Thursday, January 31, 2008

DVD_TV: Die Hard

The February 9, 2008 episode of DVD_TV: Enhanced Version, AMC's original movie trivia show, was the original Die Hard. The show was jam-packed with all kinds of great behind-the-scenes information, some of it quite obscure. If you were watching, you found out how Die Hard was influenced by Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, how architect Frank Lloyd Wright got so much exposure in a straight-ahead action flick, how Bruce Willis stepped into Frank Sinatra's shoes, and much more!

Check out the supplementary stories that AMC posted for DVD_TV's enhancement of Die Hard.
Die Hard: Transforming the Script from Grim to “Joyful”
Die Hard Borrows Some “Joy” from A Clockwork Orange
In Die Hard, Bruce Willis Took Risks For Realism

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

AMC's DVD_TV: 2007 Web Extras

Here are permalinks to all the past DVD_TV "web extras" for anyone who just can't get enough:

Working Girl:
How NYC Commuters Inspired Working Girl's Screenwriter
How Melanie Griffith Prepared to Play a Real 'Working Girl'
Working Girl Immortalizes the 'Staten Island Ferry Look'

Blazing Saddles:
Blazing Saddles Counters Racism with Shock and Love
On Writing Blazing Saddles: Five Heads Are Better Than One
The Accidental Casting of the Ideal 'Waco Kid'

The Hunt for Red October:
Tom Clancy on Writing The Hunt for Red October
The Hunt for Red October and the Storozhevoy Incident
Red October Succeeds Despite Glasnost and Perestroika

Field of Dreams
The Legend of 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson
'Shoeless' Joe Jackson vs. Ty Cobb
The Fictional Afterlife of 'Moonlight' Graham

The Natural:
A Real Baseball Hero Inspires The Natural
Making Redford Into a "Natural" Baseball Player
Putting Together an All-Star Team

Cape Fear:
The Making of the Original Cape Fear
Scorsese & De Niro, Together Again
Remaking 'Max Cady,' De Niro-style

The Evolution of 'Batman'
Mike Uslan: The Godfather of the Batman Movie Franchise
Reinventing the Batsuit for the Modern Era

Young Frankenstein:
The Frankenstein Concept: An Idea Ripe for Parody
Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks: A Meeting of Two Crazy Minds
Marty Feldman: "Damn Your Eyes!"

Girl, Interrupted:
Behind the Title of Girl, Interrupted
Ryder's Personal Motivations for Making Girl, Interrupted
Director James Mangold on Finding Inspiration at the Movies

Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
John Hughes on Speed-writing Ferris Bueller's Day Off
John Hughes on Shooting in Chicago
Ben Stein on the Discovery of Ben Stein

Scent of a Woman:
Bo Goldman's Personal Inspirations for Scent of a Woman
History of the "Hoo-ah!"
Al Pacino: A True Method Actor

And last but not least, DVD_TV is finally on the IMDb for anyone who wants to know who's behind the scenes!

Ferris Bueller and Chicago

This piece was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which aired in April 2007.

John Hughes on Shooting Ferris Bueller's Day Off in Chicago

John Hughes’ family moved to the Chicago suburbs when he was in 7th grade, and he attended the very same high schools that are depicted in his movies.

“Chicago is what I am,” said Hughes. “A lot of Ferris is sort of my love letter to the city. And the more people who get upset with the fact that I film there, the more I’ll make sure that’s exactly where I film. It’s funny, nobody ever says anything to Woody Allen about always filming in New York. America has this great reverence for New York. I look at it as this decaying horror pit. So let the people in Chicago enjoy Ferris Bueller.”

For Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Hughes got the chance to take a more expansive look at the city he grew up in. “We took a helicopter up the Chicago River. This is the first chance I’d really had to get outside while making a movie. Up to this point, the pictures had been pretty small. I really wanted to capture as much of Chicago as I could, not just the architecture and the landscape, but the spirit.”

John Hughes also had an opportunity to reveal a more sophisticated side of Chicago’s culture. “When I was in high school, the Chicago Art Institute was a place of refuge for me. I went there quite a bit. I loved it. I knew all the paintings. I knew the building. And this was a chance for me to go back into this building and show the paintings that were my favorites.”

When it came time to shoot the parade sequence, Hughes lucked out – it was the time of year when the annual General Von Steuben German-American Appreciation Day Parade was held. “There are a lot of German references in the picture,” Hughes said, “because a lot of the original citizens of Chicago were Germans. There are a lot of German street names – ‘Bueller’ was a German name.”

The parade sequence was John Hughes’ favorite part of shooting this movie. “We had 10,000 people out there – all of Chicago – and not one incident. That’s Chicago! Those were real faces, real people.”

