As a comic genius, Mel Brooks needs no introduction. What most moviegoers don’t realize is that under the imprimatur of Brooksfilms, he’s produced some intriguing, offbeat dramatic fare, including David Lynch’s stunning The Elephant Man and the forthcoming Frances starring Jessica Lange as Frances Farmer, a budding Hollywood star of the Thirties and Forties who refused to conform to studio stereotypes.Now he’s teamed up with the adventurous Michael Gruskoff (who produced Quest for Fire and Brooks’ best comedy, Young Frankenstein) on My Favorite Year, one of this year’s most pleasant surprises. It was Gruskoff’s inspiration to fashion a comedy around the exploits of an on-the-rocks swashbuckler (like Errol Flynn) who guest stars on an early Fifties comedy series (like Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows). Brooks loved the idea and, together with Gruskoff and their first-time director, Richard Benjamin, assembled a cast full of scene-stealers, most notably Joe Bologna as the bulldozing King Kaiser and Peter O’Toole as the dashing Alan Swann. My Favorite Year is a very funny movie.
We’re just coming off one of the most successful movie summers in history, in terms of the box office. Are you heartened by the boom?
Well, summer product is summer product. I had a movie out last summer, The History of the World Part I. And I was a little disappointed. I mean, it did very well—whenever you do $20 million domestically in rentals, it’s never anything to sneeze at. But we were up against very heavy summer fare: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II. Blockbusters. There were a lot of kid-oriented pictures. Essentially, I think the summer audience is somewhere between eight and sixteen. You know? It’s like this year, what do they have, Raiders II?
Do you mean, E.T.?
That’s right, E.T.
Mel, have you seen ‘E.T.’?
No, I’m sure it’s adorable. All I’m saying is I’m gonna open all my movies in the fall now, when Jews and professional people and cobblers . . . you know, my crowd, cobblers . . . when people who’ve been reading Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer start thinking of going to movies again.
How did you first react to My Favorite Year?
I said, “Wait a minute, you’re singing my song. What is this – the story of a little Jewish boy from Brooklyn and a guest star on Your Show of Shows? I lived this life.” I looked at Joe Bologna and I said, “That is Sid Caesar.”There’s a certain primitive energy that Joe Bologna and Sid Caesar share, a very basic animal energy. Eat. Go. Sleep. The first thing I wrote for Sid was about a jungle boy who’s been captured and taken to New York City as an experiment to see how he will survive in the big city. He’s interviewed by Carl Reiner. “What do you eat, sir?” “Pigeons. Crave pigeons, go in park, many pigeons in park. Eat pigeons.”
“What do you fear?” “Buick. Big, yellow, very dangerous. Wait, wait till lights, eyes go out – smash in grille, all night, with club. Kill Buick.” Joe Bologna has the same thing going in the movie. “Send the girl some steaks,” he says, “I’ll send her some steaks. “Nothing romantic, no flowers. To make up with a writer, he sends some tires; his brother owns a tire store. But they’re very real. I love all the little touches in the movie. I love when Peter O’Toole realizes that he’s going to be working in front of a live audience. That is the essence of the movie—when he says, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star.” There’s a big difference.
My Favorite Year is a little more delicate than the comedies you write and direct yourself. And other films that Brooksfilms has produced – The Elephant Man and Frances – are very serious, even tragic. What do you see as the difference between Mel Brooks Films and just plain Brooksfilms movies?
Philosophically, there are no differences. I think most of my movies are serious; they have their roots in some terrible things. I mean, Springtime for Hitler is, in some oblique, insane way, my response to Nazi Germany, but what you see is a romp with Bialystok and Bloom. And just as I think my comedies are unique, I want my dramatic films to be unique. There is a psychological reason that I don’t display my name more prominently on some of the films I produce. When I’m introduced on talk shows, there’s always an appellation that precedes my name—it’s always “zany” or “wacky.” I always thought that Albert Einstein should have the same intro—”Here he is, zany, nutty Albert Einstein. What have you got in your wacky brain today, professor?” That’s a good thing for talk shows, but it becomes a real problem when you’re producing a film like The Elephant Man.
I deliberately kept my name sotto voce on The Elephant Man. But I made a lot of contributions in the concept and script stages, and I have a lot of pride in ownership of that film. The writers, Christopher DeVore and Eric Bergren, read the diaries of the Elephant Man’s doctor, Dr. Treves, and found them fascinating long before the OffBroadway production of The Elephant Man. [Producer] Jonathan Sanger brought them to me with this, and I said, “Wait a minute.” The first film I lent my company name to was written and directed by my wife, Anne Bancroft— — Fatso, a sort of bittersweet comedy – so that was a natural identification, like Coppola sponsoring that wonderful cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel. But my being the prime catalyst of a piece called The Elephant Man would seem insane. How many people have read the Kenneth Tynan article on me in The New Yorker and would know that I could probably teach a course in Russian literature at any university?
