So the phone rings, and I answer it, and it's Mel Brooks.
That's an actual thing that happened. That's now something I can say. And even better, the 40 minute conversation that followed me answering the phone is one of my favorites in recent memory. How often do you get to talk to a comedy legend about one of the pinnacle moments of not only their career, but of film comedy in general?
I was told I'd have about 15 minutes originally. Time was tight. And if you get offered 15 minutes to talk to Mel Brooks about “Blazing Saddles,” you take it, right? We ended up having a really fun back and forth about that film, about films he's produced, about his partnership with Gene Wilder, and about the ways Hollywood failed the great Richard Pryor. The only reason we wrapped it up is because we had to, and it would have been easy to talk to him for twice as long.
What I enjoyed most is that from the moment I picked up the phone, I felt like he was willing to play. I managed to get out, “Hello, Mr. Brooks. How are you this afternoon?” before he was off and running.
“Okay, Drew, you're on.”
“You're on. You are on. Describe your network. Describe it.”
“My online home is HitFix. It is a website where we cover film, television, music… it's a broad entertainment site.”
“It's a website? Is it popular?”
“I think so. We have millions of people who read the site every month.”
“Millions? Every month?”
“My god. Popular. So let's talk to these millions of people.”
“I want to start by sharing an experience I had with 'Blazing Saddles.' I lived here in LA when the second Rodney King verdict was set to be read, and that night, Warner Bros. opened the re-release of the film in Westwood. My friends and I went to the prime time show. We'd had our tickets for weeks. And walking into the theater, it was weird. It was tense. People were worried about more riots, about what it would mean, whichever way the verdict went. And the crowd was pretty much split, black and white. And by ten minutes into the film, everyone was on the floor. It was such an amazing room to be in on that night and to feel everyone laughing at the same things…”
“You were part of a very, very special night. It was, like…” He got quiet for a minute. I never realized he'd been in the theater that night. “It was like Columbus seeing the New World. It was like this movie audience saw the New World of cinema for the first time, and they really celebrated the shit out of it. They went nuts. It was probably, as far as watching one of my movies, you know, on screen, it was probably the greatest night of my life.”
That floored me. I have always held that screening memory dear, but it wasn't because Brooks was there. Finding that out, and finding out that it meant the same thing to him, was a lovely surprise.
“I'm glad you were there,” he said. “This is amazing.”
I told him that it gave me faith that modern audiences appreciate being spoken to in a direct and unflinching manner, and that the industry doesn't give audiences enough credit.
“We're shy. We're too courteous about hurting people's feelings. You know? We're politically correct. All of these things that I'm saying? We're shy, we're polite, we're politically correct? It's the death of comedy.”
I concurred with him, as he elaborated. “Comedy has to be outrageous. It has to be the jester whispering the most salacious things about that dancing girl into the king's ear. You know? That's what it is. It's all about the truth. What's going on in life? What you want to have go on. We did that. When we were writing it, I said 'write everything that's deep and dark in you, that you've always wanted to say.' This was the other writers I was talking to. I said, 'It's never going to get made. It's not gonna get made. Warner Bros is not gonna make this movie, you know? So I said, 'Let's say everything.'”
He continued. “I had Richard Pryor writing it with me right at my side. And I used to say to Rich, 'Can I use the N word here?' He said, 'Absolutely.' 'Rich, what about there?' I said, 'Richard, I'm talking to Harvey, and I'm calling him the N word. That's wrong. He's, you know, Harvey Korman, you know? He's Hedley Lamarr. He's like my assistant. He's white. I can't.' He said, 'Call him the N word.' Richard said, 'Call everybody the N word.'”
“I'm such fan of Richard's stand-up, and I feel like Hollywood never quite knew what to do with him.”
“They made a couple of good movies with him and Gene Wilder.”
“They did,” I agreed, “but that anger that is so much a part of some of his best material…”
“Well, he never made…” he started, then stopped. Considered it. “You're so right,” he said. “He never made that beautiful eloquent down and dirty movie about the whorehouse and his childhood and what he knew and what he felt, you know? About how he grew up. He never made that movie.”
I told him that's one of the reasons I've always had a reverence for “Blazing Saddles,” that this is the one undeniably great film that Richard was part of that tapped that same nerve, made at the exact moment it needed to be tapped.
