Pink streamers tacked on small sticks placed at strategic intersections guide the way to the location of "No Knife," deep in the tangled dirt roadbeds of the mountains along the border of Mexico. No sighting of humans or their paraphernalia for miles and miles until finally, a cluster of vans and trucks on a hilltop in the distance. Still no humans -- they're all inside because on this particular hilltop it is cold and raining.
Gene Wilder retreats to his motor home, brews some Twinings Earl Grey breakfast tea and alternates Vivaldi and Scott Joplin on his tape deck. Horses, cowboys, adventure and wilderness are not the sort of things one associates with an urban, Jewish, introspective comedia like Wilder.
"Yeah, I know," he smiles, "it's really odd. I can't believe it myself. I'm in a transition and I'm fortunate to be able to act in between projects I write or direct. I'm here acting, nothing else."
"No Knife," written by Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, is the story of a rabbi -- peril-prone but blessed nonetheless -- sent from Poland to San Francisco during the gold rush. For a young rabbi accustomed to turning left and counting off blocks, it turns out to be quite an eventful journey. He proves so inept at it that a bank robber, played by Harrison Ford, takes him up as a traveling partner.
An odd project for Wilder, and all the more so because he is being directed by Robert Aldrich, a director known for his versatility and also for a lately rocky career.
"With the exception of Bette Davis," Aldrich says, "Gene's the best actor I've worked with. He's very intuitive, very bright. I think it's because of his stage experience. It's like the old joke whose punch line is 'seven isn't funny, three is.' You don't have to explain to him why seven isn't and three is -- he knows. You don't often find that."
Wilder, too, is pleasantly surprised.
"Of all the directors in the world I would have thought of myself at the opposite end of the earth from, Robert Aldrich would be one of the first three. At first I didn't understand why they wanted him. Now I do. I get along better with him than any director I've worked with other than Mel Brooks. This film is 'Young Frankenstein Meets the Dirty Dozen.' He's a consummate technician. What I didn't know about him was that the way he chooses to do a scene is the most artistic of any director I've ever worked with. Amazing."
Under the best of circumstances, comedy isn't easy to do, and "No Knife," with its gentle aspirations, comes complete with its special pressures. Aldrich needs a success. So does Wilder who, until his last picture, was a hot director, writer performer-comedian. That picture was "The World's Greatest Lover," which was greeted with less than rapture and not a lot of box-office business. It obviously hurts Wilder to think about it -- he almost winces -- yet he takes care not to sound defensive.
"It was an experiment in style, and it was meant to be between slapstick and tender love story. Yet, when all is said and done, it all comes down to the script -- and that, I guess, was my weakness. The two must fit together and not fight each other. How to make a comedy is something that is personal for me -- and I need a satisfying blend. I thought I had it and, in some parts of the picture, I think I really did.
"But I learned something important from it, something I'd suspected but never known for sure. I have to be Mr. Innocent and walk into a crazy situation. In a sense, I am the audience. If it's the other way around -- and it was for most of "The World's Greatest Lover' -- it doesn't work. That's the death knell for me. The audience expects me to be like them. I represent the audience."
While he's acting in "No Knife," he's also working on the script of "The Naked Lady," which he's co-writing with Eric Cohen and in which he'll act but probably not direct.
"What I'm doing is working with Eric very much the way Mel used to work with me. We talk often and collaborate closely."
Ah, Mel Brooks was Wilder's mentor, co-writer, close friend. Still is. When, one wonders, will they work together again?
"We talk about it all the time," Wilder says, "but there's been a change. In the past, I was his Alberto Sordi. That's when he first found me. I was playing all the parts he couldn't play. That was him, but it was me performing. He wants to play the parts now so the scripts are shaped to him as a performer.
"The only way we can work together now is if we write, he directs, I star. I tell him once a week, 'I don't want anything from you.' So many people want something from him. I want his love.
"When the performer is satisfied, we'll work together, he's like a little boy who's been held down. He wanted to perform on the old 'Show of Shows' and they wouldn't let him. Now they'll let him.
"When we do something, it won't be small potatoes. When you've made comedies the world has applauded, you can't come up with something that's just okay. We have to find something we love, something we have a passion for."
"No Knife," Wilder says, is the perfect film for him just now. He wants to apply his comedic talents only, and not have the distraction or pressure of writing or directing.
"The script, as it is now, is marvelous. It was written about seven years ago. I read it two years ago and turned it down. I reread it a year ago and thought it was better but, at the time I said, 'I don't think I'll do it.' The third time I read it I said yes -- it was a revised second draft. Warner asked me to work with the writers on the third draft. I worked on construction, not on dialogue. Then I was asked to do the fourth draft."