DATE December 22, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Luke Wilson discusses his new film "The Family Stone,"
his acting career and his upcoming directorial and writing debut
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Luke Wilson, is one of the stars of the new film "The Family Stone."
He made his film debut with his brother, Owen Wilson, in the independent film
"Bottle Rocket," which was directed by their friend Wes Anderson, who also
directed them in "The Royal Tenenbaums." Luke Wilson's other movies include
"Old School," "Charlie's Angels" and "Legally Blonde."
"The Family Stone" is a comic story set as Christmas as the adult children of
the Stone family return to their parents' home in New England. The oldest son
brings his girlfriend, played by Sarah Jessica Parker. She's tightly wound
and controlling. As soon as she meets the family, she's convinced they hate
her, and she's right. Afraid she's made a fool of herself during Christmas
dinner, she leaves in embarrassment. Her boyfriend's brother, played by Luke
Wilson, takes her to a bar in the hopes of calming her down.
(Soundbite of "The Family Stone")
Ms. SARAH JESSICA PARKER: I am not a bad person.
Mr. LUKE WILSON: You're a total mess. Look at you.
Ms. PARKER: I am?
Mr. WILSON: I mean that in the best possible sense, of course. You know
Ms. PARKER: I do? I love the gays--gay people.
Mr. WILSON: They know that.
Ms. PARKER: Then why? I took her to the nicest restaurant I know, and she
didn't say a word to me, not one word all evening. But I tried, and I try and
I--I would have slept on the couch.
Mr. WILSON: Maybe you should stop. Just stop. Stop trying, you know? It's
exhausting trying to keep that lid screwed on so tight. Just, you know,
GROSS: Luke Wilson, welcome to FRESH AIR. In much of "The Family Stone,"
you're kind of, like, hanging back, observing everybody be crazy. So it must
be an interesting part to have because so much of your role is observing
people, as we observe you observing them.
Mr. WILSON: Right. You know, I guess the character I play, Ben Stone, seems
so different from the rest of the family because, you know, they're just kind
of so straight-laced. I never really thought of them that way. And, I don't
know, just being on the set day to day and being around people like, you know,
Diane Keaton and Craig T. Nelson, you just get to talking so much, it's like
one minute you're having a conversation and the next minute you're doing a
scene. And I never really, you know, felt the difference between, you know,
doing the scene or just hanging around with him. I was enjoying both. But
then you see the finished product, and it's all been cut together so that
everybody seems a certain way, but it's almost as if I wasn't aware of it
while we were doing it.
GROSS: Is Diane Keaton somebody you grew up watching?
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. I can just remember my Aunt Sheila being a big fan of
hers and, you know, I can remember going to the theater to see "Looking for
Mr. Goodbar," for instance. And I was pretty young to see that, thinking
back. I don't know that I'd take my nephew to that nowadays. But, no, I
GROSS: Learn a thing or two about dating.
Mr. WILSON: Yeah. Yeah. Dating in New York in the '70s. But I--and then
of course "Annie Hall" and things like that. And she's one of those people
where it's--I don't know how they manage to get away with it, but certain
people that kind of come around in the '60s and '70s, like her and Jack
Nicholson and, you know, they don't seem to do TV press, so whenever you see
them, it seems for the most part you see them on screen--or people like Warren
Beatty. So, you know, that was interesting to be around her.
GROSS: You have two older brothers. One of them is Owen Wilson, who you
co-starred with in "Bottle Rocket" and in "The Royal Tenenbaums," and--which
was directed--both of which were directed by Wes Anderson. And of course,
he's in a film that you just wrote and directed that you also star in that's
coming out in February. So who started acting first, Owen, your older
brother, or you?
Mr. WILSON: I think probably Owen started acting first back in school. I
mean, we were never big theater guys. But I think we both did plays here and
there. And we both got into the movie business at the same time, you know,
doing the film "Bottle Rocket." But as kids, we lived on this street called
Farquhar, and my dad had this thing he called The Farquhar Players, where it
was me and Owen and my brother Andrew and we just kind of had these little
skits that we'd do for him and his friends after dinner. And they were all
kind of making fun of him, oddly enough, but he really got a kick out of them,
so that's probably kind of our first acting stuff, you know, where we
were--one of us would play our dad, one of us would play our mom, one would
play, you know, the guy at the barbecue joint that didn't understand my dad's
Boston accent. So, yeah, it's probably when we started.
GROSS: What were some of the qualities you would make fun of your father for?
