Waiting for Mel Brooks, you can spend a minute or two luxuriating in the view from an office reserved for the president of 20th Century-Fox, which occupies much of the 42nd floor of a glass monolith on Sixth Avenue. Suddenly the expression "privileged position" acquires a literal meaning. One could grow very fond of such vistas.
This treacherous line of thought was interrupted by the arrival of Brooks, who halloed "Hey, you in there?" and strode briskly into the office. He smiled, shook hands, then developed a look of concern."Tell me," he said, "what gives with these stories about David Begelman?
Begelman, recently reinstated as president of Columbia Pictures after being suspended for alleged financial irregularities, had become the subject of several articles that specified forgery as one of the irregularities.
There is a serious, brooding, slightly defensive Mel Brooks as well as a joking, effusive, affable Mel Brooks. When you encounter him, you inevitably absorb a powerful dose of this double-barreled personality. He is a very complicated funnyman, fascinating to a considerable extent because he seems so ambivalent about his own work, reputation and aspirations.
David Begelman was a personal friend and his former agent. Brooks felt the press had been treating him unfairly. "Who cares?" he exclaimed. "Who's been hurt? These stories can do great harm to the business. You can see what they've done for the stock. But I don't care about that. I like this man. He's admitted his mistakes and made restitution. This man is good for the movie business. I can testify to that from personal experience.
"I was with CMA when David was running it, David and Freddie Fields. I was out of work and deep in debt after 'The Twelve Chairs' flopped. We ran into each other on the street one day, and he said, 'Let's talk over a little lunch.' We spent the whole afternoon talking over 'The Producers' and 'The Twelve Chairs' and discussing what I should try to do from that point on.
"He knew of a little script that Judy Feiffer had turned up. That's Jules Feiffer's wife. It was a thing called 'Tex X' by Andrew Bergman. The idea was a black sheriff who talked 1974 in 1874. David said, 'They would like for you to do this, and I think you can do it.' I'm still acting despondent, but I agree to look it over. And I have to agree: It needs lots of work but it's got possibilities.
"So we get a few writers together. I bring in two guys I know, Norman Steinberg and Alan Uger. We also bring in Richard Pryor, who's just beginning to create a stir. We even bring in the original writer, which is unheard of in these situations. We bounce ideas off each other, and the script starts to grow. It also changes titles. 'Tex X' becomes 'Black Bart' and then 'Blazing Saddles.'"
It was the movie that turned things around for Brooks.By the way, had he wanted Pryor to play the sheriff too?
"Begged!" Brooks roared. "Begged on bended knee! They turned me down flat. He was considered not box-office by the powers-that-be. Also not reliable. Now they couldn't argue that he wasn't box-office, although they might still complain that he wasn't reliable.
"Anyway, the public went crazy for the picture, and the rest is history. Believe me, it was totally unexpected. Warners never expected it. I certainly never expected it. I had just decided to go for broke. I had nothing to lose. Maybe it worked because I just didn't care! I wasn't gonna make another nice, little picture, like 'The Producers' and 'The Twelve Chairs.' I was gonna make a monstrous insanity, lay this big stinking egg at the doorstep of humanity. That's why I risked the 'R' rating.
"You think I wasn't scared that people would call it tasteless? A lot of it was tasteless. The campfire scene is the touchstone to the whole movie. If the audience accpets that, we're home free. If they hate it, we're dead. And they love it!
"It's a funny thing about audiences. Every single human being I know abhorred that scene, myself included. But collectively we loved it. What could be lower low comedy than a bunch of cowboys breaking wind around the campfire? But it worked. People were ready for it. It was a broad, brave truth that had always been on the back of everyone's tongue when they were watching straight Westerns."
Brooks shifted in his chair and stared out the picture windows for a few seconds. "You know," he resumed, "it hands me a laugh when the critics come out with their '10 best' lists at the end of the year. The New York critics more than the others. Jesus! There are always six films no one has ever heard of. It has so little relations to moviegoing taste in the rest of the country.
