Summer 2012

Quiet on the Set!

One of Mel Brooks' biggest problems directing such classics as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein was that his crew was always cracking up. With some of the most clever, hilarious, and outrageous moments ever put on film, who could blame them?

DGA Quarterly Interview Mel BrooksBY ROBERT WEIDE
Photographed by Scott Council

For many of us, it's impossible to remember a time when Mel Brooks wasn't on the scene. Preceded by his years as a professional drummer and a Catskills tummler, Brooks' big break came when he kibitzed his way on to the dream-team writing staff of the 1950s TV powerhouse Your Show of Shows, starring comedy phenom Sid Caesar. Although strictly an off-camera presence, Brooks was already staging scenes and formulating a manic brand of lunacy that would eventually become his signature as a movie director.

If Brooks had only created the 2,000 Year Old Man LPs (with his best friend Carl Reiner), or had only co-created the breakthrough TV series Get Smart in 1965 (with Buck Henry), or only made a number of 1960s and '70sTV talk show appearances that are still remembered and quoted almost a half-century later, that would be enough. But Brooks' place in the comedy pantheon was ultimately secured by a run of comedy films that he directed and co-wrote between 1968 and 1995 that have gone on to influence another generation or two of comedy directors.

Oddly, for all the adulation he's received for his best-known films—The Producers (1968), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World: Part 1 (1981), Spaceballs (1987), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)—Brooks is most commonly referred to as a comedian, a "funnyman," a writer/producer, and even a "filmmaker." However, one rarely hears the simple phrase "director Mel Brooks." Suffice to say, these films didn't direct themselves. So on a recent afternoon, in the modest offices of Brooksfilms, housed among the cluster of bungalows of Culver Studios, I interrogated director Mel Brooks about directing. And if you can prevent yourself from conjuring up the unavoidable association to an iconic scene from Blazing Saddles, I am here to report that the 86-year-old director is still full of beans.

ROBERT WEIDE: Tell me about your influences as a kid growing up. Who did you go to see at the movies?

MEL BROOKS: Well, comedy was always very important to me and the kids in Williamsburg. There were three different brothers who formed my sense of comedy timing. There were the Marx Brothers, and the Ritz Brothers, and then there were the Three Stooges. Those groups of men formed my sense of how many seconds it took from setup to explosion, from straight line to punch line. They were all perfect at what they did. There were [other] monumental pictures that informed my career as a writer-director: the adventure pictures, the Robin Hoods, the Errol Flynn [pictures], they were very exciting. When people say to me, 'What's your favorite movie?' I don't immediately say Les Enfants du Paradis, which sounds good to say; or La Strada sounds great; Battleship Potemkin sounds even better. 'Wow, this guy must be an intellectual. Look at the movies.' But my favorite movies have always been either Frankenstein or Fred Astaire [pictures].

Q: Sadly, they never worked together. Unless you count "Puttin' on the Ritz" in Young Frankenstein.

A: Yes, the Frankenstein monster really dances well.

Q: Did you perform in school talent shows and that kind of thing?

A: Yeah, I was doing schtick—satires of some of the teachers' habits. I knew what would go. God forbid any teacher had a German accent; they were finished. I'd fasten onto that so quickly.

Q: Can comic timing and delivery be taught, or do you have to be born with it?

A: I'd say 80-20—80 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.

Mel Brooks directing Silent Movie
Brooks directed and played a director in Silent Movie. The film had only one word of spoken dialogue. (Photo: Everett).

Q: Before you were writing comedy, you played drums. Is there a relationship between musical timing and comic timing?

A: Yeah, 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.

Q: When you were writing on the classic television series Your Show of Shows, were you ever paying attention to what the cameras were doing and how those shows were being directed?

A: Actually, they allowed me to stage a couple of things. I didn't care about the cameras at all. I really thought the camera's job was just to catch it. I was a lot more interested in directing the scene, how [the actors] spoke to each other, and how they made it work. How something was interpreted and read was the director's job. And I knew that if Sid Caesar read it a certain way it would be funny. And if he read it another way, it wouldn't be funny. And if Carl Reiner behaved crazier, it would be funnier than if he just did the script as written. So I was always a director, but I was a director of scenes, not a director of the camera. It was much later that I would think about how to capture it.

