Q&A with Actor Bill Pullman - SPACEBALLS, an INDEPENDENCE DAY Sequel, and Much More
On Monday night, I had the chance to see Mel Brooks' 1987 classic Spaceballs on the big screen at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood. It should go without saying this was an awesome experience and the movie was great, and if you haven't seen the movie, please rectify that immediately. Watching it again, it's so clear that Mel Brooks' sense of humor is above and beyond anything that's going on in the industry today in regards to spoof movies.
But the coolest part of the evening came immediately after the screening. Actor Bill Pullman - Lone Starr himself - was on hand for a Q&A with the audience and stuck around for half an hour answering questions and just generally being a badass. He spoke about his experience working on the movie, gave some anecdotes about working with John Candy, revealed who Brooks initially wanted for the role of Lone Starr (the answer may surprise you!), and touched on the possibility of a sequel to Independence Day. I recorded the entire conversation, but the audio quality was terrible - so I've transcribed the interview in its entirety for you below.
[As far as I can tell I'm the only one to transcribe this event. In a groan-inducing discovery, I found out after transcribing this that the ArcLight has actually posted the video on YouTube, so you can watch it there if you'd rather have the audio than read it all.]
Q: What we always do at the ArcLight Q&A's is we like to talk about what the filmmaking process was like. And the first question I'm going to ask you: this movie was pretty much your first starring role?
Pullman: Yeah, it was the second movie that I'd done, and it was definitely a bump up from - Ruthless People was the first movie (crowd cheers), and it was a great part, I really enjoyed it. I never imagined my next part would be the large lead in a movie directed by Mel Brooks. (cheers) It was a great privilege, yeah...I hadn't seen [Spaceballs] since it first came out until last fall. I was in the Fantastic Film Fest in Austin, and the Alamo Drafthouse has this kind of wild "movie-oke," I don't know if you've ever experienced this. They put subtitles of the famous quote lines of the movie and they kind of pop up and everyone chants the line and it was like Spartacus for Spaceballs. It was the first time I'd seen the movie in a while. I'm working in town these months on a mini-series called Torchwood. (crowd cheers) Science fiction fans! A good spectrum between Spaceballs and Torchwood. So I've been amazed at how Spaceballs...when it first came out, the critics panned it. They said, "this is not his best movie, it's clear that he's gone downhill, Mel Brooks no longer has it." And it was disappointing, and there were fans, but they weren't as vocal as they became later on. So over the years certainly, I think it was my wife's cousin came to have dinner with us and we were talking and I mentioned something, a reference to somebody in Spaceballs, and he goes, "OK. So we can talk about Spaceballs?" And all of a sudden he started going into the dialogue from the movie, and I hadn't even remembered saying those words. That started it and I realized year after year the movie had a following that went beyond a lot of Mel's movies and my movies.
Q: That happens with a lot of films. That's one of the great things about cult favorites is -
Pullman: NO! It ONLY happened with Spaceballs! (huge laughs) It happens with a lot of movies. (scoffs sarcastically) I'm sure it does.
Q: It only happens with Bill Pullman films, and that's what amazes me.
Pullman: That a boy.
Q: So why don't we talk about that. You get this call. What was the process of actually getting the film and finding out you got the film?
Pullman: Well, it came kind of out of the blue. Mel is a good theater-goer, and I was doing plays downtown at the Los Angeles Theater Center and I was doing this very obscure pageant play called Barabus. It was very strange...and Mel and Anne Bancroft came down to see the play. And at that point I realized he really was thinking about me for this part. Then when I got it and went in to meet him, he said, "I tried to get a Tom and I couldn't get him. I tried to get Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, and I couldn't get them, so I got a Bill!" And I said, "Is that a joke, Mel?" But it's true. He really crafted the part and he imagined he was going to get a big box office draw at the time and I think he was hurt that they didn't take him up on it, you know? But then it configured differently, attracting two of the big comics at that time: John Candy and Rick Moranis. Once that was secured, then he said, "heck, I'll get somebody nobody knows!" And I got a chance to do it.
Q: We know you now.
