Andrew Bergman on writing 'Blazing Saddles,' 'Striptease,' 'Honeymoon in Vegas' and more
Honeymoon in Vegas is the latest movie to take a gamble on Broadway as a re-invented musical, and the man who should be the most excited is the film’s screenwriter, who took the reins on bringing his 1992 comedy to the stage. (The Jason Robert Brown-scored musical opens Jan. 15.)
Though it’s Andrew Bergman’s first time writing a musical, the writer-director boasts a film resume that should inspire any movie lover to nod his or her head in reverential pleasure. Bergman’s credits pull from across the board of comedy icons—Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, Peter Falk and Alan Arkin in The In-Laws, Chevy Chase in Fletch.
That’s why EW took the newly minted Broadway book writer on a trip down nostalgia lane through some of our favorite projects that Bergman wrote, co-wrote, and in some cases, directed. Here are the best anecdotes he had to share:
BLAZING SADDLES (1974) – Co-writer with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Alan Uger
“First of all, I was 26 years old and I walked into a room with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor and Norman Steinberg and it’s like playing tennis and you walk on the court and there’s Lendl and Borg and McEnroe. You’ve got to warm up with these guys! It was an absolutely fantastic experience, and collaborative and funny beyond belief. As funny as the movie was, that room was beyond. I would routinely slide off my chair onto the floor. The thing I remember them saying is that comedy is like poetry—every syllable counts. Some words are funnier than other words. They’ll joke about words with a ‘k’ being funnier than words with soft endings. It’s true. The difference is staggering. You have one word too many and a joke becomes a sentence. Of all things, that’s what I learned in that room, is the incredible fragility of a comedy line.
I read about them doing it as a musical from time to time. I have my doubts that it’s ever going to happen. I don’t see how you do a Western on stage. Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun…somebody can do it. But it’s awfully tricky.”
THE IN-LAWS (1979) – Writer
“Warner Bros. said to me, Alan Arkin and Peter Falk want to do a movie together. And I thought immediately, ‘Didn’t they do a movie?’ It’s like, they seemed so perfect for each other! Their personalities, you have a rabbit and a tortoise. You get a hysteric, a person who seems to have no feelings whatsoever…and I hate constructing plots, hate it more than anything, but I love constructing characters, and this was the perfect thing where the characters were the plot. Whatever Peter said to Alan, that was the plot. For me, it was a dream. It was perfect. Since my stories are always about people getting in way over their heads, which is what Honeymoon is, this movie was the perfect type for me. You have a dentist who winds up in front of a Colombian firing squad. How much more ridiculous can you get? I love stories about people in over their heads. That’s my epithet.”
OH, GOD! YOU DEVIL (1984) – Writer, adapted from Avery Corman novel
“I’ll tell you exactly where it came from. I wrote a play about a songwriter who sells his soul to the devil. Not a good play, but it was there sitting on my shelf. And Warner Bros came to me and they had just released Oh, God!, which was a huge surprise hit for them. They wanted to make a couple of them, but you’ve got an 88-year-old leading man—how many movies are you going to make? So they commissioned a couple of scripts. Josh Greenfield wrote one, I wrote one. All I did was retool this play of mine. I made Burns God, but for me it was just an attempt to salvage something that I thought was a cute idea and was going nowhere. Also, I wanted to work with George Burns. This to me was linking up with a previous era of comedy. The Stone Age. Going back to Jolson and vaudeville and this incredible tradition, and George was just the most fantastic person. He’s so smart. Every single thing he said was funny.”
FLETCH (1985) – Writer, adapted from Gregory McDonald novel
“Chevy was very hot. And the great thing was that Universal always thought Fletch was a hit movie, and they treated it like a hit, even when the first previews weren’t that good. They never got frightened. They just said this is a hit, they were selling it like a hit, and then it was a hit. That was a very fun project. I wrote it in like four weeks, and I can’t write a check in four weeks. It just adapted so easily. At this point in my life, the fact is, any number of movies appear to have endured, and it’s why you do it in the first place. All writers want to cheat death, and when you know they’re going to live on, it’s a very comforting thing.”
BIG TROUBLE (1986) – Writer
“That was a mess. I never fixed the ending, and that was the problem. You’ve got to have it when you get it on the floor. You can’t say, ‘Later, we’ll get it straight.’ It’s true in every medium. You’ve got to hit the ground running, and we didn’t. I never had the ending straight.”
THE FRESHMAN (1990) – Writer/director
“When you know who’s playing the role, it’s no comparison easier to write. Among the most fun I ever had was once Marlon [Brando] committed to play the character Jimmy the Toucan in The Freshman. Rewriting that, knowing Marlon was going to be saying all those lines? It was absolutely heaven. That’s the standout. You’re in a room with someone who’s literally like a witch. In the 15th century they would have burned him at the stake. You do things sometimes in your life that you just can’t believe. On one level you’re like, I’m going to direct this guy!? But at the end of the day you say, well, somebody’s got to direct him, so what the hell, it’s going to be me. And he was really a pleasure to work with. It’s not like you’re dealing with George Burns in terms of a comedy god. Getting Marlon to do things was sometimes like turning around an aircraft carrier because he had a way he wanted to do it. But you could get him there. He was terribly respectful and funny. He really was funny. If you got him to a certain place, he could be funny.
