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Lost Issue Wednesday: Mel Brooks Interview (1997)

by Jeffrey K. Howard

Jeffrey Howard: Walt Disney once said that he could never consider the success of a film without thinking of the music that would accompany it. Is this the Mel Brooks ideology too?

Mel Brooks: No, that's not true. The first thing that comes into my head is a character, a crazy character, a desperate character, a insane character. That character would then motivate the story and other characters. As soon as he motivates the story and other characters, then three, I begin to hear the music. Music comes third in 101 in things that have to put in its place, so it's very important. Music is in the first five major things that have to happen.

JH: When you were a child you had a job called a Tummler. What is a Tummler?

MB: A Tummler is an a Americanization of a Jewish word. It comes from the Latin "Tumulet" which means chaos and excitement. A Tummler wakes up the Jews when they fall asleep around the pool after lunch. He goes by and excites them and tells them jokes and stories. Instead of them drifting off, he keeps the happy and alert and that's his job. I was the pool tummler. One of the things I had to do as the pool tummler, was I used to do an act. I wore a derby and a alpaca coat and I would carry two rock laden cardboard suitcases and go to the edge of the diving board and say, "Business is no good!" and jump off [laughs]. Of course, my suitcases would take me write to the bottom, my derby would float on the surface. I was looking up at the blonde gentile lifeguard who would have mercy. Dive down and save me [laughs].

JH: Did you play any instruments?

MB: Well, I was a drummer and I always loved music since I was a little boy. Buddy Rich trained me to be a drummer. At that time he was working with Artie Shaw before he went off to bigger fame with Tommy Dorsey. I was a class mate of his brother, Mickey Rich. One afternoon I said to Mickey, "Could I sit at Buddy's drums." He said, "Sure!" So I picked up Buddy's sticks and sat at the drums, put on a record and I played along with it, remembering a couple of Buddy Rich solos. I was trying to imitate them. Then I heard from the back, "Not bad. Not good." And that was Buddy [laughs]. He said, "I want you here every Saturday when I'm not on the road." He heard something a little good in me and I was only 14 at the time. So for six months he taught me the drums.

JH: Who were your musical influences?

MB: The radio was a big influence. Big Bands. Small groups at first, emanating from Dixieland to Louie Armstrong. I was only three or four, but I was bouncing around like crazy listening to that stuff and my mother couldn't keep me down. Then when the Big Bands came in 1930s, everything from Benny Goodman to Glen Miller. Artie Shaw was my absolute favorite. Buddy Rich was playing for Artie Shaw and they used to let me come to some record sessions and I was very quiet. I remember many years later, I ran into Artie Shaw and I would talk about that.

We've been friends and every couple of months we have lunch and talk about music and Philosophy. He wants to talk about Niche and I want to talk about Jelly Roll Morton [laughs].

JH: Did you perform a song for Sid Caesar to land a writing job in Your Show of Shows?

MB: I did a song called "Here I Am, I'm Melvin Brooks." That was the song I used to open my act with. There was the producer of Your Show of Shows, Max Liebman and Sid Caesar and they listened. It was pretty crazy and they gave me a chance.

JH: How close was the movie My Favorite Year[1982] in capturing the atmosphere of Your Show Of Shows?

MB: Pretty damn close. My company made it Brooksfilm and I made sure that we were telling the truth. I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed, Cuban sisters. For three days I was trying to get them out of there and he was trying to get me drunk and in there. It was the craziest weekend of my life. I was 20 years old and just starting with The Show Of Shows. He was a tough guy to corrale and get to rehearsals. Max Liebman assigned me to him and said, "Get him into rehearsal! Make him learn his lines! Work with him on the sketch!" Errol Flynn was a raving maniac. All he wanted was booze and to fool around. He did learn the sketch. Actually, I whispered into his ear when he was asleep. I'd say all the lines and unconsciously, I knew it would get through to his head.

JH: Were you the character of Herb?

MB: No! I was Benjy. I was the young kid who had to take care of Errol Flynn, but we didn't call him Errol Flynn, we called him Alan Swan and we got Peter O'Toole to play him.

JH: How did you meet composer John Morris?

