Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits a sci-fi spoof from a master satirist with Spaceballs.
Mel Brooks is such a ubiquitous name in comedy that it’s easy to forget he’s only directed eleven feature films. I’d argue that at least three of them are classics, but while I wouldn’t include Spaceballs (1987) in that grouping there’s no denying its presence in pop culture. The film is new to 4K UltraHD from Kino Lorber, so we decided to celebrate by giving a listen to the film’s commentary track. Is the funnyman good at the commentary game? Let’s find out together.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
Commentator: Mel Brooks
1. The original script was 247 pages, but “we hit paydirt around 140 pages.” The first cut was roughly two hours and twenty minutes long before being trimmed to the current ninety-six.
2. He refers to the film as a period picture as “it harkens back to an earlier fairy tale kind of 14th century setting, and yet it’s taking place in the future in space.”
3. Dark Helmet (Rick Moranis) is drinking from a Styrofoam cup as crew members would forget them around the set anyway so Brooks just made it part of the universe.
4. Co-writer Ronny Graham plays the priest planning to perform Princess Vespa’s (Daphne Zuniga) wedding ceremony.
5. Brooks doesn’t like to eat lunch with the actors as “they are animals, as you know,” but he made an exception here as the cast was lovely.
6. He had to cast Michael Winslow here as “he does all his own sound effects, and I saved over a hundred dollars.”
7. Brooks praises his entire cast, but he’s especially fond of Moranis as the actor was invested in the film and would go above and beyond in every scene. He also shows love to the late John Candy whose Barf brings him continual joy.
8. He’s both proud and ashamed of the “Druish princess” joke.
9. The desert sequence was filmed in Yuma, AZ. “The accommodations weren’t great.”
10. “This concept was one of the truly inventive concepts,” he says regarding the beat where Dark Helmet and his cronies watch a home video cassette of Spaceballs in order to find the protagonists. “I’m really very proud of this.”
11. Brooks first saw Zuniga in Rob Reiner’s The Sure Thing (1985), and when casting began for the role here he immediately went to her first.
12. He goes off topic on occasion, and after waxing poetic about the heyday of MGM before it changed hands multiple times he mentions that the studio’s commissary would always have matzo in honor of Louis B. Mayer. “The matzo would get in your teeth, but it was worth it.”
13. The shot at 43:30 of Dark “Pith” Helmet in the land speeder was accomplished by placing a mirror along the bottom to reflect the sand and create the illusion that it’s levitating.
14. Brooks got “a terrible rash” on his face and neck from the makeup used to turn him into Yogurt, and his knees also took a beating. “I love the character so it was worth it.”
15. The film cost $25 million which he says was his highest budgeted picture. IMDB lists Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) as costing $30 million, but Brooks claims it was closer to $22m.
16. Brooks says he wouldn’t have played roles like Yogurt “if Gene Wilder hadn’t abandoned me to do his own movies.” He adds that “it was a pity” and that he hopes to work with Wilder again some day. (This commentary was recorded well before Wilder died in 2016.)
17. Moranis improvised the scene where Dark Helmet plays with the Spaceballs action figures. “It gets a little dirty here.”
18. Brooks asked if Zuniga wanted someone else to sing the bit where Vespa is in the cell singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” but she insisted she could do it — and she was right.
19. He directed his first feature, The Producers (1967), because he didn’t want anyone else to mangle it, and The Twelve Chairs (1970) was “an important, funny little movie” that he also didn’t mind directing. Brooks thinks he misstepped, though, starting with directing Blazing Saddles (1974). “I was deserting my private muse and getting into big stuff, and that may have been my mistake.” He laments the move into big studio movies and “the business of having to fill so many seats.”
20. The Metamorphosis/Kafka joke at 1:04:32 is one he’s ashamed of. “The intellectuals hate me, and the people who’ve never heard of Kafka don’t know what I’m talking about.”
21. Brooks’ love of writing far exceeds his fondness for directing. “Writing is, there is nothing and then there is something, so it’s almost godlike, it’s really creating. Once there is a script there’s something there to be cast, there’s something there to be designed, there’s something there to hire a cameraman to film, but it can’t equal the power of making something from nothing.”
22. George Lucas watched the film’s rough cut with Brooks and laughed along throughout. He and ILM helped out on the movie in post, and Lucas was never offended or put off by the satire.
23. Pongo was the name of Brooks’ first dog, inspired by One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1964). The movie reviewer on the news show is named in his honor.
24. John Hurt plays Jesus in Brooks’ History of the World: Part I (1981), and the two became friends. Brooks decided to ask him for a favor — recreate the chestburster scene from Alien (1979) for Spaceballs — and the actor happily obliged.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Spaceballs is the brainchild of one Jew and two gentiles.”
“Poor jokes work for me.”
“It cost over a hundred dollars to build that and put it in the shot.”
“I’m enjoying this. I’m sorry, I should be commenting.”
“Bad jokes are good.”
“I don’t quite understand what’s happening here.”
“When I say nothing it means I have nothing to say.”
“Blazing Saddles was a hit, and that was the making and the breaking of me.”
“It’s not easy to plot a movie successfully.”
Spaceballs remains a mixed bag of laughs and misfires, but there’s no denying that Brooks and friends never stop going for it. He laughs a lot during the commentary, and it seems clear that this is his first time watching in years meaning he also spends time in silence or pointing out what’s on screen. There are some fun bits here, but maybe a solo commentary isn’t ideal for Brooks — a moderator helping guide the commentary and asking questions would have been ideal. It’s at its best during the brief moments where he gets serious and insightful about his career, more of which would have made for a great track, but it’s still worth a listen for fans.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.