[Matthew] Broderick was very hot at the time. He was impossible to get—he was like the hottest thing going! I got him because Marlon was in it. He literally said, ‘Marlon’s really doing this?’ And I went in my office and showed him photographs Marlon and I had taken together in Tahiti, and he said ‘I’ll do it!’ I’m not making this up. Once Marlon was in the picture, you could get any actor you want. You’re like ringing dinner bells in front of cowboys. No actor’s going to say no to being with Marlon. Olivier wanted to be in the movie [instead of Max Schell] but he was too sick.”
SOAPDISH (1991) – Writer, with Robert Harling
“I thought it was a fun picture and a wonderful cast. I wasn’t on the set all that much, but whenever I was, it seemed perfectly agreeable. The director Mike Hoffman is a very good guy. And I loved Sally. It was a convivial bunch. Whoopi was fun, and Kevin Kline I love, and it was a good group all around. It really was a very happy set. Garry Marshall is stupendous in that movie. I’ve heard about them making a musical for years, I’ve just never been involved with it. Honeymoon was mine, so I had the underlying rights to it. Soapdish was a very fun project but it was a rewrite. I really had no particular interest in doing the show.”
HONEYMOON IN VEGAS (1992) – Writer/director
“It wasn’t based on anything. I wanted to do a boy-girl story, and in my perverse fashion, it turned out to be this. When the movie was over, I always thought, this is actually a musical. We had a huge soundtrack, with all these Elvis songs. So I knew there was something there, but I couldn’t do a musical then because I was making movies. Then around 2001 or 2002, I had open-heart surgery, and when you have open-heart surgery, you say, what do I really want to do? What haven’t I done? I thought it’d be great to do a musical. And my laywer said, ‘Good thing you got open-heart surgery, because it’ll take you six years.’ Bottom line: it took me ten.
I had to find a composer and I started listening to people’s tapes. Coincidentally, [composer] Jason [Robert Brown] had always wanted to do Honeymoon as a musical. He saw the movie when he was 25 or something. So he then wrote a couple of songs on spec, which were stupendous. I said, this is the guy. I wrote a book with suggested lyrics for what I thought the songs could be about and where they would be in the show. And obviously my lyrics were…well, they were not good. But they pointed Jason in a direction, and he took it from there.
We certainly were looking to do a real book musical that isn’t really done much anymore. We wanted the sound to be of the ‘60s and ‘70s—not that it’s a throwback, but we wanted that sound. We wanted to be a brassy, come and love us kind of show. The big fix is that in the movie, the mother dies and that’s the end of her. Anne Bancroft says never get married and then he’s got this monkey on his back for the rest of the movie. Having her recur is a great thing for the show. It keeps her spirit alive and it keeps his mishigas alive. That was a real change.”
THE SCOUT (1994) – Writer, with Albert Brooks and Monica Johnson
‘That was based on a Roger Angell article, which my producing partner had optioned. It was written for Peter Falk to play the scout, and we tried to get Belushi to play the guy. There were honestly five different versions of this movie. The original version was, he found this guy in Mexico who’s the second white man ever to receive these injections, the first being Babe Ruth. And it was this political guy on the run. It was a completely different kind of movie. And Belushi came very close. If we had Peter Flak and Belushi, it would have been fabulous. It really was a great script. And then the Peter Falk thing fell out and then Matthau was going to do it with Michael Ritchie, who directed Fletch, and then that fell out. Some years later it resurfaced with Albert [Brooks] playing the scout, but that wasn’t my conception at all. The original conception was much more bananas. The Scout still has glimmers of the original, but not doing the original is high up on my very large list of regrets, because Peter was born to play that guy. He’s so obtuse and that tunnel-vision thing he had was just great.”
STRIPTEASE (1996) – Writer/director, based on Carl Hiaasen book
“Ultimately, the joke is that everything is such a bomb but that movie did better than almost anything I’ve been involved with. All the subsidiary stuff was gigantic. People said, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead seeing it,’ and suddenly when it’s available in a rental store, it’s ‘I’ll get Schindler’s List and Striptease.’ [laughs] It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re buying condoms at a drug store, but you buy 12 tubes of toothpaste, too.
Is Demi the funniest person in the world? No. Would the movie have been made without her? Probably not. No other major star was willing to take her clothes off, and I was not going to do a TNT version of Striptease with people running around in swimsuits. I loved the book, and the funny thing was, [author Carl] Hiaasen loved the movie. He thought it was really, really true to the book, which I wanted to do! I don’t regret it. I was treated like a freakin’ child molester for making that movie, but so be it.
As easy as Fletch was, Striptease was hard because the tone was so crazy. How do you stay true to the tone? You have to be true to those strip clubs. There’s always some woman with like 50 triple-Ds, they always advertise, and you have to have someone like that. To actually see it, you’re walking this fine line. I didn’t want to sanitize it, and I didn’t, and I got my ass kicked for it, but the movie’s still good. Talk about a happy set. We were shooting in Miami for six months. It was a gas.”
Bergman is also at work on Eisner, an independent comedy which was going to mark his first collaboration with Robin Williams:
“It’s a little nutty movie I’ve been developing for a few years, which, unfortunately, Robin Williams was going to star in. That was a horrible day. What a darling, hilarious person. This was going to be our first work together, and I was dying to work with him! The meetings that we had on the project were so fabulous, and he read with all these actresses and he was going to do it with Isla Fisher and Shirley MacLaine. We have a fantastic cast. So we’re still trying to get that off the ground.”