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6 Filmmaking Tips From Mel Brooks

The 90-year-old comedy legend’s advice is a mix of serious and silly.
By  · Published on June 28th, 2016

As of this week, Mel Brooks has been on the planet for 90 years. That’s still short of 2,000, but he’s getting there. In his time on Earth, he’s made us laugh, cry, and cringe, and most importantly he’s entertained us through pretty much every medium there is. Most notably, he’s a filmmaker, the director of some of the greatest comedies in history, including Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, and producer of such important films as David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

In all his years, he’s had plenty of tips to offer his fans and followers. He knows the best way to make fart noises, for instance. And the best way to play Adolf Hitler. He also admits that much of what it takes to be someone like him is to be born with it. “I’d say 80–20,” he specifically stated in a 2012 interview for DGA Quarterly. “Eighty, you’ve got to be born with it, and 20 to environmentally learn from others how it’s done and what the technique is and how to acquire it.”

We’ve found some of that 20 percent that can be learned from Brooks and share it with you below. But there’s more. Like many of the great elder filmmakers, Brooks has also been the subject of and guest in a few documentaries where he appears and provides spots of advice along with his life story and career anecdotes. Currently, one of them, the American Masters doc Mel Brooks: Make a Noise, is streaming free on the PBS website:

Video: Mel Brooks: Make a Noise | Watch American Masters Online | PBS Video

Play the Drums

Before he was a writer, director, or producer, Brooks was a professional drummer. That’s what he got his start as, after training as a boy with fellow Brooklyn kid Buddy Rich. He also learned piano and played both instruments at Catskill resorts before trying his hand as a stand-up comedian. Although his career took a different turn from following in his famous instructor’s shoes, he never stopped drumming and has always credited the skill as, uh, instrumental in making him a better filmmaker.

“Playing the drums is an exercise in rhythm,” he explained in a recent interview with Creative Screenwriting. “So in writing and directing my movies I always knew what the rhythm of a scene should be ‐ which helped me immeasurably.”

He has apparently recommended percussion playing to others in his industry, and he addresses the correlation regularly. Here, from the DGA Quarterly interview, he ties it specifically to his comic timing (Carl Reiner says Brooks avoids ad-libbing because it throws off the rhythm):

because some punch lines should be on the offbeat; they shouldn’t be right on the beat because they’ll get sour. There’s a thing called syncopation, in which you feature the offbeat instead of the beat itself. The offbeat is the after-beat. And you wait, and hit it on the after-beat. So I was a real big fan of syncopation and it carried on into my movies ‐ into my writing and my direction.

It’s All In the Buildup

Whether you’re writing a joke or a whole movie full of them, you have to start with the foundation. For the joke that’s a set up, while in a script that’s a buildup of back story, character development, and the world it all takes place in. He explains directly in this piece of “life advice” on the secret of a good joke from a 2013 interview in Men’s Journal:

It’s information. It’s the buildup. If you just go with the punch line, it’s not as funny as if you take your time and explain where you are, who is in the joke, and then how it explodes. Pacing is a matter of talent: You got it, or you ain’t. The Greek actor Andreas Voutsinas, from the ‘Producers,’ always gave me good advice ‐ he’d say, “Or you got it, or you ain’t.” It was as simple as that. I would say to him, “We’re in America, Andreas. You can’t start things with Or.”

Again, as acknowledged in the second half of that quote, the secret still works best if you have it. But he continues to offer similar advice to students of the craft. Here’s one of a handful of tips in a 2013 USA Today article:

Indulge in exposition. “I tell every comedy writer this simple, profound secret,” Brooks says. “It’s called, ‘Explain.’ If you risk not getting a laugh for 12 minutes, then you can tell the audience who these characters are.” Take The Producers. “You introduce Bialystock in dire circumstances and Bloom as a genius accountant who dreams of beautiful girls in the wings. You explain who they are, what they want and when they run into it. Then they will know what is happening. You take time for verdant valleys of information for a reason: to reach mountain peaks of humor. In most sitcoms these days, you aren’t even sure who the characters are. Instead, they are always going for the jokes.”