Q: So your interest was in taking it from the page to the performance?

A: Exactly. It was interpretation and performance. How to make it come true... how to breathe life into the script through performances. And some of the guys, like John Ford, did it very simply. And if they wanted to emotionalize it, they would have an old Western song, you know. [Hums "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" from High Noon.] And I took exactly that song for Blazing Saddles. Well, I just changed a few notes, of course. He never ended with 'our town is turning into shit.'

Mel Brooks directing The Producers
Brooks shows Zero Mostel (right) how to dip Gene Wilder in The Producers. (Photo: Photofest).

Q: What other directors inspired you over the years?

A: I think the best director who ever lived was Alfred Hitchcock, for his timing. That's my vote. And right on his heels, I'd have to say Preston Sturges, for his freedom. He gave me freedom to go crazy. The Palm Beach Story is an underrated, incredible movie. And then I would jump to some classic foreign directors, like Marcel Carné. Then there's Jean Renoir and The Rules of the Game. These are incredible directors. Their balance. Ernst Lubitsch … I like them all. I love George Stevens. Knows his business, takes his time. Shane was a great movie, but he also did Swing Time. The best Fred Astaire picture from a serious director, right?

Q: What compelled you to make the move from writer to director?

A: I just couldn't sit by as a writer saying, 'Don't you think he should have been louder?' Or, 'Don't you think that scene is playing a little longer than it should?' That's why I was on my feet as a director. I would just know. What was working, what was entertaining, what was interesting, what was boring. I would simply know. My skin would tell me.

Q: How did you convince anybody in 1968 to let you direct your first screenplay, The Producers, seeing as you hadn't yet directed?

A: When I met [producer] Joseph E. Levine, he was making Hercules, and that was a big hit. And Hercules Unchained, then Hercules Nearly Chained, But Roped. I don't know; he had a lot of Hercules pictures with chains. And he was making some money. So Levine says, 'I'll do it, but who are we going to get to direct it?' And I said, 'Me.' And he said, 'Oh no, you've never directed a picture. It's still a million bucks, and we can't afford to risk it.' In those days it was a lot of money. And I said, 'Joe, I've got the pictures in my head. I know what they look like; I know what they're doing; I see them moving; I see them sitting; I see their expressions. I see it all lit, because I wrote it. If you get another director, they come in, they may have completely different pictures in their head. Maybe good, maybe bad, but it won't flow.' He said, 'You know, that makes a lot of sense. Will you do it for scale?' I said, 'Of course, yeah, yeah. But I won't direct it unless I get final cut, because I know what studios can do.' So he gave me final cut.

Q: Did you just instinctively know how to get needed coverage of the scene, or was someone assigned to look over your shoulder?

A: I had a vague idea of coverage—of what might go wrong, of what might be a link shot or a fulcrum. I didn't know that you could cut to an alarm clock or an ashtray. So there were a lot of tight shots and close-ups, which in my naiveté, saved me.

Q: I assumed all the close-ups in The Producers were there because if you have faces like Gene Wilder's and Zero Mostel's, you want to show them off. It never occurred to me that you simply lacked coverage.

A: Right. But I always had a place to rest on so I could get the best of the scene. And I had a great editor, Ralph Rosenblum. He later did Woody's first picture [Take the Money and Run]. The truth is you cannot save a bad picture in the cutting room. You can help a good picture, though. And I've had some very good editors. John Howard, who I worked with a number of times, was also a wonderful editor.

Mel Brooks directing Young Frankenstein
SCIENCE PROJECT: Brooks supervises the creation of the monster in Young Frankenstein. He thought of it more as a play than a movie and rehearsed for three weeks. (Photo: Photofest)

Q: I'm guessing you're very hands-on in the editing room.

A: Absolutely. 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.

Q: So you want to see every frame of footage.

A: Every frame. And I would ask: One, am I telling the story? Two, is it entertaining and interesting? Three, is it well-lit, or whatever directors like to talk about. And the first scene in The Producers took the longest time. It was the scene in which Zero Mostel is screwing this little old lady on the couch—Estelle Winwood, a marvelous actress. But it's really the meeting of Bialystock and Bloom. I only had about 20 weeks to edit the whole [picture], but two very precious weeks were spent on the first scene.

