“It’s a Good-Natured Insanity.” Andrew Bergman on Screenwriting.
Andrew Bergman discusses The In-Laws, Blazing Saddles, and working with Marlon Brando.
Once described as “The Unknown King of Comedy” by New York Magazine, Andrew Bergman is a well of comedic charisma. Known for his pen on Blazing Saddles, Fletch, The Freshman, and Honeymoon in Vegas, Bergman’s iconic film The In-Laws, starring Alan Arkin and Peter Falk, continues to delight new audiences, and has been accepted as part of the Criterion Collection.
What originally led you into screenwriting?
I was a writer—I’ve been writing since I was a little boy. That was my natural want. I got a PhD in American History and I could not get a teaching job. I studied American movies of the 1930s and my dissertation was a book called We’re in the Money: Depression America and Its Films, which is actually still in print.
This was post-Vietnam and around ten million people had PhDs, so we were a glut on the market. I decided that I liked the movie part better than the history part, so I wrote a treatment about a black sheriff in the old west.
Lo and behold, about a year later, I sold it to Warner Brothers, where I wrote a first draft of what later became Blazing Saddles.
What sparked that idea?
I just had this vision for a couple of years of a town waiting for a sheriff and what arrived was a someone on horseback who looked and talked like Cleavon Little’s character, Bart. It all sprang from that image.
How did Mel Brooks get involved with Blazing Saddles?
I wrote a first draft called Tex-X. Alan Arkin was hired to direct and James Earl Jones was going to play the sheriff. That fell apart as things often do.
Then I got a call saying, “What do you think about Mel Brooks?” I was 26-years-old and I said, “I love Mel Brooks.” The 2000 Year Old Man was my bible. We spoke and Mel told me that he loved the idea and wanted to use it as a launching point to do a western. I thought, “Let’s do it. Let’s cook.”
What was the experience like in the writer’s room?
In the beginning, we had five people. One guy left after a couple of weeks. Then, it was basically me, Mel, Richie Pryor and Norman Steinberg. Richie left after the first draft and then Norman, Mel and I wrote the next three or four drafts. It was a riot. It was a rioter’s room!
What was the timeline on those drafts?
I think we started in around ’71 and I finished the first draft in ’72. Mel came on board and we kept writing into ’73 until we went into pre-production. From the time I sold the originally idea in May of ’71, to the movie being released in ’74, it was pretty fast all things considered.
After Blazing Saddles, what led to The In-Laws?
I wrote another script called Rhapsody in Crime. It was meant to be a Blazing Saddles-like gangster movie that would combine all of the 1930s gangsters, thrown into one. It was about a guy who was both a stupendous concert pianist and a gangster. It was meant to be John Garfield (Gentleman’s Agreement, The Postman Always Rings Twice) and James Cagney (White Heat, Angels with Dirty Faces), all rolled into one.
It would end with a big shootout on the roof of Carnegie Hall. It was very funny and I sold it to Warner Brothers in ’75, but there was no producer attached so it sort of kicked around. I didn’t know anything about being a producer. John Calley left Warner Brothers, then David Geffen took over and then Marty Elfan.
Marty said, “I’ve got good news and bad news. I’m not going to make Rhapsody in Crime, but I do want you to write a sequel to Freebie and the Bean.” I said, “That’s the good news?” Basically, Alan Arkin wanted to do a movie with Peter Falk. I said, “What about?” He said, “That’s your department. Figure out what it’s about.”
Alan was the executive producer, so Alan and I started meeting to talk about the movie. When I heard that idea, I thought they had already made a movie together because it seemed so obvious to pair them together. They are such opposites. Alan is so high-strung and Peter is no-strung. It seemed that if you could have a movie where you just have Peter eating into Alan for two hours, it would work.
First we considered a detective movie, but then we felt it had to be something where they were really forced together and it was one of those middle-of-the-night things where I came up with the idea that they would be in-laws so they would be stuck together. I called Alan the next morning and he said, “That’s it!”
Where does this style of comedy come from? What are some of your influences?
There are a lot of influences. When I was a kid, I loved Jean Shepherd. He told these incredible stories about Chicago on the radio. There was a narrative style that I loved.
In terms of direct comedic influences, my father was a jokester. He was a newspaperman but he wrote some comedy material for Victor Borge, so the first show I was saw was Victor Borge’s One Man Show. The timing was so spectacular.
He had the greatest comic timing of anyone. In fact, I was once talking to George Burns (Oh, God; The Sunshine Boys) about it and he agreed that except for Jack Benny, Borge had some of the best timing he had ever seen.
Then there was Bob and Ray. I like stories that are humane and anarchic at the same time. That’s sort of the key to what I’ve written. It’s a good-natured insanity. I think Bob and Ray had this great dead pan. They just pulled you into their world, bit by bit. As a viewer, once you were pulled in, you would take their absurd claims for granite. They were a huge influence.
Plus, there was everything I had seen as a kid, like the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields, Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Those guys will inevitably influence you.
In the writer’s room, how involved were Alan Arkin and Peter Falk in the writing process for The In-Laws?
Everyone really just fell in love with the script from the get-go. So there really wasn’t a whole lot of rewriting. The only rewriting was around the locations. The firing squad scene was originally going to be done indoors, in an office. Then, we found Cortés’ old bullring in Mexico, which sounded like a great location, so we moved and it really opened the scene up enormously.
