Mel Brooks needs no introduction, a comedy legend who came of age writing for Sid Caesar in the Golden Age of Television before creating the classic spy spoof Get Smart. From there, he moved onto movies – writing and directing a string of films that now stand as some of the funniest ever made. Their ranks include Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, High Anxiety and Spaceballs. Throughout his career, he always remained a private man, which is what makes tonight’s episode of American Masters on PBS so special. He opens up on an unprecedented level to talk about his career, his inspirations and the projects that made him a living icon. We spoke with him last January at the Television Critics Association, along with American Masters filmmakers Robert Trachtenberg and Susan Lacy, who were responsible for bringing the project to the screen.
American Masters: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise airs tonight, Monday, at 9:00 PM EDT on PBS.
Question: Susan, what was the impetus for getting Mr. Brooks on American Masters?
Susan Lacy: We’ve been trying to get Mel for about twelve years now. We’ve gotten a steady, consistent series of “no”s. He’s been doing this boxed set of Blu-rays, promoting that, and I think it put him in a reflective mood. The timing was right to sit down and do an in-depth examination like this one.
Q: Were there things he didn’t want to talk about on the camera?
Robert Trachtenberg: He had said right out that he didn’t want to discuss his relationship with his wife, Anne Bancroft.
Mel Brooks: It really is a little too painful and private. There might be one or two things I could share with you. When we were singing "Sweet Georgia Brown" in Polish for To Be or Not to Be, she, Anne, diligently learned it in Polish. She really taught it to me. And if you watch the movie, you'll see me mouthing her lips and looking at her doing it. She was the best singer, the best dancer, and maybe the best actress in the world. I was very lucky for 45 years, and it's very difficult. And I have great children, and I have a good life, but it is very difficult every day to go on without her. So I can't tell you anything about it.
RT: But you do talk about a lot of stuff you’ve never discussed before. He talked about his Borscht Belt days, the creation of Get Smart, the creation of the 2,000-Year-Old Man. I think the most surprising would be the creation of Brooks Films and the movies that came out of that. The Fly and The Elephant Man and My Favorite Year. People don’t think of Mel Brooks in those films. And he let talent flourish. He gave guys like David Lynch and David Cronenberg a chance to be seen by wider audiences. He was very hands-off; he just let them do what they could do.
MB: It’s easier staying out of the way. You don’t get their schmutz on your shirt. [Laughter.]
Q: A lot of us fans hoped you really would one day do Spaceballs: 3, The Search for Spaceballs 2. Have you kept up with the sci-fi genre since then and ever thought about really doing another Spaceballs to address that?
MB: Not until just now. Sci-fi hasn't really been in my sights recently. I've been thinking about Blazing Saddles as a musical on Broadway because a lot of it is musical already, and a lot of it has a rather fanciful and fantastic tone to it. Now that Django Unchained has liberally used the "n" word, I think I'm in the clear. I don't look so bad now, you know?
Q: Do you have a different process when you approach something that's completely not related to a genre like The Producers or The Twelve Chairs and when you do a genre parody, or is your process the same approaching both?
MB: That's a good question and not that easy to answer. A genre gives you a lot of cliches that you can lean on and have fun with and satirize, but a simple story that you create from scratch is much more difficult because then you are closer to human behavior than you are with having fun with the celluloid clichés.
Q: You once did an interview saying that you really loved taking really big stories, and yet, at the same time, it posed a problem because you had troubles ending them. Has it ever gotten easier to end a film?
MB: It's always difficult to end a film, but it's incumbent upon the filmmaker to end them and end them properly. You have to. Otherwise, the audience doesn’t know when to leave the theater. You must say "The End." As far as writing is concerned, not only comedy writing, but any kind of writing, the most difficult thing is a perfect and indigenous ending. An ending is very hard; it’s the comeuppance after the initial premise. Your ending starts in Act 1. That's where you create the need for that ending.
When we were writing Your Show of Shows with Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Howie Morris and Carl Reiner, we got endings. We had some of the best writers in the world. Neil Simon. Mike Stewart. Little kid with a crew cut, he was our typist, and then he went on to write Bye Bye Birdie and Hello Dolly. Joe Stein, one of our writers, did Fiddler on the Roof. We didn't know how good we were. Sid would point. "Put that one down," when he thought something was funny. We had to figure out endings as we went.
Q: Horror has been a genre that has really spoken to you, both as comedy, and you've produced some very wonderful straight horror movies like The Fly. Can you talk about the points at which fear and humor intertwine, in which horror and comedy can find common ground?