Mr. WILSON: His temper. I don't know if you can call that a quality. No,
but, yeah, we were just kind of kidding around about his temper and him
having--even as kids we had picked up that--he has a very thick Boston accent
and we grew up in Dallas, and you'd get a lot of people that had said, `I
didn't catch that. What'd you say again?' you know, that kind of thing. And
that would always kind of hit our funny bone a little bit.
GROSS: Now you were, like, on sports teams in school before acting, right?
Mr. WILSON: Right.
GROSS: And you're one of several actors who I've talked to over the years who
started in sports and ended up in acting and yet, for some reason, to me they
seem like really, like, different styles, you know, acting vs. athletics. Was
it a big switch for you to move from one to another and to move from one group
of people to the other?
Mr. WILSON: Not at all. And I think about it, you know, really, on every
job, the fact, you know, how glad I am that I played sports growing up. I
played football and I ran track and--'cause you really--you know, I mean it's
cliched stuff, but you learn how to work on a team. I mean, I'll see somebody
walk on a movie set and, you know, kind of be dismissive of certain people
that are working on, you know, certain jobs on the crew, and it'll just kind
of make me think, `God, how can they not get that, you know, each person does
play an important part in getting the movie made?' Yet there are people like
that. But I also just think it helps with things like timing. And you know,
it's like if you're playing on a football team, you know that, like, the left
tackle is just as important as the quarterback, even though he might get all
GROSS: Now your father headed a PBS station in which--in Dallas, was it?
Mr. WILSON: In Dallas. I think--my dad's name is Robert Wilson, and
he--through a man named Ralph Rogers, my dad became the head of Channel 13 in
Dallas, I think from maybe '68 to '76, or I might have those years off. But,
yeah, that was a great time, and I just remember, you know, being around so
many interesting people, and that would have been our first time to kind of be
around, you know, a film studio just where they had a "NewsHour" there, and
that was actually where Jim Lehrer got his start. He was a political writer
at the Dallas Times Herald, which is now defunct. But he--that was the
first place that he went on the air.
And, yeah, it was just a really interesting mix of people down there, just the
guys building the sets and the camera guys and--oh, it was the kind of group
of people that were, like, kind of especially nice to kids. It wasn't like
walking into some office building; these were all those guys that kind of made
you feel welcome.
GROSS: Now your mother's a photographer who did a book about Richard Avedon's
photographs, and she did a gallery show of photographs of her sons--you, Owen
and Andrew--I guess from childhood up through your work in the movies. Do you
feel like you learned anything about moviemaking from seeing things through
her eyes? You know, did she talk to you about--when you went to the movies
with her, did she talk to you about, you know, angles and shots and that kind
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, well, I definitely think I learned to--it helped--I know
that it helps me feel comfortable with a camera kind of close to my face or to
have somebody pointing a camera and I know that I'm conscious of it, and in a
good way. And I think that definitely comes from her. And also she would--I
would learn about light from her and when--the best time of day to shoot. And
you learn working in the movies there's a time called magic hour where it's
the last hour of the day and the light is the best where you don't even
actually need to use artificial light. But magic hour's good and bad; it is
beautiful, but you also get--things get crazy in terms of everyone's rushing
around and they're trying to get the shot, and then the last shots invariably
are too dark, but you've just tried to get them. And it's always kind of sad
when the light runs out.
But, yeah, I definitely think I--it--for me, it ties into the movie business
having had her as a--you know, being a photographer and just always taking
pictures and then being around her and Avedon and seeing him at work. But,
no, she didn't--I went to the movies more with my dad and, you know, he'd take
us to anything and--you know, whether it was R or PG, and he was just a big
movie fan. And that really affected me, 'cause he took me to some great stuff
that--you know, I can remember going to see "The Man Who Would Be King" with
him and then a movie called "Thief," which was Michael Mann's first movie.
And those just made a huge impression on me. And that's--you know, I just,
you know, started out just loving to watch them. Then as I got older, maybe
around 12 or 14, started just trying to read about them, and the school I went
to got the magazine Film Comment.
GROSS: Must have been an interesting school if they subscribed to Film
Mr. WILSON: Yeah, it was a good school. I don't know why they did, and--but
it was great that they had it. And, yeah, everybody--Sports Illustrated was
always out, but Film Comment was always right there on the rack, ready to be
Mr. WILSON: Growing up in Texas, I would have to kind of hide the fact that I
had absolutely no interest in the sports page.
GROSS: My guest is Luke Wilson. He co-stars in the new film "The Family
Stone." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Luke Wilson, and he's now
starring in the new movie "The Family Stone."
