'Defending Your Life' at 25: Albert Brooks on Making a Comedy Classic

The funniest man alive on his heavenly film's 25th anniversary: "I got a letter from a parent who said their kid memorized the whole movie"

Albert Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in ‘Defending Your Life,’ which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.
'Defending Your Life' at 25: Albert Brooks on Making a Comedy Classic

If heaven exists, what would it look like?

It's one of life's big questions, and if you believe what you see in the movies, it's a place full of white fluffy clouds and friendly angels pining for their life back on our Big Blue Marble. But that's not how Albert Brooks sees it.

Twenty-five years ago — and less than a year after Ghost stormed the box office — Brooks wrote, directed, and starred in Defending Your Life, the story of an ad man who buys himself a Bimmer for his 40th birthday, then promptly drives it into a bus. The bulk of the movie happens in a place called Judgment City, a pleasant enough pit stop for the dearly departed that operates a lot like a Fortune 500 company.

Judgment City's purpose is defined in its name: It's here that the recently deceased come to find out whether they'll be advancing to heaven, or heading to hell (which is essentially going back to Earth, as a person, to make another go at that heaven thing). To determine that, individuals are assigned a "defender" (a lawyer, though they don't like to use that word) to help make a case for moving forward. Like any trial, there's also a prosecutor to make a case for the opposite. Helping both sides to make their respective arguments is video footage of the defendant's entire life, organized by precise age, which sounds much less painful than it really is. ("Who could survive it?," asks Brooks.)

It was a modest hit upon its release in 1991, but in the quarter-century since its debut, Defending Your Life has become a beloved cult-comedy classic, continually drawing in new audiences. Though it's grounded in comedy, Brooks' exploration of life after death has also proven to resonate on a spiritual level, especially with younger viewers who are just beginning to question what happens after "the end."

On the 25th anniversary of Defending Your Life's release, Rolling Stone asked the director to take us back to Judgment City and explore his own reasons for why the film has remained so relevant to today's audiences.

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.

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.

In casting the film: I met Meryl Streep at a party years and years and years ago. I think it was at Carrie Fisher's house. Meryl brought so much reputation to her life because of all these iconic roles, but when you met her, she was just so easygoing and natural. She was aware of my work, and she asked what I was doing. I told her I was making this movie, and she sort of jokingly said, "Is there a part in it for me?" I went home and thought, "Okay..." It took a lot more from the producers to make that happen, but the person that I wanted for that role was the person that I sat and talked to at that party.

So my job was to provide an environment where she could just hang out. She's the greatest character actress that ever lived, and she didn't get a lot of opportunities just to hang out, so that's what I thought could be great. She's playing somebody who's had a perfect life, and she automatically brings to that someone who is as close as you could get, someone who seemingly has had a perfect life. So all of that worked.

Rip Torn hadn't worked for a while, and the studio was a little worried because he had been through some problems and everything. We had a serious talk. The studio wanted me to go to someone safer, but Rip was one of the people that made that movie sail, and the reason is because he was unpredictable. That's why I wanted him. I saw many other actors for that part — people that I liked, people that I knew exactly what I would get — and I cast him because it may have been more work for me. But it was a good kind of work and he would give you something you didn't expect. He would just give you an attitude or a line reading or … he was just the most original kind of person, and it helped the movie immensely.

I've got a lot of favorite scenes from the movie, but I'm pretty fond of the Past Lives Pavilion. One of the things about Defending Your Life I have to mention is that the cinematographer was Allen Daviau, [who had worked a lot with Steven Spielberg]. He was brilliant. I just got a fan letter through my website two days ago — I swear to God, two days ago — that said, "I'm looking for the film that Mr. Brooks used in the Past Lives Pavilion, where the native was running through the forest. Can you tell me what film that was from?" And, of course, that wasn't from a film. All of that was shot. But the way it was shot and put into miniature? I guess I was sort of tickled that I even thought of something like the Past Lives Pavilion. I thought it was sort of a cool Disneyland ride.

And then to have Shirley MacLaine. Think about that: There is no person on this planet that can get you a laugh just by telling you about the afterlife. She had that wrapped up entirely in her personality. I met her at a hotel, I did my pitch, and I couldn't even imagine getting a "no." I must've sold it well because she did it — "Welcome to the Past Lives Pavilion." Nobody else could get you that laugh.

