Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Conversations at the Cinematheque: Mel Brooks for THE PRODUCERS, 3/7/15

Photo by Jim Pease/American Cinematheque 

Mel Brooks came to the Aero on March 7, 2015 to pay tribute to his old friend, Zero Mostel, who would have been 100 that day. “He was a great, great talent,” Brooks said, after being greeted by a warm Aero standing ovation. He was introduced by Larry Karaszewski, who, as Brooks explained, co-wrote “Ed Wood,” “so he has every right to introduce me.” “Zero was heaven and hell,” the “Producers” writer-director continued. “When he felt like being nice, he was heaven. And when he felt like working, he was one of the greatest talents that ever lived. And when he felt like not working, he was hell.

Mel brought along Alfa-Betty Olsen, whom he met “a little before ‘Get Smart,’” which he created with Buck Henry. He shared with her his idea, then called “Springtime for Hitler,” and she encouraged him to write it. But “I couldn’t really type,” he admitted. “I could write on a legal pad with an Everhard No. 2 pencil, but I’d talk and talk and Betty would type and type. She’d put it on onionskin, that’s how far back this was. And she really put together a screenplay called ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ She was there for the whole process.” 

“I met Zero in the ‘50s,” Brooks said. “He was a painter, and he had a little atelier in a brownstone on 28th Street in New York, and my best friend, Speed Vogel, was a sculptor who was in the same little brownstone. And we hung out together...I knew Zero, but I had not yet proposed that he play... but I knew Zero, I knew his animal ways,” he said with great emphasis on the last two words.

Turning things over to Karazewski, Brooks discussed the genesis of “The Producers.” “I always thought it was a book,” he explained, “and I started writing it as a book.” He showed it to one of the members of his Chinese Gourmet Society, “either Mario or Joe” -- whom Karaszewski broke in to identify as Mario Puzo and Joseph Heller, “minor novelists.” “And Joe said, ‘It talks too much, there’s too much dialogue. It’s probably a play.’ So I knew Kermit Bloomgarten,” a major Broadway producer, Brooks continued. “Bloomgarten said, ‘The rule of the theater is one set, five actors. Any more than that and we’re out of business.’ He said, ‘You have 32 scenes here, 35 actors -- it’s not a play. I don’t know what the hell it is. It might be a movie, because in a movie they can cut from one scene to another.’”

Olsen also kept saying it’s a movie, but Brooks hadn’t written a movie before. But with Olsen’s help, and her super-speedy typing, he got through it. “When you came to making it actually into a movie, it was more like a home movie. Everything was put together on the spur of the moment,” Olsen said. One example: “When we were going to do the audition scene for all the Hitlers, they were going to sing ‘I Could Have Danced All Night.’ It was going to be a montage of an actor with a Hitler mustache, and he’d sing one line of the song, and then we’d cut to another actor, and he’d sing the next line. Well, the rights to ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ were too hard to get. Meanwhile, we were already shooting -- we had nothing for that. Lore Noto, who produced ‘The Fantasticks,’ which was the longest-running show Off-Broadway, loaned us his office, and I was sitting in the office and two actors walked in. They were on Broadway in ‘Most Happy Fella,’ and they wanted to be in our movie. I hired them.” “Betty became casting director,” Brooks interjected.

“And when it came time to do that scene,” Olsen continued, “it was made up on the spot, it was improvised. Mel had ideas, he told some people what to do, some people had their own ideas. “And he really did insist on finishing his song!” Brooks added.

Photo by Jim Pease/American Cinematheque 

Apparently Dustin Hoffman, who was doing “The Graduate” at the time with Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft, read the script and wanted to play the part of the German playwright, Franz Liebkind. Hoffman asked Olsen to push the shooting date back so he could take the part, but, as Olsen said, “It was not to be.” Brooks got a huge laugh by adding, “I didn’t want him, I didn’t want him. Who knew he’d turn out to be Dustin Hoffman?” But Olsen found Kenneth Mars, who ended up playing the role -- Brooks described him as “a miracle.” Olsen explained, “Someone told us about him. He was in a play and he was playing a psychiatrist, and I remember he did tremendous things with Kleenex! “We thought he was incredibly funny. And then we met with him and he had this great German accent,” she said. Brooks added, “He had such a good German accent that finally I said, ‘Kenny, we need you to bring it more American, because no one can understand a f####ing word!’”

Among other “inside information” dispensed by Olsen: The movie was being shot in a studio on West 26th Street, and they didn’t have anything for the audition scene, and she went to Lincoln Center to see if she could find an old show that had something public-domain they could use. “And I walked past the fountain, and I did not go to the theater library, I turned right around and came down to 23rd Street, finished shooting. We got in a cab and went up to Lincoln Center, looked at the fountain. And the next day the production manager talked to Lincoln Center, and the guy who ran the fountain said, ‘I can make it go up 40 feet!’ And he did, for the movie!” 