Wes Anderson, who directed you and your brother Owen in "Bottle Rocket" and
"The Royal Tenenbaums"--he's said that he used to really want to be part of
your family. Did you understand that when--did you know that when you were
younger, and did you understand that desire that he had?
Mr. WILSON: I mean, I think Wes says that kind of more as a joke and maybe
trying to pay a compliment to our parents. I don't think he would necessarily
want to have been brothers with me or Owen or Andrew. But, no, he just--you
know, my folks always really loved Wes and loved being around him and could
just--you know, we had some kind of wild, rough-hewn friends, and then here
comes this guy that kind of wears tweed jackets and has a Truffaut book under
his arm, and they thought, `This is the kind of boy that we wish the boys
would hang around with.' So Wes was always very welcome at our house. And,
no, I think he just kind of liked being around. And, yeah, we just had the
same interests where we might be different guys just in terms of having played
sports and things like that. We were really big movie lovers, and Wes was
just always made to feel comfortable at the house and at my dad's office.
GROSS: In the film "The Royal Tenenbaums," you play a kind of former tennis
star who is very depressed much of the time, and you're in love with your
adopted sister Margot, who's played by Gwyneth Paltrow. I want to play a
short scene, and this is a scene on a roof between you and Gene Hackman, who
plays your scoundrel father, and he's just found out that you've been in love
with your adopted sister Margot.
(Soundbite of "The Royal Tenenbaums")
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) Yeah.
Mr. GENE HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) Margot Tenenbaum?
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) Yeah.
Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) Well, since when?
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) Since always.
Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) Does she know?
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) Uh-huh.
Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) Well, what does she feel about that?
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) I think she feels confused.
Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) Well, I can understand that. It's probably
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) I don't think so. We're not related by
Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) That's true. Still frowned upon. But
then, what isn't these days, right? I don't know, maybe it works. Why not?
What the hell? You love each other. Nobody knows what's going to happen,
so--you know something? Don't listen to me. I never understood her myself.
I never understood any of us. I wish I could tell you what to do, but I just
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) And that's OK.
Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) No, it's not. You still consider me your
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) Sure, I do.
Mr. HACKMAN: (As Royal Tenenbaum) I wish you had more to offer in that
Mr. WILSON: (As Richie Tenenbaum) I know you do, Pop.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: That's a scene from "The Royal Tenenbaums" with my guest Luke Wilson
and Gene Hackman.
I know if I were an actor, I'd really want to do scenes with Gene Hackman.
He's so--he's really so terrific. What do you get working opposite him in a
scene? Like, what's it like to work with somebody who is as good and as
subtle as he is?
Mr. WILSON: Well, for me, I was just--it was just kind of watching him on the
set. He never left the set. He always kind of had the script in his hand.
And he was--you know, kept to himself while at the same time being friendly,
but he just worked very hard.
And I can remember one time we were doing this--it would make me, you know,
focus, you know, much more than, say, I was working with Owen or something.
But one day I kind of--we were doing a scene in an elevator where we had to do
it in an actual elevator, and I kind of--I think I just kind of got the line
wrong twice in a row, and he just looked back at me with this glance that
shivered me to the bone.
Mr. WILSON: And needless to say, I nailed it on the next take. But, yeah,
that was what I learned just from being around him. And he's probably my
favorite actor, and that's been the best part of my being in the movies so far
is getting the chance to work with him. There's nobody like him. And I--he's
just great. You can't beat him.
GROSS: You wrote, directed and star in a new film that's scheduled to start
opening in February. It's called "The Wendell Baker Story." And you play a
con man who's, like, deluded himself into thinking that he's a great
businessman. And his business is making fake ID cards for Mexicans who are
working illegally in the United States, right across the border. And you
know, this film is a comedy, and he goes on to get busted, spend time in
prison, lose his girlfriend and all kinds of complications ensue. What made
you think about this as a subject, about this guy as a character?
Mr. WILSON: Growing up in Texas, it's one of those things sometimes you kind
of feel that, you know, there's an element of people saying, `Now how do we
get these borders closed? How do we keep, you know, these people from, you
know, coming over here?' And then you'll get so many other people that, you
know, a lot of the construction that goes on in Texas, you know, the highways
and all these homes are the very people that they're complaining about being
there and probably the same people that are hiring them and, you know, paying
So, I don't know, I just like the idea of a guy that was a character that, you
know, really thought of himself--Wendell Baker calls his Airstream that he
uses as his office `the Ellis Island of the Southwest,' where he just thinks
these are the people that are like kind of the backbone of the country, and he
thinks he's doing a service to the country by, you know, making them official
citizens while kind of cutting corners.
GROSS: And I want to play a short scene...
Mr. WILSON: All right.
