Max Brooks was born to Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks two years after his dad’s hit TV show Get Smart was canceled. He was two when his father’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were released in theaters.
Now, at 38, he writes and lectures about zombies. “He never talked much about zombies growing up,” says Mel Brooks. “He showed me a story about five years ago. I knew he could write because he wrote for [NBC’s] Saturday Night Live (SNL) for two years. But the zombie thing came out of the blue, although he’ll tell you otherwise.”
Indeed. Max says he was really afraid of zombies as a kid. “When I was in grad school in Washington DC, I was in the murder capital of the world. My way of thinking about crime wasn’t so much whether I’d get killed; it was ‘How would I survive if there was a zombie plague?’ But my dad was disappointed in my Zombie Survival Guide (2003 Three Rivers Press). He said I needed to cut it down and get to the jokes faster. I said there were no jokes. He was very unhappy, like I had left the family farm.”
Max dispels the notion he believes in zombies. “I live in a ‘what if’ world. What if JFK had lived? What if an asteroid actually hit us? I like to go as deep as I possibly can on questions like these. What if George W. Bush had lost? This can be a 10 minute conversation for most people that’ll end in a joke but I’ll think about it for days.”
Is this a personality trait he appreciates about himself? “Probably not. Until seven years ago it was not an asset. That’s why I was the weirdo at SNL.”
Max met Michelle Kholos during his graduate studies at American University in Washington DC through Melissa Clark, a mutual friend whose father once wrote with Mel. “Michelle and I kept in touch while I was away for six months in Prague studying film. After grad school, I came back to LA and that’s when we began to date.”
It was about this time Mel was turning The Producers into a Broadway musical. For Max, however, the moment he realized Michelle was the woman he would marry, it made him sick. “I got ‘neurotic Jewish fireworks’ — I was sick to my stomach. I just knew this was it, there was no one else and never would be. I panicked. I was tense, nervous.” Thankfully for him it lasted only one night.
Max, however, wanted to make his mark first. “I’d dated a lot and they were all so wrong: I’m a weird, different kind of guy. Girls would say, ‘Okay, Mr. Intensity, why do you have to be so intense and analytical?’ I just am. That’s me.”
“In the seventh grade,” remembers Michelle, “I had Mrs. Jackson. She was the meanest teacher ever. One day, she read one of my stories aloud and said that, someday, I would be a writer and I loved her after that. I didn’t get serious about writing until I was in college. Before that, I just wrote for myself — things too embarrassing to show anyone.”
She studied journalism as a means to write and find stories of interest. During her undergraduate years at Emerson College in Boston, she says her journalistic writing was miserable, and so was she. “But the college had a public radio station and I became the public affairs director so I was doing journalistic work every day, even though I was failing at it in class. I thought of it more as story-telling than journalism.”
Back in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, Michelle went to work for the public radio show The Savvy Traveler through Marketplace. She ultimately advanced past her favorite role as associate producer, which had allowed her more latitude in writing. While at The Savvy Traveler, however, independent radio producer Scott Carrier was dispatched to Cambodia. “He did this amazing, rip-your-heart out reporting. It was so emotional and I wanted to be telling the stories that would rip people’s hearts out.”
Max got the offer to join the writing crew of Saturday Night Live and Michelle left public radio. The couple moved to New York where Michelle saw little of him. “Before we left for New York, I had taken a writing class from [the Fountain Theatre’s] Simon Levy through UCLA.”
It was transformative.
Soon after 9/11, Michelle took another writing class from Chris Ceraso at Ensemble Studio Theatre — New York. “He was miraculous. He had that rare ability to guide a writer without imposing his own stuff, his own agenda. He helped organize my first reading. There was a guy, also an actor, who was with a production company and they optioned my play Two Parents, Two Weddings, Two Years. The show was produced by the Laurelgrove Theatre Co. at the Hollywood Court Theater.”
Avner Garbi, who currently portrays a taxi driver in her short play Cab, subsequently directed a couple of her plays that were produced by the Laurelgrove. “It turned out Avner was also with another company, Vox Humana. He brought Cab to Vox to be in a night of shorts they were producing and the next thing I knew, he called to say they wanted to see the rest of my shorts to see if they could do a full night of my work. I got lucky with such a talented group.”
The series of five of her short plays, Love and Other Allergies, is now on stage at the Lounge Theatre in Los Angeles in a Vox Humana production.
“Michelle’s a brilliant writer,” says father-in-law Mel. “I love her work and she grows with every piece she writes.”