“I was working at the Village Vanguard,” he told me. “I was working at the Bitter End. I was doing stand-up. He was doing stand-up. We weren't even the first stand-ups at the Bitter End and the Vanguard. We were like second and third. We were the replacement guys, or we'd go on later. We were just down-trodden. We'd meet and we'd go out to Max's Kansas City and we'd hang out and we'd have our hamburgers and some booze. And Max's Kansas City at that time, back in the '60s, to our left was de Kooning, and to our right was Roy Lichtenstein, and behind us was Andy Warhol. It was like a hotbed of the greatest 20th Century painters at that time. And there were some off-Broadway theatrical people, and then me and Richard, so…”
I told him how hard it was to get my head around what it was like at that time, to be around that much concentrated greatness, that much artistic energy. “That's where I met Alfa-Betty Olsen,” he said, “who wrote 'The Producers with me and who helped me cast it. Alfa-Betty was from Norway.”
“The writing process on your films is something I'm curious about,” I told him. “Today, there's this entire school of comedy that is built around the idea of improvisation as a tool, and that's great. I love that school of comedy. But you guys were meticulous in terms of how you wrote your scripts before you got to set.”
“We were following in the footsteps of Shakespeare and O'Neill and Samuel Beckett. We knew we were responsible for full and complete scripts and we had to be as intelligent and approach things as deeply and bravely as we could. We knew that. We couldn't just get away with silly bullshit. We had to write well-structured, well-characterized pieces that could stand the test of time.”
“That's apparent in your approach to parody,” I said. “Especially now that it's become such an industry of people doing what I consider these fairly cheap sort of jukebox parody things. The details in your film…”
“That's good,” he said. “I like that. I'm gonna steal that. 'Jukebox parody.' I like that.”
“You can have that.”
“You've already earned your passage on this trip,” he said, and I laughed, pleased to have given him a shorthand description for the Friedberg/Seltzer crap that seems omnipresent now.
“Thank you, sir. I love the detail work in your parodies,” I said.
“'Jukebox parody,' he said again, trying it out.
“In 'Young Frankenstein,' for example, the attention to production design and cinematography and costuming is exact in its reproduction to the point where side-by-side, you can't tell the difference. My kids saw, within the same week, 'Bride Of Frankenstein' and then your film, and the impact of that…”
“That's really… that's a real pat on the back, because I intended to make movies that were as brilliantly cinematic as James Whale, who made 'Bride Of Frankenstein' and 'Frankenstein,' and… he was a cinema genius, you know? I've got this guy, Gerry Hirschfeld, and Gerry was a black-and-white guy, and he was a genius at black-and-white. I got him on 'Young Frankenstein,' and he back-lit the shit out of everything. Madeline Kahn like glowed from being backlit. And on 'Blazing Saddles,' I had this meeting with Joe Biroc, and he said, 'The only reason I'm doing this… I'm retired. I don't need to do this. I don't need the money. I'm fine. I live in Palmdale. I'm doing okay. Got my own house. I've got a pool.' He said, 'Mel, I saw 'The Producers' and I love the way it was shot. I loved the movie, and if you want me to shoot 'Blazing Saddles,' I'll shoot it for you.'”
As he continued, I thought about what he was saying and marveled at what a great piece of advice it was. “You make one mistake,' he said. 'I noticed in your other movies, you shoot with one camera. Get two cameras. Get one for closer shots and one for either the masters or the head-to-toe shots, like Fred Astaire. It will cut like butter. You'll have less time cutting the movie. Don't do what other directors do and do the master then move in for the close-ups and doing another take. Do it all in the same take, and you'll be surprised how alive it is.' I always listened to these cinematic geniuses, you know, and Biroc shot it for me. He shot everything with two cameras and it was… I'm gonna tell you a secret. The only thing that he said, that he fought me on, was I said, 'It has to be completely black. It has to be dark. I just want to hear their voices.' And he said, 'No, why don't we see a little light on their knuckles or their foreheads, you know?' I said, 'No, no, I just want it to be completely dark.'”
He laughed. “Actually, we cut most of that scene out. Let me tell you the original version. Are you ready?”
“Okay, Drew. Are you sitting?”
“I am sitting. I am perched.”
