‘Spaceballs’ at 30: What It Was Like to Film the Mel Brooks Classic

Spaceballs
Rick Moranis and Mel Brooks in 'Spaceballs.' Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

It's been 30 years since Mel Brooks' outlandish Star Wars parody, Spaceballs, landed on earth and dazzled... well, to be honest, it didn't really dazzle critics at all.

Variety declared it a "misguided parody" that "isn't very funny." TV Guide blasted it as "a movie that rarely measures up to adequate kitsch." The Washington Post called it "a kind of comic black hole" and compared it to "having coffee spilled in your lap." Roger Ebert wasn't all that impressed, either.

But during the subsequent decade, Spaceballs found its niche as a VHS cult classic. The fearlessly ridiculous story of the evil Dark Helmet, the virtuous Princess Vespa and the heroic Lone Starr with his half-dog sidekick Barf delighted teens, college stoners and sci-fi obsessives alike. The film's cast now resembles a who's-who of late-'80s B-movie paradise: Rick Moranis, John Candy, Bill Pullman. And in a world where the parody movie seems to be about as dead as Pizza the Hut, Spaceballs stands as Brooks' most beloved movie since Young Frankenstein.

We spoke with the movie's cinematographer, Nick McLean, Sr, to get the story of what it was like to make Spaceballs. Though Spaceballs was primarily a spoof of Star Wars (there are also elements of Star Trek and Planet of the Apes), McLean says he never made it all the way through George Lucas's original film. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

How did you land the job as director of photography for Spaceballs?
I had an interview with Mel [Brooks] and I don't know how I got the interview, but I was doing movie after movie in those days. And he liked me. I loved him. I thought he was great.

Do you remember what Mel Brooks’ instructions to you were while filming?
I remember exactly what his instructions were. I had just finished a really dark movie, light-wise. Which was City Heat with Clint Eastwood. I used almost no light. And [Brooks] told me, he said: “I paid for those walls. I wanna see them. I want to see everything on the set. So don’t under-light anything. Light the hell out of everything as a comedy.”

Were you a fan of Mel Brooks’ prior work?
Not really. I had seen most of his stuff. He could be tough, too. He could be a real tough guy. Overall, I enjoyed the experience a lot. I’m looking at a picture on my den wall right now of him and I and Danny Kolsrud, the assistant director.

Related: An oral history of the incredible cake scene from Matilda

What was the hardest sequence in Spaceballs to film?

Probably the sand dunes. We were in Yuma, Arizona. It was hotter than hell. And it was pretty hard to get cameras on that stuff. They had a bunch of little people [the Dinks] and they were trying to prop them up through the sand. They had some lights that didn’t work. I would say that was the toughest. Everything else was on a stage. We used a lot of green screen on the spaceship. And on the winnebago, too. There was a guy there from green screen who knows all the technical stuff. I think it took us like three months to shoot.

Did Mel Brooks have a specific vision for every scene or was it more improvisational?
No, not at all. They had a script. But if he thought something would be funnier, they’d change it right there.

Are there any fun memories from the film shoot that come to mind?
John Candy and I became pretty good buddies. It was a shame to see him go the way he went. He was just a great, jolly guy. Fun to work with. Great comedian. He was gonna buy a house down by me. Neil Simon [the playwright] actually ended up outbidding him on it.

The only thing I didn’t like was that Mel, being from the East Coast, liked to come in late and work late. I like to get up early and shoot and get out of there as quickly as possible. He changed stuff at the drop of a hat. I liked him. I thought he was a real good guy.

Did you get to know Rick Moranis at all?
Not really, no. I got to know John Candy real well. The other guys I really didn’t know that well. I can’t remember the guy’s name that played the real good-looking guy [Bill Pullman]. He was a real nice guy. He was terrific... Whatever the gal’s name [Joan Rivers]—she was like the machine [the robot character based on C-3PO]. They dubbed her voice in at the end. That whole thing was done with another gal that was actually a pretty big star in those days. They didn’t like her voice or something, so they put Joan Rivers' voice in it. That gal was kinda bummed out that she didn't get that, but Joan Rivers was pretty funny in it.

There are also some scenes breaking the fourth wall in Spaceballs, like the scene where they watch the VHS tape of Spaceballs.
Yeah! When they have that fight with the big knives and the laser beams—the guy comes over and they pan over and you see the other camera. It’s in there for about three or four seconds. And he meant to do that, too. I guess you would call it breaking the fourth wall. He was really open to doing almost anything.

Spaceballs wasn’t really a success when it came out, but it became a real cult hit on video in the ‘90s. Did you notice that happening?
Yeah, it is a classic now! I shot three movies in the space of a few years that have become that now: Spaceballs, and I did The Goonies and I did Short Circuit. All three of those. The Goonies, number one, has really become a classic. In 2010 I went back for the 25-year reunion in Oregon where we shot it. And it was unbelievable. There were 10,000 people from all over the world. And they were taking tours all over the old sets. It’s absolutely amazing.

My next-door neighbor, she’s about 45 now. She thinks I’m a hero because I shot [The Goonies]. She grew up with it, just loved it. Spaceballs is on TV all the time now. We actually shot the end part, where the monkeys come out and the guys are walking down the beach on horses, right down by my house. Zuma Beach in Malibu.

Spaceballs is primarily a parody of the Star Wars films. Did you study Star Wars while you were making the film?
No, not at all. I’m almost the opposite. I am now a movie nut, but I wasn’t then. I just kind of went to work and did my job. I felt lucky to have a job. 

Were you a fan of Star Wars at the time?
Believe it or not, I wasn’t. I saw it with my kids and fell asleep. However, I did Close Encounters [of the Third Kind] and met with Spielberg and [George] Lucas. We had dinner one night. I was going with the producer of Close Encounters, and Lucas told Steven: “I blew it. The movie sucks.” About Star Wars. And there were a bunch of pictures he brought of that bar with all the weird animals and all that stuff. We were like, “Oh, god, this is in left field.” That night at dinner, they traded points on the movies—Close Encounters and Star Wars. They said, “Let’s just trade a point in case one of them bombs and if one bombs and one of them does real good, we’ll at least make our money back.” But Lucas said, “I blew it.” It just [wasn’t] quite true!