“Hughes Takes Time Off From Teen Films,” Chicago Sun-Times, 6/15/86
“John Hughes’ Rational Anthem: I Won’t Grow Up,” Chicago Tribune, 6/8/86
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off DVD Director Commentary
“Molly Ringwald Interviews John Hughes,” Seventeen, Spring 1986
Tony Reeves, The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, A Cappella Books, 2001

Speed-writing Ferris Bueller

This piece was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which aired in April 2007.

John Hughes on Speed-writing Ferris Bueller's Day Off

In answer to his own question, “How did I come to write Ferris?" writer/director John Hughes replied, "Well, let’s see. There was a writer’s strike coming up in a week, and my agent called and warned me, so I thought, ‘Jeez, John, you better write something,’ and so I got this sentence… out of the ozone. ‘I am 17 years old and I know exactly where my life is going.’ And then I thought, ‘I am 17 years old and I have no idea where my life is going,’ and I thought, ‘That’s it!’”

“I called Ned Tanen at Paramount and said, ‘I want to do a movie about a kid who takes a day off from school and… that’s all I know so far.’ Ned knows me, and so he said, ‘Aw, go ahead.’ So I went ahead.”

Hughes whipped up a script in the week remaining before the strike. “It takes me about four days to write one of these things,” he said. Hughes would write for 20 hours at a stretch while sitting at his computer trying not to think about what he was writing, but instead “to surprise myself throughout.”

Ferris Bueller’s producer Tom Jacobsen attested, “The stories of John’s speed-writing scripts are all true.”

“I know how the movie begins, I know how it ends,” said Hughes. “I don’t ever know the rest, but that doesn’t seem to matter.”

Hughes added, “It’s not the events that are important, it’s the characters going through the event. Therefore, I make them as full and real as I can. This time around, I wanted to create a character who could handle everyone and everything.”

“John Hughes’ Rational Anthem: I Won’t Grow Up,”
Chicago Tribune, 6/8/86
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Production Notes
"The Making of
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off" DVD Bonus Feature

Discovering Ben Stein

This piece was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which aired in April 2007.

Ben Stein on the Discovery of Ben Stein

Ben Stein was a nobody in Hollywood when he arrived for one day of work on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. “By total chance, without ever having seen the inside of an acting school, without ever having read scripts or gone on a cattle call, I was given a part in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” said Stein. “By a stroke of luck, my part was built up on the day of shooting, and the director and editor left me in the final cut. Now my life has changed, based on no more than 150 seconds on screen.”

Stein recalled, “They wanted me to just do one simple thing – call the roll, offstage. And the studio extras and all the crew laughed so hard that John Hughes called producer Michael Chinich aside and had a hurried conference, and they said, ‘We’re going to put you on camera. We’d like you to improvise a scene, a subject you really know well.’”

“So I said, ‘Well, what do I know really well? Let’s see, I really know a lot about the Great Depression.’ So I just improvised that scene on camera. And we did it all in one take. I did it all out of my head.”

Ben Stein had graduated from Columbia in 1966 with a degree in economics. Later, he became a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford, and worked as a journalist as well, but he had no experience with acting. “I was cast by producer Michael Chinich,” said Stein. “Michael is a close friend through a fellow named Steve Green, who used to be an executive at Warner Bros., and also through a fellow named Eddie Bleier, who was a high executive at Warner Bros., and who was friends with Bill Safire, the famous New York Times columnist, who was my predecessor as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon. So really it all started with Richard Nixon, because had I not gone to work for Richard Nixon, I would never have met Bill Safire, never met Eddy Bleier, never met Steve Green, never met Michael Chinich, never met John Hughes, never been in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. So really, Richard Nixon started it all.”

Stein admitted, “Working on this movie was the most laughs, the most giggles, the high point of my life ever since I helped write Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. I’m totally serious.”

Stein found his sudden change of status to being “cool” extremely pleasant, and suggested that it might be the solution to the problem of worldwide aggression. “No more defense program. Instead, we’ll put Gorbachev in a movie. No need to aid the contras, because we’ll put Commandante Ortega in a comedy with Rodney Dangerfield.”

“And I didn’t have to change at all!” Stein marveled. “No crash diets, no new clothes, no trips to Club Med, no drugs. I’m still the same brained-out nerd. But to the outside world, I’m a righteous dude, cooler than ZZ Top, just for standing in front of a klieg light. Who in his right mind would not do anything for this kind of miracle?”

Stein managed to parlay this first taste of fame into a career in comedy. He even had his own Emmy-award-winning show on Comedy Central—Win Ben Stein’s Money. “Now I earn my living doing comedy in movies, commercials, television shows and even in person,” he said. Even so, Stein admitted, “I expect it will say on my gravestone, ‘Bueller, Bueller.’”

To this day, Ben Stein feels a debt of gratitude to Ferris Bueller. “Ferris didn’t do a single thing to hurt anybody else. He just freed the people he was around. When I walk down the street in Georgetown on a summer night, when there are all the college kids there to be summer interns, every few steps somebody says, ‘Bueller, Bueller – Anyone? Anyone?’ I love it. I love it, love it, love it, because see – Ferris Bueller liberated me, too. Ferris Bueller said, ‘You don’t have to be locked away at your typewriter. You can be yourself and let people see your personality.’”

