“My Humor Is Traced with Dark”: An Interview with ‘Drive’s Albert Brooks

There’s a hilarious trailer for Real Life, a film directed, written by, and starring Albert Brooks. The trailer carries all the hallmarks of his caustic humor. Brooks sits at an adding machine, counting money, then recognizes the audience and invites them to experience the trailer in 3D. Real Life, which satirizes “reality” programming, is not a 3D film, but the trailer uses a series of attention-grabbers to highlight the silliness of the gimmick. An extended paddleball gag that concludes the trailer is laugh out loud funny. This is exactly the kind of mirror that the entertainment industry, in its current state, could use to diagnose tired trends. But Real Life is nothing new. The film came out in 1979.

“Nothing surprises me,” Brooks says, when I ask him about the staying power of things like 3D and reality TV. He says of Real Life’s spot-on critique, “Listen, it just shows that you’re thinking about something that’s in the air. It might be the beginning of what’s in the air, or you can think of it in the middle or at the end. This happened to be at the beginning.”

As a comedian, actor, and filmmaker, Brooks has always been ahead of the curve. The cultural commentary of films like Real Life and 1985’s Lost in America have resonated and increased in meaning, decades after their initial release. Having enjoyed commercial success, Brooks is not a “cult” figure. Yet to revisit his filmography is to realize that his work is simultaneously an underrecognized and unmistakable influence on today’s comedy landscape, in which figures like Larry David and Louis CK are household names.

Brooks admits to having “mixed feelings” about being influential. “I think that’s happened to me a lot … In one way it’s flattering, and in another way there’s no line at the bank that says, ‘ahead of your time’ so it’s not a very profitable thing. But it’s a nice thing. You’d rather be ahead than behind. Although the people that are behind seem to be the ones that make the money from it.” Even as he points this out, he is careful not to take any shots at those that came after him.

But does he spot his influence? “That’s not my place to say. I see similarities all the time, but I’m not walking around going, ‘Oh look I did that.’ That’s stupid. That would make me out to be an idiot. But if you see it, that’s fine.”

This year has been a springboard, of sorts, for Brooks. His first novel 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America, was published by St. Martin’s Press and received positive reviews. An even bigger conversation piece has been Nicolas Winding Refn’s film Drive — a film that premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim for the director and his stars, especially Brooks.

To say that his character, villain Bernie Rose, is casting/playing “against type” is only partially true, when one considers the dark undercurrent that has always been present in Brooks’ characters. The actor agrees. “My humor is traced with dark — I’ve got dark patches all over the place. There’s no doubt about it. I think the thing about Bernie is that Bernie followed it through with violence.

“When I first met Nicolas Refn, he told me that when he was young and he saw Lost in America, I scared him when I yelled at my wife. So that’s fine. I think in my comedies obviously, I never carried it to domestic violence, but I think that’s where the line was drawn. And I think that Bernie just made it physical. I mean Bernie wasn’t a comic character, but the idea of … Anger is not new to the characters I’ve played. And I don’t think anger is … everybody has anger, everybody. That’s just one of the most basic human emotions there is. Most of us, thank God, stop before we put a fork in someone’s eye, but not Bernie. He didn’t want to do that, you know. Bernie was angry that he had to do that. Bernie had to clean up a mess that wasn’t of his doing. He was angry about that.”

The bit about the fork in the eye is no metaphor, either. Drive is a film that slowly burns its way through its setup, but then charges forward with graphic violence. Although Ryan Gosling’s “Driver” is responsible for several scenes of doling out violent justice and vengeance, it is Bernie — on the orders of gangster Nino (Ron Perlman) — who literally goes knives out and adds to his arsenal a fork for good measure. That’s not to say he takes any pleasure in killing.

The actor’s detailed back-story for the character explains his reluctance to violence: “I would imagine that Bernie Rose probably had not been violent for 25 years. Probably had not had to actually physically take someone down for 25 years. And you know, once capable, always capable. But no longer, that wasn’t his life. He had his nice life; he made his money, that’s what he wanted he wanted — he wanted his business. This was thrown into his lap, and he was more upset about that than anything. But obviously as he said, if he didn’t do it, they’d take him down. So when it comes down to your life or his life, he chose his own life.”

