Posted on Thursday, May 26th, 2016 by Blake Harris
From Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein to Spaceballs and The Producers, legendary filmmaker Mel Brooks has been responsible for some of the most beloved movies ever made. And unsurprisingly, at various points in his career, he has discussed the making of almost all his films. Except for one—the lone dud in his canon—a film so bad The New York Times declared it “an embarrassment,” and which Brooks has never publicly discussed: Solarbabies. Well, at least not until now. Because last week, on behalf of the How Did This Get Made? podcast, I spoke with Brooks at length to try and figure out how (the hell) did this get made?
Going into the interview, I expected to hear tales of unforeseen calamity and production run amok. But what I didn’t expect—and what became the prevailing thread of our conversation—was the enormous personal toll that Solarbabies had on Brooks.
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Mel Brooks edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
How bad did things actually get? And what, exactly, went wrong?
To find out what Mel Brooks had to say about Solarbabies, you can download our special episode of How Did This Get Made? or read the transcript below.
Mel Brooks: Hello, hello, hello!
Blake Harris: Hey, Mr. Brooks! How are you?
Mel Brooks: Hello, is this Blake Harris?
Blake Harris: It is. How’s it going?
Mel Brooks: Okay. What do you want to know? What are you doing? Explain where Solarbabies fits into your plan.
Blake Harris: Sure. So there is a podcast called How Did This Get Made. It’s very popular, where they talk about movies—typically unsuccessful movies—and one of them was Solarbabies.
Mel Brooks: I like that. I like that! Typically unsuccessful movies. I’ve got so many I could throw your way.
Blake Harris: [laughter]
Mel Brooks: Blake, listen. I’m going to tell you an incredible story. I’ll give you everything, but first I’d like to tell you the whole arc. It’s a great story and you’re lucky that you called me because you’ll never hear a story like this again in the history of cinema.
Blake Harris: I feel lucky already.
Mel Brooks: You ready?
Blake Harris: Yeah…
Mel Brooks: A woman worked for me in publicity for Brooksfilms. Her name was Irene Walzer. And she had a lot of energy and she was very smart, but she wanted to produce. So together with another guy called Jack Frost—you won’t believe it—they brought me a project. Now the project was actually brought to them by a guy by the name of Jonathan Sanger.
Blake Harris: Okay.
Mel Brooks: Jonathan Sanger had done a lot of stuff with me, for me, basically he produced The Elephant Man for Brooksfilms, so he really had a lot of wonderful credits…so I trusted Jonathan, I trusted his taste. There were a couple of guys who wrote the script, one was Walon Green and the other was Douglas Anthony Metrov. They came up with a very good, really interesting script. This all happened in 1986, okay? So Irene Walzer and Jack Frost, they did their homework and said they thought they could make this; and Frost had done other movies, so I trusted him, even though Irene Walzer was a newcomer to producing, I figured with her energy, and her brains, between the two of them it could be a wonderful movie. And I okayed the cast of Solarbabies, which was wonderful. It was, in the lead, this young guy, unknown, Jason Patric. I believed in him, he later became a star. Jami Gertz, she became a star. Richard Jordan, who was wonderful. Lukas Haas, who became a star. James Le Gros, Adrian Pasdar and the great award-winning Charlie Durning. So I said this is a great cast, and I said to them [Walzer and Frost], “You’re going to make this movie for five million bucks? All in?” And they said, “Yes, it can be done. If we can do it in Spain.”
Blake Harris: Why was Spain a cheaper alternative?
Mel Brooks: Because you didn’t have to worry about unions…
Blake Harris: Okay, okay.
Mel Brooks: Jack Frost said we could buy all the transport, we could buy the trucks, sell them back and actually make a profit. It was a real great bill of goods that I was sold, okay?
Blake Harris: [laughing]
Mel Brooks: Five million? I said, “Okay.” I said I don’t have to go to a bank for this. I’ll just get a couple of partners. You know, I’ll just ask a couple of guys I know who invest in movies and blah, blah, blah. We’ll all put in money and together we can do it. So that’s what I did. And I friend of mine that I trusted, who actually directed To Be or Not to Be—a wonderful movie—and actually directed Springtime for Hitler, did all the choreography for that movie. He was a choreographer/director, his name was Alan Johnson. A very talented guy and a good friend. And I figured what the hell. He loved the story and the casting, so I said this is going to be good. It’s going to be good. Last, final words…you never heard from me again [that] this is going to be good. So they go to Spain and I give them a half a million dollars. To start, you know, looking around finding places to shoot, hiring a Spanish cameraman and whatever. And then they needed another half a million. Okay. So before anything happened, there goes the first million. Boom. Alright, they’ve got four million left to shoot a lovely sci-fi movie, with good characters and with very little (I thought) post-production…so I said fine. Fine. They start shooting and it starts raining. It never rained in Spain before. The rain in Spain falls mainly in the plains? No, they don’t. They fall only in that place in Spain that they picked for their location.
Blake Harris: Oh my gosh.
Mel Brooks: Alright, so the movie cost another million. So now they’re up to roughly two-and-a-half million out of the five, and we have no real footage yet. Okay. Maybe it’s gonna cost six. Okay, I’ll raise the extra money, no problem. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Okay, a couple of weeks go by and they need another million because I don’t know. It’s transportation, it’s the film, it’s printing, it’s editing, ugh. I said, “Okay.” So before we had maybe a thousand feet of film—which, you know, boils down to, like, maybe twenty feet out of a thousand is ever good for a movie—they’ve used up the $5 million.
Blake Harris: Oh my god.
Mel Brooks: So the choice was, I said, okay this has been a disaster. Why don’t I just call everybody back home? Thank you. So I called my partners and they said look, they liked the hundred feet of film. They’re ready to put in a little bit more money. Okay. So we all put in a little more money and they start filming. Some of the stuff is really interesting and good; some of it’s just terrible, it’s dreadful. It’s just dopey. So I call Alan and Alan says, “There’s a little bit of a, I don’t know, a little bit of revolution here. They’re against some of the things that I’ve said.” So I go over there, I fly over to Spain…
Blake Harris: Oh man, oh man…
Mel Brooks: Yeah, I scream at them. I say, “LISTEN TO THE DIRECTOR OR ELSE YOU’RE ALL FIRED, WE’LL GET ANOTHER CAST.” I really lay down the law and they all promise to listen. Alan calls me later and he says, “Okay, they’re listening.” [after a thoughtful pause] Maybe they shouldn’t have listened, I don’t know.
Blake Harris: [laughter]
Mel Brooks: I’m not sure whether they should have listened. So here we are, we’re up to $8 million, those guys are broke. I’m not going to stick my hand in my pocket anymore. So I go to Morgan—it’s a bank, Morgan Guaranty. I show them some of the footage, and they know some of the movies I’ve made—Young Frankenstein, I’ve made Blazing Saddles personally—so they know I’ve done very well. So they loan me $5 million just on, you know…and the $5 million is used up in the next 10 days. In bad shooting, in mistakes, the wrong film, discoloration. So I go back to Morgan, and now we’re into $13 million. This is a $5 million movie! This is a great comedy, you know? This mis-film in Spain.
Blake Harris: It is.