Director Susan Stroman says there were
advantages to filming her movie musical version of Mel Brooks’s
"The Producers" at Steiner Studios before work on the
brand-new Brooklyn facility was even complete.
"It was great out there and the Steiner people were wonderful," Stroman told GO Brooklyn in Manhattan recently. "It was 90 percent done and I thought, ’Maybe the toilets aren’t going to work.’ But, in fact, it all was there and they kept working as we were shooting.
"But because things weren’t totally done, I was able to say: ’I need a dance studio over here. I need a warm-up room.’ So, we shaped it, and we shaped it for a musical. So now any musical movie can move in there and be fine."
The freshman filmmaker and five-time Tony Award-winning director and choreographer insists the production suffered none of the time-consuming or expensive snafus one might imagine plaguing the first major project shot in a new studio.
"Everything worked!" Stroman declared. "To be able to, in the same day, shoot a scene in Rio and then shoot a scene in a jail cell was great.
"It was important to do this movie in New York. The movie is authentically New York, even in its talent. The accountants are all Broadway folk. The girls are all accomplished Broadway dancers. Even in crowd scenes, I have a couple of Tony Award winners."
"We’re a Broadway story!" the 79-year-old Brooks is quoted saying in production notes for the film. "It would have been heartbreaking not to shoot this movie in New York. And here we are in Brooklyn, only 11 and a half blocks from where I was born and bred. Mostly bred. We were so poor, the neighbors had to give birth to me." [Brooks, who is grieving over the death of his wife Anne Bancroft, was not available for interviews.]
Although Steiner is a new, state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot facility, "The Producers" is not the first movie musical shot on the site of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The first was the 1949 film, "On the Town," the opening scenes of which were lensed on the lot. The filmmakers of "The Producers" thought their movie, which is set in 1959 New York City, was the ideal choice to continue the tradition.
"Mark Friedberg, my wonderful production designer, built a 44th Street out there that went from Broadway to the river and it had Sardi’s and the Shubert Alley. And the St. James Theater and Shubert Theater and to walk down those streets, I was like Gene Kelly," recalled Stroman. "It was a soundstage like MGM."
Based on the record-breaking, Tony Award-winning musical, which was itself inspired by Brooks’s Oscar-winning 1968 film of the same name, "The Producers" is the comic story of how meek and unhappy accountant Leo Bloom and washed-up, but tenacious theater producer Max Bialystock conspire to swindle investors out of $2 million by staging the biggest flop in Broadway history - a surefire loser that would close quickly and allow the pair to keep the money left over from the production.
When Bialystock and Bloom discover "Springtime for Hitler - A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva in Berchesgarten," written by the insane, Fuhrer-worshipping playwright, Franz Liebkind, they assume they’ve found their show. By hiring Roger DeBris, the worst director in New York, and his common-law assistant, Carmen Ghia, to stage the show, how could they miss?
Stage to screen
Stroman’s film uses many of the original stars of the Broadway show in the roles they created. Nathan Lane reprises his role of Bialystock; Matthew Broderick plays Bloom; Gary Beach plays Roger DeBris; and Roger Bart plays Carmen Ghia. New additions to the cast include film actress Uma Thurman, as Ulla, the producers’ stunning Swedish secretary/chorus girl, and "Saturday Night Live" alum Will Ferrell plays the deranged Liebkind.
Stroman believes "The Producers" has endured for so long, in so many forms because, "It is a buddy movie, but everybody in this musical comes in and states their wants and dreams At the end of the musical, it is delivered, and that is what satisfies the audience.
"Mel Brooks’s characters are working-class people that have these wants and dreams," the 51-year-old Delaware native continued. "And I think that has an accessibility that is appealing. Mel says he writes for the people, and I think people see themselves in these roles, although these are very eccentric characters."
Stroman says both she and Brooks felt it was important to make a film version of the Broadway show, not only to preserve the extraordinary performances of its stars, but also to make it available in a format that is accessible for audiences who can’t afford tickets to the stage show or who don’t have the means to watch it in the Big Apple.
"[Brooks] absolutely has that sensibility. He wanted someone in Ohio, who is never going to make it to New York, to see the performance of Nathan and Matthew and to hear Mel Brooks’s lyrics and music and thank God he wants to do that," Stroman said.
Brooks still has it
A renowned director, producer, writer and actor in his own right, Brooks concentrated on writing the show, and later the movie, and honing his unique brand of comedy, entrusting Stroman, who also directed and choreographed the stage musical, to handle most of the other details.
"When we created the musical, I think what was great for Mel was he didn’t have to worry about anything," Stroman explained. "He just had to worry about the comedy. And he wrote and wrote and wrote these wonderful lyrics, and it just gave him the freedom to be this incredible writer, and that is why it is so chock full of comedy.
"And when we got to the movie, Mel had his producer hat on. He was there to say, ’You can have whatever you want, just don’t spend a penny.’ He would say: ’Stro, stop asking for pie a la mode. Just ask for the pie.’"
So, how hard was it to switch gears and turn a stage musical based on a non-musical movie into a movie musical? Not so hard, Stroman swears. Actually, she says "The Producers" was the perfect project for her to cut her teeth on, since it required so many of the same skills she used in directing stage productions. The fact that many of her actors also had considerable film experience and knew how to pull back and not play to the balcony as they do in theater, also helped, she admits.
"If a [theater] audience is really enjoying [a performance], the actor is going to milk it," said Stroman. "If the audience is not responsive, they are going to drive that show and get home. They are in charge of how fast or slow that show goes.
"But in film, the director is totally in charge. The director is the only constant all the way through the year, for the entire film. I think the editing process was my favorite."
Working through tears
Despite the joy and success "The Producers" has brought to all involved, both Brooks and Stroman suffered personal tragedies during the course of creating the stage musical and new film. Stroman’s husband, musical and film director Mike Ockrent, died of leukemia shortly after she met Brooks, while Brooks’ beloved wife, Bancroft, died of uterine cancer just as the film was being edited.
"I know everything he is going through," Stroman confided. "I speak to him almost every day. He is grieving, and it is hard for him to be out in crowds. He misses her so. They were inseparable. We are very close and it is strange that this kind of thing would happen. The material of ’The Producers’ is like a life raft. It was when I started with it and now it is for him."
Although Brooks is avoiding the limelight these days, Stroman emphasizes he is still working hard on new comic projects.
"We’re talking about making ’Young Frankenstein’ into a musical," Stroman revealed. "So much so, that Mel has written, like, 10 new songs. It’s good to have a creative outlet. When I’ve been going out to Los Angeles for different press trips, we’ve gotten together and worked on little sections of the musical. It’s rich. It’s a wonderful story. But I think that’s a good year-and-a-half away."
"The Producers," directed by Susan Stroman, opens in limited release on Dec. 16 and nationwide on Dec. 25. .