With a joke, the buildup allows for that higher peak of humor, and with a whole movie, it helps immerse the audience so they care about sticking with it for more reasons than just to laugh at a collection of well-crafted mountain-peak jokes. Another tip from the Creative Screenwriting interview:

What makes a good story is…I don’t know what makes a good story. I guess being totally immersed in the leading character and his or her quest and rooting relentlessly for that character to conquer all the terrible things all of us have to overcome to make any kind of a good life.

Get Final Cut

Every filmmaker wants final cut on their movies, that’s obvious. It’s also not always as easy as just making the request. Brooks is one of those people who made a lot of money for a lot of people early on and got to have that luxury going forward. Regardless, this is his belief and he may be even more hands on in that belief than most, as he reveals in the DGA Quarterly interview:

It’s always been my thinking that the final editor should always be the director, and the director should always take a huge hand in the editing. I never did what a lot of directors do. They say, ‘Well, throw it together and let me take a look and then I’ll re-edit it, and we’ll work together.’ I would say, ‘Give me everything you’ve got: outtakes, the works, everything you’ve got.’ And I’d look at it all and spend a couple of days not editing, just looking. Running it through in my head.

“You mustn’t ever let a producer in the editing room,” he says furthermore in the below clip from Make a Noise. “They’re not bad people. They’re just dumb people.”

There Is a Line When It Comes to Bad Taste

Brooks knows about pushing the envelope. Blazing Saddles is one of the most notorious but brilliant pieces of politically incorrect satire there is, and he’s always asked whether it could be made today (he always says no). But it’s not offensive. It‘s not in bad taste. Nor are his constant send-ups of Hitler in his films and in interviews (he confessed to Indiewire he keeps a comb in his pocket for impromptu Fuhrer impressions). But he does know where to draw the line, as he reveals in the Men’s Journal article:

It’s true, there is a limit. You got to know the line. For me, it’s concentration camps. You know the movie Life is Beautiful can’t be funny. The subject matter is not fertile, you can’t grow anything in that. It’s just ashes. So I have my limits. I use the N-word in Blazing Saddles. But it was to show how despised, hated, and loathed this black sheriff was. Without the N-word, you couldn’t have the story. You got to tell the truth.

In the new documentary The Last Laugh, Brooks even exclaims, “Life Is Beautiful is the worst movie ever made!” Here’s a deeper exchange about the difference between that movie and his own work in a 2006 interview with Der Spiegel International:

SPIEGEL: Can you really separate Hitler from the Holocaust?

Brooks: You have to separate it. For example, Roberto Benigni’s comedy “Life Is Beautiful” really annoyed me. A crazy film that even attempted to find comedy in a concentration camp. It showed the barracks in which Jews were kept like cattle, and it made jokes about it. The philosophy of the film is: people can get over anything. No, they can’t. They can’t get over a concentration camp.

SPIEGEL: But the film has deeply moved a lot of people.

Brooks: I always asked myself: Tell me, Roberto, are you nuts? You didn’t lose any relatives in the Holocaust, you’re not even Jewish. You really don’t understand what it’s all about. The Americans were incredibly thrilled to discover from him that it wasn’t all that bad in the concentration camps after all. And that’s why they immediately pressed an Oscar into his hand.

SPIEGEL: So there are limits to humor?

Brooks: Definitely. In 1974, I produced the western parody Blazing Saddles, in which the word n***er was used constantly. But I would never have thought of the idea of showing how a black was lynched. It’s only funny when he escapes getting sent to the gallows. You can laugh at Hitler because you can cut him down to normal size.

Somewhat hypocritically, however, Brooks has also regularly said, “to Hell with them” and “I don’t give a shit” when it comes to offending people with his comedy. He does so in another moment in The Last Laugh seen in the clip linked below.