Pullman: Well, it was a great privilege. It was the last movie for MGM that was shot on the lot when it was known as the MGM lot. The experience of going in, for me, showing up on the lot - I think I still have my parking pass from that first day I ever went on the lot, and to go into these rehearsals, which Rick and John Candy were smart. They said, "we don't come in for rehearsals." And Daphne (Zuniga, who played Princess Vespa in the film) and I were so glad to be there, we were like, "oh yeah, we'll be there." And he would want to rehearse over and over again, which was fine. And then we'd go to the commissary, and being in Mel's dust trail in the commissary was the best place to be because he knows everybody there. I remember going through there and talking to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jane Fonda and they were giving us time, too, which was a surprise. You realize what an institution he was, and he was such a gregarious guy, so it was kind of a thrill. And then the MGM lot had its own significance because the scene where we go to meet Yogurt was such a clear take off of The Wizard of Oz, and it was purely by production coincidence that we shot it in the same sound stage that they shot that scene from The Wizard of Oz, so that was kind of cool.
Q: You're talking about being in his dust trail, but what was his thought process? Was he going off script, was he shooting multiple takes? What was that process like? My understanding is he shoots a lot and edits afterwards.
Pullman: Well, the first part was the rehearsal part where he does all the parts. He basically gives you line readings. I had my own trouble because I really liked everything he did. When he would do Daphne Zuniga it was really good. (imitates Mel imitating Zuniga) It was so funny and I would be like an audience member instead of an actor who had the camera on him. And I remember, that was kind of a scary process a little bit because I had to wake up and realize I had to go toe to toe with this very funny guy. I think he always was gruff but affectionate with me. And I didn't know how it would go on the set. On the set, there was a sort of strong deference to John and Rick in those scenes. Most of my stuff of course was with John, who, to this day I don't think I've worked with anybody more generous than John Candy. Just one of those extraordinary guys. And I was so lucky to have him as my mawg. (laughs) He was always looking out for me and if Mel was pushing a little heavy, John would try to get in there and he usually supported me on certain things.
Q: That was a fan question from Facebook. One of the other questions from Facebook was did you get to keep the Schwartz ring?
Pullman: Oh, yeah. Now if I could find it...(everyone laughs)...my career would go really well.
Q: So we have two questions we always ask before we throw it to the audience. What was the best moment on this film, where you went, "this is where my life is great"? And conversely, what was the moment where you were like, "get me the hell out of here"?
Pullman: Do people answer this honestly? I think the favorite time was...we had that scene where we knock out the Spaceballs and the Winnebago shakes and we're coming in. It was very crude filmmaking compared to now. They couldn't get that fast shake of the Winnebago they way they wanted to do it. So they had a lot of grips that were on the wings of the Winnebago, really heavyset guys that were going like this (imitates hanging up and down from wing) and it was going really creaky and Mel didn't like it so much. So he said, this is what we're going to do: we're going to overcrank the camera so it came out really fast, but when you come out, you have to run in slow motion, guys. (everyone laughs) I was like, sure. I was the rookie, so I was very excited about new things, and I realized that John had no interest in going in slow motion. He was really having a tough time at it. And I had just come out of acting classes spending all this time pretending we were in glue or something. I must have been sharp with my slow-mo. That was when, at the end of that take, Mel said, "Pullman, you're a genius at this." And it was my one little corner of geniusness that I did attain. He said many great things I've remembered all my life. One is, "Bill, 10 percent of anything is good." I thought, wow. I really often think he's right. Ten percent is really good stuff.
Q: Especially when you're talking about the gross of the film.
Pullman: Yeah, that's probably what he was thinking of. He hasn't shared that though.
Q: That's what Spaceballs 2 is for. The Quest for More Money. And your least favorite moment?
Pullman: God, I'm just thinking of all the good moments. Being with all the Dinks in the desert, I didn't mention that. That was as good as the other one. But the bad one...
Q: If you don't have one...
Pullman: No, there were some challenging times. We never had, nobody had really done a lot of green screen at that point, and somebody had told somebody that we should worry that our eyes would be damaged if we sat around in the green screen set. (everyone laughs) It seems so archaic! But we were given sunglasses to put on in between the takes. We're sitting at the command module of the Winnebago and going back and forth about what to do in scenes and someone would go "the sunglasses!" And everyone would put on their sunglasses and still have these earnest talks about what's really funny in the scene, and I was thinking, "THIS is really funny!" We'd take them off and it was never as funny.
Q: (Someone asks a question about Pizza The Hutt.)