Q: Do you remember your first day on the set? Did you feel you were in your element?

A: Yeah, I was thrilled. Michael Hertzberg was my 1st AD, and he was very wonderful and helpful. Sometimes he would take me by the collar and say, 'We're finished here.' And he'd take me to a new set that was lit.

Q: That's a good 1st AD.

A: Yeah, he was very good, and he knew how much money we had to work with. But on that first day, I wanted to give the crew an extra treat, and I didn't want them to break for lunch, so I spent my own money and I went to Chock full o'Nuts and got dozens of sandwiches and gallons of coffee, but they wouldn't let me back in. There was a new woman who took over the desk at 26th Street, and she wouldn't let me in. Finally Hertzberg came out and said, 'He's the director, lady!'

Q: What was your shooting schedule like?

A: I only had 40 days to make the picture, including "Springtime for Hitler," the big stage number, and the opening night, which I did at the 48th Street Theater. We only had the theater for two days to do everything, and I was given four cameras to do it. It was great. Alan Johnson, the choreographer, was sitting next to me. I said, 'Alan, this is the only scene I'm spending money on.' And what was wonderful about it was choreographers can bug the shit out of you. You know, 'He missed that step … ' But he was so cooperative. I said, 'Alan, we're gonna do this as if it's a documentary. We're just going to cover it.' We only did two takes of the whole number. But that was the hardest work and the most thrilling thing I've ever done in my life. The only other thing to compare to it was the scene at Lincoln Center. They got the fountain up to about 8 feet, just above the actors' heads, which was wonderful. But I met somebody who said to me, 'I'm one of the engineers who works on the fountain. I can get it up to 16 [feet].' I said, 'Could I see it at 16?' And there it was. Sixteen feet of tons of water. And when Gene Wilder shouts, 'I'll do it, by God, I'll do it!' it was thrilling.

Q: That's such an iconic scene.

A: And Joseph E. Levine, after seeing the first week of dailies said, 'I'll give you another $35,000 or $40,000 to get another actor. This guy Gene Wilder stinks.' And I said, 'Joe, trust me. It's going to be all right. He's very good. It'll be fine.' Anyway, I didn't fire Gene. So we made it, and it was shown at the Lane Theater, somewhere in the suburbs of Philadelphia. And Levine came with three or four guys. There was a bag lady sitting in the second row just sleeping, and maybe three or four people scattered around this 1,500-seat theater.

Q: Was this a test or the actual opening?

A: It was a test to see how much money they would spend on advertising. The next day I met with Levine, and he said, 'You know, we're not going to go crazy on this. We're going to be kind of conservative.' He was being kind. So I said, 'What is that? You're going to spend about $200 on marketing?' He said, 'No, no, you can double or triple that.'

Q: On the surface, The Producers is simply good, silly fun. But do you take personal pleasure in the subversive element of making fun of Nazis? There are Nazi jokes in many of your movies.

A: Yeah. If you can make them seem foolish and silly, then you've won. But if you get on a soapbox and go head to head with Herr Hitler and Goebbels, you're not going to win. They're good at that shit. But they're not good at comedy.

Mel Brooks directing High Anxiety
THE WRONG MAN: Brooks believes Hitchcock was the greatest director ever and studied the master's timing for his affectionate parody High Anxiety. (Photo: Everett)

Q: Your next film, The Twelve Chairs, was filmed in the former Republic of Yugoslavia, now Serbia. What were the challenges of filming in a Communist country in 1970?

A: There was not much to do in Belgrade. Yugoslavia was run by Marshal Tito. I used to say, 'We didn't do much on Saturday night because Tito had the car.' But what a great, great, adventure. We started at a place called Kosutnjak Studios in Belgrade. It was rather primitive, but they were good-natured and gave me a crew of 80 people.

Q: So the crew were local hires?

