doing it for a reason. You don’t mind doing it, as long as you feel the director is after something. If you think the director is lost, or just doing it because he doesn’t know where to go, it’s not a good feeling. But I always felt Nicolas was in control, visually, with what he wanted. He’s very simpatico with actors, and he loves the suggestions, and I found it very comfortable.
Did your preparations for playing such a violent, even menacing character change significantly compared to working on more obviously comedic roles?
Well, you don’t prepare to be violent. But you prepare for a character who has the capability to do the actions that are required of them. What I do in all of the roles that I play—and especially I enjoyed doing it with Bernie Rose—is that I work, on my own, on a very detailed backstory. And I just write a backstory. Where the guy was born. Who his friends were. Was he married? Did he have children? Where were his children? What business was he in? So when I’m there, I have something in my head. And out of that can come violence, can come love. You can be sweeping, you still have to know what you are. I worked with a knife expert, mainly so I wouldn’t cut my finger off. Because you gotta be careful with those things! But, you know, I wouldn’t think you prepare to be violent, you prepare to play a character, and that character has violence in him. Then it makes sense. I like to fill out what the script doesn’t give you. I do that with every character. I like to understand the person in many, many mirrors, and then I feel more comfortable. It’s like a mental costume.