MB: I had written this crazy song called "Springtime For Hitler." I needed a choreographer to help me frame it even while I was writing the script. I knew Alan Johnson, who is a friend of John Morris' and Alan Johnson did the choreography for "Springtime For Hitler" in my first movie called The Producers [1968]. Alan said, "You know you really need a great arrangement for this number or we can't do the number we want." He suggested John Morris. So I met John Morris, and I liked him immediately. He was soft spoken, gentle, very bright and incredibly gifted. He sat at the piano and played a variation of "Springtime For Hitler." He suggested the that the first eight notes [Mel sings the first eight notes of "Springtime For Hitler"] be the theme. He showed me what he could with just eight or 10 notes and I got very excited. I said, "Have you ever scored a motion picture before?" He said, "No." "Well, I never have directed one. If I get to direct this, would you be the composer? The only thing I insist on is having the numbers that I write in the movie." He said, "Sure! I think I can do it?"

JH: Where did the inspiration for "Springtime For Hitler" come from?

MB: I wrote the lyrics first, because I knew the guys in The Producers needed a flop. They needed a orgasm of insanity on the stage to insure that flop. To insure that flop they needed a number. I figured why not "Springtime For Hitler." That would be the be the number that would close the theater for ever. Their scheme would succeed. They new the minute "Springtime for Hitler" was sung, the curtain would come down. The secret of The Producers is that it was a hit and everybody wanted their money. Then they went to jail. In jail they did another number called "Prisoners of Love." John did a great arrangement of "Prisoners of Love." I was very moved in fact, the first time I went to the studio where John was recording for the movie, when it ended, I had tears in my eyes. It was beautiful. We became very good friends. We were living in New York and I did my next movie called The 12 Chairs and I wrote a little song called "Hope For the Best, Expect the Worst" and John wrote a beautiful and haunting theme called "Vioriifs theme" -- that was the leading character played by Ron Moody. He also wrote a gorgeous dark Russian score. It was really a sensational score and he used a lot of that "Hope For the Best" as a theme, a thread to run thru. Then I brought John out when I did Blazing Saddles [1974]. He wrote the tune and I wrote the lyrics for the title song "Blazing Saddles," which we were nominated for an Academy Award. That was wonderful. Then John did one of his masterpieces: the score for Young Frankenstein [1974].

JH: Did you watch any classic horror movies for ideas?

MB: We looked at every horror thing and John said they weren't rich enough, they were tinny scary. He went way back into Transylvania folk music and came up with this incredible gypsy song. [Mel begins to sing the theme from Young Frankenstein.] One of the greatest themes ever written for the movies, I think. He wasn't nominated for that one. It was only the best score written. They don't really know shit from shinola about what good music is. Good often conflicts with popular and popular always wins in its day and always loses to time. Good is like the turtle that beats the hare in the long race given the time. So he did the best score ever done..."ever" equal to any score in any movie, unnoticed in its day. Later, of course, I'm sure John has got a lot of compliments and I have received many compliments on the movie and particularly on his score. I don't think the movie would have been that great without that score. There was a guy called Jerry Vinci who was the lead violinist and he played a brilliant, thrilling obligato against the main melody. That was written by John Morris. It wasn't created by the violinist, but by John Morris. It was amazing.

JH: Was it your idea to have the monster dance to "Putting On The Ritz"?

MB: No, that was Gene Wilder's idea. I fought him desperately and I said, " It's going to cheapen the film and it's going to be silly, it's going to tear it..." He said, " No it's good, it's crazy and funny. It's a demonstration of the monster's agility, doing a buck and wing tapping." I said, "All right! What the hell." Everybody gives me credit for that bizarre insanity, but it was basically Gene's idea and it was my directing that helped make it work.

JH: Do you recall John Morris' reaction when you asked him to score Silent Movie [1976]?

MB: Well, he didn't have any reaction. He couldn't because his tounge fell out of his mouth.

He said, "Do you realize that this would be a hour and half of wall to wall notes!? All you'll hear is music!" It was incredible. Wall to wall music for 90 minutes. He tried to come up with different kind of theme for each beat. First, we talked about should there be themes for each of the guest stars, for Liza Minnelli, Anne Bancroft, for Jimmy Cann, Burt Reynolds. He didn't think that was a good idea. He said, "Maybe Burt Reynolds. I'll create a movie star theme for that. But, I want the innocent joy. Let me create a march that these three guys would have...their march through Hollywood to get the money to save the studio. I see it as a march." I said, "That's brilliant." Then he needed something soulful, when things weren't going well, so he created a very soulful melody. He used these three themes brilliantly and he arranged them as to the needs of the movie. Then Bernadette [Peters] had to do a number, so we had to create some music for that number and I created some lyrics that you couldn't hear, but were on the title cards.

