“We’re working right now with a live pigeon and Will Ferrell,” Mel Brooks proclaims from the set of the bigscreen version of his musical “The Producers.” Without missing a beat on the first day of filming, Brooks adds, “They’re two very difficult birds.”
After the boffo box office and a record 12 Tony wins for the Broadway tuner, anticipation is high for the film adaptation. Susan Stroman, who directed and choreographed the legiter, directs the pic.
With so much riding on it, Brooks plans to be on the set every day, but he has confidence in the first-time film director’s vision.
“Susan is a head-to-toe person,” says Brooks, suddenly realizing he’d better explain.
“People ask me what my favorite movies are,” he begins. “I love ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre,’ ‘The African Queen,’ ‘Grand Illusion.’ But my favorite movie is ‘Top Hat.’ When Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced, there were no cuts, no close-ups. It’s a ‘head-to-toe’ movie.”
In other words, this is going to be approached like classic film musicals, rather than today’s flashy, zippy tuners.
“Chicago’s” pizzazz coaxed scads of reluctant song-and-dance-o-phobes to the movies. But the Miramax best pic winner also furthered a machine-gun, MTV editing style that Brooks wants to avoid.
“Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall “did a great job, and he also had never done a movie before,” Brooks says. “But he may have bowed just a little too much to cinema. And ‘Moulin Rouge’ never had enough stage head-to-toe in the process.
“We don’t want to be too tricky, with too many cuts and too many close-ups. Susan will do a very lovely curtsey to cinema.
“Where there’s important dialogue, you don’t want to miss that, and we’re not going to give that up. What we are aiming for is a great old-fashioned musical that’s closest to Broadway and ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’ ”
It’s clear that he’s taking a collaborative approach with Stroman, and the two share a sensibility that will guide “Producers” going forward.
After running through a rapid-fire litany of camera moves, he says a director needs to cover himself (or herself). “And then in the editing room you’ve got everything you need. Then you can be very brave. I told Susan to go crazy. But you cover yourself! She’s very smart, and she gets it.”
This is Brooks’ first film in 10 years, but he’s the producer, not director. He shares producing duties with Jonathan Sanger. “Every day, I’ll be here,” he explains. “If I have an idea for Susan to do something different or help,” he’ll speak up.
At the Brooklyn soundstage of Steiner Studios, where “Producers” is lensing, he excitedly intersperses comic riffs with vivid plans for the film as if he has the picture storyboarded in his head.
Brooks and Stroman have cast their pic mostly with veterans of the Broadway version, including Nathan Lane, Matthew Broderick, Gary Beach and Roger Bart. Ferrell and Uma Thurman have been added to the mix.
“Producers” follows the financial scheme hatched by has-been producer Max Bialystock (Lane) and bean counter Leo Bloom (Broderick) to stage the biggest flop of all time.
The production — bankrolled by Universal and Sony, and distribbed Stateside by U — is shooting in Gotham to take advantage of a new series of tax breaks offered by the city and state. It’s the first film to shoot at Steiner, which Brooks says has the unparalleled size and state-of-the-art electronics to give his pic a larger-than-life feel.
“They’ve got these elephant doors. You slide them and you can have all of Broadway. It’s going to be open and very ‘gotta sing, gotta dance,’ ” he says.
Of course a punchline is coming. “Now the main thing is that they get some electricity over here. Oh, and the roof. They haven’t finished the roof!”
U and Sony seem to be leaving Brooks alone to do his thing and deliver them a pic that’s already being touted as money-in-the-bank as well as a possible Oscar contender when it opens in December.
Brooks’ re-entering the Oscar circle (he won a screenplay statuette for the original “Producers” film) would be a fitting return to form in the film world.
But Brooks’ mind right now is filled with dancing old ladies, pigeons and Astaire, not Oscar.
“We’re not even looking for that,” Brooks says. “What’s good about the Oscars is that if you get enough nominations, people are fooled, and they think it’s a good movie. You fool them with nominations!”