Mel Brooks discusses 'Blazing Saddles,' Brooksfilms, and the best screening ever
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."