Fighting Zombies and Dsylexia
Mel also distinctly remembers the moment when Max’s writing inclinations took hold. “We were on vacation in Venice, Italy. My wife [Anne Bancroft] had been making a movie in Venice earlier that year. We were staying at the Hotel Excelsior and relaxing in a cabana on the beach.
“A couple from Paris asked my wife and me why Max, who was nine years old at the time, wasn’t in the water. I knew he had a pencil and one of my legal pads I always write on. So I said to him, ‘Come on, let’s get in the water.’ But he had to finish a story first, he said. It was a story about the Germans invading the catacombs in Rome and American troops were fighting them off. We thought this was crazy but then it was really quite remarkable when we read it. It had a beginning, middle and an end. When he was 13, 14, 15 years old, he began writing short stories. He loved to write World War II stories because I had been in the war — he was fascinated by it.”
“I don’t think that first story was that good,” Max says. “I think that’s a father’s prejudice. But I never stopped writing from that day on. My dyslexia was so bad in school. I’d jumble up words or reverse the letters — and my spelling and grammar were atrocious. My punctuation was reprehensible. I developed a violent reaction to school. My mom deserves all the credit for helping me to work it out. She’d get all my school books recorded in audio form so I could hear them. I wouldn’t have gotten out of high school without her help.”
Max says his dyslexia tortured him throughout his formative years. “She put me in a typing class when I was 13. I hated it. These days, everyone knows what dyslexia is but in those days I would tell a teacher I couldn’t do this or that; she’d say I could but chose not to. When you’re Anne and Mel’s kid, there’s an assumption you’re a lazy rich kid. So I got into a feedback loop of stress. By high school, my confidence was destroyed; it’s a miracle I got into college.” He graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont in 1994.
“Max writes every single day,” Michelle boasts. “He never took a writing class. He was always compelled to do it. When he wrote his second book, World War Z, our son Henry was just born and Anne was dying. Max and I would trade shifts to tend to our family.”
It was a tremulous couple of months in 2005. Max remembers “waking up in the afternoon, seeing my mom in the hospital, taking Dad to dinner, bringing him back to see the baby, then taking him back to the hospital. I’d stay up all night writing and changing diapers and warming milk. This was my routine. It was tense but there was so much to do it didn’t hurt us as a couple. Really, there wasn’t time for stress.”
Max describes how his mother shaped his personality. “She was very analytical. She was always perceived by the public as Mrs. Robinson but that’s not who she was. Her favorite book was The Microbe Hunters, about the discovery of viruses. She’d read caveman stories and books about human evolution and early farmers to me when I was a kid. My dad was fascinated by history. These two people were like Russian spies or sleeper agents — not anything like how the world saw them.”
Bancroft’s own interest in writing and learning was apparent to Michelle. “Anne and I had gone to Southampton Writing Conference together in 2004. She worked with Frank McCourt and I studied fiction with the novelist Bharati Mukherjee.”
That course of study led Michelle to write her novel, Big Leather Jacket, the story of Maggie, a young woman who steals her way across the country to escape a bad home life. Maggie falls for Justin, a charming local and a minor thief. She finds herself with a gun in her hand and realizes that, although she has traveled so far, she cannot escape the darkness out in the world and inside herself.
“Once I wrote the book,” she admits, “I realized, 320 pages later, I needed to learn how to write! I re-wrote it a few times, in part because Mel read it. He got mad at me over the ending — it was too dark, he said. He gave me a big lecture for getting people invested in a character and leaving her in such a bad place at the end. It was a valuable point about where I want my audience to be at the end so I made some changes. Gotta hand it to Mel Brooks.”
No publisher yet, she says, so she’s toying with the idea of self-publishing. “When I got the call from Vox Humana to do Love and Other Allergies, it took my mind off the book. And now I’m writing another play. Besides,” she says, “the publishing world is a big mess right now. I wrote the book so why not put it on Amazon myself and let the world decide? You can’t get anywhere if you aren’t seen.”
She points to a friend of a friend who wrote a book and got rejected by 202 agents. “The 203rd took him on and he got a six-figure deal. So I figure I have 196 agents to go through.”
Max’s first book, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), planted the seed for World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006). “I wrote World War Z for me,” Max admits. “I shamelessly ripped off Studs Terkel’s book The Good War. I wanted to write something big picture. I like the big questions: What if zombies took over? What would happen to diplomacy, law and order, feeding refugees? So I decided to ‘interview survivors’ of a zombie takeover.”