"Critics have trouble seeing the big picture. The effect critics have is important to the little film, the foreign film. They may be catalytic in uncovering a Lina Wertmuller. They don't matter to a 'High Anxiety.' As it happens, most of the reviews on 'High Anxiety' have been great so far. I think our only bad review was Pauline Kael's. I would like a good review from her very much, but it wouldn't matter to the movie anymore than a good review from my brother Bernie, who's just as tough a critic.
"American critics don't appreciate the fact that you don't have hits unless you play Amarillo. It's not a matter of good or bad. It's a matter of getting booked! 'The Producers' and 'The Twelve Chairs' never made money, but they never played in a lot of places. I've always done well in Washington. 'The Producers' had a great run there. Even 'The Twelve Chairs' did business there. But Washington is a special case. It's your two-theater towns you've gotta be concerned about, your Cactus Falls, Wyomings, because there are 8,000 situations like that in the country. If you're not one of the attractions in that two-theater town, your picture's gonna be shortchanged.
"You don't want to make a picture just for the smarties. That's no good. You want all the people. You want a potato salad picture? You know what I mean by a potato salad picture? You're in the deli and there's this guy with a little piece of potato salad stuck in the corner of his mouth, and he's talking about your picture to his cronies. He's saying, all the time with the potato salad hanging, 'You gotta see this Mel Brooks pitcha, you'll laugh so hard you'll pish yourself.'
"What you don't want is this: Someone with a monocle says, 'This is tres interessant .' Right away you know you're in the s - house. Only Truffaut, Lelouch and their uncle Bernie will go. I think 'High Anxiety' is my consummate height in artistry at this point. I hope the next thing I make will be even better. You want to stretch yourself a little bit more each time, but you can't get too far ahead of yourself or your audience. I have 15 or 20 great ideas for comedies right now that I know would fall.
"If you're making comedy, you've gotta give 'em a highlight every two minutes or so. There are the screamers out there waiting for you to deliver. You give 'em the sugar, then work in your exposition, then a little more sugar. But you try to stretch. If they learn to trust you at two minutes, then you stretch to three the next time. You knock 'em on their butt, then ask, 'May I please do something a little more exquisite, fellas?'"
Brooks' new movie, "High Anxiety," is his fourth consecutive spoof of genre movies. The inspiration in this case was the thriller according to Alfred Hitchcock. Rumor had it that Brooks would jump from a spoof of Hitchcock to a spoof of World War II movies tentatively called "Bombs Away!" He said, however, he'd begun to think a lot about Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels," in part because he liked its picaresque format.
It's difficult to imagine "Bombs Away!" stimulating Brooks in a novel way. A personalized version of "Sullivan's Travels" might begin to resolve some of the Faustian ambivalence he keeps expressing about his career. The protagonist of the sturges film was a successful director of knockabout comedies who set out to research his first "serious" project, a message movie with the working title "Brother, Where Art Thou?" After a series of serio-comic misadventures, culminating in a term on the chain gang, he returns a sadder but wiser entertainer.
No Hollywood director has ever contrived a more ambivalent entertainment than Sturges did in "Sullivan's Travels," but perhaps the time has come for Mel Brooks to try. He needs to get some kind of satirical mileage out of hiw own tragicomic predicament which finds him simultaneously elated at conquering a mass audience yet defensive about some of the techniques he resorted to while stooping to conquer.
"We are not gentleman of the main road," Brooks declared, referring to the role of funnymen in general. "We're always off on frolicsome detours. You rarely win the awards on sheer comedy."
Woody Allen is winning some now, he said, "because he's blended the laughs with the romance in 'Annie Hall.' He's got a shot, but your classic situation as far as the Academy Awards are concerned is 'Some Like It Hot' and 'The Apartment.' Billy Wilder didn't win an Oscar for 'Some Like It Hot,' which is simply one of the funniest pictures ever made. He wins it a year later for 'The Apartment,' which is a little on the tearjeaky side.
"But comedy has a long life. Just pick up a paper. What's playing? What's always being revived? Your comedies. Sometimes I wish I could open a university for young comedy writers and directors because it's not enough if it's only Woody or me coming along with a new picture every 18 months or so. Where comedy is concerned, less is not more. More is more, and less is less."