“Eating the Lotus of Movie Stardom,” New York Times, 8/6/86
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Production Notes
“Guess What’s 20 Years Old?” People, 10/16/06
“It’s Hard To Be Funny When You Can’t Hear Them Laugh,” New York Times, 9/20/00
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off DVD Bonus Features

Scent of a Woman's Inspiration

This piece was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Scent of a Woman, which aired in March 2007.

Screenwriter Bo Goldman's Personal Inspirations for Scent of a Woman

Screenwriter Bo Goldman felt that Scent of a Woman was the most personal script he’d ever written. He conceived Al Pacino's character, ‘Lt. Colonel Frank Slade,’ as a combination of his father, one of his brothers and his first sergeant in the Army. Even the film's prep-school backdrop and the snobbery that young ‘Charlie’ encounters came from his personal experiences.

“My father was a very rich and powerful man who began losing all his money in the crash of 1929 – three years before I was born,” Goldman said. “He’d come from the ghetto, one of 10 children, and was totally self-made. At one time he owned more than 80 retail stores… He had a lot of interests and was a real character, completely charming and charismatic… He was also FDR’s intimate. Roosevelt had been his attorney, after he was assistant secretary of the navy.”

When Bo Goldman was a child, his family lived in a large rent-controlled apartment on Park Avenue – but their rent was paid by better-off relatives. “It was right out of Sunset Boulevard, with all the rococo furnishings,” said Goldman. “There would be echoes of glory, like theater tickets… And every few months, my mother would say, ‘Which Ming vase should we break now?’ for the insurance.”

"My father was embarrassed about his own father,” revealed Goldman. “He sent me to the best schools, Exeter and Princeton – gave me the things he hadn't had. He desperately wanted to plug into the dead center, but of course he couldn't, because he was Jewish… And he wreaked havoc on the whole family. None of us really talk to each other anymore. Nobody wants to remember."

Goldman’s two older brothers, Chester and Douglas, were at Exeter before him. “My first year there, I came home for Thanksgiving, but my brother Douglas went to Nashua, New Hampshire, to a friend’s home. What happened to him on that trip and in its aftermath became the basis for the story for Scent of a Woman.”

“It began on Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving,” Goldman recalled. “Douglas and his friend went to the Boston Bruins game that afternoon, and his friend bought a pint of cheap whiskey. Douglas never drank, but they drank the whole thing on the train from Boston to Nashua.”

“So what happened was, my family and I are all sitting down for Thanksgiving supper in New York, and my father’s bemoaning the fact that Douglas didn’t come home for Thanksgiving – he considered it an act of rebellion. Then the phone rings… It’s the dean of Exeter, saying that Douglas had been hopelessly intoxicated on the train and that his friend’s father had called him to say he was worried, and they were bringing him back to the school infirmary.”

“Next thing you know, my father’s on a train to Exeter, calling on all the members of the committee who are going to expel Douglas for intoxication – for embarrassing the academy in public. He knocked on all the doors and said, ‘I was betrayed by another father. I grant you my son shouldn’t have done this.’ He’d signed an agreement that granted in loco parentis control… that’s where the line in the script came from. The agreement said that whoever was inviting the student would be in charge and have full parental authority.”

Years and years went by, and Goldman had forgotten all about his prep school experiences. “In about 1990, I get a call – my oldest brother, Chester, was in the drunk tank at Lenox Hill Hospital. Chester was this kind of Gatsby-like character, a self-made guy, immensely successful, always trying to pass in Gentile society. And now he was an alcoholic.”

“My once-rich brother was going to need a conservator,” recalled Goldman. “He was living in a big, expensive New York apartment, a year behind in his rent, and had no money at all. I went there and found him living in a kind of shabby elegance. The skeletons of his life were riddled with moral cancer, to strike a phrase.”

Goldman dealt with his brother’s problems, and a week later returned home to California. “I didn't have work, and I heard about this project that Marty Brest had been trying to do for years, a remake of the Italian film Profumo di donna, about an Army cadet who goes along with a blind army officer on a trip. So I went over to Universal to watch this movie in a screening room, and I was in no mood to like it.”

“I looked at it, and this character struck me as being exactly like my brother… The minute I saw Vittorio Gassman, I realized that this was Chester. And then I noticed that the character was wearing the same clothes as my father.”

Goldman suddenly felt he understood everything about the story. “It was really a merging of Chester’s story – a guy with a past who has a drinking problem but is still charming and charismatic and unpredictable – and Father’s story.”

Then Goldman mixed in another aspect of his personal history. “The second element was the betrayal of my brother Douglas at Exeter – sure, it’s bent and turned, because the real issue is whether the kid will inform – as opposed to my brother’s friend’s father, who did.”