A: Yeah, yeah. It was a deal. You got a big crew, you got trucks—they gave you everything and you gave them a certain amount of money. I only had trouble one day with the crew. I was going to do a scene with the late, great Dom DeLuise, breaking up the chairs. So I got really mad at something, a camera broke, or I was just frustrated. My nerves were really just charred. I was burnt out. I grabbed a chair and threw it right off the dock into the water. And everybody left. No more shooting. So a representative said to me, 'Comrade Brooks, we are not working until you apologize for throwing the People's chair into the Black Sea,' or whatever it was. And I said, 'If I talk to them, everybody will get back to work?' He said, 'Yeah.' So I made a speech. I said, 'Comrades, I heartily, from the deepest part of me, apologize for being so stupid. I lost it, but I've got it back. I can't thank you enough for your contribution on Twelve Chairs. I love you all and please forgive me.' Cheers! I heard the word 'vijnak,' which is their word for cognac. That happened at 3 o'clock and I lost the rest of the day because we all kissed each other and drank vijnak until we were throwing up on the floor.

Q: One might say that The Twelve Chairs is not a typical Mel Brooks movie, but since it was only your second film, there was really no such thing yet as a 'typical' Mel Brooks movie.

A: There are only two pictures that I made that really started out serious and played seriously with a lot of comedy in them: Twelve Chairs and Life Stinks. And if I didn't have a hit with Blazing Saddles, I probably would have gone another way and not even been known.

Q: Blazing Saddles really pushed the envelope in so many ways in 1974.

A: Yeah. We had a scene coming up in which Hedley Lamarr [Harvey Korman] and his terrible bad guys are going to really beat the shit out of an old lady in a bonnet. And I said, 'I think we're going too far.' So I asked [Warner Bros. studio chief] John Calley, 'Can I beat the shit out of this little old lady? I mean, really, with sound effects of breaking ribs and punching?' He said, 'Mel, if you're going to go up to the bell... ring it.' I never forgot that. He was a great guy.

Q: Blazing Saddles was the first film I ever saw that had a fart gag. Now you see it all the time. You managed to break ground and break wind at the same time. Does any part of you now think, 'What hath Mel wrought?'

A: You know, I hate to pat myself on the back, but cowboys used to swill black coffee and beans. They used to scrape those beans from a tin plate. And we know all about beans and black coffee—that lethal combination. And that's why it works. Farting scenes do not usually work because they're not indigenous.

Mel Brooks directing Blazing Saddles
Brooks is at home on the range with Cleavon Little (on horse) and producer Michael Hertzberg while making Blazing Saddles. (Photo: USC Photo Archives)

Q: Blazing Saddles also makes frequent use of the "N-word." Could you get away with that today?

A: Never. If they did a remake of Blazing Saddles today, they would leave out the N-word. And then, you've got no movie. And I wouldn't have used it so much if I didn't have Richard Pryor with me on the set as one of my writers. And Cleavon Little [as Sheriff Bart] was great. Even though it was allowed, I kept asking Cleavon, 'Is that all right there? Is that too much there? Am I pushing this?' and he'd say, 'No, no, no, it's perfect there.'

Q: I don't mean to politicize this, but I have to say, watching the film again recently, when Bart rides into town, I found it impossible not to think of Obama.

A: It's impossible, right.

Q: Do you have any way of knowing whether he's seen it?

A: He did! When I got the Kennedy Center Award, he said, 'When I was a kid, I was thrilled with that picture.' It was possible for a black man to be the sheriff of the United States.

Q: How did the Warner Bros. brass respond to the film when they first saw it?

A: We screened Blazing Saddles for the Warner Bros. COO and CEO and all the executives. There were no laughs. I had flop sweat. And this guy got up and said, 'I've worked here a long time, and I've never told the studio that a picture was so bad we should eat it. But this picture is very embarrassing, and I don't think I can sell it.' And Calley said, 'It's crazy, but it's good.' He was the only one who laughed. That night, Mike Hertzberg, who was the producer, said, 'Let's have [another] screening tonight. I'm going to invite all the Warner Bros. employees.' So we showed it at Screening Room 12 and it was packed. And right from the beginning—burning through the Warner Bros. logo—we got laughs already. 'Dock that chink a day's pay for napping on the job'—Wow! Big laughs. And from there on in, it was just riotous. Some people ran up and down the aisles screaming, they couldn't contain themselves. It was a triumph, that screening. When the secretaries and all the people who had seen it went back to their offices the next day, I got a call from Calley who said, 'What did you do last night? Everybody's talking—I even got a call from our distributor who said, "Well, let's take a chance on these three cities."'