The screenplay is in the hands of Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B at Paramount Studios. The first version of the script was written by J. Michael Straczynski; the latest by Matthew Carnahan. “They tell me at Plan B that Brad wants to star in it. We’ll see. Movies can take 20 years to get made. Like my dad says, hope for the best and expect the worst.”
Zombies, as we all know, have no limits of endurance. As Max writes in his hardcover edition: “They would never negotiate, never surrender. They would fight until the very end because, unlike us, every single one of them, every second of every day, was devoted to consuming all life on Earth.” — General Travis D’Ambrosia, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.
Is this a metaphor for the cancer that took his mother’s life? “I’ve never consciously thought of zombies as a cancer metaphor,” he says, “but it does make sense. Both are lethal. Both spread rapidly. Both cannot be negotiated with.”
Prodding an Octogenarian
Max encourages his 84-year-old father to work. “He charges his batteries in social settings, unlike me. He’s always been a writer’s room writer. He’s probably never picked up a pen in his life. Lock me in a shed behind the house for 12 hours with a laptop and I’m in heaven. That’s when I can write best.”
Mel’s still surprised he got into television. “They wanted me [on Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows]. I always wanted immediate payment –laughter — and you can’t get that on TV or in the movies. That’s why I love theater. The first show I ever saw was Anything Goes. You don’t get paid in movies except with money.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that but laughter is the motivation that drives Mel Brooks.
“I had the white handkerchief rule when we were filming The Producers with all those crazy, funny people [Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, et al]. When we did the office scene, people would laugh out loud and I’d have to yell, ‘Cut! You can’t laugh!’ So I went out and bought a hundred white handkerchiefs and passed them out to everybody. ‘If you feel like laughing, stuff one of these in your mouth.’ I always knew whether something was funny when I turned around and counted how many handkerchiefs were stuffed in people’s mouths. In theater, of course, you know immediately. They laugh or they cough. When they cough, you know you’re in trouble.”
Mel’s company Brooksfilms is producing Pizzaman. “It’s a horror flick,” he says. “I’m not doing anything with it myself. It’s in our film company because we like the guys doing it. And I always think things look better in black and white — so maybe we’ll do Pizzaman in black and white.”
“Guys like Mel became successful,” notes Michelle, “not because they were lucky but because they worked their asses off. Mel is very hands-on. We sometimes watch one of his movies with him and he’ll say, ‘Oh, I should have done this’ or ‘I should have done that.’ There was a lot of hard work, late nights and frustration with turning The Producers and Young Frankenstein into musicals but he did it. Anne really encouraged him to turn The Producers into a musical. There aren’t too many 84-year-olds running around doing what he does.”
If anything bothers Max about growing up as Mel’s and Anne’s son, it’s the rudeness. “We couldn’t go out without being interrupted, especially by Jewish guys my dad’s age who would try to convince him they could’ve been Mel Brooks had they not gone to dental school and that my dad was just lucky and they were just as funny.
“Whenever someone tried to befriend my dad, nine times out of 10 they wanted something. That’s not the case so much anymore; in fact, now I’m proud when people recognize him. When I was young, I needed a father, a guide. Now I am that to my son and thankfully we can go out and not be recognized. Now that my mom has passed away, I’m pushing my dad to work more. We just did an Evening with Mel Brooks that was a resounding success. He still gets that rush of an audience. Carl Reiner still goes all over the place, accepting awards. I tell Dad he should do it too but he was never into things like that.”
It’s a bonded, supportive family. Michelle remembers one of the greatest gifts she ever received from her main sounding board. “Max said, ‘Look, the only thing I can’t do for you is write. I can pay the bills and I can pay the rent but I can’t write for you. Take the time to write.’ I don’t know if I would have or could have done it if it wasn’t for him.”
“I’m very jealous Michelle can find the fascination in ordinary things and people,” Max retorts. He’s now working on a 240-page comic book rooted in World War I. “If a lizard isn’t jumping out of a lake in the face of a flame thrower, I’m lost. She’s a sprinter and I’m a pole vaulter. What she does is infinitely superior to what I write. She deals with everyday lives – I have to create them. She’s rooted in reality. She lives on Planet Earth. I live on Planet Max. There’s a big difference.”
Feature image by Angela George.
Photos at the opening of LOVE AND OTHER ALLERGIES by Dr. Billy Ingram.
Love and Other Allergies, presented by Vox Humana Theatre Ensemble, continues Fri.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 7 pm; through Nov. 21. Tickets: $20. The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; 323.960.5772 or plays411.com/allergies.