The following is the second part of my interview with Mel Brooks, forty years ago.
He’s discussing the movie business.
“A producer can do six things a year. If a writer does one good thing in three years, he’s lucky.” With money coming in from “Get Smart” and a Ballantine Beer commercial, Mel was free to sit down and write the script for “The Producers.” When I asked him why he directed the picture himself, he gave me a look, and then said,
“Start a new page. You got a new page? Good. Call this, ‘To the writer.’ The best is a book. It’s the least collaborative. Nobody knows who published ‘War and Peace.’ A book doesn’t have ‘Herman Levin Presents’ at the front of it. That’s the best. Second best is a play. Even though there’s a lot of collaboration, the play still belongs to the author, both legally according to the Drama Guild, and for posterity. The producer dies, the actors die, the scenery is burnt, but the work lives. Who directed ‘King Lear’? We don’t really know or care, but the play’s good for another 20 years at least. Until nakedness takes over, and there’s no room for anything.”
“Movies? As a writer, forget it! No union protection. They can bring in any number of writers after you. In movies, the film belongs to the director, not the writer. So if you really care about your work, you must direct it, or it doesn’t belong to you anymore. Either direct it, or forget about it.”
During this whole speech, Mel is intently pacing back and forth, simultaneously trying to figure out what to say and why he’s saying it to me. I asked him, if the best was books, and second best was a play, why had he so far confined himself to the worst?
“I have too much nervous energy,” he admitted, pacing like a man about to be deprived of pacing privileges for the rest of his life, “and writing and directing and yelling and worrying can best be done doing movies. When I calm down a bit, I’ll probably write a play. And then, when I really relax, I may think I have enough talent in concept, dialogue and narrative to say something a little longer, deeper and richer, and who knows what?”
Concerning his artistic temperament, he said, “I was in analysis for two years and not once did I say anything bad about my mother. I stopped going. All I had was an acid condition. The minute I stopped eating citrus fruit, all my problems went away.”
Summing up, he said, “I think I’m an ad lib comedy performer basically, who has learned to write down the ad libs and put them into some kind of form more durable than the street corner or the living room form.”
As I left, Mel walked me to the elevator. The elevator doors opened. There were a number of people on it when I got in. As the elevator doors started to close, Mel Brooks bade me a memorable farewell.
“If you’re ever in New York again, don’t call me.”
And that was that.
Happy New Year, everybody. And to Mel Brooks, wherever you are, thanks for talking to me.