“So,” he said, “Madeline Kahn… the enormously talented and immortal Madeline Kahn says to Cleavon, you know, first she says, 'Relax,' you know? 'Loosen your bullets.' And then after a while, she turns out the light. She says, 'Oh, it's so bright in here.' And it's pretty dark to begin with. 'Oh, it's so bright in here.' She's doing the full Marlene Dietrich, and she's blowing out all the lights. So they're sitting in the dark, and she says, 'Tell me, is it true what they say about your people? Is true about how you're built? Is it true? Is it true?” He did a perfect version of her uber-German accent as he did her lines. “So she sighs and she sobs and she says, 'Oh, it's true! It's true!' And he says, 'I hate to disillusion you, ma'am, but you're sucking on my arm.' And at the time, even I said, 'Okay, that's too far.' Today, I would put it in. I wouldn't think twice. Back then, even I said, 'Oops, one mile too far.'”
“You had such amazing casts in these films. They were such amazing comic performers. You mentioned Madeline Kahn, of course…”
“Everybody was so damn good,” he agreed. “Gene Wilder was so damn good. Slim Pickens was so damn good. Madeline was so damn superior to everything, you know? Harvey Korman? Never better. He was just…” He started laughing as he thought about Harvey's choices. “There's that shot where he did this thing… I didn't tell him to do it. He brought out that little tin full of lozenges. He throws them in his mouth and he looks right at the audience. And he says directly to the audience, 'If we could only find someone that would destroy the sanctity of this town, that would chase them out, so they'd leave.' He's looking at the camera, and he says, 'Wait, why am I telling you this?' He's insane. And then he has the thought to actually bring in the black sheriff and scare the shit out of all these rednecks, you know?”
“I love the way you shatter the fourth wall in that film.”
“When Harvey ends up having that choking fit? That was hysterical. I didn't know it was gonna happen.”
“How often did that happen?” I asked him. “How often did those performers bring you ideas that would just bump that scene that you had already gotten right on the page to that next level for you?”
“I would say to them, 'Don't worry. You don't have to tell me. If you want to do something in the scene, you don't have to clear it with me. Just do it.' And in order to protect myself… because the crew was there at rehearsals and thought they knew everything. Something unexpected might throw them and we might get blasted, which would destroy the take. I went out… because I had this problem in Yugoslavia when I was doing 'The 12 Chairs'… the crew would often laugh. So I went out.. it wasn”t very expensive in Yugoslavia… and I bought 100 handkerchiefs, white handkerchiefs, and then handed them out to the crew. I said, 'If you feel like laughing, shove this in your mouth.' Once in a while, in the middle of a Dom DeLuise take, I”d turn around and I”d see a field of white handkerchiefs. I said, 'Okay, I know I got a hit here,' you know? Then I did the same thing on 'Blazing Saddles' because I would say… you know, to Cleavon or to Slim or to Harvey especially… to anybody in the movie and even to myself sometimes… 'Say whatever comes into your head in addition to the script.' We can”t throw the crew. If they feel like laughing, they”re gonna shove those white handkerchiefs in their mouths, you know?”
He continued, “I would say the only anger I have about the whole process of the movie is… there”s really only one bit of red in the face residual anger. And I really shouldn”t be angry at them because the AFI gave me the, you know, lifetime achievement award last year. But I”m still very angry at them because they picked the hundred funniest movies… the best comedies made in America… and 'Blazing Saddles' came in sixth. And I really blew my top. I said, 'Including 'The Gold Rush' with Charlie Chaplin, there is no movie ever made in America that”s as funny as Blazing Saddles.' It's by far the number one.”
I told him that one of the reasons “Blazing Saddles” stands alone is because it has the balls to never pull a punch. Comedy is often discounted as a genre, as any cursory scan of the list of Oscar winners would confirm, but “Blazing Saddles” is as culturally significant as any film of the '70s, comedy or otherwise. It's a landmark in the way we talk about race on film and the way we grapple with our own failures. It still feels braver than most of what we produce today.