One of Bernie’s victims is a close friend. In the scene when he takes his friend out, Brooks fills Bernie with a quiet mix of melancholy and menace. He speaks soothingly to his victim, as a doctor would to a patient. “Yes, because it broke his heart that he had to – he liked that guy, you could tell … And the fact that he had to go, broke Bernie’s heart. So Bernie did it himself, because certainly one of Nino’s guys could have done it, and it would have been painful and miserable. And Bernie did it himself, and he did it in a way that forced him to go close. He didn’t shoot him from across the garage with a silencer. He did a one-on-one and actually that kind of death is painless. Before you know what’s happened, you just bleed out. You pass out.”

Director Refn stages each scene of violence as he does every other scene in the film — with a strong sense of visual control. Drive’s critics claim style over substance, but it’s more accurate to say that Drive’s style is the film’s substance. Deeply indebted to the shadows and silences of noir, and the palette of 1980s movies by Michael Mann and William Friedkin, the film is dominated by long pauses and low angles. I ask Brooks how the freedom to do so much character work combined with the director’s vision for the look of the film.

“The freedom came in the rehearsals, with the cast and the writer and Nic. That’s where you said everything. That’s where you sort of decide on what you want to say. So when you get to the set, you’re not searching for the words. The words are set. What Nic does is — Some directors storyboard and know every shot they’re going to do, and I think Nic knows in the back of his mind this feeling, but he looks around; he uses what’s there. If it’s a cloudy day, he’ll think of something else. So the improvisation, if there was, came more from the camera, more from where the camera was going to be placed. And when Nic couldn’t figure that out, he’d get bothered.

“There was that one scene in the Chinese restaurant towards the end of the movie, and it was the only time during the movie that I saw him lose his temper at some crew people, because he couldn’t figure out how to shoot this. He went outside, he said ‘everyone go, go back, just go take an hour.’ And he paced around and he figured something out, and it worked. But it wasn’t something that was automatic the second he got there: ‘Here, aim it here, aim it here, aim it here.’ He was trying to figure out something. So if you’re trying to figure out what you want to say also, it can get very messy. Then you wind up with nothing. So that stuff was set.”

As a result of his outstanding performance in Drive, Brooks is also in a position where he has a number of options available to him. He’s approaching the next step with patience and thoughtfulness. “You know, I started another book. If I start a film of my own, then what I eliminate is acting in other people’s movies. Because once I start and I go raise the money, it’s about two and a half or three years, and I can’t stop. I have people hired. I cant say, ‘Ooh there’s a good part called Drive, I’ll see you in three months.’

“So right now, because the experience has been nice for me as an actor, I’m sort of giving it a little time to see what else might be there. I did a straightforward comedy, in Judd Apatow’s movie. I played Paul Rudd’s father this summer, and it was fun. I enjoyed it. And I’d like to see if there’s another Drive lurking. Not literally, but metaphorically. And so I’m sort of writing a book now just to give it time. Cause if I start on another move, then I can’t take any more parts.”

With end of the year industry talk turning toward acting honors and awards, I ask if he can define or quantify the capital of critical acclaim. Does it have an immediate effect? “It’s a great question,” Brooks says. “I think the nature of it isn’t an immediate effect. I think it’s an ongoing effect. I think if you do something and it leaves a mark, you’ll feel it a year later. I don’t even know if you’ll feel it the week it’s happening or the month it’s happening. I’m still getting results from movies I made 20 years ago, so if it leaves a mark, it’s ongoing. But show business is like this huge slow gobbling machine, and it doesn’t — by its very nature, you don’t see results in a week. So I don’t know. It’s a good question, and I think a year from now I could probably give you a more intelligent answer.”

Drive, one of the best-reviewed films of 2011, looks poised to gather year-end critical accolades across the board with Brooks leading the way in the Supporting Actor field.