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Mel Brooks is a national treasure whose comedies have entertained generations of moviegoers — and having just hosted a screening of Blazing Saddles at Radio City Music Hall in New York City last week, Brooks will again play presenter when one of his classics returns to the big screen. On Oct. 5, Fathom Events will bring Brooks’s Young Frankenstein back to theaters, and the writer-director will provide a live-streamed introduction that includes a tour of the 20th Century Fox studio lot where he produced the film. The one-night-only event will provide audiences with an opportunity to see the 1974 horror spoof as it was intended — with a packed house. And though it has been in the planning stages for the past year, the special screening will also double as yet another chance to pay tribute to its unforgettable star Gene Wilder, who passed away late last month at the age of 83.
In an exclusive interview with Yahoo Movies, the jovial and talkative Brooks chatted about the upcoming Fathom re-release, working with Wilder on Young Frankenstein, and his plans to revive the film as a London stage musical next year.
Let me start by asking you about Gene’s passing.
Well, you know, I knew. I’ve been very close to Gene all our adult lives, and I knew. First of all, he was a brave guy. About 20, 25 years ago, he contracted a very serious illness called non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He went through marrow transplants, he went through incredible radiation, he went through all the stuff that you go through to survive lymphoma. And he did it! He incredibly survived it, and went on to write his books, and to do his TV show, and to take tap-dancing lessons with his wife, Karen. He’s an amazing guy. But for the last three and a half years or so, he was suffering from Alzheimer’s, and I guess it got real heavy near the end, where it just takes you away. He just got weaker and weaker, and then, finally, he just couldn’t fight it anymore.
Did you have a favorite performance of his?
He was incredible in my first movie, The Producers. He had that blue blanket — hysterical. It was just amazing — nobody else in the world could have done that. And then he went on to do the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, which I just did at Radio City Music Hall. I came on stage and answered a lot of questions, and it was a lot of fun. That was just last week.
Then, the next movie he did for me was the Promethean, magnificent performance of this crazy, crazy Dr. Fronkensteen — he wouldn’t even allow himself to be called Frankenstein, he wanted nothing to do with his previous relatives, you know? He said they were cuckoo, their work was doo-doo….
Because it was a James Whale-inspired black-and-white film, he said, “I’m going to act in black and white, even though you’re shooting me in color.” I said, “What?!” He said, “I’m going to act in black and white.” I said, “OK.” [laughs] I kind of got it, you know — he was so crazy and so eloquent, so beautiful. And he said, “I’ll do Young Frankenstein, but only on one condition.” I said, “Anything, what do you want?” He said, “That you’re not in it! I don’t want you popping out of a suit of armor, saying, ‘Th-th-th-th-that’s all, folks!’ I don’t want to break fourth walls here. I want to do it the way James Whale would have done it.” I said, “OK, you got it.”
I’ve read that you initially ran into trouble over your desire to shoot it in black and white.
We went to Columbia Pictures with Young Frankenstein and they liked the idea. They were going to give us $1.5 million — in those days, you could make a movie for $1.5, $2 million. Like, I made The Producers for $900,000, and in those days you could! But I still needed a little over $2 million, and I was fighting with them, and they said, “That’s it, $1.5 million.” And I said, “Well, all right. I’ll make the movie. Columbia wants to make it, and that’s a blessing. This is great.”
But on the way out of this big meeting, [producer] Michael Gruskoff said, “You better tell them, you better tell them, Mel.” I said, “Nah, if I tell them, they’ll say no.” And he says, “No, you better tell them.” So just on my way out of the meeting, I open the door and I yell back, “Oh, by the way, we’re going to make it in black and white!” I close the door and I went down the hall, and a hundred thousand executives from Columbia — like a herd of Jewish buffalos — just stampeded down the hallway. They said, “No, no, nobody does black and white. No black and white!” So we went back and argued, and I said, “Look, Gene Wilder insists!” I blamed it on Gene, but it was really me. And I knew it had to be in black and white.
That night, Michael Gruskoff, who was best friends with Alan Ladd Jr. — they used to be agents together — ran over to Fox, where Ladd (“Laddie” we called him) had just become chief of production. And [Michael] let him read the script, and Laddie said, “I’ll do it, and I’ll give you $2 million, and it should be in black and white.” So we told Columbia, “No, it’s got to be in black and white. ” They said, “No.” And so we ran over to Fox.
And now, all these years later, Young Frankenstein is returning to theaters, courtesy of Fathom Events.
