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.