“The third element that contributed to Scent of a Woman had to do with my two-year stint in the army,” said Goldman. “I had a first sergeant in basic training, a Nisei from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was the most highly decorated unit in the Army. He was the most terrifying person I’ve ever known – and the one I respected the most… He just terrified me. He was the first man I ever met in my life who was living his life exactly the way he wanted. He was a soldier. That's what it was all about… I think the character of Slade has some of his resonance. There was something of the night about both of them.”

Bernard Weintraub, “A Screenwriter Profits from his Years of Pain," New York Times, 2/25/93
William Froug, Zen & the Art of Screenwriting, 1996
Joel Engel, Oscar-Winning Screenwriters on Screenwriting, 2001

Thursday, January 24, 2008

History of the "Hoo-ah!"

This piece was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Scent of a Woman, which aired in March 2007.

Scent of a Woman and the History of the "Hoo-ah!"

“Hoo-ah” is an all-purpose interjection, acknowledgment and battle cry that started in the Army but later spread into the Air Force and Navy. The Marines have their own version — “Ooh-rah.” Until Scent of a Woman, the phrase was hardly ever heard except on military bases or on the battlefield.

In military usage, "Hoo-ah" can mean almost anything except "no." It can mean "Nice to meet you," “Affirmative,” "Uh-huh," "Amen," “Let's go!” “Congratulations!” and "Thank you.” As retired Brigadier General Creighton Abrams, director of the Army Historical Foundation, explained, “It all started out as kind of an exclamation point, and that was just fine. Then it became something almost perfunctory, as in saying, ‘Hoo-ah’ instead of saying goodbye. Unfortunately, it’s become a bit much.”

The origin of the expression is unknown, but has given rise to many theories. One is that it was a toast given by a Seminole chief at a banquet after truce talks during the Indian wars of the 1840s. The Department of Defense posits that it might be an abbreviation of the acronym HUA, for “heard, understood and acknowledged.” Some have suggested it may come from the Army adage “Hurry up and wait.” The author of a book of military expressions entitled Swear Like a Trooper suggests it may be derived from the British “Huzzah!” of the 1700s.

"History of the Hoo-ah!," Los Angeles Times, 4/15/03

Al Pacino, Method Actor

This piece was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Scent of a Woman, which aired in March 2007.

Al Pacino, a True Method Actor

Stories of Al Pacino becoming lost in his roles abound – how when he was playing a lawyer and a friend told him he was having conveyance problems, he asked to see his friend’s contract, how he did shifts in a café, tossing pancakes, to prepare himself to play a short-order cook in Frankie & Johnny, how he fell down with his eyes open, as a blind man would, while filming Scent of a Woman.

Legend has it that Pacino became so immersed in his Scent of a Woman character that he actually couldn’t see during filming. Some weeks after the completion of principal photography, Chris O’Donnell received a note of congratulations from Pacino: “Although I didn’t see you, I know you were great.”

Even when he is not performing, Pacino tends to focus on living in a character. ''That's what I do when I'm not working—I learn roles,'' he reports. ''If I'm not appearing anywhere onstage or making a movie, I'm usually learning some role or practicing it or getting involved in some workshop. I can recite Hamlet for you practically verbatim. I can give you Othello or Iago… Sometimes you learn a lot by a role that isn't quite right for you. Sometimes you learn by falling on your face – you learn through the struggle.”

“Pacino Returns to a Favorite Role,” New York Times, 10/23/83
Scent of a Woman Production Notes, Universal Studios Press Release

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Casting 'The Waco Kid'

This is an article that was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Blazing Saddles, which aired in December 2007.

Blazing Saddles: The Accidental Casting of the Ideal ‘Waco Kid’

Though it’s now difficult to imagine anyone but Gene Wilder as ‘The Waco Kid,’ he was far from Mel Brooks’ first choice for the role. In fact, Wilder was practically the opposite of what Brooks was looking for.

Wilder recalled that in 1973, “Mel was in California doing preproduction on a film he had lined up before Young Frankenstein. It was called Black Bart. The title was later changed to Blazing Saddles. He sent me a copy of the script… I wasn’t there at the inception, in the writing stage, but that script was one of the things that made me want to do the film. Because the writers have done something remarkable, in that they’ve smashed racism in the face and its nose is bleeding. But they’re doing it while you laugh.”

“When Mel had a week off, he came to New York and wanted to have a working session on Young Frank, as he always called it,” said Wilder. “He came to my place, and we spent 45 minutes making coffee and discussing the merits of different brands while we ate a little rugelach. This was a ritual with Mel before anything serious could be discussed. While we were having our coffee and rugelachs, Mel asked me to play the part of Hedley Lamarr in Black Bart. I said, ‘Oh Mel, I’m all wrong for that part – but how about Jim, the Waco Kid?’ Mel said, ‘No, I need an older guy – someone who could look like an over-the-hill alcoholic. I’m trying to get Dan Dailey.’”