But there wasn’t a whole lot of kibitzing. It’s not like today where you have fifty development executives putting in their half-a-cent piece. It was a different time. They just said, “Go make the movie.” So that’s what we did.
So you wrote the first draft by yourself?
I wrote every draft by myself.
When it comes to comedy, many of our interviewees write in groups. What’s it like to write comedy by yourself?
Are you laughing to yourself in the room?
Absolutely! To this day, something will hit me just because it’s there. If I start laughing, at least I know that I think it’s funny. It’s that simple. You just start laughing. With Blazing Saddles, it was three or four of us screaming in the room.
Have you ever written anything that you felt was too absurd, or is it possible to make every scene fit, one way or another?
Sure. In The In-Laws, there was the famous dinner table scene about the tsetse flies carrying off children. There were about eight pages in the script, but I think the original draft went on for about fifteen pages. I just couldn’t stop. I never wanted that scene to end.
Later in your career, you worked as a director. What was that experience like and did it change your writing process at all?
I loved directing. I did The Freshman, which was a terrifically challenging thing to do. Honeymoon in Vegas was fun. It Could Happen to You was a wonderful experience. They were all positive experiences, but how they turned out is another thing.
Some work and some don’t, but the difference between something that works and something doesn’t is so narrow. The difference between a hit and flop is razor thin, and that’s the terrifying part of it. It’s not like one movie makes you stupid or smart for the next movie—you’re still the same guy.
Is there anything you wish you would have known before Blazing Saddles, or any advice you’d like to pass on to upcoming writers?
Read it out loud to yourself. There’s the gadget on Final Draft that reads in a mechanical, Stephen Hawking kind of voice that will read to you. I actually found it quite helpful, because if something is funny in that voice, then it’s really funny.
Or, gather some friends and have them read through it. When you hear it read, things can change. Reality hits very quickly.
But it’s tricky because you only learn by doing. You learn more from flops than from hits. I learned nothing from Blazing Saddles. I just thought, “Well, this is easy. Who says this business is hard?”
A director once told me, “Every movie, I make new mistakes. Mistakes I had never conceived of before.” If you’re trying something new each time, you’re going to screw things up. You just don’t know until you’re out there.
You need to hear the words being spoken. Putting it together is a very mysterious process. The first cut of The Freshman was the worst thing I had ever saw. I thought it was going to be my swan song. We just kept cutting and cutting until something changed. At least for me, it became a wonderful movie.
Does anything come to mind that you may have thought of as a mistake that may have later changed your storytelling process?
Somewhere between The Freshman and Honeymoon in Vegas, I learned a few things. The first time I directed, I knew nothing. With The Freshman, I was very, very careful. I storyboarded everything and I had this idea, but I was still directing like a screenwriter.
With Honeymoon in Vegas, I was writing as a director. I was thinking about the locations before I even wrote the dialogue. There’s a scene where Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker are having this huge fight because he has lost her in this poker game. They were in Vegas, so I decided there would need to be a boxing ring set up in a ballroom, with two guys training for a fight, and that’s going to be the scene. It’s going to start with that fight. I knew it before I wrote a word of it. The ring was going to be an echo of their argument. I figured that for better or worse, I was always going to have good dialogue.
Do you outline your stories?
Never! The In-Laws was like a shaggy dog story. I didn’t know from one scene to the next what was going to happen, which I think was part of the charm of the movie.
It certainly has a rise within the film, both in terms of plot and comedy.
It does, and there was nothing outlined. That just the way I work. You jump out of the plane and hope the parachute works. I never have it all planned out. My mind doesn’t work that way. I want to be surprised. If I’m not surprised, how will the audience be surprised?
You mentioned The Freshman earlier. I read that Marlon Brando would rehearse lines as the Alan Arkin character from The In-Laws, which may be part of the reason for his interest in making The Freshman.
I know he loved the movie. That’s how I got into contact with him. He called me out of the blue and I thought it was a practical joke. Some guy says, “Hold for Marlon Brando,” and then he comes on talking about The In-Laws.
What was that conversation like?
He told me that he wanted to do a movie with Michael Jackson, which Scorsese was going to direct, about God and the Devil. He asked me if I would consider writing it. I knew it was never going to happen, but because I knew that he knew me, I considered him for the role in The Freshman and I thought, what’s the worse that could happen?
Was the Scorsese idea meant to be a comedy or a drama?
God knows. I can’t imagine it would have been any good. It was such a bizarro idea.
Congratulations again on the Criterion Collection. What has that process been like for you?
It’s lovely. It’s like getting an award you didn’t even know you were nominated for. It’s an honor to be compared with the classics like Smiles of a Summer Night and 400 Blows. It’s nice that they even consider comedy. Comedy, to me, really endures everything. It collapses time. There are very few dramas of the ’30s that hold up as well as comedies.
Laughing is, in a way, the most truthful thing. You can’t manipulate it. It’s the truth. Comedy is the elemental truth. Screenwriters write comedy to cheat death. Groucho Marx has been dead for fifty years, but he’s more alive than a lot of other people. This only confirms that. It’s lovely. It’s very satisfying.
Is there anything else you would like to add about the film?
With The In-Laws, I can’t tell you how many people have told me it’s the movie they watch with their family the night before their marriage. I love hearing that. It’s still very heart-warming.
Featured image: TriStar Pictures © 1990
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