Watch: Mel Brooks Discusses Humor and the Holocaust in Clip from Tribeca Doc ‘The Last Laugh’

Sit Down

Q: What’s the best advice you ever got about directing?

A: It was from Slim Pickens on the set of Blazing Saddles. I said, ‘Slim, you’ve made a hundred pictures, I’ve made three. What do I do? Give me some help.’ He said, ‘Mel, I’ll tell you. Any time you get a chance… sit down.’ And you know something, it sounds silly, but I am so grateful for that because when you’re a director, you’re always on your feet. You’re going here and there, and you don’t realize, ‘Why am I exhausted? Why does my back hurt?’ Because you didn’t sit down enough! And he knew. And that was his great advice.

Q: They don’t teach you that in film school.

A: No, they don’t teach directors to sit. And they don’t give you the right chair. They give you some high chair. I said, ‘I’m not ready to eat porridge,’ I always preferred the lower chair. Never liked the high. I take pictures on the high chair because I want to be the director. You’ve got to be on the high chair or you’re not the big director.

The above exchange is from the DGA Quarterly interview. But sitting isn’t just important for the filmmaker. Brooks also believes it important to let the audience sit down sometimes, as well (meaning he also believes they should be standing up or falling on the floor at other times?). Here’s another bit from the same interview:

Q: Musical interludes always figure prom-inently in your films. Can you tell me about the role song and dance plays in your movies?

A: The musical number has to be not only amusing or entertaining, but it has to be a respite from the insanity of the movie, because I want the audience to sit down and relax in there. I don’t want them on their feet, except maybe for the “Spanish Inquisition” number [in History of the World, Part I]. That one was different. I wanted as many laughs as I could get. But for “I’m Tired” [in Blazing Saddles] I didn’t want them laughing all the time; I wanted them enjoying the silky beauty of Madeline Kahn’s rendition. I wanted them to admire her and to admire the song. It’s a great little oasis of relaxation in movies ‐ the musical numbers.

Buy His DVD Box Set

Finally, Brooks is nothing if not a great self-promoter, and so one of his tips is to buy the Shout Factory DVD box set The Incredible Mel Brooks: An Irresistible Collection Of Unhinged Comedy (yes, order it from Amazon). Because there you’ll find even more filmmaking advice. He implores you below in a 2012 interview with The A.V. Club.

You never have it this good. I think people should bargain. They shouldn’t just buy the set, it’s a little expensive right now. But they should say ‐ I’ll give them dialogue, I’m a good writer. You can tell most of the people that I said, they should say to the clerk or the people in the store or Amazon, “Can you do any better?” And maybe they will, who knows? It’s like $89! I don’t think you should pay full price for this. Frankly, I think it’s worth $69. That’s my own opinion. But see what you can do; maybe you can get it for $79. It’s worth it. If you get it for $79, you won’t be cheated.

If you like comedy, and you’re interested. For instance, at the end of each disk, it’s Mel and His Movies. It’s like Cinema 101. If you want to be a filmmaker, if you care about movies, if you’re serious about movies, you’ve got to have it. And I’ve got stories about Hitchcock in it.

As a preview, check out one of those Mel and His Movies interviews below (ignore the incorrect Mel in the photo), about his second feature, The Twelve Chairs.

ShoutFactoryTV : Watch Backlot Episode : Mel And His Movies: The Twelve Chairs

What We Learned

Mel Brooks is a comedic genius. Good luck following in his footsteps if you are not. But if you were born with the gift, that’s not enough. You need rhythm, which can be honed through drum lessons. You need to be a great storyteller, and that can be learned as a craft. You need to be there at the start of the script and the end of the edit. You need to take a rest sometimes and give your audience a rest sometimes. You can be offensive to a degree but never make light of concentration camps or lynchings or truly awful things like that. And you need to watch what he’s done and hear him talk about what he’s done, all for just $53.22, as it’s currently priced on Amazon.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.