In 1974, Mel Brooks’ Western comedy “Blazing Saddles” shook up the game, sending up themes of racism that were pervasive in Hollywood, the Western genre and American culture as a whole. Now, “Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank” is attempting to keep its legacy alive in a fresh new story for a family audience.
“You know, it’s inspired by [‘Blazing Saddles’],” Rob Minkoff, director of the new film, told Variety. “Then it became a fable. Because it wasn’t originally intended to be a fable, but that was actually my contribution — which was that we make it a story about a dog in a world of cats who don’t accept him because he’s a dog. The idea of that is, it’s a metaphor of the same kind of story and same kind of situation. But it becomes more universal.”
Along with co-directors Mark Koetsier and Chris Bailey, the filmmakers behind “Paws of Fury” set out to bring a new take on Brooks’ classic comedy. In the animated film from Paramount, Michael Cera voices a down-on-his-luck dog named Hank as he becomes the samurai of a small town of cats. Together with retired samurai Jimbo (Samuel L. Jackson), Hank embarks on a journey to become a true samurai and defend the town from the evil feline Ika Chu (Ricky Gervais). 96-year-old Brooks, too, has a small role in the film as the Shogun, a play on his character of the governor in “Blazing Saddles.”
While the film is no doubt heavily indebted to “Blazing Saddles,” the filmmakers don’t think of it a remake.
“Hollywood loves a remake. But there’s really a big difference,” Minkoff explained. He continued, “The minute we’re talking about making this an animated movie for a family, obviously we want people to take this and accept it on its own terms. It’s really inspired by, or it’s an homage”
Koetsier added: “I mean, there’s so many elements that we took from it… I think it opened up a lot of avenues for us to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got the story, and we’ve got these characters in it where we’re playing along with the Mel Brooks style of filmmaking. Let’s do what we can to make it richer and enjoy every moment of it.'”
Koetsier and Minkoff spoke to Variety about the film’s relationship to “Blazing Saddles” and what it was like trying to direct Mel Brooks — who happens to not need much direction at all.
What does “Blazing Saddles” mean to “Paws of Fury?”
Minkoff: You know, it’s inspired by. That was sort of where it started. Then it became a fable. Because it wasn’t originally intended to be a fable, but that was actually my contribution — which was that we make it a story about a dog in a world of cats who don’t accept him because he’s a dog. The idea of that is, it’s a metaphor of the same kind of story and same kind of situation. But it becomes more universal. Especially for making an animated movie for families, you know. Everyone can relate to a story in which they’re the outsider and they’re not accepted just because of how they look. And that’s kind of the point of the movie is that, there’s more to Hank and that [the cats] can learn to love him for who he is on the inside. And ultimately it does not matter what he looks like on the outside.
Koetsier: Dogs are always loyal, they always keep going, it doesn’t matter. It’s funny with dogs, you can get upset with them and then they’ll just come right back and their tail is wagging and they’re all still happy. It’s that persistence of that character, it gives them genuine qualities.
Why do you guys think this story is particularly suited for today? And along similar lines, why do you think that doing a reimagining of “Blazing Saddles” is something audiences need right now?
Minkoff: I think that’s it’s very relevant, that social issue about acceptance with diversity and inclusion. I think those are really things that everybody’s engaged in thinking about and talking about. And I think this movie really gets to the heart of that.
So tell me a bit about the inception process behind “Paws of Fury.” How did you guys want to pay homage to Mel Brooks’ film while also creating something new and modern?
Minkoff: Well, I mean, it started to evolve. And the more it evolves, the more it sort of becomes its own thing. IThere was always this ambition that we would make a film that stood on its own. That you don’t have to have seen “Blazing Saddles” to like this movie or to relate to this movie. And maybe if you have, it’s a bonus. So what it shares with the original is, obviously, there’s a kind of overall story and a storytelling, there’s the structure of the story, which is similar. And, obviously, there are some scenes and some sequences which we reimagined, sort of. You can’t imagine doing a movie that’s inspired by [“Blazing Saddles”] without, you know, having beans, for instance. But again, it was different! It stands on its own, it has some integrity.