Pullman: I remember they were very, very eager to get a look at Pizza The Hutt. All those people were really great people. Ben Nye, Jr. who did the makeup...I remember Mel said, "come over here Pullman, we're going to see the test on Pizza the Hutt." It was like watching, I don't know - I don't want to say. Mel was so serious as he stood in front of Pizza the Hutt. They got the steam going and it was cooking and everything, and they were all laughing to help sell the thing, the work that they'd done. But Mel's not laughing. He goes, "I want that bubble to like...pop." Very serious.
Q: I think my favorite part is when the piece of pepperoni falls off, hits the eye, and lands in his mouth and he keeps talking. (Someone asks if Pullman ever met Harrison Ford and if Ford had anything to say about his role in Spaceballs.)
Pullman: I don't think he cared. (everyone laughs)
Q: There's actually an interesting story: Mel Brooks presented the script to George Lucas to make sure George wasn't offended by it, and George was like, "go for it, it's really good." But, the deal was that none of the merchandising could be sold in the real world.
Pullman: Which is why there's no Spaceballs 2.
Q: (Someone asks about John Candy off camera, if he was a jokester or more serious.)
Pullman: He had a very gentle sense of humor. I think he was concerned going into this movie. There were two schools of thought about comedy. Mel comes from a very vaudevillian base, kind of Yiddish theater, punchlines, get the joke, go for it, you know - and John's was more out of the side of his mouth and wasn't as predictable or as codified maybe as Mel's. I think John was nervous about that somewhat but in his own way. He was very friendly with everyone. He used to invite me to his trailer so I could share in his Pritikin diet food with him. You ever hear of that? Largely his version of that diet was eating some of that soup and getting his drivers to bring him donuts afterwards. (everyone laughs) So it was a good lunch to get in on. But a couple times I remembered, he was sweating, he said, I used to have a lot of fun with this and every once in a while it would not be fun. He had to go into makeup for like three hours every day before we started work. That was the only little complaint I ever heard him say. He actually would always encourage me to come up with stuff. [Doing that little handshake "gimme some paw" thing], that was something I made up with him and I assumed it would be junked by Mel, going "Oh, Pullman came up with that? No." But John liked it and fought for it and that's how we ended up doing that handshake, so I always thought he was a real class act. Here's a telling story about John Candy. We were shooting somewhere north of I-5, far away from L.A., and he got released mid-day and I think that had been prearranged because he was a huge Dodger fan and he was going to go see the game. Mel made a big thing about it: "Everyone else, we're going to keep working. John Candy is going to go to a Dodger game." And John said, "That's right! I'm off! Tough luck, you schmucks! See you later!" And he took off. And then mid-way through the afternoon, four trucks show up and out of the back come all the concessions from the Dodgers. Hot dogs, popcorn, everything, and they set up around the set and everybody got free hot dogs and popcorn on John Candy.
Q: (Someone asks if Mel ever talked about what would happen in a sequel.)
Pullman: I think it was so clearly his disgust for a sequel. He's never done a sequel and I don't think he ever really intended to. For him, it was just someone who was looking to pull the cash machine and he would never do that.
Q: (Someone asks if he was offered Spaceballs 2, would he do it.)
Pullman: You always have a hope and fear about that. Especially in science fiction. You know, like with Independence Day, there's always "what about the follow up on that?" And it's been danced around and danced around, and you hope the idea is going to be as good. And I think with Independence Day, they have a great idea, it's just figuring out with the rights and the studio and everything. I'm sure Mel, he's probably got a great idea if I were to do it again, if we ever got together.
Q: It would be a musical, probably. (Someone asks if Pullman has the Independence Day speech memorized.)
Pullman: Uh...no. (everyone laughs) I'm always impressed when I hear it and I'm impressed when people tell me they did it in acting class or something and they'll start into it and I'm very supportive. We did do a take-off on it; these crazy people at the Alamo Drafthouse at Fantastic Fest. They had this weird parody of Independence Day, and they gave me this speech where I essentially gave the same speech but in honor of a different holiday, which was St. Patrick's Day. And it was a pretty funny thing. I think it's on YouTube, and you can see it if you're interested in Bill Pullman doing a mangle of the speech.
Q: What was your favorite line from Spaceballs?
Pullman: I didn't have a favorite. I loved Rick Moranis' lines. For some reason I think he really got that part really well. I remember there were some scenes that he made up. He worked them out and encouraged Mel to let him do it. And that whole little dolls fighting each other? I think that's my favorite moment in the movie. I somehow found it strange and...you know, meta, or something.
Q: I'd like to thank Bill Pullman. (Massive cheers)
Pullman: Thank you all for coming!