MB: Good question. Good question because they do. They do meet each other in a lovely fashion: horror, fear and comedy. I'm not the first. Abbott and Costello used it, you know. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, and all those. The Cat and the Canary with Bob Hope and Madeleine Carroll. In the case of Young Frankenstein, that point was Gene Wilder. We were making Blazing Saddles, and Gene was scribbling on a yellow legal pad with a stubby little pencil. And I said, "What are you writing?" And he turned it around, and he showed me. In big print at the top of this page, it said “Young Frankenstein.” And he said, "I want to do not only a comedy about Frankenstein or about the horror genre, but I want to do a serious salute to the genre itself." I said, "Could I join you in that?" He said, "I was praying." So we worked together on Young Frankenstein. And we talked about the James Whale classics. Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Cousin of Frankenstein. There were a lot of Frankensteins. We used a lot of Son of Frankenstein, the Basil Rathbone version.
The funniest section of it, I would say, is "Putting on the Ritz." And I said to Wilder when we were writing it, I said, "We've got to take that out because that tears it. That's making too much fun of it." And he begged me. He said, "Please shoot it, and then we'll decide later." I said, "No. It's insulting James Whale.” He finally wore me down. He was so insistent, so passionate about it. I said, "Okay. I'll shoot it, but I tell you, Gene, when we finish the movie, it's going to go." And we screened it just for us. And at the end of it, I said, "You are so right. It's the best damn thing in the movie.”
RT: “Puttin’ on the Ritz” is actually very hard to get a hold of. So much of our money simply goes to getting the rights to various things. There’s no such thing as public domain anymore, especially for us.
SL: We’re too visible. We’ve been around too long.
RT: And “Puttin’ on the Ritz” isn’t a Mel Brooks song. It’s an Irving Berlin song. You have to pay the Irving Berlin estate to use it. You have to pay them a lot of money.And the studios charge you for use of the clips. So you learn to make choices and save your ammunition for the stuff you really need. One of the first things Mel said to me, “Don’t bother with ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz.’ You’ll never get it.” He’s a very astute producer.
MB: There’s too much concerns about money. I had a deal with Columbia Pictures at the time we were making Young Frankenstein. They were going to make it, and we were fighting about the price. They were going to give me $1,750,000 to make it. And in those days, you could just about make a movie with that. And I said, "No, we need $2 million.” They said no. But we're fighting about it, and the meeting ended unresolved, thank God unresolved. And as I left the meeting with Columbia, at the door I turned just casually and said, "Oh, by the way, it's going to be done in black and white." All 12 of them chased me down the hall. [Laughter.]
They didn’t get it. So we took it to Fox. The producer, Mike Gruskoff, got it to his best friend, Alan Ladd Jr. who had just taken over the reins at Fox. He rushed it over to Laddie at, like, at midnight. Laddie sat down, began reading it. At 3:00 in the morning he called Mike and said, "I am Fox. I want to do it and I'll give you whatever you need to, 2.2, 2.4." I spoke to Laddie the next day and I said, "What about the black and white?" He said, "It should be made in black and white.” So I got the right studio, I got the right person there.
It was such a pleasure. I did little or no directing. They knew their lines. I rehearsed for three weeks with Jerry Hirschfeld my cinematographer, the camera guy, over my shoulder. And every shot was planned, and every shot was carefully set up, backlit if necessary. And it is my best movie vis-a-vis directing. I was actually going to take a part in it, and Gene said, "I won't do it if you're in it. I want your attention. I don't want you sticking your hand out of a thing in the wall and saying 'Hiya, folks.'" And he was right. I focused on saluting James Whale and getting the most comedy without hurting the tenor and texture of the film.
We got so much of it in rehearsal, with the people we had. With people like Teri Garr who threw in her own beautiful, little comedy. Madeline Kahn was singing the "Mine eyes have seen the glory of..." I never asked her to do that. Marty Feldman, he was just an angel of comedy. He just knew exactly what to do. They just... they got that in rehearsal. It was perfect.
RL: Mel tends to focus on the people in his films. He’s an actor’s director, not a technical director. The story goes that on his first film, The Producers, he was shocked at how much time and energy it took to set up a shot. He eventually got frustrated and said “just give me a yellow wall, I’ll stick them in front of it!”
Q: What would you say were the hardest struggles or the biggest challenges and how do you think those struggles impacted your subsequent work?
MB: Getting stuff made were the challenges. The Producers, my first film, was the highest mountain I ever climbed. The title was originally Springtime for Hitler. And we took it everywhere. I actually got to Lew Wasserman at Universal and he liked it. And he said “I'll do it… but not Hitler. Mussolini, he's more likable." [Laughter.] I said, "Well, you don't really get it. He's not supposed to be that likable!” But that was the only bite we got until our producer, Sidney Glazier tackled Joseph E. Levine of Avco Embassy and put up Louis Wolfson's money, half a million bucks. It was a two-year struggle. And I kept rewriting it every day. I knew that the secret of that movie was ten minutes of exposition very early in the movie so the audience would understand it. And exposition is very difficult, because when you're explaining why things have to happen, it's not really very funny. It turned out to be a pretty funny scene because I made Gene Wilder not only a timid little accountant but someone who was afflicted with hysteria. Zero jumping on him and he’s wet, and all of that helped us swallow very important information. Otherwise the rest of the movie would never have worked. That was the toughest climb for me.