GROSS: ...and this is when he's in the trailer that he uses for his office.
And there's pictures of a lot of Latino stars on the wall, and he points to
each of them and talks about how he helped...
Mr. WILSON: He claims that they're his clients.
GROSS: He claims that they're his clients, exactly. So here's that scene,
and my guest Luke Wilson is in the role.
(Soundbite of "The Wendell Baker Story")
Mr. WILSON: (As Wendell Baker) Let me talk to some of you all about some of
my past clients. Jimmy Smits--I mean, I'm straight, but the guy smolders;
never quite broke through like I hoped. Fernando Valenzuela, good guy, great
arm, not the biggest advocate of physical conditioning; ultimately, I think it
hurt his longevity. I get out of a relationship with Salma Hayek, the frying
pan, and go right into the fire, Jenny Lopez. Nice girl; dated her briefly.
Said some stuff about me around town. I hold no ill will. Chi Chi Rodriguez
calls me, says, `Wendell, I'm having trouble with my game.' I watch him swing
a couple times and I give him one note, one note: `Fire the knees. Fire them
right at the flagstick.' Next week, he wins the Greater Hartford Senior Open.
And all this business, slaying the dragon--he saw me do it on the 12th hole at
Laredo Country Club in 1978.
GROSS: That's Luke Wilson in a scene from his forthcoming film "The Wendell
You wrote a role for your brother, Owen Wilson. What was it like for you to
direct your brother?
Mr. WILSON: Well, it was one of those things where it wasn't--I wouldn't even
really call it directing. It was more--he brought so many funny lines to it,
it would just kind of make me thing of other stuff. It was just more a case
of `Why don't you try this?' And it was really fun to have him on the set,
and it was one of those things where, you know, if it weren't for him being in
the movie, you know, I wouldn't have been able to get the money for the movie.
So he's the--you know, probably one of the main reasons we were able to get
the movie made, so it was just really fun to have him on the set playing a
part then, too, so he could really be a part of it across the line.
GROSS: Well, Luke Wilson, thank you so much. Happy holidays.
Mr. WILSON: Thank you very much for having me, and I really enjoy the show,
and I'm really glad to have been on, so thanks very much.
GROSS: Luke Wilson stars in the new film "The Family Stone." His film "The
Wendell Baker Story," which co-stars his brother Owen and was co-directed by
his other brother Andrew, premieres in Texas this February, then will roll out
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, it's "Springtime for Hitler" again. We'll talk with Susan
Stroman, director and choreographer of the Broadway hit "The Producers" and
the new movie adaptation. And critic Maureen Corrigan has her list of the
best books of the year.
(Soundbite of song from "The Producers")
Unidentified Actors #1 and #2: (As Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom) (Singing)
Leo and Max, up off our backs, back on the Great White Way. Leo and Max, back
on our tracks. We're back on top to stay. So when we take your money, never
fear. We'll knock Broadway right on its ear. The cast is great, the script
is swell, but this I'm telling you, sirs. It's just to know you got no show
without the producers. We'll never quit, hit after hit.
Chorus: The producers, Leo and Max.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Producer and choreographer Susan Stroman talks about
her work on the Broadway version and the movie version of
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Hitler is singing and dancing again in the new movie adaptation of Mel Brooks'
hit--the hit Broadway musical "The Producers." The musical was an adaptation
of Brooks' 1968 film. The show won 12 Tonys, more than any show in Broadway
history. It was directed and choreographed by my guest, Susan Stroman, who
performed the same duties for the new film. Her other Broadway credits
include "Oklahoma," "The Music Man" and "Crazy for You."
In the new movie "The Producers," Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick once again
star as two producers who figure out a scam to make a fortune. All they need
to do is find the worst play ever written, then convince a group of investors
to back it. When this awful show closes on opening night, and they're certain
it will, the producers can run off to Rio with the rest of the investors'
money. The absolute worst play they find is a musical called "Springtime for
Hitler," a sure-fire flop because of production numbers like this. Here's
Gary Beach from the soundtrack of the new movie.
(Soundbite of "The Producers")
Mr. GARY BEACH: (As Roger De Bris) (Singing) I was just a paper hanger, no
one more obscurer. Got a phone call from the Reichstag, told me I was fuhrer.
Germany was blue. Oh, oh, oh, what to do? Hitched up my pants and conquered
France. Now Deutschland's smiling through. Oh, it ain't no mystery. If it's
politics or history, the thing you've gotta know is everything is showbiz.
Heil myself. Watch my show. I'm the German Ethel Merman, don't you know? We
got crossing borders. The new world order is here. Make a great big smile,
everyone sing heil to me, wonderful me. And now we rejoice.