On Wednesday, Oct. 5, in 500 theaters, the lucky ones can get in to see Young Frankenstein, in black and white, and they’re going to see me at the beginning of the presentation, at Stage 5 at 20th Century Fox. The back of Stage 5 has an incredible, 120-foot mural of the making of the monster scene — of me, and Gene Wilder, and Peter Boyle on the table, and Teri Garr, and Marty Feldman. It’s an incredible mural. And then I’m going to show where we made the movie inside Studio 5, I’m going to show a bit of the Fox lot, I’m going to take you to the little theater where we screened all our movies — and then you’re going to see the movie.
I originally did a rough cut of Young Frankenstein, and at the screening, there were about 120, 140 seats in there, and I filled it up. I showed this 2-hour, 22-minute movie, and they saw it, and we got big laughs in spots, and big coughs and nothing in other spots. At the end of the screening, I got up on the little platform that they’d built for me on the stage, and I said, “Look, folks, you have seen a 2-hour and 22-minute failure. I want you all to come back in two weeks — same night, Tuesday night — and you will see a 90-minute magnificent success.” And they did. They came back, and they got on their feet, and they were cheering at the end of this 90-minute film, and I heard all the laughs, and I knew I had a fantastic success. And it never stopped. It was like the No. 3 picture of ’74, it never stopped earning money for Fox — and a little for me. It went on and on and on, and in the pantheon of black-and-white movies, it was one of the most beloved movies ever. Mainly because of Gene Wilder’s contribution.
How did this Fathom event screening come about?
Well, it’s only one night — if you don’t see it, you can always get a DVD, or Netflix, or one of those things, and then you can see it on a little screen. Then there’s two people in a living room, and the husband says, “Oh, pause it honey, I gotta pee.” That’s hardly the platform for a magnificent picture. So I love seeing my movies on big screens with a thousand people, laughing and enjoying it. It means a great deal to me.
This [Fathom screening] has been in the works, by the way, for a long time. [Fathom] didn’t know about Gene. I knew, but they had no idea that Gene wasn’t really going to survive this Alzheimer’s, and they didn’t want people to think that they were just taking advantage of a great star’s passing. This was started close to a year ago, and I’m glad it’s being done, really, because for those who’ve never seen Gene Wilder act, it’s going to be a thrilling event.
If I’m not mistaken, Young Frankenstein began with Gene.
I was making Blazing Saddles, and Gene was the Waco Kid. And we broke for lunch, and he didn’t go to his trailer. He was scrunched up against some Western building, and he had a legal pad. So I wandered over, and I looked, and I saw at the top of the legal pad, it said “Young Frankenstein.” He said, “Well, I have a funny idea. A good movie could be made saluting the James Whale movies — Frankenstein — if the great-grandson of Victor Frankenstein was a brilliant young surgeon and wanted nothing to do with his family name, and he called himself Fronkensteen.” I said, “OK, you got it!” We shook hands, and that’s a movie. “We’re going to write it together, you’re going to star in it, I’m going to direct it. And we’re going to split the money 60-40.” He said, “Of course!”
And that’s how it came about. While I was editing Blazing Saddles with the great John Howard, who edited a lot of my early movies, Gene was going to do The Little Prince, some movie in France or England or somewhere. They had put him up at the Bel-Air Hotel out there, so he had his own little bungalow. Every night after dinner, my wife and I would drive over to the Bel-Air, to his bungalow, and he always had Earl Grey English Breakfast tea, and digestives — graham cracker biscuits. We’d work together every night for two to three hours, just following the story of Frankenstein, and we had the majority — 80 percent — of it in two and a half weeks. It wrote itself.
Arguably the greatest sequence in Young Frankenstein is the ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ number. How did that scene come about?
Well, we wrote it, and I said to Gene, “Gene, I’m taking that out, I’m not going to film that.” And he said, “What, are you crazy? It’s one of the most marvelous events in the film.” And I said, “It tears it. We have been so careful, we have saluted the James Whale Frankenstein to a T, and now by doing ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz,’ we’re kind of trashing it. We’re making fun of it. It’s just not right.” And he said, “Well, all right, all right.”
Watch the ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ scene:
The next day, he came back to me and said, “Mel, do me a favor. Let’s shoot it, and then look at it. If you’re right, and it’s jarring and doesn’t work with the film, we’ll take it right out.” So I said “OK, Gene. For you, I’ll do that.” So we shot the scene, I put it in the movie, and I turned to Gene one night while we were screening it, and I said, “You know, Gene, I’m really glad you argued for it, because it turns out to be the best scene in the whole movie. Maybe you were right.” And he was right, right from the start. I was being a little too artsy.
You’ve previously called Young Frankenstein your “best” movie. Do you still feel that way?