Mel Brooks had been searching for the perfect ‘Waco Kid’ for some time. “Dan Dailey was my choice. Strange choice, but I thought: leather-faced, big heart. I heard from people he was the best rider in the world of any actor, except the cowboy actors… Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens were the best riders in the world. But for a civilian, Dan Dailey, who was a song and dance man and a great actor, was the best horse rider. He could do anything on a horse.”

Brooks recalled, “I said to Gene, ‘You’re too young, you can’t play the Waco Kid. I need an old alky, a guy with lines in his face. You know, an old man.’ So Gene said, ‘I can do it. I’m telling you I can do it. I love this guy. I can do it.’ I said, ‘No, you can’t do it.’ But he wouldn’t back down. Anyway, I said, ‘We’ll work again on something else, Gene, but Blazing Saddles is not it.’”

Wilder recalled, “When coffee matters were finished, we went into my study and talked for about an hour about Frankenstein. The next day, Mel took off for Los Angeles to start filming Blazing Saddles, and I started writing Young Frankenstein… Shortly after I finished the first draft, I got a call from Stanley Donen, who asked me to do the part of The Fox in the movie of Saint-Exupéry’s classic book, The Little Prince.”

Meanwhile, the casting process was not going well for Mel Brooks. “I got Dan Dailey on the phone in Hawaii and I said, ‘Come on, come on.’ He said, ‘I love it. It’s so crazy and so touching and I love it. Let me think.’ Then he called me back and said, ‘I’m blind, I can’t see. I’m wearing coke bottles for glasses. It would be dangerous.’”

So Brooks started thinking about who else could play a drunk, worn-out old gunfighter. “I met John Wayne at the commissary,” Brooks remembered. “I gave the script to him. He said, ‘I’ll meet you here tomorrow at 12 noon, the same table. I’ll read this overnight.’ And he read it and he said, ‘I can’t do this. This is too dirty. I’m John Wayne. But man, I was up all night screaming, laughing. I’m gonna be the first one on line to see this movie.’”

After trying to convince Johnny Carson to take the part, Brooks settled on Academy Award-winner Gig Young, who had a well-known drinking problem. Brooks recalled, “I had seen a movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with Gig Young in it and I said, ‘He’s an old alky, great.’ I got the guy.”

So on the first morning of filming, Cleavon Little and Gig Young began shooting the jail cell scene where their characters meet. Brooks recalled, “We draped Gig Young’s legs over and hung him upside down. And he started to talk and he started shaking. I said, ‘This guy’s giving me a lot. He is giving plenty. He’s giving me the old alky shake. Great.’ And then it got serious, because the shaking never stopped, and green stuff started spewing out of his mouth and nose, and he started screaming. And, I said, ‘That’s the last time I’ll ever cast anybody who really is that person.’ If you want an alcoholic, don’t cast an alcoholic… Anyway, poor Gig Young, it was the first shot on Friday, nine in the morning, and an ambulance came and took him away. I had no movie.”

“I stopped production, Friday at noon,” Brooks recalled. “I said, ‘We’re in for a day, whatever a day costs – $30,000, $20,000. That’s a day. Everybody go home. We have to think.’ I called up Gene Wilder I told him what happened.” Wilder was at home in New York when he got the call. “Mel called from a soundstage at Warner Bros. He said, ‘I need you right now!’ I said, ‘Mel, I have to be in London in two weeks to do The Little Prince for Stanley Donen.’ Mel said, ‘Call him up! Ask him if you can come later!’ So I called Stanley, who said, ‘Do you really want to do it?’ I said, ‘Well, I want to help out Mel.’ Stanley said, ‘All right, I’ll put you at the end of the schedule instead of the beginning.’ And the next day I was on a plane.”

That was a huge relief for Mel Brooks. “Gene said, ‘OK. I’ll be out tomorrow morning. There’s a night flight. We’ll go over the costumes tomorrow. I’ve got the script.’ I’d kept sending him updated versions of the script, because he’s my pal. So he said, ‘I’ll read it on the plane. We’ll just do it. You just set it up for Monday morning.’ And I did. He came out. Saturday, there he was. We got him outfitted. We worked on his hair and we got him a horse. On Sunday, he rode the horse all day to get used to the horse, and he was pretty good.”

“On Monday morning, eight o’clock, he was hanging upside down,” Brooks said. “We only lost a half a day, because I’d covered with Cleavon the other half of that first day – his close-ups, his entrance. Gene just hooked his boots, hung down and said, ‘Are we black?’ He saved my life, because he’s not only a genius actor, but he’s a good friend. And he never said, ‘I told you so.’ I wanted an old alky. I got a young Jew from New York – and he was magnificent.”