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) Rejoice for Hitler and Germany.
Mr. BEACH: (Singing) Touche.
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) the music today. Come
morning, the sun shines again. Deutschland is on the rise again.
GROSS: Susan Stroman, welcome to FRESH AIR. How did you become involved with
"The Producers" in the first place?
Ms. SUSAN STROMAN ("The Producers"): Well, I got a call. I was rehearsing
"A Christmas Carol" down at Madison Square Garden, and I got a call saying
that, `Mel Brooks wants to meet you.' And I thought, `All right. Well, maybe
next Thursday.' And then the call came back said, `No, he needs to meet you
tonight, right away.' So I said, `Oh, my gosh.' I left rehearsal. I went
home and was so excited about meeting him because I knew everything about him.
I knew "The 2000 Year Old Man." I knew every movie he had ever made. So I
was a huge fan, and I loved his comedy. So I was very excited and nervous.
And there was a knock on the door and I opened the door and there he was, this
legend, my hero. But instead of saying hello, he launched into full voice the
song "That Face," which is in the movie and opens act two on Broadway. But he
started to sing and then he went right past me, right down my hallway singing
full-out, got up on top of my sofa, finished the song and then looked down at
me and said, `Hello, I'm Mel Brooks.' And I thought to myself, `Well, you
know, whatever happens with this show, it'll end up being the greatest
adventure.' And, in fact, it's ended up being one of the greatest adventures
of my life. So I think everybody has a story about when they first meet Mel.
That certainly is a story that I'll never forget.
GROSS: Now is that what it's like to work with Mel Brooks, that he's doing
song and dances and, you know--or are things more direct when you're working
Ms. STROMAN: Well, the thing is, you know, Mel was meant to write a musical
because when you think about all his movies, he really pays homage to musical
movies. For example, he has (technical difficulties) monster dancing in
"Putting on the Ritz," and he and Anne dance "Sweet Georgia Brown" in "To Be
or Not To Be." And even he has Count Basie's band on the desert in "Blazing
GROSS: Let's not forget "Jews In Space."
Ms. STROMAN: Yes, "Jews In Space" absolutely. So there was a nod to the
musical in everything he's ever done. So he was really meant to write a
musical. He loves singing and dancing, and he loves those old movies. I
mean, he's a kindred spirit really because we are able to speak about "Top
Hat" and "Swing Time" and "Roberta" and all, you know, really, really classic
movies--famous musical movies. We both love them so. So it--the fact that
now he has written this musical that, you know, broke box office records and
awards and--it's pretty fantastic.
GROSS: Now one of the numbers that you added for the show and is also in the
movie is a number in which--what Max Bialystock, this washed-up producer, does
to get money to back his shows, which inevitably flop, is he seduces elderly
women, and in return they write him checks because they're so grateful for his
attentions. So there's a production number in which all of these older women
that he's seduced do a song and dance number on their walkers.
Ms. STROMAN: Yes.
GROSS: Whose idea was it to do a song and dance number on walkers, which, you
could argue, is in pretty bad taste, not quite up there with singing and
dancing Nazis but it's still--you know?
Ms. STROMAN: Well, when we started working on the number and that Max was
going to somehow collect all these checks, in the theater it can be done more
abstractly rather than showing a million front doors or a million sofas where
he's taking the checks. So it was done in dance. And since I had immersed
myself into the world of Mel Brooks, what could be funnier than one little old
lady with a walker, but 20 little old ladies with walkers. And so--and then
to add to that, putting taps on the ends of the walkers. So it seemed that if
Max Bialystock was making these little old ladies so happy that they would
dance with joy and they would dance with joy with their walkers, and that
would make it very percussive, very rhythmic. And, in fact, it has almost a
tribal feel to it in a happy way. And at the end of the number, they all hand
Max a check, all made out to "Cash."
GROSS: Which he says is the name of his new show.
Ms. STROMAN: Yes, yes, he says that's the new show, called "Cash." And they
say, `That's a funny name for a play.' And he says, `Yeah, so is "The Ice Man
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear the music that goes along with this dance on
walkers that we're talking about? And it's called "Along Came Bialy."
(Soundbite of "Along Came Bialy")
Mr. NATHAN LANE: (As Max Bialystock) (Singing) They were helpless, they were
hopeless, then along came Bialy. They were joyless, they were boyless, then
along came Bialy. They're my angels, I'm their devil, and I keep those embers
aglow. When I woos 'em, I can't lose 'em 'cuz I cast my spell and they start
yellin' `Fire down below!' So romantic, they were frantic then their prayers
were heard up above. Heaven sent them their Bialy. I'm the celebration of
Unidentified Women: Who is it? Who is it?