JH: Can the three main characters in Silent Movie be considered a kind of a modern Three Stooges?
MB: Yes. The main thing about the group was that they were innocent and there innocence in the end triumphed. John got that in there by adding flutes and lovely woodwinds to everything they did. He really is a great composer. We went on to do many movies. Then Brooksfilm was organized in 1979. One of the first movie we did was The Elephant Man [1980]. John, naturally was part of that. It still sells. Everybody buys it. It's amazing, you know movie scores, except Gone With The Wind, they don't sell that much, but The Elephant Man sells. He created this kind of music they played at White Chapel near the docks at the turn of the century. They played them on herdy gerdys and they played them on discs with notches cut out on them. He listened to many things and he got this haunting little, heart breaking, poor peoples' theme.

JH: Which is your favorite score?

MB: Mine is Young Frankenstein, then Elephant Man. I mean listen to Blazing Saddles and it's very stirring, very moving. What John does is he gives crazy comedies dignity and humanity making it a classic. John always brings the soul into play.

JH: In High Anxiety, [1977] you parody the classic Hitchcock films. Did this include the music?

MB: We talked a lot about Bernard Hermann [chuckles], but not really.

JH: You left out the screeching violins in the shower scene.

MB: It was on purpose. It was too obvious. Any second rate satirist would have used that. Everybody had already used that. It was already a cliché. We didn't want to take away from all the visual jokes. We didn't want to steal Barry Levinson's great line. "Here's your paper, here's your paper! Happy now? Happy?"

JH: Are you at every recording session?

MB: I'm at every recording session and I listen to every note. You see, I know that I'm going to be dead and it's going to be there after me. Those little notes are etched into my tombstone and I want to make sure that they are perfect. I don't mind spending an hour getting a 30 second cue perfect.

JH: In History Of The World Part One [1981], was the Spanish Inquisition always a musical number?

MB: It was the hinge between the Roman Empire...It was always a musical number. Nothing but a number. Parts of history are told in story, this one was told with a musical production number.

JH: Were you really singing in Polish with Anne Bancroft in the opening song in To Be Or Not To Be [1983]?

MB: Absolutely! That was real Polish. Now we didn't mimic all the words to "Sweet Georgia Brown." We got the sense of the song. There words don't rhyme as well as they do in the Polish version. There was a teacher at USC, Tad Danielezsky, he created the lyrics in Polish for "Sweet Georgia Brown." Alan Johnson again, came into play and gave us the moves.

JH: John Morris has scored all of your films with the exception of your last two, Men In Tights [1993] and Dracula: Dead And Loving It [1996]. Why break up a winning combination?

MB: It had to do with logistics. I'm getting a little crazier! When I work with a composer, I give him the script in pre-production and I want him with me for five months at my side. John has other commitments. He still is one of the best composers who ever lived. He is an unsung hero.

JH: Is there less freedom of expression today for film makers?

MB: Yes! There is a swirl about each picture and more criticism about it being correct. I think there is too many restrictions and too many rules and film makers should not be aware of them. I think they should offend everybody. There is an atmosphere of you're going to injure one race, one group or another if you say...therefore you have to put the truth on hold and comedy doesn't ring as loud and true as it should.

JH: Any filmmakers of today that you have taken notice?

MB: There is a kid called John Herzberg. I thought he was a promising newcomer. The Zucker Brothers did some nice work.

JH: What's next for Mel Brooks?

MB: I don't know. I have a company and I'm developing a film right now for Brooksfilm. I'm waiting to be inspired for the next film for Mel Brooks to be in or to direct. They've been asking me to do a Mel Brooks Comedy Theater, which is not a bad idea.

JH: Nobody seems to want to make cutting edge comedies any more.

MB: Because there are too may restrictions on comedy. There's no restrictions now on killing in action and adventure. Kill em' any way you want, but say one word about a Jews or a black and your persona non grata. Comedy is tougher.

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