“You know my son Max?” I told him that I haven't interviewed Max, but that I am very aware of his work. “His new book 'The Harlem Hellfighters' is a New York Times bestseller,” Brooks said. “He”s a smart kid, my son Max. Thank God he”s making money in case things go wrong. I could always hit him up for a hundred. Max says, 'Why don”t we have a contest? Why don”t we play these movies back to back? First the number one movie on AFI, which is 'Some Like It Hot.' And then play 'Blazing Saddles.' And why don”t we do a decibel test and see who gets the most laughs and how loud the laughs are?”
As I started laughing, imagining a theater full of people wired up and laughing, with Brooks standing in the back watching a needle. “We could teach AFI a lesson. I don”t know how 'Some Like It Hot' became the number one comedy. It”s good. I like it and I love Billy Wilder and I think it”s great. But 'Blazing Saddles' should be number one as the funniest movie in America, and then there should be like five empty spaces after it, and then like number six should be 'Young Frankenstein' and then pick it up from there.”
I laughed again. “I think we've sorted it out.”
“I”d love to have that contest and see what America thinks, you know,” he said.
I told him that I have a particular fondness for the way he and Gene Wilder worked together. I think Gene is one of those guys who is so special and so unique, and to find a comic presence like that and to be able to really explore the full range of his comic talent is one of the things that makes the run from “The Producers” to “Blazing Saddles” so special. I asked him how the creative partnership began and what his memories of it are.
Even on the phone, you could hear him smile as he answered. “I met him when he was doing a play on Broadway with my wife, Anne Bancroft. She played the leading role in a Bertolt Brecht play called 'Mother Courage and Her Children,' and he played the chaplain, one among a lot of people in the show. Jerome Robbins did a great job. It was a really beautifully directed play, and Anne was never better. So, you know, we got to be friends, and he”d come off-stage and he”d say, 'Why are they laughing at me? I didn”t intend that thing to be funny. Some scenes are serious and some scenes are funny. But I didn”t intend for that to be funny, so why are they laughing?' And I said, 'Blame God. Look in the mirror. When you speak earnestly, you have a funny expression on your face. It just tells me to laugh, so you”ve got to be careful, you know.'”
One of the things I love most about Wilder is that the most serious he is, the more brutally funny he becomes. “Right, right, right,” Brooks agreed. “The straighter he plays it, the funnier he is.”
Speaking of playing it straight, there is a phase of Mel's career that I find fascinating. His company Brooksfilms was responsible for a number of films that seemed unlike anything else he'd ever been associated with, and over time, he built an impressive semi-secret filmography. One theme that seemed to be important to him was about the feeling of being a freak, the fear of being “other.” The David Lynch film version of “The Elephant Man” is a gorgeous nightmare, and David Cronenberg's “The Fly” may be the single best film about love in the shadow of sickness ever made. I told him that I wanted to discuss his involvement with the films.
“Involved? I produced them,” he said.
“That's true, but your name was rarely on the actual films. Your signature seems clear to me in terms of theme, but…”
“There”s a big problem with being Mel Brooks because you”re gonna carry that comedy baggage with you. You can”t blame America. These things are Pavlovian. If your name is Mel Brooks, they”ve set themselves and their expectations… they”re in for big laughs. So if you say 'Mel Brooks presents The Elephant Man,' they”re gonna expect a pretty funny 'Elephant Man.' That”s why I had to keep my name away from 'The Elephant Man.' It was made by Brooksfilms, and not even 'Brooksfilms presents.' We saved the credit to the end. And another one of the films… Jessica Lange gave an incredible performance as Frances Farmer…”
“It's an incredible piece of work by her.”
“That was Graeme Clifford”s 'Frances,' and I kept my name away from that, too. There was other stuff, like 'The Fly,' which is the greatest horror film ever made. And on all of them, I kept my name off. It was just Brooksfilms, you know? I made a dozen films like that. By the way, I”m gonna talk to you again because you”re gonna help me promote that.”
It took me a moment to process what he said. I replied, “I would love to write that story, sir. Genuinely. I have a very special fondness for those movies. Those, and the others, like 'My Favorite Year'…”
“Well, I really appreciate your appreciation,” he said. “Do you know 'The Doctor and The Devils'?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “That's a great movie.”
“It's a hidden gem,” he said.
“I love Jonathan Pryce's performance in that.”