Koetsier: I mean, there’s so many elements that we took from it. Like, even at the ending where we start breaking and we start going outside. We go into the theater, basically. I think it opened up a lot of avenues for us to say, “Hey, we’ve got the story, and we’ve got these characters in it where we’re playing along with the Mel Brooks style of filmmaking. Let’s do what we can to make it richer and enjoy every moment of it.”
Minkoff: And Hollywood loves a remake. But there’s really a big difference. There’s actually two different kinds of remakes. There’s a remake where you do something that is entirely different than what has been done before. And by the way, some of the greatest movies of all time were not the original version. I think that our approach was to not make the same movie, it was to do something that was its own thing. “Blazing Saddles” is really a movie meant for older audiences. So the minute we’re talking about making this an animated movie for a family, obviously we want people to take this and accept it on its own terms.
“Blazing Saddles” is obviously quite a bold film with both its messaging, its language, et cetera. Did you decide that you had to pull any punches with the new film in order to make it more suitable for today? And for a family audience?
Minkoff: There’s obviously things in that movie that are entirely inappropriate for a modern audience. So that wasn’t even ever contemplated, that we were going to try to go there. Once you say, “OK, this is going to be a different movie about a dog who has to become a samurai in the world of cats, and who are these characters?,” they become completely, entirely new and different. I mean, Gene Wilder played the character in a sense that Sam Jackson plays, but they’re completely different characters. And Hank is very different than, you know, Michael Cera and Cleavon Little. Not the same. It’s all just a kind of a springboard.
Koetsier: And it’s interesting when you mentioned this is a story that’s relevant to what’s happening today. But I think about it as like, “Is it for today?” It’s been through all our ages, from the beginning of man it’s probably been this sort of a problem. We are all at some point either that dog surrounded by cats feeling like the odd man out or you’re a cat that thinks, “Why is this dog with us?” And if we talk about it and we understand that we’re all on this big world that’s spins, we’re all the same.
Minkoff: That’s an interesting point. I think the essential thing is that we’re not all the same. That’s actually key. And so we need to learn how to celebrate each other’s differences. Yeah, that’s really what the message is, is that you can be different, and you can find your place and be accepted and celebrated.
Why did you decide to situate it in a different culture, especially with “Blazing Saddles” being so entrenched in American culture, the American West and Western films?
Minkoff: Gosh, I think that gets back to the initial concept. Which was more about anime. It was like an anime infused movie that would combine Eastern and Western sort of story elements. I mean, I grew up — and I’m sure Mark did as well — watching these kinds of movies. Not just kung fu movies, but also samurai movies and the Eastern kind of genre of films. And so getting a chance to take that and put them into this kind of Mel Brooks style comedy was so much fun.
Koetsier: By the way, they borrowed from each other. Those Western films and the samurai films, that style of filmmaking. They borrowed from each other.
Minkoff: Yeah, especially Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa were contemporary filmmakers. And the Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns were being made simultaneous to the Toshiro Mifune samurai movies. They’re quite similar frameworks of stories, right. It’s always about the lone gunman, the lone swordsman who comes across the town that’s in trouble and needs help. And so those are two incredible genres, and the idea was to sort of mash them together.
Can you tell me a bit about the meta aspects of this film? Why did you guys want to go for that, and how did you ensure that it tied into the rest of the film?
Minkoff: You know, part of the fun of the film is that it’s almost like an appreciation of film. So we’re actually talking about what goes on in a story and how these things are put together. And I think it adds to the quality and character of the humor of this particular approach. It’s a way of being irreverent about the film and about movies in general.
Tell me a bit about what it was like working with Mel Brooks for the short amount he’s in this. What was that like, and what did it mean to you?
Minkoff: It was really quite an experience. Because you know what, directing Mel Brooks is a bit of a stretch. Because Mel Brooks does not require direction. He can handle the whole job. So it was so much fun! Because he’s such a great actor. I mean, he’s an icon. I think we’re all such big fans of his work. And so it’s just such an honor, really, to get to work with someone like that.
So was he getting his hands in a lot of the movie?
Minkoff: He can’t help himself! I mean, he is the master! So you know, what are we going to do? He’s Jimbo. And we’re all Hank, basically.
Koetsier: He knows what he wants to put across. So we’ll go, “OK, this is it!” And he’ll go, “No, no that’s not quite right. Let’s do this one more time. Now you have it.” And we’re just like, “Oh, okay great!”