Mr. LANE: It's Max Bialystock.
Unidentified Women: Oh!
GROSS: This music from the soundtrack of "The Producers." My guest, Susan
Stroman, directed and choreographed both the Broadway show and the new musical
In the Larry David HBO series "Curb Your Enthusiasm" last season, Mel Brooks
was staging a West Coast production of "The Producers" and he cast Larry David
in the lead role. And, of course, this is preposterous since Larry David
can't sing and he can't dance. Of course, in the final episode, we find out
that the reason why Mel Brooks did it--well, why don't you explain?
Ms. STROMAN: OK. Yes, Larry David wrote a wonderful script about the idea
that Mel had had it with "The Producers" because it was all-consuming. So he
would come up with a plan to close it by putting in the worst Max Bialystock
he could find. And the worst Max Bialystock would be Larry David. So within
this plot he goes to meet Larry David and talks him into playing Max
Bialystock and he learns the part. He ends up playing Max Bialystock against
David Schwimmer. And what happens, though, is he is the worst Max Bialystock.
He goes up on his lines on the stage but then launches into his own stand-up
comedy routine as a means to an end, as a means to sort of get on with it and
to satisfy the audience. And, of course, that becomes a big hit and a big
smash. So not unlike the original 1968 screenplay where Max Bialystock was
looking for the worst show ever written, in this particular plot, Mel Brooks
was looking for the worst Max Bialystock.
I thought it was wonderfully written. It was all Larry David's idea and--in
fact, it was the last time that Mel and Anne were on film. So it was
wonderful that it happened.
GROSS: So it was Larry David's idea. I always assumed it was Mel Brooks'.
Ms. STROMAN: No, no. Larry approached Mel.
GROSS: I should have figured that. And Mel Brooks went for it?
Ms. STROMAN: Oh, yeah. I think because he loved the story line so much, and
the whole idea was so funny because Larry David wanted to pay homage to the
original screenplay and to now take it to Broadway. And, you know, the whole
idea of him playing Max Bialystock, you know, because the idea that if he were
to play Max it would absolutely close the show was very funny. So, yeah,
Larry pitched it to Mel and Mel loved the idea. You know, they're a kindred
spirit. You know, their comedy is alike in the sense of they both have great
wit and they're able to--and both very smart. So the banter is fantastic when
GROSS: OK. So here's a scene from the final episode of "Curb Your
Enthusiasm's" fourth season. It's opening night of a new production of "The
Producers," starring Larry David. As the audience watches the show, Mel
Brooks and Anne Bancroft sit in a nearby bar, confident that Larry David is
(Soundbite of "Curb Your Enthusiasm")
Mr. MEL BROOKS: Did you see the look on their faces when Larry David forgot
every line? He went up in smoke.
Ms. ANNE BANCROFT: I'm so glad. I'm so thankful. Thank God that this
damned play is going to be over. We're going to get our lives back.
Mr. BROOKS: He has freed us from the anchor, from the albatross...
Ms. BANCROFT: Right. Right.
Mr. BROOKS: ...of "The Producers" which has invaded our lives every single
minute, every hour of every day.
Ms. BANCROFT: Trapping us.
Mr. BROOKS: No more openings in Cleveland.
Ms. BANCROFT: No.
Mr. BROOKS: No more sleeping in dirty beds in Pittsburgh. We're free! Free
Ms. BANCROFT: I know.
Mr. BROOKS: Isn't it wonderful?
Ms. BANCROFT: How did you know that he could ruin the show? How?
Mr. BROOKS: The minute I laid eyes on him, I said, `This guy's a disaster.
He's a living dis--he's a storm. He's like a storm that will destroy
everything in its path.' I mean, he's got this gift. Everything he touches
he dooms. He's a little cyclone, a little tornado destroying the St. James
Ms. BANCROFT: I know.
Mr. BROOKS: Any minute now the show will be dead. Here, a toast to the
death of "The Producers." May it rest in peace.
GROSS: A scene from "Curb Your Enthusiasm." We'll talk more with Susan
Stroman, the producer and choreographer of the Broadway hit "The Producers"
and the new movie adaptation, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Susan Stroman. She directed and choreographed the
Broadway hit "The Producers" and the new movie adaptation.