“He's great, and Twiggy's good in it. It's great. Stephen Rea's work… it's all about the true story of a doctor who wants fresher and fresher cadavers so he can teach anatomy at Edinburgh University. Finally, these guys, Burke and Hare, actually wound up killing people to get him fresh corpses so that he could teach anatomy. It”s so bizarre, and Freddie Francis is one of the greatest cinematographers that ever lived.”
“Oh, god, his Hammer work is indelible. It marked me early.”
“He's made many, many movies for me,” Brooks said, “and when Freddie said, 'I want to direct that,' I said, 'Sure.' Because he had directed some blood and guts things for Hammer, but this was something different. 'Freddie, it's yours. I just want to ride herd on the script, and you can ride herd on the photography.' So we made… I think three people saw it, you know? We made one of the most beautiful movies and by the way… a little side note, which is amazing… this is the only screenplay by the great, great poet Dylan Thomas. He wrote the screenplay because he loved the story. Not for me, but it was out there, and when I read it, I said, 'I'm gonna make this movie.' And I did.”
“What a great find,” I said.
“We went to Scotland and we got it made.” He stopped and said something that was inaudible. “So let's get back to 'Blazing Saddles,'” he said, “because Ronnee is in the wings listening and she's saying 'What the hell? Is he selling 'The Doctor And The Devils'? Here I am with Warner Bros trying to promote 'Blazing Saddles' for him.'”
I laughed. “Fair enough. I know you've talked about taking 'Blazing Saddles' to Broadway like you did with 'The Producers' and 'Young Frankenstein.' Of the three of them, this still seems like it's the edgiest, the one where you really have to find the right voice for it, but looking at 'The Book Of Mormon,' I think you'd find a receptive audience for it. Is that something you're still working towards?”
“I am, kind of,” he said. “I think it should be done. It's a natural. There's a lot of music in it already. 'The Ballad of Rock Ridge,' the theme itself. 'He roooooode a blazing saddle!' That's great. And of course, there's the incredible 'I'm Tired.' Of course we can't get Madeline Kahn, but maybe we could discover a new talent to do that Marlene Dietrich thing, you know? And there's a lot of other possibilities. There's a little thing when they break through the walls of Warner Bros, and Dom DeLuise…”
I started laughing before he even finished. “Oh, yeah. I love 'The French Mistake.'”
“Right. And Dom is supposed to be Busby Berkeley, so I could take 'The French Mistake' and make it into a whole big 32-bar song and a production number.”
“Dom's countdown to that makes me howl.”
“His countdown is pretty damn good.”
“I love when you guys end up at the Chinese Theater at the end of the film.”
“He actually says to those people who are looking at the square sidewalk outside the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard… and they say, 'Oh, look, darling, Heddy Lamarr.' And he walks by and says, 'Hedley! Hedley!' I love how that connects 1874 and 1974 in one frame of film, one hundred years of cinema. It's amazing.”
I told him that the anarchy of the ending of the film always makes me think of the Warner Bros. Looney Tunes cartoons. “I always felt like Cleavon Little in the film is Bugs Bunny. He is unflappable and cool.”
“Bugs Bunny,” he repeated. “That's very good of you. That was my personal secret. I have always thought of him as Bugs Bunny.”
As he did the Looney Tunes theme, laughing, I had to take a moment to get my head around how surreal it is to finally tell him something I've had bouncing around in my film-addled brain for 30 years and then to have him agree with it. I asked him how Cleavon ended up becoming the choice for the role.
“Well, I actually quit the movie. I wasn”t doing the movie because I wanted Richard Pryor to be, you know, the black sheriff, Black Bart. They weren”t having it because Richard was having some drug problems, and he wasn”t proven in any way yet. Two years later, he”s one of the biggest stars in Hollywood making these movies with Gene Wilder, but at that point nobody could see it but me, you know? So I quit. I said, 'I”m not making any movies for you guys. I”m out.' And Richard said, 'No, no, no, no, you mustn”t quit. I haven”t gotten my last payment yet. They won”t pay me if we cancel the movie. So Richard helped me find Cleavon. He was very, very brave. Richard said, 'Look, you know, I”d be good. I”d get plenty of laughs but I couldn”t scare the shit out of those rednecks like Cleavon could. I look like I could be Cuban. I”m café au lait but look at Cleavon.'”