Blazing Saddles DVD: “Back In the Saddle” Featurette
Blazing Saddles DVD: Director Commentary
“Interview with Gene Wilder,” Larry King Live, CNN, 5/2/02
Gene Wilder, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, 2005
James Robert Parish, It’s Good To Be the King, 2007

On Writing Blazing Saddles

This is an article that was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Blazing Saddles, which aired in December 2007.

The Writing of Blazing Saddles: Five Heads Are Better Than One

In 1971, Andrew Bergman was a 26-year-old aspiring academic whose biggest accomplishment so far had been having his doctoral dissertation, titled We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films, published by New York University Press. Unable to land a university teaching job, Bergman had spent the previous year working as a trade-press flack for United Artists. During that time, “inspired by a vision of H. Rap Brown on horseback in the prairie,” Bergman wrote a screenplay titled Tex X – which was destined eventually to become Blazing Saddles.

The source of Bergman’s inspiration – H. Rap Brown – was a voting rights activist who was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1967, the same year he was arrested in Cambridge, Maryland after a fiery speech he gave there resulted in a riot. From an early age, friends had called Brown ‘Rap’ for his ability to express himself eloquently with a hip street sensibility. Brown is most famous for a line in a speech he gave in Detroit in 1967, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” In that speech, he continued, “This country has delivered an ultimatum to black people. America says to blacks, ‘You either fight to live, or you will live to die.’ I say to America, ‘Freedom or death.’” Brown went on to become a Black Panther Party leader and militant provocateur, calling upon fellow civil rights advocates to “meet violence with violence.” As the movement progressed, Brown became a focal point for a federal crackdown on radical Black Power advocates, and by the time Blazing Saddles was made, he was serving five years in Attica Prison.

Writer Andrew Bergman recalled, “I wrote a script – first draft – in 1970, 71. That’s where it began. And Warner Bros., lo and behold, bought it, much to my amazement. And they hired Alan Arkin to direct and James Earl Jones to play the black sheriff. And for some reason, that fell apart.”

At the time, director Mel Brooks was looking for work. His last film, The Twelve Chairs, had fizzled at the box office. “For me, it all started with me walking the streets of New York looking in the gutter, hoping to find some change,” he said. “I was looking for my next project. I was around 59th Street near 5th and I heard a voice say, ‘Mel, Mel,’ then louder, ‘Mel.’ It was the late great David Begelman, who had just created an agency… ’Come with me,’ says David, and buys me lunch, takes me into his office, spends five hours with me – and he’s the busiest man. ‘We’ve got to get you a job – you’re too talented,’ he said. ‘I’m going to be your agent without commission until you’re on our feet, and then if you want to hire me, fine.’ He turns me from a wistful cultist failure into a critically assailed commercial success, in a period of 18 months. I will be forever grateful to him.”

The second person who played a fateful role in Brooks’ resurrection was Judy Feiffer, a Warner Bros. story editor. Feiffer had liked The Producers and The Twelve Chairs and was in the habit of sending scripts in Brooks’ direction on the off chance he might want to direct one. Brooks recalled, “I didn’t want to do a studio picture, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. But I was fast running out of money when she sent over the best of the lot, a rough script written by Andrew Bergman.”

When David Begelman handed him the Tex X script, Brooks initially demurred. “I read it and I said, ‘You know, I don’t do things that I don’t write. But this is very funny.’ So David said, ‘Write it.’ I said, ‘Well, it’s already written.’ ‘No, no this is just a skeletal outline. It’s a profile of what it can be. It needs bones and flesh,’ David said. So I said, ‘Let me take it home.’ I took it home. I let my wife, Anne Bancroft, read it. She loved the idea. I said, ‘Tex X, that’s a cute title, I like that title. Tex X. Malcolm X, Tex X, a black guy.’”

“What grabbed me were the possibilities of a modern black man arriving in the traditional West,” Brooks said. “Like, he’d say, ‘Right on, baby!’ and they’d say, ‘Consarnit!’ Then I realized that at the same time, I could make fun of Westerns and the West.”

When Mel Brooks signed on to direct, he insisted that “the guy who came up with this wildness” be made part of the team. Brooks said, “Usually you throw out the original writer, you always just get him off the set, you get rid of him, because he’s trouble, he’s a lot of trouble. But I liked Bergman. His concept was very basic – 1974 in 1874. I said, ‘OK, great. We can do that.’”

“I sat down with the Warners people and proposed an arrangement – let me have Bergman and three other writers, give me some seed money, and we’ll write it the way we used to do Your Show of Shows,” said Brooks. “And they said, ‘Why do you want the original writer, when we have his script?’ I said, ‘I’m sure there’s more in his head, since we liked his idea so much.’ They agreed. So I called Bergman and said, ‘Do you mind if I despoil your script?’ And he said, ‘Can I help?’”