If you don't mind my asking about his, I know you lost your husband, Michael
Ockrent, in the early stages of production of the Broadway version of "The
Producers." He was supposed to be the director and you the choreographer, and
you took over as the director. And then Mel Brooks lost his wife, Anne
Bancroft, I think in the early stages of--or maybe later stages of the making
of the new movie adaptation. So you were both in the position of making a
comedy while you were in mourning for your spouse. Did he help you through
that period in your life?
Ms. STROMAN: Oh, yes, absolutely. You know, I think "The Producers" has
become a sort of a lifeboat for the both of us at two separate times, of
course. But certainly we had just started working on it when Mike got sick,
and he passed away from leukemia. And I assumed I wouldn't work for a while.
I couldn't really sort myself out. I was grieving so badly. And after Mike
died, about two months later, there was a knock on the door and it was Mel.
But this time he wasn't singing. He sort of just pushed his way in and said,
`I have to do this,' and he just really told me how it would save me to work
on this comedy. And this time, you know--it's hard to say no to Mel.
And--but, in fact, I really needed it. I really needed to keep going. And
because it was a comedy, it really saved my spirit because I was grieving so
And now to think it happened to Mel when we started shooting--Anne got sick
and she passed away during editing--and the same thing. He would be able to
come to the set, and it was like a little life raft. He would be able to
laugh with the actors and laugh at the scenes and, you know, give me
suggestions and--before he had to go back to his wife. And it's very
difficult to have someone--to watch someone who is ill and watch someone you
love so much slip away. And the idea that it happened to both of us and the
idea that "The Producers" gave us some relief is pretty extraordinary.
GROSS: Did you feel that you were able to do anything for him in the same way
that he was able to help you, you know, through grieving for your husband?
Ms. STROMAN: Oh, yes, absolutely. I think because I had been through it,
because he watched me go through it, he would come to me and we would talk
about it. I would know exactly what was going on and--because he's very
private. His personal life is very private, but at least he knew that he
could talk to me about it, and I would understand exactly what was going on in
every step he was taking. So we've become very good buddies, you know. He's
a wonderful, wonderful collaborator, but we were sort of like buddies--army
buddies in the trenches during this whole process.
GROSS: You know, there were personal tragedies for you and Mel Brooks during
the show and then the movie adaptation of "The Producers." And then there was
a national tragedy shortly after "The Producers" opened, which was on
September 11th. You opened--What?--in the spring of 2001?
Ms. STROMAN: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: And then a few months later it's September 11th, and, you know,
Broadway is close enough to ground zero in New York. What did you think about
the show going on afterwards? And when did you feel like it was appropriate
Ms. STROMAN: Well, the thing is, it was a terrible time in New York. We
were all grieving, you know. It was so different because when you do lose
someone, there's always someplace to go for relief of your grief. But when
those towers came down, there was no place to go. All of New York was
grieving, and it was a very hard time. But a few days later it seemed people
started to go to the theater again to be together, and where they started to
head was to "The Producers" as almost relief. And "The Producers" became not
unlike a Fred and Ginger movie during the Depression. It was an escape. It
was two hours of laughing and, in fact, it's--and we got more letters during
that time how the show gave people a little relief than we've ever had any
GROSS: Well, Susan Stroman, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. STROMAN: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Susan Stroman choreographed and directed the Broadway hit "The
Producers" and the new movie adaptation. It opens widely on Christmas Day.
Here's Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick from the film's soundtrack.
(Soundbite of "The Producers")
Mr. NATHAN LANE: (As Max Bialystock) It's often said the theater is dead.
The critics repeat it en masse. But theater's alive. It's going to survive
although it's a pain in the ass. You waited forever and finally got tickets.
To get to your seat, you gotta cross pickets. The guy to your right is
frankly tight. The guy to your left appears to have rickets. The music's
yuck, the lyrics suck, the casting is all wrong. And when you reach the
bathroom, the line is five miles long.
Mr. MATTHEW BRODERICK: (As Leo Bloom) (Singing) It's true, there's nothing
like a show on Broadway.
Mr. LANE and Mr. BRODERICK: (Singing in unison) There's nothing like a
Mr. LANE: (Singing) You swear you'll never go again. It's simply not
Mr. BRODERICK: (Singing) You make that vow and then somehow...
Mr. LANE and Mr. BRODERICK: (Singing in unison) ...you're back there on the
aisle. That's why there's nothing like a show on Broadway.
Mr. BRODERICK: (Singing) There's nothing like a Broadway show.
Mr. LANE: (Singing) Till you're in movies.
Mr. BRODERICK: (Singing) There's nothing like a Broadway show.
Mr. LANE: (Singing) And though it is expensive at a hundred bucks a throw.
