Q&A: Mel Brooks
He dreamed of being a big band drummer, but developed of the greatest comedy minds of our time.Much like Max Bialystock persuades Leo Bloom to help him create the greatest Broadway flop of all time in "The Producers," it was longtime producer David Geffen who convinced Mel Brooks to bring his Academy Award-winning 1968 movie to the stage.
"He was like a terrier," the legendary director/producer/comedian/actor/songwriter says of Geffen. "I couldn't shake him off."
Brooks sat down with the original script -- in which Bialystock and Bloom inadvertently create a Broadway smash -- and said to himself, "Where can I stick 20 new songs?" A record-breaking 12 Tony Awards later, Brooks ended up with his own monster Broadway hit.
On Dec. 16, Brooks will introduce the movie remake of "The Producers," this time with no persuasion necessary. Broadway cast members Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick return for the Universal Pictures/Columbia Pictures release, which also stars Will Ferrell as playwright Franz Liebkind and Uma Thurman as Swedish secretary Ulla.
Brooks wrote a new end-credit track, "There's Nothing Like a Show on Broadway," which is featured on the Sony Classical soundtrack along with a Celine Dion-style power ballad performance of "Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop" by Ferrell.
Brooks, who is one of an elite few to have received an Emmy, Tony, Grammy and Academy Award, cautions audiences to stay in their seats for the credits: "So many things are going to happen and the audience will be unsuspecting. They'll get up and leave and miss three or four minutes of wacky, heavenly stuff."
Q: Besides director and choreographer Susan Stroman, and of course Lane and Broderick, how many people from the Broadway version of "The Producers" did you get to come back for the movie?
A: As many as we could. We also got the two supporting leads, which are Gary Beach -— who plays the gay director Roger De Bris -— and his common-law roommate Carmen Ghia, played by Roger Bart. So we got four solid performances right from Broadway.
Q: Was this strategic?
A: Not at all. They were the best guys for the roles. We could have got bigger stars to play the leads, bigger names to play Roger and Carmen, but they wouldn't have been as good. The only reason I did this whole damn thing was to make sure these performances were memorialized -- that the musical would be fixed forever. Like a photograph that you put into some kind of plastic so it doesn't rot.
Q: How do Will Ferrell and Uma Thurman do in their roles?
A: They stepped into those roles like they were born to do them. First of all, Will Ferrell, I think secretly is a crazy Nazi. He's a crazy, wacky German playwright and that German helmet fit him perfectly. He put it on and we said, "That's it! You are Franz Liebkind." He enjoyed doing it with such a maniacal glee. With glee! [laughs] I don't know, he loved playing this Nazi.
And then, Uma Thurman was born to be a musical comedy star. She has the most beautiful body, the longest legs, a great voice, she moves like a dream -— every teenage boy is going to be taking her image with him to dark rooms. I can tell you that. She's fabulous.
Q: How do you go about creating a score?
A: I usually start with the words. The rhythm of the words gives me the rhythm of the song, and then I look for the musical highlights in it to carry it. If it's a love song, I try to give it a kind of lovely musical poetry.
Q: How do you know so much about rhythm?
A: I used to be a drummer. I made a living at it. I was taught by the greatest drummer that ever lived -— this guy Buddy Rich. When I made "Blazing Saddles," which was the first big hit I ever had, Buddy Rich hugged me and he was weeping. I said, "Buddy, why are you crying?" And he said, "It's such a great movie, Mel, you're going to be a movie director." I said, "So? So?" He said, "You coulda been a good drummer." He didn't even say "great drummer." He said "you coulda been a good drummer." [laughs]
Q: Was that your original dream?
A: Yeah. My original dream was to play with Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.
Q: When did you start writing songs?
A: I've always loved songwriting, and I vowed to be a songwriter like Cole Porter when I was only 9 years old. My uncle Joe was a cab driver and he took me to see this brand-new show that just opened -— it was 1935 -— and it was called "Anything Goes," a beautiful Cole Porter show. So we sat in the last seat of the last row of the last balcony and even then I thought Ethel Merman was too loud. Ethel Merman. What a voice she had. No mics in those days. She just hit the back of the house.
So they sang one song after another and I was weeping. And my uncle said, "What's the matter? You didn't like it?" And I said, "No, Uncle Joe, I loved it. When I grow up, that's what I want to do. I want to write all of those songs that Cole Porter wrote." He said, "You'll do it, kid. You'll do it."
Q: Do you always write songs in your movies?
A: I always write a song. In "Blazing Saddles" I wrote the title song, and I wrote a beautiful song for Madeline Kahn called "I'm Tired." [sings] "Here I stand/The goddess of desire/Set men on fire/I have this power/Morning noon and night/And drink and dancing/A quick romancing/And then I shower."
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Me and [Thomas Meehan], who wrote the book with me on the original musical of "The Producers," we're working on "Young Frankenstein" for Broadway. Whether it comes out or not, I don't know, but we're having fun working on it. I have six or seven songs written for it.