All of my movies had to go through the normal testing processes, and I never got E.T.-type test scores. From Real Life to Modern Romance, some of the cards were like, "What's wrong with this person?" So it was funny because this movie got like a B+ overall, but it got an A+ from young people. Literally, from 18 to 25, the cards were off the charts. I was all excited, and the studio basically said to me, "Well, we're not going to market an Albert Brooks movie to that group anyway. So it's nice, and you should feel good about it, but it doesn't matter. We're not going to release it to that group. That's a big, expensive group." And that's where the fear aspect comes in, because people at that age don't know what the hell's going on, and the movie resonated with them. It was not about life or death or Earth; I think it was about trying not to be afraid.

"I don't care who you are, if you committed a crime and you had to have all of your emails searched and made public, who on this planet could survive that? Nobody."

The idea behind Defending Your Life: Imagine if you had to sit in a courtroom and watch your life. I don't care who you are, if you committed a crime and you had to have all of your emails searched and made public, who on this planet could survive that? Nobody. Who hasn't written some angry email to somebody at 11:30 at night that, if read in court, would make you want to kill yourself?

But the interesting thing about Defending Your Life is that it's been 25 years and if you look at it on Amazon, it always sells at the same rate. And that makes me feel pretty good, because I don't think this is aging too much. I think what the movie is saying is going to stay relevant for a long, long time, because fear isn't going away.

I've had people talk about Lost in America and other films that meant something to them. But this particular movie, whatever effect it had in those original test screenings to a certain younger group, it seems to still have that. Last week, I got a letter from a parent who said their kid had memorized the whole movie. The whole movie! Now I'm not saying this is happening en masse, but sometimes, with younger people, once a movie has no electronics in it, they just don't watch it. Or even if it's not in color. They just don't relate to it. But this film does not need cell phones or any sort of modern accouterments. It still can affect you. Being afraid and not doing what you want to do is such a basic emotion.

I don't know that, any of the films that I made, I could make today. I would have to find another way to do that. It's not just me saying, "It's that the movie business." I could convince financiers that America would like me, even if they didn't, but I never could convince somebody that Korea would love Modern Romance. I just couldn't do that. [Back then] I only had one country to lie about. Now, I'd have to say, "No, believe me, China's going to go nuts over this!"

"Everybody asks, 'When you were making Taxi Driver, did you know the impact it would have?' Anybody who says yes is mentally ill."

But the subjects that are the big subjects, they don't go away. Sometimes the telling of them gets modern-ed up. The thing about Defending Your Life is if you made it today, you really wouldn't make it much differently. You might not use answering machines, which played big parts in my movies, but I don't know what's in it that would be any different. I even think we were pretty clever in Rip Torn's office in that all he read were numbers.

You see movies that are about the future. 2001 is a really interesting movie, because it came out in 1968 and everybody thought that that was possible, and look how ridiculous that was. We don't have ships like that, and you know nobody in 1968 was going, "Oh, that'll never happen!" But of course it never happened. We're not even close to it. You could call that movie 2070 and you still might not be close. I wrote this book, 2030, and I was careful in the book not to overdo the future because I don't think it comes that fast. But look at any movie about the future, and there are always these giant gaps. I was watching Minority Report the other day, which has some lovely things in it with the scanning and the moving around of all the information. But then you have Max von Sydow sitting, reading a newspaper. You can't figure it out. The most obvious thing was: Get these newspapers out of here! But there's nothing in Judgment City that would be any different today, and that's sort of unusual.

The one thing you never get to know while you're making a movie is impact. Everybody asks, "When you were making Taxi Driver, did you know the impact it would have?" Anybody who says yes is mentally ill. If you're making a movie and you think that, in 25 years, people are still going to be talking about it, there's something wrong with you. You just don't know. But with this movie, I guess because of the nature of the subject matter, it seems like it's never really wavered. I get the same amount of reaction from it.

I've gotten thousands and thousands of letters of people who had relatives that were dying, or they were dying themselves, and the movie made them feel better. I guess it's because it presents some possibility that doesn't involve clouds and ghostly images. So this thing never goes away. It's a quarter of a century, but I don't think the idea behind the subject is ever going to change.