It’s one of my funniest movies, but it’s my very best directorial movie. It’s the lighting of [cinematographer] Gerald Hirschfeld — the incredible texture of the lighting in black and white is incredible. The sets by Dale Hennessey are amazing — you know, the sweating stone castle, the laboratory. And there was a guy named Kenneth Strickfaden, and he lived in Santa Monica, and he had worked for James Whale, and he had all the gadgets from the laboratory [in Frankenstein]. He had all that in his garage. We found Strickfaden, we found the garage, we gave him like $2,000, and he was thrilled. He said, “I don’t care about the money; my stuff is going to be in the movie!” I said, “Yep.” Because I wanted the original, rinky-dink, crazy turn-of-the-century imaginative electrical, bubbling, and static-y stuff. And we got it!
You know, I made a musical called Young Frankenstein. You know that. Or maybe you don’t.
Yes, I do.
And I’m doing it again. We’re going to do it in London about a year from now — Young Frankenstein.
Is it going to be identical to the 2007-09 Broadway production?
We’re going to do a streamlined version. I’ve added a great song called “It Could Work,” by Dr. Fronkensteen. I’ve added a great number called “Hang Him ’Til He’s Dead,” by Inspector Kemp — you know, give him a fair trial… and then hang him ’til he’s dead! And it’s going to be in a theater in the West End in London about a year from now, and then if it really works, and people really love it, I’ll take it back to New York in a nice little theater. We won’t do an over-blown production like we did originally. It’ll be fabulous.
Susan Stroman [who won a Best Directing Tony for the musical adaptation of The Producers] is going to stage it, and she’s a genius. She’s going to stage it, and she’s going to lend Susan Stroman’s magic to it. And when she did The Scottsboro Boys, she hired a genius guy who does crazy sets, all kinds of imaginative sets. His name is Beowulf Boritt — you can imagine how crazy he is! And he said, “You know, you have that scene where Marty Feldman (who plays Igor) says, ‘No, I can’t throw the third switch, it’s too dangerous! I can’t, I can’t, it’s too dangerous!’ And Gene says, ‘Throw it, damn your eyes, throw it!’” After this scene’s big fight, when Marty Feldman/Igor finally throws the switch, Boritt says, “I’m going to blow up the theater! Not just what’s on stage, but I’m going to rig the edges of the balcony, the ceiling. I’m going to scare the s**t out of that audience, because they’ll know the third switch was a little too dangerous.” He said it’ll really be a theatrical moment.
That should keep audiences on their toes.
It might kill a few people, but it’s worth it! We’ll put it on the ticket: “Be seated at your own risk.” Until the third switch is thrown, they won’t know what the hell that’s about, but when that theater rocks, it’s going to be an event.
So we’re going to be doing that — but first, the big thing is that people will be able to see my best film ever in 500 theaters on Oct 5. God bless Fathom for feeling it’s a great film. They want to do it, and I’m quite appreciative of their generosity and goodness in showing it in 500 theaters — because I LOVE it on a big screen! And I hate it on television. And you know how I hate it the most? I hate it the most when I see a young kid playing Young Frankenstein on his telephone. I swear to God, it’s like 2 inches! Dorothy Jenkins, who was a genius (God bless her) — she made the greatest costumes ever in Young Frankenstein. And you can’t see anything [on a phone].
Put it in there — Mel Brooks begs you: Please don’t play Young Frankenstein on your telephone.
I understand your frustration, since my kids like to watch things on their phones, and iPads…
I know, iPads and cell phones — it’s bizarre, it’s really bizarre. How can you see a movie that was intended for a 40-foot screen… Movies have always been larger than life, and now, suddenly, technology has made them smaller than life. It’s just insulting and shocking to me, that a lot of my movies are played on iPads and computers.
Are you surprised by how popular your films like Young Frankenstein continue to be, even with younger audiences?
I don’t get it! They should have been gone with the wind, they should have just gone away. But I don’t know — the kids seem to like my sense of humor. And they still buy Young Frankenstein.
Seeing a movie like Young Frankenstein with an audience is also a big part of the experience.
Exactly. An audience of 1,000 people, laughing. I was at Radio City Music Hall last Thursday with Blazing Saddles. Roughly 6,000 people, all laughing together. There are some lines… Like when Slim Pickens rides up to the toll booth in the middle of the desert, and they can easily ride around it, there’s 1,000 square miles of nothing on either side, and he says, “Somebody’s gotta go back and get a s**tload of dimes,” that’s 6,000 people exploding in a laugh! It can blow you right off the stage! It’s amazing. And I love it.
It doesn’t have to be 6,000 people. But if I can have 500 to 600 people together watching one of my comedies, then I’m a happy camper. It’s a communal experience. Movie comedies are meant for a bunch of people to laugh together.