Mr. LANE and Mr. BRODERICK: (Singing in unison) There's nothing like a
GROSS: Coming up: Book critic Maureen Corrigan's 10 Best List. This is
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews her top ten books
TERRY GROSS, host:
Book critic Maureen Corrigan says it was a good year for the unexpected and
the inspiring. Here's her list of the best books of 2005.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, book critic:
2005 was one of those unruly years in fiction where I was disappointed by some
authors whose novels I was eagerly awaiting, like Ian McEwan's "Saturday" and
E.L. Doctorow's "The March" and where other novels that I had to nudge myself
to open turned out to be the tops.
Mary Gaitskill is a proponent of the `everything is garbage' school of
writing, but the crucial difference between Gaitskill and her cohorts is that
she's not zeroing in on ugliness just for shock value. Rather, the literary
stroll through slime is her route to the ineffable. Her novel "Veronica" is a
charred story about the deep stupidity of youth that culminates in a measured
and very moving moment of redemption.
Nicole Krauss' splendid novel "The History of Love" doffs its hat to the great
19th century plot twisters like Dickens and Trollope in its interweaving of
store lines across generations and continents. But the prevailing tone of
Krauss' novel is up-to-the-minute edgy.
Kazuo Ishiguro was the exception to my sense of being disappointed this year
by big names in fiction. His odd novel "Never Let Me Go" was very affecting,
evoking modern anxiety about scientific hubris and tying it to our most basic
fears of extinction.
A genre that specializes in investigating extinction is the murder mystery
suspense novel, and several were exceptional this year. I really enjoyed
Elizabeth Kostova's blockbuster "The Historian," which joins "The Da Vinci
Code" in the emerging hidden signs and wonders subgenre of supernatural
You may not have heard yet of Elizabeth Ironside. That's the pen name of
Catherine Manning, the wife of the current British ambassador to the United
States. Lest ye might suspect that she is being treated with critical kid
gloves because of that connection, let me assure you that "Death in the
Garden," the first novel of Ironside's to be published in this country, is the
real deal. It's a classic English mystery that resurrects the upper-crust
world of tea and crumpet eaters between the wars without making us readers
feel as though we're strolling through a Disneyland simulacrum.
"Citizen Vince" by Jess Walter is a screwball story about the lengths one
ex-con in a witness protection program goes to to exercise his right to vote.
In its own coarse and very funny way, "Citizen Vince" is a testament to the
American faith in the common man as well as to the resilient possibilities of
the crime novel.
Nonfiction standouts this year were light on humor with the exception of two
memoirs. J.R. Moehringer's "The Tender Bar," a wry and wisely
class-conscious account of the author's boozy coming of age in a neighborhood
saloon, and Deborah Larsen's "The Tulip and the Pope," a look back in longing
and dismay at her years spent in a Catholic convent during the early 1960s.
In "The Year of Magical Thinking," Joan Didion's book about the death of her
husband John Gregory Dunne and its aftermath, she observes that books about
mourning constitute a literary category overrun with pat self-help tones. But
Didion's own memoir endows that neglected corner of the canon with an
"The Woman at the Washington Zoo" is a posthumous collection of journalist
Marjorie Williams' superb profiles and essays for Vanity Fair and The
Washington Post. The collection, which is edited by Williams' husband Timothy
Noah, an editor at the online magazine Slate, contains a final section
featuring Williams' own fierce reflections on her battle with liver cancer
that claimed her life this year at the age of 47.
Finally, two astonishing narrative histories came out this year. Adam
Hochschild's "Bury the Chains" chronicles the 18th century citizens' movement
to end slavery in the British Empire. More than an illumination of a
forgotten episode, it's also an inspired account of the evolution of an
emotion--empathy--among the British people. And Doris Kearns Goodwin's
long-awaited 900-page doorstopper on Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet, called
"Team of Rivals," is just intellectually and emotionally stunning. "Team of
Rivals" dramatizes Lincoln's almost superhuman ability to rise above personal
insult to assemble a group of former political competitors around him in his
Cabinet because, he recognized, the country needed their strengths more than
he needed a chorus of yes men. As Hochschild and Goodwin respectively remind
us, sometimes commonplace people can travel far beyond the boundaries of their
own origins and upbringing and every so often a democratic nation can produce
an extraordinary leader from the ranks of the ordinary.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is
the author of "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading." Her list of the best books of
2005 can be found on our Web site, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of unidentified song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Who's got a beard that's long and white?
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Santa's got a beard that's long and white?
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Who comes around on a special night?
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Santa comes around on a special night. Special
night, beard that's white. Must be Santa, must be Santa, must be Santa, Santa
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