Karaszewski interjected: “But to talk about Zero ... he said no to you, right?” To which Brooks replied, “Zero said no. He just said no. He wouldn’t say why!” But mutual friend Speed Vogel offered to get the script to Mostel’s wife, Kate, “because she’s smart,” and Mostel trusted her judgment. Within a week she’d gotten him to agree to do it. With Mostel on board, Brooks had to find the money to make the movie. He got Oscar-winning producer Sidney Glazer to read the script, which left Glazer laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe. Together they took it to Universal Studios, whose Lew Wasserman sent them a letter. “It said, ‘Very funny script. Universal could be aboard. One small change: Could you please change Hitler to Mussolini?”” 

Photo by Jim Pease/American Cinematheque 

Finally they got producer Joseph E. Levine to come on, bringing his money from “possibly the worst movie ever made, ‘Hercules Unchained,’” Brooks said. Levine also made “Two Women” starring Sophia Loren. As Karaszewski interjected, “Levine was kind of a combination of Bob AND Harvey Weinstein.”

But that wasn’t the end of the attempted interference. “The one crazy thing that [Levine] did was he came to my office, and he said, there’s nothing wrong with this movie, but you gotta get rid of that funny-looking guy,” Brooks said. “I said, ‘Who’s that?’ and he said, ‘Gene Wilder.’ He said, ‘I’ll pay for a good-looking actor.’ I said, ‘But he’s perfect for the part. He’s delicious!’ I said, ‘Watch his development,’ and Bobby Weston, who worked for Joe, said, ‘Joe, Joe, he’s good.’ And he laid off Gene Wilder. We kept Gene Wilder, thank God.” Wilder did “Mother Courage” on Broadway with Bancroft two years before he was cast as Leo Bloom -- as Karaszewski pointed out, “the only guy to get laughs” in that play. Brooks said, “Gene asked why they were laughing, and I said, ‘You ever see a mirror?’” Gene Wilder was in a Murray Schisgal play and Brooks walked into his dressing room, threw the “Producers” script on his dressing table, and told him they’d got the money and Wilder was to play Leo starting in a month and a half. “He burst into tears,” Brooks reported. “It was so beautiful.”

But Wilder still had to meet Mostel. “Zero was very cold and crazy when he met” Wilder, Brooks said. “He didn’t say a word, he just looked at him. Gene didn’t know what to do. Then he took Gene’s head in his hands and kissed him. Gene looked at me and he said [sotto voce], ‘He likes me.’ “Zero liked him very much. For some reason he hated Kenny Mars. ... I think he believed he was a Nazi!” Brooks said. 

But, Brooks said, “I wouldn’t even look at anyone else” for the role of Max. “I said, if we don’t have Zero, we don’t have the movie.” There was “Fat” Jack Leonard, he allowed, but he wasn’t an actor -- he just told jokes. “Zero was a profound actor,” Brooks said.

Zero Mostel and Kenneth Mars in "The Producers" 

Brooks talked a little bit about the more recent “Producers” movie as well -- the one based on the Broadway hit musical. “It’s a sore subject, because I didn’t want to make a film of the new musical. It was a perfectly thrilling Broadway show, absolutely thrilling. Susan Stroman did an incredible job with it, with its physical transference from the screen to the stage. And Tom Meehan and I worked almost around the clock to see if we could get the best of that movie onto the stage. And we did. It was smooth as silk -- you never saw the stitching we did. 

“But you see it in the [new] movie. And I think that’s because [the original] was such a good movie. It’s so tight, and it’s so natural, and it flows from one scene to another so perfectly, so correctly. In the new musical, on screen, the music gets in the way, the numbers get in the way of the storytelling. And that’s why the movie is not nearly as good as the original movie. But thanks for bring that up [to audience member], I’ve wanted to get that off my chest for a long time.” 

Asked by an audience member if there was anyone he’d always wanted to work with but hadn’t, Brooks allowed: “I used to dream of working with Jean Harlow: ‘Have you ever kissed a Jew?’” Asked, “If you could go back in time, what would you tell young Mel?” Brooks first spouted some Yiddish gibberish, then said, “I wouldn’t tell myself anything. It all worked out.” Asked if there were any “subjects you wanted to touch but haven’t been able to,” Brooks first cracked a joke about Gypsy Rose Lee’s sister June’s breasts -- “not to do anything dirty, just to feel them, they were so perfect!” But turning serious, he asked Olsen if there was anything that he ever avoided. She replied, “I think, quite amazingly, everything you ever wanted to do, somehow you got it done.” Brooks agreed: “Yeah.”

Photo by Jim Pease/American Cinematheque 

By Lisa Horowitz