Andrew Bergman recalled, “I wrote a story about a hip, black, modern sheriff dropped into the old West. Warners bought it and got Mel Brooks to direct, and he wanted to do a flat-out satire of the West. I had a choice of saying, ‘You will not touch my material,’ or saying, ‘OK.’ I was 26 at the time, and it was great experience.”

When Brooks met Bergman, whom he described as “a nice Jewish boy, quiet and smart,” he figured Bergman would balance the other writers’ madness. “But it turned out that Andrew Bergman was crazier than anybody,” Brooks said. Bergman said Brooks taught him that screenwriting requires a knack for collaboration and compromise, though Brooks described his method as “getting a group of crazy people together and going berserk.”

Brooks also wanted to have an authentic black voice on his writing team. He tried to hire Dick Gregory, the outspoken political satirist and stand-up comedian, but failed to interest Gregory in the project. So Brooks decided to call Richard Pryor. “Richie was then just a stand-up comic working in a couple clubs, and wasn’t that well-known,” Brooks said. “But I was a big fan. I knew how bright he was.”

Pryor recalled, “Mel Brooks called and asked if I was interested in working with him on a script for a Western. Mel and I had never met, but I knew of his brilliant reputation, starting with Sid Caesar. I was excited just to talk to him. After the script arrived, I read it quickly, and Mel and I talked again. ‘So this is a comedy?’ I asked. ‘Yes,’ he said. I said, ‘Then why don’t you make it one?’”

At the same time, Brooks recalled an encounter he’d recently had with an aspiring screenwriter. “A guy came up to me and was raving about The Producers, and I said, ‘What do you do?’ He said, ‘I’m a young lawyer and I want to be a young screenwriter and I want to give up being a lawyer. I’m working with a dentist.’ I said, ‘On your teeth or on a script or what?’ He said, ‘No the guy’s a comedy writer and we’re a team.’ So I’m talking about Norman Steinberg, who went on to write My Favorite Year with me. And then his writing partner was a guy by the name of Alan Uger. I told Andy about the dentist and Norman, and I said, ‘I have a feeling that these guys are good.’”

“So we called in Norman Jewison and Alan Uger, a Jewish comedy team, and Richard Pryor, a black person of outré imagination,” Brooks said. “Then we turned on the tape recorder and started bullshitting. Pryor wrote the Jewish jokes, the Jews wrote the black jokes. Nine months later, we had a finished script.”

According to Andrew Bergman, “The writing process was insane when there were five of us writing, which was for about 8 weeks of the first draft.” Brooks remembered that “everybody was fighting to make the best joke. There was a secretary in with us on every session, going crazy trying to take everything down. We didn't use a tape recorder, because it inhibits writers. They start editing and playing to the recorder… We went all the way – especially Richard Pryor, who was very brave and very far-out and very catalytic.”

Brooks was careful to set some guidelines for the writing. “When you satirize, you have to be careful to know what the clichés are, and use them… Blazing Saddles isn’t a ‘black’ movie, but more of a juxtaposition of hypocrisy, greed, flat-out fun and clichés that I’ve been watching since I was three years old. The point is, we’re trying to use every Western cliché in the book – in the hope that we’ll kill them off in the process.”

For Andrew Bergman, the experience went beyond anything he could have ever imagined. “Sitting in a room with Mel and Richard was like a Marx Brothers movie… Mel was coming off two pictures, neither of which had done any business, and Richie Pryor was sort of on the outs at the time, so we were all sort of coming off the same starting line in one fashion. It was amazing. To me, the movie was even funnier in that room than it was on the screen. I remember Richie Pryor disappeared once and came back dressed as a cleaning lady and started dusting. That was the funniest room anyone will ever be in.”

Brooks said, “Five of us got together and came up with a rough draft of 412 pages, enough for a movie of seven to eight hours. Warners then funded another go at it. This time, we got it to 275 pages, or approximately twice the length of a shooting script. When they told us to proceed to shooting script, I decided I wanted to shoot it. Badly. I loved it. I said to Warners management, ‘You’re crazy to do this, but if you want to, it’s on your own head.’”

“To me, the whole thing was like a big psychoanalytic session,” Mel Brooks admitted. “It just got everything out of me – all of my furor, my frenzy, my insanity, my love of life and hatred of death.”

“No Tex X,” Publisher’s Weekly, 7/10/72
A. H. Weiler, “Mel Brooks Goes West,” New York Times, 11/26/72
Hollis Alpert, “Comedy: The New King,” Saturday Review/World, 11/2/74
Brad Darrach, “Mel Brooks,” Playboy, 2/75
Jacoba Atlas, “Mel Brooks Interview,” Film Comment, 3/75
Philip Fleishman, “Interview with Mel Brooks,” McLean’s, 4/17/78
William Wolf, “No Laughing Matter,” New York, 5/18/81
Eric Pooley, “The Unknown King of Comedy,” New York, 5/27/85
Sean O’Neill, “It Happened to Him,” Village Voice, 8/5/94
Blazing Saddles DVD: “Back In the Saddle” Featurette
Blazing Saddles DVD: Director Commentary
Mara Shalhoup, “As American as Cherry Pie,” Creative Loafing, 1/23/02
James Robert Parish, It’s Good To Be the King, 2007

Blazing Saddles Scorns Racism

This article was written as a supplement to the AMC DVD_TV Enhanced Version of Blazing Saddles, which aired in December 2007.

