The American Masters series on PBS is one of our culture’s great treasures. It gives us not just surveys of the work of major figures but also their thoughts about what they’ve accomplished, and the thoughts of their friends and collaborators. I interviewed Susan Lacy, who produced the episodes on Bob Dylan and David Geffen, for the Morton Report, and was looking forward to interviewing Robert Trachtenberg, who directed the episode on Mel Brooks.
Robert, congratulations on directing a brilliant episode in the brilliant American Masters series!
Let’s begin with your own history. What’s the first Mel Brooks movie you remembering seeing?
I remember very clearly taking the bus with friends to Westwood to see Young Frankenstein on a Friday night. It was sold out, and the crowd was going absolutely wild — I don’t think I’d ever heard that much laughter.
Had you met Mel before you agreed to do the American Masters episode?
I had photographed Mel before, and had directed a TCM special a few years ago with him and Dick Cavett, so we knew one another slightly.
In some ways this episode is a departure from some of your previous work. Mel is a very different subject from the epitome of elegance that you chronicled in Cary Grant: A Class Apart and from your edgy fashion photography. What preparation did you do?
The thing most people don’t know about Mel is that he conducts himself in an Old Hollywood manner — he’s very proper about the way he runs his office, his business, etc., so it really wasn’t that much of a departure in that regard. I knew the work, I love the way his mind works, and as opposed to the other subjects I’ve done films on, he’s alive. The real preparation was in figuring out how to show the public a different side of him they hadn’t seen before.
How did the agreement to do the episode come about? Did you know Susan Lacy?
I’ve done two other documentaries for Susan, one on Gene Kelly, another on film director George Cukor. She called me up one day and asked if I’d like to do a film on Mel, and I said, "Let’s do it."
The episode includes exclusive interviews with no less than 19 of Mel’s friends and collaborators. What can you tell us about the process of contacting and scheduling all these busy people?
Hands down, that was the easiest process for any film I’ve done. Mel is so beloved by his peers, that almost without exception, when I called they said, “When”?
Mel comments that his father died when he was two. That means that he belongs to a long list of great artists who either grew up without a father (John Lennon, Eric Clapton) or were alienated from their fathers (Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen). How do you think the absence of a father affected Mel’s career?
From everything I can see, the Mel of 1933 is the Mel of 1953, ’73, ’93 and right up to 2013. He’s this completely self-contained, unique being. I asked him if anything—fatherhood, etc.—had had an influence on his career, and he said no. Not having a father had an influence on his personal life, and he talks about that in the film, but career-wise, I’m not so sure.
There was one thing that Mel said that I found very surprising: “Always have your sacred values in art.” I’ve never thought of Mel as someone who had “sacred values.” What do you think he means by this?
I think he’s referring to selling out, to doing something you’re not 100% behind.
The obvious comparison to Mel is with another Jewish writer-actor-director, Woody Allen. Mel says in the episode “I’m head over heels in love with myself,” whereas the whole world knows that Woody, even after all these years of analysis, is not. What are your thoughts about this comparison?
I think it’s pointless to compare the two. We’re talking about two singular, unique minds here, and any comparison would just be film school term paper material as far as I’m concerned.
Although you quite properly keep a tight focus on Mel and his friends and collaborators, I’d like to close with a more general question. Anyone who follows American comedy knows that it is dominated by Jewish men, from Carl Reiner to Mel and Woody to Jerry Seinfeld to Jon Stewart. Do you have any thoughts about this very important pattern?
Even if they’re not particularly religious, it’s a unique, societal way of looking at the world that usually makes for better laughs than, say, Episcopalians. What can I tell you? Jews are funny, period.
American Masters Mel Brooks: Make a Noise premieres nationally on Monday, May 20, at 9PM on PBS (check local listings) and will be available on DVD May 21 from Shout Factory.