Q: Blazing Saddles was your first picture with Madeline Kahn, who would then become part of your stock company. How did you come to cast her?

A: When I first met with her, I had seen her in the Bogdanovich picture Paper Moon. I knew how good she was. But I didn't know really how funny she was. I was really curious about her legs. I said, 'You know, she's got to straddle a chair and be Marlene Dietrich. I had that song already ("I'm Tired") and Lili von Shtupp was the character. So I said, 'Madeline, I want you to sit on a chair backwards and just raise your skirt for me.' She said, 'Is that what this is all about?' I said, 'No, no, no, I'm happily married, believe me. It's the character. Dietrich's most important feature, besides her voice, was her legs. I've gotta see, I've gotta see.' She said, 'All right.' And I said, 'OK, they're perfect! Lower, lower, in case somebody comes in.'

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.

Q: In the case of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and later, High Anxiety, up until the first laughs, you could absolutely believe they're the real deal, rather than parodies. Not only are they authentic visually, but in the case of Young Frankenstein, the basic story line is at least as legitimate as any actual Frankenstein sequel.

A: Well, everything has to be real but the comedy. You need a hard wall to bounce that rubber ball against, you know?

Q: When you're doing a parody movie, how much do you discuss the look and feel of the film with your DP? Do you watch the films that you're emulating?

A: We do. I watch the kind of film we're making with the DP, so he knows not to be frivolous. He's got to get the real lighting, the real texture. For High Anxiety, it was 'What is a Hitchcock film? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How does he light them? How long is a scene? What is the cutting? When does he bring things to a boil?' We just watch everything. On Young Frankenstein, we watched all the Frankenstein pictures. But it's all that black-and-white lighting that was so important.

Q: Did you have to fight to shoot Young Frankenstein in black and white in 1974?

A: Yeah, I was going to make Young Frankenstein for Columbia. And on the way out of a meeting, I said, 'I'm going to do this in black and white.' Wow. Everything came to a halt. I said, 'The comedy won't work if it's in color. It'll be silly.' And they said, 'Peru just got color.' I'll never forget that. Laddie [Alan Ladd Jr.] had just taken over Fox a week before, so we got [the script] to him. Next day we were a Fox picture.

Q: You basically had your own repertory company for a number of years (Gene Wilder, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise). When you work so often with the same actors, do you develop a shorthand in directing them?

A: One of my great directions was a code with Gene Wilder, who could be Krakatoa. He could be the greatest volcano ever, like he was in some scenes in Young Frankenstein, or he could be sweet and mellow and very moving. And so my code with Gene would be, 'Too orange.' He knew that meant in the previous scene he was very big and this didn't call for it to be that big. 'Give me a little purple in there.' So we could have the right peaks and valleys in his performance. I never told him how to say it or how to do it. Just studying his face was enough to put on the screen.

Q: Do you usually have any kind of rehearsal period?

A: I definitely try to get two weeks. On Young Frankenstein I needed three weeks. I thought it was a play more than a movie. And I really needed time, but I got the three weeks. And they all gave their time—Teri Garr, all of them. It was so lovely.

Q: So by the time you shoot, you've worked out a lot of the kinks already?

A: Yes, in Young Frankenstein I did. Not so much in Blazing Saddles, because the schedule didn't allow that.

Q: And right before you shoot, do you rehearse again or do you want it fresh for camera?

A: I like it fresh for the film, frankly. I don't want it to get lazy or tired. I want them to be just a touch nervous, so there's an electric reading to it.

Q: I understand that sometimes you'll say 'Cut' for the benefit of the actors, but your camera operator knows to keep rolling. Why is that?

A: I'll do that because sometimes I'll get an expression or something that's so valuable, that's from the heart. I'll say 'Cut' and actors can breathe out. So I just cut to that face.

Q: I imagine you being very energetic on set and ebullient in response to your actors' performances.