Blazing Saddles Counters Racism with Shock & Love

The concept of a modern black man trying to make his way in the old West was more than just a cute idea for Mel Brooks. “The engine that drove Blazing Saddles was hatred of the black,” Brooks said. “It was race prejudice. Without that, the movie would not have had nearly the significance, the force, the dynamism, and the stakes that were contained in the film.”

In fact, Mel Brooks envisaged Blazing Saddles as a surrealist epic. He said, “It was time to take two eyes, the way Picasso had done it, and put them on one side of the nose, because the official movie portrait of the West was simply a lie. I figured my career was finished anyway, so I wrote berserk, heartfelt stuff about white corruption and racism and Bible-thumping bigotry.”

Co-screenwriter Andrew Bergman, who came up with the original concept for Blazing Saddles, believes that the film could only have been made at that moment in history. “For a lot of reasons, you couldn’t make this movie today,” he said. “You couldn’t say ‘nigger’ in a movie today, even in a comic way. I mean, Richie Pryor was the last person who could do it in stand-up.” When Blazing Saddles came out in 1974, Pryor was still using the word in his routine, but in 1979, after a trip to Africa, Pryor swore he would never say it onstage again.

When future producer Brian Grazer saw Blazing Saddles in the theater as a young man, it changed the course of his life. Grazer quit law school and started hounding Mel Brooks for career advice, which eventually led to his producing Night Shift and many other films. “It was the birth of a certain type of comedy that I call shock comedy,” said Grazer. “The comedies that preceded it were more gentle and earnest. This one was aggressive and in-your-face, and it was dealing in a very smart and startling way with the most intense social issues, from racial bigotry to sexuality. It was really shocking, and it did everything to wow you or stir you up or mix you up, to take you off balance, every single moment. It subverted all your expectations.”

“This movie was made in a kind of singular moment where it was somehow all right to have this kind of racial language in a movie,” Grazer said. “The secret is that somehow, in the spirit of this movie, there is an affection for the characters. You can tell that Cleavon is just playing with these guys. That’s what makes it work. They call him racial names, but you can tell that he’s so much smarter than they are, so much hipper. You’re seduced into being on his side. He’s so beautiful and elegant compared to the stupid people around him. Even though the situation puts Little in the position of a victim, Brooks gives him power and nobility that the white characters don’t have, so you know that you don’t have to feel sorry for him. Even though on the surface he’s being degraded, you know that he’s going to prevail.”

Mel Brooks believed that the secret ingredient of Blazing Saddles was love. “As long as our hearts were in the right place, and as long as we loved our main character – a black sheriff coping with racial prejudice – and continued to care about his feelings, we could say or do anything we damn well pleased.”

Nonetheless, it was difficult for some of the cast members to utter the hateful language as scripted. Cowboy sidekick Burton Gilliam recalled, “I was having a lot of problems calling people what I was having to call them in the movie. Cleavon was great. When we were doing the scene out there on the desert, he said, ‘If I thought you would say those words to me in any other situation, you know, we’d probably go to fist city. But somebody wrote these words. This is all fun. You say anything you wanna say, and if you wanna say it differently and even add stuff to it, go right ahead, and Mel will go along with that.’”

Cleavon Little understood that Blazing Saddles, wild and shocking as it was, nonetheless had a loftier purpose than mere entertainment. “Comedy is a very spiritual thing,” Little believed. “When people laugh – or cry even – they touch the part of themselves that is most human.”

Mel Brooks explained that in his films, “clichés are just the ornaments. The tree has to be solid. The movie has got to be about something. Blazing Saddles was about whether a black could survive in the good old West. It may seem like a silly picture, but to me, it had a strong underpinning, because it was really about love. But most audiences only remember the ornaments of comedy – the jokes. They don’t see the tree. But what would all the ornaments be without the tree for support? Just a pile of shiny baubles on the ground.”

Robert Blair Kaiser, “This Doctor Might Become a Patient,” TV Guide, 4/26/73
Chris Chase, “At the Movies,” New York Times, 7/10/81
Nick Smurthwaite & Paul Gelder, Mel Brooks & the Spoof Movie, 1982
Blazing Saddles DVD: “Back In the Saddle” Featurette
Rick Lyman, “Watching Movies With: Brian Grazer – Inducing Hilarity By Doses
of Shock,” New York Times, 12/14/01
Marlo Thomas, The Right Words at the Right Time, 2002
James Robert Parish, It’s Good To Be the King, 2007