Before The Elephant Man, David Lynch was mostly known for an artful but grotesque midnight movie called Eraserhead. How did you go about selecting him?
When [executive producer] Stuart Cornfeld found out that I was doing the project, he urged me to see David Lynch’s film Eraserhead. I saw that Lynch could deal very primitively and surrealistically with human feelings. The outsides of things are critical to him, but not in any normal way. He’s like Ionesco or Beckett. He certainly isn’t abstract—his movies are very real. The terror of a young man like the hero of Eraserhead, who takes the burden of a woman and the incredible burden of a baby before he’s ready for them, is a ubiquitous, universal heartache that a lot of people suffer. In Eraserhead, he just extended it. When you meet David Lynch, it’s like meeting the young Charles Lindbergh. This man came in a leather jacket; he had his hair cut like Charles Lindbergh’s; he had a hundred r‘s in every sentence; he was born in Missoula, Montana; he’s very American, very straight. I thought he’d look like the young Max Reinhardt! But I could see he was getting at very simple, direct things, and he made me some drawings that showed me he could visualize a story. So I chose David Lynch. He’d make us confront the ugliness of the man without artifice.
Then we started to get the money together. Who would want to film this story about an ugly, misshapen man? With a director that nobody’s ever heard of? And two guys who’d never before written an outline, much less a screenplay? So Mel Brooks goes to all these studios, and the people there sit grinning. Frank Wells over at Warner Bros. really thought I was putting him on. He told me later, “Mel, I thought this was one of your most grotesque jokes. You have the hierarchy of Warner Bros. for whom Brooks made the phenomenally successful Blazing Saddles] come to your office, and for an hour you spin this insane tale, and I thought, this is something Mel must do at parties.” He didn’t believe there was a movie; he thought I just made it all up! Finally, Michael Eisner at Paramount read it and was very moved by it. He didn’t know whether it would make any money, but he thought that if Paramount could work out a deal for it, one that wouldn’t involve any great financial risk for them, if they were in it mostly for the releasing moneys (which are considerable), he’d want to do it. And Raphael Erkes, who was then at Universal— — he loved it too. Every other studio said no. I was very surprised. We had a board, a breakdown and a budget, and I’m notoriously famous for bringing in pictures for a price or a little under. I made Blazing Saddles for $2.6 million, Young Frankenstein for $2.8 million, Silent Movie for $4.4 million — —and that was in 1976 and 1977. High Anxiety was made for $3.4 million— — astounding.
So we put up the $5 million for production costs ourselves. And The Elephant Man was a very successful picture; I think it did $12.5 million in Japan alone. It must have done better there than any film except Star Wars. It established Brooksfilms as a place where, if you can’t get films made anywhere else, if you think it’s too good or too smart or too artistic or too oblique for the normal studio reader to understand, bring it to us.
What attracted you to Frances?
The individual against society has always interested me, whether it’s Ignaz Semmelweis finding out you have to wash your hands after working on a cadaver before you work as an obstetrician or else you’ll give new mothers a deathlike fever—or the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles or Dr. Frankenstein. The misunderstood genius, the misunderstood poet has always been a favorite of mine. In the Thirties and Forties, Frances Farmer didn’t want to do cheesecake, she didn’t want to be a bombshell, a big-titted, blue-eyed beauty, she wanted to be what she was—a great artist—she wanted to manifest her art, and nobody would let her, including her family. I have high hopes for Frances. It’s going to be the best movie of the year, by far. I know that E.T. is adorable. But if E.T. wins the Academy Award and Frances doesn’t – then, who cares? There is a difference between something lovable and affectionate and adorable and wonderful and A Massive Piece of Unique Art.
No one except EMI was interested in putting $9 million up for Frances.
Producing has been a hard job for you. It is hard. It’s hard to wipe your feet on the welcome mat outside of a big studio’s door and come in and realize that it’s only a word out there –— you’re not welcome. You hold your hat in your hand, and you plead and cajole and beg to get a few rubles —— like a peasant, a muzhik. It’s like the way goyim relate to Jews anyway. You know what I mean? They don’t think we’re serious because they don’t give us land. If they thought we were serious, they’d give us land. That’s the one thing they don’t give us, so they think we’re just transient and funny.