A: Are you kidding? I would kiss them and jump and hug them and say, 'It's wonderful!' Sometimes I'd say, 'It was so good, here's a lollipop.'

Q: So on the set making a comedy, how important is it that people are having a good time?

A: That's a very good question, because if you're making a comedy, it shouldn't be quiet on the set. But I didn't want a good scene or a good moment spoiled with a crazy laugh I can't erase. In The Twelve Chairs there was a really funny scene with Frank Langella and Dom DeLuise, and everybody would laugh, even the Yugoslavians. So I went out and I bought, I don't know, 15 handkerchiefs for everybody in the crew. I said, 'if you feel like laughing, stick the handkerchief in your mouth.' And every once in a while, when I knew something was very funny, I would turn and there would be a sea of white handkerchiefs. I said, 'We've got a hit!' And I always did that with white handkerchiefs on the set. On Silent Movie, I had to scream at the crew, 'Laugh! We're not recording sound. So that was hard for the grips and the crew and everybody to get used to, because there's always quiet when you're shooting.

Q: Do you leave yourself open to inspiration on the set for comedy bits you can't anticipate when writing the script?

A: Yes. Sometimes you get very lucky and the set will give you ideas for jokes. When I saw the caveman set on History of the World, it was very primitive. And I immediately thought, 'Well, where do I go to from here? I'd better go to biblical times.' I was going to skip the Bible and go to Rome. I said, 'No, I've got the set, just turn that thing around and it will be the mountaintop, and I did the Moses bit. 'The Lord Jehovah has....these 15...' Crash! I drop one of the tablets. 'Ten, ten commandments.'

Q: Do you buy the concept that comedy doesn't get the same respect as drama?

A: Yes. Comedy is a much braver thing to do than drama, and much more difficult. And you don't get regarded for it. And you don't get the Legion of Honor for it. You get the medals and the statues for the serious stuff. Because no matter how great [comedy] is, it seems to the others who don't do it, that it's just frivolous. You're not serious; it doesn't count. And of course, comedy is much more monumentally important than drama. Take Battleship Potemkin, a great movie. Take Blazing Saddles—infinitely better in every way. [laughs]

Q:You produced a number of highly regarded dramatic films through your Brooksfilms banner—The Elephant Man (1980), Frances (1982), The Fly (1986), 84 Charing Cross Road (1987). Did you ever have a desire to direct something other than a comedy?

A: Yeah, but I was always afraid that part of my baggage would be, 'Oh, crazy Mel Brooks, funny Mel Brooks.' And if I were going to do the Francis Farmer story, they wouldn't buy it. I'm sure they would see The Elephant Man and wait for the big laughs. 'Wait'll he shows his trunk,' you know? So it cost me a lot. It cost me being a George Stevens or Billy Wilder. It cost me being a serious director.

Q: You're saying that if it weren't for your exclusive association with comedy, you would have taken those projects on as a director?

A: Absolutely. I know how to do it; [drama] is the same kind of setups, same kind of writing. You just have to know the interior, the emotional base of it. I would have been a good serious director.

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.

Q:I understand you were on the DGA National Board for two terms.

A: Yeah, I was. It was interesting. But I got too busy to really be a productive member. It's still a premier union. There are other guilds that have nothing like we have in terms of our retirement benefits, medical benefits, our protections in terms of credit. The Directors Guild has always been so good to me whenever there's a dispute. I just leave it to the Guild. I've always been a good loyal DGA member, but for a long time I was just too busy to come in for the meetings. But I loved all the guys there. It was nice having that togetherness. There was a real caring for each other.

Q: It's been 16 years since you directed your last picture. Do you miss it, or do you like sleeping in?

A: That's one of the biggest problems. I used to get up at 4:30 in the morning. But directing is very, very hard work because it's 50 percent creative and 50 percent technical. And it's very hard to do both and make sure you've got it. And I don't think you can do it without sleep. And I could never sleep at night. Then you've gotta get up and do your ablutions, shave, whatever. But I might direct another picture. If I do, we'll start shooting at noon, that's all, and we'll go to 8 o'clock. You'd have to get every union to simply agree to it.

Q: It's good to be the king.

A: Yeah, it is.

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