I told him how much I wished Cleavon had a bigger career as a leading man. His on-screen confidence is amazing. “He's the handsomest black man you”ll ever see in your life, you know, and he came from the stage. He was such a good actor. He came from the Broadway stage. Richard and I both bowed to his timing and his stagecraft, and we were very lucky, you know. Richard said, 'This is the guy. This is our black sheriff.'”
“It”s extraordinary to see the chemistry between Cleavon and Gene. I know that Richard and Gene Wilder are a great natural comic pair, but Gene and Cleavon together, it”s a very different relationship. I think what ultimately makes that second half of the film so fun is watching the two of them together.”
Wistfully, Brooks said, “Yeah, it”s so beautiful. One of the best speeches I ever wrote in my life was when Cleavon goes out to greet the townsfolk. He walks down the street and there”s a sweet little old lady with a bonnet that comes the other way. He says, 'Good morning, ma”am. Isn”t it a lovely morning?' And she says, 'Up yours, nigger.' I cut to the jailhouse and there are tears in his eyes. Gene has his arm around Cleavon”s shoulders and he says, 'Well, what did you expect? Marry my daughter? These are simple people. These are pioneers. These are people of the land. You know… morons.' And then he breaks up. It was a wonderful, sweet ending to that scene.”
Now… right around this time, we started getting the very strong indications from Ronnee Sass, the vice-president of Warner Home Entertainment's publicity, that we needed to wrap up the phone call. The thing is, when Mel Brooks is on a roll, you let it happen. From here until the end of the story, try to imagine Ronnee interjecting, “Okay, gentlemen” between pretty much every sentence spoken.
Brooks continued, “They liked each other and they really got along. That ending really works. 'Where”re you going?' 'Nowhere special.' 'Never been there.'” And they both get on their horses, then get off of their horses and into a limo, and then drive off into the sunset.”
“It's a great ending. Thanks so much, sir. This has been a huge pleasure.”
“Don't you think people would enjoy seeing it in theaters again? I think it would run at least a month. I mean it. Just play it on IMAX. It”s a western, you know? Play it on IMAX screens all over the country and it they”d make a fortune. They could charge whatever they want, you know.”
“That may be the tail end of my favorite era for film color. The Technicolor in that film is unreal.”
“I saw it the other night on an IMAX screen at Grauman”s Chinese Theater, and the audience was, I swear to you, talking along, singing along with the movie like it was 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' or something. They knew every line, every phrase and every scene, and they were thrilled, you know? And to tell you the truth, at the end of it, I was absolutely in tears. It was very emotional. I don”t think if I”d seen it on my TV set or I”d seen it as a DVD on a computer or something, I don”t think I would have been that emotional. But as a weird communal explosion, a thousand people there, all feeling the same things at the end of it… it was, you know, wow. It was quite an emotional experience.”
At that point, Ronnee had to break in. “Although we are urging everyone to buy the Blu-ray and to have the communal experience in their homes, right?”
Brooks replied, “Well, it won't hurt.” Ronnee started laughing, knowing that there's no stopping Brooks. He continued, “Maybe we could do ten days of IMAX. Ten days always seems like a good way to go. You know? The ten days that changed the world. The last ten days of Hitler. We'll do a ten days thing. And then if it works, we can say, 'Held over by popular demand.' It used to be the people were the popular demand, but these days, the movie studios are the popular demand. Actually, it was never really the people. It was always Paramount or Warner Bros.”
Ronnee gently tried, “I think you're the popular demand right now, Mel. In the meantime, thank you, Drew.”
Brooks said, “I'm gonna take advantage now. I've got your phone number now, Drew. We can talk about Brooksfilms.”
“I'm going to use you mercilessly. Dave Shore at Fox is helping me put together this incredible Brooksfilms package. I want to have one disc where it's David Lynch and Richard Benjamin and Graeme Clifford and all those directors of all the various films and me talking to Jessica Lange and Jeff Goldblum and all the stars, and I want to talk about the making of these films. We'll do a booklet, and I'll make a thousand of them and I'll sign every one and number them.”
I told him that sounds like a treasure, and one that I would gladly tell people about. “You're going to be used badly,” he said, “and all you'll get out of it will be one box set signed to you.”
I can't think of a better reason to do something.
The amazing new “Blazing Saddles” Blu-ray is in stores now.